The Edinburgh Festival Fringe can dominate some people's thoughts about Scotland's capital city, and not without reason - it is the world's largest arts festival, after all. However, that's not to say Edinburgh isn't bursting with great things to do throughout the rest of the year too. Whether it's dining at its legendary restaurants, sipping on a wee dram at one of its best whisky bars, hitting the theatre or checking out the Old Town, there's plenty to keep you very busy indeed. Whether you're just visiting or have lived here for years, here are the 20 essential things you have to do for a true Edinburgh experience.
Edinburgh things to do
Not many cities can boast their own extinct volcano, but Edinburgh squeezes two into as many miles. Arthur’s Seat, visible from much of the centre, rises out of the wide grasslands of Holyrood Park and, at just over 250m, makes for a relatively easy hike that offers unmatched views of the city skyline. On May Day it’s traditional for young women to wash their face with the hill’s morning dew to make them beautiful, though we’d argue it’s a pretty bracing start to the day at any time of year, regardless of your gender.
Set down in Leith, Martin Wishart opened his flagship venue in 1999 and was well ahead of the curve when he gained his Michelin star just two years later. Back then the now gentrified Shore area was just finding its feet, and while the area has continued to boom, Wishart has lost none of its appeal.On a weekday, you might catch some local business folk chewing the fat, but this is largely the domain of locals and visitors to the city, keen to blow the budget in one of the city’s finest restaurants. This is elegant, decadent dining at its best, with Scottish ingredients laying the foundation for both traditional and modern French cuisine.
One of the UK’s premier tourist attractions, Edinburgh Castle is worthy of the attention: sitting boldly atop the city’s other extinct volcano, it’s a grandiose and constantly visible reminder of the settlement’s historic roots. Plan your visit to coincide with one of the castle’s many actor-led historical events – those old stone walls really come to life when it’s Robert the Bruce’s commander showing you around.
Taste some whisky
As you might expect there are quite a few ways to get your whisky whistle whet in Edinburgh and beyond, from guided walks visiting the city's best bars to full-on distillery tours around the Southern Highlands and out to the Isle of Islay. You’ll know your mashing from your malting in no time. Well, when in Rome and all that.
The long curve of Victoria Street swoops from George IV Bridge down to the historic Grassmarket, and is home to Edinburgh’s finest selection of independent boutiques. There’s hip fashion on offer in Swish and more formal, tweed-based couture in Walker Slater; designer homewares in The Red Door Gallery and Context; vintage hardbacks in The Old Town Bookshop and party tricks in the Aha Ha Ha joke shop; not to mention a range of foodie delights, from the distinctive whiff of cheesemonger IJ Mellis and the hog roast of Oink to the array of flasks and bottles in the windows of Demijohn and The Whiskey Shop.
This museum of visual illusions seems like an odd fit for the Old Town – we love a wonky fairground mirror as much as the next person, but why on earth is it cheek-by-jowl with historic attractions such as Edinburgh Castle? Everything becomes clear when you reach the top floor. There you find the camera obscura itself – an enormous Victorian domed structure, inside which the whole capital cityscape is projected (without a single bar of WiFi needed) on to a broad viewing table. It’s a unique, exciting way to view the skyline – and the views from the surrounding terrace ain’t half bad either.
The LCD Soundsystem-inspired murals that cover the rear walls of Sneaky Pete’s should clue you in that this is a club with impeccable taste. It’s open every night to capacity crowds of 100, but don’t let the small size fool you – with guests including Erol Alkan, The Juan Maclean and a residency by taste-making Glasgow label LuckyMe, it’s probably the finest club in town.
This Robert Adam masterpiece is now run by the National Trust for Scotland and is an excellent reconstruction of how wealthier Edinburgh residents lived their lives in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. There is period furniture, porcelain, silver, glass, art, chandeliers and more. Fact fans will note that the building next door at number six is the official residence of Scotland's first minister.
The large, leafy expanse of the Meadows lies in the shadow of Edinburgh University’s central campus, so it’s not surprising to see the place swamped with sunbathing students during the summer. A relaxing, airy alternative to the rushing traffic and labyrinthine wynds of the Old Town, the Meadows also connects the city centre with the calmer suburbs of the Southside, home to many a deli, café and boutique.
Image: © Einszwodrei
Sure, you can catch fresher and more thought-provoking performances at places like the Traverse but if you want to catch any big-hitting touring shows, this historic old theatrical space is where to go. Opened as the Festival in 1994, it was constructed from the remains of the old Empire Palace Theatre, a hall that had been around since 1892, and which was known to locals as a variety and concert hall that had welcomed acts including Laurel and Hardy, Judy Garland, Morecambe and Wise and David Bowie over the decades. It also came complete with its own theatrical ghost story, with renowned illusionist The Great Lafayette having burned to death there during a performance in 1911. It’s also the Edinburgh home of Scottish Opera and Scottish Ballet.
Situated in the ever-so-swanky Signet Library, around the side of St Giles’ Cathedral on the Royal Mile, Colonnades is a tastefully glamorous tearoom and lunch venue that every local and visitor alike should try at least once. The afternoon tea is the main attraction, with seasonal sandwiches, savouries, sweets and a variety of flavours of Britain’s favourite warm beverage served on silver stands by diligent waiting staff. If that’s not to your taste though, there’s also a sumptuous two- or three-course lunch menu and cocktails to sample amid the opulent neoclassical surroundings.
Rightly considered the leading light of the Scottish comedy scene, The Stand (which also has branches in Glasgow and Newcastle) is just as likely to feature old hands like Frankie Boyle and Stewart Lee practising new material as it is new talent treading the comedic boards for the first time. Keep an eye out for its Monday night Red Raw sessions for a helping of both.
Image: © Edinburgh Blog
Café St Honoré has been around for donkeys, but still, quite rightly, comes up in conversation as one of the nicest spots for a smart bistro meal in the centre of Edinburgh. It used to be follow a French bent, but that got sidelined long ago in favour of locally sourced Scottish produce, cooked expertly, slavishly following the principles of Slow Food. If there’s a sublime, but criminally overlooked variety of rhubarb, they’ll track it down and bake it in an almond tart. If there’s a rumour of a place in Peebles making the best hand-squashed apple juice, they’ll put in a phone call. Despite the earnest attention to detail, the foodie swottiness doesn’t feel overbearing – it just makes for some outstandingly fresh ingredients, cooked in rich, warming sauces.
Its sooty spire a throwback to Auld Reekie’s polluted past, the Scott Monument (dedicated to the memory of Sir Walter Scott and not, as is often believed, to the people of Scotland) is a Gothic marvel puncturing the well-manicured greenery of Princes Street Gardens. Squeeze your way up its narrow spiral staircase for a breathtaking view that was immortalised in 2012 sci-fi flick 'Cloud Atlas'.
Despite suffering a series of venue closures over the past decade or so, Edinburgh still has a vibrant live music scene – you just have to know where to look. The high-ceilinged Queen’s Hall is probably the venue with the broadest scope: as well as hosting gigs as part of the annual Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival and providing a permanent home for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, it’s also welcomed Canadian pianist Chilly Gonzales, pop chanteuse Sophie Ellis-Bextor and grunge survivor Mark Lanegan during its tenure.
Apparently one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite picture houses, the Cameo cinema has been operating under one name or another for more than 100 years. Recently refurbished with some of the comfiest reclining cinema seats in town, it’s the ideal place to catch a well-curated season (usually focused on a specific director’s work) or special cinematic event (such as its legendary All Night Horror Madness marathon sessions). Even if you don’t fancy watching a film, the venue’s bar is an easygoing place to sip a pint and eavesdrop on some serious cinephile chatter.
Image: © Angus McDiarmid
If you arrive in Edinburgh via the Waverley train station, the first sight you’re likely to see as you exit is the imposing bulk of the Balmoral hotel. Topped with a clock that allegedly runs a few minutes early to help commuters catch their trains on time, it’s an old-school hotel that follows in the grandest of traditions – after you’ve stayed there once, you won’t want to fall asleep (or wake up) anywhere else.
Whatever your artistic preference, there’s a Scottish National Gallery to suit you. The Greek-columned National Galleries Complex is located right in the heart of the city, at the foot of the Mound on Princes Street; the red sandstone Portrait Gallery is nestled five minutes away in the New Town; and both Modern Art One and Two occupy the grassy area above the picturesque Dean Village to the west. Set aside an afternoon to absorb some resident masterpieces and visiting exhibitions.
Regularly cropping up on worldwide best bar lists, Bramble makes a lot from a little: its packed basement premises can probably fit fewer than 100 people comfortably, but the expertly curated cocktail menu ensures you’ll be rubbing elbows with the hippest of Edinburgh’s drinking set. As with any highly reputable bar, though, expect a squeeze on Friday and Saturday nights.
Art exhibitions, theatre performances, gigs, clubs, films, talks, workshops – there’s very little you can’t do at Summerhall, the multi-arts venue housed in a former veterinary school just off the Meadows. It even has its own microbrewery, churning out the tasty and refreshing Barney’s Beer, which you can sip while enjoying a meal in the wood-panelled bar out back.