This month Edinburgh is unlocking, so the city is ready and waiting for you to explore. There’s never been a better time to discover its highlights and secrets, or to fall back in love with it again. You can take advantage of being able to tour the city without the usual summer crowds. Unwrap Edinburgh whichever way you prefer, with slow travel…on a live tour…on a staycation…as a local to uncover more…or even virtually from your own sofa if you’re unable to journey.
Many businesses, visitor attractions and accommodation here and throughout Scotland are re-opening this month. Altogether it means Edinburgh is all set to welcome visitors again to the city.
Traditionally July is one of Edinburgh’s busiest peak tourist months. The centre is usually teeming with visitors, but this year it’s all quite different post pandemic. However, with less traffic and fewer people on the streets now is an ideal opportunity to explore unhindered. In fact there’s really never been a better time.
Take advantage of quiet streets to discover not only the city’s well-known buildings and historic places, but also some of its often overlooked features.
Make the most of quieter streets
There are little gems which you would struggle to see when the seasonal crowds and traffic are all around.
Walking through Edinburgh’s streets there’s always something new to discover, even when like me you’ve passed a place many times before. As a guide, finding another extraordinary story or historic tidbit with local interest, to give a new connection with a street, a building or site is a bit like a magpie finding a piece of shiny jewellery. These new gems make guides’ eyes light up as we can’t wait to share our new discovery.
Sharing what we learn with others is probably what we guides enjoy best. It’s certainly what I’ve missed over the past months. Being able to meet people face to face, getting to know them and share the enjoyment of telling Edinburgh’s amazing stories, explaining her history, architecture, her colourful characters both good and bad is always a pleasure.
For both locals and visitors alike, Edinburgh is jam-packed with extraordinary history, stories and quirky facts. If you’re a local, you’ll be surprised how much more there is to know about your home town, often hiding in plain sight! Contact me for more information if you’d like a customised tour or check out the walking tour page for ideas.
There are plenty of highlights and hidden gems to discover throughout the city for everyone. So whether you’d like a guided tour with me, or prefer to find out about the city by yourself on your own walk, what would you like to see?
Let’s start at the beginning…A is for architecture…
Choose any theme or themes which interest you to tour and see the city in your own way. Without the crowds to restrict your view, the first of the A’s in the A-Z of what to explore in Edinburgh is undoubtedly its impressive architecture.
Edinburgh is known as the ‘Athens of the North’. One walk around the city and it quickly becomes obvious why. During the Georgian period in the second half of the 18th century and early 19th century, the classical architecture of ancient Greece influenced Edinburgh’s construction. Stroll around the elegant New Town with its wide open streets, crescents and squares to view the impressive classical-styled buildings.
Wherever you wander your eyes are drawn by Greek-looking temples with their classical columns and porticos.
Near the centre of the city is the National Monument on Calton Hill. This was Edinburgh’s answer to the Parthenon in Athens. It was built to commemorate the Scottish soldiers who died in the Napoleonic War. Unfortunately by 1829 the money ran out and construction stopped. So today it remains with just 12 pillars, looking like a picturesque Greek ruin. It’s been nicknamed by locals ‘Edinburgh’s Disgrace’ since it was never completed.
Nearby on Calton Hill is the magnificent old Royal High School. Completed in 1829, it has lain empty since the late 1960s when the school moved into larger premises. Since then there have been many different proposals for its use. To date it remains in the middle of a development tussle and its future use is still unknown.
For a complete contrast in architectural style and scale take a walk through the Old Town. Without the seasonal throng of people you can more easily soak up the atmosphere of its narrow closes and hidden courtyards. Stroll along cobbled streets and past historic buildings, some of which date back to medieval times.
A is also for Authors..
In 2004 Edinburgh became the first literary city. For book lovers there are plenty of poets and authors, past and present, who have links with the city. Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson were both born and raised in Edinburgh. They have used the city and its citizens as inspiration in their novels and poetry. Sometimes in surprising ways – ask me and I’ll be happy to tell you more! The Scott Monument in honour of Sir Walter Scott towers high above East Princes Street Gardens. See if you agree with the locals who call it ‘The Gothic Rocket’!
Modern authors have been influenced by the city as well. Ian Rankin and Irvine Welsh have based the characters and action in their books in Edinburgh and Leith. Famously J K Rowling came to live here and you can discover cafes and other locations connected with her time writing the Harry Potter series. Then there are historic homegrown poets such as Robert Ferguson who inspired Robert Burns who also visited and spent time in the city.
Diana Gabaldon set 18th century Edinburgh as the backdrop to some of the scenes and storylines in her Outlander novels. Filming for the TV series also took place in the city. If you’d like to discover more of the Outlander book and TV locations, why not come on a special Outlander tour with me?
A is for Animals…
Edinburgh Zoo has always been popular with visitors and locals alike. It’s now open again and ready for visitors. It was the first zoo ever to house and breed penguins. In fact the zoo is even home to a knighted king penguin! Sir Nils Olav was knighted in 2008 with the approval of the King of Norway and in 2016 promoted to Brigadier of the Norwegian Guard.
But you don’t need to go to the zoo to see animals. Throughout Edinburgh you’ll also find several animal sculptures as you wander along the streets and through the parks. Few can resist their appeal. Big or small, in full view or hidden away, they are all unique. Some are dedicated to animals with poignant stories to tell.
B is for Bobby, a Bear and ‘Bum’
One of the city’s most iconic, famous and well-loved sculptures is of a wee dog. His name is Greyfriar’s Bobby. He even has a pub named after him. The story of this little Skye Terrier is a heart-warming Victorian tale of undying loyalty to his master. For 14 years until his own death, Bobby refused to leave his master’s graveside. This story captured Disney’s imagination who made it into a film. Earlier this year, before lockdown, I attended the memorial ceremony which takes place annually in Bobby’s honour at Greyfriars Kirk.
Tucked away in a quiet corner of Princes Street Gardens and often overlooked is another dog. ‘Bum’ was a gift in a special exchange of statues between San Diego and Edinburgh. This was in recognition of the link between the two cities and of their two individual canine heroes.
I couldn’t miss out Wojtek the Soldier Bear who stands on his four paws in Princes Street Gardens along with a companion Polish soldier. His incredible life story finally took him here, where he lived for many years. He continues to represent freedom and a link between Edinburgh and Poland. He is much cherished by locals and part of our city history.
As well as its statues, there’s also a surprising variety of local, live wildlife to find throughout Edinburgh too. Now that the city is quieter, you can take the opportunity to see and appreciate local wildlife in the numerous green parks and along the Water of Leith.
Another 3 ‘B’s!
Traditionally Edinburgh was actually well known for 3 other B’s. Banking, beer and books. The city is still a financial hub, second only to London and publishing still flourishes in the city. Although many of the historic city breweries have closed down, local micro-breweries are thriving. Stop for a little refreshment on your tour at one of the city’s pubs and you are spoilt for choice. You’ll find historic pubs, resident ghosts, connections with past murderers, fascinating stories and fabulous views.
Back to Nature…a walk on the wild side
Over the past weeks we’ve all had more time to appreciate what’s around us. We’ve been listening to birdsong in our suddenly peaceful cities, seeing wildlife and generally taking life at a different pace. In Edinburgh about half the city is green space, with around 350 parks and public areas. So even though we’re in a city, it’s easy to find plenty of green space to enjoy nature.
This year the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh is celebrating its 350 year anniversary. Set in around 70 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds, they make the perfect, peaceful place to saunter. The gardens are now open again to the public with a new ticketed entry. It’s free to enter, just book your entry day, time slot and entrance gate, and then present your ticket on arrival. Once inside the gardens you have as long as you like to stroll and enjoy them. As the numbers are restricted, it’ll never be crowded.
The city’s parks and gardens are ideal areas to relax and take a break surrounded by nature. They make the perfect antidote to the urban landscape. Enjoy slow travel and you’ll have time in the city to discover both its green heart and stone-built character.
Princes Street Gardens are nestled in the ravine between the Old and New Town, in the original location of the Nor’ Loch. From exploring the narrow, ancient closes (alleys) of the Old Town, you can take a short stroll to the gardens to get magnificent views of Edinburgh Castle perched high on its rocky crag.
Close to the city centre, just a short walk from the Royal Mile, you’ll find Holyrood Park. An historic royal park, it’s one of Edinburgh’s most popular and biggest outdoor recreational spaces with 259 hectares of rugged landscape to explore. At its centre is an extinct volcano, Arthur’s Seat which rises to 251m and nearby is another outstanding feature, Salisbury Crags. It’s an unexpectedly wild place at the heart of the city where you may even spot a deer.
Underfoot and Overhead…
Edinburgh is a city crammed with interesting features waiting to be noticed. It’s not only its buildings, statues, parks and great views, as I’ve already mentioned. Take a look directly under your feet as you walk along its ancient streets. Not just below, there is so much to see if you change your gaze to look up high too. Sometimes it feels like your head is on a permanent 360 degree swivel!
Brass markers, patterned cobbles and stonework, plaques and unnoticed carvings all have fascinating stories to tell when you have the time and space to see them.
There’s even a cannonball embedded in a wall of an ancient house!
Underfoot on pavements, carparks, open squares and in the middle of roads markers tell of old prisons, historic buildings, ancient walkways, unlikely graves, city gates, and even gallows that once stood in a location.
Watch out you might be stepping on art!
One of the city’s most unobtrusive pieces of artwork in the centre can easily be missed by passersby. The trail of small brass, circular droplets meandering across Bristo Square was created in 2017 by Susan Collis. It was commissioned by Edinburgh University to mark the redevelopment of the square.
Tour Edinburgh Castle virtually from your sofa
We’ve all enjoyed taking virtual tours over the past few months. Even with travel restrictions easing, you still may not be able to travel here yet. So here is a virtual tour for you to enjoy now until you’re able to experience the real thing in Edinburgh.
Historic Environment Scotland, who look after Edinburgh Castle have released for a limited time their audio guide of the castle. A bonus is that you can also listen to their other audio guides to historic sites throughout Scotland.
The Edinburgh Castle audio guide lists each stop and you can play each one in any order you wish. They’ve also made a fantastic 3-D model of the castle for you to view. Combine them both and you can take your own tour from the comfort of your own home!
Finish your virtual viewing with a quick flying 360 degree aerial tour which soars around the Edinburgh Castle and also lets you see across the city.
If this has whetted your appetite to experience a live tour, now is a great time to explore Edinburgh. Watch where you step though….it might just be on a marker for something amazing!