Edinburgh is a very interesting place for many reasons, one of which is how the city's areas differ from one another. The capital of Scotland is divided into districts and each of them has something else to offer. Below, you can explore every part of the city and learn what makes each area special and why.
The Old Town is built upon the crag and tail rock formation that sprouts up from the surrounding land which now makes up Edinburgh’s city centre. This was created during the last ice age when receding glaciers were split by the immovable volcanic rock, upon which the castle now sits. What remained were the steep-inclined dormant volcano (crag) and a long, gentle slope down one side of the hill (tail).
The crag was one of the first parts of Edinburgh to be inhabited, chosen for its suitability as a defensive fortress. Those attributes would be desperately needed over the following centuries, as Edinburgh became a town beset by war and challenges to its leadership. Relative prosperity came to the area in the 1300s, aided by the growth of the castle and the nearby Port of Leith, and the 15th century brought about the move of the Royal Court (and title of Scottish capital) from Stirling to Edinburgh. The city began to grow, with buildings erected down the length of the Royal Mile (the tail of rock).
Much of the original architecture still exists today, although redevelopments of Old Town were prompted by the Scottish Reformation in 1560 and the Great Fire of 1824. Notable additions to this part of the city over the years were St. Giles Cathedral , the University of Edinburgh, City Chambers, Parliament House, the Royal College of Surgeons, General Assembly Hall, and the renovation of Holyroodhouse . All played their part in the expansion of the town and, by the 18th century, the population of the Old Town had swelled to 80,000. This growth, together with the limited space available on the hill, had incited the building of high tenement houses; inspiration for the modern-day skyscraper.
The array of beautiful old buildings and their place in Edinburgh’s rich history makes the Old Town a fascinating place to visit. There are a mass of tourist attractions , making use of the original infrastructure to tell tales of the Edinburgh of old. Newer developments such as Our Dynamic Earth, The National Museum and the Scottish Parliament Building can also be found in the Old Town and are certainly worth a visit.
A real highlight of the old town is the Royal Mile; a collection of streets that join to connect Edinburgh Castle with the Palace of Holyroodhouse , two of Edinburgh’s most popular sights. It is on this road that you will find many other places of interest, including tourist attractions, souvenir shops, cafés and pubs . It makes a very pleasant walk (downhill especially) and in the summer it is a hive of activity, jam-packed with street entertainers and people promoting events in the Edinburgh Festival . Off the Royal Mile run a number of stunning and sometimes rather sinister-looking winding streets and narrow alleyways called 'closes'. They have inspired many a local author and are quite unique to the city of Edinburgh.
A Mecca for tourists during the day, the Old Town is a hedonistic paradise by night. A walk around here after dark feels very atmospheric and you will be spoilt for choice by the amount of great eating out options. Many of the city’s most revered bars and clubs are to be found here, benefiting from the character-filled buildings that house them.
Standing in Edinburgh’s New Town, it’s hard to believe that there was virtually nothing here until the 1700s. Despite overcrowding in the Old Town, there were no houses here until the mid century due to the fact that, up until that point, there was no direct access to the land and the Nor’ Loch lay in the way. At this time the Scottish economy was on the rise but Edinburgh was in danger of losing its rich and educated residents to London. And so a plan was put in place to build the New Town, which would offer clean and spacious living for those who could afford it.
Work began in 1765 and went on for the best part of 100 years as the New Town was built up in stages. The city had imposed several rules on the property builders in order to maintain some uniformity of style and, with the area becoming increasingly fashionable, some notable architects of the day were brought in to design the new builds. The Nor’ Loch was drained and transformed into the spectacular Princes Street Gardens. The end result was a great success; an ostentatious example of neo-classical architecture and a celebration of Edinburgh and Scotland’s union with England.
Development on the New Town continues to this day, but most of the original Georgian buildings remain and the area still boasts a majestic image. In the city centre, shops, bars and restaurants now occupy the family houses, and the streets are filled day and night with people.
Nowadays Princes Street is widely regarded as Edinburgh’s principal street, and it is home to many well-known high street brands. Its beauty is the fact that just one side of the street is built up and so down the length of the road there are stunning views across the gardens to the castle and Old Town. Running parallel to this is George Street which also stakes a claim to the title of finest street in Edinburgh. Although perhaps the New Town is not as striking as its counterpart, it does arguably make up for this in terms of practicality. Filled with dining options, high-fashion shops, stylish bars and well-served by public transport, the New Town is always busy with visitors and locals alike.
That is not to say that the only interests for tourists in the New Town are shopping and dining. Besides the spectacular architecture, there are a number of art galleries including the National Gallery of Scotland and Scottish National Portrait Gallery , a cinema complex, the Scott Monument and the city observatory.
Edinburgh’s West End was built as one of the latter phases of the New Town development. Consequently, the West End is blessed with splendid Victorian architecture and much grandeur. A large proportion of the area lies within the UNESCO World Heritage Site boundary.
In a similar way to the London district of the same name, the West End of Edinburgh is synonymous with culture and is home to some of the most popular arts venues in the city. Three such venues can be found crammed together in a small cluster just off Lothian Road; the The Usher Hall , the Royal Lyceum Theatre and the Traverse Theatre. Furthermore, a quick dash across the street will bring you to the Edinburgh Filmhouse . Continuing your journey along the same road will take you past two more cinemas ( the Odeon and the Cameo Picturehouse ) and eventually to the King’s Theatre .
As you might imagine, the wealth of entertainment options gives rise to a proportionate number of bars and eateries, turning the West End into a bustling scene of activity when dusk falls. Indeed, there are a number of local favourites jostling for custom with the well-known chains as audiences pour out of their seats and into the streets. Edinburgh’s old and new towns are also within touching distance and accessible from here by foot but, for longer journeys, the West End is served by most bus routes and by Haymarket Rail Station.
The name "Southside" has been assigned to this area of Edinburgh out of convenience. It is actually a collection of old villages, which have now become engulfed by the city as its boundaries expand. Not much of the original architecture remains in these villages, although the area is still rather picturesque with Victorian-built tenements that are interspersed by areas of parkland. The Southside came to prominence in the late 18th century, when the construction of the South Bridge connected it directly to the Old Town. Nowadays, it is a popular residential area and home to many students, young professionals and families.
The border between the Old Town and the Southside is debatable (My Guide Edinburgh has used the boundary of the UNESCO World Heritage Site), but a good rough guideline is The Meadows . The Meadows, as the name would suggest, is a large expanse of green which includes various sporting facilities and play areas. In good weather, locals flock here in their hundreds for fresh air, exercise and fun.
To the east of the park lies the University of Edinburgh, responsible for breathing much of the life into the Southside. Many students chose to live here due to its close proximity to university buildings and the town centre, and the fact that the neighbourhood is well-supplied with amenities. During the Edinburgh Festivals , many university-owned buildings are used to host festival productions and events, and the Queen’s Hall, which is also found in the vicinity, is the venue for music concerts all year round.
One of Edinburgh’s hidden but not so well-kept secrets is Dean Village. Built on the steep banks of the Water of Leith, Dean Village made its name about 800 years ago as a milling community, making use of the power from the river. It is an incredibly charming little place and its adjoining gardens make a nice location for a short walk. Climbing out of the valley and away from the city centre will lead you to two of Edinburgh’s best loved art galleries, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Dean Gallery. Both are set in wonderful grounds and are home to some of finest pieces of modern art in the world.
At the very least, a visit to Stockbridge is well worth the effort. Sitting on the border of Edinburgh North and the New Town (as defined by My Guide), Stockbridge is within easy walking distance, especially as it is all downhill! It is a traditional village situated on the Water of Leith, which was transformed into part of the city during the building of the New Town. For such a small community, it has more than its fair share of good restaurants and cafes.
The Stockbridge Market will be found every Sunday and has been named 'A Scottish farmers market with a continental heart', selling Scottish produce at its best- buying from the farmers/producers themselves. Hot street food and artisan crafts also available. The market is every Sunday all year round and is right on the picturesque Water Of Leith. In the summer they also open Thursdays from noon to 7.30pm ( June through September). A better experience than any supermarket, so visit - they are waiting for you!
Morningside is a charming neighborhood, filled with boutique shops and stately architecture. Located South of the Meadows, Morningside is a largely residential area, and it has a reputation for being an up-scale part of town.
Morningside Maisie, a children's book character, is a well-loved 'resident' of the area.
As the port to Edinburgh, Leith has as much of a place in the city’s history as any. Situated on the Firth of Forth, just a couple of miles from Edinburgh city centre, it was Scotland’s premier port for centuries and has helped bring much affluence to the region over the years. In 1329 Robert the Bruce succeeded in giving Edinburgh (including the Port of Leith) its first recorded charter, which led to growth of the area. The port became an integral part of commerce in the city and Scotland’s links to the continent.
Leith has had its ups and downs, falling from power and riches into a state of decline and then rising to prosperity again. In the mid 16th century the government of Scotland was ruled from Leith for a short period but, not long after, the town was all but ruined in a siege inflicted by the armies of both England and Scotland. It bounced back however, playing an important part in shipbuilding, fishing and trade with the rest of the world up until the 20th century. Following the Second World War, activity in the port deteriorated and Leith suffered due to the harbour’s shallow water depth.
In the 80s a strategy was initiated in order to rejuvenate the town of Leith, and since then much money has been ploughed into the restoration of its architecture, the preservation of its history, and exciting new developments. Today, Leith is more of a continuation of Edinburgh rather than a separate entity, although its individual identity remains and port operations continue to be an important aspect to the local community. One of the most compelling reasons to visit is its wealth of good bars and restaurants (including three currently in possession of a Michelin star), which draw many into making the short trip from the city centre.
Points of historical interest are still to be found around the town, such as Leith Links (where the original 13 rules of golf were drawn up), Custom House, and the site of Mary Queen of Scots’ arrival in the country to take ownership of the crown. After the Royal Yacht Britannia was decommissioned in 1997 it moved to its permanent home in Leith harbour, and is now a popular tourist attraction and corporate hospitality venue. It is located next to Ocean Terminal , a giant shopping and entertainment centre.
Chic and trendy, the Shore is an up-and-coming area of Edinburgh. Where the Water of Leith meets the Firth of Forth, the Shore is home to a huge selection of pubs and restaurants.
For the more adventurous among you, South Queensferry is a short bus ride from Edinburgh city centre and makes an excellent half-day trip. From here, magnificent views are on offer of the Forth Rail Bridge (connecting Edinburgh to Fife) and the Ochil Hills on the other side of the river. Also on offer at South Queensferry are some fine restaurants, boat trips on the Firth of Forth,a watersports centre at Port Edgar and of course, the glorious stately home and grounds of Hopetoun House .
Sandwiched between the hill of Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood Park and Duddingston Loch (famously portrayed in Henry Raeburn’s painting of the skating reverend), this small village is a picture of serenity. It is said to house Scotland’s oldest pub (the Sheep’s Heid Inn), and a building in which Bonnie Prince Charlie once slept. The rather grand Duddingston House is now used as a venue for hire, whilst a golf course occupies the grounds.
East Edinburgh holds a poor reputation, mainly as a result of the building of a mass of housing schemes here in the mid 1900s. In recent years, it has gone through somewhat of a redevelopment, although much of it remains of little interest to anyone outside the area. There are however, parts of East Edinburgh that do catch the eye, namely Portobello and Duddingston.
Portobello came to prominence in the 18th century with the building of a successful pottery works, and went on to become the home of several other industries. Rather strangely, around the same time, the town was fast becoming a popular seaside resort and was attracting thousands of Scots on their holidays. Portobello fails to attract the same excitement these days, but it still boasts an impressive sandy beach, Turkish baths, and a couple of amusement arcades.
In Edinburgh you don't have to travel far out of the city to find wide open parkland and the nature which inhabits it. If you are looking for some peace and tranquillity within easy reach of the city centre, then heading north is a pretty good bet. Inverleith is the location of several public parks, many sports pitches and, perhaps most notably, the Royal Botanic Gardens . As a result, it makes a popular place to live and is the home to some of Edinburgh's wealthiest residents.
Further afield, and located on the banks of the Firth of Forth, lies the picturesque village of Cramond. For those who like their history, Cramond has an interesting story which dates back from the Roman invasion to the industrial revolution. Although it is a charming place, there is little to do there nowadays, but there are a couple of scenic walks and an authentic Scottish pub in which to refuel. Up the hill from the village sits two of Edinburgh's most prestigious golf clubs, the Royal Burgess and Bruntsfield Links ; a must-visit for any golf enthusiast.
The West Edinburgh region stretches out from the outskirts of the city centre as far as South Queensferry and the border with West Lothian. Most visitors to Edinburgh will have passed through West Edinburgh on their way to the airport, but the view from the bus or taxi window doesn’t really do it justice. It is mostly made up of residential areas (and farmland as you travel further from the town), but there are a few places of special interest to tourists, including Edinburgh Zoo and Murrayfield Stadium (home of the Scotland and Edinburgh rugby teams).
The city boundaries of Edinburgh stretch further south than one might think. So much so, that they take in the vast expanse of hills known as the Pentlands, offering a totally different aspect of the city. Nearer the town centre, South Edinburgh is home to many suburban communities which seem to be constantly growing in size and popularity due to the short commute into town.
The villages of Colinton and Swanston are particularly idyllic, showing signs of village life as it was two or three hundred years ago, juxtaposed with a typical picture of modern suburban living. Swanston remains relatively unspoilt by development and you could be forgiven for believing you were miles away from a big city. Colinton on the other hand, has become one of Edinburgh’s most affluent places to live. Set at the foot of the Pentlands, it’s a great place to go hiking, with scenic walks up in the hills or along the Water of Leith.
There are several golf courses in South Edinburgh, most of which are quite hilly and therefore offer superb views of Edinburgh and the surrounding area.