Scotland’s capital, a city of nearly half-a-million built on top of extinct volcanoes in an inlet of the North Sea, is a charming marriage of the ancient and the contemporary. From Castle Rock, a craggy hill that has been occupied ever since 1000 BC (and could serve as a set for the next Game of Thrones episode), to the Fifth Avenue-esque boutiques of George Street, there are lots of activities for everyone from history-minded travelers to shoppers looking for stylish wool apparel.
Edinburgh is also a very walkable city, and on any given day you can easily visit a medieval castle, take a walk up the slopes of a prehistoric volcano, do some boutique shopping, and enjoy fine dining without feeling rushed. Sure, the weather can be unpredictable, but if you think like a Scot you’ll learn to make the most of every moment and not let little things (like a few raindrops) keep you from enjoying yourself.
Here are a few of our favorite things to do in this unique and surprising city.
Take a hike to see the sights
Start your trip with a hike to the top of Castle Rock, a volcanic outcropping in the middle of the city, for a birds-eye view of Edinburgh, from the Royal Mile (a tourist-friendly street that cuts through the center of old town), to Arthur’s Seat (another volcanic hill across town). Once you reach the top of the hill, visit Edinburgh Castle, where you can see St. Margaret’s Chapel (the oldest building in the city, built in the early 12th Century) and the crown jewels. For another stunning vantage point (and a more rural-feeling walk), you could then head across town and hike up to the top of Arthur’s Seat, which remains wild and unpopulated.
Shop for cashmere and wool
Edinburgh boasts amazing cashmere and wool clothing (as one would expect, given Scotland’s history of sheep farming and love of tartan). But beware: Much of what you find nowadays is actually made in China. To get the real thing, skip the ubiquitous cheesy souvenir shops and head to luxe boutiques like Brora for classic and fashionable knits made in Scotland. Nearby on George Street, you can find throw blankets, rugs, and wool tote bags in herringbone, plaid, and other colorful patterns at Anta’s flagship store. And Made-in-Edinburgh shops like Bill Baber and Joyce Forsyth, located in and around Grassmarket (an area rumored to be inspiration for J.K. Rowling in her Harry Potter series) offer more crafts-inspired styles. Finally, there’s Hawick Knitwear, a higher volume Made-in-Scotland brand with a store located right on the Royal Mile.
Enjoy a Michelin-starred meal—or a quiet cup of coffee
After so much walking, sightseeing, and shopping, it’s nice to enjoy a civilized respite at the The Castle Terrace. This Michelin-starred restaurant is an ideal place for a lunchtime splurge. Expect dishes like Shetland salmon tartare topped with puffed rice or venison paté. Or, for a more low-key meal, try the Caffeine Drip, a subterranean café with low ceilings that makes it feel cozy and cave-like. It’s the perfect place to wait out a rainstorm with a big latte and a bowl of porridge topped with apples, honey, and cinnamon.
Go for the festivals—both International and Fringe
If you can visit Edinburgh in August you can see not only the International Festival, a massive art festival that takes over the city for three weeks with shows and performances by many of the world’s most famous artists, but also the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, an open-access festival that allows anyone with a show to put on (and a venue that will host) to join in. Don’t miss the popular Military Tattoo, a synchronized performance including military bands, bagpipes, and drums that you’ll never forget.