This Dreamy Scottish Capital Is a Must for Foodies and Harry Potter Fans
Edinburgh is exquisite. Everywhere you look in this hilly town, you’ll find incredible vistas and historic buildings dating back as far as the 1000s. It has all the medieval castles and winding cobblestone streets that inspired the Harry Potter universe. But this compact city -- Scotland’s capital and second-largest -- is also a modern playground with some of the best restaurants and cocktail bars in Europe.
With a metropolitan population of around 750,000, Edinburgh is similar in size to Bakersfield, California, or Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but far more exciting to visit. Built on a series of hills overlooking the North Sea, and laid out in a time well before cars, the city is easy to explore on foot. The entirety of the central Old Town and New Town neighborhoods (the “new” town was built in the 18th and 19th centuries) are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, thanks to their concentration of well-preserved architecture and historic sites. Edinburgh is also the home of several large universities (and their lively students), a world-famous arts scene, and trendy independent makers of just about everything.
“Edinburgh is known for having an amazing independent scene in every sense, from coffee shops, bars, restaurants, and clothing designers to Scottish producers generally,” says Sian Buchan, general manager of Panda & Sons, a cocktail palace that’s been named to several different world’s-best lists. A native of Scotland’s northern Highlands, Buchan got her start in hospitality more than a decade ago in Aberdeen and moved to Edinburgh in 2015. She helped point us to some of the best spots in the city to eat, drink, and play.
Edinburgh is a city for people who like to eat well
A devotion to all things made, grown, or raised locally is common in many of Edinburgh’s best restaurants. Timberyard, for example, serves exquisite multi-course menus of obsessively sourced ingredients in a cavernous 19th-century brick warehouse. The dishes are fairly seafood-heavy with a bit of New Nordic influence, as in a house-cured scallop with horseradish, but also show off seasonal ingredients, pairing a barely-cooked egg with chanterelles, zucchini, and fava beans in springtime. The cocktail menu is equally impressive -- including an assortment of trendy non-alcoholic drinks incorporating house-made sodas and syrups, like a kombucha flavored with apple, fir, and spiced tomato.
Two of Buchan’s favorites for a fancy night out are Fhior and Aizle. Located on opposite sides of the central Old Town neighborhood, the former serves a rotating menu based on a single ingredient that’s in the height of its season, while the latter makes everything it possibly can from scratch -- whether the house-churned butter and -fermented sourdough to veggies and herbs grown in the backyard garden.
And of course, you’ve gotta try the local specialty: haggis. If you’re a beginner to the often-divisive classic Scottish dish (chopped-up sheep organs and oats boiled in a sheep’s stomach), Buchan suggests the haggis bonbons from The Bon Vivant, in which small balls of haggis are breaded, deep-fried and served with bacon mayo. “If it’s your first time having haggis, it’s a great place to start!”
It’s a place for people who like to drink well, too
Edinburgh offers an amazing assortment of cocktail bars. Owned by the same pair as Panda & Sons, Hoot the Redeemer is a bit more fun and laid-back than its sister bar, with a secret entrance behind one of those fortune-telling machines you might remember from Big. The whole place has an old-timey-carnival theme, including a claw machine that lets you pick two ingredients the bartenders will turn into a custom cocktail, and another machine dispensing cups of custom-made boozy ice cream.
Or there’s The Lucky Liquor Co., which creates a new menu of 13 cocktails made from exactly 13 different spirits every 13 weeks. For a classic pub experience, there’s no better place than Kay’s Bar. “A good pint and a great whisky is the order of the day here,” Buchan says, “to escape the madness of the city even though you’re in the middle of it.”
Especially stellar for fans of scotch and whisky
Scotland is also famous for, y’know, Scotch, and Edinburgh offers lots of opportunities to taste the local whiskies. “If you’re a connoisseur,” Buchan says, “get yourself to Devil’s Advocate or Usquabae for some of the best whisky selections in the city center!” Both bars offer hundreds of whisky options, along with friendly staff who can help you put together the perfect flight.
To see whisky-making up close and personal, head to the Glenkinchie Distillery, which is about half an hour from Edinburgh by car and runs shuttle buses from the city center every day at 10:30 AM and 1:30 PM. The options there range from a basic tour and single sample dram to a six-whisky personal tasting presented by the distillery manager. Or for something completely different directly in the city center, check out Edinburgh Gin’s tiny basement distillery. You can taste the brand’s gins and liqueurs, and even try your hand at making gin yourself, using an adorable tabletop still.
Walking is the best way to take in the city’s natural beauty
Edinburgh sits right next to the North Sea, but if you stick to the center of town, you’d never know it. For a taste of ocean breeze, take a 40-minute stroll down to Leith, the former shipping center that’s been redeveloped into a charming neighborhood of vintage and antique shops, coffeehouses and cafes. It’s home to two of Buchan’s favorite breakfast joints in town: Twelve Triangles Kitchen Table and Finn & Bear. Either one is a great choice to fuel up for a walk along the Water of Leith, a river that empties into the ocean at Leith with a 12-plus-mile nature trail beside it. Walk as far as you like, but try to make it at least to Dean Village, a picturesque district of narrow streets and Victorian buildings just west of the city center, and about 3 miles down the path from its beginning.
There’s also the Royal Botanic Gardens, whose massive collection of flowers and trees from around the world includes a silver fir planted in 1680 and an herbarium with samples of at least half the known plant species on Earth. If you’re in the mood for a long walk, head up to Arthur’s Seat, the peak of an extinct volcano that offers fantastic panoramic views. (It’s not a difficult path, but it’s a 45-minute walk up almost 1,000 feet of rocky stairs, so bring water and layers.)
Oh yeah, there are castles too
It’s not hard to find beautiful viewpoints and centuries-old buildings wandering around Edinburgh -- just turn your head! -- but there are a few no visitor should miss. Edinburgh Castle dates back to at least the 11th century and is today a large museum, home to exhibits from throughout Scotland’s history, as well as to the country’s crown jewels, The Honours of Scotland, and a pair of cafes. It sits atop a bluff overlooking the Old Town at the end of the Royal Mile, the street -- almost exactly a mile long -- running between the castle and Holyrood Palace, the official Scottish residence of the British monarch. The Royal Mile is a lovely and scenic walk, lined with shops and restaurants catering to tourists, plus the spooky Mary King’s Close, a series of alleyways buried by later construction that date as far back as the 1600s and where you can take a tour exploring some of the darker moments in Edinburgh’s past.
Don’t skip one of the world’s best arts festivals either
Visit Edinburgh in August and you won’t be able to escape the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (taking place August 2-26 this year). Founded in 1947, the loosely organized collection of performances bills itself as “the single biggest celebration of arts and culture on the planet” and comprises thousands of shows throughout the month at hundreds of venues around the city -- everything from concerts and stand-up comedy to operas and experimental theater.
Harry Potter fan? You’ve come to the right place
J.K. Rowling has lived in Edinburgh since she began writing her legendary series, and many of the novels’ settings were inspired by real places in town. Wizard-themed shops abound, along with tours of Potter-related sites. Chief on the pilgrimage list for fans should be The Elephant House, the coffeehouse and cafe where Rowling did much of her writing. It’s right across the street from Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, a centuries-old cemetery whose gravestones inspired many of the names in the Potterverse.
And then there are the things most guidebooks won’t tell you about
What most tourists miss, Buchan says, is nearby Calton Hill, at the base of which you’ll find the very cool and contemporary Scottish Parliament Building, which opened in 2004, and on whose top you’ll find several national monuments and an 18th-century observatory. “The views over the city are amazing, and it won’t take you half as long as Arthur’s Seat!” she says.
For a taste of local living, swing by The Pitt, a weekend street food market also featuring local musicians. While you’re at it, don’t miss the city’s contemporary art scene: The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s two buildings house noted works by everybody from Andy Warhol and Salvador Dalí to Robert Mapplethorpe and Damien Hirst, while The Fruitmarket Gallery highlights a rotation of exhibits by the best of working artists in Scotland and around the world.