A Must-See Guide to Edinburgh (First-Time Traveller)

Edinburgh, UK

Over the years, Edinburgh has grown in popularity among British visitors and visitors from around the world! So, it's only natural that one of the most common messages I get is "It's my first time visiting Edinburgh, what places and restaurants should I visit?". In the past, I've shared an Edinburgh weekend itinerary but I thought it would be a good idea to list my top 8 favourite places to visit if you are visiting Edinburgh for the first time, along with cafe recommendations and tips. So, if you're planning your visit to Edinburgh, I hope this is useful and I hope you have a fantastic time when you get here. Let's begin!

1. Edinburgh Castle

Okay, let's get Edinburgh's most iconic landmark out of the way first, Edinburgh Castle. I know a lot of people try to avoid overly touristy locations when they travel but I have to admit (even though I can't stand crowds) when I visited Paris I had to see the Eiffel Tower and likewise in New York, the Empire State Building was top of my list. However, the great thing about Edinburgh Castle is even if you're travelling on a budget or avoiding tourist hot spots, you can still enjoy great views of it from various spots around the city, as well as visiting the Castle esplanade for free.

My favourite views of Edinburgh Castle:
  • My all-time favourite view is from the Vennel steps, recently renamed "Miss Jean Brodie steps". You'll find the set of steps in the north-west corner of the Grassmarket. Look out for the famous Mary's Milk Bar ice cream parlour and you'll be near them.
  • Speaking of the Grassmarket, it also boasts a brilliant view of the Castle.
  • Lastly, another favourite spot of mine is West Princes Street Gardens. You can get a particularly good photo of the Castle with the Ross Fountain framed with whatever foliage is in season.
Since I have a Historic Scotland membership, I've visited the Castle on many occasions and do think it's worth visiting if you're interested in its history. It also offers wonderful panoramic views of the city. At the moment, it's £17.50 if you buy your tickets online and £19.50 if you turn up on the day.
Once inside, I would highly recommend going on their free walking tour around the Castle, as it gives you a chance to get your bearings and learn some of the Castle's fascinating history.

Places to Eat Nearby:
  • The Witchery: Hidden down Boswell Court, the Witchery is a gothic and decadent restaurant.
  • Hideout Cafe Old Town: A lovely nook for soups, sandwiches, coffee etc..
Edinburgh Castle from the Vennel

2. The Royal Mile Closes & Victoria Street

As its name suggests, the Royal Mile separates the Castle and Holyrood Palace and is a Scots mile long (Scotland once had its own measuring system). Before you set off exploring the Royal Mile, take a short detour at George IV Bridge to visit the extremely picturesque Victoria Street which will bring you to the Grassmarket. The Grassmarket has an interesting history, originally (as the name suggests) it was a marketplace for horse and cattle from the 14th century, and till this day there is still a weekly market on Saturdays. But, it was also known for its public executions. Nowadays it's a lively area, which often hosts events and is surrounded by bars and restaurants.

As you walk down the Royal Mile and nip into its various closes (small alleys) it's easy to forget that you're in the 21st  century and start imagining who walked or lived here 300 years ago. The closes have always been one of my favourite aspects of the Royal Mile as there are so many hidden gems waiting to be discovered within them, plus they're a great way to escape the crowds during peak-tourist months. Click Here to see a list of all the closes, their history and where they are located. I've listed a couple of my favourites below, in case you're interested.

My favourite closes:
  • Boswell’s Court as mentioned above is the entrance to The Witchery Restaurant but even if you're not dining there it's such a pretty and characterful close. Plus, depending on what time of the year you visit you may be fortunate enough to see it decorated. 
  • Brodie’s Close will forever be associated with one of Edinburgh’s most infamous residents, Deacon William Brodie. It's quite a fascinating story that even inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Click Here to read the full story.
  • Advocate’s Close is one of the most popular photo hot spots and it's easy to see why. The Scott Monument is perfectly framed by the close and the old-fashioned lamp.
  • Dunbar’s Close is hidden towards the bottom of the Royal Mile and is often passed by local residents or visitors without a second thought. Once you enter the close, you'll leave behind the sounds of the city and be met by one of the loveliest secret gardens.
  • White Horse Close is just a few steps from Holyrood Palace and is one of the most picturesque and charming closes. It's higglety pigglety architecture style and quirky features make it so endearing. 
Places to Eat Nearby: 
There are countless places to eat along the Royal Mile, the trickiest part will be choosing which one! Here are just a few of my favourites.
  • Gannet & Guga and Baba Budan: Not technically on the Royal Mile but just a short distance from it is Gannet & Guga. Tucked away in one of the New Waverley Arches, this lovely cafe serves up a range of delicious gourmet sandwiches and salads at affordable prices. If, like me, you enjoy a sweet treat after, head past a few more arches to Baba Budan for an artisan doughnut!
  • Angel with Bagpipes: The restaurant got acquired its quirky name thanks to St Giles Cathedral who's situated directly opposite them and is home to a tiny wooden statue of an angel with bagpipes - apparently the only one in the world. Angel with Bagpipes is a Michelin Guide restaurant and serves up modern takes on Scottish classics. Having been, I would highly recommend it. 
  • La Locanda: Located on Cockburn (pronounced Coburn) Street, just off the Royal Mile, is a little Italian gem called La Locanda. The restaurant has a lovely cosy yet elegant atmosphere and serves up authentic Italian dishes. My personal favourite is their home-made lasagne!
  • Looking for Haggis? I know many visitors are keen to try haggis in Scotland for the first time and if that's the case I know that Howies and the Haggis Box offer both authentic and vegetarian haggis!
White Horse Close

3. National Museum of Scotland

The National Museum of Scotland is one of Edinburgh's great treasures and the great thing is it's completely free (although donations are welcome). The vast museum houses everything from Scotland's history to modern fashion, you could easily spend a day wandering around all the rooms and looking at the different exhibitions. I've spent many a rainy afternoon here. If you're travelling with your family, they have a brilliant children's room which will keep your little ones entertained for a while! Lastly, if you thought the museum couldn't get any better, find the lift/stairs which takes you up to the roof terrace and you'll be greeted by wonderful views over the city.

Places to Eat Nearby: 
  • Balcony Café, Museum Brasserie, and Tower Restaurant: If you'd like to spend the whole day in the National Museum of Scotland, you can as the museum has three lovely places to choose from.
  • Union of Genius: If you're visiting in the colder months or on a particularly miserable day, head along to Union of Genius (Scotland's first soup cafe) for lunch. It's a popular spot among locals and students so I would aim to get there just before or after the lunch rush as the cafe is pretty small.
  • Black Medicine Coffee & Brew Lab: If you're looking for a coffee or light lunch, Black Medicine Coffee and Brew Lab are both near the museum.
National Museum of Scotland rooftop terrace

4. Calton Hill or Arthur's Seat for views of the city

If you feel like a little light exercise and fantastic views of the city, there are two great locations in the city centre. First, Calton Hill, which is definitely the more accessible of the two but still boasts brilliant views of the city. It's also home to the National Monument (known as "Edinburgh's Disgrace", the Nelson Monument, and The Collective Art Gallery. Second, if you'd rather something more strenuous, head along to Arthur's Seat or the Crags for a hike up Edinburgh's extinct volcano.

Places to Eat Nearby: 
  • MILK at Collective: If you fancy sitting on Calton Hill admiring Edinburgh's cityscape with a cup of coffee in hand, look no further than MILK's takeaway coffee stand inside the Collective.
  • The Lookout: Calton Hill's newest addition is the Lookout restaurant by the Gardeners' Cottage. The fairly modest-in-size restaurant has made the most of its location with floor to ceiling windows looking out over the city. They're open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and be sure to book if you want to guarantee you get a table.

5. Dean Village

Dean Village is a tranquil green oasis on the Water of Leith and only takes roughly 15-minutes to walk from the west end of Princes Street. Just a few years ago, Dean Village remained a relatively hidden gem, however, thanks to its extremely picturesque views and Instagram, Dean Village has become a fairly popular spot amongst visitors. Despite its relatively small size, I've always had a soft spot for Dean Village and it comes close to one of my favourite spots in Edinburgh!

Places to Eat Nearby: 
  • Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art: The Gallery itself is well worth a visit, but if you're near Dean Village and fancy breakfast, lunch, or a snack then I recommend popping into either Café Modern One or Café Modern Two. Both cafes are extremely lovely and offer a wide range of food and drink options.
  • Cafe Braw: The only cafe that I know of in the Dean Village vicinity is Cafe Braw. They serve a range of home-baked goods, hot drinks, and welcomed dogs. It's fairly small so if you visit on a fair day you can sit outside or get a coffee or snack to-go.

6. The Shore & Newhaven

The Shore is somewhere most tourists miss as it is slightly further out of the city. However, there are several buses which will get you there in roughly 20-30 minutes. As you can see from the photo, the Shore is fairly different from what you'd imagine Edinburgh to look like and some have even likened it to a few European cities. From the Shore you can walk along to Newhaven (or take the bus). Newhaven is extremely picturesque and was once an old fishing village and harbour. As you walk around you'll spot houses that are traditional Scottish fishing villages and Newhaven's own little lighthouse!

Places to Eat Nearby: 
  • There are so many lovely cafes and restaurants along the water so you have no trouble finding somewhere, here are just a few of my favourites.
  • Roseleaf Bar Cafe: The Roseleaf Bar is one of my absolute favourite places to visit for lunch. Despite looking like a fairly traditional pub from the outside, the Roseleaf is actually extremely quirky inside with a great menu of delicious food. They also host events like mad hatter's tea parties with Pot-Tails (cocktails in teapots).
  • William & Johnson Coffee: Tucked away in Custom Lane, W&J is well-loved coffee shop who also roast their own coffee. The coffee shop is joined onto Custom Lane's pop up venue, which hosts a wide range of wonderful brands and exhibitions. 

8. Stockbridge and Circus Lane

Edinburgh is a city made up of various 'villages' and Stockbridge is the quintessential example of this. From specialised shops like local butchers, cheesemongers, florists, fishmongers, etc... there's a wonderful feel to the place. It's also very supported of independent businesses, making it a great place to pick up gifts or untraditional souvenirs with streets like St Stephen Street home to a range of thriving businesses like The Method, Golden Hare Books, and Catalog Ltd.
Tucked away on the boundary of New Town and Stockbridge is Circus Lane, most likely the most loved little lane in Edinburgh! With its charming mews houses, traditional street lamps, and iconic church spire, it's an Instagrammer's dream location.

Places to Eat Nearby: 
  • The Pastry Section, La Barantine, Soderberg, and Lovecrumbs: Stockbridge is so blessed to have four fantastic places to visit for a sweet treat. The Pastry Section is a contemporary bakehouse supplying Stockbridge with all manor of delectable desserts; La Barantine specialises in all things French patisserie; Lovecrumbs is famed for their cakes; and Soderberg serves up a range of delightful Scandanavian treats; as you can see they all have their own unique styles but are equally good!
  • Smith & Gertrude: I haven't personally visited Smith & Gertrude but a good friend of mine who has great taste has recommended it to me on several occasions and she's not alone! The wine and cheese bar has won over the hearts of locals by offering a great wine selection, various cheeses and nibbles, in an extremely laid-back and cosy atmosphere.

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