Ah, Europe! The gorgeous scenery, the stunning architecture, the interesting history, and the wonderful food. There are so many reasons to consider a vacation “across the pond,” even if it’s going to be a little while before you can go. When the dust settles, and overseas travel is possible again, one destination that should be on your list is Scotland, and specifically Edinburgh, Scotland’s second largest city.
Scotland is a constituent country of the United Kingdom which, along with England and Wales, makes up what is known as Great Britain. Bordered on the south by England, it also boasts almost 800 small islands, including some you may have heard of, such as Shetland, Orkney, Arran, and Skye. It is easy to reach from other parts of Europe, Ireland, and the United States. Its recorded history goes all the way back to the Romans, who attempted to conquer it but eventually gave up.
Tourists who visit Scotland usually fly in to either Glasgow or Edinburgh, depending on what their itinerary looks like. And even though there is a wealth of areas to explore, with a country steeped in Celtic and Norse history, sometimes a traveler only has a short time to take in as much of the place as possible. If you find yourself in Edinburgh (pronounced eh-din-bur-ah or eh-din-bruh), here are 10 things you’ll want to do to get the most out of your visit.
The best way to see a lot within a few days is to traverse the Royal Mile. The Royal Mile is Edinburgh’s most famous street, really several streets, which form the main drag through the Old Town. If you start at Edinburgh Castle and walk the entire length, you will end up at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, a journey that you can take at a fast pace or a leisurely one. However fast you stroll, here are the nine best sights and sounds to enjoy along the way, plus one day-long adventure into the highlands that will whet your appetite for a longer visit to Scotland.
1. Edinburgh Castle
At the far western end of the Royal Mile, you will not be able to miss this castle. It sits high on Castle Hill, overlooking the city since Medieval times when in 1314 the Scots took it back from England during a raid led by the nephew of Robert the Bruce. There are many rooms, cannons, chapels, and even a dog cemetery to view, so plan on spending quite a bit of time here. There are wonderful guides that you can join for a walk around with commentary about what you are seeing.
On the outside, after gazing out at the city below and seeing the place where the palace dogs were laid to rest, check out the cannons. Mons Meg is a cannon from the Iron Age that sits facing the Royal Mile and at one time was capable of firing a shot a distance of two miles. There are other cannons along the roof area, and if you are there at one o’clock, you may have the distinct pleasure of hearing the One o’Clock Gun. The gun dates back to 1861 and was originally fired to mark the time for sailors in the Firth of Forth. The blast could be heard two miles away at Leith Harbor, and was continued as a tradition even after the gun was no longer needed to check the time.
Next visit St. Margaret’s Chapel. After admiring the large cannons, step inside the tiny chapel dedicated to Queen Margaret, who died in 1093. Her son, King David, built the chapel to honor her in 1130, and it remains Edinburgh’s oldest building. Another room to visit is the Great Hall, which houses suits of armor and weapons of many kinds around a vast room anchored by a massive stone fireplace. Gawk at the “Honors of Scotland”, also known as the crown jewels. For a bit of humility after all the splendor head downstairs to see the quarters where the prisoners of war were kept.
2. Shops and Pubs
After several hours immersed in magnificent castle history, it’s time to continue your walk down the Royal Mile. If you go in high season there will be plenty of other tourists to keep you company, and as you meander along you will see street performers and bagpipe players practicing their crafts. If you are parched or hungry by now, check out one of the small alleys on either side of the main street. If you see one, called a close, and follow it, you are sure to find a pub or a local eatery that will slake your hunger and thirst. If you would rather buy souvenirs, there are oodles of shops willing to sell you beautiful cashmere, your family tartan in various forms, or Christmas ornaments to commemorate your trip.
3. St. Giles Cathedral
A little over halfway down the Mile, you can’t miss this beautiful Gothic style church. Despite its name, it’s not really a cathedral since there is no bishop present. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful and well-loved church that you can visit for free or for a small donation. If you would like to take photos inside there is a small fee to do so. Take a few pictures of the spectacular stained-glass windows, visit the small side chapels, and pause from the hustle and bustle of the busy street outside.
4. Holyrood Palace
At the end of the road you will see in front of you the Palace at Holyroodhouse, the official residence of the Queen when she is in Scotland. You may book tickets in advance to see such areas as the State Apartments and the chambers of Mary, Queen of Scots. Outlander fans can visit the Great Gallery, where Bonnie Prince Charlie held court in 1745 before leaving for the Battle of Culloden. The throne room, the Abbey, and the gardens could keep you busy for several more hours.
5. Arthur’s Seat
If you’ve had enough of gawking at Holyrood Palace, why not get back out and stretch your legs? Just next door to the palace grounds is an extinct volcano that rises over the city of Edinburgh, and you can climb up to the top for views of the Royal Mile from above. The volcano is part of the 640-acre Royal Park, which also contains a hill fort dating back 2000 years, some 150-foot cliff faces known as Salisbury Crags, and even a lake. From the top you can also look down on the ultra-modern parliament building below and admire the juxtaposition of ancient and new. www.visitscotland.com
6. Parliament Building
Since you’ve been gazing at the building from the top of Arthur’s Seat, why not go in for a tour? The tours are not conducted daily or when parliament is actually in session, but when you are allowed to tour you will be impressed. The building was conceived in 1998 with a competition to find the best architect, and since its opening in October 2004 it has won nine major architectural awards. Her Majesty the Queen was there for the opening and declared the building to be “a landmark for 21st century democracy”. There is excellent accessibility, and you will be wowed by the beautiful natural light flooding into the main spaces. You can even stand on the parliament floor where the minister himself does when in session.
7. Scottish Storytelling Centre
Who doesn’t love a good story? You’re in luck in Edinburgh because you can visit the Scottish Storytelling Centre, celebrating its 10th year on the Royal Mile. Go there to enjoy live storytelling, theater, dance, and music, plus various workshops and exhibitions that change throughout the year.
While there, visit John Knox house, the oldest Medieval building on the Royal Mile. Browse the bookshop and find the perfect keepsake for home, while trying to find the time capsule hidden among the books. This center is also the home base for the International Scottish Storytelling Festival, held in October every year and a popular yearly festival in Edinburgh (this year it will be held virtually due to coronavirus). www.scottishstorytellingcentre.com
8. Camera Obscura and World of Illusions
This long-time favorite venue has something for everyone in the family to enjoy. Beginning in 1853 by Maria Short, the building was originally home to the newest spectacular invention: the telescope. It was called Short’s Observatory then; now home to five floors of interactive exhibits and over 100 hands-on activities.
Start at the rooftop terrace for the best views of Edinburgh, then make your way through the Magic Gallery, Light Fantastic illusions, mirror maze, and of course the camera obscura room itself. Your family could spend several hours here and not get bored. www.camera-obscura.co.uk
9. The Scotch Whiskey Experience
Opened to the public in 1988, this venue’s mission is to showcase Scotch whiskey to as many people as possible. It’s not an actual distillery, but an interactive experience open seven days a week. You can book your ticket online in advance for various levels of tours. These include everything from a three hour “Taste of Scotland” in their restaurant to the one hour “Silver” tour, which is short and to the point but still ends with a tasting. You may also wish to visit the coffee shop, dine at Amber Restaurant, and cap your tour off with a stop in the Scotch Whiskey Shop for appropriate mementos of this unique experience.
You can see that there is enough in Edinburgh to keep you busy. After seeing so many sights in the city, you may have a desire to get out and see a bit of the countryside. The Scottish Highlands offers some of Europe’s most beautiful scenery, are rich with history and tradition, and are home to one of the most famous legends: everyone’s favorite “monster.” www.scotchwhiskeyexperience.co.uk
10. Loch Ness and the Highlands
There are many tour companies that will escort you from Edinburgh to the Highlands for a day long excursion to experience the natural side of Scotland. One route is to leave Edinburgh and head north through the picturesque area of Rannoch Moor. This drive takes you through Glencoe, where you can visit Fort William and try to stand upright in the fierce winds from the mountains. You will also see Ben Nevis, the highest peak in Scotland at 4413 feet above sea level. You’ll keep winding your way north, then come upon Fort Augustus, one point along the famous loch.
Get in line with the other tourists to join a boat tour and hunt for Nessie, one of Scotland’s most famous residents. The lake is beautiful, and much larger than you may have imagined, spanning 22.5 miles from just south of Inverness to Fort Augustus.
Even in summer, bring a jacket, hat, and scarf to protect you from the biting wind that gusts from the lake. After your lake tour, and perhaps a stroll through the village, take the faster way back to Edinburgh on the main highway. You’ll pass through the charming town of Pitlochry, where you can stop for a bit of shopping and a snack. Your entrance into the city will be across the famous Forth Bridge, a cantilevered marvel of engineering opened in 1890 and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Obviously there is much more to experience in a country as rich in history as Scotland. But sometimes you only have a short time, and if that is the case, it is always best to make the most of it.
With these stops you get to experience some of the best the city of Edinburgh has to offer, and then have a taste of why so many people are enamored with the Scottish Highlands. It is an appetizer to be sure, and a surefire way to make you want to plan a return trip, maybe to St. Andrew’s for golf, or to Glasgow, or one of the many islands. Wherever you end up in Scotland, you are sure to enjoy yourself.
Last Updated on August 31, 2020