This is Edinburgh. These days the city boundaries may stretch from Queensferry to Joppa along the Forth and south into the Pentland Hills, but the Old Town is the original core of it all, dating back to Medieval times and beyond. This is where you’ll find the town’s oldest attractions, as well as a consequent concentration of shops, bars, cafés, restaurants and nightlife to welcome curious tourists. An official UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995, you can walk anywhere in the Old Town and unwittingly follow in the footsteps of kings and queens, invading armies, religious radicals, dissenters, murderers, the condemned or the celebrated. An order of knights established by James II & VII still meets at the High Kirk of St Giles within a few minutes’ walk of nightclubs that will keep you dancing to dubstep until 3am. Read on for our list of the top 10 stops that capture Old Town’s multidimensional appeal.
It all begins here. This Castleis the single essential stop-off for any trip to Edinburgh, being the city’s most popular tourist attraction and iconic landmark across the UK. From its perch on the dormant volcanic cliff face of Castle Rock, the Castle looks out over the city that grew from its roots, as the whole of modern-day Edinburgh branched outward from Castle Rock’s original Bronze Age defense outpost. This site served as a royal palace from the twelfth century all the way up until the 1603 Union of the Crowns, when James VI of Scotland ascended to the English throne as James I, and the joint seat of governance was permanently moved to London. In subsequent centuries, the Castle developed a more mercenary function: a Victorian military barracks was added to part of the outcrop, and today one can visit the National War Museum of Scotland during their Castle visit to view the records of Scottish veterans killed in significant conflicts over the last 200 years. Other points of interest include Mons Meg, a 15th Century siege gun; the One O’Clock Gun artillery volley; the 12th Century St. Margaret’s Chapel (reportedly the oldest building in Edinburgh); the Scottish Crown Jewels (crown, sceptre and sword of state) and Stone of Destiny (historically used to knight the kings of Scotland and later, the monarchs of the United Kingdom); and the Castle Esplanade, a large open square in front of the Castle that hosts the Edinburgh Military Tattoo every August. Full ticket prices are steep, but there are discounts for families, and it’s an experience everyone should indulge in at least once during their stay in Edinburgh.
Price:£16.50 Adults (aged 16-59); £13.20 Concession (aged 60+); £9.90 Child (aged 5-15); free for children under 5
Opening Hours: Monday to Sunday: 9.30am – 6pm
Watch out for: The Edinburgh Military Tattoo every August
The towering, crown-like peak of St Giles Cathedral is the dominant feature of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and any skyline vista of the city. Properly called the High Kirk of Edinburgh and named for the patron saint of cripples and beggars, the present building dates back to the 15th Century with restorations occurring in the 19th Century. St Giles was the focal point for the Scottish Reformation, with firebrand Calvinist John Knox serving as minister here from 1559 to 1572. One of the most interesting corners of the kirk is the Thistle Chapel, built in 1911 for the Knights of the Most Ancient & Most Noble Order of the Thistle. The chapel’s elaborately carved Gothic stalls feature canopies topped with the helms and arms of the 16 knights – and if you’re sharp, you’ll catch an angel playing bagpipes in the vaulting.
A Black Death mausoleum and ghoulish snapshot of everyday life in the capital during the 17th Century, the Real Mary King’s Close is a spooky, subterranean labyrinth underneath the 18th Century City Chambers, which were built over the sealed-off remains of the medieval Old Town alley. Costumed characters lead visitors on a scripted tour through a 16th Century townhouse and the plague-stricken home of a 17th Century gravedigger. As you follow, breathing in the perfectly preserved and perfectly eerie airs of this 250-year-old underground graveyard, you’ll be regaled with ghost stories and gruesome tableaux, including an unsettling bedroom decorated with tiny dolls and teddy bears left by awestruck tourists. For those craving an additional fix of the supernatural, there are also a litany of walking ghost tours available along the Royal Mile.
Opening Hours: Monday to Sunday: 10am – 9pm
Watch out for: The obviously sub-par ventilation quality; asthmatics beware of dust
For a change of pace after trudging the inclines of the narrow alleys and the Royal Mile, head towards the University of Edinburgh buildings of George Square and Teviot Row to sprawl out in the Meadows, Edinburgh’s largest green space. During Fringe season every August, the park is chock-a-block with students, escaped office workers on extended lunch breaks, hungover comedians, dog-walkers, and those simply seeking to lap up the sun. More active Edinburghers can make use of the Meadows’ tennis courts, cricket pitches, children’s playgrounds and football courses. Certain spots on the map will even allow you to throw a barbecue!
Opening Hours: N/A
Watch out for: Regular sports fixtures on the public greens
In 2006, the interconnected Museum of Scotland and Royal Museum were combined into one entity under the banner name of the National Museum of Scotland, offering guests a splendid all-in-one package for all ages. Entering through a street level vault, visitors will initially emerge into the old Museum, a breathtaking Victorian building dating back to 1866 with a grand glass greenhouse design, adjoined by balcony levels at each of the Museum’s three floors. The Museum houses an truly eclectic collection, ranging across natural history, archaeology, scientific and industrial technology, and the decorative arts of ancient Egypt, Islam, China, Japan, Korea and the West. What’s more, any preconceptions of a stuffy adults-only establishment are upended by the Museum’s extensive catering to younger visitors. There is a large, all-ages play area to the rear of the first floor, and a more educational play space for older children on the top level. The highlight is undoubtedly the Natural World gallery, a three-level space filled with hung and standing stuffed and model animals from around the world, and a recreated Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton. Foodies will also be enamoured of the haute-cuisine and panoramic views offered by the Tower Restaurant in the former Royal Museum. Regular entry is free, but some limited exhibitions do carry a charge.
Step through the front door of this George IV Bridge cocktail mecca, and you may think you’ve crossed through a space-time rift to hip Soho in London. With its striking exposed stone, black leather and neon design aesthetic, this trendy cosmopolitan watering hole is a unique, contemporary standout in Edinburgh’s somewhat staid bar scene. Still wearing a coat of white paint from its previous iteration as the dour, gothic Bar Kohl, Sligh House is not only a bar but an homage to the father of modern geology and kingpin of the Scottish Enlightenment, James Hutton. Hutton was born in Edinburgh on 3 June 1726, and by the 1750s he’d inherited and moved to his family’s farm Slighhouses in Berwickshire, where he grew much of his own food on the farm. While it might stretch the imagination to see any causal links between Hutton and their cocktail practitioning, Sligh House’s twists on classics and after-dinner libations are all infused with a strong focus on seasonality, accompanied by a humourous and quirky presentation style. Highlights include the pea-infused Beefeater gin and tonic, as well as their bourbons, tap pilsners and IPAs. A Hutton-esque spirit of geometric design can be detected in the artfully arranged British and North American small plates and bar snacks, such as the crisp, paprika-peppered pig’s ears served in a bag like crisps, and cubed pork belly served skewered with confit figs.
Opening Hours: Monday to Saturday: 12pm – 1am
Watch out for: The Pea&T cocktail and the pig’s ears
Edinburgh’s basements, cellars and bridge archways are dotted with various nightlife hotspots, and few can rival the atmosphere conjured by Cabaret Voltaire. Across two arched dance floors, one large and one small, Cab Vol’s state of the art sound systems play a forward-thinking blend of house, techno and bass seven nights a week. Cab Vol has also features big name DJ guests midweek to please the student set, and the Hector’s House and Fly Club residencies (every Tuesday and Friday, respectively) are two of the capital’s most well-attended nights out. Local live acts are more likely to headline here than mid-size touring bands, so there’s also a healthy dose of hometown pride in this hopping enterprise. While the downstairs rooms are where the late night action happens, the ground-level Café Voltaire is a popular hangout earlier in the day, offering 2-for-1 pizzas and cocktails in fashionably distressed surroundings.
Opening Hours: Monday to Thursday: 5pm – 3am; Friday to Sunday: 12pm – 3am
Watch out for: The Hector’s House and Fly Club residencies
It would be impossible to visit the Old Town without crossing the Royal Mile, a cobbled road stretching from Castle Rock to the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the Scottish Parliament Building. This is the main artery of Edinburgh, and the scourge of locals every August, when you can’t move for the crowds of festival flyerers, street performers and tourists bustling everywhere. Braving the hubbub or visiting in calmer months, this is where you’ll find some of the city’s most exclusive restaurants, shops and authentic pubs serving traditional Scottish grub. The Reformation-era ‘wynds’ that lead away from the Royal Mile also house several points of local historic interest. One example is the Mercat Cross by St Giles Cathedral, a 19th-century copy of the 1365 original, a fixture in the community where merchants and traders met to transact business and royal proclamations were read. There’s also the famous Heart of Midlothian, set into the cobblestone paving to mark the site of the Tolbooth. Built in the 15th century and demolished in the early 19th century, the Tolbooth served variously as a meeting place for parliament, the town council, and the General Assembly of the Reformed Kirk, before becoming law courts and, finally, a notorious prison and place of execution. Passers-by traditionally spit on the heart for luck!
Opening Hours: N/A
Watch out for: The hordes of tourists and occasional rogue lorry
Edinburgh foodie hipsters: rejoice! Timberyard is a thoroughly modern, industrial chic eatery right in the heart of the old town. The restaurant is housed within a nineteenth-century warehouse and titular timber yard, a large sprawl sectioned into several dining areas: the Warehouse (an airy timbered dining area that seats 72), the Yard (a cobbled courtyard where patrons lounge in the shade of silver birch trees, which doubles as an outdoor bar on summer weekends), and the Shed (a private dining area centred around a wood-burning stove). As if that weren’t enough, Timberyard also features its own onsite butchery, vegetable and herb garden, and facilities for home-smoking their meat and fish. The menu here is inspired by the Radford family’s commitment as owner-operators to infuse sustainability and innovation into their Scottish cuisine. This shines through in each and every one of their dishes, assembled with locally sourced artisan produce, foraged ingredients and home-grown specialties. Their offerings tend to mix quality Scottish fish and meat with less familiar plants and herbs, such as woodruff and sea buckthorn, as well as other pickled, smoked and cured ingredients. The drink menu is equally intriguing: here you’ll find craft beers from UK brewers like The Kernel, Camden Halls, and Edinburgh’s own The Hanging Bat; specialty spirits like The Botanist small batch Islay gin, Sipsmith damson vodka, and dill-flavoured Aquavit; and even organic wines. The cocktails are avant-garde creations which blend premium spirits with the likes of bee pollen, smoke and birch sap, engineering rare and earthy delights.
Price: Fine Dining
Opening Hours: Tuesday to Saturday: 10am – 6pm
Watch out for: Locally-sourced artisanal produce in hip, industrial-chic former warehouse space
A favourite haunt for the trendy Edinburgh student set (thanks to its proximity to Potterrow and Teviot Row House), Brew Lab offers so much more than a reliable latte on the way to lectures. University of Edinburgh graduates Tom Hyde and David Law were determined to launch Edinburgh’s first artisan coffee bar, and after four years of studious planning, research and development, they made their dreams a reality in 2012. The two friends repurposed an old University of Edinburgh building, completely stripping back the plaster and textile to expose the traditional brick features and steel structure beneath. They’ve offset this spartan base interior with modern flourishes, such as the monolithic concrete bar and leather sofas, resulting in a space where old and new design complement each other beautifully. The same studious planning and methodology that went into setting up the venue is also applied to the brewing of their beans. Brew Lab firmly believes that filter coffee, prepared by hand using Kalita Wave pour-overs, is the optimum way to experience a coffee’s taste, texture and aroma. Behind the brew bar, they’ve even put up tasting notes for the benefit of more discerning coffee connoisseurs, ranging from orange zest to nougat. Throughout the store you’ll find hints of this café’s laboratory-like mentality, like their recent experiment offering retail bottles of Cold Brew Coffee: a single-origin coffee brewed overnight in Edinburgh water, and triple-filtered for a silky taste. They also offer coffee training courses, open to the public and held in their purpose-built espresso training bar to hone Edinburgh’s emerging baristas. Both respectful of tradition and irrepressibly forward-thinking, Brew Lab’s coffee scientists are making discoveries worthy of Fleming and Higgs.
Opening Hours: Monday to Sunday: 8am – 6pm
Watch out for: Bare-brick decor and pour-over Kalita coffees