Edinburgh, the showcase capital of Scotland, is a venerable, cosmopolitan and cultured city famed worldwide for its superb annual festival. The setting is wonderfully striking: perched on a series of extinct volcanoes and rocky crags which rise from the generally flat landscape of the Lothians, with the sheltered shoreline of the Firth of Forth to the north. “My own Romantic town”, Sir Walter Scott called it, although it was another native author, Robert Louis Stevenson, who perhaps best captured the feel of his “precipitous city”, declaring that “No situation could be more commanding for the head of a kingdom; none better chosen for noble prospects”. Edinburgh’s ability to capture the literary imagination has seen it dubbed a “World City of Literature” by UNESCO, who have also conferred World Heritage Site status on much of the centre.
The area north of the castle, the dignified, Grecian-style New Town was laid out in the eighteenth century after the announcement of a plan to improve conditions in the city. The Old Town, on the other hand, with its tortuous alleys and tightly packed closes, is unrelentingly medieval, associated in popular imagination with the city’s underworld lore of murderers Burke and Hare and of schizophrenic Deacon Brodie, inspiration for Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Set on the hill which sweeps down from the fairy-tale castle to the royal Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Old Town preserves all the key reminders of its role as a historic capital, augmented now by the dramatic and unusual new Scottish Parliament building, opposite the palace. A few hundred yards away, a tantalizing glimpse of the wild beauty of Scotland’s scenery can be had in Holyrood Park, an extensive area of open countryside dominated by Arthur’s Seat, the largest and most impressive of the volcanoes. Among Edinburgh’s many museums, the exciting National Museum of Scotland houses 10,000 of Scotland’s most precious artefacts, while the National Gallery of Scotland and its offshoot, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, house two of Britain’s finest collections of paintings.
Beyond the centre, Edinburgh’s liveliest area is Leith, the city’s medieval port, whose seedy edge is softened by a series of great bars and restaurants, along with the presence of the former royal yacht Britannia. The wider rural surroundings of Edinburgh, known as the Lothians, mix rolling countryside and attractive country towns with some impressive historic ruins.
It was during the Dark Ages that the name Edinburgh – at least in its early forms of Dunedin or Din Eidyn (“fort of Eidyn”) – first appeared. The strategic fort atop the Castle Rock volcano served as Scotland’s southernmost border post until 1018, when King Malcolm I established the River Tweed as the permanent frontier. In the reign of Malcolm Canmore in the late eleventh century, the castle became one of the main seats of the court, and the town, which was given privileged status as a royal burgh, began to grow.
Under King James IV (1488–1513), the city enjoyed a short but brilliant Renaissance era, which saw not only the construction of a new palace alongside Holyrood Abbey, but also the granting of a royal charter to the College of Surgeons, the earliest in the city’s long line of academic and professional bodies. This period came to an abrupt end in 1513 with the calamitous defeat by the English at the Battle of Flodden leading to several decades of political instability. In the 1540s, English king Henry VIII’s attempt to force a royal union with Scotland led to the sack of Edinburgh, prompting the Scots to turn to France: French troops arrived to defend the city, while the young Scottish queen Mary was dispatched to Paris as the promised bride of the Dauphin, later Francois II of France. While the French occupiers succeeded in removing the English threat, they themselves antagonized the locals, who had become increasingly sympathetic to the ideals of the Reformation. When the radical preacher John Knox returned from exile in 1555, he quickly won over the city to his Calvinist message.
James VI’s rule saw the foundation of the University of Edinburgh in 1582, but following the Union of the Crowns in 1603, when James assumed the throne of England in addition to that of Scotland, the city was totally upstaged by London: although James promised to visit every three years, it was not until 1617 that he made his only return trip. The Union of the Parliaments of 1707 dealt a further blow to Edinburgh’s political prestige, though the guaranteed preservation of the national church and the legal and educational systems ensured that it was never relegated to a purely provincial role. On the contrary, it was in the second half of the eighteenth century that Edinburgh achieved the height of its intellectual influence, led by natives such as David Hume and Adam Smith. Around the same time, the city began to expand beyond its medieval boundaries, laying out the New Town, a masterpiece of the Neoclassical style and grand town planning.
Industrialization affected Edinburgh less than any other major city in the nation, and it never lost its white-collar character. Through the Victorian era Edinburgh cemented its role as a conservative bastion of the establishment, controlling Scotland’s legal, ecclesiastical and education systems. Nonetheless, the city underwent an enormous urban expansion in the nineteenth century, annexing, among many other small burghs, the large port of Leith.
In 1947 Edinburgh was chosen to host the great International Festival which served as a symbol of the new peaceful European order; despite some hiccups, it has flourished ever since, in the process helping to make tourism a mainstay of the local economy. During the 1980s Glasgow, previously the poor relation but always a tenacious rival, began to challenge the city’s status as a cultural centre, and it took the re-establishment of a devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999 for Edinburgh to reassert its status in a meaningful way. With debates and decisions about crucial aspects of the government of Scotland taking place in Edinburgh, there was a notable upturn in the city’s standing, augmented by significant achievements in scientific research and the arts. The financial sector burgeoned, with the Royal Bank of Scotland becoming the second largest banking group in the UK in the early years of the new century. Its near collapse and subsequent bail-out by the government during the 2009 economic crisis dented not only the city’s self-confidence, but also the arguments made by nationalist politicians that Scotland has the stability and economic prowess to prosper as an independent country.
For centuries the sometime residence of Scotland's kinds and queens, the Palace of Holyroodhouse has a hauntingly ruinous abbey. Book your entrance ticket ahead of time.
Possibly the most iconic castle on earth, home to one of the world's most celebrated military parades. Take in the castle and several more of Edinburgh's world-class sights on a hop-on-hop-off bus tour.
An architectural one-off that still divides opinion; squeeze in among the tourist hordes and decide for yourself.
Get off the beaten track without leaving the city centre. To get to know the park and Portobello Promenade, take a 3-hour bike tour.
The most popular New Year blowout on the planet; get your ticket early.
Get even further off the beaten track in this low-key idyll by Duddingston Village. For souls who seek yet more of the great outdoors, Edinburgh is just about day-tripping distance from the legendary Loch Ness.
The haunted heart of old Edinburgh, with tenements, closes and catacombs piled up cheek-by-jowl. For some truly chilling storytelling, book onto a ghostly underground tour of Edinburgh's vaults.
The classic sightline southwest from Calton Hill, taking in the Old Town in all its magnificence, is gorgeous.
Da Vinci Code fever may have cooled, but this gothic masterpieces is as mesmerising as ever. Excellent tours combine a visit to Rosslyn Chapel with the gorgeous border town of Melrose and its Abbey.
The whole world descends on Edinburgh come August for the mother of all arts extravagance.
The Old Town's polar opposite, with dazzling Georgian crescents, postcard-pretty mews and manicured gardens.
Leith's medieval port and surrounds are a foodie paradise of Michelin stars, foraged produce and ethical eats.
Edinburgh's showpiece gardens, with the world's biggest collection of wild Asian plants outside China.
Edinburgh's Camera Obscura has been a tourist attraction since 1853, while the World of Illusions is a labyrinth of family-friendly exhibits of optical illusions, holograms and clever visual trickery.
Edinburgh's Camera Obscura has been a tourist attraction since 1853, while the World of Illusions is a labyrinth of family-friendly exhibits of optical illusions, holograms and clever visual trickery.
Enjoy a Harry Potter-themed walking tour around Edinburgh and visit Tom Riddle's grave.
There's no more Scottish drink than whiskey. Visit the distilleries of Dewar's and Deanston to sample some of the best.
Edinburgh has a greater choice of accommodation than anywhere else in Britain outside London. Hotels (and large backpacker hostels) are essentially the only options you’ll find right in the heart of the city, but within relatively easy reach of the centre the selection of guesthouses, B&Bs, campus accommodation and even campsites broadens considerably.
Making reservations is worthwhile at any time of year, and is strongly recommended for stays during the Festival and around Hogmanay, when places can get booked out months in advance.
Just over a mile northeast of the city centre is Leith, a fascinating mix of cobbled streets and new developments, run-down housing and excellent restaurants, as well as Edinburgh’s zoo, a perennial favourite with children.
Despite the compactness of the city centre, open-top bus tours are big business, with several companies taking slightly varying routes around the main sights. All cost much the same, depart from Waverley Bridge and allow you to get on and off at leisure. There are also several walking tours, many of which depart from the central section of the Royal Mile near the High Kirk of St Giles; ghost tours and specialist tours are also available. Advance booking is recommended for all tours, and for the specialist tours in particular.
Many of Edinburgh’s pubs, especially in the Old Town, have histories that stretch back centuries, while others, particularly in the New Town, are unaltered Victorian or Edwardian period pieces. Add a plentiful supply of trendy modern bars, and there’s enough to cater for all tastes. Note that the opening hours quoted here may well be extended during Festival.
Edinburgh’s dining scene is a feather in the city’s cap – with five restaurants holding Michelin stars, it can justifiably claim second place behind London in the UK’s fine-dining pecking order. Under this level, small diners and bistros predominate, and Edinburgh is an excellent place if you like fish and shellfish. Plenty of tourist-oriented restaurants offer haggis and other classic clichés, mostly with little culinary merit; a better idea is to seek out the crop of places using locally sourced, quality ingredients available from small and artisan producers around Scotland. During the Festival the majority of restaurants keep longer hours than are given here, but they are also much busier.
The New Town, itself well over two hundred years old, stands in total contrast to the Old Town: the layout is symmetrical, the streets are broad and straight, and most of the buildings are Neoclassical. Originally intended to be residential, today the New Town is the bustling hub of the city’s professional, commercial and business life, dominated by shops, banks and offices.
The existence of the New Town is chiefly due to the vision of George Drummond, who made schemes for the expansion of the city soon after becoming Lord Provost in 1725. Work began on the draining of the Nor’ Loch below the castle in 1759, a job that took some sixty years. The North Bridge, linking the Old Town with the main road leading to the port of Leith, was built between 1763 and 1772 and, in 1766, following a public competition, a plan for the New Town by 22-year-old architect James Craig was chosen. Its gridiron pattern was perfectly matched to the site: central George Street, flanked by showpiece squares, was laid out along the main ridge, with parallel Princes Street and Queen Street on either side, built up on one side only, so as not to block the spectacular views of the Old Town and Fife.
The layout of the greater New Town is a remarkable grouping of squares, circuses, terraces, crescents and parks along with Charlotte Square and the assemblage of curiosities on and around Calton Hill. However, it also contains assorted Victorian additions, notably the Scott Monument on Princes Street, the Royal Botanic Garden on its northern fringe, as well as two of the city’s most important public collections – the National Gallery of Scotland and, further afield, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
Princes Street Gardens are bisected by the Mound, one of only two direct road links between the Old and New Towns (the other is North Bridge), formed in the 1780s by dumping piles of earth and other waste brought from the New Town’s building plots. At the foot of the mound on the Princes Street level are two grand Neoclassical buildings, the interlinked National Gallery of Scotland and the Royal Scottish Academy. Both were designed by William Henry Playfair (1790–1857), though the exterior of the National Gallery is considerably more austere than its bold Athenian counterpart.
Built as a “temple to the fine arts” in 1850, the National Gallery houses Scotland’s finest array of European and Scottish art from the early 1300s to the late 1800s. Its modest size makes it a manageable place to visit in a couple of hours and affords a pleasantly unrushed atmosphere.
A gallery highlight is a superb painting by Botticelli, The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child which, along with Raphael’s graceful tondo The Holy Family with a Palm Tree, has undergone careful restoration to reveal a striking luminosity and depth of colour. Of the four mythological scenes by Titian, the sensuous Three Ages of Man is one of his most accomplished early compositions. Alongside the Titians, Bassano’s Adoration of the Kings and a dramatic altarpiece, The Deposition of Christ, by Tintoretto, as well as several other works by Veronese, complete the fine Venetian section.
Rubens’ The Feast of Herod is an archetypal example of his sumptuously grand manner. Among the four canvases by Rembrandt are a poignant Self-Portrait Aged 51 and the ripely suggestive Woman in Bed. Christ in the House of Martha and Mary is the largest and probably the earliest of the thirty or so surviving paintings by Vermeer.
Impressionist masters have a strong showing, including a collection of Degas’ sketches, paintings and bronzes, Monet’s Haystacks (Snow) and Renoir’s Woman Nursing Child. Representing the Post-Impressionists are three exceptional works by Gauguin, including Vision After the Sermon, set in Brittany, Van Gogh’s Olive Trees, and Cézanne’s The Big Trees – a clear forerunner of modern abstraction.
Of Sir Henry Raeburn’s large portraits, the swaggering masculinity of Sir John Sinclair in Highland Dress shows the artist’s technical mastery, though he was equally confident when working on a smaller scale, as seen in one of the gallery’s most popular pictures, The Rev Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch. The gallery also owns a brilliant array of watercolours by Turner, faithfully displayed each January when damaging sunlight is at its weakest; at other times two of his fine Roman views are displayed in a dim gallery.
At the far northwestern fringe of the New Town, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art was Britain’s first collection devoted solely to twentieth-century painting and sculpture, and now covers two grand Neoclassical buildings on either side of Belford Road. The extensive wooded grounds serve as a sculpture park, featuring works by Jacob Epstein, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and, most strikingly, Charles Jencks, whose Landform, a swirling mix of ponds and grassy mounds, dominates the area in front of the gallery.
The gallery on the western side of Belford Road, Modern One, divides its display spaces between temporary exhibitions and selections from the gallery’s own holdings; the latter are arranged thematically, but are almost constantly moved around. The collection starts with early twentieth-century Post-Impressionists, then moves through the Fauvists, German Expressionism, Cubism and Pop Art, with works by Lichtenstein and Warhol establishing a connection with the extensive holdings of Eduardo Paolozzi’s work in the Modern Two. There’s a strong section on living British artists, from Gilbert & George to Britart stars, while modern Scottish art ranges from the Colourists to the distinctive styles of contemporary Scots including John Bellany, a portraitist of striking originality, and the poet-artist-gardener Ian Hamilton Finlay.
Modern Two, also known as the Dean Gallery, was refurbished to make room for the huge collection of work of Edinburgh-born sculptor Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, described by some as the father of Pop Art. There’s an awesome introduction to Paolozzi’s work in the form of the huge Vulcan, a half-man, half-machine that squeezes into the Great Hall immediately opposite the main entrance – view it both from ground level and the head-height balcony to appreciate the sheer scale of the piece. In the rooms to the right of the main entrance Paolozzi’s London studio has been expertly re-created, right down to the clutter of half-finished casts, toys and empty pots of glue.
The ground floor also holds a world-renowned collection of Dada and Surrealist art; Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst and Man Ray are all represented. Look out also for Dali’s The Signal of Anguish and Magritte’s Magic Mirror along with work by Miró and Giacometti – all hung on crowded walls with an assortment of artefacts and ethnic souvenirs. Elsewhere, look out for 2009 Turner Prize winner Richard Wright’s major wall-painting The Stairwell Project, his most complex and ambitious work to date in Britain.
In addition to the contemporary art collections in the city’s National Galleries there are a number of smaller, independent galleries around the city.
Tends to focus on young local artists, and doesn’t flinch from showing experimental modern work. Tues–Sun 11am–5pm.
A highly respected studio and gallery dedicated to contemporary printmaking. Tues–Sat 10am–6pm.
The stylish modern design of this dynamic and much-admired art space is the capital’s first port of call for top-grade international artists. Mon–Sat 11am–6pm, Sun noon–5pm.
Ingleby’s reputation for ambitious projects and innovative artists makes it one of the nation’s foremost small private art galleries, often featuring Scotland’s premier stars such as Alison Watt, Kenny Hunter and Callum Innes. Mon–Sat 10am–6pm, plus Sun noon–5pm in Aug.
One of the city’s best commercial galleries, regularly featuring shows by Scotland’s top contemporary artists.
The longest established of a number of small galleries on this New Town street; some of the most striking works are in the basement area, dedicated to applied art. Mon–Fri 10am–6pm, Sat 10am–4pm.
Inevitably, Edinburgh’s nightlife is at its best during the Festival, which can make the other 49 weeks of the year seem like an anticlimax. However, at any time the city has plenty to offer, especially in the realm of theatre and music. The best way to find out what’s on is to pick up a copy of The List, a fortnightly listings magazine covering both Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Princes Street, one of Britain’s most famous shopping streets, is all but dominated by standard chain outlets, though no serious shopper should miss out on a visit to Edinburgh’s venerable department store, Jenners, opposite the Scott Monument. More fashionable upmarket shops are to be found on and around parallel George Street, including a street (Multrees Walk) of exclusive international fashion boutiques on the east side of St Andrew Square. There’s nothing compelling about central Edinburgh’s two big shopping malls, Princes Mall and the St James Centre, which are dominated by the big names.
For more original outlets, head for Victoria Street and the Grassmarket where you’ll find an eclectic range of antique, crafts, food and book shops. Along and around the Royal Mile, meanwhile, several distinctly offbeat places sit among the tacky souvenir sellers. Edinburgh’s only regular market is its impressive farmers’ market, on Castle Terrace, immediately west of the castle, which draws around 35 local produce stalls from south and east Scotland.
This page contains affiliate links. All recommendations are editorially independent.
For all its appeal as a historic and attractive capital city, Edinburgh is perhaps best known for its incredible annual Festival, which takes place every August and transforms the place into an overwhelming mass of cultural activity. To even attempt to get a handle on what’s going on, it’s worth appreciating that the “Edinburgh Festival” is an umbrella term that encompasses several different festivals. The principal events are the Edinburgh International Festival and the much larger Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but there are also Book, Jazz and Blues and Art festivals going on, as well as a Military Tattoo on the Castle Esplanade.
The sheer volume of the Festival’s output can be bewildering: virtually every branch of arts and entertainment is represented, and world-famous stars mix with pub singers in the daily line-up. It can be a struggle to find accommodation, get hold of the tickets you want, book a table in a restaurant or simply get from one side of town to another; you can end up seeing something truly dire, or something mind-blowing; you’ll inevitably try to do too much, stay out too late or spend too much – but then again, most Festival veterans will tell you that if you don’t experience these things then you haven’t really “done” the Festival.
Dates, venues, names, star acts, happening bars and burning issues change from one year to the next. This unpredictability is one of the Festival’s greatest charms, so be prepared for – indeed, enjoy – the unexpected.
The Edinburgh International Festival, or the “Official Festival”, was the original Edinburgh Festival, conceived in 1947 as a celebration of pan-European culture in the postwar era. Initially dominated by opera, other elements such as top-grade theatre, ballet, dance and classical music now carry as much weight, and it’s still a highbrow event, its high production values and serious approach offering an antidote to the Fringe’s slapdash vigour.
Performances take place at the city’s larger venues such as the Usher Hall and the Festival Theatre and, while ticket prices run to over £60, it is possible to see shows for £10 or less if you’re prepared to queue for the handful of tickets kept back until the day. The festival culminates in a Fireworks Concert beside the castle, visible from various points in the city.
Even standing alone from its sister festivals, the Fringe is easily the world’s largest arts gathering. Each year sees more than 40,000 performances from more than 750 companies, with more than 21,000 participants from all over the world. There are something in the region of 1500 shows every day, round the clock, in 250 venues around the city. Much more than any other part of the Festival, it’s the dynamism, spontaneity and sheer exuberance of the Fringe that dominate Edinburgh every August.
These days, the most prominent aspect of the Fringe is comedy, but you’ll also find a wide range of theatre, musicals, dance, children’s shows, exhibitions, lectures and music – and a decent range of free shows.
While the Fringe is famous for its tiny and unexpected auditoriums, five Fringe giants colonize clusters of different-sized spaces for the duration of the Festival. These are all safe bets for decent shows and a bit of star-spotting. And while it’s nothing like as large as the venues reviewed here, you shouldn’t ignore the programme put on at the Traverse Theatre. Long a champion of new drama, the “Trav” combines the avant-garde with professional presentation and its plays are generally among the Fringe’s most acclaimed.
Long based in George Street’s Assembly Rooms, Assembly has been on the move in recent years with its impressive line-up of top-of-the-range drama and big-name music and comedy acts.
The most varied programme of the big five, occasionally staging controversial productions that other venues might be too wary to promote.
The comedy-focused Gilded Balloon bases its operations in a students’ union, the gothic Teviot Row.
A slightly raucous atmosphere, thanks to its busy courtyard bar, with offbeat comedy and whimsical appearances by panellists on Radio 4 game shows. They organize events at a variety of external venues, too.
Operates eleven comedy and cabaret spaces, including the giant, inflatable upside-down cow, “the Underbelly”, on Bristo Square.
A relative newcomer on the scene, held throughout August and including high-profile exhibitions by internationally renowned contemporary artists as well as retrospectives of work by pioneering twentieth-century artists. Virtually every art gallery in the city participates, from small private concerns to blockbuster shows at the National Galleries of Scotland’s five venues.
Taking place in the last two weeks of August, this is the world’s largest celebration of the written word. It’s held in a tented village in Charlotte Square and offers talks, readings and signings by a star-studded line-up of visiting authors, as well as panel discussions and workshops.
Immediately prior to the Fringe in the first week in August, easing the city into the festival spirit. Highlights include nightly jam sessions and a colourful New Orleans-style Mardi Gras and street parade.
Staged in the spectacular stadium of the Edinburgh Castle Esplanade, the Tattoo is an unashamed display of pomp and military pride. The programme of choreographed drills, massed pipe bands, historical tableaux, energetic battle re-enactments, national dancing and pyrotechnics has been a feature of the Festival for over half a century, its emotional climax provided by a lone piper on the Castle battlements. Followed by a quick fireworks display, it’s a successful formula barely tampered with over the years. Tickets (£16–50) should be booked well in advance.
Edinburgh hosts one of the worlds’ landmark New Year’s Eve street parties, with around 100,000 people on the streets of the city seeing out the old year. For the street party, stages are set up in different parts of the city centre, with big-name rock groups and local ceilidh bands playing to the increasingly inebriated masses. The high point of the evening is, of course, midnight, when hundreds of tons of fireworks are let off into the night sky above the castle, and Edinburgh joins the rest of the world singing “Auld Lang Syne”, an old Scottish tune with lyrics by Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet.
When hardline Scottish Protestant clerics in the sixteenth century abolished Christmas for being a Catholic mass, the Scots, not wanting to miss out on a mid-winter knees-up, instead put their energy into greeting the New Year, or Hogmanay. Houses were cleaned from top to bottom, debts were paid and quarrels made up, and, after the bells of midnight were rung, great store was laid by welcoming good luck into your house. This still takes the form of the tradition of “first-footing” – visiting your neighbours and bearing gifts. The ideal first-foot is a tall dark-haired male carrying a bottle of whisky; women or redheads, on the other hand, bring bad luck – though, to be honest, no one carrying a bottle of whisky tends to be turned away these days, whatever the colour of their hair. All this neighbourly greeting means a fair bit of partying, and no one is expected to go to work the next day, or, indeed, the day after that. Even today, January 1 is a public holiday in the rest of the UK, but only in Scotland does the holiday extend to the next day too.