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by Alexander Forsyth

You won't be wanting for things to see in Edinburgh - it's home to some of the most famous sights in Britain, and even the world. So much so that a large portion of it is designated a UNESCO world heritage site. For good reason, too - it's a city as architecturally rich, as it is exciting to explore.

There are key things to do in Edinburgh for anyone visiting for the first time - standing on top of the castle (perched atop a volcanic plug in the centre of the town) provides a real thrill. Families can also visit the cafés (The Elephant House, and Spoon) where Harry Potter was born, and explore the surrounding streets that inspired the book. You can even touch the nose of Greyfriar's Bobby for good luck, on your way to the National Museum of Scotland.

For those looking to step off the beaten path, though, it's a city whose back alleys, nooks, and crannies, will offer as much entertainment as the main streets.

Here's our guide to our favourite activities that'll take you away from the guidebook, into the unknown, and give you a whole new perspective on the city.

Climb Arthur’s Seat

view of Arthur's Seat

Described eloquently by Robert Louis Stevenson (author of Treasure Island, and one of Edinburgh's most famous sons), as "a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design", it's a mountain in everything but official classification. Towering over Edinburgh, it gives spectacular views stretching from the Pentland hills to the Firth of Forth. Forget climbing up to rooftops, or stepping onto expensive Ferris wheels - a 45 minute walk to the peak of Arthur's seat will reward you with the finest view of Edinburgh there is. It's one of the best experiences in in the city, and it's completely free.

For anyone looking to be slightly more adventurous, it's also the finest spot to view the famous Edinburgh New Year fireworks. Though, be careful - getting down from the summit in the pitch darkness can be tricky, especially after a couple of celebratory drinks!


Create your own bottle of gin

Edinburgh Gin Distillery

Edinburgh Gin distillery isn't entirely easy to find - so much so that you'd be forgiven for walking right past it. Situated at the end of Princes street, it's entered by walking down a flight of steps, and ducking under an archway that'd bop the head of all but the shortest of people. Hidden away beneath street level, it's like entering a different Era of Edinburgh History - one of underground passageways, and secret caverns.

Instead of damp caves, though, you'll find Edinburgh Gin distillery sitting among the stones. Not only do they put out a range of award winning gins, but if you book in advance, they'll give you the opportunity to make your own bottle from scratch! From distilling, to adding the botanicals, to even naming your bottle with a printed label, you can walk out of the distillery with a gin tailored to your very own specific tastes. They can accommodate groups of up to 5, so you can battle it out with your friends to see who can come up with the best bottle.

Visit: Edinburgh Gin Distillery Tours


Get lost in between the covers

Girl reading in Armchair Books Edinburgh

With the Edinburgh International Book Festival taking place in August every year, the city draws in book lovers from all over the world, eager to see their favourite authors, or discover new ones. For the rest of the year, though, Edinburgh's bookworms are sustained by one of the most charming sides to the city: its remarkable collection of old bookshops.

With The Grassmarket area housing some of the most cherished, it's a perfect occasion for a book lover to find themselves surrounded by more than they could hope to read in a lifetime. Our favourite is Armchair Books (72-74 West Port), but special mention is given to the wonderfully titled Elvis Shakespare on Leith Walk.

They may not be as famous as Paris' Shakespeare and Company, but along with the chaotic shelves, and the inviting smell, they're often the most peaceful places to find yourself in the city. Forget finding a quiet café to sit in, it's time to dust off the covers and catch up on your Shakespeare.


Visit the Gallows

Sometimes history is so unassuming that you can walk right past it without noticing, but sometimes, it's a case of walking right over it. In the centre of The Grassmarket, there a reference to a more gruesome side of Edinburgh lain into the stone. If you look down at the ground as you're walking past the Covenanters Memorial, you'll see what looks like a shadow of hanging Gallows marked into the ground. This is the exact spot where for a long period Edinburgh's public execution took place - where famous "half-hangit Maggie" was hung until (almost) dead, all the way up until the final execution of James Andrews on the 4th February 1784 (before the executions moved up to the Lawnmarket).

Making a subtle nod to the infamy of the spot is the pub overlooking the site, appropriately titled "The Last Drop". Commonly thought by visitors to mean "the last drop of alcohol", it's actually a reference to the last drop from the gallows!


Play a game of Skittles

Skittles at the Sheep Heid Inn in Edinburgh

We've written about the Sheep Heid Inn - it's the oldest pub in Scotland, and it's reached by a beautiful walk around the base of Arthur's Seat to enter the village of Duddingston.

While the food is excellent, the alcohol selection superb, and the atmosphere unrivalled, it has one thing going for it that no other pub in Edinburgh can brag of: skittles.

The oldest skittles alley in the country, in fact. It's still fully functioning, and available to hire for a measly cost of £3 per person per hour. There's no better way to spend some time with friends than attempting (and completely failing!) to get an old fashioned skittles strike. Watch out after you've had a couple of drinks, though - those little bowling balls are heavy!

 Visit: The Sheep Heid Inn

Eat in the oldest vegetarian restaurant in the UK

Henderson's Vegetarian Restaurant in Edinburgh

Back in 1962, most people wouldn't know what you were talking about if you said "vegetarian", and the extent of the options available would have begun and ended with "just don't eat the meat on your plate". Not Janet Henderson - a pioneering figure in the development of the meat free diet, she opened Henderson's vegetarian restaurant in 1962, serving organic food and vegetables sourced from her own farm.

Over 50 years later, and not only is Henderson's still going strong, it's become a staple of Edinburgh's food landscape, and the most famous Vegetarian restaurant in Britain. Always busy, and with excellent food, it's a chance to experience a different slice of history in Edinburgh - a much tastier, more nourishing slice of history. Particularly if you go for dessert.

 Visit: Henderson's Deli

Discover where Pirates first set sail

Robert Louis Stevenson house at 17 Heriot Row

(note the inscription on the wall above and right of the steps. "The home of Robert Louis Stevenson - 1857 - 1880)

Few people think they know much about Robert Louis Stevenson, but he's a man whose creations have entered the public consciousness almost exhaustively. Whether it's the famous mutineering pirate Long John Silver, or the sinister creation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, he's an author whose reach extends well beyond those who are familiar with his name.

More than this, his work on Treasure Island and Kidnapped was arguably the birth of the entire romantic Pirate genre. That is to say - if there was no RLS, then there'd be no Cap'n Jack Sparrow.

Legend has it that the idea for Treasure Island was had when seeing a young relative play with a toy boat in the Queen Street Garden central pond, opposite his then home on 17 Heriot Row (pictured above). The gardens are unfortunately closed to the public, but if a kind soul happens to let you in, then there's an undeniable sense of magic that clings to the place - like there might be pirates hiding in the trees.


Visit the Circus

Man walking down Circus lane in Edinburgh

If it isn't charming enough already, there's a pub at the end of the lane!

Edinburgh's nooks and crannies are charming, entirely unpredictable, and frequently hilarious. Whether walking down any of the narrow alleyways adjoining The Royal Mile to Cockburn street (Advocate's close is a particular favourite!) or taking in the wonderful view of the castle found from The Vennel, simply getting lost in the city can be as rewarding as even the most well thought out of plans.

Our best recommendation though, is to visit the circus. That's Royal Circus, or Circus lane, in New Town. Stunning circular street formations, with cobbled stones, towering Victorian houses, and abundant greenery, it's the perfect spot to pause for a second, and think "I wish I lived here". And if you're looking for that perfect photo of you or your friend, walk down Circus lane, just off Stockbridge - it's as charming as it looks.


Inchcolm Island

view of Incholm Abbey on Inchcolm Island

The only recommendation found outside Edinburgh's city limits is Inchcolm Island, but it's here for good reason. A tiny island, situated in the Firth Estuary leading out to the ocean, it's home to Incholm Abbey, an Augustine Abbey that took shape in the 13th century. Far from being a dry tour around an old building, it's instead a chance to run around a beautiful little island in the middle of the Firth of Forth. It even begins with a 90 minute boat ride (from Hawes Pier in South Queensferry) that pilots you under the world famous Forth Rail Bridge (and passes numerous seals sleeping on the buoys surrounding it!) before dropping you off for a 90 minute chance to explore a famous and storied island. 

There's no great rush, though. There's an inscription above the abbey that reads: "Stet domus haec donec fluctus formica marinos ebibat, et totum testudo perambulet orbem", which translates as "May this house stand until an ant drains the flowing sea, and a tortoise walks around the whole world". So, it's probably not falling down anytime soon. You've got time.


Alexander Forsyth
Alexander Forsyth

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