Make sure you get the best out of your trip to Edinburgh whatever time of year you come. As an experienced guide and a Scot who has lived in Edinburgh for years, here are some of my insider tips to help you plan and make the most of your city break.
Insider Tip #1 – Plan Ahead if you can!
It’s great to be spontaneous when you get to your destination on what to see and do. However, the one down-side to this is you may miss out. If you’re coming to Edinburgh and have a particular place that is on your ‘must see’ list, then don’t leave it to chance.
Don’t expect everything to be open because it’s the tourist season. For example, if you’d like to visit The Palace of Holyroodhouse then it helps to know that it’s not open on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, except in July and August. If those are the 2 days you decided to book a city break to Edinburgh, you’ll end up disappointed if you wanted a palace tour. The palace is also a working Royal Palace so it is closed on certain dates throughout the year including some in June/July.
Check the websites for any specific places you’d like to see, to confirm when they open or if there are any restrictions on visits. Around Scotland many castles don’t open before Easter and close in October. Don’t be disappointed – check ahead.
Once you have booked your flights and accommodation, think about booking your tickets early to some of the more popular historic places, such as Edinburgh Castle. Edinburgh Castle has timed tickets so you can choose when to visit during the day. However, at peak season, popular earlier times get booked up fast. If you leave it to the last minute, remaining times may not fit in with what else you have planned. You’ll find there are also days when all their tickets have already sold out.
Insider Tip 2# – Layered Clothes
Visitors can sometimes underestimate the mercurial changes of weather in Scotland. It’s commonly said here that we have “4 seasons in one day” and it’s very true. However, even Scots get caught out on occasion. This is because in Edinburgh there’s often a wind which blows through the city. Even on the sunniest of summer’s days, the wind can sometimes be surprisingly sharp.
“There are two seasons in Scotland: June and Winter!”Billy Connelly.
My top tip is to layer your clothing. No matter what time of year you plan to visit Edinburgh and Scotland, be ready for quick changes in weather. Be prepared for cooler temperatures than you would expect sometimes too, due to wind-chill. Take some layers with you daily, so you can add or take off as needed. It’ll make a huge difference to your comfort and warmth whatever the season! Take Billy’s great advice and make sure to bring a raincoat or waterproof jacket.
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing, so get yourself a sexy raincoat and live a little.”Another of my favourite Billy Connelly quotes.
Extra Top Insider Tip for Edinburgh – Leave your Umbrella at Home
Most locals could fill a bin with the number of umbrellas which have been battered, broken and blown inside-out by the Edinburgh wind. You might be lucky, but it’s easier to have a waterproof jacket instread. The only umbrellas that survive are those that have vents. If you want to take an umbrella with you, this is the best type. This tip is true for most of Scotland. If you do want to take a small foldaway umbrella, that’s fine just don’t buy an expensive one. Treat it as disposable!
Insider Tip #3 – Take Comfortable Shoes
This tip might seem like a no-brainer, but Edinburgh is a hilly city, with steep slopes, steps and plenty of cobbled-streets too. In the Old Town many of the atmospheric, historic closes (alleys) and courtyards are only accessible by foot. As a result, even if you don’t plan to do a lot of walking, you’ll probably end up walking more than you expect. You won’t regret it though, as it’s the best way to uncover many of Edinburgh’s hidden gems and discover its best views. So make sure you get the most out of the city by taking thick-soled comfortable shoes.
Insider Tip #4 – Take a Guided Walking Tour
Having made sure you have comfortable shoes, my next insider tip is to take a guided walking tour. It doesn’t matter if you are only in Edinburgh for a short while. I guarantee that you’ll get so much more out of your visit to the city if you take a tour with a reputable guide. Tours can be anything from 1.5 hours up to full day (8 hours). Private tours will fit in with your own timings and interests.
There are so many places in Edinburgh that you can only access if you’re on foot. A walking tour gives you insights, information and access to amazing stories and locations that you would not have uncovered on your own or on a bus. You’ll gain a quick understanding of the city, its culture, its past and its people in a fun and friendly way.
Insider Tip #5 – Take a Tour Bus to see the City Sights Quickly
One of the quickest and easiest ways of seeing the main city sights is to take a tour bus. Edinburgh Bus Tours run buses which take different routes around the city centre and further afield, so you can check out which one you prefer. If English is your first language, then my tip would be to take the Edinburgh Tour as it has a local guide on the bus giving a live commentary.
All of these buses are hop on and off and tickets are valid for 24 hours. Get on and off the bus along its route as often as you wish, to visit the places that interest you. When you book your ticket check out the website for free upgrades for other tours.
Insider Tip #6 – Use the Public Bus Service, it’s easy!
If you’re in Edinburgh for longer than a couple of days, use the local buses too. You’ll find Edinburgh has a great bus service with multiple routes and regular buses throughout the capital. They’ll take you to the areas where the tour buses don’t go. It’s easy to use the bus service to explore more of the city and its diverse neighbourhoods. It’s handy to download the ‘Transport for Edinburgh’ app to your mobile phone, to use when in the city. It’ll give you live travel times and directions, for both buses and trams. Many city bus stops now also have digital displays which indicate when the next buses are due in real time.
Pay public buses by card and not by cash
Lothian buses will only accept the exact fare if you are paying in cash. This can make it tricky trying to make sure you always have the correct change with you. It’s much easier paying contactless with your credit or debit card. If travelling from abroad, just make sure before you leave on holiday what bank charges using your card will incur first.
With ‘TapTapCap’, you simply tap the card on the card reader by the driver as you step onto the bus. If you use the same card on all the buses you take in a day, it will cap the amount you are charged too. This means you’ll automatically be charged the cheapest daily fare for the journeys you’ve made that day. This works for weekly fares too if you’re using the bus service over several days.
If you are paying by cash, you’ll have to decide yourself whether you think a Day Ticket is cheaper than paying for each individual bus journey. If your plans change suddenly, then you could lose out.
Extra Top Tip – Public Buses (& many other businesses) don’t accept Amex Cards
You can pay bus and tram fares with Mastercard or Visa. Use Apple Pay and Google Pay if loaded with Mastercard or Visa details. American Express is not accepted for payment of fares on the Edinburgh bus or tram service.
Although the number of businesses accepting Amex cards for payment is definitely growing in Scotland, it won’t be accepted everywhere. Consequently if you are travelling to Scotland, make sure to take Mastercard or Visa cards with you.
Extra Top Tip – No ‘TapTapCap’ on Trams
The tram service itself can be useful, but ‘TapTapCap’ is not currently available for travel on Edinburgh Trams. This means you’ll need to decide if you think you’ll use a Day Ticket if you are planning several journeys. The good news is if you buy a Day Ticket it will be valid on the bus too.
Insider Tip #7 – Visiting Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle is Scotland’s number one paid tourist attraction and very busy with visitors in the peak holiday months. As I mentioned before, the first step is to plan ahead.
Go early! If you want to get there when it is at its quietest, then book an online ticket ahead for the castle’s opening time at 9.30am.
The alternative is to wait until much later in the day when it can be a little quieter too. From 1st April until 30th September the castle closes at 6pm. Closing commences 1 hour before actual closing time at 6pm. Allow 2 hours to see all the castle highlights, but depending on what you want to see and length of queues you can cut down on this time.
Even though the castle opens at 9.30am, the queues can build up on Castle Hill with people waiting to get in. Try to get there around 20 minutes before opening time, so you are nearer the front of the queue.
Early Closing Times of Castle
During August there are days during the Edinburgh Festival when the castle closes early because of the Edinburgh Royal Military Tattoo. This year the castle will be closing early on the following dates to accommodate the Tattoo and additional performances:
6, 13, 20, 26 and 27 August.
Last entry will be 3.30pm and the castle closes at 5pm.
Top Insider Tip #8 – Most Museums & Art Galleries are Free
The vast majority of Scottish museums and art galleries are free to enter and enjoy. It is only their temporary or special exhibitions you may need to pay for once you are inside. Edinburgh has many museums and art galleries so you can check them out online before you arrive to see which you’d like to visit. Museums are also great places on a wet day with plenty to keep all the family interested and entertained.
The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh is Scotland’s top free visitor attraction. It’s definitely worth visiting and highly recommended for all the family, as there’s so much to discover.
Extra Tip: Make your way to the roof of the museum for fantastic views.
Top Insider Tip #9 – Check out the local Festivals
Edinburgh is famous for being the Festival City. The Edinburgh International Festival as well as the Festival Fringe both take place in August and attract huge numbers of visitors to the city. But there are plenty of other festivals which take place in Edinburgh throughout the year, so check out what events are happening for the dates of your trip. You could end up booking an unforgettable experience you might not have otherwise expected. Here are just a few of the festivals happening throughout the year.
- The Edinburgh International Science Festival – April – and it’s great fun for all the family.
- The Edinburgh International Harp Festival– April
- Beltane Fire Festival – 30th April every year
- Edinburgh International Children’s Festival – May
- Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival – July
- Edinburgh Art Festival – July & August
- The Edinburgh International Festival – August
- The Edinburgh International Book Festival – August
- The Edinburgh Festival Fringe – August
- The Edinburgh International Film Festival – August
- The Scottish International Storytelling Festival – October
- Edinburgh’s Hogmanay – 30 December-1 January
Top Insider Tip #10 – Stand at the top of Calton Hill for Spectacular, Accessible Views
Arthur’s Seat may be the more impressive of the two hills, rising to 251 metres (823 feet), but Calton Hill has distinct advantages over its near neighbour. At only 103 metres you might think that Calton Hill would come a poor second, but in fact it’s definitely my favourite of the two hills. Firstly it’s a quick walk from the city centre and is easily included in a walking tour of Edinburgh. Added to this fact is that it has steps and tarmac pathways, making it accessible without scrambling to the top. Then there are the many interesting monuments to see on the summit, and you can even book yourself into the restaurant if you want food with stunning views.
For those who are unable to walk to the top, take a taxi ride to the summit instead. You can enjoy the same amazing views as those who have walked up. It’s great that this hill is accessible for everyone. Finally, it has the most wonderful panoramic views of the city and surrounding landscape, as well as the best view over to Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags too.
It might be the smaller hill, but it packs a big punch when it comes to views. It’s definitely my favourite of the two hills. I thoroughly recommend it and I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.
Top Insider Tip #11 – Get off the beaten path
When you come to Edinburgh it’s easy to tick off a list of main places to visit. What you may forget is that there are plenty of historic and picturesque locations to visit away from the ancient city centre. You don’t have to go far before you come across areas which will show you a completely different aspect of Edinburgh.
It’s worth taking the time to explore some of the city’s other amazing facets. You’ll get a much better overall picture of Edinburgh, her culture and history. From city parks with unexpected views and prehistoric history, to architectural gems tucked away from the main buzz of the city which feel like stepping back in time. There’s always something unexpected and often remarkable to discover. Get in touch with me, if you’d like to know more. You can discover some of these off-the-beaten-path highlights on a tour with me either on foot or by taxi.
I hope these practical tips help make your visit to Edinburgh a successful and enjoyable experience. With a little bit of planning and advance knowledge, you’ll be sure of getting the very best out of your trip to the capital of Scotland.