What to see and what to skip in Edinburgh

PHOTO: A deserted beach in Edinburgh, Scotland is pictured in this undated stock photo.Getty Images
A deserted beach in Edinburgh, Scotland is pictured in this undated stock photo.

Edinburgh is where old-world charm and modern-day verve collide, and travelers are taking notice. When the UK’s Office of National Statistics released its latest international visitor numbers earlier this year, the Scottish capital was second only to London. If you’re planning your own first visit to Edinburgh, here are a few experiences not to miss.

Skip the scotch, sip gin

Scotch whiskey is famous the world over. But Edinburgh has had a love affair with gin for hundreds of years. Distilleries began to flourish here in the 1700s and, with this aromatic spirit now enjoying a comeback, the city will not leave fans thirsty. Edinburgh Gin Distillery makes its line of gins right in the heart of the city (with a second production facility in the port town of Leith, where Scottish gin has its historic roots). The distillery is open seven days a week and allows visitors to see the gorgeous copper stills in action and learn about gin’s storied past. You can opt into one of several tours, including the Gin Connoisseur Tour (which usually has a wait list of more than two months, so book early) and the three-hour Gin Making Tour for the true gin devotee.

Edinburgh’s bar scene, which is sizzling, is a great way to discover a wide range of regional gins and the seductive sippers they inspire. Watering holes like Opal Lounge, The Royal Dick and 56 North get high marks from gin aficionados. Jack Tonkin, a travel expert at London-based Travelzoo Europe, loved Panda & Sons when he visited Edinburgh a few years ago.

“It’s a speakeasy cocktail bar where you walk through a barbershop and enter through a bookcase,” Tonkin recalls. Some of the gin-inspired cocktails at this Prohibition-style pub include the Bloody Mary-inspired Red Panda: gin, tomato juice, lime leaves, Worcestershire sauce, sriracha sauce and Guinness foam.

Don’t skip dinner

Edinburgh eating is diverse and delicious, and any recent visitor will rave about at least one favorite restaurant. Joel Brandon-Bravo, the London-based general manager for Travelzoo Europe, took his wife, Charlie, for a weekend in Edinburgh a few years ago. “Number One at The Balmoral does an amazing menu,” he says. In fact, the luxury dining spot inside one of the city’s best hotels offers both seven- and 10-course tasting menus; you can add a cheese course and pay extra to have the in-house sommelier pair each dish with a premium wine. The a la carte menu features Scottish hogget, Whitmuir organic pork and East Lothian lobster.

Colleague Mac McPherson agrees with Brandon-Bravo about Number One, and he also recommends The Table: "Both quite expensive but really good food and experience,” he explains. At The Table, only 10 guests get to take a seat at a time; the dining party faces an open exhibition kitchen, allowing the intimate group to engage their two chefs throughout their multi-course feast. Ingredients are regional and seasonal.

Among personal recommendations I’ve received from Edinburgh locals: Rose Street, a narrow lane teeming with restaurants and bars, so lots of options. Oink for a pulled pork sandwich lunch. Pickles for a buzzy wine bar scene and generous plates of bread, meats, and cheeses. Mimi’s Bakehouse for the best cakes in town. “Mary's Milk Bar” or “Lucas” for the best ice cream.

Crave fancy tea in the afternoon? Peacock Alley at the Waldorf-Astoria Edinburgh-The Caledonian and The Printing Press Bar & Kitchen at the new Principal hotel get high marks.

Skip the museum, set sail

The HMY Britannia has a royal history. For more than 40 years, the deluxe yacht was the residence of her majesty the queen and the royal family. It’s berthed in Edinburgh now, and visiting “is an absolute must,” according to Travelzoo Europe director Stephen Dunk. “It’s a great and personal insight into how the royals used to travel. Very well done and put together.”

The self-guided audio tour takes you through the royal bedrooms, the famous royal deck tea room, and the engine room. Fudge tasting is included. Before you board, look for the 11-foot Lego replica of the Britannia.

Want more royal family attractions? Visit the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the queen’s Scottish residence where there’s an audio tour for adults and one for kids. And Edinburgh Castle –- you can’t miss it, it’s that historic fortress on the hill –- is a no-brainer; get your tickets online before you go to avoid lines.

Skip the tour, discover Edinburgh for free

Even with the British pound at 30-year lows, American visitors will still want to budget their Edinburgh stay, so bring on the freebies! You can visit some of the city’s most popular attractions at no cost, including the Royal Botanic Garden, with its gorgeous 70 acres and 3,000 exotic plants, and St. Giles’ Cathedral, with a history that stretches back 1,000 years. Many of the best museums here are free, too. The National Museum of Scotland just completed a $60 million makeover and features more than 20,000 artifacts (don’t miss the seventh-floor outside terrace); the National Scottish Gallery houses art that spans 500 years and includes originals by Van Gogh, Monet, and Cézanne. Several of these attractions offer free tours, too.

Nick Elvin, a London-based Travelzoo travel expert, visited Edinburgh a few weeks ago and enjoyed free frights. The Free Ghost Tour “focuses on some of the more gruesome history of the city’s Old Town, such as the story of the body snatchers, Burke & Hare, as well as the ghost stories that resulted from these incidents,” he says. “It finishes in Greyfriars Kirkyard, among the tombstones.” The no-cost 90-minute tour happens every night at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. and begins in front of the Royal Mile Coffee House.

For the views, climb

Edinburgh is famously built on Seven Hills, ancient extinct volcanoes that now comprise most of popular Holyrood Park, and their elevation creates beautiful vantage points. The main peak is known as Arthur’s Seat; several pathways take you to the top in about half an hour, and the 360-degree views are amazing. “Ignore people moaning on TripAdvisor, it’s an easy walk,” insists Brandon-Bravo. “But take water.” (Word is, the easiest ascent to Arthur’s Seat is from the east.)

Carlton Hill offers plenty of breathtaking vistas, too, and is “a great spot for a picnic,” adds Nick Elvin. “It’s also home to several landmarks, including the National Monument, the Nelson Monument, the Robert Burns Monument, the Political Martyrs' Monument and the City Observatory.” The views from atop the Braid Hills and Blackford Hill are worth the leisurely hike.

Skip the babysitter, bring the kids

Eileen Gunn is a top travel blogger whose “Families Go!” website is chock-full of advice for traveling parents and kids. She recently visited Edinburgh for a long weekend with her 9-year-old daughter and says the city is definitely kid-friendly. Here are some of her tips.

“My daughter’s favorite thing was having breakfast at the Elephant Cafe, about two blocks off the Royal Mile. It’s one of the cafes where J.K. Rowling supposedly wrote the first 'Harry Potter' book. It’s the thing she came home and told all her friends about. And it’s a cute cafe with an off-campus college vibe. We were happy to have breakfast there, regardless of the Potter tie," Gunn says.

“We did a hop-on-hop-off bus tour, which we never do. But it was very inexpensive compared to NYC. We got a family ticket for around £35 good for 24 hours. So we did a complete circuit once and then used it to get around a bit," Gunn adds. "Edinburgh doesn’t have a metro and we didn’t want to figure out the buses and trams for a short trip, so this was really handy."

“There are some good outdoor food markets on the weekends around town, where you can try everything from Scotch eggs to homemade marshmallows. There’s one below the castle. And shopping on the Royal Mile is fun. My daughter liked the Christmas stores and the shops that give out shortbread samples. We liked the whiskey shops," she says.

Skip the hotel gym, hit the pool

There are 10 public pools throughout Edinburgh, and they’re all the gym action you need. Check out the Royal Commonwealth Pool, which is the city’s only public 50-meter pool, complete with eight swimming lanes. There are two other pools here, too, including one with springboards and platforms for would-be divers. A one-day visit for a family of four costs £15; if you’re staying longer, a seven-day pass allows you to visit any of the city’s 10 pools. But there’s more here than swimming. Royal Commonwealth Pool, for example, has a schedule of 90-plus fitness classes a week, as well as a large gym with dozens of pieces of equipment. And if your kids are too young to spot you, no problem: a gated “soft play” area has zones for kids of all ages, from babies to 10 years old.

Skip the movie, play location scout

Are you a movie buff? Marketing Edinburgh Ltd., one of the city’s top travel marketing groups, provides a free map on their website -- download it and make it your tour guide. Stroll down Broughton Place and onto West Register Street (featured in "Chariots of Fire"),and then hit Princes Street, a haven for shoppers, which makes an appearance in "Trainspotting."

Anne Hathaway’s 2011 vehicle “One Day” was shot here; fans of the film will recognize Warrison Steps, along Cockburn Street, as well as Victoria Terrace and Moray Place. Parliament Square features prominently in many films, like Kate Winslet’s “Jude,” and hotels like the Caledonian, a Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and the Balmoral have their own Tinsel Town tales to tell. For more sweeping filming venues, take a day trip to the stunning coastline of East Lothian, where Nicole Kidman, Scarlett Johansson, Ewan McGregor and Colin Firth have all spent time creating movie magic.

Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features exclusive deals on vacations to Scotland at www.travelzoo.com. Have your own favorite Edinburgh spot? Let him know: @gabesaglie.