More insider guides for planning a trip to Edinburgh
City breaks can rack up quickly, but in Edinburgh there are plenty of things you can you do where you won't have to reach for your wallet. Spot otters and roe deer on a walk along the Water of Leith, get up close to Scottish Old Masters in an impressive gallery, and find a hidden garden off The Royal Mile for a mid-afternoon kip. Telegraph Edinburgh expert Linda Macdonald shares her favourite free things to do in Edinburgh.
Climb an extinct volcano
No one knows how Arthur’s Seat got its name, but die-hard romantics think the extinct volcano in Holyrood Park was once the location of Camelot. It's a whopping 251m high, but if you’ve got the right footwear it's a relatively easy climb. A good place to start is opposite the Palace of Holyroodhouse car park, following the 'Radical Road' – made in 1820 by unemployed weavers – past the Salisbury Crags. You’ll take in the ruins of St Anthony’s Chapel before the steep climb to the summit, but make sure to stick to marked routes; it might be crowded with visitors, but it can be dangerous.
Discover a surprising city panorama
The eccentric National Museum of Scotland is a mad dash through the history of the world and everything in it – both natural and man-made. More than 800 objects make up the mind-boggling installation that is the Window on the World in the Grand Gallery, but first take a look at the utterly charming and completely barmy Lewis chessmen (12th-century gaming pieces made of walrus ivory and whales' teeth). If it all gets a bit much, stop for a giant scone in the Balcony Café; you should also take the lift from the fifth floor to visit the roof garden for a moment of peace and a surprising city panorama.
Contact: 0300 123 6789; nms.ac.uk
Spot the First Minister of Scotland
Whether you consider it an over-priced blot on the landscape or an architectural triumph, The Scottish Parliament building at the foot of The Royal Mile is still worth a visit. It was designed by Catalonian architect Enric Miralles and though it is award-winning, it has always been controversial. Inside, there is a permanent exhibition about the Scottish Parliament, which you can see on a self-guided or guided tour (both are free). Keen to see politics in action? You can book tickets to attend committee meetings or debates. Possibilities are complicated by whether or not Parliament is sitting, so check the website if you’re planning a visit. And don’t miss the Parliamentary shortbread.
Contact: 0131 348 5200; parliament.scot
Listen to stories about the city's historic cathedral
The distinctive crown spire of St Giles’ Cathedral marks the historic heart of the city. Despite the ponderous piers supporting the tower of the much-altered but essentially Gothic High Kirk of Edinburgh, the soaring interior of this ancient church is flooded with light and full of fascinating detail. It’s free to enter, although visitors are invited to make a £3 donation. Don’t miss the exquisite Thistle Chapel – there’s a bagpipe-playing angel – and look out for the terrific volunteer guides; they have fascinating stories to tell. If you have a head for heights, take a guided rooftop tour (£6; must be booked on the day).
Contact: 0131 225 9442; stgilescathedral.org.uk
Visit a haunted graveyard
Almost everyone in Edinburgh knows the story of Bobby, the faithful little dog who remained by his master’s grave for 14 years. His statue is found at the top of Candlemaker’s Row opposite Greyfriars Kirk, the first reformed church in Scotland. Next to the church is (apparently) the most haunted graveyard in the city, complete with its own bad-tempered poltergeist – visitors report fainting or being scratched, bruised or bitten. Most people visit on ghost tours but the churchyard is a lovely place just to sit, gazing at the remains of the medieval Flodden Wall – having paid your respects to Bobby and his master, of course.
Contact: 0131 225 1900; greyfriarskirk.com
Relax in a hidden garden
You’ll have to look carefully for the entrance to this peaceful garden, even though it’s just a few steps off The Royal Mile, past Canongate Kirk. Dunbars Close was created by the visionary Sir Patrick Geddes as one of a network of Old Town green spaces; it’s a faithful recreation of a 17th-century garden, lovingly designed as a series of small, delightfully private rooms. If the weather’s fine, find good things to eat at Mimi’s Picnic Parlour and a sample-sized malt whisky for two from Cadenhead’s (both on the Canongate), then bliss out on a tiny lawn hidden at the bottom of the garden.
Address: Canongate, High Street, EH8 8BW
Opening times: Dawn to dusk
Marvel at Scotland’s favourite painting
Cultural indigestion isn’t an issue at the manageably-sized Scottish National Gallery. Inside, you’ll find Old Masters, Impressionists, Post-Impressionists and a proudly comprehensive collection of Scottish art – including Scotland’s favourite painting, The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch. There are also world-class temporary exhibitions (which you’ll have to pay for). The galleries were originally two buildings, but are now connected by the modern Gardens Entrance overlooking Princes Street Gardens; here you can shop, eat and attend free 45-minute lunchtime lectures. A useful complimentary bus runs between the Scottish National Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
Contact: 0131 624 6200; nationalgalleries.org
Take a walk in the park
At the first sign of a sunny day it feels as if everyone in the Scottish capital heads to the tranquil Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, a 15-minute walk from the city centre. Lose yourself in 70 acres of trees, shrubs, rare plants and specialist gardens. If it rains, you can shelter in the steamy Victorian Palm House, or in the seashell and pine cone decorated stone pavilion in the Queen Mother’s Memorial Garden. There are guided garden walks and the Gatehouse Restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and tea. The gardens are always free, but there is an £6.50 entry fee for the glasshouse.
Contact: 0131 248 2909; rbge.org.uk
Get the lay of the land
Calton Hill rises abruptly at the east end of Princes Street, and is a magnet to photographers and fireworks watchers during the Festival. The most immediately recognisable building is the National Monument, intended as a tribute to the Scottish soldiers who fell in the Napoleonic Wars. This unfinished mini-Parthenon was nicknamed ‘the Scottish Disgrace’ (the project ran out of money), but reinforces Edinburgh’s claim as the Athens of the North. The views from the top of the Nelson Monument are astonishing, but this does carry a £4 cost; time your 143-step climb for when the monument’s white ball drops, signalling the one o’clock gun at the Castle.
Eat your way around a Sunday market
Stockbridge is cosier than the New Town but just as pretty, and has a great choice of independent shops, galleries, cafés, bars and restaurants. Lovely Inverleith Park and the west gate of the Royal Botanic Gardens are nearby, as well as the Water of Leith and more hairdressers than you’ll ever see in one place in your life. Have a wander, then settle in for a drink and a meal, or shop and eat your way round the Sunday market – and remember to bring a bag or two for all the good things you’ll find to take home.
Peer at stained glass windows designed by a pioneer of pop art
The triple-spired St Mary’s Cathedral – Scotland’s largest – was designed by the great Victorian architect, George Gilbert Scott, and is all too often overlooked. It’s a celebration of Victorian Gothic Revival, and is worth visiting just for the uncompromisingly modern stained glass by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, one of the founders of British Pop Art. Also make a point of looking for the Phoebe Anna Traquair murals in the Song School which have been lovingly restored. There are free guided tours of the Song School and the murals in August; at other times they can be seen by appointment.
Contact: 0131 225 6293; cathedral.net
Soak up modern art
Cubist, Expressionist, post-war and contemporary art are all well represented at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. The works are split across two buildings; in Modern Two, you’ll find a fascinatingly chaotic recreation of Scottish artist Eduardo Paolozzi’s studio. Make sure to wander into the beautiful grounds too to see Charles Jencks’ extraordinary Landforum and sculptures by Henry Moore. Modern One has a relaxed café Modern One with a garden terrace, whereas the one in Modern Two is more formal and serves a particularly good afternoon tea under the steely gaze of a seven-metre-tall sculpture of Vulcan. A free bus runs between the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Scottish National Gallery.
Contact: 0131 624 6200; nationalgalleries.org
People watch in Edinburgh’s edgiest neighbourhood
Leith may have once been notorious for its red light district and crime, but it has moved up in the world since its Trainspotting days. Now it’s home to Michelin-starred restaurants, smart bars and edgy galleries. But despite the respectability conferred by the Royal Yacht Britannia at Ocean Terminal and the Scottish Government at Victoria Quay, it’s still rough enough round the edges to make things interesting. Visit the Trinity House Maritime Museum at the foot of Leith Walk, before continuing along Constitution Street to the Shore where you’re sure to find a bar or café that’s well suited to people watching.
Out of town
Spy kingfishers, roe deer and otters
Follow the Water of Leith as it threads its way through the city. You’ll wander through woods and wildflowers, and spy herons, kingfishers and roe deer – even otters have been seen on the hidden 12-mile walkway. There are plenty of access points, but one of the best sections starts at the Water of Leith Visitor Centre in Slateford. Head towards Leith, passing through charming Dean Village with its converted mills, under a dramatic Thomas Telford bridge, then past elegant St Bernard’s Well to Stockbridge, where you can catch buses back to Princes Street. Downloadable maps are available on the Water of Leith website.
Contact: 0131 455 7367; waterofleith.org.uk
Wrap up for a winter’s walk
The pretty 12th-century Duddingston Village is found on the far side of Holyrood Park; it’s home to what some claim to be Scotland’s oldest pub (The Sheep Heid), Duddingston Kirk, and the enchanting labour of love that is Dr Neil’s Garden. It’s also particularly good destination for a winter’s walk – if you’re lucky you might see the loch (which is also a bird sanctuary) frozen over, just as it appeared in Sir Henry Raeburn’s famous portrait of ‘The Skating Minister’. Warm up in front of the fire with a dram at the inn before catching a bus back to the city centre.
Enjoy old-fashioned seaside charms
There might not be donkey rides anymore, but ‘Porty’ – Portobello Beach – still has plenty of old-fashioned seaside charm, as well as a mile of sand, a promenade, kite flying, blokarting (sand yachting), kite surfing, clean water for paddling and safe swimming (no lifeguards). Bored with the beach? Close by you’ll find sweetie shops, amusement arcades and family-friendly cafés and pubs. Try the ice cream at Favors on the High Street before a paddle in the sea. Strip off for a Turkish Bath at the Swim Centre, then watch the endless summer dusk from the Beach House Café, right on the promenade.