The locals’ guide to Edinburgh

Revel in the history, culture and creative energy that gives Scotland’s capital its vibrant character

STEP TO IT
Gareth Davies runs Edinburgh Expert Walking tours, taking visitors under the skin of the city

Visitors are often surprised to learn that Edinburgh’s New Town is more than 250 years old. They are even more intrigued when I tell them that the Old Town was largely rebuilt in the 19th century, so much of it is more recent than the New Town. But that’s Edinburgh. It’s a city of contrasts that’s very different throughout the year, so there’s always an element of the unexpected. 

The site was first settled around 3500 years ago and much of the city’s layout harks back to earlier times with narrow lanes, cobbled backstreets and bridges that can be a challenge to navigate – something the guidebooks don’t prepare you for. Although I’ve walked some of the streets hundreds of times, I still notice new features, and can find new stories to tell. 

The areas I most enjoy showing off are around the New Town. Many visitors never look beyond the Royal Mile and Old Town, so this feels like a whole other side of the city that people don’t expect – it has its own character and style, a host of history and culture and some fantastic Georgian-era architecture. It’s something of a hidden gem, hiding in plain sight.

My favourite stop-offs? The Scottish Parliament building, due to its weirdly wonderful sense of style, as well as Advocate’s Close, one of the narrow lanes off the Royal Mile, for its spectacular views, mixture of ancient and modern buildings, and stories of the historical figures who have lived there. There’s so much to see and talk about on that single alleyway.

If you have more time, head north of the New Town to Stockbridge to check out its independent shops, cafés and restaurants, before making your way along the Water of Leith to the historic Dean Village to view its picturesque 17th-century buildings. South of the Royal Mile is George Square and Bristo Square, home to some of the historic buildings of Edinburgh University, including the iconic Old College quad designed by Edinburgh’s greatest architects, Robert Adam and William Playfair.

Main photo: Historic Victoria Street. Photo @VisitScotland/Kenny Lam

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Scottish National Portrait Gallery interior views. @Keith Hunter & National Galleries of Scotland

ON THE FRINGE
Shona McCarthy, chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, talks art and culture

1. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which takes place every August, brings together acts and audiences from all over the world to create an international melting pot of arts and culture, from theatre and comedy to circus, opera, children’s shows and spoken word performances. There’s nothing quite like wandering through the city when the Fringe is on and soaking up the electric atmosphere.

2. The impact of the festival is felt keenly through the year, with many Fringe artists and companies adding to a thriving local creative scene that has transformed the city into a bucket-list destination for anyone who is passionate about the arts. There are events all year round, from the Edinburgh International Science Festival in April through to Hogmanay, which rounds off the annual cultural offering at the turn of the New Year – it’s always a hive of activity. 

3. There are lots of amazing galleries featuring all kinds of art and exhibitions, both past and present. Some favourites include the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery. The former tells the story of Scotland and its people with portraits of historical figures such as Mary Queen of Scots and Robert Burns, while the National Gallery has an outstanding fine art collection, including masterpieces by Botticelli, Rembrandt, Monet and Van Gogh, among many others.

4. The National Museum of Scotland is another must-see, with fascinating permanent exhibits from nature, science, art, design, fashion and more. Here, you can find out more about the history of the area, from pre-history to the present day, in the Scottish galleries.

5. People often talk about there being a sense of an artistic community in the city, one that is not bound by geography or nationality, but can give a real sense of belonging in a different way. What better reason to visit Edinburgh this winter?

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The Elephant House. Photo @VisitScotland/Kenny Lam

Literary fans can sip a brew at The Elephant House tea and coffee shop in the historic quarter, which authors including J.K. Rowling and Ian Rankin have used as a writing den

TRADITIONAL TASTES
Matthew Korecki, owner of popular family-run restaurant New Chapter, unravels the foodie scene

Local flavour

There’s a huge number of independent restaurants in Edinburgh. People here tend to seek out hidden gems – the tucked-away places that serve incredible food with personalised service – rather than going for what they already know with chain restaurants. 

New and noteworthy

The restaurant scene is growing rapidly, with new venues opening every week, so the quality of the produce, dishes and service is constantly on the rise. There has also been an uplift in the number of dining destinations serving fantastic global cuisine, be it Swedish, Hungarian, Nepalese, Filipino or Caribbean food. 

Scottish classics

Our elegant sister restaurant Otro, in the West End, is very popular with those who want to taste Scottish ingredients. The Kilted Lobster in Stockbridge is perfect if you’re in the mood for seafood, and if you needed convincing, all profits go towards the Cooking Up A Storm project to fight food poverty. For fine dining, I recommend Restaurant Martin Wishart on The Shore for a Michelin-star experience. 

Quirky cuisine

The Full Moon Dinners at the Secret Herb Garden on Old Pentland Road are a magical experience where diners eat in a beautiful greenhouse by the light of the moon. Six By Nico on Hanover Street is a great option too, with themed six-course tasting menus that change every six weeks, serving wonderfully creative food. 

Market fare

For coffee and cake, The Stockbridge Market is always a treat. For street food, head to The Pitt in Leith, which has great vibes and innovative street food vendors serving amazing bites every weekend. 

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Secret Herb Garden’s Full Moon Dinners

STYLE STARS

Kevin Galbraith, of Scottish textile designer Calzeat, highlights a selection of unique shopping opportunities 

Edinburgh offers incredible shopping opportunities and you’ll find some amazingly quirky boutiques tucked along the alleyways.

Seek out products from local designers and manufacturers for treasured mementos and tasty treats. Some of my favourite retail experiences include Cranachan & Crowdie on the Royal Mile, where you’ll find typical Scottish food and gifts, such as gourmet fudge and shortbread. I also rate Fabhatrix at Grassmarket, for every style of hat you can imagine.

Scotland is also famous for its textiles – you’ll be hard pushed to find better quality jacquard wraps and scarves anywhere else. Visit one ofour Calzeat shops in the high street to view a wide range of beautiful designs and collections made at our textile mill 30 miles southwest of the city.

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