With its historic architecture, cobbled streets and Edinburgh Castle dominating the skyline, the Scottish capital is a beautiful hub of art and creativity, that’s brimming with neighbourhoods that each have a unique atmosphere.
You can stop by Newhaven – a fishing village west of Leith, founded in the 1400s or visit Bruntsfield where James IV gathered the Scottish army he marched to its defeat at Flodden in 1513. Or perhaps, you’d be interested in venturing towards Tollcross & West End where Edinburgh’s theatre district and conference centre are located in the area west of the castle.
Yet somehow, most visitors are guilty of spending too much time wandering the cobbled streets and narrow closes of the Old Town and rarely venturing beyond the famous Royal Mile. But when you take the time to explore some of the city’s lesser-known neighbourhoods you get to see a mix of what Edinburgh has to offer and really get a sense of the city.
Edinburgh is divided into twelve very unique neighbourhood areas, each with its own special charm. During the three years, we lived in the city, we slowly combed through all of them, and I can confidently say that some of Edinburgh’s most noteworthy stays, sights and experiences are found off the main tourist trail.
It’s impossible to see everything that Edinburgh has to offer in one trip and we don’t suggest you try. What follows is a selective taste of some of the city’s most amazing neighbourhoods, some of which appear to be only a few streets and many that can be folded into the broader areas of Old and New Towns, worth exploring.
Leith – a modern hub of creativity with a rich maritime heritage
Located about 2.5 miles from Old Town, Leith is Edinburgh’s historic port that sits at the mouth of the Water of Leith and dates to the 12th century.
Leith is one of the city’s most vibrant neighbourhoods, with a dining scene that includes 2 Michelin-starred restaurants and with plenty of shops selling vinyl records and antiques.
You can learn about the town’s past as a maritime centre by visiting museums such as the Trinity House Maritime Museum.
The Royal Yacht Britannia museum, a floating royal residence that carried Her Majesty the Queen and the Royal Family around the world for over 40 years, is the most famous landmark in Leith. Next to the museum, you’ll find Ocean Terminal, a large leisure outlet that was built on the former industrial docklands with shops, restaurants, a cinema and play areas for the kids.
Top sights to see around Leith:
- Visit Pitt market set in an old industrial yard with food and music
- Experience the cutting edge contemporary art at the costume house
- Sample existing new craft ales at Leith’s microbreweries
- Stroll along the Waters of Leith walkway
Getting there | Just past Carlton Hill, head down Elm Row, and the street eventually changes to Leith Walk from where you can walk to the Shore. The walk takes around 40 minutes each way. You can hitch a bus on the 12, 16, or 22 bus to Ocean Drive near the Royal Yacht Britannia.
Edinburgh’s Old Town – a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s full of historic buildings
Home to some of the most popular tourist attractions as well as plenty of ghosts hunted pubs, cafes, museums that tell the story of Edinburgh’s residents through the years and many souvenir shops, Edinburgh’s Old Town is the oldest part of the city and also one of the busiest tourist centres in Edinburgh.
Upon arriving, you’ll notice that the structure of Edinburgh’s Old Town is quite fascinating due to the land that it is built on; it lies on what’s known as a ‘crag and tail’ formation, with an extinct volcano at the top on which you’ll find Edinburgh Castle.
The Royal Mile, also known as the High Street is the main street treading throuth the old town with tall buildings and narrow alleyways which are the remnants of vast overcrowding in the past, running off on both sides.
The Old Town can get rather busy, particularly during the festivals, but due to its medieval street plan, there are plenty of places to take a break from the crowds. That’s why it pays off to know where to go if you need a quiet moment. That’s why places like Dunbars Close and Lady Stair’s Close are perfect for the weary visitor needing a moment to sit down and rest.
Top sights to see around Old Town:
- The Advocates Close – one of Edinburgh’s oldest closes believed to date from 1544. Positioned opposite At Giles Cathedral, this photogenic alley plunges down from the Royal Mile to Cockburn Street
- Scotch Whisky Experience – a five-star attraction with the World’s Largest Collection of Scotch Whisky
- St. Gile’s Cathedral – a notable church with stunning architecture to marvel at
- Edinburgh Castle – the symbol of Edinburgh that affords a glimpse into the city’s past
- Writers Museum – home to rare objects from Scotland’s literary history
Getting there | North Bridge is well served by Lothian Buses. Buses 1, 8, 19, 35 and 37 are just some of the buses that stop there.
Stockbridge – a village-like suburb with an array of outdoor landmarks
Located a step away from the city centre, Stockbridge is a lovely suburb characterised by its rows of elegant Victorian and Georgian terraces and often ranks among Edinburgh’s best places to live.
In the past, the village housed mills of various kinds and the remnants of the industry can still be seen today. The most striking building in the Dean Village is Well Court, recently restored with support from Edinburgh World Heritage.
Top sights to see around Stockbridge:
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is a must-see venue for modern and contemporary art and is home to fantastic sculpture parks.
- Swing by the magnificent variety of charity shops, antique dealers, award-winning bookstores and art galleries
- Wander around Royal Botanic Gardens which exhibits an extraordinary collection of plants from all climatic zones
- Stop by Stockbridge Sunday Market to pick u freshly baked goodies and organic produce
- Walk, hike or bike along the famous River Walk
Getting there | You can find Stockbridge just a few minutes from Princes Street to the north of the New Town
New Town – an urban masterpiece full of neo-classical icons
Edinburgh’s New Town, where the imposing Gothic needle looms over Princes Street Gardens, is a mixture of classical architecture, grand squares and terraces, gardens and secluded lanes. There are plenty of hidden gems to uncover that lie around the grand Georgian setting of the New Town.
It was built between 1766 and 1820, and you’ll see right away that the architecture here is mostly Georgian neoclassical, with much influence taken from the buildings of Ancient Greece. The houses are elegant, and the streets are wide, and lined with chic cocktail bars and designer shops offering a very different look and feel to the Old Town.
Charlotte Square, designed by the architect Robert Adam in 1791, is regarded as an architectural masterpiece worth visiting and is the tranquil St Andrew Square Garden that hosts a number of events throughout the year such as Film Fest in the City.
Top sights to see around New Town:
- Stop by the National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery
- Watch musical or big-name stand-up comedians at the Edinburgh Playhouse
- Go for retail therapy on Princes Street and Gorge street
- Take in the views from the Calton Hill
Getting there | Princes Street and George Street are well served by Lothian Buses, with services from across the city stopping here.
Grassmarket – a historic marketplace with a notorious past
Take a walk down Victoria Street to the Grassmarket, with its steep winding incline and tall buildings, and you’ll quickly realise why.
Back in 1477, the Grassmarket was one of the most predominant marketplaces in Edinburgh, but today, it is a prime spot for restaurants, shops, hotels and bars, including the famously hunted White Hart Inn – the oldest pub in Edinburgh.
It is nestled in the heart of Edinburgh’s historic old town, behind the castle, are therefore provides fantastic views of Edinburgh Castle.
The darker side of the Grassmarket, and perhaps what it is most famous for, are the public executions which took place here from 1660 to 1784. This was also the site where, between 1661 and 1668, over 100 Covenanters were put to death during a period of conflict between the Kirk and the Crown.
Top things to see around Grassmarket:
- Browse the stalls at Grassmarket Market that’s open every Saturday all year round 10am to 5pm.
- Cat lovers should go to Edinburgh’s only cat cafe, Maison de Moggy, where you can enjoy tea, coffee and cake whilst surrounded by furry friends.
- Walk down Victoria Street to Grassmarket and admire the colourful buildings
- Take in the stunning views of Edinburgh Castle from the Vennel
- Stop by one of the smallest pubs in Grassmarket theMaggie Dickson’s Pub and learn the story of Maggie Dickson
Getting there | Lothian Buses 23 and 27 stop within easy walking distance of the area’s main attractions.
North Queensferry – a little gem of a village in a unique location
Just a few minute’s train ride from Edinburgh Waverley Station is one of the most quaint neighbours that sit in the shadow of the UNESCO World Heritage Forth Bridge – North Queensferry.
Upon arrival at the North Queensferry Victorian Railway Station which has stood the test of time, you’ll be greeted by a large mural on the Northbound side commemorating the station’s hundred years of use in 1990 and be able to see the beginning of the iconic Forth Bridge.
There isn’t much to see and do per see but given the ability to see three iconic bridges – UNESCO World Heritage Forth Bridge, its younger neighbour the Forth Road Bridge, and the newest addition, the Queensferry Crossing – it makes for a great half-day trip.
Top things to see around North Queensferry:
- Climb the world’s smallest working Queensferry Light Tower to enjoy a unique view of the Forth Bridge
- Take a walk along the popular Fife Coastal Path to the nature reserve at Carlingnose Point to watch wildlife
- Walk across the Forth Road Bridge and take time to enjoy the views across the river
- Visit Deep Sea World and find out what life is like at the bottom of the sea.
Getting there | ScotRail runs a regular service from Edinburgh Waverly to Dalmeny, which takes approximately 20 minutes. It is then a 15-minute walk into the town centre.
How to get to Edinburgh
Fly into Edinburgh airport which has direct flights from many destinations in Europe, some from the Middle East and select cities in the U.S. like Boston, Chicago, Washington DC, Philadelphia and New York.
The airport is located approximately 8 miles away from the city centre and only has one terminal. Once you arrive, you can either rent a car at the airport or take a taxi or Uber into town which only takes about 20-30 minutes depending on traffic.
Parking in the city is sparse, so I’d recommend just grabbing a cab or Uber to save yourself the hassle.
You can also travel by tram or Airlink (service 100) express bus. the route to and from the airport runs 24 hours a day every 10 minutes approximately.
When to go to Edinburgh
Deciding when to visit Edinburgh all depends on what you’re looking to get out of your visit. We travelled in the middle of November when the average maximum daytime temperature lies around 9 C and when you hardly see any sun, yet we ended up having a great time.
Most people don’t tend to visit Edinburgh during this period since it is known as a chilly and rainy month, but if you visit in November, always bring warm clothes, an umbrella and warm hats and gloves.
If you’re more into warmer weather, wait until the summer months to visit, but expect more competition on hotels, room rates and dinner reservations so be ready to plan ahead!
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Now, over to you!
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