The city is basically split into two main districts — the Old Town and the New Town — with Princes Street Gardens separating them. The surrounding areas offer a wealth of places to visit.
The Old Town: This is the largely medieval heart of Edinburgh in which most of its important historical monuments can be found, including Edinburgh Castle , Holyroodhouse Palace (the Royal Scottish residence) and St Giles' Cathedral .
The Royal Mile is the historical artery of the Old Town , linking together Edinburgh's two royal strongholds: Edinburgh Castle and the Holyroodhouse Palace . Running the length of four streets — Castlehill, Lawnmarket, High Street and Canongate – it's a vibrant, buzzing location. This is especially so during the Edinburgh Festival, when the Old Town is filled with street performers and people thrusting flyers into the hands of passers-by, all in the hope of drumming up larger audiences for their shows. It's also something of a tourist trap and, as a result, souvenir shops have sprung up in droves. However, the vitality and historical significance of this part of town make it an essential stop on any visitor's checklist.
The Cowgate and Grassmarket areas are towards the southern end of the Old Town . This bustling area is filled with clubs, pubs, music venues and second-hand clothes shops. It's a pretty cool place in which to be seen and for the locals it's their first port of call on a night out. When the sun shines the Grassmarket has the feel of a continental town; relaxed al fresco coffee drinking, little traffic and authentic, colorful shop-fronts make this one of Europe's premier haunts.
Princes Street Gardens: These gardens fill the valley between Old Town and New Town , with Princes Street itself lining the northern side. During the Christmas and New Year period there is an ice-rink set up here under the gaze of a crystallised Edinburgh Castle . There is a decidedly festive atmosphere in the park at this time with stalls selling Christmas trees and seasonal ornaments. During the summer months the park acts as a Mecca for visitors in search of panoramic views of the city; for tourists who wish to climb the Scott Monument ; for workers lunching in the open; for children who want to play a round of mini-golf; and for just about anybody who needs to relax. In Princes Street Gardens you never escape the atmospheric sound of the bagpipes, though you can escape the hustle and bustle of Princes Street itself.
The Mound is bang in the middle of Princes Street Gardens . It is called The Mound because it is, quite literally, the mound of earth that was left over from dredging the Loch at the foot of the castle. It's the site of the Royal Scottish Academy and the National Gallery of Scotland . In the summer it attracts many festival performers and craft stalls.
The New Town: Whilst the Old Town marks the historical part of the city, the New Town is more a celebration of business, order and classical Georgian architecture. This is the terrain of the shops, offices and banks, which are laid out in gridded streets that emanate precision and symmetry.
George Street is the centrepiece of the New Town . It is an up-and-coming area and now boasts high quality shops and restaurants including Browns, Space NK Apothecary, Jones and many others. Flanked by Queen Street and Princes Street , which run in parallel, it is a wide and elegant street with impressive squares at both ends. At the western end lies Charlotte Square, designed by Robert Adam in 1791 and home of St George's church (now West Register House ). The other end finds St Andrew Square — home of the Melville Monument and the Royal Bank of Scotland. It also marks the financial area of the New Town.
Princes Street , just below George Street, is the main shopping area of Edinburgh and the most famous part of the New Town . A very busy spot, its views of the Edinburgh Castle and proximity to Princes Street Gardens happily make up for the crowds of shoppers. The most impressive building is General Register House , at the northeastern end of the street. Also at this end is Waverley market, just next to the station. This shopping centre is a popular venue for performers during the Festival. Whilst Princes Street offers shoppers department stores and high street chains, Rose Street, just behind it, is an attractive pedestrian area with small shops and cafes.
Stockbridge & Dean are in the western part of the New Town , and are known for being bohemian and less structured. Funky, trendy little shops and boutiques sit alongside various eating-places and bars. Places like Randolph Crescent and Moray Place give the area a more curvaceous look with classical Georgian fronts. Dean Village is an attractive old milling community, whilst Stockbridge is a great place to browse through antique and ethnic shops.
Calton: At the east of the city, this hill is a popular spot for watching the Festival fireworks. The views of Edinburgh Castle and Arthur's Seat are wonderful and if you like, you can climb the Nelson Monument to increase the panorama. The Royal City Observatory and Old Royal High School are situated in this area.
Holyrood Park and Arthur's Seat: This area is just behind the Holyroodhouse Palace . Known as Arthur's Seat (from the gaelic "ard-Na-Said" — meaning "height of arms"), this extinct volcano — it hasn't erupted in 350 million years — towers over of Holyrood Park . Originally a hunting ground, the public can now stroll through the park's 650 acres and walk over lava flows to get a great view of the city. There are also many swans and ducks to feed in St. Mary's loch. The best way to climb is from the east by Dunsapie Loch.
Duddingston: Located at the northeast end of Dunsapie Loch, this area is tranquil with a village feel.
Bruntsfield, Marchmont and Morningside: These southern suburbs offer large open spaces such as The Meadows and Bruntsfield Links. It is also the site of the medieval Burgh Muir (town heath) — used to isolate dying victims of plagues and for training armies. Marchmont is a popular student area.
Leith: A docklands area, Leith feels quite separate from the rest of the city - people here often prefer to say they're from Leith rather than from Edinburgh. It has its own financial centre, waterway (the water of Leith) and shopping/eating areas. A source of inspiration for Irvine Welsh's "Trainspotting", it is today the scene of a thriving cafe society. Leith Links, the park where the rules of golf were originally formulated, is a lovely place to stroll. The sport has been prohibited on this ground, however, since 1907.
Dining and drinking in Edinburgh are fun and tasty pursuits. All manner of eateries and watering holes lurk around every corner. From traditional haggis haunts to romantic Italian restaurants, whisky-stained pubs to trendy bars — there is something to suit most cravings.
The city center offers many tastes and tipples and the Old Town is a great place to sup and pub. For a European flavour try The Grain Store , just off the Royal Mile, whose rather unpromising name belies the tasty Scottish/French fare served. Ciao Roma is just one example of the decent regional Italian eateries the city has to offer. To sample the native delicacies, try the haggis and tatties at the Doric Wine Bar & Bistro . For a contemporary dining experience of the highest quality, take the transparent lift inside The Museum of Scotland to The Tower Restaurant and Terrace . Pub-lovers should prop up the Bow Bar , just below Edinburgh Castle , and vegetarians should check out Bann UK . Fed up with whisky? Try vodka of all flavours imaginable at Bar Kohl .
Cowgate and Grassmarket are very popular drinking haunts. Try Bannerman's for a traditional pub atmosphere or wander down Candlemaker Row and check out Greyfriars Bobby . Driving? Maison Hector is great for non-alcoholic beverages.
Towards Holyrood Park , there are some good eateries near the Edinburgh Festival Theatre . Those with the Mexican munchies should try Mother's , whilst Ayatthaya serves great Thai food. At the Canongate end, the Holyrood Tavern's cozy atmosphere will help you nurse your pint.
On the other side of Princes Street Gardens , New Town has many treats worth sampling. Dining à la française is particularly satisfying here; the Cafe St Honore offers excellent brasserie fare, whilst Pompadour is perfect for expensive French cuisine. For a continental luncheon La Cuisine d'Odile has a very good menu. Not to be outdone, the Italians and Spaniards are also well represented in New Town. Try La Rusticana or the Patio Restaurant for a taste of pasta/pizza paradise, or Tapas Tree for some great Hispanic nibbles. Kids in tow? Check out old favorite the Hard Rock Cafe , then drop the smalls home and relax with a late-night cocktail at Po Na Na .
Further out of town is the dockland area of Leith, a must for seafood seekers. All along the quays, fish restaurants can be found offering menus that are fresh from the ocean. If you're going to try any of them, make sure it's the charming Fishers Bistro at number one. Set back from the water, the Raj Restaurant's curries will put fire in your belly, but if you prefer lighter delicacies, the French seafood dishes at The Vintner's Rooms are wonderful. For an aperitif or one-for-the-road, Bar Java is a great start or finish to any night.
TOUR 1: Edinburgh's New Town
This tour takes you around Edinburgh's New Town . Designed by James Craig, the area is a tribute to the Georgian age and architectural elegance. To enable its construction, the North Bridge was erected 1763-1772 and the Nor' Loch was drained. Now a park, the latter will feature towards the end of the tour, when you need a rest! But first we'll go to the heart of New Town and the 'big 3' — Princes Street , George Street and Queen Street.
This tour begins on Queen Street, the most northern of the three. This street is extremely well preserved and offers excellent views towards Fife. Start at the western end of Queen Street and walk along Queen Street Gardens, which form the street's northern edge, towards Charlotte Square. Designed by Robert Adam in 1791, this was, at the time, the most fashionable place to live in the city. Named after George III's wife Queen Charlotte, the square is home to West Register House , housed in the church of St George. With an attractive exterior, which is simpler than originally intended due to limited funds, it is certainly worth a peek. The exhibitions here change fairly frequently, so pick up a leaflet about current shows. Next, check out Edinburgh's most prestigious address, the Georgian House , on the northern side of the square. No.6 is the official home of Scotland's Secretary of State, whilst No.7 is open to the public. Step inside and see what it probably looked like under its first owner — the head of the Lamont clan.
Once you've tasted Georgian upper class life, turn into Young Street and see where the ordinary people lived. This narrow street perfectly illustrates the ordered design of New Town . At the end of Young Street, turn right onto George Street, the axis of the three main streets. This is Edinburgh's financial center so banks are a common feature. Wander along here and turn right down Frederick Street, then take the first left into Rose Street. This runs parallel to George Street and is a pedestrian haven of attractive cafes and small shops. Stop here for a bite to eat and watch the passers-by. After lunch, follow this street to its end and turn left into St Andrew Square, at the eastern end of George Street.
Standing 41 meters tall in the middle of the square is the Melville Monument, a statue of Lord Melville, an 18th century politician. The square is also home to the Royal Bank of Scotland's HQ. This former mansion was built for Sir Laurence Dundas on the site originally intended for the church. Note the private lawn — a rare sight in New Town . Have a look at the 19th century domed Telling Room inside. Next-door is the former British Linen Bank.
Now turn into West Register Street and walk past Cafe Royal Oyster Bar . Pop inside this fashionable oyster bar if you fancy a drink/snack or just to catch a glimpse of the murals. Head south past General Register House , noting, along the way, the statue of the Duke of Wellington. Look east towards Calton Hill and the Nelson Monument .
You should now find yourself at the eastern end of Princes Street , the busiest street of New Town and a shopper's paradise. On the left you have North Bridge, which leads up to the Royal Mile and Old Town . Also in this area are Waverley Station and Waverley Market. Wander down Princes Street and use this opportunity to indulge in a spot of retail therapy. Don't miss Jenners — the oldest privately owned department store in the world! If the bustle of the street seems unappealing, step down into Princes Street Gardens and stroll westwards.
Next stop is The Mound. Home of the National Gallery of Scotland and the Royal Scottish Academy , both designed by William Playfair, this is culture time! Choose the one that most appeals or if you don't fancy an exhibition, simply admire the 19th century architecture. Note the statue of Queen Victoria that crowns the Royal Scottish Academy. It was moved up there on the orders of the Queen herself, who thought she looked too chubby close-up!
If your shopping craving is not yet sated, wander down the rest of Princes Street before returning to the Princes Street Gardens , the final point on this tour. Rest your weary legs here and treat yourself to an ice-cream in the garden cafe. This spot is an excellent place to appreciate Edinburgh's uneven terrain. Look up to Edinburgh Castle on its rocky crag, and then right to New Town and the places you've just seen. Savour this sight of wonderful contrasts — unlike any other city in Britain.
TOUR 2: Calton Hill to Castlehill - A Tour of Edinburgh's Monumental Views
As you may have guessed from the title, this tour involves a fair amount of uphill and downhill, so make sure you wear comfy shoes. Edinburgh's uneven landscape is one of its most beautiful and unusual aspects; the heights of Calton Hill and Castlehill contrast with the depths of Cowgate to give the city a roller-coaster feel. Designed to give you a flavour of this, the tour does involve plenty of walking but don't worry, it's not all hard work — shops and coffee-stops are a very important part of the route.
The tour starts north-east of Princes Street , at Edinburgh Playhouse Theatre in Greenside Place. This theatre usually shows popular touring musicals and with three thousand seats, it used to be the largest cinema in the city. Pop in and pick up a copy of their programme. Wander past the theatre into Blenheim Place, where a path will take you up some steps to Calton Hill and the highest point (in altitude!) of the tour.
At one hundred metres (333 feet) high, this volcanic hill offers fantastic views over Edinburgh. Since you can see Arthur's Seat , Edinburgh Castle , Holyroodhouse Palace , Princes Street and the New Town , it is in many ways the best place from which to view the city. Nothing is left out, so make sure you bring your camera to capture the panorama. The Hill offers much more than just wonderful views, however — on this outcrop there are several interesting buildings, dating from around the time of the Napoleonic wars.
First stop is the City Observatory, designed by Playfair in 1818 for his illustrious star-gazing uncle, John Playfair. The domed end houses The Edinburgh Experience , which will outline the city's history for you in a short 3D cinematic show. After this, admire the other end of the building - the Old Observatory — a rare example of James Craig's architecture. Walk over to the National Monument, the largest construction on the hill and a memorial to the Scots who died fighting in the Napoleonic wars. It was intended by Playfair to be a replica of the Parthenon but insufficient funds forced building to be cut short and only the west side of the Monument was completed. It's known affectionately locally as the 'Folly'. Just next to this memorial stands another — the Nelson Monument . Climb to the top and watch the views expand even further. Past this there is yet another monument, this time to a philosophy professor at Edinburgh University — the Monument to Dugald Stewart. This was also created by Playfair.
Once you've admired the monuments and absorbed the views, wander down the hill along Waterloo Place, where you will see the Royal High School. Dating from 1829, this Grecian building was designed by former pupil Thomas Hamilton, who is also responsible for the Burns Monument (1830) opposite. This too was modeled on an Athenian temple. Just next to this structure lies the Calton Burial Ground. Here again stands a memorial, this time commemorating Scots who died in the American civil war and crowned with a statue of Abraham Lincoln. At the eastern edge of the cemetery, old castellations betray the former presence of Calton Jail, once the city's main prison. Further down the hill you pass St Andrews House, which dates from the 1930s.
You should now be at the eastern end of Princes Street . Turn left onto the large North Bridge, which connects New Town with Old Town . Walk along the Bridge until you get to the High Street section of the Royal Mile. On the corner is Hunter Square — pop into the Old Town Information Centre housed in the Tron Kirk. If your stomach is rumbling, don't worry — lunch is not far off. The City Cafe on Blair Street offers refreshments in a cool and trendy atmosphere. If this is not your scene, stay on High Street where there are many eateries to choose from.
Once fed and rested, it's time for some leisure! If you continue down Blair Street, you'll find yourself in Cowgate, a popular night-time haunt for pub and club lovers. Buried beneath South and George IV Bridges, it is one of the lower points of the city and the darkest, most atmospheric places on this tour! Follow Cowgate westwards until it becomes a more spacious area — Grassmarket. As you wander around this former market, imagine the public hangings and brutal murders that it once nurtured. Happily, nothing that sinister remains and the restaurants, shops and cafes lend it a pleasant, animated feel. Fans of retro and vintage clothes will love it here, for it is a haven of second-hand shops. Take your time to stroll around and stop for a coffee at one of the attractive cafes. If you fancy something a little stronger, pop in the White Hart Inn, a favorite watering-hole of Robert Burns.
Leave Grassmarket via Victoria Street where you can indulge in a tad more retail therapy. Winding up to George IV Bridge, this charming street is lined with many excellent shops. Once on the Bridge, turn left and head towards the Royal Mile, where this tour ends. Standing on the corner of Parliament Square, you can look north down Bank Street, towards the New Town , west towards Edinburgh Castle and east towards Holyroodhouse Palace . If you walk up the Mile it will be easier to see. In fact, if you fancy yet more views, try out the Camera Obscura on Castlehill. Once again you are on top of the city but this time south of Princes Street . Look east towards Calton Hill and see if you can pick out the different memorials!