So you only have 24 hours in Edinburgh? Well, my first piece of advice would be to start planning your return visit NOW!
A single day simply isn't enough to time to get more than the briefest taste of the fantastic flavours that Edinburgh has, but you can certainly spend your time getting to grips with some of the key aspects of our city.
Wear sturdy shoes, dress for the weather, take regular coffee breaks at some of the city's many independent cafes and coffee shops, and carry an emergency supply of chocolate to keep your blood sugars up - this day is going to get hardcore (Jack Bauer eat your heart out!).
Here's my official #ThisIsEdinburgh24 guide to how best to spend your one and only day in Edinburgh...
Assuming you're visiting during the summer, the sun has been up for a couple of hours already, so there's nothing to stop you rolling out of bed super early to begin exploring the city! Of course there's not much open at this time of day, but it's a perfect time for doing what is probably the city's best cost-free attraction: Arthur's Seat.
Climbing to the highest point in the city gives you a fantastic 360-degree views for miles in every direction. It's a relatively easy walk - about 45 minutes from the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the bottom of the Royal Mile, and only the top section is a little scrambly. Even better than the views will be your sense of achievement at this time in the morning!
Having descended Arthur's Seat (or even if you're only just now getting up) grab a hearty breakfast from one of the cafes on the Royal Mile and get ready to go again! Right across Edinburgh you'll find cafes, bars, and restaurants offering you a Full Scottish Breakfast - a variation on its Full English equivalent from south of the border, with the potato scone, Stornoway black pudding, haggis and (if you're lucky) lorne/square sausage providing the local flavour - baked beans, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms and (less commonly) white pudding are all things you're likely to find amongst the standard fare of bacon, eggs, sausage and toast.
Of course the other traditional Scots breakfast of porridge is having a resurgence too - many cafes offer a 'luxury' take on this simple dish. If you intend to take Edinburgh seriously over the next few hours, you might be best advised to have both of the above!
Having refuelled, you're now set to visit the city's most iconic feature, Edinburgh Castle. Open from 9.30am every morning, book your tickets in advance and be at the drawbridge on time to get direct access to this historical site. The castle may not appeal to everyone, but even if you're not into military or royal history, you should find enough of interest here to fill a couple of hours - and the views (more close-up on the city than Arthur's Seat) are stunning. Be sure to visit the birth room where James VI and I was born to Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Prisons of War exhibition is particularly interesting.
Leaving the castle, you should make your way down the hill to the Grassmarket, historically a site not just of an agricultural market but also one of the city's sites of execution - you'll find a shadow of the gallows marked in the pavement at the eastern end of the square. Along here you can top up your energy levels with a drink or a light lunch from the bars and cafes, before moving towards -
- Greyfriars Kirkyard, accessed from the bottom of Candlemaker Row at the east of the Grassmarket. This graveyard is one of the city's most picturesque and peaceful places, and is the resting place of a large number of the city's famous sons and daughters. You'll also find the grave of Greyfriars Bobby, a dog whose story has entered the annals of local mythology for spending 14 years sleeping on the grave of his dead master. Exit the graveyard near Bobby's grave and you'll find a statue to Bobby, usually thronged with visitors taking photographs! Cross the road and you'll be right on the doorstep of the National Museum.
You can easily spend hours wandering around the National Museum of Scotland - lose yourself in the labyrinthine modern wing, or browse the galleries of exhibits in the original Victorian section. Be sure to see Dolly the Sheep, the world's first genetically cloned animal, and The Maiden, a gruesome piece of local history, being the guillotine which sent men to their deaths in the 17th century.
Entry to the museum is free, although you can also pay to visit one of the visiting exhibitions, but whatever you do, don't miss the somewhat hidden roof terrace, with views over to the castle and out to the summit of Arthur's Seat (where you were standing barely 6 hours or so ago!).
From the museum, pass the side of the University of Edinburgh's iconic Old College quad building and head north along South Bridge (yes, you did read that correctly...!), crossing the Royal Mile at the Tron Church and continuing onto North Bridge over the roof of Waverley Station - take a moment (or two) to photograph the views from either side of the bridge. Ahead of you is the Balmoral Hotel and the eastern end of Princes Street. You are now entering Edinburgh's New Town, a Georgian-era city development nearly 250 years old - depending on your inclinations you can choose to browse the shops on George Street or relax in Princes Street Gardens.
If you fancy completing the trilogy of volcano summits in Edinburgh (having already done Arthur's Seat and the rock underneath Edinburgh Castle), turn right to walk up Calton Hill, with its monuments and views. Otherwise your next mission is to tackle -
- the world's tallest monument to a writer - the monument to Sir Walter Scott, colloquially known as the Gothic Rocket, on Princes Street; 287 steps up, and the same number back down - if you have no head for heights, a dodgy knee or a fear of confined spaces (the staircase is pretty steep and narrow) then you can be excused this part of the day by providing a note from your mum....!
The National Galleries of Scotland are not to be missed - the permanent collection of classical work is free to view in the buildings on the Mound, between Princes Street and the Old Town, or if you are more of a fan of modern artists then walk or catch a bus to the two galleries on Belford Road, at the west end of the city centre. The National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street is accessed through St Andrews Square, and again entry is free.
Treat yourself to a quality meal at one of the city's many independent restaurants, and prepare for the evening portion of your visit.
Depending on the time of year, Edinburgh's cultural scene is a rich and varied one. Catch a show at the city's Royal Lyceum Theatre, or check out the Traverse Theatre for contemporary and new writing. The Usher Hall hosts a variety of classical and contemporary music throughout the year, or during the summer you can take your pick of events from the Edinburgh International Festival or the Edinburgh Fringe.
Alternatively, head back into the Old Town for some spooky history either with an evening tour of Mary King's Close, the original 'underground' city, or with one of the city's many and varied ghost walks - you'll find meeting points for the different tour companies along the Royal Mile, between St Giles' Cathedral and the junction with North/South Bridge.
Congrats, you're almost done! You've seen the city from a variety of angles, explored some of its most historic sites, and (hopefully) not been drowned out by the Scottish weather.
Time to kick back and relax with a drink at one of the city's many, many watering holes! No need to ditch the tourist theme just yet though - you've earned a dram or two of Scotch whisky - the nation's favourite export - so head to Sandy Bell's or the Royal Oak in the Old Town for live folk and traditional music every night of the week...
This is just a personal pick of some of the highlights that Edinburgh can offer, and is not intended as a serious single-day itinerary - why not book a more manageable bespoke walking tour tailored to your own personal interests...
Type 'Edinburgh' into Google and among the first results you'll get will be mention of some festival or other. But the Edinburgh Festival as a definitive description is actually a bit of a misnomer; there is no such thing as THE Edinburgh Festival, rather we have a number of festivals which run throughout the year, climaxing in what I often generally describe as 'festival season' over the summer, when a number of these individual festivals overlap and conjoin to give the city's its infamous festival spirit and atmosphere.
Here's a short idiots' guide to help untangle the different festival experiences on offer in the city...
Edinburgh International Festival
Originally THE definitive Edinburgh Festival, what is now Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) was founded in the aftermath of World War II, in 1947, to provide a collective and collaborative platform for creativity and artistic endeavour. Today the Festival is a curated (ie. by invitation) series of predominantly classical performances from a collection of dance, theatre, music and opera companies from all around the globe. The EIF runs during August each year, and culminates with a spectacular live fireworks concert staged in Princes Street Gardens, with fireworks let off from Edinburgh Castle.
Edinburgh Festival Fringe
NOT the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (haircuts, anyone?!), the Fringe - as it is popularly known - also began in 1947, when eight theatre companies who weren't invited to take part in the EIF turned up in the city for a number of impromptu performances. Over the years the number of companies taking part in the Fringe has soared, and today the Fringe (by itself) the world's largest arts festival. The Fringe programme is completely open-access and non-curated, meaning anyone who has the means to produce and stage a production is welcome to bring their work to Edinburgh during August; hundreds of venues across the city host thousands of performances every single day. Today the Fringe is known as a hotbed of creative talent, and many major comedians, actors, theatre companies and musicians have launched their careers by getting noticed at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Also held during August each year, the Book Festival invites authors from around the world to talk about their work, sign copies of books, and take part in discussions around a range of literary themes. The Festival is held in a series of specially constructed marquees in Charlotte Square in Edinburgh's New Town.
Edinburgh International Film Festival
Currently held in June each year (it has previously taken place in August) the Film Festival is a curated collection of new and classic films, featuring guest appearances by a range of actors, directors and cinema icons.
These are the main cultural festivals for which Edinburgh is known, but we also host a variety of additional festivals throughout the year, including (but not limited to):
and plenty more besides! We have festivals for food, festivals for drink, festivals for historical figures associated with the city, festivals for a range of outdoor pursuits - you name it, we (probably) have a festival for it! And if we don't.... then there's a valuable gap in the market!
See this festival city in more detail with my private city tours!
The dark side of human nature has helped spawn a whole sub-section of Edinburgh visitor attractions, a genre which might charitably be bracketed as 'death-sploitation' - whether it's the underground city, the sites of execution, the history of witchcraft or the real life criminal underworld of Edinburgh, there is an attraction which is geared towards scaring, spooking and generally unsettling you.
We are fortunate, however, to also have access to a variety of sites which tap into some of the above experiences without costing a penny: Edinburgh's graveyards. Scattered across the city, many of the old graveyards of Edinburgh are still open for public access, and (unless you're taking a specific tour through or into the mausoleums themselves) they are completely free.
Here are some of the centrally located graveyards which can be visited on my private walking tours of the city...
St. Cuthbert's Churchyard
Just off Lothian Road is not only the oldest site of worship in the city, dating from the 7th century, but also the resting place of John Napier, Henry Raeburn and George Meikle Kemp, designer of the city's Scott Monument, among many notable other figures. Also features a good example of the watchtowers built in graveyards across the city to help prevent grave robbers...
Most famous as the resting place of Greyfriars Bobby, the dog which earned its status as one of the city's most famous (and cutest) cultural icons. Greyfriars is also one of my favourite places from which to view the different heights and levels of the Old Town, as well as being the final home of some of the city's greatest historical figures, including James Craig, designer of the New Town, Mary Erskine, James Hutton, Allan Ramsay, John Porteous and many more besides. Also the site of the Covenanters' Prison and the mausoleum of 'Bloody' George Mackenzie, reputed to be one of the most haunted sites in the city.
Old Calton Burial Ground
Just a short stroll from the east end of Princes Street, here you'll find the tomb of philosopher David Hume, as well as a monument to Abraham Lincoln, commemorating to the Scottish soldiers who died in the American Civil War, alleged to be the first statue of an American president to be built outside of the US. You'll also find the Martyrs' Monument, an obelisk to the men who were punished for daring to suggest a democratic system which afforded the ordinary man a vote.
New Calton Burial Ground
Further along the edge of Calton Hill is the newer burial plot, used once the pre-existing graveyard was full. From here you can enjoy unparalleled views south across the bottom of the Royal Mile, across towards Holyrood Park and Arthur's Seat. As well as a large watchtower, the graveyard also hosts the Stevenson family plot, the famous lighthouse engineering family (also the family of Robert Louis Stevenson, who isn't buried here).
A short distance from the bottom of the Royal Mile, the Canongate Kirk is a beautiful building with royal associations and an extensive graveyard, from which the views up to Calton Hill are picturesque.
Favourite figures buried here include Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, and Robert Fergusson, the young poet who inspired Robert Burns, as well as another figure associated with Burns, Agnes Macklehose, for whom he wrote the poem Ae Fond Kiss.
Any and all of these graveyards can feature in a private walking tour of the city - contact me for more information!
Throughout Edinburgh's city centre are a vast number of public artworks and sculptures, many of them dating back decades and even centuries. In introducing visitors to the city to some of these prominent city features, one name becomes a recurring motif; just as many of the city's buildings have the same architects or builders names attached to them, so many of the most iconic sculptures in the city share a common artist: Sir John Steell.
Steell grew up in Edinburgh, and rose through the ranks of notable artists produced by the city's venerable arts academies. In the 1830s he achieved public recognition with his first major commission for the city, a carving of Alexander the Great taming his horse, Bucephalus. A popular story is told that although Steell produced the carving in the 1830s, the statue was not formally cast in bronze for nearly fifty years, as the city council hadn't acquired sufficient funds to complete payment for the work.
Angered by not being paid his full fee, it is said that Steell remodelled the head of the horse shortly before it was cast, giving Alexander's great horse the ears of a pig! Today the statue (with its diminutive ears) stands outside the city's council chambers on the Royal Mile, a testament to the 'pig's ear' they made of the commission all those years ago.
There are other significant works by Steell in Edinburgh's city centre - here are four which often feature in my city tours...
Sir Walter Scott
The monument to Edinburgh-born writer and lawyer Walter Scott features within it a large representation of Scott, seated, and with his dog Maida curled at his feet. The monument was designed by George Meikle Kemp, but it was Steell who created the figure of the artist himself.
The memorial to Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria, was commissioned by Victoria after Albert's death, intended as a means of honouring her dead husband and preserving his memory. It is said that Steell so accurately captured the likeness of Albert, and presented him so sympathetically, that upon its official unveiling in 1876 Queen Victoria took it upon herself to knight him on the spot. Today the monument stands in the middle of Charlotte Square.
The success of Steell's sculpture of Albert was not replicated in a sandstone carving he produced of Queen Victoria herself, seated and holding a grand jewelled sceptre. When this particular carving was unveiled to HMQ at Buckingham Palace in London it is said that she disapproved so strongly of the likeness that she asked her staff to take the statue and put it where nobody would be able to see it.
The carving duly ended up on top of the grand entrance to the Royal Scottish Academy gallery building in the middle of Edinburgh's main street, Princes Street! Keep an eye out for her as you visit the shops - she looks pretty disapproving even to this day...
The Duke of Wellington
Steell produced a number of statues of Britain's great commander of the armed forces which led the country to victory against the French at the Battle of Waterloo. At the east end of Princes Street is his iconic representation of Wellington mounted on his steed, Copenhagen, who rode into battle with him (and, presumably, out again too). At its unveiling in 1852, the press were keen to play on Wellington's honourary nickname, dubbing the monument 'the Iron Duke, in bronze, by Steell'.
To find out more about Sir John Steell's iconic sculptures, join me for a customised walking tour of the city!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
© COPYRIGHT GARETH DAVIES 2014-20