Guide to Edinburgh: From Auld Reekie to the New Town

A view of Edinburgh from Calton Hill. Credit: Westend61 GmbH / Alamy

From the cobbled medieval streets of the Old Town to the elegant Georgian thoroughfares of the new, Scotland’s historic capital is well worth your time.

Words by Henrietta Easton

Here’s our city guide to Edinburgh

Day 1

Admire Auld Reekie 

There aren’t many cities where, upon arrival, you are greeted with several of the most impressive sights, all at once. Begin at the Scott Monument, dedicated to writer Sir Walter Scott. The monument towers over bustling Prince’s Street and marks the beginning of the wonderfully historic Old Town.

guide to edinburgh
Edinburgh at dusk with the Balmoral clock tower in the foreground. Credit: Jan Miracky / AWL Images

From here, cross lush, green Prince’s Street Gardens and up into ‘Auld Reekie’ (translating to ‘Old Smoky’ in Scots). This is the fond nickname for the city’s Old Town, which in the 16th and 17th centuries was surrounded by thick smog. 

The Royal Mile

Cobbled Cockburn Street leads you up to the Royal Mile, lined with medieval buildings. Shop for tartan, shortbread and whisky to a soundtrack of kilted street performers playing the bagpipes. Then, make your way up to the Old Town’s crowning glory, Edinburgh Castle. 

Walk amongst Kings & Queens at Edinburgh Castle
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Edinburgh Castle and the Ross Fountain in Princes Street Gardens. Credit: VisitScotland / Kenny Lam.

Perched on its own rocky promontory, the once-volcanic Castle Rock, Edinburgh Castle is one of Britain’s most breathtaking historic sites. The castle’s history is rich and particularly bloody; it holds the record for being the most besieged place in Britain. The residence of the Kings and Queens of Scotland for almost a thousand years, it was at the castle that Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to her son in 1566, the future King James VI of Scotland (James I of England). On a tour visitors can see the Honours of Scotland – the oldest Crown Jewels in Britain – and the Stone of Destiny, used to inaugurate monarchs, most recently King Charles III. Its history is as mysterious as its name suggests. 

Pay a royal visit at Holyrood Palace

The Royal Mile, which in fact is a ‘Scots Mile’ long, measuring 1.1 miles, is crowned at either end with a historic royal residence, so you can easily see both in one day. The Palace of Holyroodhouse sits at the bottom of the Mile, and is the official residence of King Charles III in Scotland. Visitors can see where Bonnie Prince Charlie once held court and where Queen Victoria dined. You can also see where momentous events of Mary, Queen of Scots’ short and tragic reign took place, from romance to grisly murders.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse. Credit: VisitScotland / Kenny Lam

Day 2

Immerse yourself in culture at Edinburgh’s museums

Edinburgh is home to several excellent museums and these are a must-do in our guide to Edinburgh. The National Gallery of Scotland has an impressive collection of fine art, dating back to the Renaissance. The New Town’s National Portrait Gallery also houses a marvellous collection of portraits of famous Scots in one of the city’s most beautiful Gothic buildings. 

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National Museum of Scotland. Credit: VisitScotland / Kenny Lam

In the Old Town be sure to stop at the National Museum of Scotland, home to incredible pieces of Scottish history. Must-see pieces include the Hilton of Cadboll stone, a mighty carved Pictish stone discovered on Scotland’s east coast; the mysterious Lewis chess pieces; and some of Mary, Queen of Scots’ own possessions. Other hidden gems include the Writers’ Museum, just off the Royal Mile, celebrating Scotland’s best-loved authors and poets, and the charming Museum of Childhood, featuring toys and games from the 19th century. 

An elegant affair

Seemingly a world away from the towering buildings and cobbled streets of the Old Town, Edinburgh’s New Town, the other side of Prince’s Street Gardens, is an elegant area of grand Georgian townhouses and Neoclassical buildings. Built to house Edinburgh’s wealthy inhabitants who wanted to move out of the crowded Old Town, the New Town soon became a hotbed for the Scottish Enlightenment, a movement that attracted the great and the good of Scottish high society. Spend the afternoon strolling and shopping along elegant George Street, the New Town’s main thoroughfare. 

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The view from Calton Hill
Take it all in

Our guide to Edinburgh wouldn’t be complete without a sunset pilgrimage to the top of Calton Hill, a volcanic mound rising from the eastern end of Prince’s Street. It’s home to the unfinished, Parthenon-like National Monument, a testament to the architectural aims of James Craig to make Edinburgh the ‘Athens of the North’. A 20-minute walk uphill rewards you with breathtaking panoramic views, from the mighty castle and the imposing Arthur’s Seat all the way out to the Firth of Forth and across to Fife. 

Top 5 Edinburgh experiences

Go Underground
guide to edinburgh
The Real Mary King’s Close. Credit: Luigi Di Pasquale

At The Real Mary King’s Close you can explore the preserved medieval streets beneath the Royal Mile, and find out about the real people who lived, worked and died there along the way. 

Taste the Water of Life

You can’t come to Scotland without having a wee dram and this experience is essential in our guide to Edinburgh. The Scotch Whisky Experience, next to the Castle, offers guided tours and tastings. It is also home to a record-breaking 3,384 bottles of whisky.

A Gold Tour will offer you the chance to enjoy their full guided tour. It’s an immersive and sensory experience, plus a guided tasting of four different regional malts – so you can choose your favourite.

Set sail in style

The Royal Yacht Britannia is now a visitor attraction, offering a glimpse of what life was like in this floating palace. Rooms have been preserved as they were when Queen Elizabeth II holidayed on board.

Reach the summit
Arthur’s Seat.

The two-hour climb to the top of Arthur’s Seat, a dormant volcano which was supposedly the site of King Arthur’s legendary castle, is a must-do. The views from the top are truly extraordinary. 

Feel the magic
Victoria Street was the influence for Diagon Alley in ‘Harry Potter’

On the free Potter Trail, you can discover the Edinburgh locations that so inspired JK Rowling, from the real-life grave of Tom Riddle to the Old Town street that became Diagon Alley.

City guide to Edinburgh: Essentials

Where to shop

Just off the Royal Mile, Mackenzie Leather produces fine quality leather goods, from bags and belts to briefcases, made on-site by skilled craftspeople using traditional techniques.

The Scotch Whisky Experience shop is a haven for whisky lovers, with every whisky region represented.

St James Quarter offers a stylish shopping experience, with over 80 brands, from high-street favourites to designer brands and independent shops selling Scottish gifts and goods. 

Where to stay
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The Heriot suite, The Witchery, Photograph by David Cheskin.

Hotels don’t get more atmospheric than The Witchery and we couldn’t write a guide to Edinburgh without giving it a mention. The hotel is set in an impossibly romantic Gothic building, which dates back to 1595, just steps away from the castle esplanade. The Witchery is one of a kind, embodying the Old Town’s fascinating history. There are nine luxurious and extravagant suites, each with their own unique twist, like the magnificent old guard’s uniforms that line the Guardroom Suite, and a book-filled bathroom in the Library Suite. Wood-panelled living rooms, historic portraiture, dramatic four-poster beds and deep roll-top baths make for an indulgent stay.

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Prestonfield House. Photograph by David Cheskin.

Prestonfield House is The Witchery’s more secluded sister. But fear not, it still has the same delicious sense of luxurious, theatrical extravagance. Set in Holyrood Park right underneath Arthur’s Seat, guests can enjoy the feel of an opulent Scottish country estate, just five minutes from the bustle of the Old Town. There are 18 rooms and five outrageously luxurious suites. The crowning glory is the Owner’s Suite, entered through a private turret stair and with sweeping views over the hotel’s immaculate lawns.

Where to eat and drink
The Spence at Gleneagles Townhouse.

The first city hotel of the iconic Scottish country hotel, the Gleneagles Townhouse is housed in a grand building on St Andrew Square. Their relaxed yet refined all-day dining restaurant, The Spence is a glamorous setting for a long-lunch. Sit back on velvet pastel-coloured sofas and enjoy inventive sharing plates. Highlights include toasted brioche with lobster butter and crispy pig, spicy raw beef with cured egg yolk, and roast chicken with wild mushrooms and celeriac.

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The Secret Garden restaurant at The Witchery.

With two dining rooms on offer, both romantically candle-lit and Gothic, a meal at The Witchery is truly special. The fantastical, flower-laden Secret Garden, with its Camelot-esque stone staircase and hand-painted ceiling is particularly magical. You’ll dine on North Sea monkfish, loin of Glenfeshie venison and Islay oysters in a truly dreamlike setting.

Prestonfield House’s Rhubarb Restaurant lives up to the luxurious and impressive standard set by the rest of the hotel. The modern-Rococo-style dining room has views out to Arthur’s Seat and an impressive fine-dining menu featuring fresh, seasonal Scottish produce. Dishes include Scotch beef en croute, Borders pheasant and Belhaven brown crab.

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The Rhubarb Restaurant at Prestonfield House, Edinburgh. Photograph by David Cheskin.

Need to know

Travel & information

Edinburgh Airport is 8 miles from the centre, linked by regular buses. Trains run from London King’s Cross to Edinburgh (4hr 20 min). For information on what to see and do in Edinburgh go to

Performer on The Royal Mile during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Credit: VisitScotland / Kenny Lam.
Festivals & events

Spanning the month of August (2–26 2024), the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the world’s largest performing arts festival. There are more than 3,300 shows, from comedy to theatre. 

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