An increasing amount of Americans are choosing to spend not just a semester abroad, but also their entire four years at The University of Edinburgh and The University of St. Andrews. St. Andrews in particular, just one hour from Edinburgh has become a “hot” school, so much so that a recent Town and Country Magazine article proclaimed “Is America’s Hottest School in Scotland?” When your visiting your child allow some time to explore Edinburgh, a charming city home to cozy pubs, medieval alleyways, and talkative, friendly locals. Nicknamed the “Athens of The North,” from the historical treasures of the Old Town to the elegant squares and shops of the Georgian New Town, here is the ultimate guide to use (or share with your student) to this beautiful and captivating city.
Edinburgh is a city that takes celebrations and festivals seriously, hosting many art and cultural events throughout the year. August is prime time with six different festivals running at the same time, including the International Festival, The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. For more information and to get tickets click here
The city also goes all out for Christmas with a spectacular, six-week season of festivities spread across the city center. Edinburgh is transformed into a winter wonderland with markets, ice skating rinks, amusement parks and lights everywhere—it’s a fairy tale place to be for the holidays.
Is Edinburgh one of the most haunted cities in Europe? Get spooked with myths, ghost stories, and legends on one of these theatrical, fun and yes, scary tours, many that take place after dark. For details on the top spooky tours click here.
Check In: What’s our favorite place to stay in Edinburgh? We visited on three different occasions in the last six months, staying at three very different hotels: The Balmoral, The Principal Charlotte Square and The G and V and we highly recommend two out of the three.
Stay Balmoral: We loved our stay at The Balmoral, long considered Edinburgh’s best hotel. And it delivered with top-notch service, beautiful rooms, and an unrivaled location right at the crossroads of the New and Old Towns. The Balmoral is a full service luxury property with one of the city’s best restaurants, (Michelin starred Number One) an elegant scotch whiskey bar plus a lovely spa and indoor pool. (We did get lost in the whiskey bar one night after dinner working our way through a flight of several small glasses from their menu of over 500 malts and whiskeys.) The hotel, part of the Rocco Forte group, feels very grand dame and grown up, though not stuffy, it’s friendly and lively with kilt-clad doormen and Stanley, the golden retriever often found in the lobby greeting guests.
Stay Principal Charlotte Square: Very different in style, The Principal, overlooking stately Charlotte Square, feels like the younger, hipper sister to the more elegant Balmoral. Formerly the Roxburge, and fresh off a multi-million dollar renovation, design and décor are key throughout the seven interconnecting Georgian townhouses. Rooms are hip, yet cozy and there’s a fabulous internal courtyard; a light-filled space that serves as an all day into evening coffee bar and café. We wouldn’t blame you if you were tempted to linger away an entire morning. The hotel’s brand-new Baba restaurant is already creating quite the buzz thanks to a keen design aesthetic and delicious Middle Eastern food. We loved the location in the New Town (New is relative; built in stages from 1767 to 1850) right around the corner from Georges St, Edinburgh’s chicest shopping stretch. The Principal has a second property nearby on Georges St., but we prefer the vibe at the Charlotte Square. While on Charlotte Square allow some time for a tour of the National Trust’s Georgian House.
Skip: We felt the G and V; right off the Royal Mile somehow just missed the mark. Once a Missoni hotel, traces remain in the bold colors and design, but we found our room minimal and sparse and a little tired. The lobby bar and second-floor restaurants are both fun and stylish, but we feel the hotel just can’t compete with the other two properties mentioned. The location right in the smack of things directly off the Royal Mile and atop Victoria Street is super convenient, the hotel’s biggest plus, though we preferred the old world charm of Georges Street where the Principal is located.
Breakfast: After dropping off your stuff (if you’ve just arrived on the U.S. overnight flight it may be too early for your room to be ready) wander over to Hanover Street, right off Georges St, to Urban Angel for a healthy start to the day. If the wait is too long, head across the street to Henderson’s, a beloved Edinburgh spot specializing in vegetarian fare. This was the only place we tried haggis, Scotland’s national dish (made from the liver, heart, and lungs of a sheep), as Henderson’s version is a combination of mushrooms and lentils served over mashed potatoes. Though it looked like the real deal, this was the closest we got to haggis during our Scottish stay, though many locals tried to convince us to give it a try.
Most Visited Site: Start your day at Edinburgh Castle, one of the grandest in Scotland if not in all of Europe, towering above the city since the 13th century. Book your ticket online before you go and you can just walk in, skipping the almost guaranteed ticket queue. Join one of the guided tours or explore on your own, but don’t miss The Great Hall, The Crown Jewels (the oldest in Europe), The Stone of Destiny and The Prisoners of War Museum. The outstanding views from the top make it worth the visit alone.
Seeing Double: Upon leaving the castle allow an hour for Camera Obscura, don’t be tempted to think it’s for kids only—we had a ball reliving all the optical illusions from our youth. Get lost in the hall of mirrors, lose your head in the magic gallery, and get dizzy in the Vortex tunnel. Don’t leave without attending the 10-minute show where you get to see the camera obscura in action all while enjoying 360 panoramic views of Edinburgh and spying on everyone in the castle below. This museum is five floors of interactive fun!
Mile Stroll: Edinburgh’s Old Town is over a thousand years old, and its main street—The Royal Mile-- stretches from the Castle down to Holyroodhouse (the Queen’s residence) and the Parliament building. It’s a grand avenue, packed with interesting museums, buildings, restaurants, old pubs and yes, one shop after another selling Scottish souvenirs. Pick up a woolen scarf or shortbread cookies to bring home for your mom. Some of our favorite things to do? Spend an hour underground at The Real Mary Kings Close for a look at what life was like for the everyday people of Edinburgh in the 1600s. Led by the characters that once lived in the closes, there’s nothing boring about this tour-reserve tickets in advance as slots often sell out. Afterwards, learn all about Scotland’s national drink at The Scotch Whiskey Heritage Centre. Suitable for all ages, you begin with a barrel ride through the history of what the Scots call the “Water of life”, learning the in and outs of whiskey making over history. There is also a shop with over 300 single malts and whiskey tastings for those who want a wee dram. We enjoyed the audio tour at The Palace at Holyroodhouse, the main residence of the Kings and Queens of Scotland since the 15th century. Most interesting, to us, was a look at the life of Mary Queen of Scots including the Queen’s bedchamber where her husband, Lord Darnley, murdered her Italian lover and secretary. Leave time to walk in the gardens before you leave. We ran out of time but took a quick peek at the Parliament building, a quirky modern design by Catalan architect Enric Miralles. People love it or hate it, see for yourself on one of the themed tours offered throughout the day in history, design, or architecture—book in advance.
More on the Mile: Other points of interest on the Royal Mile include: The Thistle Chapel, The Museum of Childhood (closed now for renovations), The Mercat Cross, John Knox House, The Writers Museum and The Scottish Storytelling Center-just to name a few.
Don’t Miss: Make a detour from the Royal Mile, to meander down Victoria Street heading towards Grassmarket. Victoria Street is one of Edinburgh’s most picturesque and atmospheric streets, a colorful windy thoroughfare of eclectic shops and restaurants. Grab a coffee or quick bite at Scotts Kitchen, a cute café with a high vantage point overlooking Victoria Street, talk about a photo opp! At the end of the street, you’ll arrive at Grassmarket, dating back 700 years. Originally a market for livestock, it later served as gallows for the city. Today it is home to eclectic shops, restaurants, and several pubs dating back to the 1500s including The Wee Pub, Scotland’s smallest pub. The Grassmarket is also home to Mary’s Milk Bar, the country’s most famous ice cream shop. (As it’s right below the Castle, this is a smart bribe if you’re traveling with younger kids.)
Lunch Break: Look for a striking blue building on Victoria Street and have lunch at Maison Bleue, an eclectic bistro serving a fusion menu of French, North African and Scottish fare. The romantic interiors, especially the colorful and cozy second floor are a perfect place to enjoy the well-priced set menu. (You can order A la Carte as well).
Scotland’s Best Museum: The National Museum of Scotland might not look like much from the outside, but as soon as you step into the Grand Gallery, the light and airy Victorian atrium, your journey into Scottish history and the greater world begins. A treasure trove of art, design, science, and technology –all under one roof. Say Hello Dolly to the first cloned mammal; the most famous sheep in the world, run in the human hamster wheel, walk amongst the giant T-Rex and visit the mysterious Arthur Seats coffins. Don’t skip a visit to the roof terrace for fantastic panoramic views of the city.
Favorite Coffee Shop: Refuel at Brew Lab behind the museum, a hip, modern cafe that would not be out of place in Williamsburg or Nashville serving top rate coffee to locals and tourists alike.
The Best Massage: Out of whack from our overnight night flight we took a chance and booked a Thai massage after walking by Shivago, just off the Royal Mile. We’re big-time fans of Thai massage, an ancient therapeutic system that encompasses yoga- like stretches, manipulation, and acupressure. And we were happily surprised-- this was one of the best Thai massages we ever had--the husband and wife team of Kei and Hoyn know their stuff! They accept walk-ins but call ahead, so you’re not disappointed.
Best for Tea or Cocktails: The Dome just oozes atmosphere, go for either high tea or a glass of champagne to start your night. Always grand, The Dome gets decked out for the holidays, a magical wonderland down to the fake snow falling from the Corinthian columns as you enter the building.
Best Places to Eat: One night of our stay we happily waited an hour for a table at the lively downstairs bar at Dishoom, a London transplant that has been busy since day one. Order the ruby chicken, grilled lamb chops, and their signature black dal. (The breakfast bacon nann roll has legions of fans if you want to return the next morning.) We tried on three separate visits and sadly had no luck in securing a reservation at Michelin starred The Kitchin, considered Edinburgh’s finest restaurant located on the Leith waterfront. Instead we happily “settled” for chef Tom Kitchin’s casual gastro pub The Scran and the Scallie in the Stockbridge neighborhood, a ten-minute taxi from the Old Town. Other upscale recommendations included: The Grain Store, Angels and Bagpipes and Martin Wishart. Looking to sample some of the excellent Scottish seafood and shellfish; book a table at Ondines, White House Oyster and Seafood Bar or Fishers in the City.
Best Views: It’s worth getting up early for sunrise from the top of Calton Hill, dubbed by many as a little Athens thanks to The National Monument, an acropolis- like ruin. The 360 stunning views make the short climb worth it, especially at sunrise or sunset. Edinburgh’s main hill is also the location of Nelson’s Monument, and the Collective Gallery, a small art exhibition space.
Other Top Attractions: Just off Princes Street, climb the 287 steps to the top of the Sir Walter Scott Monument, yet another spot for fantastic views of the city. Nearby the National Gallery of Art exhibits important works by many of the most celebrated French Impressionists, with a large part of the collection covering the history of Scottish painting, including works by Ramsay, Raeburn, Wilkie, and McTaggart.
Best Workout: Consider a hike up to Arthur’s Seat, located in Holyrood Park, a former volcano with incredible views of the city and the sea. Trails start off of Queens Drive near Holyroodhouse--be prepared for a strenuous hike.
Have More time: Take a taxi the ten minutes or so to Leith, Edinburgh’s historic port, an ideal place for a stroll on the waterfront and lunch at Fishers Leith, housed in an 17th -century watchtower. The fish in green curry was one of the best dishes our trip. After we explored the neighborhood, a gentrifying mix of quirky pubs, secondhand stores and trendy restaurants and cocktail bars.