Unlike cities sitting on shallow river valleys and flatlands, Edinburgh is spectacularly three-dimensional, the surrounding countryside even hillier. You can get over 800 feet above sea level within the city limits on your own two feet while within a dozen miles of the city centre is a range of hills rising to nearly 2,000 feet. A challenging upland walk or a modest city view: it’s up to you.
Sitting behind the Scottish Parliament and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, rising to 823 feet at the summit, Arthur’s Seat and its various crags are the remnants of a volcanic plug created around 350 million years ago. It can be tackled from various directions, the easiest is the grassy slope on the east side rising from Dunsapie Loch on Queen’s Drive. From the top you can see the future.
Blackford Hill has a pretty hermitage to stroll through on its south side and the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, is based here too. The main reason to visit though is the amazing view: south to the Pentlands, north to the city centre, the Forth and Fife, with Arthur’s Seat as an added bonus. Access from Braid Road is best if you want to walk the Hermitage of Braid then climb the hill from its south side.
Around 20 miles west of the city centre, Cairnpapple sits between Bathgate and Linlithgow, near the village of Torphichen – see the Historic Scotland website for detailed directions. It stands at 1,024 feet and was used as a ceremonial site from 3500BC or so, a henge was built around 3000BC and there were later Bronze Age burials. The site itself is fascinating; the view takes in more than five millennia of human endeavour at a glance.
Given its central location and modest size, this is perhaps the most accessible of Edinburgh’s hills. It’s only a few minutes’ walk from the east end of Princes Street and instantly recognisable for the structures on top: the Parthenon-like National Monument, the Nelson Monument and the old city observatory complex. But from Calton Hill, looking back to the Balmoral Hotel and Edinburgh Castle, you get the classic view that has graced a thousand postcards and travel guide covers.
Like Arthur’s Seat, North Berwick Law is an ancient volcanic plug, rising anomalously from the Lothian plain. It tops out at 614 feet and sits immediately behind the small coastal town of North Berwick, just over 25 miles east of Edinburgh. To the east is the North Sea, the Forth and Fife to the north, while much nearer are North Berwick’s offshore islands and the Bass Rock. The sense of space is tremendous, the view almost timeless.
The Pentlands is the range of hills leading off southwest of Edinburgh, encompassed by the Pentland Hills Regional Park. Here you find gentle walks by picturesque reservoirs as well as more challenging days on the tops. The highest of the hills in the area is Scald Law at 1,900 feet but this is serious upland walking and should only be tackled by sufficiently fit people with the right outdoors clothing and expertise. Clears your head though.