9 Non-Touristy Things to Do in Edinburgh

Enjoy the views over the Edinburgh city skyline from Calton Hill
Enjoy the views over the Edinburgh city skyline from Calton Hill | © Urbanmyth / Alamy Stock Photo
Gothic architecture, historic sites, a picturesque backdrop and a vibrant cultural scene make Scotland’s capital a top city-break destination. But while international travellers swarm around the cobbled streets of the Old Town and flock to the Fringe, savvy locals enjoy the city’s many secret delights. Culture Trip’s insiders give their tips on alternative activities and places to go in Edinburgh.

Morningside Wild West

Architectural Landmark
EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - NOVEMBER 10th 2018: A wild west set hidden in Edinburgh.
© Kelly Neilson / Alamy Stock Photo

The last place you’d expect to find a mini American Wild West is in a side street of Morningside, Edinburgh’s salubrious, leafy borough. The facades – including a jail, general store, cantina and saloon – were created for an ad campaign and are accessed from an alleyway off Springvalley Gardens. The cantina front door doubles as the local library’s fire escape.

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Tuck into Edinburgh's best street food at the Pitt Market

Market, Street Food

Edinburgh is a foodie’s paradise – with plenty of Michelin stars, fine dining and international eateries to choose from. But street food is the culinary trend that isn’t going away and nowhere does it better than this hipster pop-up. The Pitt is a weekly market, based in an industrial yard usually populated by artists and makers. It has both indoor and outdoor areas, along with a range of appetising food trucks, craft beer and fizz.

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Canoe the Union Canal from Bridge 8 Hub

Sports Center
View of the Union Canal with woman in canoe at Polwarth in Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
© Iain Masterton / Alamy Stock Photo

See the lesser-explored areas of the city from a different vantage point – the water. You can hire canoes, kayaks and SUPs from Bridge 8 Hub, then follow the peaceful Union Canal as it meanders through Edinburgh’s southern districts, and on to its buzzing basin at Fountainbridge. Walkers and cyclists frequent the towpath, which is an eco-friendly artery route for commuters.

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Drink like a local at Victoria

Bar, Swedish, $$$

This snug Swedish venue is one of the most intimate bars you’ll ever visit. It’s one of a small chain, on the border with up-and-coming Leith, and has a shabby chic vibe, with fairy lights and board games. Adored by Edinburghers, it’s friendly, homely and free from sightseers, yet it’s within easy walking distance of the theatres and shops of the New Town. Victoria hosts regular quizzes, events and live music – and if you’re here at Christmas, don’t miss the Swedish carol singing.

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Wild swim at Portobello Beach

Natural Feature

Wild swimming is fast becoming one of Edinburgh’s biggest obsessions. Incomers may find a dip in the North Sea – in a relatively inclement climate – a less-than-appealing prospect. Yet the shoreline offers lots of safe and invigorating opportunities to take the plunge, along with top cafes for a warming post-dip cuppa. Year-round swimmers are a sociable bunch, and if it’s a fine day, Porty, as it’s known, attracts plenty of sunseekers, as well as the odd dolphin or swordfish.

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Go undercover at Bryant and Mack Detective Agency

Bar, British
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© Courtesy of Bryant and Mack Private Detectives

You’ll need to do your research to find this secret bar. And even then, you may struggle. Unmarked and tucked away down a side alley, yet seconds from the revelling masses on Rose Street, this Bullard & Worth bar masquerades as the Bryant and Mack Detective Agency. Visitors must knock to gain entry before being ushered into the dimly lit bar; it’s all very reminiscent of the Prohibition era. A typed drinks menu is presented by your bow-tie and apron-clad bartender, who will craft you a quirky cocktail from a range of wacky, often locally sourced ingredients.

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Buy luxury ice cream from S Luca

Ice Cream Parlour, Italian, $$$
S Luca has been serving ice cream to Edinburghers for a decade and a half, having started out in the Lothians in 1908. On sunny days, the queue here stretches down the road – with good reason. While tourists gather on the Grassmarket or Royal Mile for their pricey frozen treats, those in the know venture here, out of the busy centre. Take your treat to enjoy on Bruntsfield Links, just a short walk away.
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Get your caffeine kick at Artisan Roast

Cafe, Coffee, $$$
United Kingdom Scotland Edinburgh listed as World Heritage by UNESCO Artisan Roast cafe
© Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo

Each of Edinburgh’s districts has its own individual personality, and Stockbridge is like an urban well-heeled village. Browse the high-end boutiques and walk the pretty waterways, then pop into Artisan Roast for a sit-down. Here you’ll find the biggest selection of single-origin beans in Scotland, served in a bright and convivial space. Enjoy hand-brewed coffee, freshly baked croissants and some true cafe culture.

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Discover Edinburgh's newest beer garden at the Corn Exchange

Bar, Street Food

A hot new beer garden has arrived in town and so far, only the locals know about it. The Corn Exchange, Edinburgh’s conference and events venue, has revamped its outdoor space, creating an inviting, lively spot for some al-fresco boozing. They’ve also added giant games, ping-pong tables and food trucks – plus there are heaters to ensure the fun doesn’t have to stop if the weather cools.

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These recommendations were updated on July 16, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.