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 an extinct volcano at their centre – Edinburgh squeezes two into as many miles. Arthur’s Seat, visible from much of the city centre, rises out of the wide grasslands of Holyrood Park and, at just over 250m, it’s 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 bracing start to the day at any time of the year.
A stone’s throw from the foot of Arthur’s Seat, Hemma is one of the city’s five family-friendly Swedish-run bars (and the only one that lies outside of the Leith area). Their Arthur’s Breakfast is hearty fare suitable for anyone returning from a morning hike: haggis, bacon, poached eggs, sautéed potatoes, mushrooms, roasted tomato and a generous hunk of toasted bread from the local Manna House bakery. They’ll also mix you one of the most luxurious Bloody Marys in town if you’re in need of non-exercise-related recuperation.
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 A-Ha-Ha joke shop; not to mention a range of foodie delights, from the distinctive whiff of IJ Mellis’ cheesemonger and the hog roast of Oink to the array of flasks and bottles in the windows of Demijohn and The Whiskey Shop.
Adding a splash of science to your everyday espresso, Brew Lab’s high tech fittings wouldn’t count for much if they didn’t make such a damn fine cup of coffee. It’s also the perfect place to sample the wares of some other indie Edinburgh icons, including soup from Union of Genius and cakes from Lovecrumbs.
Ride a tram
Coming in years late and millions of pounds over budget, the Edinburgh Tram system (in reality just a single route from the airport to the city centre) is something of a sore point among the locals. As such, it’s almost certain to be a topic of conversation in any bar or shop you visit along its route – make sure you have a go on it so you’re fully equipped for the debate.
Image: © Hec Tate
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 months. A relaxing, airy alternative 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, cafe and boutique.
Image: © Einszwodrei
Among the Southside’s many trendy eateries, Falko: Konditormeister is one of the least precious about its food. Sturdy German breads and pretzels accompanied by wooden platters of cold meats and cheese make a basic but tasty brunch, and you can always peruse the more delicate cakes and gateaux if you’re still feeling peckish after.
Apparently one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite picturehouses, the Cameo Cinema has been operating under one name or another for over 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 their legendary All Night Horror Madness marathon sessions). Even if you don’t fancy a film, the Cameo Bar is an easy-going place to sip a pint and eavesdrop on some serious cinephile chatter.
Image: © Angus McDiarmid
Its sooty spire a throwback to Auld Reekie’s polluted past, the Scott Monument (dedicated to the memory of Sir Walter Scott) 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 recently made an impression on the silver screen, making a cameo appearance in 'Cloud Atlas'.
Craft beers are a fairly commonplace sight in pubs and bars these days; less common are those brewed on the premises. The Hanging Bat’s selection is partially drawn from its own glass-walled microbrewery in the back of the bar; indeed, they’re so proud of their beer that they’d rather you savour it in 2/3 pint ‘schooners’ rather than thoughtlessly knocking back pitchers of the stuff.
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 tours – those old stone walls really come to live when it’s Robert the Bruce showing you around.
Whatever your artistic preference, there’s a Scottish National Gallery to suit you: the Greek columned National Galleries Complex is located right at 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 less than 100 people comfortably, but the expertly-curated cocktail menu ensures you’ll be rubbing elbows with the hippest of Edinburgh’s drinking set.
Edinburgh’s not short on theatrical ventures – its annual hosting of the world’s biggest arts festival makes sure of that – but in terms of promoting Scotland’s best and brightest dramatic talent year-round, the Traverse leads the pack. Proudly proclaiming itself ‘Scotland’s New Writing Theatre’, it’s the place to go if you want to witness fresh, thought-provoking performances, or if you just want to immerse yourself in the post-show hubbub of the Traverse Cafe Bar.
A definite destination for lovers of fine dining, Edinburgh is home to five of Scotland’s 16 Michelin-starred restaurants. The newest of these is Castle Terrace, a city-centre eatery with links to The Kitchin (itself the worthy proprietor of a Michelin star in Leith). Chef Dominic Jack’s signature dish is spelt risotto with ox tongue and confit veal heart – splash out and treat yourself to something sublime.
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 of genre: in addition to hosting gigs as part of the annual Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival and being the permanent home of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, it’s also welcomed Canadian pianist Chilly Gonzales, pop chanteuse Sophie Ellis-Bextor and grunge survivor Mark Lanegan in recent years.
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 have old hands like Frankie Boyle and Stewart Lee practising new material as it is rising stars treading the comedic boards for the first time. Keep an eye out for their Monday-night Red Raw sessions for a helping of both.
Image: © Edinburgh Blog
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 crowds of 200 max, but don’t let the small size full you – with recent guests including The Juan Maclean and a residency by tastemaking Glasgow label LuckyMe, it’s probably the finest club in town.
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 vetinary school just off the Meadows. It even has its own microbrewery – the tasty and refreshing Barney’s Beer – which you can sip while enjoying a meal at the wood-panelled bar out back.
Sleep in the lap of luxury at the Balmoral
If you enter Edinburgh via the Waverly 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 so commuters get to their trains on time, it’s an old-school hotel that follows in the grandest of traditions – after you’ve stayed here once, you won’t want to fall asleep (or wake up) anywhere else.
Image: © Nigel Wade