Scotland’s is one of the United Kingdom’s most exciting cities with its incredible history, vibrant nightlife and famous Fringe Festival. Not only will your visit be full of colourful stories from Scotland’s eventful past, there will be no shortage of travellers delights as well: high street shopping, mountains to climb, trendy restaurants, traditional pubs, and whiskey on every corner. Edinburgh is a hotspot on the Europe trail, and it rarely disappoints. If you’re heading that way, this guide will tell you everything you need to know to make your visit magical.
In This Guide
Map of Edinburgh
Despite the relatively small scale of the city, Edinburgh has several distinct neighbourhoods which all have their own unique character.
In the map above, I’ve outlined what I think are the five best areas to stay in Edinburgh as a tourist, all but one clustered around the centre of the city. Below we’ll break each of these areas down – the vibe, the things to do, and a few accommodation suggestions as well. Let’s go!
Where to Stay in Edinburgh
This is Edinburgh’s most iconic neighbourhood and probably the first stop for any first time visitor to the city. It has surviving medieval architecture, which has been restored over the years to support the thriving city. The area has been an official UNESCO world heritage site since 1995 and is thrumming with history, as attested to by the plethora of ghost tours around the area (these tours are great if you’d like to learn some of the stories hidden behind Edinburgh’s closed doors).
The neighbourhood centres on the Royal Mile, which runs from Edinburgh Castle to the Scottish Parliament and takes in a cathedral, a palace, several museums and many medieval side streets. It’s very much a parade street and is like a huge tourist boulevard that runs through the centre of the city. The area is also packed with shops – everything from fudge to whiskey to tracking down your family tartan. This is also where the Fringe Festival makes its home every August, but it is full of life throughout the year.
The city centre neighbourhood is also full of bars, cafes and restaurants, and you will never have to walk more than a few metres to find your next drink. Pop into Whiski Rooms for a traditional steak and ale pie with a beer, plus one of the most impressive whiskey lists in the city. Also try Sligh House, which is reminiscent of London Soho, or the Bongo Club, which mixes bar, music venue and art centre under one roof. If you are looking for somewhere to dance, try Cabaret Voltaire, which has two arched dance floors. You’ll find many a place to try some traditional Scottish haggis here too.
If you are looking for a slower pace, pass the day exploring Old Town’s historic buildings, and make the hike up Arthur’s Seat to get some fresh air and look down on the city.
Things to see in Old Town:
- Arthur’s Seat, the main peak of the group of hills in the centre of the city, offering an interesting climb and great views of the city.
- Edinburgh Castle, serving as a defensive outpost since the Bronze Age, it was the royal palace from the 12th century until 1603 when James VI became the joint monarch of England and Scotland. It is now Edinburgh’s most popular tourist destination and includes the National War Museum.
- St Giles Cathedral, this 15th century structure is also called the High Kirk of Edinburgh and is named for the patron saint of cripples and beggars. This was the focal point for the Scottish Reformation and is one of the most striking architectural monuments on the mile.
- Real Mary King’s Close, a spooky subterranean labyrinth where visitors can explore a 16th century townhouse and the plague stricken home of a 17th century gravedigger.
- The Writers’ Museum, located in the 17th century Lady Stair’s House, here you’ll learn about the life of three of Scotland’s most famous wordsmiths: Robert Burns, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.
- National Museum of Scotland, home to an eclectic collection including natural history, archaeology, science, decorative arts, and historical collections from Egypt, Islam, China, Japan, Korea and the West.
- Surgeons’ Hall Museum, home to one of the largest and best pathology collections in the world.
- Palace of Holyrood House, the seat of Scottish Parliament, don’t just visit for the politics, the building has a remarkable interior.
- Signet Library, a spectacular Georgian edifice that is home to the Society of Writers to Her Majesty’s Signet and is the best place to get High Tea in the city.
- Scotch Whiskey Experience, discover the history and culture of Scottish Whiskey in the city centre, and yes, there is a barrel ride!
Stay in Old Town if you:
- Are visiting the city for the first time.
- Are doing the tourist thing.
- Want to be close to the Royal Mile
- Plan to hike Arthur’s seat.
Where to Stay in Old Town
For the Backpackers – Safestay Edinburgh Royal Mile
Offering dorm accommodation with ensuite bathrooms and power showers, this is one of the best affordable hostels in Old Town. It also has the popular Bar 50 and a fully licensed restaurant on site, as well as a roof top terrace for meeting other nomads. Best rates here.
For the Budget Traveller – Jurys Inn
This affordable hotel is just off the Royal Mile and has clean and comfortable rooms. It serves hot and cold breakfast daily and has a bar and restaurant on site. You will find comfortable beds and friendly staff for a reasonable price. Best rates here.
For the Luxurious Type – Radisson Collection Hotel Royal Mile
I normally try not to recommend big chain hotels but the Radisson Edinburgh is the only five star hotel on the Royal Mile. Just 600 metres from Edinburgh castle, the Radisson offers rooms and suites with all the amenities. It has its own luxury brasserie serving award winning Scottish cuisine, and a luxury wine bar, which is a great way to wind down in comfort at the end of the night. Best rates here.
Up the hill from Old Town is New Town, which only dates back to the 18th century. It is mostly full of Georgian and Neo-Classical architecture that will not disappoint. This is also where you will find some of the city’s most important museums.
New Town has some of the best shopping in the city around Princes Street and George Street. Here you will find big chains like Harvey Nichol, as well as many independent designer boutiques. There are also some interesting finds down the alleys and side streets turning off the main haul.
As well as shops, Princes Street has some of the most attractive public gardens in the city, and there is always something happening there on the weekends during the summer. Mary’s Milk Bar is nearby, and arguably has the best ice cream in the city. If you are travelling as a family, you can also take the kids to the Omni Centre, a family friendly venue with cinema, a variety of activities and some descent places to eat. This is also where you will find Edinburgh’s Escape Room, where you pit yourselves against the clock to solve puzzles and get out.
In the evening George Street has a fun but safe atmosphere, with lots of friendly pubs and bars, and quality but affordable restaurants. It is characterised by venues such as Panda and Sons, which is a bit of an old-fashioned speakeasy offering cocktails and music. Nearby Indigo Yard has a nice atmosphere and an interesting and tasty Scottish-Asian menu that is worth trying.
Things to see in New Town:
- Scottish National Gallery, holding the national collection including masterpieces by Jacopo Bassano, Van Dyck and Giambattista Tiepolo.
- Scottish National Portrait Gallery, holding a collection of portraits of, but not necessarily painted by, Scots. Its red sandstone Gothic revival building as a work of art itself.
- The Scott Monument, dedicated to Sir Walter Scott, the looming needle is quite a climb but offers amazing views of the city.
- National Trust Georgian House, one of the best examples of this architectural style in the city.
Stay in New Town if you:
- Are travelling as a family.
- Have come to Edinburgh to shop.
- Want somewhere a bit more “hip” than Old Town but still central
Where to Stay in New Town
For the Backpackers – Haystack Hostel
This vibrant and colourful hostel is set in an 18th century Georgian building just 50 metres from Princes Street. It offers dorm room accommodation with great kitchen facilities and secure lockers. They also have a laundry service and Wifi access throughout the building. Best rates here.
For the Budget Traveller – 28 York Place Hotel
Here you will find your room overlooking either historic York Place or the River Forth, and both are spectacular. This hotel is comfortable and affordable, and well soundproofed to keep out the noise of the busy street. Best rates here.
For the Luxurious Type – Principal Edinburgh George Street
Tucked in a Grade II listed building, after an extensive refurbishment the Principal has a feeling of restored grandeur. The onsite Printing Press Bar and Kitchen services Scottish food day and night. The bar is open until 1am and room service is available 24 hours. Best rates here.
Edinburgh’s West End basically covers the neighbourhoods of Stockbridge and Dean’s Village, both of which have a lot to offer any visitor to the city. While it is only a short walk from the city’s bustling historic centre, it feels like you might be in a rural village.
Dean’s Village was once a peasant community on the banks of the Leith river with old grain mills and gorgeous bridges crossing the river. The 19th century historic homes of the neighbourhood have largely survived, and now feels like a rural village in the centre of the city. It is a major tourist destination and a great place to stay if you want to experience rural Scotland, but do not have the time to get out of the city.
Stockbridge too was an outlying village that became part of Edinburgh proper in the 19th century. It has a more bohemian feel than Dean’s Village and is full of bicycle, cheese and charity shops, traditional delis, vintage fashion boutiques, and has an excellent farmer’s market on Sundays. Again, staying here might feel like living in 1950s Scotland.
Things to do in the West End:
- Well Court, castle like tenement housing commissioned in the 1880s by Sir John Findlay, the then owner of The Scotsman newspaper.
- Dean Gardens, the largest of four ‘pleasure grounds’ around the Leith River, it is seven acres of planted slopes, level lawns and stunning view points.
- Dean Cemetery, an elaborate Victorian cemetery where you will find many of Scotland’s important elite including disgraced engineer Sir Thomas Bouch, photographic pioneer David Octavius Hill, and artist Sir Willian Fettes Douglas.
- Royal Botanic Gardens, a world-renowned scientific centre for the study of plants, and a beautiful place to stop and smell the flowers.
- Inverleith House, a 18th century historic house located in the Botanic Gardens showing displays of botanic and contemporary art.
- Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, it is spread across two buildings and features works from the likes of Matisse, Picasso, Vuillard and Dix, as well as Scottish artists Fergusson, Gillies and Peploe (also buried in Dean Cemetery).
- Raeburn Place, retail hotspot with everything from cheese mongers to chic clothing boutiques.
- Edinburgh Gin Distillery, a working distillery where you can take a tour to learn how gin is made, and have some samples.
Stay in the West End if you:
- Want to get a taste of rural Scotland.
- Fancy time travelling to Scotland of the past.
Where to Stay in the West End
For the Backpackers – West End Hostel
This West End hostel offers dorm rooms in a Victorian townhouse, it is fully equipped after renovation in 2018. It has a relaxed and safe atmosphere and will very quickly feel like home and family. Everything a backpacker needs! Best rates here.
For the Budget Traveller – Thistle Hotel
Tucked away off one of the main streets, the rooms in this Georgian house hotel are gorgeous for the price you’ll pay. If you are lucky you might find yourself with a view of Edinburgh Castle, and the Manor Lounge bar is a great place for late night whiskey tasting. Best rates here.
For the Luxurious Type – The Caledonian Waldorf Historia
Housed in what was originally Edinburgh’s central railway station, the Caledonian has a steam room, sauna, swimming pool and gym on site. It has two eateries, both from Michelin star chefs, plus a separate venue for afternoon tea and drinks. If you want to live large in the West End look no further! Best rates here.
Not far from New Town, Broughton takes you off the tourist path for a more authentic Edinburgh experience. However, it is still teeming with cafes, restaurants and bars and is far from dull. This is a great place to stay if you are thinking of passing a few months in the city. You will find nice affordable flats in the area, and while it is away from the tourist traffic, it is only a short walk to the centre and its sights.
Broughton was a feudal barony in the 16th and 17th centuries controlled by the Bellenden family. Sir Lewis Bellenden is famous for being part of the conspiracy that attempted to prevent Mary Queen of Scots from returning to Scotland. The area still has a bit of a rebellious feel, like it does not need the rest of the city.
Life in the district centres around Broughton Street. If you are looking for brunch, consider one of the excellent delicatessens. A visit to Crombie’s is high on the list of Edinburgh must-eats. In the evening check out the Gardener’s Cottage, located in a stone-built cottage cooking delicious meals from local produce. At night check out Studio 24, a live music venue that featured the likes of Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins 20 years ago, and still has good music and a great atmosphere. During the day explore some of the many local art galleries that are tucked away around the district.
While you are here, make sure you walk up Carlton Hill, easily spotted as it is topped by the faux-classical Nelson’s Monument and the Old City Observatory. Here you will find amazing views of the city, the coast and Arthur’s Seat.
Things to see in Broughton:
- Collective Gallery, a cutting-edge contemporary art gallery with a rolling programme of exhibitions.
- Ingleby Gallery, displaying the likes of Callum Innes, Alison Watt and Ian Hamilton Finlay.
- Edinburgh Playhouse, one of the UK’s biggest theatres, seating around 3,000, and showing West End hits and hosting major rock acts.
Stay in Broughton if you:
- Are travelling on a budget.
- Considering staying in the city for an extended period.
- Want to experience the local side of the city.
Where to Stay in Broughton
For the Backpackers – Baxter Hostel
On the border between New Town and Broughton, this hostel offers large dormitories with secure lockers. They have a great breakfast with eggs the way you like them, along with all the tea, coffee and juice you can drink. Best rates here.
For the Budget Traveller – Halcyon House
Right next to Calton Hill, this is another excellent Georgian townhouse hotel with generous sized rooms and a good breakfast buffet to start the day. The shared lounge space is luxurious and a great place to mingle with other guests. Best rates here.
For the Luxurious Type – The Glasshouse, Photograph Collection
Set behind the historic facade of 172-year-old Lady Glenorchy Church, this five-star boutique hotel offers rooms with floor to ceiling windows to full enjoy the view of Calton Hill. The hotel serves full Scottish and continental breakfasts, and has a brasserie, a bar menu and a snug lounge with almost 100 different whiskeys to try. If price isn’t an issue and you want some true Edinburgh luxury, this is your place. Best rates here.
Located to the north of the city at the mouth of the Water of Leith, this was a bustling port town which has retained much of its traditional feel, despite the hipster invasion. The area is now characterised by various small art galleries, and a lively street art community with graffiti walls updated almost daily. This area also has a popping nightlife, one of the best destinations in the city for fun after dark. In true Scottish tradition, many of the trendy bars are more concerned with serving good quality whiskey than fancy cocktails. If you are unsure where to start, stick your head into the Leith Depot, a former boozer turned into a trendy music venue, or the Roseleaf Bar and Candle.
When it comes to food, dine on the waterfront at restaurants that cook up the day’s fresh catch. The King’s Wark and The Ship on the Shore both offer a twist on traditional Scottish fish dishes, with the freshest produce available. The village also has two Michelin star restaurants to sample. But there are also organic cafes and corner shops where you can get your hands on an excellent chip butty.
Leith is also full of micro-breweries for those who prefer a cold beer over a single malt. Take a beer tour of the area starting with Stewart Brewing’s taproom on the waterfront, and ending with Pilot’s brewery on Jane Street.
Things to do in Leith:
- Royal Yacht Britannia, also know as the Queen’s floating residence, you can explore the splendour of this now decommissioned palace ship.
- Custom House, a grandiose structure built in 1812, it showcases local artistic talent.
- Water of Leith Walkway, a forested walkway where you can encounter native wildlife.
- Trinity House Maritime Museum, once the base of the Incorporation of Mariners and Shipmasters, it now houses maritime treasures including four portraits by Sir Henry Raeburn, a French Tricolour captured at the Battle of Trafalgar, and a 200-year-old whaling harpoon.
- Scottish Design Exchange, a concept store located in Ocean Terminal and owned by the artists themselves, it is the perfect place to pick up unique souvenirs and gifts.
Stay in Leith if you:
- Have come to Edinburgh for a party.
- Want to taste some of the freshest and most imaginative seafood in the city.
- Are looking for Edinburgh’s hipster central
Where to Stay in Leith
For the Backpackers – Rooms at GPO
More of a bed and breakfast than a hostel, the private rooms here are still very affordable and cheaper singles are available. It has good wifi, and while kitchen facilities are limited it is close to some great cheap eats. Best rates here.
For the Budget Traveller – Park View House Hotel
Another hotel set in a Victorian townhouse, the Park View offers a wide variety of rooms for singles, couples and families. It is only a 10 minute walk from the central action of Leith, and is close to buses into the city centre. Best rates here.
For the Luxurious Type – Malmaison Edinburgh
Situated on the banks of the Leith, it has something for everyone with both a classy bar and a state-of-the-art fitness centre. The onsite restaurant offers classic cuisine made from local produce as has a very good wine cellar. Gorgeous premises, and it’s not actually that expensive. Best rates here.
Day Trips from Edinburgh
If you have the time, Edinburgh can be a great base for exploring some of the more rural areas of Scotland. Although the country is small, the winding roads with low speed limits mean that it can take longer to arrive at your destination than you might think. Nevertheless the easiest way to explore is by renting a car, or as part of an organised tour.
Just outside the city, less than 30 minutes on the bus (catch the 37), is the village of Roslin. This is home to the iconic Rosslyn Chapel, one of the most famous holy sites in Scotland, which also featured in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code books and films. It was also the Roslin Institute here in the village where Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1996.
The old legend makes this one of the most popular day trips from Edinburgh. A three to four hour drive depending on your preferred route, as well as visiting the iconic lake, you can also wander the highlands and visit Urquhart Castle and learn some of the local history. Culloden Battlefield is also en route and is worth a visit. The audio tour is the best way to discover the location’s eerie history.
Less than an hour and a half drive north of Edinburgh, St Andrews is the oldest university in Scotland and dominates this little town. Explore the town’s iconic architecture on foot while enjoying an array of historic pubs, and then walk the coastline where Chariots of Fire was filmed. You can even mime the slow run for your Instagram like everyone else on the beach!
What would a visit to Scotland be without a visit to one of its world-famous Whiskey distilleries? While the most famous distilleries are in the highlands or in the north, Glenkinchie Distillery is only 90 minute drive east and is the perfect place to learn about whiskey distilling, indulge in some samples and pick up a bottle. The distillery itself offers a daily transport to and from the city so that you can enjoy a tipple on your tour.
Getting Around Edinburgh
Edinburgh is relatively compact, and the best way is to explore is on foot, especially because there are so many little nooks to explore. It is also very safe, and locals will be happy to give you directions when needed.
If you do want to get off your feet, then Lothian buses in Edinburgh offers affordable all day tickets, and there are buses to pretty much everywhere in the city. If paying by cash, be aware that bus drivers do not give change, so carry the right amount. You can pick up bus tickets at all the major stations.
If you are going somewhere a bit out of the way, travelling at night, or travelling in the bitter cold winter, then there are plenty of taxis and Ubers available in the city. Radio taxis are a bit cheaper than black cabs, but if you are only travelling a short distance it shouldn’t matter too much.
There is a 24 hour bus service between the city centre and the airport called Airlink100. There is also a tram that runs direct from York Place in the city centre to the airport regularly throughout the day, taking only around 35 minutes.
If you are looking to reach another city in Scotland or northern England, and don’t have your own car, then train is the best option. All national trains leave from Waverly Station, centrally located off Princes Street.
The city is currently investing in developing a variety of new tram ways, which should revolutionise transport in the city in the near future.
Getting a SIM Card in Edinburgh
A prepaid SIM card will give you coverage throughout the UK from any of the main providers: T-Mobile, Vodafone, Orange, 3 and O2.
Coverage in the city is pretty good on all networks, though in the surrounding highlands don’t expect anything great. All the dealers have shops in the city centre.
If you don’t have a network preference, consider popping into Carphone Warehouse, also in the city centre. They are an independent dealer that work with all the networks and can suggest what will be best for you.
Safety in Edinburgh
Edinburgh is generally safe, especially in its central areas which are full of bars and restaurants open late and where there are always a wide variety of people on the street. The biggest problem that you are likely to encounter in the centre is beggars, which pose no genuine threat to you as long as you’re respectful. They are there to benefit from the big tourist population and don’t generally want to make trouble. Also be on the lookout for rowdy youths in the nightlife zones.
Some of the housing estates can be a bit scary at night as they are quiet and the domain of locals. It is probably worth avoiding the Meadows, Grassmarket, Cowgate, Tollcross and Lothian Road alone at night. Muirhouse and Pilton in the north, Niddrie and Craigmillar in the southeast and Sighthill and Wester Hailes in the west are probably worth avoiding unless you need to visit them for some specific reason and know people there.
Interestingly, grave robbing is still surprisingly common in the Edinburgh area, literally digging up the dead to retrieve their valuables. Graveyards should also probably be avoided at night.