Essential Edinburgh: Your guide to the best of the Scottish capital

By Jon Price

Birthplace of Harry Potter and home to haggis, haunted backstreets, the world’s largest arts festival and glorious buildings from the Middle Ages, the mighty Scottish capital is a must-visit for anyone with an interest in history, culture and nature.

Make the most of your time in Edinburgh with our indispensable guide of where to stay, eat, shop and explore…

Where to stay

Overlooking the east end of Princes Street, with superb views of the Old Town, the luxurious neo-renaissance Balmoral Hotel has been an Edinburgh institution for more than 100 years and is the perfect location for anyone arriving to the city by train, with Waverely Station directly opposite. 

The Balmoral boasts a Michelin-star restaurant and a colourful history, but the atmosphere in here is much more modern boutique than traditional historic hotel. Guests can enjoy afternoon tea under a glass dome in the Palm Court bar, and thick carpets and plush furniture in the lavishly decorated rooms. The hotel is also shrouded in interesting trivia, with a clocktower that is set three minutes fast to help ensure passing travellers heading to Waverely don’t miss their trains.

Where to eat

Housed in a gorgeous 19th century building just beneath Calton Hill, The Gardener’s Cottage is an absolute must-visit for anyone seeking the true taste of the Scottish capital.

Simple but chic décor and surroundings, such as long communal tables, short stubby glasses and the complete absence of any kind of written menu, give The Gardener’s Cottage a minimalist vibe, leaving the food itself to do the talking.

Run by chef duo Ed Murray and Dale Mailley, classic highlights include Old Winchester tagliatelle, smoked pigeon breast and brown shrimps. Traditionally, the set menu will set you back £18 per head for lunch, or closer to £45 per head in the evenings.

Where to drink

The Voodoo Rooms has a reputation as something of a hidden gem among Edinburgh locals, but anyone who’s ever lived in the city, or visited an off-the-beaten-path magic or cabaret show during the festival season will tell you that it’s one of the most unique drinking spots in the city.

Hidden behind a quiet corner just off Princes Street, this award-winning watering hole is known for its classy cocktails, leather-studded sofas and black and gold-adorned interiors. The labyrinthine corridors hide six large rooms and four bars, ranging in theme from ‘Speakeasy’ to ‘French Quarter’ and ‘Ballroom’.

What to do

Edinburgh Castle is a commanding sight dating back to the 6th century, and a must-see for every visitor to the city – particularly if your visit coincides with the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which, in 2020, will be performed almost every evening between 7-29 August by traditional military bands.

To follow in the footsteps of Mary Queen of Scots, Robert Burns and other iconic names straight out of the history books, take an expert guided tour of the castle and Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. You’ll discover secret gardens, hidden corners and courtyards and even get to skip the notoriously long castle entrance ticket lines.

Fans of Scottish literary titans shouldn’t miss the Writers’ Museum, while families with children might do better keeping the kids entertained at the Camera Obscura and World of iIlusions, located at the foot of the city’s mighty castle and packed full of more than 100 eye-popping visual attractions. If you’re visiting in summer, the Edinburgh Festival runs throughout most of August, and spans anything from comedy and theatre shows, to pop-up art exhibits and street performances.

Don’t miss

Many people flock to Edinburgh to discover the sights, sounds and stories that inspired JK Rowling to pen one of the world’s most successful book series, Harry Potter.  The city is dotted with architectural quirks, cosy high street cafes and even unlikely places that the authors drew inspiration (including names on graveyard headstones) which all left their mark on the wonderful world of witchcraft and wizardry that captivated the world. See these places and hear the stories behind them for yourself on a magical Harry Potter walking tour. Muggles need not apply. 

MakeMyDay offers unique tours and handpicked experiences in exciting cities around the globe, including Edinburgh

Image: Don Munro/Edinburgh Photo Walks