Written by Gemma Johnstone for MonaCorona.com.
Hi, I’m Gemma.
Whilst I am now a nomadic writer, currently based in Courmayeur in the Italian Alps, I spent ten years living and working in Edinburgh, my place of birth. It is a truly amazing city and one that I will always return back to and think of with great fondness. It is full of jaw-dropping architecture; from the grand Georgian townhouses of the New Town to the medieval tenements jostling for space in the Old Town and, controversially, the way over budget and modern “marmite” new Scottish Parliament Buildings. There are plenty unique places to discover for those looking for an off the beaten track Edinburgh experience which I will share with you later, but first, the main attractions:
There are some world-famous tourist attractions on offer in Edinburgh. Edinburgh Castle is much photographed, perched high above Princes Street, the main shopping area. The National Museum is a great place to explore with the kids and for those that like fresh air and walking why not head to Arthur’s Seat, the extinct volcano, for great views of the City and Holyrood Palace.
There are also some World Class annual events hosted by the City. The biggest is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the world’s biggest arts festival. From huge stand-ups to local musicians, there is something for everyone with thousands of shows to choose from. The Hogmanay Street Party is another big one. Jostle with thousands of others on Princes Street whilst watching the fireworks and listening to live music, there is also a huge Christmas market to visit. If you are feeling brave why not take part in the “Loony Dook” on New Years Day. This event takes place just outside Edinburgh and involves running into the freezing cold waters just under iconic Forth Rail Bridge!
There are a whole host of wonderful eateries too, from breakfast delis, to cheap eats for lunch, to a few Michelin starred restaurants. For those that enjoy a tipple, you are spoilt for choice. From the spit and sawdust traditional real ale bars (Kay’s Bar in Stockbridge being a favourite), to the trendy and arguably pretentious selection along the New Towns George Street, to the many new gin bars popping up, there is something for everyone.
As for me, it is all about the places off the beaten track. I have pulled together a list of my favourite things to do in “Auld Reekie” and I hope you find them useful.
Off the Beaten Track Edinburgh
Head down to Stockbridge
I am biased as I used to live and work in this affluent suburb of the City, but it is a great place to get away from the tourist throngs and mix with the locals. Like a village within the City, it has a charm and community feel that is hard to recreate. Just fifteen minutes from the town centre, this cobbled street area is jam-packed with Georgian townhouses. It is a charity shopper’s Mecca with lots of people heading here just to pick up a bargain. There are lots of unique independent shops to visit, a favourite of mine is Mexican inspired Caoba, and there are lots of great places to stop for a bite of lunch. The Bon Vivant is a cosy bar with tasty food and dog-friendly too (always a plus in my book!)
If you are visiting on a Sunday the Stockbridge Market is full of locally produced foods and crafts and the street food stalls are fantastic, make sure you try the Gyoza! For a bit of space, head down to Inverleith Park and then the world-famous Royal Botanic Gardens are just five minutes from here.
Dean Village and the Water of Leith Walkway
Whilst you are down in Stockbridge, if it is a nice day and you are feeling energetic, why not take a stroll along the beautiful Water of Leith Walkway. This path is actually 12 miles long but we would recommend just heading along to the old Dean Village. Now an affluent set of apartments, this still retains its olde worlde charm. Just another fifteen minutes along the Walkway is the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. This was my daily dog walking route when I lived in the area and I never tired of it.
Get the Camera out in the Old Town
The Old Town is not off the beaten track but it does deserve a mention. Whilst it is very busy in the peak tourist season it is a wonderful place to wander and get the camera out to capture the magnificence of the medieval buildings on a self-guided walking tour. The colours along Victoria Street are a standout and stop off for a drink in one of the many bars along the Grassmarket. During the Fringe Festival, the Royal Mile is packed with crowds enjoying the talented street performers free acts. It is a great atmosphere.
Mary King’s Close Tour
If you are going to do any official tours whilst you are in the Toon, this is the one I would recommend. This award-winning attraction is a warren of old streets located under the Royal Mile in the Old Town. Eerie, fascinating and it provides an interesting insight into the impoverished lives of locals in time gone by. Learn more about Mary King’s Close here.
Head to the beach in Portobello
Head to this trendy suburb of Edinburgh to appreciate a bracing sea breeze whilst walking along the promenade and enjoy lots of independent shops and eateries.
Best Places to eat in Edinburgh
There are so many great places to eat in Edinburgh, too many for me to list here. Below are a few of my highlights.
Best Pizza in Edinburgh: Origano, Leith Walk. Great service, fresh and tasty pizzas in a lovely setting.
Best Mexican: El Cartel, Thistle Street. Mexican finger food with yummy cocktails. Very cosy setting so arrive early to grab a table.
Best Bar: Bramble Bar, Queen Street. This atmospheric cellar bar serves unusual cocktails.
My favourite restaurant: Bentoya, Bread Street. Love this place. Friendly service, great prices and super fresh sushi and other Japanese delights. It is a busy little place with lots of Japanese customers, always a good sign, so reserve a table to avoid disappointment.
Best Posh Lunch: Prestonfield House. If you are looking for something a bit unique and upmarket why not visit this grand Estate just outside the city centre. If the weather is nice it is lovely to sit in one of the summer houses or out on the terrace. Take the time to wander the grounds and you may be lucky enough to see their resident peacocks too.
Where to Stay in Edinburgh
There are lots of great places to stay in Edinburgh to suit all budgets. If high end hotels are your thing then you will be spoilt for choice.
The Balmoral – This landmark hotel is one of the most exclusive in the City and is over 100 years old. Situated smack bang in the Centre and in a beautiful old Victorian Building you will be greeted by tartan troose wearing concierge. Jk Rowling stayed in the Hotel to complete the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallow novel.
The Scotsman – Just up the road from the Balmoral and in another extremely grand building, the one that used to be home to the broadsheet newspaper by the same name, this four star hotel has a great reputation. A newbie on the block, the hotel only opened in 2001, it was voted as one of the top hotels in the world by Conde Nast Traveler in 2007. Their afternoon high tea is delicious too!
Nira Caledonia – If you are looking for a quieter location and an understated chic vibe I would recommend this boutique hotel. On a quiet street in the suburb of Stockbridge it is brimming with style and character and the food is divine too.
See 10 more accommodations for every budget here.
Best time to visit Edinburgh
I think you can appreciate Edinburgh at any time of the year. There is always something going on in the City but, if you prefer a quieter time we would recommend you avoid August when the Fringe Festival is on and also the New Year when the town is flooded with Hogmanay Bash revellers.
My favourite time of year is the Autumn. There are lots of green spaces in Edinburgh and the Autumn colours are beautiful. Don’t forget it is Scotland and whatever time of year you visit there is a high probability of some rain so make sure you pack the waterproofs!
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