Edinburgh is Scotland’s capital city and ancient seat of power, a place where kings and queens reigned for centuries. The city, now home to about half a million residents, has amazing architecture, a rich literary tradition, and some terrific, historic pubs. There are the big sights, of course, including Edinburgh Castle, Holyroodhouse, and the Royal Mile in between. But there are other nooks and crannies you might want to see during your time there. Here are a few hidden gems you shouldn’t miss.
Chances are you’ll make time for Edinburgh Castle, with its fortified walls and centuries of history. Do not miss the tiny, gorgeous jewel located inside the complex: Saint Margaret’s Chapel.
The chapel is the oldest building in Edinburgh, and it still hosts religious ceremonies, including weddings and christenings. King David I built the chapel in 1130 in memory of his mother, Saint Margaret, an English princess who was shipwrecked off the Scottish coast and who later married the king of Scotland. She was known for her many works of charity. It’s easy to imagine generations of Scottish royalty praying in this sacred spot, and you’ll see an image of Margaret in one of the stained-glass windows. The chapel was repurposed as a gunpowder storage area in the 1500s, but it was rediscovered and restored to its former, more peaceful function in 1845.
The castle is open daily; you can purchase tickets online for £17.50.
In the 16th century, Edinburgh was a walled city. Defensive gates were built in order to protect the city’s Old Town from British forces. The Scottish residents who couldn’t pay the entrance fee to get back through the gate never left the enclosed area, and they believed that anything outside of the gates represented “the World’s End.” The name stuck. Open daily, The World’s End pub is a cozy place to grab a pint and some fish and chips and take a break from your Royal Mile sightseeing.
When the United Kingdom transferred some of its powers to Scotland in 1999, Edinburgh needed to establish a new governing body. Today, the Scottish Parliament consists of 129 elected officials who debate issues and set policy in a one-chamber system. Its leader, the first minister, selects cabinet members with the approval of Parliament.
While the Scottish government still works in partnership with the UK Parliament on some matters, it has its own chambers near Holyrood. Guided tours of the space are available; you are also free to explore the public areas of the building on your own most days of the week. You can even obtain a ticket to a Parliament debate.
A visit here offers a fascinating look at how policy and power come together in a newly formed, still-developing government.
The National Museum of Scotland is a well-known and often-visited attraction, containing an impressive treasure trove of artifacts that span the ages. While you absolutely should make this museum a destination (be sure to check out the amazing Lewis chess pieces with their mysterious backstory and expressive faces), you should also take time to visit the museum’s rooftop terrace. It boasts views of Edinburgh that will take your breath away, and it’s the perfect place for a selfie.
The museum is open daily and is free to all.
Edinburgh was home to some of the most renowned writers in history. You can see how three of them -- Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson -- lived and worked at The Writers’ Museum, just steps off the Royal Mile. This carefully curated museum features books and manuscripts by each of these literary giants, as well as an eclectic collection of their personal effects. You’ll learn about how their literary works live on in Scottish culture today.
The building that houses the museum, Lady Stair’s House, is also worthy of attention. The home was built in 1622. At that time, it was common for the wealthy to build their homes on a side road, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. You’ll enjoy that same sense of calm even today.
The museum is open daily; admission is free, but donations are encouraged.
Want to check out the spot where the world’s favorite boy wizard, Harry Potter, was born? Head to The Elephant House, a whimsical café located a short distance from the National Museum. This is the place where J.K. Rowling, then a struggling single mom, began to write the Harry Potter series that has captivated people around the globe. Go there for breakfast, stay for the gorgeous views, and be sure to check out the author’s notes that now hang framed on the walls.
There’s no better place to celebrate Edinburgh’s rich storytelling tradition than at the city’s Scottish Storytelling Centre. This arts venue features a wide range of events and exhibits. Want to get to know a few locals and try your hand at crack -- the art of Scottish storytelling? Maybe you’d just like to sip a pint and listen to some classic tall tales. Be sure to check out the Centre’s Guid Crack, Edinburgh’s longest-running storytelling club. It meets on the last Friday of the month at the Waverly Bar. A £5 donation is suggested for the session.
Most visitors to Edinburgh have heard of Arthur’s Seat, but getting to the top takes nearly 2 hours. Consider a less arduous climb: Calton Hill, located in the city center. You can’t miss the 12 grand Athenian arches at the top. Constructed to memorialize Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the arches were supposed to be part of a grand national monument, but it was never completed.
On Calton Hill, you’ll also find the City Observatory and a monument to Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson. The top of the hill offers an unsurpassed panoramic view of Edinburgh and all its top sights. The trail up isn’t very steep, and while there are some stairs, the entire hike takes only 10 minutes. It’s the perfect place to picnic!
If you’re lucky enough to be in Edinburgh over the weekend, Stockbridge Market is the perfect place to spend a Sunday morning. A variety of farm-fresh produce is available for purchase from dozens of local vendors, as are snacks, drinks, and even a small selection of handicrafts and artwork. Located in Jubilee Gardens south of the Royal Botanic Garden and established in 2011, Stockbridge is one of Edinburgh’s newer markets, but it has a distinctly family-friendly, neighborhood feel.
Stockbridge is open every Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The bond between man and man’s best friend is unbreakable, and a ridiculously adorable statue on Edinburgh’s Candlemaker Row illustrates this. The shaggy bronze pup named Greyfriars Bobby is the stuff Scottish legends are made of; the statue was erected in honor of the famous Skye terrier who apparently refused to leave his owner’s grave for 14 years, until he himself passed away. Numerous books and movies have told the story of the scrappy and loyal pooch. While some historians claim the whole thing was a hoax, there’s no denying the sweet sentiment behind the tale. Make sure you rub Bobby’s nose for luck -- and head to the adjacent pub named after him for a quick pint.
Don’t worry -- if you’re a cat person, Edinburgh’s got you covered as well. Billed as Scotland’s first cat café, Maison de Moggy offers visitors the chance to take afternoon tea and cake with its 12 resident felines, all different breeds. Located just west of the city’s Old Town, Maison de Moggy is open daily. A few common-sense rules are in place to protect the kitties, and reservations are recommended. That said, the space is an open and welcoming spot where you can spend a purr-fect afternoon break.