Edinburgh. One of my favourite cities. For me a mix of everything that makes a city great!
Edinburgh is a completely walk-able city, brimming with art, literature, food and music. Set within a rich and ancient history. With its lush gardens and well preserved architecture, Edinburgh is just as vibrant and diverse as its hills are old… and don’t forget the best part of Edinburgh … it’s full of Scots.
Alas, I am not alone in this sentiment, which means this famous festival city is often teeming with visitors from all over the globe and heavily laden with commercial tourist traps. Also, although I consider Edinburgh to be a very affordable city, it is certainly not exactly cheap, especially in peak season. With this is mind I have devised a list of unique or lesser known places to see and things to do, some off the beaten path, some right in the middle of the city, some on the cheap, some completely free and some just kinda weird.
Now, don’t get me wrong, visiting the most heralded locations, if at all possible, is well worth anybody’s time. Yet if you are there for only a short visit, have already visited the most common sites, simply cannot stand crowds or are on a highly restricted budget, there is plenty to do or see.
Two Cities One Edinburgh
Commonly broken up into two (2) sections. Edinburgh is made up of the highly populated Old Town.
The most common and popular sites are the aforementioned Edinburgh Castle, Royal Mile, Palace of Holyroodhouse, St Giles Cathedral, The National Museum of Scotland, The Scottish National Gallery.
There are so many more popular things to see and do, I simply cannot share them all, but TRIPADVISOR is a great place to find out about what might best suit you.
Now onto my list of less touristy, more obscure or unusual haunts.
- King George V Park (Eyre Place): Located in the Canonmills area, this is a fantastic park to cut through while walking from one end of the city to the other. With playgrounds for kids (Scotland Yard) and fabulously lush walkways, it is a beautiful stroll with fantastic photo opportunities. It leads you to a lot of other cool and entirely free stuff
- Rodney Street Tunnel (aka Heriot Hill Tunnel): This old railway tunnel, built in the 1840s, was abandoned and sealed from the 1960s to 2009. It is is now a walkway connecting Scotland Yard Park playground with the Canonmills-Leith pedestrian-cycleway. It takes you over Warriston Cemetery, offering fabulous photo opportunities along the way. A lovely walk along a tree lined path filled with cyclists, joggers, prams and dog walkers. Culminating at a really nice and modern Tesco Food Market (Super Store), it is an excellent alternative to the busy intersection at Broughton and Rodney Streets.
- Warriston Cemetery: Located (I think) at 36 Warriston at the Water of Leith a Northern suburb, built by the Edinburgh Cemetery Company in 1842. It has been sitting derelict and ignored until fairly recently and it is glorious. With about 14 acres of Victorian gardens, filled with tens of thousands of macabre and ornate gravestones and tombs. The neo Tudor, Gothic, Edwardian and Victorian style of this magical place is… well magical. It is a worthy place to visit. The wildlife, from foxes to birds, is rampant. Buried there you can find notable Victorian and Edwardian figures, the most eminent being the physician Sir James Young Simpson. It lies in the Inverleith Conservation Area, is a designated Local Nature Conservation Site and is protected as a Category A listed building.
- South Bridge Vaults: Found just a bit south of Edinburgh Castle, you can see the arch of this bridge, built in the late 1700’s, where it crosses over Cowgate. But South Bridge is actually made up of 19 arches that are amazingly enclosed in buildings all along the way. The bridge has a history of folly and went out of use a mere 30 years after it was built. The vaults created by these arches were filled in with rubble around 1820. In 1985, a chance excavation revealed the labyrinthic network of rooms and dwelling spaces contained within. These spaces have lost none of their original atmosphere. They are still dark, occasionally claustrophobic and, when it rains in Edinburgh they can still be very damp. They’re mainly frequented by ghost tour companies today. Go check them out.
- Dunbar’s Close: Along the Royal Mile. I cannot believe how few people know that if you follow it all of the way down, it leads to an amazing little public garden. A perfect respite from the tourist laden and hectic areas above.
- Mary King’s Close: Along the Royal Mile. Possibly one of the more well known closes, long shrouded in Scottish legend. Closed to the public for many years, it actually consists of a number of closes which were originally narrow streets with tenement houses on either side, stretching up to eight stories high. ‘The Real Mary King’s Close’ tour group, takes you on a journey through time, traversing a warren of hidden streets, frozen in time, beneath the Royal Mile. Led by a costumed character guide the tour tells the real stories of the people who lived, worked and died on these now hidden closes. Not as obscure as some of the above, but truly worth the hour tour.
- Gilmerton Cove: Located at 16 Drum Street (a bit outside of central Edinburgh, I did not walk). This is truly just bizarre. Although vastly researched, no one really knows what the Hell it is (or was). Its entrance is through an old mining cottage, turned welcome center. Guides lead you down to a huge and surprisingly extensive assortment of hand carved passageways and chambers that lie deep below ground. Maybe it was a place to hide Covenanters or Jacobites. A smuggler’s lair, a secret drinking den, or something to do with Knight Templars, no one knows. It opened in 2003 and it is a wee bit campy, but it is deliciously creepy down there, a wee bit scary and really fun. TO NOTE: Tours are limited to 12 persons per tour. Definitely book ahead. But that pretty much goes for all tours in Edinburgh.
- Innocent Railway (at Arthur’s Seat): Located by Holyrood Car Park. It is underneath Holyrood Park Road bridge. It is just a tunnel, but it is a pleasant walk before or after checking out Arthur’s Seat and the Craigs. If you walk to the main road it will take you to the next suggestion
- Dr. Neils Garden: Found on Old Church Lane in Duddingston Village. Tranquil, and serene winding paths through lush foliage. Right next to Duddingston Kirk (worth visiting as well) at the lower slopes of Arthur’s Seat (next on my list). Open to all for free 7 days a week (they do rely on private donations though) A sanctuary, built out of dedication and love, filled with trees, flowers and other plants, bridges and lovely private areas where one can sit in the sun, watch the wildlife, read or what have you. Just a wee but down the road is a wonderful and very old Inn where you can grab a bite and a pint. The Sheeps Heid Inn. Check out their website for a schedule of events. Keep in mind it can get brown, muddy and grey in the Winter anywhere in Scotland.
- Arthurs Seat: Located within Holyrood Park (a 640 acre Royal Park) and only a short walk from the Royal Mile, this significant volcanic mountain is the parks highest point offering not only wonderful (if not at time a bit strenuous walking / hiking trails), but unbelievable views and photo opportunities of the city and much more. There you will find one of four hill forts that are over 2000 years old. It’s unusual diverse range of flora and geology makes it a site of Special Scientific Interest. Nearby are also a 15th century medieval St Anthony’s Chapel and the unique 150 foot cliff faces dominating Edinburgh’s skyline known as Salisbury Craigs.
- Old Calton Cemetery: Found at 27 Waterloo Place on the Northeast side of city center. This cemetery built in 1718 has spectacular examples of the Victorians obsession with death and the occult. Quirky, creepy, elegant and just outright bizarre. The graves and mausoleum of this Scottish “Pere Lachaise” cemetery vie with each other for the title of most quirky and elegant.