Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, is a picturesque medieval city situated on the east coast of Scotland. If you are travelling to the UK, it is a must see. My husband and I are currently living in Edinburgh and it awes us every single day. While you could easily spend a week or more in this great city and not see everything, I feel like most of the big highlights can be seen in two days. If you only have one day to spend, that is certainly better than nothing, but know that there are big attractions that you will need to bypass. Read more for my complete guide to travel, food, attractions, and accommodation in Edinburgh.
First off, I would like to clear up one of the most common mistakes travelers make. The name of the city does not rhyme with Pittsburg, but rather is pronounced “Edinbur-ah”, or “Edinbur-oh” if you have trouble saying the first version. The locals will appreciate you taking the time to say the name of their beloved capital correctly.
How Will I Get from the Airport to my Accommodation?
You have several options to get to and from the airport:
- Take a cab– There is a constant line of cabs that you can take straight to your accommodation. This is the fastest way to get from the airport taking only 15 minutes to reach the city center, but not the cheapest. To the city center, a cab should cost around £15. Unlike any of the other types of transportation, a cab driver will be able to drop you right off at your door helping to eliminate any confusion when navigating the city.
- Take a bus-Again, there are several options here:
- Bus 35 picks up just outside the terminal of the airport every 15 minutes Monday-Saturday and every 30 minutes nights and Sundays. This bus will take you into Old Town or all the way down to Leith. A single fare is £1.60 (updates 2016) or you can purchase a day pass for £4.00. Tickets need to be purchased directly from the driver with exact coins. The journey time to Old Town is about 1 hour.
- Bus N22 picks up during the wee hours of the morning when 35 is not running. It will take you to the city center or all the way down to Leith. Prices are the same for this bus and 35. N22 takes around 30 minutes to reach the city center.
- The Airlink Buses (the big blue ones) also pick up outside the terminal of the airport. They pick up every 10 minutes and take you right to the city center in about 30 minutes. A single fare costs £4.50 and can be purchased directly from the driver with exact change only.
- Take the Tram- There is a tram that runs from the airport to the city center. It picks up every 10ish minutes and will get you to Princes Street in about 35 minutes. A single fare costs £5 and can be purchased from the ticket machine at the tram stop.
Once you reach the city center or Princes Street, you will be able to either walk to your accommodation (if you are staying in the main city area) or take any other bus to where you are staying. Use the Lothian Bus app to help you decide which bus you should take and where to pick it up.
What Should I See?
Green are things you will definitely want to see.
Blue are things that you should see if you are here longer than two days.
Prices are as of January 2016
The cut out section reads, “Extremely cool, but takes hours and hours to go through completely”.
3:30 Arrive and check into accommodation
5:00 Afternoon tea reservations at Mimi’s Bakehouse (see below for more info)
8:30 Elephant House for coffee and breakfast (see below for more info)
Be sure to rub Bobby’s nose for luck as you walk up to Elephant House!
If you have extra time, head into Greyfriars Kirk to see Bobby’s grave and to look for the headstones featuring names from Harry Potter (including Tom Riddle!)
9:30 Tour Edinburgh Castle
1:00 Leave after 1:00 gun
1:30 Lunch at Pie Maker (see below for more info)
2:00 Tour Univ. of Edinburgh Old College (left) and St Giles Cathedral (right)
3:30 Go to Mary’s Milk Bar (Hot chocolate float?!?)- see below for more info
4:00 Tour Princes Street including the Scott Monument (pictured) and
Princes Street Gardens
4:45 Tour Calton Hill
6:00 Dinner (See below for my dining recommendations)
8:00 Pub hop
8:00 Breakfast at a Costa or other café
9:30 Tour the Palace of Holyrood House
12:00 Eat at Oink (see below for more info)
12:30 Hike Holyrood Park including Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags
6:00 Dinner (see below for my dining recommendations)
What are the Different Seasons Like for Tourism?
During the winter season (November through March) you will find the fewest tourists in Edinburgh. The castle can be toured without much worry for crowds and you will get a chance to see the city more as the residents do. Keep in mind that this time of year tends to be cold, very windy, and it rains almost every day. Even though Edinburgh typically does not get sheeted in snow, enough snow to cover the ground is a real possibility during these months. Also, December and January have extremely short amounts of daylight with the sun not coming up until around 9:00 and setting close to 3:00. Don’t let these facts stop you from experiencing Edinburgh during the winter, just be aware that you will need to bring winter clothing and plan your days with the lack of daylight in mind.
April, May, September, and October. If I was travelling to Edinburgh, these are the months I would shoot to arrive. Crowds are not as large as during the summer months and the weather is moderate and beautiful more days than not. In the springtime, flowers will be in bloom everywhere and in the fall, the hills will be covered in purple Scottish heather. It is truly a beautiful sight. You will be able to experience Edinburgh much like the locals do without the Scottish winter weather to dampen your spirits (or your trousers).
‘Mon the tourists! This is the season of endless tourists in the Scottish capital. While the weather is normally beautiful and fairly warm (I say fairly as I am from Texas so the Scottish weather never feels “hot” to me) if you visit during these months, be prepared to encounter large crowds pretty much anywhere you go. The biggest month for tourism in Edinburgh is August. August is when the city goes crazy.
In Edinburgh, August is festival month. There are many festivals that take place during the month of August (pretty much all at the same time and co mingled all throughout the city) bringing with them performers from all over the world, fireworks over the castle every night, vendors selling everything from leather works to canvas paintings, and droves and droves of people. The population of Edinburgh is normally around 500,000, but during August that number jumps up to almost 3 million. And it stays there from August 1st to August 31st. With this massive number of people, hotel prices skyrocket, buses are jam packed, the streets are bursting at the seams and restaurants are seemingly impossible to get into. Don’t get me wrong, the festivals are great fun and a phenomenal cultural experience, but plan to battle absolutely massive numbers of people no matter where you go in the city. It’s so crazy that many locals take this month as their holiday and get out town to avoid the frenzy. The good news is, on September 1st, the city resumes it’s normal, calm demeanor as cleanup from the festival chaos begins.
How Will I get Around?
You will not want to rent a car to get around Edinburgh. Even locals generally take the bus around town and only use cars for travel to other places in Scotland. The Lothian bus system is reliable, extensive, and reasonably cheap. Costing £4 for a day pass, you can purchase your tickets directly from the driver with exact coins only. If you are staying for a while, you can purchase a bus pass from the travel shop just off of Princes Street by the mall.
To help you find your way around town, download the Lothian Bus app. This app has bus maps, bus trackers, and even helps you plan your trips around town. If you are in doubt as to which bus you should take or where your stop is simply ask the driver. They are normally very helpful and will even let you know when they reach your stop. Hint: If you are waiting for the bus driver to alert you to your stop, don’t go upstairs where you can’t hear them. Stay on the main level and be courteous to them for their help.
In the wee hours of the morning buses switch to a night schedule (you must buy a separate night ticket for £3) and don’t go everywhere they do during the day. Depending on where you are staying, you may need to take a cab back to your accommodation. Cabs can be hailed or ordered using an app. Check out Capital Cars or Seven Sevens Cars. If you choose to stay in the main areas of the city, this issue can be avoided.
Where Should I Stay?
Your choice in accommodation can definitely help make your trip seamless or more of a hassle. The main area of town,where most of the tourist attractions are located, is compact and walk-able. I would highly recommend staying in any of the numerous lodging options available in this area. You will save money on cab fares and bus tickets and save a ton of time getting into town each morning.
Look for places in these areas:
- Princes Street
- Old Town
- New Town
- Royal Mile
August is the worst month for reasonable prices. During the festivals prices absolutely skyrocket.
Check holiday lets if you are coming with a group or staying for a while. Sometimes renting an entire flat is a much better price than you would expect. Also, it doesn’t hurt to check Airbnb to price compare.
Where are the Best Places to Eat?
The Morningside area has most of the nicer restaurants. Bus 15 will take you here. This is the area of town that many of the locals go to for a nice meal out.
- Osteria del Tempo Perso is great for authentic handmade Italian food.
- Montpelier’s is a popular upscale bar and restaurant that is very popular with the locals.
- Artisan Cheesecake is a great stop for some delicious dessert.
- Meltmongers is new on the scene, but is quickly becoming a favorite for a great cheese toastie.
Bread Meats Bread is a hip burger joint just off Princes Street. Come early or expect a wait!
The Last Drop in Grassmarket- Even though it’s in a really touristy area of town, this place has some great and authentic pub grub. No matter where you are in a Scottish city or town, there will be a pub on your street that the locals in the area will swear by. Try a few and pick your favorite!
Sheep Heid Inn is the oldest pub in Scotland. Opened in 1360, it is said to have been a favorite of Mary Queen of Scots. It is a little bit of a bus trip to reach and, to be honest, the food is not our favorite, but the history is really cool. They even have an old skittles alley (precursor to bowling) in the back that can be rented out.
With multiple universities calling Edinburgh home, there is no shortage of budget eats for the thousands of students living here. These are some of our favorites:
- Oink– right on the Royal Mile by Holyrood House this restaurant has mastered the art of pulled pork. For a little under £5 you can get a delicious pulled pork sandwich with your choice of fixings. This place only takes cash.
- Pie Maker- Close to the University of Edinburgh and the museum, this tiny shop is an absolute Edinburgh staple. They are renowned for their savory British, Scottish, and innovative pies (think mac and cheese… in a PIE!). Do not miss it! They have a huge selection of portable pies for around £1 a pie. Two people can easily eat for about £3 total.
- Mosque Kitchen– a great Indian cafeteria style restaurant right by the University of Edinburgh. You’ll get a big plate of food for about £5. The students love this place!
Beirut- a great upscale Lebanese place right by Mosque Kitchen. We love it and always recommend it to anyone coming to town.
Chippies- You will notice that about every tenth shop advertises, “Pizza, Kebabs, Burgers, Falafel, Shwarma”. It sounds like a strange combination to the american ear, but these city chippies (named after the classic fish and chip combination) are an absolute staple. They make for great late night food, many of them selling the famous “muchie box” (a mix of anything fried they have left to sell). We are particularly fond of Yum Yum by Elephant House.
Tailend is the only place in Scotland that makes the national “Top 10 Fish and Chips in the UK” regularly. It’s located in the Leith area and is on the Bus 22 route.
Ship on the Shore- right on the Leith Shore, come here for a romantic night and some delicious seafood. It’s always a hit for a lovely date night.
Mimi’s Bakehouse- Located on the Leith Shore, this place is ultra famous and you will definitely need reservations. Noted for their scones and clotted cream, they are definitely worth a stop while you are in town.
Mary’s Milk Bar– My favorite place for a calorie-abused snack. Located in Grassmarket, they sell gelato, the best hot chocolate ever, and you can even combine the two into a hot chocolate float. You will have no hope of walking off this amazing treat, but oh boy is it worth it.
Elephant House- Known as the birthplace of Harry Potter, this is where J.K. Rowling wrote the first few Harry Potter books. Looking out the windows to the castle, it is easy to imagine how this view might have inspired Rowling’s description of Hogwarts. Surprisingly, this has not increased their prices and the coffee and food are wonderful. Stop for the obligatory picture and a great snack!
Edinburgh is full of quaint coffee shops and cafes. You can’t really go wrong with any of them. Even though it’s a chain, I would encourage a stop at a Costa if you’ve never been. With prices that are more reasonable than Starbucks and much better quality coffee, it’s a great little insight into UK life and taste in coffee. The Costa on Princes Street has a lovely view of the castle!
Fancy a Night on the Town?
The Grassmarket and Old Town area sport the most bars and pubs. This is the area that most people go to bar hop.
Also, check out New Town off Princes Street for other popular bars. Stop in at Jekyll and Hyde in this area for a quirky, fun bar (make sure to ask the bartender where to find the bathroom).
Leith also has its fair share of late night bars. Along the shore you’ll find bars including Sofi’s, King’s Wark, and Port ‘O Leith. While there aren’t quite as many bars here as in Old Town, the atmosphere will really make for a great night out!
Pro Traveler Tips:
- Even though Scotland is known for it’s rainy weather DO NOT pack an umbrella. With the rain, usually comes strong, gusty winds. Umbrellas, quite frankly, will get ripped to shreds. Do what the locals do and bring a jacket with a hood instead.
- Always make reservations if you are planning on eating out. Aside from takeaway and very casual places, bookings are pretty much a necessity. See above for my suggestions on the best places to eat. Most places allow you to book online which is a plus for those without a UK phone.
- Speaking of phones, in this day and age it can be difficult to imagine functioning anywhere, let alone a foreign country, without one. If you are traveling from outside the UK, there are several options for phone usage here:
- Use your phone like usual and pay the international usage fees. Check with your phone provider and decide if these fees are acceptable to you.
- Buy a SIM card for your current phone when you arrive and pay as you go. The UK has many great mobile phone providers including Lebara, giffgaff, Virgin, and 3. These companies are all very similar in price. You can buy a SIM card (or even order a free one) and then pay as you go for service. All of this will cost you around £10. Unfortunately, if you are coming from the US, this is not a good option for you. US phone companies generally lock your phone meaning that you will not be able to use another company’s SIM card.
- Take your SIM card out when you arrive and use WiFi. Most places around Edinburgh, including the city buses, offer free WiFi. You can use this WiFi to look up directions, make reservations, and communicate via Facebook Messenger. You can message and even call people using just a WiFi signal. This is not a great option if you plan on traveling into the countryside where there is not WiFi everywhere.
- Buy a GoPhone or cheap cell phone and insert a UK SIM card. This is a great option if you are coming from the states and have a locked phone.
- Do NOT use the city tour buses for transportation. The buses are very expensive and you don’t need them. The city bus system is reliable, extensive, and just £4 per day for an adult. Most people who live in the city travel by bus. There’s even a Lothian Bus app to help you plan your journey, track bus times, and look at bus maps. TIP: Route 35 goes past pretty much every major tourist attraction.
- Look into buying the Historic Scotland Explorer pass if you plan on visiting multiple historic sites. You can purchase the pass at the castle and it will get you into any Historic Scotland site. It also gives you a discount on Historic England and Historic Wales sites.
- Do NOT exchange your money at the airport. If you do this, you will be guaranteed to get the worst exchange rate. You will need cash, so don’t plan on just using an international credit card. Check with your bank about getting cash before you leave and price compare with travel agencies around you that do travel money. You can also withdraw money at cash machines around the city after you arrive, but be sure to take into account any international fees your bank might apply and how you plan to pay for transport from the airport (there are cash machines and places to get change for the buses in the airport).
- If you are in need of any additional clothing while in Edinburgh, look no further than Primark on Princes Street. Clothes here are the best prices I have ever seen in my life. While you shouldn’t expect anything here to last you a lifetime, you will certainly get good use out of them.
- Make sure you bring a water bottle and comfortable walking shoes! You will be burning a lot of calories walking around Edinburgh (and probably consuming them all back through the heavy Scottish foods).
I hope that this guide has helped to give you an insight into the magical city of Edinburgh. I look forward to seeing you on the Scottish streets soon!