From going underground in the Old Town to climbing the Forth Bridge, there’s plenty to do in the Scottish capital
The Scottish capital has a cornucopia of attractions split between the medieval Old Town and Georgian New Town. Here’s 10 of them to discover.
Edinburgh is a traveller’s dream with its royal palace, brooding castle, tangle of cobbled streets, graceful Georgian crescents and bosky parks. Schlep to the top of Arthur’s Seat for wide-angled views of the Pentland Hills and over the Firth of Forth to the Kingdom of Fife, explore the regenerated docklands of Leith or just mooch around the Saturday farmers’ market in the shadow of the castle.
1. Go underground at the Real Mary King’s Close
Many of Edinburgh's medieval tenements were demolished, others bricked over and forgotten. The Real Mary King’s Close is one that was rediscovered, an underground warren of dimly lit alleyways beneath the Old Town. A lively tour led by guides in period garb and character brings 17th-century Edinburgh back to life. This is where the city's inhabitants once lived and worked until they were able to flee the cramped and festering conditions for the wide streets and leafier living of the Georgian New Town.
2. Take a tour of the Scottish Parliament
The Royal Mile is topped and tailed by historic big-hitters – the castle and the Palace of Holyrood House – but at the bottom of Arthur’s Seat you also have a nod to modernity with the striking Scottish Parliament Building, which opened in 2004. It was designed by Spanish architect Enric Miralles and sparked controversy at the time, but from its façade to its debating chamber there's no denying its architectural ‘wow’ factor. To learn more you can take a free one-hour guided tour.
3. Wander around a sculpture park at Jupiter Artland
On the edge of the city near the airport is a private art gallery and sculpture park, Jupiter Artland, in the grounds of Jacobean manor, Bonnington House. The landscape and woodland is peppered with works by the likes of Andy Goldsworthy, Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor. One of the most notable is Charles Jencks’ dramatic installation Cells of Life, a series of eight spiralling earthworks swirling around four lakes.
4. Sample a dram at the Scotch Whisky Experience
The Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre is in the shadow of the castle at the top of the Royal Mile. Hop into a whisky barrel for a fun-fair style ride through the story of whisky production. Then, surrounded by floodlit cabinets housing the world's largest whisky collection, you'll learn about the different characteristics of Speyside, Lowland and Islay malts, and sample a dram. Emerging into the bar with its panoramic view of Edinburgh's skyline, you can take a pew and sample a few more...
5. Walk along the Water of Leith
The Water of Leith is a small river that tumbles from the Pentland Hills, snaking through the capital until it emerges at the revamped docklands of Leith. There's a 12-mile wooded trail that hugs its banks. You can dip in and out, following the signposted trail and passing attractions along the way, such as the home of Scottish rugby, Murrayfield stadium, picture-postcard Dean Village, the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art and Warriston Cemetery, now a nature reserve with its moss-cloaked war graves and Gothic arches.
6. Picnic in the Royal Botanic Garden
The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is a peaceful 70-acre haven with a state-of-the-art visitor centre, magnificent Victorian glasshouses and temporary art exhibitions in an 18th-century mansion, Inverleith House. Founded as a Physic garden in the 17th century, highlights include the Chinese Hillside and the rock garden with around 5,000 plants. The striking visitor centre, a vision of wood-cladding, has a café spilling out onto a decking area, but you can also while away an hour or two with a picnic beneath the towering trees.
7. Climb the Forth Bridge
The new Queensferry Crossing brings Edinburgh's tally of bridges over the Forth to three. But only one is a Unesco World Heritage Site. The Forth Rail Bridge, a feat of Victorian engineering, was built in 1890 and soars over the estuary to Fife. There are plans afoot to create a walkway that will take small groups up to the top of the bridge. Until then a boat tour from South Queensferry is your best option, sailing under the bridges to Inchcolm Island and its abbey.
8. Journey to the centre of the earth at Dynamic Earth
Edinburgh doesn't do Disney, but this family-friendly attraction at the foot of Arthur's Seat takes visitors on an interactive journey through the evolution of the planet – from the Big Bang, via a tropical rainforest where torrential downpours bucket onto a recreated landscape, to a simulated volcano. In the Polar Extremes gallery temperatures drop, a film simulation takes you flying over glaciers and you can even touch a real iceberg.
9. Head to the beach at Portobello
The Scottish capital is just a pebble's throw from the coast, and the city's town beach is at Portobello. During the 19th century it was a fashionable seaside resort, while in the 1950s local lad Sean Connery worked as a lifeguard at Portobello Baths. Today, the Victorian pool with its Turkish baths on the promenade has been refurbished, while the wide sandy beach is popular with sun-worshippers, swimmers and walkers wandering with fish and chips and ice creams along the shore.
10. Make your own tipple at Edinburgh Gin Distillery
Underneath the city's pavements at the western end of the main shopping drag, Princes Street, is a subterranean gin distillery. You can sign up for a tour, a tutored tasting or a half-day gin-making course, learning about the history of gin and the distilling process before you're let loose with the botanicals and aromatics. Under the watchful eye of the head distiller you'll create your own gin recipe and personalised spirit in the mini copper stills.