Edinburgh, the fairytale capital of Scotland, attracts visitors with its fascinating history, elegant architecture, world-famous festivals and magnificent hilltop castle. It’s a city where one minute, traversing its cobblestone streets, you can step step back in time — and the next minute, exploring its modern shopping venues and excellent contemporary restaurants, you can step right back into the 21st century.
It is also a place known for its ubiquitous bagpipe music and haggis, Scotland’s famous savory pudding.
But it is also so much more than all this.
Locals Weigh In
To get a sense of what Edinburgh has to offer beyond the expected, we turned to locals Caroline Convey and Kenris MacLeod.
Caroline was born and brought up in Edinburgh, and is always enthusiastic about her city. She is an artist who specializes in drawing and painting animals and studied Fine Art at the Glasgow School of Art. She now works from her studio in Musselburgh on the outskirts of Edinburgh. She exhibits and sells her work from a variety of venues across Scotland. You can see some of her work here.
Kenris MacLeod is a textile artist who was born and raised in Edinburgh where, after a few sojourns away from the city over the years, she now lives and works. She creates her art by using free motion machine embroidery, focusing mainly on the natural world — trees in particular. You can see her work here.
Here’s what these experts have to say about a city with surprises at every turn.
Tourist Trap to Avoid
Caroline and Kenris would both give the tartan “tat” shops in Old Town — selling the patterned fabrics famously associated with kilts — a big swerve. Caroline says: “I think it’s a shame that people think that Scotland is all about tartan, Nessie and bagpipes, when there’s so much more to it than that.”
Caroline would give The Royal Yacht Britannia, the former royal yacht of Queen Elizabeth II, a miss too. “I’m not a royalist and am not really interested in seeing the style the modern royal family travel in.”
Tourist Trap That's Actually Really Cool
Kenris really likes The National Museum of Scotland, even though it can sometimes be crowded. “It has exhibits on everything from the natural world and art and design, to science and technology and Scottish antiques.”
Caroline, meanwhile, loves Camera Obscura & World of Illusions, featuring exhibits including a mirror maze and a vortex tunnel. She says: “It’s cool on its own, but to get up to it you have to climb up through various rooms with optical illusions. The view from the top is spectacular.”
Best Spot for Fancy Dining
For a sophisticated night out, Caroline heads to Angels with Bagpipes on the Royal Mile. “It’s very classy and their venison is melt-in-your-mouth.”
Kenris prefers The Villager on George IV Bridge. “It’s a wine and cocktail bar, which also serves posh pub food.” Dishes include veal cutlet with mash, sweet and sour rhubarb, and a berry gravy; and haddock and prawn tempura with ginger puy lentils and pickled zucchini (known as courgette in the UK).
Best Spot for Cheap and Greasy Dining
Kenris loves Mums Great Comfort Food on Forrest Road. The restaurant uses high-quality ingredients to make Scottish favorites such as sausage and mash and hearty pies.
Caroline favors Olly Bongo’s on Teviot Place. “It’s a really relaxed and friendly café that serves Scottish and Mediterranean food. In the summer you can enjoy your meal sitting on cushions in the wide-open windows, looking out onto the University and the Meadows park.”
Best Place for Families
Kenris takes visiting families up to the famous Arthur’s Seat — a rocky pinnacle towering over the city. The hill is surrounded by extensive parkland perfect for entertaining little ones.
Caroline prefers Jupiter Artland, a sculpture park on the outskirts of Edinburgh, for families. “We’ve been loads of times with the kids and friends,” she says. “They give you a map of the sculpture trail as you arrive and the kids love that. It’s a really magical place and they have a cool visitor’s center as well, with a beautiful courtyard to sit out in and a shiny 1950s van to buy refreshments from.”
Best Hidden Spot for Romance
Caroline loves Stockbridge, “a pretty wee town just north of the city center with lovely cafes and independent shops. You can imagine gently strolling around there on a Sunday morning with your loved one or having a romantic meal in one of the cool bars or restaurants in the evening.”
Kenris likes Dr Neil’s Garden in Duddingston for a bit of romance. The lovely botanical garden is filled with flower beds, lakes, ponds and a historic tower.
Best Location for a Daytrip
Kenris and Caroline both think that East Lothian — a region about a half hour outside Edinburgh that’s known for its staggering cliffs and coastline — is a great area to explore.
Caroline enjoys the region’s castles, Tantallon and Dirleton, while Kenris loves Tyninghame Beach. Vast, wild and sandy, it is backed by dunes and offers views out to a huge rock in the sea.
“There are also lovely little towns nearby, like North Berwick and Gullane, which have cool shops and trendy cafes,” Caroline says. “For nice walks there’s Archerfield Walled garden, which has a little sculpture trail, a brewery and a restaurant, or Pressmennan Wood, which has fairy dwellings in the trees.”
Best Cup of Joe
Caroline and Kenris both agree that Edinburgh is filled with great coffee shops and that the city is all about eating and drinking.
When she needs her caffeine fix, Caroline prefers Mimi’s Bakehouse in Leith because of the variety of cakes it serves with its coffee. Kenris goes to Wellington Coffee on Hanover Street, favoring the pure quality of its blends.
Best Local Cocktail
Caroline likes to go for a classic Sottish whisky cocktail at Whiski Rooms atop The Mound, a Scottish hill. “I like the pretty setting and the twinkly lights inside, and it’s right at the heart of the city, so it’s in a really great spot.” She also enjoys the bar's Rob Roy, a Manhattan made with Scotch instead of Bourbon.
Kenris, meanwhile, likes to go for something a little more unusual. “I love the slushies at the quirky Hoot the Redeemer bar,” she says. These frozen cocktails come in combinations like Tanqueray gin, Lillet Blanc, Blue Curacao and lemon juice.
Best (and Worst) Months in the City
Caroline’s favorite month is August “because that’s when the festivals are on,” she says. “The city’s buzzing with visitors, performers and festival-goers. Just about every building and street corner is turned into a venue. We always make sure that we have tickets to a few shows so that we can feel part of it all.”
Kenris completely disagrees, and says that August is her least favorite “because the city is so crowded, you can’t move.” She loves September instead, when the festivals are over “and we get our city back!”
Caroline reserves her hate for January in Edinburgh. She says: “It’s really dark, cold and grim, and all of the decorations and markets from Christmas and Hogmanay [the Scottish word for New Year's Eve] have come down.”
Hippest Shop in Town
Kenris loves Art and Vintage on Lyne Street. “They sell cool vintage Nordic wares, sourced directly from Scandinavia, and have lovely friendly owners, a great atmosphere, local art and tasty food.”
Caroline can’t decide on just one hip shop, so she suggests the hippest street for shopping — Victoria Street. “It has lots of cool shops like I.J.Mellis, a Scottish artisanal cheese shop, and Demijohn, a liquid deli, where you can buy unusual British spirits and liqueurs, and have them put in bottles of your choice.”
Weirdest Place in Town
Kenris suggests the Summerhall arts complex, a former vet school that’s now a thriving arts venue, open all year round. “You can still wander around the building, happening upon old dissecting rooms and paneled lecture theaters,” she says. “It feels almost derelict in places, but is actually anything but.”
Caroline thinks Mary King’s Close is very weird. “It’s a spooky (apparently haunted) street underneath the buildings on the Royal Mile,” she says. One-hour tours led by costumed character guides make for a truly spooky experience.
What to Buy Before Heading Home
Do not head home without trying “chips” with salt and sauce, says Kenris. Traditional British “chips,” which Americans know as chunky fries, are served with salt and vinegar in England. But in Scotland, it’s traditional to eat them with a thick brown ketchup-like sauce made from vinegar, tomatoes, molasses, dates, apples, tamarind and spices.
Caroline says you’d be remiss not to buy a bottle of Edinburgh Gin Elderflower Liqueur before leaving the city. “A splash is delicious in a glass of prosecco,” she says.
Why Edinburgh is Objectively the Best City on Planet Earth
Kenris says Edinburgh is No. 1 because “it has all the best things about living in a vibrant, wonderfully alive city without making you feel hemmed in.”
Caroline appreciates that Edinburgh “is a small city with a big-city attitude. It’s always buzzing with events and visitors. It looks like a fairytale, but is modern and vibrant.”