Built on seven hills like Rome, Edinburgh might seem like a challenging city for walking. While it’s true that there are some pretty steep hills to contend with and that you can’t go far without encountering daunting steps rising with the land or winding snaking hills that make your calves ache, it is a stunning city to explore by foot.
The only real alternative anyway is to nip about by taxi, and while it is also a very drivable city, I find walking much more satisfying. There’s so much to see along the way that you miss while in a car. All those little alleys, the closes, the tucked away tiny museums, and the interesting little bars and cafes would be missed if you aren’t walking. To help you plan a walking tour of the city, here are seven fabulous things not to miss while exploring Edinburgh by foot.
1. Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle is a great place to start a walk around Edinburgh as it’s central and can be seen from just about everywhere in town. Whether you choose to take a tour inside the castle or not, it’s a focal point and a great place to get an overview of where you are. Perched high up on the hill, the castle grounds gift visitors incredible views over the city, and just viewing the castle from the outside is awe-inspiring. Inside the castle, the Stone of Destiny and the Honors of Scotland are the displays most visitors want to see.
The castle gets extremely busy, and tickets are often sold out on the day, so if you do want to go inside it’s advisable to book your tickets in advance. It’s easy to spend an entire day here, you can wander around at your own pace and eat lunch inside the castle in the tea rooms or café, but if you want to do more with your day and not spend it all here, leave a couple of hours at least to do the castle justice.
2. Greyfriars Kirkyard
As part of a walk around Edinburgh, you can walk right through Greyfriars Kirkyard, the graveyard of Greyfriars Kirk (or church) from one side to the other. Enter from the back entrance on Candlemaker Row and make your way up through the churchyard towards the church and the main entrance, where you can exit. Or the other way around. It’s said to be one of the most haunted graveyards in the world, following many reports of spooky happenings, mostly at George Mackenzie’s mausoleum.
Some people have reported blacking out once inside the mausoleum and waking up with scratches on their arms. These ghostly goings-on got so bad that you can no longer enter the mausoleum — but you can peek inside. You can also look out for the graves that inspired some of the names in the Harry Potter books, including the graves of the Potter family and the grave of Tom Riddle.
The church itself is a lovely serene place to spend a few moments in contemplation. At the entrance to the churchyard is the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, the Skye terrier dog who spent 14 years guarding the grave of his owner after their death.
Seek out the grave of William McGonagall, known as the worst poet in Scotland and sometimes even the worst poet in the history of the English language, which seems a little harsh!
3. The National Museum
Many of the museums and art galleries in Edinburgh are free to enter, so you can continue your walk around the city uninterrupted by walking into and around the museum. The National Museum of Scotland is a large building with four floors full of interesting exhibitions and artifacts.
You can easily lose hours of your time wandering around and discovering everything the museum has to offer. The galleries include fashion exhibitions, natural history displays, science and technology, and the history of Scotland. There are interactive displays and daily guided walking tours for anyone wanting to be shown the highlights.
The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., but give yourself enough time to get around all of the exhibits. On my first-ever visit, I showed up at 3:30 and quickly realized I wouldn’t get around much of it in the time I had.
4. The Royal Yacht Britannia
A walk down to Leith — the port district of Edinburgh — gives visitors a lovely change from the busy city center. There are lots of cool cafes, bars, and restaurants in this area, and there’s a lovely river walk that takes you past the backs of some very grand-looking houses.
But the star of the show down here has to be The Royal Yacht Britannia, the former royal yacht of the Queen. The yacht was decommissioned in 1997 and is now a major tourist attraction. A visit to the yacht is a fascinating insight into what it was like to be a royal aboard this most regal of ships.
Visitors wander around at their own leisure, but there’s lots of information to tell you what each room was used for and complimentary audio guides are handed out when you arrive.
The Royal Deck Tea Room is an especially lovely place to eat lunch, take tea, or enjoy a champagne cream tea. The staff treat everyone like royalty, and you really feel like you’re meant to be on this royal yacht. The food is really good too! If you visit at Christmas time, complimentary mulled wine and shortbread are handed out.
5. Royal Botanic Gardens
As part of a good walk around the city, The Royal Botanic Gardens make a peaceful and beautiful stop-off and a lovely walk within themselves. You can book a guided tour of the gardens, with a knowledgeable guide to tell you about the history and the running of the gardens, and daily guided walks are also available in the gardens.
Or you can take your time on your own walk around the gardens and enjoy the woodland, the rock gardens, the Chinese hillside, and the glasshouses. The glasshouses include a tropical palm house and an orchid house, showcasing some artful plants and flowers.
Note: at the time of writing this the glasshouses are closed for renovations.
There’s no need to book ahead for entry into the Royal Botanic Gardens unless you want to book a specific event. Tickets are available when you arrive, and it’s rarely very busy. Even in summertime, you can amble around the gardens without much in the way of crowds.
6. The Scott Monument
Located on Princes Street just a few strides away from the train station and opposite the high street shops, The Scott Monument is a gothic tower dedicated to Sir Walter Scott, the Scottish novelist and historian. It’s an impressive-looking monument that locals and regular visitors probably pass multiple times a day without giving it a second thought. But it’s more than just something interesting to look at. Inside the moment are 267 steps that take you up to the top of the tower. It’s a spiral staircase that narrows the higher you go, so it’s not for anyone with a fear of heights or unsteady on their feet. Once at the top though, the views are amazing and it definitely feels worth the climb. The monument closes during high winds and bad weather.
If 267 steps sounds like a lot, it is, but there are viewing platforms along the way so anytime you feel like you need a breather you can duck out of the staircase and enjoy the views for a while. Take your time if you need to, no one is in a hurry.
If you walk right down to the bottom of The Royal Mile, the old street full of shops, bars, and restaurants that slopes down from the castle, you arrive at Holyrood. Holyrood is basically the seat of power in Edinburgh, as the castle once was. This is where the Scottish Parliament is and it’s also where you can explore Holyrood Palace.
Holyrood Palace is the official residence of the monarch of Britain, so it’s now the official residence of King Charles while he’s in Scotland. It is open to the public and you can take a tour, viewing the state apartments, the throne room, and treasures, but do book tickets ahead of your visit as it’s usually booked up quite far in advance.
Take a picnic down to Holyrood and sit outside the parliament in the gardens. It’s a lovely quiet spot to sit and take some time out. The hills rise behind you dramatically and it’s hard to believe you’re still in the city it’s so much stiller and quieter. It’s also interesting to sit right next to parliament and wonder at what might be going on inside while you enjoy a picnic.