Updated: Apr 6, 2020
During my semester abroad, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit Edinburgh, Scotland with my friend Grace. We went for the weekend and spent three days exploring the city's historic cobblestone streets, seemingly being followed by the faint sound of bagpipes wherever we went, and sampling Scottish staples such as haggis.
I wanted to visit Scotland because of my Scottish heritage, but I had no idea just how much I would fall in love with the country. Not only is it chock-full of incredible history and culture, but the views from Arthur's Seat and the Edinburgh Castle absolutely blew me away.
When it came to our trip, there was so much to see and so little time. We ultimately wanted to see as much of the city as we could, which meant a pretty packed schedule for the two of us. However, I think we successfully managed to check everything off our bucket lists—and had so much fun while doing it.
Instead of detailing our every move, I wanted to try out a different format for this destination blog post. I narrowed down the list to 7 of my favorite things we did in Edinburgh, which I will share below with all of you:
1. Arthur's Seat
Grace and I sitting at the top of Arthur's Seat, probably still catching our breaths after the hike up.
The view from the top of Arthur's Seat is one I will truly never forget. Arthur's Seat is an extinct volcano that is considered the peak of a group of hills, situated in Holyrood Park. For those of you asking who is Arthur and why go to his seat, it is occasionally said to be named after legends pertaining to King Arthur. And why embark on the trek up to his seat? After completing your cardio workout for the day making your way to the top, you will get a panoramic view of the city. And even though we accidentally ended up taking the hardest way up the mountain, the view at the top made our hour journey worth it. Pro tip: I'd recommend doing this at the start of your trip when you have a lot of energy!
2. Edinburgh Castle
The view from the top of the Edinburgh Castle
The Edinburgh Castle is another must-see stop in Edinburgh. If you are interested in Scottish history, this landmark is the place to start. Tickets to enter the castle start at £11.50 per ticket and tourists typically spend anywhere from 1.5 to 3 hours in the castle. The oldest part of the castle, St. Margaret's Chapel, dates all the way back to the 12th century and the Great Wall of the castle was erected by James IV around 1510. I learned so much about Scotland's rather tumultuous, but fascinating history here, especially because they do a really great job of engaging visitors throughout the tour. For example, you'll see graphics of battles projected on the walls of the castle to an interactive dungeon space, where reenacted conversations between prisoners can be heard from speakers scattered throughout the prisoners' quarters. My favorite part of the castle was a space where you could research your family crest and print a document with your crest and family's history on it. At the end of the day, regardless of your age, you are bound to have a great time at the Edinburgh Castle!
3. The Royal Mile
A little reminder of London on The Royal Mile
The Royal Mile is great for shopping and hearing some bagpipes! It runs through the heart of Old Town and connects the Edinburgh Castle with Arthur's Seat. On this long stretch of cobblestone, you'll find lots of stores selling lambswool and cashmere scarves and shawls, your typical tourist spread of keychains and t-shirts and pretty much anything tartan. I think the best souvenir that was purchased here was Grace's calendar of various hot Scottish men wearing kilts. In addition to the, er, unique gifts that can be purchased on the Royal Mile, there are also a lot of great pubs on cute side-streets, where you can dine on classic Scottish cuisine.
4. Victoria Street
Me looking cheeky on Victoria Street. Just out of frame was an insane Harry Potter store.
Victoria Street was a particular favorite of mine, mainly due to my infinite love of Harry Potter. Victoria Street, otherwise known as the inspiration behind Diagon Alley in the popular fantasy series, boasts an array of multicolored storefronts. You will also notice that now, many of the stores are Harry Potter-themed; whether you are looking for a place to get a new wand or a chocolate frog, Victoria Street is the place to be. Another reason why I liked Victoria Street so much was because it was a quick six minute walk from our hostel, and we didn't realize how close we were until the end of our trip. This coincidence proves just how iconic Old Town Edinburgh is; there is fascinating history on every corner!
5. George Heriot's School
A view of the George Heriot's School's elaborate exterior at dusk (Photo credit: Chrisradleyphotography.com)
The George Heriot's School was also around the corner from our hostel. Upon first glance, it took us a while to figure out what the building was. Surely, we thought it was too grand to be a school. But after some research, we found out that not only was it a school, but also one of the inspirations behind Hogwarts in Harry Potter! Based of the photo above, I'm sure you can see why. Situated across from the University of Edinburgh, the school is an independent primary and secondary school that teaches approximately 1600 pupils. Originally, the school only admitted boys. However, in 1989, the school become coed. We also did some research on the history of the school, which we also found quite interesting. The school was founded in 1628 and had an initial mission to teach Scottish orphans. The school at one point was also occupied by Oliver Cromwell's English forces during the invasion of Scotland in the Third English Civil War; the building was even used as a barracks, with horses who were stabled in the school's chapel. If you decide to visit the school, keep in mind that it is still active, so you will not be able to enter its gates. I'd argue, however, it's still worth the visit.
6. The Witchery by the Castle
The Witchery is located right next to the Edinburgh Castle and the famous Camera Obscura
If you know me, you probably aren't surprised that a place called The Witchery ended up on my list of favorites. This place is considered to be one of the seven wonders of the world by Cosmopolitan! And although we were not able to enter The Witchery ourselves because we did not have a reservation, I'd recommend this place to anyone who is planning to visit Edinburgh. In addition to being a luxury hotel, the establishment also offers afternoon tea in its Secret Garden and an elegant dinner in its main dining area. From what I was able to see online, the dining room features long, wooden tables with gothic-inspired chandeliers and candles everywhere. In its rooms, you can stay in lavishly-decorated beds, truly fit for royalty. If you don't believe me, see for yourself. Unsurprisingly, this place too has a pretty wild background. According to The Witchery's website, the establishment is named after the hundreds of women who were burned at the stake as witches on Castlehill during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Only in Scotland, am I right?
7. Princes Street Gardens
The view of the castle from the park is truly unbelievable. Grace and I were laughing about how casual it all seemed to the Scots.
Last but not least, head to Princes Street Gardens for a relaxing afternoon stroll or a spot of tea in the park's food pavilion. Grace and I decided to stop here after walking all over Old Town for a cookie and tea pick-me-up...while we perused her Scottish guy calendar, of course! Although this fountain of the park is a Scottish staple, the colorful flowers in full bloom were equally as stunning.
Okay, I'll be honest. It was really hard for me to keep this list at 7 places. Although all of these spots are more historical destinations, we also had some really great food when we went to Edinburgh. If you are looking for a quick pick-me-up between activities or are curious to know where to get an awesome and affordable dinner spot in Old Town, look no further. Here were some of our favorite places to grab a bite:
Mary's Milk Bar - This place has some of the best gelato I've ever tasted, and it is also probably one of the cutest ice cream parlors I've ever been to. Go to Mary's Milk Bar for a colorful and quirky atmosphere with a spectacular view of the Edinburgh Castle.
Ting Thai Caravan- When we told our friends in London that we were heading to Edinburgh, they recommended this place for a fun and affordable dinner spot. I would obviously suggest coming here after you've had a proper Scottish meal, but if you are in town for a few days, Ting Thai Caravan is worth a try.
Civerinos Slice - This place is also in walking distance from Ting Thai Caravan, and has a similar youthful vibe with affordable prices. Located just around the corner from the University of Edinburgh, it's clear that this restaurant is a favorite for students looking for a great slice of pizza. My only tip is to plan on spending a good bit of time here; although the waiters were friendly, they tended to get a bit distracted talking to their guests!
The Last Drop - This is a great pub to have a proper pint of beer in Scotland. Located in the Grassmarket near the Edinburgh Castle, many prisoners came here before they were hung to have their last drop of alcohol. If that wasn't a good enough reason to check out the historic pub, it's also supposedly haunted! And if you're still not sold, I also hear they have a great classic, Scottish lunch menu ;).