Top things to do and see in Edinburgh, Scotland

Stuart Forster provides a look at top things to do and see in Edinburgh, Scotland. 

Edinburgh is a great place to explore over a weekend. Attractions such as the castle, Scottish National Gallery and Arthur’s Seat make it a destination that warrants returning to time and again. If sightseeing sounds too strenuous, the city’s numerous bars and restaurants mean you can simply unwind and graze your way around the Scottish capital.

All aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia

The Royal Yacht Britannia is permanently moored at Edinburgh’s Leith Docks, a 15-minute bus ride from Princes Street. The ship sailed more than a million miles while in service, from 1953 to 1997, yet the engine room’s fittings gleam like it was recently launched.

Boarding the well-maintained vessel gives you a chance to view the royal bedrooms, the formal dining room plus the offices where Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip worked. The audio guide provides insights into royal life on the Britannia.

The informative tour also conveys what being a member of the crew entailed, giving you a chance to see the rooms where the officers and crew worked, slept and relaxed.

The Royal Yacht Britannia.
The Royal Yacht Britannia.

Panda watching at Edinburgh Zoo

Red deer, red squirrels and golden eagles are among the wild animals that draw people to rural Scotland. At Edinburgh Zoo (134 Corstorphine Road; tel. 0131 3349171) it’s the pandas, Yang Guang and Tian Tian, that pull the crowds. To save time at the entrance, pre-book tickets and a time slot for viewing the pandas. The chimpanzees, at the Budongo Trail attraction, are another reason to visit.

Of course, many people question the ethics of keeping animals in enclosures but the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland undertakes important research and educational activities and visiting Edinburgh Zoo helps support that work.

Yang Guang, the male panda, at Edinburgh Zoo.
Yang Guang, the male panda, at Edinburgh Zoo.

The Edinburgh Gin Distillery

Scotland is all about whisky, right? Not any more. The resurgence of gin drinking has resulted in the establishment of the Edinburgh Gin Distillery (1a Rutland Place; tel. 0131 6562810) where two stills, Flora and Caledonia, can often be seen at work.

The distillery’s Gin Connoisseur Tour entails a potted history of the production of gin, a look at the stills plus an opportunity to sample a generous cross-section of the company’s products.

Get your weekend off to a flyer by visiting Heads and Tales bar, also on the premises. The dapper mixologists serve a selection of potent gin-based cocktails.

Things to do in Edinburgh

Where to dine in Edinburgh

Tuck into Scottish cuisine at the Printing Press Bar and Kitchen (21-25 George Street; tel. 0131 2407177), part of The Principal hotel. The high-ceilinged dining room has a refined look, thanks to leather-backed seats and dark wood panelling. The menu changes according to the season. Dishes such as fish and chips plus mince and tatties feature as mains. If you get a chance, try the side dish of wilted greens with garlic – it’s delicious.

Take something home

If you enjoy shopping don’t miss the opportunity to explore Jenners (48 Princes Street) while you’re in Edinburgh. The department store was founded in 1838 and sells a wide range of items, including perfumes and clothing plus high-quality Scottish food and drink. Pick up a haggis, a tin of shortcake or jar or marmalade infused with whisky to take home from your visit to the Scottish capital.

Jenners department store on Princes Street in Edinburgh.
Jenners department store on Princes Street in Edinburgh.

Quirky but interesting

The Georgian buildings of the Royal Mile are built on top of far older dwellings. Ravaged by plague and poor sanitation, the tenements and narrow lanes of Old Town were abandoned in the 1600s. Rather than demolishing the buildings, the streets were simply walled up and built over. In part, this accounts for the slope and steep sides of the Royal Mile.

Remarkably, a number of well-preserved buildings can still be seen beneath the Royal Mile. You can stroll along streets that have not been warmed by sunshine for centuries during hour-long tours of the Real Mary King’s Close (2 Warriston’s Close; tel. 0131 2250672). Costume-wearing guides, playing roles of characters who knew the streets centuries ago, lead visitors into several of the long-abandoned homes and convey how life was in Edinburgh’s Old Town.

Time for a coffee

Take your pick from Edinburgh’s many tea rooms and cafes. There’s a good number to choose from around the Grassmarket, including Café Jacques (10 Grassmarket; 0131 2205358). Sit by the window for a spot of people watching while sipping a cup of rich-tasting roast coffee. If your legs are heavy after hours of sightseeing boost your energy levels with a slice of home-style cake. The carrot cake is deliciously moist and well presented.

Coffee & a slice of carrot cake.
Coffee and a slice of carrot cake.

It’s beer o’clock

Enjoy a pint in the chic surroundings of The Dome (14 George Street; tel: 0131 6248624). It’s hard not to be impressed by the glass cupola, ornate plasterwork and veined marble columns of this elegant bar-restaurant.

The building, once the headquarters of the Commercial Bank of Scotland, dates from the 1840s and has an elegant feel. Look out for the floor mosaics with Latin mottos. The serving staff wear bow ties and it’s easy to imagine you’ve been swept back to the 1920s while supping here.

If you’re keen to impress someone special, consider reserving a table in the Georgian Tea Room for Champagne Afternoon Tea (served from 11am to 5pm).

Getting to Edinburgh

Reaching Edinburgh by rail from Newcastle-upon-Tyne takes around 90 minutes. Trips to or from London take from four hours 21 minutes.

Where to stay in Edinburgh

Enjoy design hotels but don’t want to spend a fortune? Book to stay in the Hub by Premier Inn – Royal Mile hotel (37 East Market Street; tel. 0333 3213104).

The official opening of the hotel was in March 2016. The reception staff are friendly and very helpful. The hotel has a hip, modern look and feel. It makes good use of technology and there’s a downloadable app via which you can control the lighting, air-conditioning and television settings. The TV has a selection of movies on demand, for which there’s no extra charge.

Impressively, the Edinburgh map on the wall above beds can be read by the app, revealing attractions plus places to eat and drink.

Unlike many British hotels, the guestrooms don’t have kettles. Instead, coffee and tea are available, free-of-charge, from the deli, where a selection of snacks and alcoholic drinks are also available.

Further information

Find out more about the Scottish capital on the This is Edinburgh and Visit Scotland websites.

Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.

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Edinburgh at sunset.
Edinburgh at sunset.

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