As an “Edinburgher” (yes, that is the term!) I feel compelled to guide visitors to the city to the best areas for full cultural immersion during your stay.
Whether it’s drinking with the locals down at the docks or sipping afternoon tea with highfalutin types in the posh part of town, there’s an Edinburgh experience for you.
What Does Modern Edinburgh Offer?
The city of Edinburgh has vastly expanded over the centuries as it grew from just one street with a castle built on the plug of an extinct volcano into the small metropolis it is now, of just under half a million people.
It swallowed up surrounding towns and villages and amassed them under the modern city we know today. This means that you’ll find parts of Edinburgh feel like separate towns and villages because at some point they were!
Modern Edinburgh is multi-cultural, a foodie haven, mad about the arts and locals lovingly refer to it as the ‘village city’ as everyone knows everyone! It’s very easy to fall in love with the people and the romanticism of its cobbled streets and green spaces.
The history of Edinburgh
Edinburgh has inspired many famous writers, thinkers (Scottish Enlightenment), inventors and its grey vistas abundant in spires are a delight for admirers of gothic architecture. To be mindful in your travels is to know a little bit about where you’re heading.
Here are some facts to get you started:
1. Edinburgh’s name – Do you know the other name for Edinburgh? It’s Auld Reekie. It comes from the English term ‘Old Smokey’ because when the city operated on coal its air was filled with pungent smoke. Not the case nowadays thankfully!
2. Edinburgh’s landscape – Its landscape was formed by a glacier and there are many hills you can climb in the city centre including Calton Hill, Arthurseat and Blackford Hill. Edinburgh also has 112 parks and has more listed buildings than anywhere in the world.
3. Political centre and education – It is indeed Scotland’s capital city, we have a Parliament building and Scotland has a devolved government (we create our own laws and independent regulation). Traditionally Edinburgh is a centre of education, we now have four universities and a highly regarded art college making it a student city which lends to its multi-culturalism.
4. Finance and festival city – It can often be looked upon as ‘Little London’ because it’s the UK’s second-largest financial district, but don’t let that put you off it’s also a festival city! Most months of the year are taken up by all kinds of festivals most notably the Fringe and International Festivals in August. Other festivals like the Science Festival in April and the International Film Festival in June/July and Hidden Door local arts festival in May are a few alternatives.
5. Edinburgh industries – Edinburgh was known for the three B’s (books, breweries and biscuits) and there has been a recent revival of breweries in Edinburgh so real ale and craft beer enthusiasts can get a taste of one of the city’s biggest past industries.
Edinburgh by area and neighbourhood: A mindful guide
From the city centre to the lesser-explored areas of Edinburgh, this is intended as a guide to help travellers, ex-pats and locals make mindful decisions when exploring Edinburgh. As local’s this includes points of interest, things to do and see, eat and drink and walks throughout the city.
Edinburgh City Centre – Old Town and New Town
The Old Town and The New Town are actually right next to each other and it’s the part of Edinburgh most tourists spend a lot of their time in, although the point of this guide is to get you to explore other parts of the city as you learn more about the different neighbourhoods! Major sights and attractions include Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Mile, the National Museum of Scotland and Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) art museum and gallery on the Mound, there’s something for everyone.
The Old Town covers the Royal Mile, North Bridge and South Bridge, Grassmarket, Cowgate, George IV Bridge and along to Chambers Street and towards Edinburgh University on Bristo Square next to the Meadows. The New Town is in front of the castle, so that covers Princes Street, George Street, Queen Street, Lothian Road and West Port. From the West End drop-down to Queensferry Road and Dean Village. In the East End find Calton Hill and venture down to Leith Street and Broughton Street. There are other streets, but these are the main ones for reference.
The city centre has many attractions. Museums are largely free in Edinburgh (The People’s Story, Museum of Edinburgh, Writer’s Museum, National Museum of Scotland, Museum of Childhood) and art galleries include City Art Gallery, Fruitmarket Gallery, Dovecot Studios and Talbott Rice Gallery in Edinburgh University. The Scottish Parliament has free tours and is in a prime location next to Arthurseat for fantastic city views. On Calton Hill are monuments to commemorate Edinburgh’s maritime history, the Collective art gallery and next to Dean Village is the Museum of Modern Art.
If you’re a sucker for Harry Potter, you can also do a self-guided tour around the spots that inspired JK Rowling – Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, Victoria Street, Spoon restaurant (where she wrote some of the books). Take time to explore Edinburgh’s Closes which are narrow streets that contain hidden gardens, courtyards, restaurants, bars and museums. You’ll also find local recommendations and downloadable local tours with a company called Hidden Trax.
You’ll find the main shopping streets are Princes Street for your high street chains, Rose Street for more chain and the odd independent shop and George Street for designer clobber. Branch out and buy local! Down the colourful and ‘Insta/Harry Potter’ famous Victoria Street you can draw comparisons with Diagon Alley and visit independent food vendors, vintage shops and Scottish designers. That stretches into the Grassmarket which also has a fantastic local market on Saturday’s. The new Edinburgh Arches next to Waverley station also offer chic bars, cafes and independent shops in a space reclaimed by local residents.
For those who like to party, George Street is where the swanky bars and nightclubs are, popular with Edinburgh University students. In the Cowgate is where you’ll find everyone else, there’s a mix of alternative clubs (Sneaky Pete’s, Bongo, Cabaret Voltaire), cheap bars, craft beer bars and something to suit all tastes and budgets. Free live music can also be found at Stramash every night and local bars like Whistle Binkie’s, Captain’s Bar and Sandy Bells.
Eating out in the city centre doesn’t have to mean chains, there are lots of independent and ethical chains that support the local economy. For a true taste of Scotland, give a hard pass to anything that promotes itself as ‘traditional’ or has lifesize models of Robert Burns in the window. Try cafes and restaurants on Broughton street, South Bridge (good for international food), and you will find the non-commercial places dotted around the city centre (Wedgwood, The Milkman Cafe, Hideout Cafe are a few locals recommend). Social Bite sandwich shops are also an inspiring social business who do so much to tackle homelessness in Scotland. On the Grassmarket is the Grassmarket Cafe which is a community-led organisation open to anyone.
Leith, The Shore and Newhaven (North Edinburgh)
Leith has been a part of Edinburgh city for a hundred years. It was the city’s major port and Leith used to be filled with lairy sailors, ladies of the night and much debauchery until quite recently. Leith was also the setting for the original Trainspotting. It was considered a poor part of the city and there was rampant heroin use but in the last twenty years, it has turned itself around. Now it is Edinburgh’s most extreme example of gentrification with a very strong community.
The motto for Leith is ‘Persevere’ which can be seen emblazoned on coats of arms around the area and it is thought it is symbolic of protection. This is where I spent a large part of my teenage years (Jen), to me it was a rough place to live. After spending years living away from here, when I came back I rediscovered its history. I connected with the people who made the area what it is. Now there is hope for a new direction that includes fighting for heritage buildings, community gardens, a strong focus on social housing and affordable living.
Leith Walk runs down from Leith Street and will take around 30/40 minutes to walk down to The Shore, Pilrig is halfway down the Walk and Easter Road runs adjacent to Leith Walk. At the bottom, it takes you onto Junction Street, the Kirkgate and Constitution Street for that real Leith flavour. Onto The Shore is where the Water of Leith ends as it flows into the River Forth. Further on from here is Newhaven on the coast.
Edinburgh’s maritime history is showcased in places like Trinity House who organise free tours on Tuesdays. This history can also be seen by walking around The Shore with its quaint buildings and reminders of what was once a busy port. The Royal Yacht Britannia is docked next to the Ocean Terminal shopping centre. Custom’s Lane in Custom’s House is an interesting mix of creatives and local businesses inspired by the heritage of Leith. A walk from here or short bus journey takes you to Newhaven harbour with its white lighthouse and cute village-like appeal.
Thrifty shoppers will find charity shop bargains from places like Bethany (local homeless charity) and St Columbus (local hospice). High street shops are located in the Ocean Terminal where the Scottish Design Exchange resides. The Out of the Blue Drill Hall (community centre) run monthly flea markets and vintage kilo sales. On Saturday’s there is Leith Market next to Custom’s Lane. Independent shops (gift shops, music stores, bookshops etc) are spread out across Leith. This part of the city is also the best place to find international supermarkets as Leith is one of Edinburgh’s most multi-cultural areas.
The food scene in Leith is fantastically diverse with local and international offerings all the way down Leith Walk, seafood and fresh Scottish fare on The Shore which is also the go-to area for brunch lovers, from the likes of Nobles, Roseleaf, Toast and vegan restaurant Harmonium. Some hidden gems are Alplings (Austrian), Ostara Cafe (Scottish and sustainable), the Sicilian Bakery and Cutting Chai (Indian street food). The Pitt market is on once a month, with a focus on Scottish street food with DJs providing entertainment.
Bars in Leith are filled with residents, locals and ex-pats and you can find everything from cosy corners to lively drinking holes. Live music venues include Leith Depot, comedy at Brig Below, and craft beer at Leith Arches. At the weekend discover the Campervan Brewery Tap Room and sample real ales in Malt and Hops. In June, bars band together to host for free the Leith Jazz and Blues Festival which is always a great way to mingle with the locals.
Stockbridge and Inverleith (Northwest)
The affluent areas of Stockbridge and Inverleith are a direct contrast to Leith, although not far from each other. Stockbridge was an outlying village incorporated into the City of Edinburgh in the 19th century and is one of the most pleasant areas to meander in the city. Inverleith is a wealthy suburb of Edinburgh which is home to the Royal Botanical Gardens and Inverleith Park which are directly behind Stockbridge.
Stockbridge is best for strolling, taking in some shopping and cafe lounging. Inverleith is where to go to escape city life, get back to nature, and perhaps spot the odd cute dog in Inverleith Park.
It’s easiest to start your Stockbridge exploration from the old mill buildings of Dean Village which follows the Water of Leith down to the main part of Stockbridge. You’ll pass St Bernard’s Well, Duncan’s Land and the pretty Potted Garden – an old house adorned with potted plants. Walk over the stone bridge where the area takes its name (it was a timber bridge in the past) and carry on along the quaint cobblestoned Circus Lane and admire St Stephen’s church designed by William Playfair.
St Stephen’s Street is a haven for independent stores. It’s where you’ll find the Stockbridge Market archway which was once the entry point to Edinburgh’s largest market. Unfortunately, this is no more.
There is a Stockbridge Market on Sunday’s though which fills this gap. A lovely mix of local food vendors, designers and artists. Along the main street, you’ll come across a slew of second-hand shops. One charity shop even does bridal wear for cheap prices! The streets along the main stretch are Deanhaugh Street, Raeburn Place and Kerr Street.
Don’t miss an Antony Gormley statue in the Water of Leith as you cross the bridge. Along Raeburn Place, you will find Dean Park Mews and Ann Street. Admire the well-maintained gardens and adorable houses here.
Past the cricket grounds is Inverleith Park. This expanse of green space in the middle of the city has views to Edinburgh Castle, a swan pond and gardens. Fettes College is a very Hogwarts-Esque school located next to the park. Over the road are the Royal Botanical Gardens which are free to enter. They are this writer’s favourite place in the city!
Every time I go, the Botanics feels bigger. It’s always a calming and educational experience – this place is just pure joy. The Palm House does costs a small fee to enter. Inside is a beautiful 1840 tropical palm house. There is another part that is free to enter. Don’t miss the Rock Garden on your way out of the gardens. It gives unspoilt views up to Edinburgh’s city centre.
Cafes, restaurants and bars are aplenty in Stockbridge on the main thoroughfare. Independent and family-run businesses and chains can be found, nothing here is bad quality as it’s an affluent area! Stockbridge staple Cowan and Sons, The Pantry and The Pastry Section are perfect lunch or brunch spots. Rollo, The Kilted Kitchen, Purslane, Nok’s Kitchen and Scran and Scallie are some fantastic all-round dining choices. Have a cheeky slice of cake in Lovecrumb’s. Enjoy top-notch coffee from Artisan Roast. Finally, taste restaurant-quality cheese from the iconic IG Mellis cheesemongers.
Finish off with drinks from this area’s pubs – a personal favourite is The Stockbridge Tap. You’ll get knowledgable bartenders and a non-pretentious, relaxed atmosphere. For a cosy, vintage-inspired cocktail bar check out The Last Word Saloon on St Stephen’s Street.
Morningside, Bruntsfield and Tollcross (Southwest)
On the opposite side of the city centre is Tollcross which leads up from Lothian Road. It snakes around to Bruntsfield and Morningside. This is the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of the city centre. It offers some hidden delights that most tourists never see.
Tollcross is a crossroads which is a popular place for students. It’s also a cheaper way to live or stay close to the city centre. It only takes fifteen minutes to walk there from the West End of Princes Street. It leads into the popular Meadows. This huge park is filled with dog walkers, sports or picnickers when the weather is a bit more forgiving. The Forest Cafe is a lovely addition to the area. Vegan and vegetarian food is served here and it’s completely volunteer-run. In the Meadows itself is the family-friendly Pavillion Cafe.
Back to the main thoroughfare, there are some second-hand shops to do a bit of shopping. Most independent shops (The Edinburgh Bookshop, Curiouser gift shop, Ooh Ruby Shoes and greengrocers Digin) are further up in Bruntsfield and Morningside. This is another second-hand shopping haven – you can pick up designer clothes for a very reasonable price!
There are two delightful cinemas to check out in both Tollcross and Morningside. Cameo Picturehouse and its adjoining bar specialise in arthouse and international films with some Hollywood films on show. Set up in 1914, it’s one of Scotland’s oldest cinemas still in use. It still has its original entrance lobby and architectural features.
Tollcross is also home to Edinburgh’s most beloved theatre, The King’s Theatre. It opened in 1906 and it’s foundation stone was laid by Andrew Carnegie! It shows traditional pantomimes in the winter months (he’s behind you!) and plays. It’s worth getting tickets just to marvel the John Byrne mural. It graces the ceiling of this prominent and important wee theatre.
In Morningside is the independent Dominion Cinema. This opened in 1938. A beautiful Art Deco style building, it was designed by architect Thomas Bowhill Gibson. Fun fact! I used to live at the back of the cinema when I attended university! The screens have seriously comfy chairs and sofas inside. It’s the most relaxed experience you can have while watching a film.
Just up from the King’s Theatre is Bruntsfield Links. This is a short hole golf course with views over to Arthur’s Seat and the Craggs. It’s also one of Scotland’s only free public golf courses. You can hire clubs and scorecards from the Golf Tavern for £5 per player and enjoy a pint afterwards. It’s a lovely afternoon activity in the city centre and a good laugh even if golf isn’t your forte!
Into Morningside, wander around residential streets and admire the wealthiest houses in the city and possibly in the country. This was the home of JK Rowling who has since moved. I did once bump into her in a line at the local Tesco supermarket – the most exciting day EVER.
Seek out the secret and curious Wild West Street in Morningside. Find it on Springvalley Gardens complete with a jail, cantina and general store facades. The western decor was designed by a business that’s since gone bust. This gives it a ghost town feel! Close to Morningside is the beautiful Blackford Hill. A short hike to the top will give views over the entirety of the city. It’s also home to the Royal Observatory. If you want to go a bit further walk to Braid Hills to further immerse yourself in Edinburgh’s green spaces.
The most famous drinking spot is the traditional Canny Mans pub. It was named by Rick Stein as being the best pub in the world which is high accolade! Popular spots also include Montpelliers in Bruntsfield and Bennets Bar in Tollcross. The Ball Room at the bottom of Morningside is great for cheaper drinks and a game of pool. Nearby, The Waiting Room was a popular spot for us poor students and is still a nice bar with good pub grub.
There are some gorgeous places to eat here. Try brunch at Salt Cafe and Bar or Honeycomb and Co. For Indian go to The Clay Oven or try Japanese cuisine from Harajuku Kitchen. Seeds for the Soul is fantastic for vegan food and Three Birds has creative Scottish fare. S Luca is a must for all ice-cream fans! The Morningside ice cream shop ran by the famous Italian family of the same name, is next to Holy Corner. This area is so named because of the number of churches here. The Chocolate Tree is another gem in Bruntsfield for the sweet-toothed among you. They have a huge variety of hot drinks including luscious hot melted chocolate with churros.
Newington, Marchmont, Craigmillar (South Edinburgh)
The Southside of Edinburgh is admittedly a wee bit of a mystery to me. I’ve lived in almost every other part of the city but here. Recently though, I had the opportunity to do a house sit here while visiting home for six weeks. Instantly I fell in love with Newington’s multi-culturalism and vibrancy to rival Leith.
Newington and Marchmont is home to a lot of students. Subsequently, there is an amazing choice of international eateries here alongside chic coffee shops. Edinburgh’s famous tenement style flats line the streets with views up to Arthurseat, which is easily accessible from here.
Craigmillar is a residential area but is most notable for being the home to Craigmillar Castle. This wonderful little castle is situated within a nature reserve in the city, a beautiful walk and day out. Post walk, a nice discovery was the Bridgend Farmhouse, a community-run project with a volunteer-staffed cafe inside.
Marchmont is worth walking around to discover hidden shops and cafes as it spills onto the Meadows. At one side of the Meadows, you’ll find Summerhall. It’s on the border between Marchmont and Newington in an area called Sciennes. Summerhall is a multi-arts venue in the old veterinary school which was a part of Edinburgh University. There are weekly Ceilidh Clubs that are open to all for a wee introduction to traditional Scottish folk dancing. It also has art exhibitions, gigs and the occasional club night.
It’s also one of the major venues for the Science Festival in April. At this festival is a bunch of interesting talks, interactive events and even cookery classes that are, you know, science-y! They have a lovely shop with a homely cafe at the front of the building. Inside is The Royal Dick pub with its colourful courtyard. The venue serves beer brewed on-site (Barney’s Beer) and their own gin (Pickering’s Gin), both are to be recommended!
Venture towards Buccleuch Street for a selection of great quality Asian restaurants, CULT Espresso and the legendary Snax Cafe where you can get the best greasy fry up which is perfect for a hangover. They even do deliveries at weekends if you really can’t move off the sofa! Walkthrough Gifford Park past some striking street art and you’ll arrive into Newington. From here you will see Armstrong’s Vintage, another selection of second-hand shops – seriously Edinburgh is the king of second-hand and vintage bargains!
The Queen’s Hall is worth seeking out to see if they have any classical concerts or music gigs on, it’s a wonderful venue for music with fantastic acoustics. Further down towards South Bridge, you’ll find the Festival Theatre which puts on everything from opera, ballet to musicals and plays.
If sporty activities are more your jam, the Commonwealth Pool is located here as is access to Arthurseat and the Crags. One recommended walk is to Duddingston village which is home to Edinburgh’s oldest pub, The Sheep Heid Inn, Duddingston loch and Dr Neil’s Secret Garden.
Newington definitely wins out when it comes to international cuisine, with Leith a close second. Every other building on the main stretch is something different from Korean, Vietnamese, South Indian, Nepalese, Malaysian, Italian, Chinese hot-pot, Japanese, Greek to the odd Scottish offering like Bonnie Burrito where you can get a haggis burrito – there’s too many to list! The Mosque Kitchen is at the back of a mosque and serves up affordable curries and there are some great budget-friendly options in Newington. Cinnamon bun fans can delight with a visit to 101 Bakery, get cosy in Kilimanjaro Cafe and grab a butterbeer in the Dog House bar!
Dalry/Gorgie (West Edinburgh)
Now I must say I have my prejudices against this part of the city, mostly because it’s where my rival football team resides, but it’s another fast-developing part of the city. Dalry starts at Haymarket Station, as you go along Dalry Road it turns into Gorgie Road and that eventually leads into the outskirts of Edinburgh. It’s an affordable residential area that also has a few hotels and hostels next to the train station.
Starting from Haymarket walk down Dalry Road, an area that’s mostly good for the odd charity shop and restaurants with cute terraced houses on Dalry Place and it’s a good location for getting to Fountainpark. This is a huge complex complete with cinema, laser tag, trampolining, gym, bowling, bars and restaurants. Architecture nerds might like a look at Fountainbridge Library, an excellent example of Scottish Modernism with Art Deco features.
Back down in Dalry, as it gets to the crossroads with Gorgie there’s a beautiful Victorian cemetery with overgrown vegetation. At the front is a beautiful cottage near the main road. As you get to Gorgie, the best thing to do here is to visit Gorgie City Farm. This is a fully working farm that’s free entry, but donations are welcome. It’s a little bit of the countryside inside the city centre for everyone to enjoy and learn from! It relies on donations and is volunteer-run. They have gardens, farm animals and a cafe and shop where you can buy what they grow!
From here it’s also within walking distance of Murrayfield. The national rugby stadium also hosts various events. It’s a good area to stay if you’re here for a gig at this stadium or here for events like the Six Nations. Next to this, you’ll find Murrayfield Ice Rink for anyone who enjoys some ice skating at a reasonable price.
The best Italian in the city is on Dalry Road. Locanda de Gusti is operated by a family from Naples who use their own recipes and flavours from Italy. They also own the delightful Pizzeria 1926 across the road. On the grapevine, I hear they are to open a bar in Dalry too! First Coast is a staple of the area. It serves delicious Scottish fare with creative international fusions. Across the road, there is French-Caribbean restaurant RiverLife, a cosy and joyful restaurant.
Other notable eateries are The Black Hoof (tapas), Xiang Bala Hotpot (Chinese) and GF Cafe (gluten-free). Gorgie has an understated food scene with Cafe Presko (Scottish and Filipino food) and Jessie May’s bar and kitchen. The latter is a family business with a gastropub menu. A lovely place to chill and watch sports or have a drink with friends. There are also good little international supermarkets and shops on the road as well.
Other Edinburgh neighbourhoods (A real local experience)
Corstorphine and Cramond – From here visit Edinburgh Zoo, go on walks inside the Corstorphine Nature Reserve and Hill next to the zoo, have tea and cake at Mimi’s Bakehouse and head down to Cramond village for beachy walks and walk over to Cramond Island in low tide (check tide times first!). Between these two areas is Lauriston Castle which has a beautiful Japanese garden and views across the Forth.
Lochend – This area is a bit rough around the edges, but it’s honestly fine. It’s located right next to Leith in the Easter Road area (next to the Hibernian stadium) and Leith Links park. It leads into Craigentinny famous for its golf course and eventually leads to Portobello.
Portobello – On the outskirts of the city, this is a fantastic place to visit even if you don’t stay here and it’s CHEAP. It has a gorgeous beach, quirky bars and eateries, a traditional British arcade and amazing coastal walks.
Marchmont – Next to Morningside and The Meadows is this gorgeous part of the city. It’s mostly Victorian tenement style flats, dare I say hipster coffee shops and Arden Street is home to Ian Rankin’s fictional Detective Inspector John Rebus!
Silverknowes – On the west side of Edinburgh is this little pocket of council housing and mix of cute cottages – it’s varied but not unsafe and actually an amazing location to come to visit Lauriston Castle and Cramond. Next to Silverknowes you’ll find Drylaw, Muirhouse, Pilton and Granton the latter two being close to Edinburgh College (Telford). This is completely off the tourist trail and a completely different side to Edinburgh but is most just residential housing.
Longstone, Juniper Green and Currie – Longstone is along the Water of Leith but on the Southwest side of the city. Here you’ll find a museum to the Water of Leith and lovely woodland walks, plus a very impressive aqueduct which carries the Union Canal. Currie is a beautiful suburb on the outskirts, but mostly just residential.
Liberton and Gracemount – On the southside of the city is this neighbourhood which has some hidden delights including the Liberton Golf Club which you can get a day pass for, Liberton Kirk, a beautiful hidden church and easy access to Newington, Craigmillar Castle and next to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.
The Pentlands and Bonaly – For hikes, you can’t get better than these hills which surround one side of Edinburgh, great for wild camping and Bonaly reservoir is a pretty walk. There is also skiing on a dry slope here and it’s where the Secret Herb Garden lives.
South Queensferry – The small town on the outskirts of Edinburgh with a full view of the Three Bridges including the legendary red Forth Rail Bridge. The town’s main thoroughfare is a cobbled street with quaint colourful houses and a slew of cafes, restaurants and harbour.
Hopefully, this fills in any gaps in your Edinburgh knowledge and gives an idea of what each area and neighbourhood has to offer. Go forth and be mindful – listen to what you want or need and find your own unique way to enjoy Scotland’s capital city.
Links and other helpful resources
For a list of Edinburgh attractions and things to do here are some good resources:
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