Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, has its own airport, railway station, bus station, and harbor, so it’s easy to get to no matter how you’re traveling. The ancient castle on the hill, which was once an Iron Age fort, is the most popular tourist attraction in all of Scotland. But when you’ve spent a few hours roaming around beautiful Edinburgh Castle, you’ll find that there is more to see and do in this fascinating city than you can manage in one trip.
Surgeons’ Hall Museums
If the unusual, the interesting, and the macabre don’t put you off, you’ll want to head to the Surgeons’ Hall Museums located on the campus of The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, about a 10-minute walk from the railway station. An incredible building to wander, the museum has some terrifying examples of early dentistry devices and a collection of pickled organs and fetuses that aren’t for the faint of heart. Most people who come here want to see the death mask of the famous body snatcher, William Burke, and there is also a book on display that’s said to be bound in his actual skin! If you’re the kind of person who isn’t afraid to encounter the more gruesome aspects of the past — or is interested in learning more about the beginnings of modern medicine — this is an intriguing museum you won’t soon forget.
Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Set in a beautiful Gothic building and opened in 1889, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery was the first purpose-built portrait gallery in the world. A short walk from the railway station, near Saint Andrew Square, the gallery features many famous faces from Scotland, including those of Robert Louis Stevenson; Mary, Queen of Scots; and Robert Burns. The artwork continues to the present day, with paintings of Emeli Sande and the crime writer Ian Rankin. There’s also a fascinating display of busts, some of unknown people, which were made to illustrate the physical manifestations of certain conditions, including so-called hysteria! The galleries are free to enter, and the upper floors are accessible via elevators.
If you think Scotland’s style is all about tartan and kilts, you’ll be delighted to find that the creative Scottish are actually at the forefront of cool and chic, and those tartan kilts are only one aspect of the country’s fashion.
Edinburgh is a fairly well-to-do city, and the vintage shops and thrift stores here prove it. You could easily spend a leisurely afternoon browsing the city’s vintage stores by starting around the corner from Greyfriars Kirkyard at W. Armstrong & Son. Head down Grassmarket to Godiva Boutique on West Port, where you can browse the racks of one-of-a-kind pieces from days gone by. Head to Armchair Books, a secondhand bookstore, for some vintage reading material, and then move on to Carnivale Vintage on Bread Street. For some rare finds, walk down to Leith, where you’ll discover thrift stores with top-notch items on their racks.
Edinburgh Gin Distillery
At the original Edinburgh Gin Distillery on Rutland Place, you can enjoy an incredible gin experience. Gin tours at the factory need to be booked in advance. They do take walk-ins, but the first time I went, I was turned away because they were full, so booking ahead is advisable. When you do get there, however, you’ll find that this is one of the top-rated attractions in Edinburgh for good reason. You’ll enjoy a tour of the factory and talks about the history of the distillery and how gin is made. And then, of course, you’ll have the chance to indulge in the tasting sessions!
Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is just a mile from the center of Edinburgh, and a leisurely stroll or bus ride will get you there. This beautiful garden is free to enter and has been around for 350 years. On a sunny day, it’s a peaceful place to wander, but even if the weather isn’t ideal, the glasshouses provide the perfect sanctuary. These glasshouses are especially impressive, and one features a 200-year-old palm tree. The oldest Victorian glasshouse at the gardens was built in 1834 and is simply beautiful. Inside the garden, you’ll find a collection of rare orchids, an area for fossils, and a variety of ferns. As you wander the landscaped garden, keep an eye out for wildlife!
There’s a gift shop on-site plus a choice of places to eat and drink. If you want lunch, the Gateway Restaurant has a varied and substantial menu. For a drink and snack, there’s the Terrace Cafe. Or you could stop at the East Gate Coffee Bar, which looks like an old cottage and has charming country-style outdoor seating.
At the entrance to Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh’s most famous church and churchyard, you’ll see a bronze statue of a cute Skye terrier. This is Bobby, the little dog who spent 14 years guarding the grave of his beloved owner until the dog himself died in 1872. It’s a poignant start to your visit to Greyfriars Kirkyard, and things don’t get any lighter from here on in!
This churchyard is said to be one of the most haunted in the world, and you’ll see skulls and crossbones adorning the stones as you wander around. There is one particular ghost who is best avoided, and that’s George Mackenzie. George’s final resting place is the black mausoleum on the church’s grounds. There have been so many strange experiences reported by people who’ve gone inside — including scratches on their skin — that it’s kept locked. You can join a guided tour around the churchyard — at night, if you’re brave enough — and discover the many stories and histories of this most unusual graveyard.
The Elephant House
Along the road from Greyfriars Bobby, you’ll notice a small cafe with a steady stream of customers. In high season, there’s likely to be a line outside this modest little cafe. This is because The Elephant House is the cafe where J. K. Rowling famously sat with her sleeping baby while she worked on her Harry Potter series. This is a pleasant cafe with a laid-back atmosphere, despite the number of tourists who want to visit. You can enjoy breakfast, lunch, gourmet coffee, tea and cake, or even a nip of whisky! And if you feel the inspiration strike, you can get out your notebook and write the world’s next bestseller.
National Museum Of Scotland
Across the road from The Elephant House, you’ll find the National Museum of Scotland. This is a huge museum, and you’ll need a few hours to do it justice. There are collections and exhibitions from all around the world, as well as some smaller displays focusing on fashion through the ages and the Scottish temperance movement. The science and technology galleries are especially interesting; here, you’ll discover how many everyday items we take for granted were invented in Scotland.
There is wheelchair access to all floors, and elevators are available. The museum also allows guide dogs and assistance dogs to accompany anyone who needs them.
Cramond Beach And Roman Fort
Just 4 miles from Edinburgh’s center is the quiet and windswept Cramond Beach. If you have your own car, you can park right by the sands here, or you can take a bus from Princes Street that will drop you off near the shore. This is a lovely area of coastline and a peaceful beach to walk along. It’s quiet here, but you will find a few cafes and small shops with the amenities you’ll need.
Just a short walk inland from the sea is the Cramond Roman Fort, an archaeological site of great historical importance. The footings and foundations are pretty much all that’s left to see, but there are information boards around that explain what each area would have been. This is a quiet attraction away from the bustle of the city — a nice way to spend some time in peaceful surroundings.
Pro Tip: Take a little time to appreciate the buildings some of these attractions are housed in. The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is a stunning example of Gothic architecture and an attraction in itself. Book your tickets in advance if you want to be sure of getting into the galleries, museums, and tours. Edinburgh is a popular tourist destination, and many attractions book up ahead of time.