If you happen to land in Edinburgh for the day, you will quickly discover that this most charming of cities is perfect for aimless wandering. Cobblestone streets morph into dank lanes (or wynds) and open into secret gardens; narrow walkways link up via old stone bridges; and Edinburgh’s famous (massive!) castle in the centre of town, built by King Malcolm III in the late 11th century atop the aptly named Castle Rock, looms over all.
Dating back to the 7th century, Edinburgh was born a simple fort built by order of King Edwin of Northumbria — its name derived from the Old English meaning “Edwin’s fort.” With a population of less than half a million, Edinburgh is more flourishing town than big city. The Royal Mile connects Holyrood Palace at the East end to Edinburgh Castle at the West End, and in between is an abundance of options to fill the day.
8:30 a.m.: Starting blocks
Scottish enthusiasm for pubs, ale and whiskey is markedly greater than is their cultural appreciation for the humble café. All the more reason to take advantage of Lovecrumbs (155 West Port in Old Town) to begin the day, a sweetly Bohemian spot offering good coffee using locally roasted beans, an assortment of inventive cakes (parsnip and hazelnut, bramble and vanilla); scones with jam and cream; and loaves of freshly baked sourdough. Here I discovered that a “long, dark” gets you an Americano.
10:00 a.m.: To market
It’s a 15-minute walk from Lovecrumbs to Grassmarket, a large, open square cluttered with shops, cafes, pubs and people. From the 14th to the 19th century, Grassmarket functioned as a marketplace for horses and cattle. More exciting is that many a public execution took place here as is well documented on placards attached to the storefronts lining the square, one of which explaining the origin of the saying, “Good to the last drop.” The Hula Juice Bar & Gallery has indoor and outdoor seating, perfectly situated for superb people watching.
11:00 a.m.: A royal visit
Well fortified and surrounded by castles (one in particular), go for the magnificent Holyrood Palace with its gracious landscaping and dramatic ruin of an Abbey. Holyrood is a working palace and members of the royal family reside here when in town. Inside, it’s all dark polished wood, tapestries and velvet curtains. The elaborate frescos adorning the ceilings of nearly every room are a visual highlight. The storied palace is also where Mary, Queen of Scots, lived for a time while married to her second husband, Lord Darnley, guilty of murdering Mary’s private secretary, David Rizzio, in the suite on the top floor.
1:00 p.m.: Lunch time
Pub fare in the Old Town is variable so for homemade deliciousness at bargain prices, aim for the farmer’s market. While not extensive, its picnic tables are a lovely place to park yourself and indulge in thick-crusted pies stuffed with haggis and black pudding. Oh why not — you’re in Scotland! That said, pies with a dizzying array of fillings and plenty of non-meat options are on offer in addition to fresh produce and locally made jams and chutneys.
3:00 p.m.: River walk
There is simply no better way to walk off lunch than to stroll from the Old Town to the New Town via the Water of Leith walkway. This enchanting 12-mile path alongside the Leith stream was a highlight of my visit. Dense with wildflowers on either bank, and framed by faded brick walls behind, the path is interrupted only by low arched stone bridges. Note: the stretch between Stockbridge and Dean Village is especially picturesque.
The spell is broken, but not unkindly, when you emerge onto street level for a cup of tea in any of the quaint shops offering a cuppa with scones and jam.
6:30 p.m.: Dinner with locals
A Scottish friend gave me the best tip ever when she recommended dinner at Pickles (56A Broughton St) in New Town. This wee restaurant is easy to miss but a clear neighbourhood favourite. Dinner is a generous platter of mixed meats and local cheeses, fat olives, warm crusty bread and two excellent chutneys — caramelized onion and a softly spiced tomato. Topping up my glass of crisp white wine, the friendly server insisted that should we want more of anything, more divine cheese, say, or another loaf of bread fresh from the oven, to just ask.
9:30 p.m.: Before sunset
On clear July evenings, the sun sets between 9:30 and 10:00 p.m., the evening light in the hour or so beforehand a delicate gold. On just such a night, my husband and I wandered back to Princes Street Gardens park at the foot of the castle — arguably nearly all of Edinburgh lies at the foot of the castle — and bought a ticket for the Ferris wheel. Hoisted upward at stately pace, we looked out over the sparkling city and plotted our return.
Ready to spend a day in Edinburgh? G Adventures can get you there. Check out our small group tours to Edinburgh here.