If Scotland is on your bucket list of places to go where COVID-19 restrictions will be lifted, Edinburgh is the city to start with.
Steep in history and traditions, Edinburgh will give you an extraordinary glimpse of the whole country of Scotland. A good refresh of history and literature is indeed granted to each one of its visitors along with a great lesson on Scottish national pride.
Besides, if you are a Happy Potter fan, have a blast trying to identify the numerous references made and inspirations taken by J.K. Rowling when drawing up her world-famous series of books.
So, buckle up and let us start our tour with any ados! But first, as usual, let us answer some frequently asked questions about the city of Edinburgh.
Disclaimer: for the sake of exhaustiveness, I, once again, decided to split this “Edinburgh in 2 amazing days” into two pieces. Click here for the second part of this article.
What is the best time to visit Edinburgh?
With average high temperatures of 18°C/65°F, the months of June through August are perfect for visiting Edinburgh. That is, however, the busiest tourism season in the region, particularly in August, when the calendar is jam-packed with festivals. Except for Hogmanay, the city’s New Year’s festival, you will have to bundle up to avoid spending a small fortune: winter (November to March) offers the best low-season discounts. Spring and early fall are the best times to visit because the weather is milder and there are fewer crowds, making it easier to find hotel and airfare offers.
What is a typical breakfast in Scotland?
Some of the essential ingredients for a typical Scottish meal include square Lorne sausage, link sausages, fried egg, streaky bacon, baked beans, black pudding and/or haggis, tattie scones, fried tomatoes and mushrooms, and toast. All served with a steaming cup of Scottish tea.
What is Scotland's national drink?
Scotland’s national drink and most famous export all over the world is whisky.
Also known as “Scotch“, it has a long history in Scotland, going back to the 11th century, and it is a crucial part of Scottish culture.
Like the drink itself, the history of whisky production in Scotland is fascinating and complex. Without grapes, monks used grain mash to produce an early version of the common spirit, thought to have started in Scotland as winemaking techniques spread from European monasteries. The name comes from the Gaelic word “uisge beatha“, which means “water of life“. However, the first known instance dates from 1494, when King Henry VII gave Friar John Cor of Lindores Abbey in Fife the commission to create Aqua Vitae, Latin for “water of life“.
There are over 130 active distilleries spread across Scotland’s five whisky regions, many of which offer fascinating tours, so there are plenty of whiskies to try responsibly and plenty of ways to learn how they are made.
Irn Bru, pronounced as “iron brew”, is an orange carbonated soda and Scotland’s other national drink.
What is Scotland’s national dish?
Haggis is a flavorful pudding made of sheep meat, oatmeal, onions, salt, and spices and Scotland’s national dish. Traditionally cooked in the stomach of a sheep (a traditional way of preserving meat), nowadays most haggis is sold and cooked in a plastic sausage casing.
Haggis takes centre stage during Burns Night when Scotland and the rest of the world honour one of the greatest writers ever, Robert Burns, Scotland’s National Bard. Burns, too, was a fan of the national dish, dedicating an entire poem to the “great chieftain of the puddin’ race” in 1787. Haggis, neeps, and tatties are still staples of every Burns Supper today.
Every year on Robert Burns’s birthday, January 25, Burns Night brings Scots from all over the world together to celebrate the life and works of this great poet, as well as Scottish culture.
What food is Edinburgh famous for?
Scotch Broth or Hotch-Potch
Mutton (lamb), beef, marrow bone, pearl barley, and an array of vegetables such as leeks, onions, carrots, and peas are used to make Scotch broth. The soup was traditionally served on New Year’s Day and cold winter days. The meat was separated and eaten separately back then, but today Scotch broth is cooked as a one-pot meal.
Lorne sausage is a traditional Scottish sausage made of ground beef, rusk, and spices like nutmeg, cilantro, and ground black pepper. The mixture is tightly packed in a rectangular tin and left to set in the refrigerator, but it is not a sausage. It is then cut into square parts and fried or grilled before being used in sandwiches or as part of the Scottish version of a full breakfast.
Cock-a-leekie, also known as Scotland’s National Soup, is a soup that dates back to the 16th century. The dish was most likely served as a two-course meal, with the broth coming first and the meat following. It is still common at Burns suppers and St. Andrew’s Day dinners, as well as as a regular winter soup.
This savoury biscuit is similar in thickness to a scone and is made from barley and oat flour. It is usually prepared on a griddle. Today it is a popular cheese accompaniment.
Scotch pies are small double-crust round pies (about 10cm/4inches in diameter), baked without a tin, usually filled with minced mutton meat or other meat, and served hot or cold.
Neeps and Tatties
Turnips that have been boiled and mashed are known as neeps. The tatties, on the other hand, are potatoes that have been boiled and mashed. They traditionally complement haggis, particularly in a Burns supper, and are usually seasoned simply with salt and white pepper, though some can add a dash of nutmeg as well.
Cranachan is a traditional Scottish cream cheese dessert that blends layers of fresh Scottish raspberries, honey, and freshly whipped cream with toasted oats soaked in Scotch whisky.
It is a sweet pudding made with flour, breadcrumbs, dried fruit such as sultanas and currants, suet, sugar and spices, a little milk to bind it all together, and occasionally golden syrup. Clooties are traditionally eaten with clotted cream and a dram of whisky, but they are also often fried with bacon and eggs for breakfast when served cold, despite their sweetness.
It was originally made for special occasions such as holidays, birthdays, and the Scottish winter solstice festivities known as the Daft Days. A coin symbolizing money, a ring symbolizing marriage, a button representing bachelorhood, a thimble symbolizing spinsterhood, a wishbone embodying the heart’s desire, or a horseshoe symbolizing good luck were all commonly concealed in the dough of these special-occasion dumplings.
This is a traditional Scottish biscuit made with flour, a lot of butter, and plenty of sugar. It comes in an array of sizes and shapes and is the ideal complement to a cup of tea.
Shortbread from Scotland was once very pricey and only served on special occasions such as weddings, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve.
Sugar, condensed milk, and butter are cooked together until crystallized to make the tablet. It is a centuries-old Scottish confection similar to fudge but with a crumblier texture and often flavoured with whisky.
Raisins, currants, citrus peel, almonds, brown sugar, allspice, cinnamon, black pepper, and ginger are used in this fruit cake. The name comes from the fact that it is a dark-coloured cake.
This festive, pastry-wrapped fruitcake, also known as the Scotch bun or even Scotch Christmas Bun, is still eaten at Hogmanay and is an absolute Scottish institution. It was first made in the 16th century after Mary, Queen of Scots returned from France, and it is traditionally prepared for the Christian celebration of Twelfth Night, a practice that ended with the Scottish Reformation.
Porridge is an elemental and healthy breakfast cereal made with milk or water, boiled oatmeal, sugar, and salt. It is usually served hot and with a dash of bourbon.
Tunnock’s Tea Cakes
A biscuit base and a broad ball of soft marshmallow coated in chocolate make up the Tunnock’s teacake.
The tipsy laird (also known as “Scottish trifle”) is a layered dessert served to end a Burns supper, Christmas, or New Year’s celebration. Pound cake, custard, whipped cream, Scottish raspberries, raspberry jam, toasted almond flakes, and Scotch whisky make up this dessert.
Scone is a simple bread formed into squares, diamonds, and triangles before being baked in the oven. While scones were traditionally griddle-baked and made with oats, today they are made with wheat flour, baking powder or soda, butter, milk, sugar, and eggs.
They can be savoury or sweet, eaten for breakfast or with tea in the afternoon. They say Scones originated in Scotland in the early 1500s, with the name scones coming from the Stone of Destiny, where the Kings of Scotland were once crowned.
In support of this theory, the fact that the first known print reference to scones appeared in the poems of a Scottish poet in 1513. Most scones these days are plain, relying on jam, lemon curd, or honey for flavour, but there are some decadent variations with cranberries, nuts, chocolate pieces, and dates.
What is Edinburgh known for?
Edinburgh is famous for:
- Its castle, situated on the top of volcanic rock, known as Castle Rock;
- Its whisky called Scotch;
- Its bagpipers performing in the street and wearing kilts;
- Being the place where J.K.Rowling wrote her Harry Potter book series.
What to see in Edinburgh in 2 days?
As usual, I recommend having a hop-on-hop-off tour to get a better understanding of the city layout and the distance between the places you want to visit.
If you want to save some money, I also recommend buying the Royal Edinburgh Pass, as we did, for 2 days for 57£/ 66€/ 78$. It includes three different hop-on-hop-off bus tours.
First thing in the morning, we checked out where the closest to our hotel Caffe Nero was, and we had an incredibly delicious breakfast with an enchanting view over Edinburgh Castle. And so the first day started.
We then decided to start our tour visiting the Old Town, the medieval and post-reformation part of the city that, that, together with the 18th/19th-century New Town, forms part of a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We began the visit to the Old Town with the most important landmark of the city and the whole of Scotland: Edinburgh Castle.
1. Edinburgh Castle
Scotland’s most famous landmark, Edinburgh Castle is one of Britain’s most visited tourist attractions, and one of the oldest castles in the UK.
From its strategic position on top of Castle Rock, a rock created by millennia of glacial erosion, the Castle towers over the area.
While the origin of the early settlement is unknown, archaeologists have confirmed human occupation of the rock since at least the Iron Age. Since at least the reign of David I in the 12th century, there has been a royal castle on the rock, and the site was used as a royal residence until 1633. The castle’s residential role began to fade in the 15th century, and by the 17th century, it was primarily used as a military barracks with a large garrison. From the early 19th century onwards, its significance as a part of Scotland’s national heritage was gradually recognized, and numerous conservation programs have been carried out over the past century and a half.
The famous One O’clock Salute from Half Moon Battery at 1 p.m., the renowned 15th-century siege gun Mons Meg, the impressive Scottish National War Memorial and National War Museum, and the stunning collection of Crown Jewels (the crown, sceptre, and sword of state) housed in the Royal Throne Room are all highlights of the visit.
Admission fee: 15.5£/ 18€/ 21$ (included in the Royal Edinburgh Pass).
From there, exit the Castle esplanade, and continue straight onto Castlehill.
2. The Royal Mile
The streets connecting Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse are known as the Royal Mile. They are almost exactly a mile long, hence the name.
The term was first introduced as the title of a guidebook published in 1920 and was first used descriptively in W. M. Gilbert’s Edinburgh in the Nineteenth Century.
This magnificent thoroughfare, which is lined with quaint townhouses, churches, and historic landmarks, is a perfect place to stroll for its shops (including kiltmakers), inns, museums, cafés, and restaurants.
Only Princes Street in the New Town rivals the Royal Mile as the busiest tourist street in the Old Town.
Walking down the Royal Mile, in the pavement just before St. Giles Cathedral, constructed from coloured granite blocks that form the shape of a heart and cross, you will find the Heart of Midlothian Mosaic.
3. Heart of Midlothian Mosaic
The Heart of Midlothian is a mosaic outside Edinburgh’s St Giles’ Cathedral. It marks the site of the Old Tolbooth’s entrance, which dates from the 15th century and served as a jail and a place of execution before being demolished in 1817.
Although locals would often spit on the heart as a sign of good luck, it was once thought to be performed as a sign of disdain for the executions that took place inside the Old Tolbooth.
If you are not paying attention, the Heart of Midlothian is easy to miss, but locals spitting as they walk by should give it away!
From there, go to St. Gile Cathedral, our next stop.
4. St. Giles Cathedral
St. Giles Cathedral, also known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh, was founded in 1243 and is the main church. It is also one of the most popular tourist destinations, with over a million visitors per year. It is named after Saint Giles, the patron saint of the city and guardian of cripples and lepers.
The present gothic-style building dates from the 1300s and is notable for its 161-foot/49-meter-high central tower with eight arched buttresses. These combine to form a massive crown (the Crown Steeple), which has become a typical picture and selfie backdrop.
Memorials to WWI dead, beautiful stained-glass windows, and a statue of John Knox, the leader of the Protestant Reformation, are among the interior highlights.
The Thistle Chapel, built in the 20th century, is notable for its oak carvings, heraldic emblems, an impressive Rieger organ, and seals of the Scottish oldest knightly order, the “Knights of the Order of Thistle“. It is a fantastic example of modern Gothic architecture.
Besides, the church houses original 15th-century bells, as well as the King’s Pillar, adorned with coats of arms and medieval shields of ancient British kings.
From there, exit the Cathedral, and head to the Real Mary king’s Close, just a couple of meters (140 ft) apart from St. Giles.
5. The Real Mary King's Close
The Real Mary King’s Close is a historic close located under buildings on the Royal Mile.
It was named after a merchant burgess named Mary King who lived on the close in the 17th century. Due to the construction of the Royal Exchange in the 18th century, the close, which consists of many winding and narrow alleyways, was partially demolished and buried and was then closed to the public for several years. The neighbourhood, then, became shrouded in urban legends and myths, with stories of hauntings and murders abounding.
Learn about the fascinating true stories of Edinburgh’s past inhabitants and explore over 400 years of history. There are a multitude of stories waiting to be heard, from the deadly plague outbreak to a famous royal visitor. Travel back in time to discover why the close, which was once open to the sky and busy with trade, became underground.
Admission fee: 18.95£/ 21.9€/ 26$ (not included in the Royal Edinburgh Pass).
From there, continue onto High Street, and turn right onto South Bridge. Your next stop will be on the right side.
6. Edinburgh Vaults
The Edinburgh Vaults are an array of chambers formed by the South Bridge’s 19 arches, which were designed in 1788 to connect High Street with the University of Edinburgh district. Only one of the 19 arches, the “Cowgate arch“, is still visible today, while the other 18 were encased in tenement buildings designed to enable the area to function as a commercial district. The bridge’s secret arches were then given extra floors to enable them to be used for industry. There are approximately 120 rooms or “vaults” underneath the South Bridge’s floor, with sizes ranging from 2 m2 (21 ft2) to 40 m2 (430 ft2).
The vaults were used to house taverns, workshops for cobblers and other tradesmen, and storage space for merchants for around 30 years. They eventually became a hangout for the poor and criminals, with illicit gambling taverns, a whiskey distillery, and, according to legend, bodysnatchers storing corpses overnight.
The businesses left in the 1820s as the conditions in the vaults worsened, essentially due to damp and poor air quality, and the poorest of Edinburgh’s population moved in. The vaults were taken over by slum-dwellers, and they became a well-known red-light district, with numerous brothels and pubs operating within the abandoned complex. The vaults were soon plagued by crimes such as theft and murder.
The complex is thought to have been closed down around 1860. In 1985 toys, medicine bottles, pots, and other signs of human habitation were discovered during an excavation.
The vaults are said to be one of the UK’s most haunted locations and are now predominantly used for ghost tours. Furthermore, they form The Caves and The Rowantree, a venue on the Cowgate arch’s south side that hosts private parties, weddings, private dining, live music, and the occasional club night.
Admission fee: from 16£/ 18.5€/ 22$ (not included in the Royal Edinburgh Pass).
From there, go back to High Street, and continue onto Canongate. Take Horse Wynd at the roundabout, and, then, turn left onto Abbey Strand. You will find our next stop right in front of you.
7. Palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Abbey
The Palace of Holyroodhouse, or simply Holyrood Palace, is the Queen’s official Edinburgh residence and has frequently been at the core of Scottish history.
Holyroodhouse has served as the principal royal residence in Scotland since the 16th century and is now a setting for state occasions and official entertaining. It is located at the bottom of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, opposite Edinburgh Castle.
The stunning Historic Apartments (former home of Mary Queen of Scots), and the State Apartments, famous for their fine furnishings, French and Flemish tapestries, and plasterwork, are open to the public when the Queen is away (typically 51 weeks of the year, as she is only there for “Royal Week” each summer).
Portraits of Scottish kings, both legendary and legitimate, can be found in the Great Gallery. Besides, the Queen’s Gallery, which opened in 2002 to commemorate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, holds rotating exhibits from the Royal Collection.
Next to the mansion, you can find the ruins of the 12th-century Holyrood Abbey, built by King David I as an Augustinian monastery. The roofless nave, Gothic windows, vaulted windows, and Romanesque arcading are all that remain of what was once one of the most opulent structures of Scotland.
Until the 17th century, the abbey church served as a parish church, and it has been ruined since the subsequent century.
The abbey has seen the end of the First War of Scottish Independence, as well as the birth and coronation of kings.
Admission fee: 16.5£/ 19€/ 22$ (included in the Royal Edinburgh Pass).
From there, exit the Palace and just cross the road. You will find the next stop in front of you.
8. Scottish Parliament Building
The fact that Scotland has its council in Edinburgh, apart from the British assembly in Westminster, may surprise you. But it has been like that only since 1997 when the Scots voted to have a devolved parliament and more control over some constitutional decisions.
Thus, work on a Scottish Parliament began in 1999 and was completed in 2004 when Queen Elisabeth II inaugurated the Scottish Parliament Building. Meanwhile, the Scottish Parliament’s committee rooms and debating chamber were housed in the General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland, which is situated on The Mound (an artificial slope connecting New and Old Towns), and office and administrative support were given in buildings rented from the City of Edinburgh Council.
If you like modern architecture, you will be enthralled by the structure, which is a network of interconnected spaces whose shapes and forms are influenced by traditional Scottish elements but come together to produce a futuristic style.
It covers a total area of 31000 m2 (334000 ft2). The roofs, made of steel, oak and granite, are distinctive, resembling upturned vessels on the beach. The design incorporates a significant amount of landscape, with vegetation covering 60% of the urban site.
It was awarded the Stirling Prize by the Royal Institute of British Architects in 2005.
You can go inside the parliament and see the main rooms as well as admire its unique exterior. The debating chamber is a highlight that you can see empty on days when there are no sessions or visits to attend a debate, which takes place on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.
You may also sign up for a free guided tour of the house, which includes both the architecture, the history and work of the assembly visiting their website.
From there, go back to Canongate, and continue onto High Street. Turn left onto South Bridge, then right onto Chambers Street. Finally, turn left onto George IV Bridge, and you will find Greyfriars Bobby and right behind him the entrance of the Greyfriars Church.
9. Greyfriars Kirkyard and Greyfriars Bobby
The city’s oldest graveyard, Greyfriars Kirkyard, is the final resting place of many notable Scots, including poet Allan Ramsay.
From the time of its construction, during Mary Queen of Scots’ reign, over 100,000 people have been buried there. However, Greyfriars Bobby is perhaps the most well-known name associated with the church. It was a Skye terrier that faithfully accompanied its owner, John Gray, to the graveyard in 1858 and refused to leave until its death 14 years later when a statue was erected in its memory.
Fun fact: While J.K.Rowling has never confirmed it, it seems that the names of tombstones in the kirkyard influenced her and that she used them in her novels! As a result, you can see names like Potter, McGonagall, Moodie, Charles Black, and even Thomas Riddle on the tombs.
From there, take Candlemaker Row, and, at the roundabout, take Cowgatehead. Continue onto Grassmarket, and you will find our next stop on your right.
The Grassmarket district, once a bustling medieval marketplace for horses and cattle (named for the grass and hay they consumed, not the goods for sale) and a venue for public executions, is now a vibrant area bustling with lively drinking spots and eclectic shops.
It is one of the city’s most famous places, frequented by visitors, students, and professionals alike, thanks to its extensive medieval architecture, breathtaking castle views, and diverse atmosphere.
Though Grassmarket executions were abolished in 1784, some of the area’s traditional pubs, such as The Last Drop and Maggie Dickson’s, continue to tell the bloody story of a tumultuous past. The White Hart Inn, like many other pubs in the Grassmarket, has hosted several notable patrons, including Robert Burns, and provides live music and acoustic performances on most nights.
The square is lined with Scottish and European restaurants, many of which have outdoor seating areas for al fresco dining during the summer months.
It still hosts a weekly market, but the stalls now primarily sell fresh produce, freshly baked bread and sweet treats, as well as handcrafted local gifts, every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. throughout the year.
Fun fact: “Half-Hangit” Maggie Dickson is featured in one of the Grassmarket’s most popular tales. Maggie was hanged for murder in 1724, according to legend. Her body was retrieved and transported back to Musselburgh in a wagon, but when the family stopped for refreshments, Maggie was discovered to be alive in her coffin. She lived for another 40 years after that because she could not be hanged twice for the same offence.
From there, head northeast on Grassmarket, and turn left onto West Bow. Then, continue onto Victoria Street, our next stop.
11. Victoria Street
Victoria Street is one of Edinburgh’s most beautiful streets. It is an Old-Flemish-style masterpiece that was designed to replace one of the main thoroughfares, the West Bow, between 1829 and 1834. The majority of West Bow was destroyed, and Victoria Street was known as Bow Street until 1837 when Queen Victoria ascended to the throne.
Victoria Street is now a popular tourist destination, not just because of its beautiful scenery, but also because of its diverse selection of independent stores. Every outlet is worth a look, from artisan cheesemakers to old-fashioned booksellers, gift shops to joke shops because there is bound to be something to capture the imagination.
Because of its gentle curve and colourful shop fronts, it is one of the most photographed places in the city.
Fun fact: Victoria Street is said to be the inspiration for Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley, with its jumbled up assortment of colourful houses, shops of all sizes and descriptions, notable arches, cobblestones, and a general air of eccentricity.
Fun fact 2: Ollivanders, in the form of Diagon House, is a magical emporium purveying official Harry Potter merchandise and fantastical finds by local artisans at 40 Victoria Street. It was Robert Cresser’s Brush Shop before Hogwarts and a local institution. This Dickensian shop sold everything from bagpipe cleaners to chimney dusters and everything in between from 1873 to 2004.
From there, take Upper Bow, and, then, the stairs. At the roundabout, take Castlehill, and you will find the last stop of the day on your left.
12. The Scotch Whisky Experience
The Scotch Whisky Experience is a whisky visitor centre that includes a store, corporate rooms, and the Amber Restaurant & Whisky Bar, as well as tours and whisky tutoring sessions.
Take a barrel ride and become a part of the whisky production process. Discover the origins of time’s mysterious and magical ingredient. Uncover Scotland’s various whisky regions and the flavours that the landscape imparts to the whiskies. Reveal the assorted aromas for yourself, and if you prefer fruity, sweet, or smoky flavours, the experts will assist you in finding your ideal dram.
Then pay a visit to the Diageo Claive Vidiz Scotch Whisky Collection, the world’s largest collection of Scotch Whiskies (with 3,384 bottles), where you can get your dram nosed and tasted by a professional. Learn more about the people and culture of the beverage.
Finally, enjoy a range of over 440 Single Malts, Blends, Scotch Whisky Liqueurs, and Cocktails.
Four different kinds of tours are available:
- The Silver Tour: ideal for families and first-timers, it includes the whisky barrel ride through the production of Scotch Whisky; an introduction to the aromas in Whisky; a 5cl Scotch whisky miniature to take home (Irn Brun for under 18s); a viewing of the World’s Largest Collection of Scotch Whisky; whisky tasting glass to take away. The price is 17£/ 20€/ 23$ (not included in the Royal Edinburgh Pass). Pre-booking recommended.
- The Gold Tour: it includes all elements of The Silver Tour plus two 5cl single malt Scotch whiskies and an exclusive 5cl blended Scotch whisky; a one year Scotch Whisky Appreciation Society membership (one year); and discounts in the bar and shop. The price is 29.5£/ 34€/ 40.5$ (not included in the Royal Edinburgh Pass). Pre-booking suggested.
- The Platinum Tour: it includes a guided tour of The Scotch Whisky Experience plus two 5cl single malt Scotch whiskies; the link to online guided nosing and tasting of contrasting whiskies; an extended viewing of The World’s Largest Collection of Scotch Whisky; and a whisky tasting glass to take away. The price is 40£/ 46€/ 55$ (not included in the Royal Edinburgh Pass). Pre-booking is recommended.
- The Taste of Scotland: A Scottish blend of Whisky and cuisine. This tour includes all elements of the Platinum Tour plus a three-course Scottish food experience menu in Amber Restaurant; bite-sized Scottish starters, a taster of main dishes and dessert; and a whisky tasting glass to take away. The price is 79£/ 91€/ 109$ (not included in the Royal Edinburgh Pass). Pre-booking essential.
With this last experience ends our first day of this “Edinburgh in 2 amazing days”. Click here to read the second day of this tour.
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