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20 Practical tips for the first-time visitor to Edinburgh

Are you planning to visit Edinburgh for the first time? After numerous trips to the Scottish capital over the past 50 years we have learned how to make the most of our time in Edinburgh. This article shares 20 practical and essential Edinburgh tips to help you plan (and experience) the best trip possible.

Edinburgh is a must-visit on any UK itinerary. The Scottish capital attracts millions of visitors every year from all over the globe. If you’re planning a visit of your own, then checking out this list of 20 Edinburgh tips is essential! 

In fact, this list of tips for visiting Edinburgh is also very useful for those who haven’t been in a while. It’s based on our own recent experience in the city, when we picked up a load of Edinburgh tips from locals and other visitors. 

This list of Edinburgh travel tips will give you a great idea of what to expect when you arrive. Please pay particular attention to points number one, three, four, five and eight before you travel, or you might miss out! 

Here are 20 of our top Edinburgh insider tips.

Edinburgh tips for the first time visitor

Edinburgh Tips – Things to know before you visit

1. Book Edinburgh accommodation, attractions & travel in advance

First things first. Edinburgh isn’t a last-minute kind of city unless you really don’t mind where you stay or what you do. So above all, things to know before visiting Edinburgh is to secure your accommodation, attraction tickets and any travel or tours you really want to do in advance. 

For example, is Edinburgh castle worth visiting? It’s a resounding yes to that – not least for the views – but the queues can be legendary. Skip those by booking your ticket or tour ahead of time.

Tip – Planning to visit Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival or Hogmanay? These are popular times of year and prices reflect this so book as far ahead as possible.

Edinburgh 2

2. Experience genuine Scottish hospitality

Like any city, what really makes Edinburgh special (apart from its rich history) is the people. Experiencing a genuine Scottish welcome and the warmth of the local people really can make or break your trip.

Second on our list of travel tips for Edinburgh concerns where to lay your head. We recommend staying at a guest house like the Elder York, which is owned and run by Scots. The hosts are incredibly helpful, and the location and value for money are unbeatable.

Elder York Hotel

3. Pack clothing for the Edinburgh climate

Packing for the UK is unlike many other destinations. This is because the UK has a maritime climate, and this means the weather can be very changeable. Scotland lies to the north of England and is thus colder, for a start. 

You’ll also need comfortable, robust footwear for all that sightseeing. Layering your clothing is also a great idea, as it’s easy to adjust your outfit according to the conditions. 

It also rains a fair amount in the UK. For more guidance on what to pack for your trip to the British Isles, check out this article. (Though if you do come unprepared, shopping in Edinburgh’s Princes Street area isn’t really a hardship. But it can be expensive!)

Edinburgh Princes Street

4. Consider when to visit very carefully

Unless you’re actually visiting Edinburgh in Scotland to attend the main or fringe festival, avoid that time of year! The streets are choked with pedestrians and traffic and every cafe, bar and restaurant is packed out. Accommodation is also very difficult to come by.

So when’s best? In the UK the school summer holidays take place during July and August, so this is a time to avoid if you can. August is also when the festivals happen. Edinburgh in winter can be cold, however.

If you have a choice, late spring or early autumn are good times to go to Edinburgh. The weather should be fairly mild and the city less crowded. The months of May, June, September and October are good bets, though you may still experience the odd very chilly day in early May or late October.

Summer in Edinburgh Scotland

5. Plot your itinerary in advance

It’s not only accommodation you should book in advance for Edinburgh. Deciding what to do and when before you go is best, as certain attractions may be closed on particular days of the week. Restaurant bookings for popular places also fill up quickly.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse, for example, is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, except during the peak months of July and August.

Holyrood House

6. Soak up the stunning city skyline

Edinburgh has a distinctive skyline quite unlike any other, so do try to see the city from above if you can. One of the lesser-known Edinburgh castle tips is that during visits to the fortress the views are thrown in for free!

Another top spot for panoramic views is Arthur’s seat, and you can climb up here for free. Any elevated location is a good bet, so you could pick where you stay and eat accordingly.

View from Calton Hill

7. Discover the free attractions in Edinburgh

Are the best things in life really free? Perhaps not in many cases, but what to know about Scotland, England and the rest of the UK is that many of the top sights and experiences will cost you nothing. Including a wander around Holyrood Park. 

The list of other free Edinburgh attractions in and around the city includes the Scottish National Gallery, the People’s Story Museum, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Grassmarket and the Royal Mile, Dean Village, the Museum of Childhood, St Giles Cathedral, the Pentland Hills, the Writers’ Museum and Leith. Phew!

Glasshouses at the Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh

8. Explore Edinburgh transport options

Walking around Edinburgh is the best way to get to know the city on a more intimate level. Ideally where you stay should thus be within walking distance of the key attractions. That said, there may be times when you get tired or want a break due to inclement weather.

Other popular options for exploring Edinburgh include hop-on, hop-off bus routes, public buses and trams. All-inclusive tickets can save you time as well as cash here, such as this Royal attractions and jump-on, jump-off bus pass.

Tram in Edinburgh 1

9. Consider accessible Edinburgh

If you have mobility problems, then it really is essential to plan as many aspects of your Edinburgh trip as possible in advance. Edinburgh has steep hills and narrow, cobbled streets, so you may need assistance to explore some areas.
Check out a range of wheelchair-accessible tours of Edinburgh here.

Steps up to the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.

10. Conquer Arthur’s Seat

As touched on above when discussing viewpoints, there’s no finer in all of Edinburgh than Arthur’s Seat. If you’re able and equipped for the climb, it’s so worthwhile. The return trek should take a couple of hours or so.

This former volcano can be reached via Holyrood Palace within the park of the same name. The park starts pretty much where the Royal Mile ends. If you’re so inclined, you can even book a private tour.

Arthurs Seat

11. Sample authentic Scottish foods

We highly recommend visiting Makar’s Gourmet Mash Bar while you’re in Edinburgh. The model is so successful that they’ve also opened a Covent Garden branch in London! The Scottish one, meanwhile, has been a Tripadvisor Traveller’s Choice award winner for four consecutive years. 

Top foods to try include Scotch egg (a boiled egg covered in sausage meat and coated in breadcrumbs), Haggis with neeps (turnip) and tatties (potato – mashed of course). You could also take an insider’s foodie tour of Edinburgh.

Haggis neeps and tatties at Makars Gourmet Mash Bar

12. Sup a wee dram or two

The same goes for Scottish drinks, and whisky, of course, is number one. There are also lots of other spirits, beers and soft drinks to sample, including Edinburgh Gin

There are some great tours to take if you’d like to delve deeper. We recommend the Scotch Whisky Experience tasting and tour, or the tour of the Holyrood Gin Distillery.

Scotch whisky

13. Booking accommodation with parking

If you’ll be driving into Edinburgh, accommodation with parking is a must. There are some good options with parking around the Old Town, New Town and west end – if you know where to look.

Book this as early as you can. You can find a selection of good Edinburgh hotels with car parks here.

Edinburgh 3

14. Try a traditional afternoon tea

Afternoon tea is a British institution and no one does scones better than the Scots. Expect fluffy fruit or plain scones which you can heap with as much clotted cream and jam as you like, plus dainty sandwiches and pretty cakes.

Afternoon tea also makes for some great photo opportunities! We loved the Georgian Tea Room at The Dome. Other popular options include The Balmoral hotel and The Witchery.

Afternoon tea at the Dome
Afternoon tea at the Dome 1

15. Take a guided tour

A guided tour is the fast-track way to see the city from a local’s perspective. As they know all the shortcuts and hacks, this can also save you time. 

We took both a vaults tour and an Old Town history tour, and thoroughly enjoyed them both. Definitely highly recommended.

Edinburgh is reputedly one of the most haunted cities in the world – if you fancy taking a ghost tour this is our selection of the best ghost tours in Edinburgh.

For a private guided tour of Edinburgh we recommend Edinburgh Black Cab Tours – listen to one of their fabulous guides Charlotte chat about the history of Greyfriars Kirkyard in episode #88 of the UK Travel Planning Podcast. Choose from a private 2/4 or 8 hour tour of Edinburgh.

Edinburgh Old Town
Edinburgh Old Town 1

16. Don’t rub Greyfriar’s Bobby’s nose

Greyfriars Bobby is located on George IV Bridge on the Royal Mile. Many visitors have taken to rubbing the nose of the Skye Terrier statue, in the mistaken belief that it’s a) the thing to do and b) will bring them luck.

Don’t do it.

The Scots don’t reckon it’s good luck at all and what’s more is that the statue has suffered much as a result. Even costly restoration work cannot quite restore the iconic dog to his former glory.

The statue of Greyfriars Bobby in Edinburgh

17. Get ready for Scottish currency

While Scotland uses the same currency as the rest of the UK – pounds sterling – the banknotes look different. In fact according to the Bank of England, English notes are not in fact even legal tender in Scotland.

The coins are, and look much the same. But a shopkeeper, restauranteur or hotelier can in fact ask you to pay in Scottish cash rather than English if they want to. Contrary to popular belief, what they accept is at their discretion.

Get around the problem by paying with a card, or withdraw some Scottish notes once you arrive if you prefer cash.

Scottish money

18. Consider a day trip from the city

If you’re not planning a big tour of Scotland, then do get out of the city for at least one day if you can. There are lots of day trips you can take, and you can find 21 of the top day tours from Edinburgh in this guide

The most popular destinations include the Scottish Highlands, Glencoe, Loch Ness and many more. You can even take a trip on the ‘Hogwarts Express’ steam train via the Glenfinnan viaduct, aka The Jacobite.

Glenfinnan viaduct

19. Schedule some free time

There’s a lot to do in Edinburgh – but you might not remember the city all that well if you rush around in a blur of activity, just to tick off a list.

Focus on what you want to do most – and leave time for some relaxing experiences like a wander down Princes Street (the famous street in Edinburgh) or from there towards Leith via the New Town. Or perhaps take a stroll around Holyrood Park. Afternoon tea or dinner with a view is also a great way to unwind after a hectic day.

Explore the ancient pubs of the Grassmarket or head to boho Stockbridge to find a lovely little cafe for lunch. Laid-back exploring like this is just as important as seeing the big sights Edinburgh is famous for. Plus you get to sample local food and drinks while meeting Scots along the way!

Edinburgh 4

20. Never, ever call Scots people English

There’s a long and often violent history between England and Scotland. Though they are all part of a United Kingdom, many Scots are – perhaps understandably – wary of the English.

To some Scots – like the 45% or so who voted to become an independent nation in the 2014 referendum – being called English may be seen as an insult. It’s also factually inaccurate…

The Scottish are very proud of their rich cultural heritage, breathtaking landscapes and beguiling cities. So please at least show them the decency of calling them by their proper name. Scottish… even British…just not English!

UK Travel Planning Podcast Episode #58

Which Edinburgh tips will you be taking?

This post isn’t intended as a list of instructions. Rather we mean it to be used as a guide, so you can hone in on what’s important to you. Whatever you do and no matter what the weather is like, Edinburgh really is one of the most enchanting cities on earth, let alone in the UK!

For more guidance on visiting Edinburgh, see our posts on getting there from London, top places to stay, the best things to do and the ultimate Edinburgh guide with a map.