Edinburgh is Scotland’s bustling capital and one of the most popular places to visit in the UK. But don’t think you’ve ‘done Edinburgh’ just because you’ve walked up the Royal Mile and toured the castle… There is so much more to explore and discover in this multi-faceted city. Here are my top picks for hidden gems in Edinburgh that lie off the beaten path.
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The Royal Mile, Edinburgh Castle and Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. These are just some of the “must-sees” among Edinburgh’s many historical attractions. But Scotland’s capital has so much more to offer than the usual suspects.
To get under the skin of the Scottish capital, you must head off the beaten path and discover Edinburgh’s hidden gems.
On my journey to research the happiest and most fascinating places for a book project, I stumbled upon countless unusual things to in Edinburgh. Some lie far off the beaten path while others hide in plain sight in some of Edinburgh’s most bustling areas.
Read on for a list of some of the most unusual things to do in Edinburgh, great tours to take for a deeper insight into Edinburgh’s history and social life, and new ways to experience well-known places all over the city.
So, let’s dive right in – here are my favourite hidden gems in Edinburgh.
Thistle Chapel at St Giles’ Cathedral
St Giles’ Cathedral on the Royal Mile is about as obvious as it gets – so what does it do on this list of hidden gems in Edinburgh?
One part of the church that is lesser known is the Thistle Chapel which is used for worship exclusively by the Order of the Thistle. This order of chivalry consists of the Sovereign and sixteen Knights and Ladies and has many prominent members, including other members of the Royal family, Scottish billionaires, politicians and landholders.
The Thistle Chapel is furnished with enormous seats, artistic woodwork and the colourful crests of the members. Each seat is topped by a carved statue representing the member. The chapel might be open if there are enough volunteers around, but the best way to visit and learn about it is on a free guided tour.
Another reason why St Giles’ Cathedral is on this list of secret spots in Edinburgh is the candlelit concert series by London Concertante. It’s a unique experience to attend a concert at St Giles Cathedral. You can find all upcoming events here.
If you want to learn about whisky in Edinburgh, you may think about visiting the Scotch Whisky Experience on the Royal Mile. But did you know there was a unique whisky distillery in Edinburgh that offers tours?
Holyrood Distillery is a young distillery – their spirit is not even old enough to be called Scottish whisky yet. But they are not idle, while they wait for their whisky to mature. In the meantime, they experiment with a variety of types of yeast to achieve a complex and varied flavour profile in their new spirit – the stuff that comes out the still before it gets put into casks.
A tour at Holyrood Distillery explains the process and history of whisky making in Edinburgh, but it also introduced you to some of the experimental techniques and flavours you won’t come across at other distilleries. Tasting included!
Another great distillery in Edinburgh is the newly opened Port of Leith Distillery.
Craigmillar Castle & Lauriston Castle
You’ve heard about Edinburgh Castle, but did you know that Edinburgh had two more castles in the city?
In the west, near the Royal Infirmary hospital, awaits Craigmillar Castle. And in the east, not far from Silverknowes Beach, you’ll find Lauriston Castle.
Craigmillar Castle was once a quiet countryside retreat outside the crammed city walls of medieval Edinburgh. Mary Queen of Scots was a frequent visitor here before she was arrested in 1567.
The oldest parts of the castle date to the 1300s and its most impressive feature are the battlements from where you can enjoy fantastic views of Edinburgh and Arthur’s Seat.
Lauriston Castle has been extended over the centuries, but it owes its current layout, interior and charm to its final residents – the antique collectors Mr and Mrs W. R. Reid, and Mrs Reid’s brother Mr William Barton.
From secret staircases in the old laird’s office to the warm hug that is the cosy library with views of the Forth, the castle has a lot to offer. Tours happen twice daily (apart from Monday).
Mansfield Traquair Church
Also known as “Edinburgh’s Sistine Chapel”, the former church at Mansfield Traquair Centre is easily one of Edinburgh’s best-kept secrets.
The walls and ceilings of Mansfield Traquair are covered in colourful murals by Phoebe Traquair. She was hired by the Catholic Apostolic Church in the late 19th century to paint biblical imagery and a hopeful interpretation of the second coming of Christ.
Today, the building is no longer a church and mostly used as an event space and wedding venue. However, the volunteers of the Friends of Mansfield Traquair offer informative tours once a month or on request.
Dunbar’s Close Garden
The Royal Mile is one of Edinburgh’s most beautiful streets. It is located in the centre of the medieval Old Town and attracts visitors year-round. An easy way to escape the crowds on the Royal Mile is to duck into one of the many closes, wynds and courtyards that branch off left and right.
One of my favourite closes on the Royal Mile is home to a hidden garden that is accessible to the public: Dunbar’s Close Garden.
Dunbar’s Close Garden was first created in the 18th century when it was common for wealthy inhabitants to grow their own supply of fruit and vegetables behind their townhouse. The garden was revived in the 20th century and boasts 8 “garden rooms” full of plants, benches and tranquillity. The perfect escape and hidden gem on the royal mile.
Edinburgh Walking Tour with Travel Kat Tours
People can be hidden gems too! Especially if they can help you see Edinburgh through their eyes.
Want to dive deeper into the history of Edinburgh and hear the stories behind the stories? Look no further than Kat Milne, city guide exceptionelle at Travel Kat Tours.
Kat is an experienced tour guide and history lover with special interests in the history of Scottish witchcraft, Scottish film tourism (Harry Potter, Outlander) and Mary Queen of Scots.
You can join one of her regular Harry Potter tours through the Old Town – discovering many Harry Potter locations in Edinburgh and listen to her stories behind the books and films.
Or you can hire Kat for a private Edinburgh walking tour to suit your needs and interests.
Dr Neil’s Garden
Edinburgh has no shortage of relaxing green spaces, but one of my favourite hidden gems in Edinburgh is Dr Neil’s Garden in the historic village of Duddingston.
The garden was started by Drs. Andrew and Nancy Neil. They were convinced that spending time outdoors, immersed in nature and with your hands in the soil would be beneficial to their patients’ mental and physical wellbeing. And they were right!
The garden is a beautifully restorative space with a small network of paths, benches to rest and views of Duddingston Loch, a wildlife haven for birds. It’s free to visit and a great place to escape the hustle and bustle of Edinburgh’s touristy city centre.
If you’re looking for great food around the corner, try the historic Sheep Heid Inn.
Chapel of Saint Albert the Great
Tucked away in the leafy streets around the University campus and the Meadows park, you can find a small chapel that is like no other. The Chapel of Saint Albert the Great is an architectural masterpiece and great secret spot in Edinburgh.
It was built for the Catholic Chaplaincy at the University of Edinburgh and creates a simple space for worship surrounded by nature. The glass features make it appear as if the roof is floating in the air, and the large windows bring in lots of daylight. The chapel is surrounded by a lush garden with lots of flowers, bird feeders and trees.
Please note that this is a place of worship and mass is held daily. Find more info here.
Scottish Poetry Library
The Scottish Poetry Library lies down a quiet lane branching off the Royal Mile and for a while, it was the location of Edinburgh’s biggest literary mystery. One day, a box appeared at the door of the library, containing a carefully crafted sculpture made from books. A note said it was a gift to the library’s contributions to Scottish poetry, but it was not signed by the artist. Over time, many more sculptures in the same style appeared at other literary institutions across Edinburgh.
And while the name of the artist is still not known to the public today, she has come forward anonymously and created even more sculptures for auctions and charitable causes.
At the Scottish Poetry Library you can see multiple of her book sculptures and pick up a leaflet to find all the other ones.
Some unusual things to do in Edinburgh hide in plain sight. Gladstone’s Land on the Royal Mile is one of them. This townhouse near the top of the Royal Mile is special in a multitude of ways.
The arches on the facade are the oldest remaining original arches like these on the entire Royal Mile – they were really popular in the 17th century.
The building is close to Edinburgh Castle, which in medieval times would have meant, only the wealthiest people could afford to own it or live here. Across three floors, Gladstone’s Land shows what life would have been like in this building throughout the 17th, 18th and early 20th centuries.
Note in particular, the colourful ceiling paintings which are from the 17th century and were covered up for centuries, before the National Trust of Scotland discovered them. That’s why they are so vibrant and well-preserved.
It pays off to join one of the guiding tours at Gladstone’s Land to learn more.
This hidden spot in Edinburgh lets you walk over the rainbow. The Scotsman Steps were built between 1899 and 1902 and connect the busy Royal Mile with the entrance to Edinburgh Waverley station. They run along the back of the building that once housed The Scotsman newspaper – chance the name (today that’s the Scotsman hotel).
Back in the day, before the big bridges connecting the Old and New Town were built, this stairway would have been a busy place. But by the late 20th century, the steps had become increasingly seedy.
To revamp the stairway, the old steps were replaced with marble steps – each unique, boasting a different-coloured marble from all over the world. It’s a sight you simply have to see!
Water of Leith Walkway
You’ve probably heard of the quaint area Dean Village, a photo-perfect spot with Victorian and Tudor-style architecture and historic bridges over the Water of Leith.
But did you know, you could continue to walk along the Water of Leith Walkway in either direction?
If you walk north, you’ll continue to the leafy Stockbridge neighbourhood and eventually reach Leith.
If you walk south, you’ll come past the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the murals at Colinton Tunnel (see below) and eventually the village of Balerno at the foot of the Pentland Hills.
On this scenic walk in Edinburgh, you’ll spot historic architecture, eery sculptures by Antony Gormley and plenty of wildlife. You can download the Audio Trail to guide the way.
Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
The sprawling Royal Botanic Garden is easily my favourite place to escape the crowds in Edinburgh. The garden is a feast for the senses. Wander among tall chestnut trees and blooming rhododendrons, discover California redwoods and soak up the sweet scents of the herb garden.
The botanic garden was founded in the 17th century and features an impressive plant collection on display. Behind the scenes, the garden doubles down on researching rare Scottish plants and safeguarding important seed collections.
It’s free to visit the Royal Botanic Garden. There is a visitor centre, a cafe and a shop at the West Gate. During the summer, you can join daily garden tours.
Note that the glasshouses are currently under renovation – find more info here.
Rooftop Terrace at the National Museum of Scotland
The National Museum of Scotland is one of the most popular museums in Scotland – so what does it do on this list of hidden gems in Edinburgh?
Head upstairs to the seventh floor though, and you’ll find one of the most wonderful viewpoints in Edinburgh. The rooftop terrace at the National Museum of Scotland offers stunning views over the roofs of the Old Town towards Edinburgh Castle.
To turn the terrace into a green space the museum has filled it with plants from all over Scotland, from salty coastal grasses to delicate bog flowers. Thanks to clever planning, there is always something of interest in the garden, so it’s a lovely spot to visit all year-round.
Black History Walks
Join Lisa Williams for a fascinating walk through the city centre and learn about Black history in Edinburgh. Lisa, who is of Grenadian descent, has lived in Edinburgh for many years and is an expert in Scottish-Caribbean and Scottish-African links. Inspired by her own research on outstanding Black Scottish people, she started to offer Black History Walks.
The walking tour takes about 2 hours and includes stories about people like Henry Dundas, who opposed the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Ignatius Sancho, who was the first person of African descent to ever vote in a British election, and Malvina Wells, who’s grave can be found in a graveyard on Princes Street.
The Edinburgh Black History Walks take place on most Saturdays during the summer season, but Lisa is also available for private tours. Book Lisa’s tour here or drop her an email to enquire about private tours.
Listen to More to it, a story about Edinburgh’s black history walk on my podcast.
Views from the Scott Monument
The Scott Monument dominates the skyline of Edinburgh’s New Town and towers high above Princes Street Gardens. But did you know you can actually climb to the top?
The Scott Monument offers one of the best viewpoints in Edinburgh!
Join a tour of the Scott Monument and learn about the life and work of Sir Walter Scott, in whose memory the monument was built. A winding staircase leads up to an external viewing platform with sweeping views of Princes Street, the medieval Old Town skyline and Edinburgh Castle.
There is no need to pre-book, you can buy tickets for this tour at the small kiosk at the foot of the monument.
The Shore in Leith
Leith is Edinburgh’s port area. Once an industrious hub for dockers, glassworks, storage warehouses and ship-building, it is now a trendy neighbourhood with bustling bars, Michelin-starred restaurants and cosy cafes.
One of my favourite places in Leith is The Shore, the main waterfront along the Water of Leith. Follow the Water of Leith walkway and learn about the history of Leith’s harbour workers at the Victoria Bridge.
Edinburgh has a long history of beer brewing and distilling. Learn everything about Edinburgh’s history of beer on a walking tour with ScotBeer Tours.
Founder Sara Robertson and her team of guides take you on a laid-back pub crawl that perfectly marries history and drinks. Travel from the humble beginnings of the “bathtub brew” to the establishment of the city’s first public houses. Along the way, your tour guide takes you to hand-picked pubs to try some of the best local beer.
They also offer brewery tours at Pilot Beer in Leith and tastings in taprooms across the city.
Edinburgh Farmer’s Market
How do you like the sound of fresh produce, sweet home-baking and delicious treats to take home? You will find all that and more at the Edinburgh Farmer’s Market!
The market is held at Castle Terrace every Saturday from 9 am to 2 pm – come rain or shine. Browse the up to 50 stalls at the bottom of Castlehill and enjoy stunning views of the castle above.
On offer, you’ll find anything from freshly brewed coffee and scrumptious sausage rolls, to freshly baked focaccia, locally made cheese, loose-leaf teas and a selection of fruit jams.
This is one of the best things to do in Edinburgh for foodies.
Colonnades at The Signet Library
The Signet Library behind St Giles Cathedral is one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in the Old Town. It was built in the early 19th century for the Society of Writers to His Majesty’s Signet, an exclusive club for Scottish attorneys and lawyers.
Today, it still houses an exquisite library, but its dramatic halls are also spaces for events, weddings and celebrations. At the heart of the building lies Colonnades. Here in the surroundings of the tall Corinthian columns and bookshelves of the Lower Library, you an enjoy one of the finest afternoon teas in Edinburgh.
Indulge in luxurious cakes, fluffy scones and finger-licking finger sandwiches. This is an exclusive treat to make your time in Edinburgh extra special.
Top tip for Outlander fans: Colonnades at the Signet Library was used as a film location in Outlander.
Tour the Scottish Parliament
From the early 13th century to 1707, the Scottish Kingdom had its own Parliament (also called the “Estates of Scotland”). But when Scotland and England merged into the United Kingdom, the Scottish parliament became obsolete.
It wasn’t until the Scotland Act of 1998, that Scotland got back its very own parliament and a democratically elected Scottish government to decide on legislature in a vast range of areas.
The Scottish Parliament building sits at the bottom of the Royal Mile, just across the Royal Palace of Holyroodhouse. You can visit the public areas by yourself, but I highly recommend joining a free guided tour for a glipse behind the scene of the young Scottish nation.
These tours are available every Monday, Friday and Saturday.
Invisible Cities Tours
Tours are a great way to discover even more hidden gems in Edinburgh. Invisible Cities is a social enterprise founded by Zakia Moulaoui. They train people affected by homelessness to become walking tour guides in their own cities.
Their tours showcase Edinburgh’s historical landmarks and explore the social projects that make the city what it is. Many of the tours were developed by the guides themselves and include stops that are relevant to their own stories.
I highly recommend their tour of the Royal Mile, as well as their Women in Edinburgh tour.
Beyond Edinburgh, Invisible Cities also offers walking tours in Glasgow, Manchester, York, Cardiff and Liverpool.
On the outskirts of the city lies a quaint village that is easily one of the most unusual places to visit in Edinburgh. Forget about Dean Village – make your way to Colinton!
Colinton was once a bustling village that benefitted from its location on the Water of Leith. You could find several mills here, that produced textiles, snuff (tobacco), and paper. There was even a busy train line through the village!
But with time, the industries moved on and eventually, the train line was closed in the mid-1900s. For a while, the Victorian railway tunnel lay empty. But in recent years, the tunnel has been transformed by the painter Chris Rutterford and hundreds of school children who created Scotland’s longest historical mural.
Their paintings pay tribute to Colinton’s cultural heritage and capture the essence of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem From a Railway Carriage.
Whisky & Trad Music at The Ensign Ewart
The Ensign Ewart is my favourite pub on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but step inside and feel transformed back in time. Located in a building that dates back to the early 17th century, you’ll drink among old wooden beams, dark stained glass windows and candlelight. It’s a historic pub with medieval charm.
The bar has over 200 whiskies to choose from – and really knowledgeable staff to help you pick the right dram – and there is free live trad music every night from 9 pm.
Drinks at Cocktail Mafia
There is no shortage of trendy cocktail bars in Edinburgh. Dive into the speakeasy Panda & Sons, bring your friends for an evening at Tigerlily, or sip on unusual creations at the Johnnie Walker rooftop bar. But if you ask me, one of the most fun cocktail bars in Edinburgh is Cocktail Mafia, a small bar tucked away behind Charlotte Square.
The bar has a sophisticated feel without being cold or bougie. You’re guaranteed to have a fun night out. You know you’re in the right place when the bartender can whip up a delicious cocktail that isn’t on the menu!
Of course, there are many more hidden gems in Edinburgh and ways to escape the tourist crowds. Go for a walk along Portobello Beach, follow a hike through the Pentlands or walk up Corstorphine Hill with a heavenly pastry from Störtebäcker.
The adventure of exploring unique things to do in Edinburgh never ends!
Which places would you add to the list?
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