A day in Edinburgh's OLD TOWN

Adventures in Old Town of Edinburgh

For YEARS, I’ve had a blog in draft about what to do in Edinburgh. People are constantly asking. When I lived there I had my history walking tours down to a science, having read so many books and taken so many tours on my own, but, of course, some things have changed. I feel like I should write 10 different blogs for friends visiting Edinburgh, but for this one, I’ll just tell you what we did.

We were staying behind the castle, on Lothian Road, so we went straight towards Castle Terrace on the west side of the castle (the steepest and most dramatic views that make you wonder why anyone every seriously considered attacking the castle) and hiked up some switchbacks that brought us around towards the South Castle Wynd steps. They are steep, but quick, and they’ll deposit you right at the castle. 

The paved area in front of the castle gates offers great views, and you can walk over the “moat” bit and through the gates before you have to pay. If you’re a budget traveler, go ahead and walk as far into the castle as you can (you can get to the shop and restrooms before you are required to have a ticket). I decided that, as Steve had never been to Edinburgh before, he needed to do the castle properly. It’s £17/person now, but you’ve got to see the castle. Take a guided tour — they are free. You can pay extra for audio guide if you don’t want to wait for a tour to start (the times can vary), but i always enjoy the live docents. 

If you are planning on doing a bit of traveling outside of Edinburgh, then considering buying a Historic Scotland pass or a Tourist pass, which offers discounts to various other historic sites around the country — Stirling Castle is another great one that’s included, and it will save you money. 

There’s a tea room and snack shop at the castle, so it’s possible to spend hours there if you want. We poked around for about an hour, and I spewed all kinds of factoids about Mary, Queen of Scots, that I’m not sure if Steve cared about, but I find riveting. The King’s Apartments were closed this visit, which made me sad because I love to stand in the tiny room where James VI/I was born (especially since I’ve now had a home birth!) and soak up the ancient birthy vibes.

We wandered down the Royal Mile, where you might as well go ahead and buy souvenirs. The prices don’t change much from shop to shop, and I always find that you never get back to the place you think you’re going to (“Oh, this is nice, but i’ll keep looking and come back later.” — no, you won’t, just BUY NOW). 

I like to suggest you keep some pound coins handy for tipping street musicians because THAT’S JUST GOOD FOR THE WORLD.

Vegetarian Haggis at the Baked Potato Shop in Edinburgh.
Take a left on Cockburn Street for lunch at the Baked Potato Shop. A small potato is HUGE, so don’t order the medium or large unless you’re starving or sharing. I suggest the veggie haggis with cheese (the restaurant is all vegetarian). I also like the veggie chili, but it’s spicy. A random one i had once that remains an unsuspecting favorite is: curried corn & cottage cheese (I thought the tattie worker was pulling my leg — or “winding me up,” as they say in Scotland — but he was dead serious and it was dead delicious). There is only one small table, which you can share with a few other diners. If the weather is nice, get the tattie to go and eat it outside by The Tron. Or buy a coffee at the nearby Starbucks and eat on the second floor there with your fancy coffee drink. It's a pretty cool Starbucks, considering the building is hundreds of years old.

I like to walk down Cockburn Street a little ways and pop in shops (Diagon House is awesome), but then immediately walk back up to the Royal Mile via a “close” or “alley” (Fleshmarket Close is cool) because they are magical fairy medieval Harry Potter streets that make me swoon.

The Tron is an old building near where the gallows once were, and in recent years it’s been converted into an indoor market where you can buy very reasonably-priced handmade local souvenirs. It’s worth a pop-in, especially if you want locally-made souvenirs.

Walk back up the mile and stop in to Deacon Brodie’s for a pint or snack if you need a rest. If not, turn left on George IV Bridge and then turn right immediately for a saunter down Victoria Street. You can pick up Harry Potter souvenirs, elderberry tinctures, tweed suits, and antique books here. And all kinds of other stuff - this street was the inspiration for Diagon Alley, and it’s a great little shopping street. There’s also Victoria Terrace just above it, which is a pedestrian street that only makes sense if you understand the 3-dimensional nature of Edinburgh. 

You can then hang out in the Grassmarket (White Hart Inn is the oldest pub in Edinburgh, but there are LOADS there). Steve and I popped into Armstrong’s, which is a fabulous second-hand/vintage store where I always buy kilts for my gowing boys. This time I also got a tweed coat for Graham because I was feeling splurgy and because I was proud of myself for not spending an obscene amount of money and the absurdly cute tweed outfit that had caught my eye in a Victoria Street shop window.

From Armstrong’s, you can pop along to Greyfriar’s Kirkyard and have a wander and see if you can find Tom Riddle’s gravestone (more Harry Potter references, sorry). If it’s raining, then you should pop into the National Museum, which has a delightful cafe and also has Dolly, the first cloned animal, who is stuffed and spins round and round for eternity in a glass enclosure. 

While in Old Town, I also like to explore some buildings at the University of Edinburgh. Some of the best folk music clubs are in the area. Sandy Bell’s often has live music at any hour of the day. The Royal Oak has folk music every night and sometimes more specialized shows in the basement venue (I played there). It’s a small room, but a wonderful vibe. Look on the wall for a painted quote from the late Nick Keir. I also love nearby Captain’s Bar, which has a great staff and live music too.

Other suggestions:

  • wander over to The Meadows a huge park in Old Town. 
  • take a bus or Uber to Duddingston — a tiny town on the outskirts of the city, and have a pint or a meal at the Sheep Heid Inn, a royal haunt of yore that has been in business since the 1300s. 
  • Holyrood Palace is worth a visit
  • Climb Arthur’s Seat for a great view (it’s a pretty easy hike, as far as hikes go)
  • Just walk around and get lost!
Don’t be afraid of using the buses. There is a great app for the Lothian Buses, and Google Maps also offers real-time bus schedule info. The buses have wifi, so you can follow your location on a map — or just tell the bus driver where you are headed and ask for a heads-up for your stop. You can buy a day-ticket for around £4. Edinburgh also has Uber.