Edinburgh has a lot going for it: the National Museum of Scotland, the Castle, the High Kirk of St Giles, the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh Zoo, the International Festival and Festival Fringe every August, World Heritage site status, all the distinguished restaurants, brlliant bars, free things to do and much more besides. It's absolutely no surprise that a significant number of visitors to Scotland choose Edinburgh as their primary destination and don't venture outside the city boundary. That's their loss because the rest of the country has a great deal to offer and it's not all in other cities or the Highlands and Islands. There are places on Edinburgh's doorstep where you can stroll on a beach, fly gently through the air while on a canal boat, walk through the ruins of a 15th century palace, eat lobster and chips on a quayside or explore the Scottish hills. Take your pick…
The East Lothian beaches
Edinburgh has a beach at Portobello, a suburb with a jolly, seaside resort feel. Beyond the city however, in East Lothian, there are much more expansive, attractive beaches. If you have a car they're easy to reach but if you're happy to spend an hour or so on a bus – or significantly less time on a train – public transport will also get you there. The First bus from the city centre to Aberlady takes just under an hour for example. A few minutes' walk east of the village along the A198 there is access to the Aberlady Local Nature Reserve, particularly important for its plants and birds. Follow the path round to the sands on the north side of Aberlady Bay then you have beach and headland all the way to Gullane, a walk of approximately 5km. This village has a beautiful sweeping beach, some decent places for eats and drinks and a bus service that will take you back to central Edinburgh in around an hour. The ambitious could just keep walking though since the coast is beaches and small bays all the way to the harbour at North Berwick – another 10km or so away. Alternatively the lazy way to get to North Berwick is ScotRail train from Edinburgh Waverley; it takes less than 35 minutes. Around 6km east of North Berwick, past the ruins of Tantallon Castle, Seacliff is a gorgeous stretch of sand, best reached by car, while there is yet more beach at Belhaven Bay on the way to Dunbar, also served by trains from Edinburgh.
Image: ©David Gilmor
A stone's throw from the Falkirk Wheel is Helix Park, home to the Kelpies: two monumental sculptures depicting the heads of mythical water horses, each nearly 100 feet high, built of steel. They are enormous, glittering, utterly magnificent and new – only open to the public since spring 2014.
Photo by Amateur photography by michel, via Flickr
The Falkirk Wheel
The Falkirk Wheel is a huge, rotating boat lift, operational since 2002. It forms a crucial part of the Millennium Link project that reconnected Edinburgh and Glasgow by canal, a means of transport that had been allowed to slowly decay since the 1930s. The Union Canal runs from Scotland's capital to the Wheel where it meets up with the Forth & Clyde Canal, continuing through to the country's biggest city. Boats simply sail into the impressive apparatus and are lifted, or lowered, 24 metres from one canal to the other – although there are some locks involved too. It's a remarkable piece of contemporary engineering and an attraction in its own right with a visitor centre, café and boat trips that lets you fly gently through the air while afloat. The Wheel is just west of Falkirk but if you get the ScotRail train from Edinburgh Waverley to Falkirk High (25 minutes), you can walk there along the Union Canal towpath that passes immediately south of the station. Station platform to Wheel is 3.5km.
Image: ©Paisley Scotland
The main reason people come to Linlithgow is to see the striking ruins of its royal residence. The birthplace of both James V and his daughter Mary, Queen of Scots, Linlithgow Palace echoes with the history of the Stewart dynasty that ruled Scotland from 1371. It's also attractively sited, on the shore of the town's small loch, right next to St Michael's Church with its distinctive modern steeple. There has been some form of royal palace here since the 12th century although the current structure developed in the 15th and 16th centuries. Its heyday as a favourite residence for the Stewarts came to an end when James VI became King of Great Britain in 1603 and skedaddled off to London with his court. The building fell into disrepair over the next hundred years and more; a fire finally put the old place out of its misery in 1746. Atmospheric and resonant, it's now cared for by Historic Scotland and if you catch it on a fine day its red sandstone comes alive in the sunlight. The High Street is where to find places to eat and drink while the town sits on the Union Canal if you feel like a bucolic saunter along the towpath. ScotRail trains from Edinburgh Waverley to Linlithgow take around 20 minutes.
Image: ©Hamish Irvine
A small and attractive seaside town, North Berwick has beaches stretching east and west of its harbour, a decent selection of bars, cafés and restaurants, small islands immediately offshore and the imposing presence of the Bass Rock, with its gannet colony, around 5km out into the Forth. Standing sentinel over it all is the 187 metre bulk of North Berwick Law directly behind the town, an ancient volcanic plug which affords brilliant views if you make the effort to reach the top. You also find the Scottish Seabird Centre here which is great for children and birdwatching enthusiasts while there are seasonal boat trips to enjoy, some going all the way to the Isle of May – the last stop before Scandinavia. Put all that together and you have an attractive package for a day trip; trains take less than 35 minutes from Edinburgh Waverley. Meanwhile one thing that fans of fresh seafood shouldn't miss is the Lobster Shack at the harbour. A glorified garden shed with catering facilities and some al fresco seating adjacent, it opens weekends only in May then daily June to September, noon-8pm, weather permitting. Fresh crab, fish and lobster are on the menu, with chips.
Image: ©David Gilmour
It may be a bit cheeky to describe this range of hills as outside Edinburgh given that a chunk of it sits well within the city boundary. All the same, the Pentlands stretch over 30km away to the south west of the Scottish capital with a number of tops over 500 metres – the area was designated the Pentlands Regional Park back in 1984. Among the hills you find an artificial ski slope at Hillend (the Midlothian Snowsports Centre), farms, lochs, a military training zone that has live firing exercises, minor wreckage from a Luftwaffe bomber that crashed in 1943 and no end of paths to walk. There are two information centres: Flotterstone by the Flotterstone Inn, off the A702 around 5km south of the Edinburgh bypass; Harlaw House by Harlaw Reservoir near Balerno. The gentle way to experience the Pentlands would be to drive or catch a First bus from the city centre to Flotterstone, walk 1.5km up the minor road to the picturesque Glencorse Reservoir, take in the view, then walk back the way you came, stopping for a drink and some pub grub at the Flotterstone Inn before heading back to the city. The more adventurous might also want to start at Flotterstone but do a circular walk of 18km taking in some of the hills, including Scald Law, the Pentlands' highest peak at 579 metres. The usual safety caveats apply: walking in the Scottish hills can be arduous and dangerous. Do not attempt it unless you're reasonably fit, properly kitted out and know what you're doing.
Scotland’s biggest city has such drawing power that there is an entire Time Out website dedicated to its top attractions, bars, events, nightlife and restaurants. Trains from the capital take around 50 minutes, on average, and run regularly – the last one back departs at 11.30pm daily. You can spend the whole day ‘doing Glasgow’ and still make it home for your Edinburgh bedtime.
Photo by Robert Brown, via Flickr