Overflowing with fantastic history, views, music and culture, Edinburgh is quite rightly one of Europe’s most popular city breaks. But what if you’ve visited the Castle, listened to the bagpipers on the Royal Mile, been whisky tasting and rubbed Greyfriars Bobby’s nose – what can you do on your second visit, or third or fourth? Here’s my pick of some of the best unusual and alternative things to see and do in Edinburgh.
Been whisky tasting? Try some local gin instead
Think Scotland and you no doubt think whisky. There are over 100 distilleries around the country and even a whole museum in Edinburgh dedicated to it – the Scotch Whisky Experience. But these days gin’s hot on whisky’s heels for the title of Scotland favourite drink. Gin distilleries have sprung up all across the country including two right in the heart of Edinburgh. Edinburgh Gin Distillery on Princes Street and Pickering’s Gin’s Summerhall Distillery both run tours where you can find out about gin’s murky history and learn how it’s made. At Edinburgh Gin you can also do a gin-making session where you design your own gin. Or if you’re more into tasting, the distillery tasting room turns into a bar in the evenings called Heads and Tales. And the nearby Jolly Botanist has 72 gins on their menu, including brands from all over Scotland.
Walked along the Royal Mile? Tunnel underneath it
The Royal Mile is Edinburgh’s most famous street, running right through the Old Town from the Castle at one end to Holyrood Palace at the other. Though it’s not a mile as we know it – an old Scots mile was 200 metres longer. It’s packed with historic buildings, souvenir shops – and people. But if the crowds and busking bagpipers get too much, you can head beneath the Royal Mile to the underground street of Mary King’s Close. In the 17th-century, narrow streets or closes filled the Old Town. But where many were knocked down, Mary King’s Close was preserved when the Royal Exchange was built over the top. You can wander through the old streets and hear the stories of the people who lived there, from outbreaks of plague to ghostly sightings. Mary King’s Close isn’t the only way you can get underground in Edinburgh either – you can also take a tour through the Blair Street Underground Vaults underneath the South Bridge.
Visited the National Museum of Scotland? Try some of Edinburgh’s quirkier museums
The National Museum of Scotland is one of the world’s top 20 most-visited museums, with over 20,000 artefacts from Scottish history, culture and nature. Best of all it’s free to enter, you just give a donation. And don’t miss the hidden roof terrace for great views of the Castle – just look for the Terrace Lift in the Kingdom of the Scots gallery. But there are plenty of smaller and quirkier museums to explore around Edinburgh too. There’s the recently revamped Surgeons’ Hall Museum where you’ll find anatomical specimens in jars and a book covered in the skin of notorious 19th-century murderer William Burke. You can also rediscover your old favourite toys at the Museum of Childhood, learn about money at the Museum on the Mound or uncover the secret world of the Masons at the Grand Lodge of Scotland.
Hiked up Arthur’s Seat? Walk the Water of Leith
The hike to the top of Arthur’s Seat is a must-do on a sunny day in Edinburgh. This ancient volcano lies 250 metres above the city with panoramic views across Edinburgh and beyond. There’s a choice of different routes to the top – depending on how energetic you are. But if you fancy something a bit easier, the Water of Leith Walkway is one of the city’s prettiest walks. The full route runs for 12.25 miles from the village of Balerno at the foot of the Pentlands to the docks at Leith. But one of the most beautiful sections is close to the city centre, from the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art to the Botanic Gardens. The path runs through Dean Village and Stockbridge along shady paths past historic mill buildings, bridges and waterfalls. With wildlife like kingfishers and herons along the way, it’s hard to believe you’re still in the city.
Explored the city’s West End? Discover its Wild West
Not far from the Old Town, Edinburgh’s West End is full of independent shops, bars and restaurants, centred around the cobbled William and Stafford Streets. But if you want to go a bit wilder, a patch of southern Edinburgh takes you back a century and a few thousand miles to the Old West. This row of buildings tucked away off a residential street in Morningside (EH10 4QG) comes complete with saloon, jail, cantina and stables. Or does it? The frontages were actually built in 1995 by a businessman who owned a southwest-style furniture business in Morningside. Two of his employees had worked at Disney so went to town out the back of the store to create a mini patch of the USA. The store’s long gone but the street is still there, used for workshops, student film projects and the cantina doubles as Morningside Library’s fire door.
Been on board the Royal Yacht Brittania? Set sail to Inchcolm Island
The Royal Yacht Brittania was Queen Elizabeth II’s floating royal residence for 40 years and sailed over a million miles around the world. Today she’s docked in Edinburgh’s Ocean Terminal and you can take a tour to see how the Royal Family sailed in style. But if you’d rather set sail yourself, then you can take a boat trip out to Inchcolm Island, just a few miles off shore from Edinburgh. The island is home to some of Scotland’s best-preserved monastic buildings as well as old wartime defences, and plenty of seabirds, seals and porpoises too. Tours leave from South Queensferry, north-west of the city centre, and sail underneath the Forth Bridge and out along the Firth of Forth to the island, where you have 90 minutes to explore.
What are your favourite Edinburgh hidden gems and unusual attractions?