Why should you disobey Rick Steves in Edinburgh? I like the Rick Steves’ travel guides because they offer very practical, budget friendly advice for how to navigate a city and prioritize its various sites. I often refer to them when planning a trip to Europe. But I’m a well-traveled woman with clear ideas about what I like. And I’ve learned the hard way that sometimes a “must see” sight is not for me.
So for your upcoming trip, definitely check out the Rick Steves’ Edinburgh travel guide, but then also consider this alternative itinerary which includes advice from me and a few other well-traveled women.
Rick Steves’ Edinburgh Top Pics
Rick uses a system of triangles to rate and prioritize sightseeing. ▲▲▲ for must see sights, ▲▲ for pretty great sites, ▲ for kinda great sites and naught but a mention for others. The Rick Steves’ Edinburgh at a glance guide offers up the following top suggestions:
▲▲▲ Edinburgh Castle, Royal Mile, National Museum of Scotland
▲▲▲ Gladstone’s Land, St. Giles Cathedral, Scottish Parliament Building, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Georgian House, National Gallery of Scotland
What’s nice about this list is that it offers a expansive history lesson on this 450 year old city. But if you only focus on history, you’ll miss out on Edinburgh’s outdoor spaces and its more modern cultural offerings.
Get Outside in Edinburgh
Edinburgh offers a great deal to nature-lovers. The city has a lot of green space and urban walks that will allow you to stretch your legs and get plenty of fresh air.
- Botanical Gardens:
Tracy from Tracy Travels in Time suggests the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh:
“Don’t miss the opportunity to visit the Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh. Situated only one mile from the center they offer a chance to experience the hustle and bustle of the city. In particular ensure that you spend some time wandering the glasshouses. In these you will experience climates found in warm temperate and tropical parts of the world. The orchids in particular are not to be missed!” The gardens are open most days from 10-5-ish and it only costs £5.50.
- Water of Leith Walk
You can include the botanic gardens as part of a longer urban stroll along the Water of Leith. The Water of Leith is the main river flowing northeast through Edinburgh out into the sea at the port of Leith. It’s has been converted into an extensive greenbelt with 12.5 miles (20/k) of walkway that offers a great slice of wilderness right in the city. Check out my guide for strolling the Water of Leith. It will give you a map and suggestions for fun stops to make along the way.
- Hike up Calton Hill
If you are keen to visit some of the suggested historical sites in the Rick Steves’ Edinburgh guide, then this hike up Calton Hill should also be on your list. This short but steep little hike will reward you with a fantastic view of old town Edinburgh. You can see the layers of Edinburgh history all piled up on top of one another topped off by the Edinburgh Castle.
All you need for these hikes is some good energy, a weather resistant jacket and a sturdy pair of shoes. If you’d like some advice on what to pack for this sort of itinerary, check out this UK hiking and sightseeing packing list.
Explore Edinburgh’s Pub Culture
You can work up a powerful thirst visiting all of Rick Steves’ Edinburgh historical sites. And an even more powerful thirst if you takes those hikes I’m suggesting. So you should build time into your itinerary to partake in Edinburgh’s lively pub culture.
- Pub crawl of Leith Village:
Gemma from Two Scots Abroad is (obviously) a Scot and she offers the inside scoop on how to slake your thirst:
“Why not join in the national hobby when you visit Scotland – drink! Us Scots sure know how to party and if you find yourself in Edinburgh on a Friday or Saturday night I recommend that you make your way down to the village in the city, Leith. Around Leith Shore there are lots of cute restaurants and pubs to suit every taste. Cocktail lover? Head to the Roseleaf for drinks in a teapots. Like being on the water? Check out the King’s Wark (especially lovely in summer). My favorite is the Port o’ Leith, spent many a weekend night dancing on the bar there. Don’t be disappointed if you miss the weekend party, check out the Carriers Quarters on a Thursday or Sunday evening for live music in a cozy setting.”
Gemma has also put together a long list of alternative things to see, eat and do in Edinburgh which will help you fill in even more of your alternative itinerary.
- Find some Craft Brews
There is a craft beer movement afoot in and around Edinburgh with eight breweries serving up wheat beer, IPAs and brown ales. Drink up all of it with this guide to Edinburgh breweries.
Lower Grassmarket street has a string of pubs all lined up in a tidy little row. On a nice day, you can sit outside on the large plaza, listen to music and do some serious people watching.
- Sandy Bell’s Folk Bar
If you do decide to do some of Rick’s ▲▲▲ suggestions, then you’ll want a watering hole in old town. You should check out Sandy Bell’s Folk Bar. Like many Edinburgh bars, Sandy Bell’s offers live music. But unlike many bars, they also have a selection of musical instruments laying around and if you ask politely, they will let you play. My husband is a guitar player and so he put on an impromptu concert for the patrons in the bar.
Read More: Read up and get inspired for your Edinburgh trip with this list of great Scottish books.
See Some Modern Art
- National Scottish Gallery of Modern Art
You can step right off the Water of Leith Walkway and into the Gallery of Modern Art. The Gallery is actually two buildings separated by a large lawn and contemporary sculptures. The gallery offers exhibitions of contemporary art, a library of prints and a fascinating reproduction of Eduard Paolozzi’s art studio. The exhibits there are a great reminder that even old cities like Edinburgh can have a modern side. The Gallery is open daily 10-5.
- Royal Scottish Academy
The Scottish National Gallery is given a ▲ in the Rick Steves’ Edinburgh guide. If you go, you should also make time to visit the Royal Scottish Academy. It’s managed by the National Gallery and is adjacent to it. The Royal academy offers rotating collections of contemporary art and they promote Scottish art and architecture. The gallery is open daily 10-5 (12-5 on Sundays).
- National Scottish Gallery of Portraits
A lot of the portraits on offer in this Gallery are of the old-dead-white-guy variety which is not to my taste. But they also have regular exhibitions that include more modern paintings and photography with a global perspective. Like the other galleries, they are free and open daily from 10-5. You can check out the full schedule of National Gallery exhibitions here.
Find Some Magic
- When JK Rowling conceived Harry Potter, she made magic happen in Edinburgh. She wrote a lot of the first book in Elephant Cafe in Old Town. Greyfrier’s cemetery houses an actual Tom Riddle grave and Grassmarket Street looks a LOT like Diagon Alley. The Rick Steves’ Edinburgh guide doesn’t even rate this with a ▲ but if you are one the 4 billion people in the world who have read the books, it would be worth your while to check out a few of these spots. You can get a more detailed itinerary on this tour that Dobby of Harry Potter offers of the UK.
(This article contains affiliate links. This means that if you choose to purchase, I’ll make a small commission.)
Getting a Guide to Edinburgh
Go ahead and get the Rick Steves’ guide for Edinburgh, it will certainly help you plan your trip. But it isn’t a holy text. So give careful consideration to the things that truly interest you and make sure that you build them into your itinerary.
Enjoy Edinburgh and happy travels.
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