Edinburgh Scotland Travel Guide
Built in the shadow of a hillside fortress, the Scottish capital of Edinburgh is dominated by stone, cliffs, and castles. In the two-level City Center, steep alleys link the medieval streets of Old Town to the elegant Georgian avenues of New Town. As you wander, use our Edinburgh travel guide to navigate this ageless, ancient city.
Edinburgh’s cobblestone streets are lined with a blend of Gothic, Georgian, and modern architecture. Both Old Town and New Town have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites. Each palace, cathedral, and warehouse has a story to tell.
Visit Edinburgh to discover its rich culture and year-round calendar of festivals. In this city of kilts, haggis, and whiskey-makers, walk neighborhoods steeped in history and folklore. Our Edinburgh Scotland travel guide will help you discover all of the city’s must-visit destinations.
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AREA OVERVIEW & NEIGHBORHOODS
The sprawling city of Edinburgh is a major educational, financial, and literary hub. As a travel destination, Scotland's capitol draws about 5 million visitors a year. Most of Edinburgh’s cultural attractions are located in the City Center, which is made up of Old Town and New Town.
Old Town (1100s) and New Town (1700s) were built in tiers at the top and bottom of a hill. The contrast between the winding streets of Old Town and the Neoclassical symmetry of New Town is unusual and striking. Also, arresting are the closes (alleys} that leave visitors breathless trekking between the two neighborhoods.
Recognized as the country’s capital since 1350, Edinburgh is the seat of the Scottish Parliament and High Court. It’s Palace of Holyroodhouse (Holyrood Palace) is an official residence of the British Monarch, and Edinburgh Castle is home to the Scottish crown jewels.
Old Town Edinburgh and the Royal Mile
In the Middle Ages, Edinburgh Castle was erected on a mound of volcanic rock. From its high vantage, the fortress had a commanding view of approaching invaders. As the settlement grew, land became sparse and buildings expanded upwards (the poor occupied the bottom floors, and the wealthier resided up top). Today, tall tenements and medieval relics abound in this section of the city.
Old Town Edinburgh is home to the Royal Mile. The famous stretch of cobblestone is made up of five streets that run from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace. The route includes Parliament Square, St. Giles Cathedral, and countless narrow passageways connecting an intriguing maze of feudal-era city blocks.
New Town Edinburgh
On a flatland below Edinburgh Castle lies New Town. The planned community was constructed between 1767 and 1833 to relieve crowding in Old Town. As this part of the city grew, the wealthy flocked to its stately terraces and crescents. These days, visitors of New Town Edinburgh will find some of the city’s most elite hotels and trendiest eateries as well as beautiful monuments, gardens, and museums.
Named after the food and livestock markets that were held in the area in bygone days, Grassmarket is nestled between Edinburgh Castle and the University of Edinburgh. In this neighborhood, visitors will find high-quality craft shops and markets. Scattered throughout the district are fun and eclectic taverns, cafes, and restaurants.
Stockbridge is located just north of Edinburgh City Center. It shares New Town’s Georgian architecture and abundant gardens, but the streets of this neighborhood have more of a village than metropolitan feel. Visit Stockbridge to shop, eat, and stroll its idyllic lanes.
For centuries, Leith served as Scotland’s primary trading port. Located on Edinburgh’s north shore, Leith continues to be a thriving center for trade and tourism. In the harbor, visitors will find the Royal Yacht Britannia attraction, cruise docks, and a diverse selection of cafes, bars, shops, and events.
HOW TO GET THERE
Edinburgh is located in southeastern Scotland. The city stretches between the North Sea’s Firth of Forth and the port of Leith. The following are the most popular ways of traveling to Edinburgh, Scotland.
Airplane: The closest airport to the city is Edinburgh Airport (EDI) (6.6 miles away). The second nearest airport is Glasgow (GKA) (48.5 miles away).
Train: Edinburgh is serviced by the Edinburgh Waverley Train Station, located in New Town.
Bus: Bus companies serve the Edinburgh area from destinations throughout the UK. The Edinburgh Bus Station is located near the City Center.
Boat: Most cruise and ferry traffic will enter Edinburgh through the port of Leith.
HOW TO GET AROUND
Walk: If you are staying near the Edinburgh City Center, walking is the best way to see the city. Some will be challenged by the hills and stairs, but with careful planning this can be minimized. The stone spiers, sea vistas, narrow streets, and hidden courtyards call out to be discovered on foot.
Bus, Tram, or Train: Public Transportation in the Edinburgh City Center concentrates around the following hubs: Lothian Buses, the Waverly Train Station, Edinburgh Bus Station, and Edinburgh Trams Terminus,
Hop-on Hop-off Bus Tours: For a reasonable rate, a city sightseeing tour offers unlimited 24-hour use of its buses. The buses follow a prescribed route around the Edinburgh City Center’s main attractions with audio commentary in a variety of languages.
Automobile: Road-tripping around Scotland is a popular pastime. To rent a car in Scotland, drivers must have a license from their home country that has been valid for one year, and a passport (if not a citizen of the UK).
Edinburgh has a mild maritime climate. In summer the temperatures seldom rise above 70’ Fahrenheit. Winters tend to be colder, humid, and rainy with a daily temperature of around 48’ Fahrenheit. Throughout the year the city can experience bouts of fog, wind, clouds, precipitation, and sun – all in one day.
WHEN TO VISIT AND WHAT TO PACK
Edinburgh’s historical and cultural attractions are open throughout the year. The chance of encountering colder temperatures and prolonged rain is lower in the summer. However, to avoid crowding, visitors should consider traveling to the city during May or September.
Whatever month you decide to go, check Edinburgh event calendars for upcoming festivals. A city-wide event can enrich your visit, or not, depending upon your style of travel. At all times of the year sturdy walking shoes and rain gear are prudent. Bags should be small (for security purposes) if you are planning to visit museums, castles, and churches.
GUIDED TOURS AND CITY PASSES
There are many guided sightseeing city tours to choose from in Edinburgh. Tours to all of the major attractions (Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace, Whiskey Distilleries, Harry Potter locations, and much more) can be booked online or at kiosks along the Royal Mile. If you have limited time in the city, this can be a great way to cover a lot of territory in a short period of time.
With the purchase of an Edinburgh City Pass, visitors can get free entry to a variety of attractions. Passes can be purchased for different numbers of days. If the locations covered under the pass match your list of must-see sights, a savings may be realized. Go to the Edinburgh City Pass page for more information.
WHERE TO STAY
Joe and I recommend staying as near the Edinburgh City Center (Old Town or New Town) as possible. This will allow you to save time in transport and enjoy the sites, events, food and bar scene these areas have to offer.
New Town Edinburgh Hotels:
Edinburgh’s New Town is rich with quality restaurants, trendy nightclubs, and elegant hotels. It is a short walk from most New Town hotels to the major attractions of the Edinburgh City Center. Accommodations in this neighborhood range from hostels, to exclusive boutique hotels, and 5-star luxury lodgings. On the downside, you will pay more for this sought-after location.
Old Town Edinburgh & Grassmarket Hotels
Old Town Edinburgh is the top lodging choice for many travelers due to its proximity to leading attractions. It is a busy, lively area with some of the most atmospheric shops, restaurants, and pubs in the world. Like New Town, visitors will pay more to stay in this premier location.
Consider the neighborhood of Stockbridge for an affordable, family-friendly stay in Edinburgh. The village-like feel of the district can be a welcomed respite after a day spent sightseeing. The location is within walking distance of the City Center as well as the Botanical Gardens, Dean Village, and Circus Lane. Accommodations in Stockbridge will generally be less than those in New or Old Town.
BEST EDINBURGH THINGS TO DO
Here is a short list of some of our favorite things to do in Edinburgh:
Visit Edinburgh Castle to learn about its history as a fortress, palace, and prison
Take a guided walking tour of the 900-year-old St. Giles Cathedral
Tour the Holyrood Palace (the official residence of the British Monarch)
Picnic in the Princes Street Garden under the cliffs of Edinburgh Castle
Walk the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse
Attend a Grassmarket street fair and shop the neighborhood’s artisanal shops
Hike Arthur’s Seat (an extinct volcano in Holyrood Park) at sunrise or sunset
Learn about Edinburgh’s whiskey producing past on a whiskey heritage tour
Visit all five decks of the Royal Yacht Britannia to learn about the former floating palace
Enjoy the striking architecture of medieval Old Town and Georgian New Town on a walking tour through the back streets of the Edinburgh City Center
Haste ye back! Laura and Randy
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