If you’ve decided to book a weekend trip to Edinburgh, you’re in for a treat. Scotland’s capital city is a great place to explore with a few friends or on your own. It’s relatively small and walkable, and very easy to navigate. Once you’ve arrived, the charm of the city will make you want to stay forever. Scotland has it all: history, natural beauty, great nightlife and a culture that will make you want to actually be Scottish. It holds on tightly to its history, which you’ll find in Old Town, but is incredibly posh too (check out Princes Street for TopShop and other European favorites). Here are eight things to do that you cannot miss.
1. Edinburgh Castle
You literally cannot miss this famous site (shown above.) I had just arrived and was a bit frazzled when I asked someone where the castle was and their answer was, “Look up.” Built on top of a dormant volcano, Edinburgh Castle will make history buffs go crazy. It was both a military stronghold and royal palace until the 1600s when it became strictly military barracks; this castle was key in many wars, including the Wars of Scottish Independence (Braveheart fans, go wild!). The castle was even used as a P.O.W. prison during both World Wars, but is now just a tourist site for visitors to explore. The coolest time to visit is during The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo in August when the city erupts in Scottish pride.
2. Royal Mile
This street, which connects The Palace of Holyroodhouse (Queen Elizabeth II’s royal palace in Scotland) and Edinburgh Castle, will make you believe that you’ve actually stepped into history. There are small alleyways to explore and wool as far as the eye can see with scarves, sweaters, gloves, purses (which makes a great gift for your family)! The Royal Mile is cobblestone and lined with small cafes and pubs with names like Ensign Ewart and The Royal McGregor. I spent an entire day walking up and down the street, in and out of shops and buying souvenirs. This street is iconic, historic Scotland, which is why it is the most tourist-dense in Edinburgh, but very well worth it!
3. Arthur’s Seat
It’s not everyday that you get to climb a dormant volcano… except if you’re in Edinburgh! The highest peak in Edinburgh, while not a terribly arduous climb (only about 800 feet above sea level), will provide incredible views of the city and the North Sea. While atop Arthur’s Seat, you’ll be mesmerized by the stunning views and you’ll be tempted to stay and watch the sun set and the city light up. Take note, if you do this, you will then have to climb down a dormant volcano at night, which can be difficult… not that I know this from experience. Arthur’s Seat is a great hike for people of all ages and capabilities. While exploring the streets of Edinburgh is cool, sitting atop the city is amazing.
4. Scotch Whisky Experience
Before coming to Scotland, I had no interest in Scotch whisky. Once I arrived, I felt compelled to indulge in a glass… but what kind? Smoky? Spicy? The Scotch Whisky Experience is a fun and educational experience for visitors to learn about one of the United Kingdom’s most important exports and even taste a few different kinds of Scotch. The tour, which includes an amusement-like “barrel ride” through the distilling process, is also a great rainy day activity (Scotland has a lot of those). You’ll leave there with a Scotch Whisky Experience glass and a lot of information about the drink. Plus, it would be crazy to be in Scotland and not have a glass of scotch.
5. A ghost tour
Edinburgh is a charming city from the ground up; down below the city, however, is not as charming (unless you’re into the after-life). There are tons of ghost tours that will take you around Edinburgh, but make sure you pick one that will bring you into the depths of the city- literally! The Edinburgh Vaults are underground chambers that, for a few decades in the 1700s, held small businesses and pubs, and also served as storage. When the vaults started to deteriorate, the businesses fled and the homeless and outcasts (Criminals! Witches!) moved in. Now they are a hub of paranormal activity and ghost tours take visitors into some of the chambers. If you’re interested in history and spookiness, you have to go on a ghost tour- and they’re pretty cheap, even for a college student!
6. The Elephant House
Harry Potter fans cannot miss this cafe where J.K. Rowling wrote much of the earlier novels in the famous series. The Elephant House, while a great place to grab a cup of tea and dessert, attracts Potter fans from around the world. Readers pour out their love to J.K. Rowling on the walls of the cafe; some have written their favorite quotes and others have written about what the books mean to them. Whether or not you add to the graffiti walls, you’ll see that the cafe has become a Harry Potter tribute.
If you’re lucky enough to be staying in Scotland for a few days and want to get outside of the city, there are plenty of day trips to take. Scotland’s countryside is nothing short of breathtaking. Here are two suggestions if you have a day to spare.
7. Scottish Highlands and Loch Ness
If you’re trying to get the full Scotland experience, you cannot leave the country without searching for Nessie the Loch Ness Monster. Get on board a one day tour bus and see the famed Loch Ness– and definitely take a short boat cruise in Nessie’s territory! The surrounding Scottish Highlands are a mountainous region and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a place quite as green and beautiful. A day trip outside of the city is well worth the time and money. On most day trips you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of ancient Scottish castles and even a National Park along the way.
8. St. Andrew’s and Fife
St. Andrew’s is home to the famous university that William and Kate studied and fell in love at. That might be reason enough for you to visit, but if you’re still not convinced, medieval St. Andrew’s is home to some of the most well-known golf courses in the world and has some beautiful museums and castles that you can explore. On a one day tour of this area, you’ll also see the fishing villages of The Kingdom of Fife, which are quaint and adorable. A tour of St. Andrew’s and Fife will be a perfect escape from Edinburgh if you’re looking for a day outside of the capital city.
Edinburgh is one of the most charming cities in the United Kingdom. In more than one pub, I chatted with the friendly locals about how much pride they have in their country. In Edinburgh, you won’t be able to escape the country’s history, as it is literally all around you. The best part about this city is that you can walk its entirety and really take in Scotland’s capital. By the time your weekend in Edinburgh is up, you will not want to leave.
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