I once lived in Edinburgh when I was a toddler. Dad was studying and working in the city — and our little family stayed in the city for almost three years. Of course, being so young then, I do not remember anything of my time in Scotland. So after more than 30 years, it was nice to finally return (especially for my parents) and to explore a place that we once called home.
We visited back in the summer of 2017. The post is a little late — but since Edinburgh is a significant place in our lives, I thought I’d need to write about our return to the city as a bigger family (with my brother bringing along his new wife too). Being the capital of Scotland, Edinburgh is the United Kingdom’s second largest financial centre and the country’s seventh most populous city. And with only three days to explore this historically rich city (with roots before the 7th century); I thought I’d list down the 10 favorite things I did during my visit, which are fun things I think shouldn’t be missed on a visit to Edinburgh.
1. Edinburgh Castle
The Edinburgh Castle is the most visited attraction in Scotland. Dating as far back as the 12th century, the castle overlooks over the city (and can be seen from everywhere too) as it stands on the top of an extinct volcano, also known as the Castle Rock. Though most of the remaining buildings of Edinburgh Castle dates from the 16th century — the castle has so many historical significance, and is believed to probably be the most attacked place in the world! We spent about 3 hours exploring the castle grounds, from its many museums and prison exhibitions, to the defense towers, batteries and view points. Tickets cost £19.50 (US$24) when bought at the entrance, but with a £2 discount online.
2. The Royal Mile
The Royal Mile is the busiest street in Edinburgh’s Old Town, and maybe even the entire city. It is made up of five streets — Castlehill, Lawnmarket, High Street, Canongate and Abbey Stand. These medieval streets slope from the ridge of Castle Rock where the Edinburgh Castle stands on the West, to the Holyrood Palace in the East. They run for almost exactly a mile, connecting the two royal buildings from gate to gate — and thus its name. During our visit to Edinburgh, we stayed in one of the old buildings facing the Canongate Street along the Royal Mile — it was an AirBnb Art Apartment that was really pretty. So I made it a point to actually walk the entire mile; I did the top part one afternoon, and covered the rest of the way one of the early mornings.
3. Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags
It is said that Arthur’s Seat might be one possible location of Camelot from the King Arthur legend. That could very well explain the name of largest and highest peak of this three peak extinct volcano in Holyrood Park. The hills rise above the city at about 250 meters, and is a popular hiking trail to the top. It was an extremely windy and cold day during our visit to Holyrood Park — and though I would have enjoyed a hike up to Arthur’s Seat, we weren’t really prepared. So instead, we admired the hills that’s said to resemble a lion in a couchant position; and walked around the base of the Salisbury Crags, which are a series of 46 meter basalt cliffs. The view of Edinburgh City from the park is breathtaking.
4. The Public Gardens and Parks
During our tour of the Edinburgh New Town, we spent some time chilling in the expanse of the Princes Street Gardens — made up of two public parks dating as far back as the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The parks lie below the Edinburgh Castle; with the larger West Princes Street Garden occupying 29 acres, and the smaller East Princes Street Garden with 8.5 acres. We also made time to have a picnic at The Meadows when we made a visit to my dad’s alma mater, the University of Edinburgh, as well as his old workplace, the Royal Hospital for Sick Children. This large public park borders the university campus and is a large open grassland with some tree line paths.
5. National Museum of Scotland
I wanted to visit at least one museum during our visit to Edinburgh — so we chose the most visited one, the National Museum of Scotland. It was formed in 2006 when the Museum of Scotland (built in 1998) and the Royal Museum (with roots from 1861) combined their collections of archeology, natural history, geology, art, world cultures, and science and technology. I have to say I was pretty impressed with the museum — it managed to hold my attention (and that of my younger brother) with its interactive exhibits and interesting displays. I especially enjoyed learning more of prehistoric and medieval Scotland, and how the people lived. Entrance is free.
6. St Giles Cathedral
While exploring The Royal Mile, make a stop at the 12th century St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh’s religious hub for almost 900 years. The current building dates back to the late 14th century with extensive restoration in the 19th century. The cathedral is dedicated to the patron saint of Edinburgh from the Middle Ages, Saint Giles. During our visit on a rainy afternoon, there was a concert/singing performance in the church — so after roaming around to admire the beautiful interior and stained glass windows of the cathedral, we sat for a bit to listen to the choir while waiting out the rain. Entrance is free.
7. Princes Street Shopping and the Scott Monument
Princes Street is one of the major streets in Edinburgh’s New Town, known to be the main shopping area of the city. The ‘new town’ began its construction in 1770, so this street stretching for about a mile from Lothian Road to Leith Street isn’t really new but home to buildings from the 18th to the 20th centuries. Princes Street is lined with buildings on one side (and home to big brands like H&M, Marks and Spencers, Topshop, as well as the Jenners Department Store), and the other side lies the Princes Street Gardens that overlooks the Old Town. You can also find the Scott Monument here, a mid-19th century Victorian Gothic monument dedicated to Scottish author Sir Walter Scott. The monument towers over Princes Street at 61.11 meters high.
8. The City of the Dead Tour
I love hearing stories about a city’s past — and that also includes myths, legends and supernatural tales. I’ve been to a couple of ghost tours in several other cities — so while I was in Edinburgh (one of the oldest cities in the world), I just had to follow a “City of the Dead” ghost tour. We were too scared to go for a night tour, so we opted for the 3.30pm underground city tour. The first part of the tour brought us to the dark and damp tunnels underneath the city — home to the poorest of the poor of old Edinburgh. The second part was to the Greyfriars Cemetery — and the cell where the famous Mackenzie poltergeist is said to haunt. We were also told the story of Greyfriars Bobby, a loyal dog that stood by its owner’s grave till its death. All in all, we had fun on the tour, especially with the entertaining and witty guide. It lasted about 1.5 hours and cost £13.00 (~US$16).
9. Scotch Whisky Experience
Scotland is famous for their whisky — so it was time we learned all about it at the Scotch Whisky Experience. Located on Castlehill just below Edinburgh Castle, the visitor center opened in 1988. Upon entry, we were brought on a walk-through tour to learn a little bit about what whisky is; and then ushered into a room where they showed us the difference of the many whiskies that can be found all throughout Scotland — Highland, Speyside, Lowland, Islay and Campbeltown. Finally, our whisky tasting session was held inside the whisky vault that is said to house the world’s largest collection of scotch whisky. Featuring more than 3,000 bottles, with the oldest one from 1897; the collection is indeed remarkable. The experience cost £16.00 (US$19) for the basic Silver Tour.
10. Scottish Food
And last but not least — the best part of every visit, tour and experience is always the food! Other than the whisky and the beer, Scotland is also famous for the haggis (a pudding of minced and marinated sheep’s inards — heart, liver and lungs), deep-fried Mars bar, and a delicious spread of Scottish breakfast that comes with the usual bread, eggs, mushrooms, baked beans, bacon and the black pudding (pork blood sausage). During our visit, we also made it a point to stop by The Elephant House Cafe, one of the cafes in Edinburgh that JK Rowling (and other notable Scottish writers) used to frequent in the 1990s to write her early Harry Potter books. The window at the back of the cafe offers pretty views of Edinburgh Castle, and they serve yummy jacket potatoes too!