SHARP Travels: The Local Edinburgh Experience

Three things you must know about Scotland’s capital. First: it’s pronounced ED-in-BRR-ugh — not burrow, borrow or berg! Second: Its natives are not unfriendly. They just aren’t overt. Make the first move and you’ll receive a warm response. Third: They don’t visit the Castle or go to Fringe shows. 

And unless you love endless lineups and overpaying, take a tip from the locals. We’ll supply better substitutions below.

Where To Stay Depends On When You Visit

Maps of medieval Edinburgh have been compared to a fish skeleton. The Royal Mile from the Castle down to Holyrood Palace formed the spine; the streets, closes, and alleys shooting north and south made up those bones granny warned you not to choke on. 

In the Winter: Auld Reekie

Auld Reekie, Circus Lane cityscape

Back in those medieval times Edinburgh was nicknamed Auld Reekie, meaning aged stench. But if you’re visiting in August, that nickname is still stickily relevant throughout the old town. It’s also frustratingly noisy at night, what with the innumerable ghost tours paying ‘jumper-ooters’ (frustrated actors in black capes and masks) to leap out from hidden caches, scaring the bejesus out of you. Bottom line? Stay in the old town only in winter. The medieval buildings, scattered higgledy-piggledy around stony bendy hills, are at their prettiest when limned with frost.

Close-To-It-All: New Town and Morningside

New Town, Edinburgh streetscape

If you want to be within walking distance of every Top Ten To-Do List the rest of the time, but not knee-deep in Fringe flyers and discarded fried food cartons, consider the inaccurately named New Town. An orderly city of Georgian townhomes daintily arranged in straight rows punctuated with circular mini neighbourhoods, New Town is unlike any other place in Britain. Tourists are everywhere but their numbers in the New Town drop dramatically when you venture north of Queen Street (still central). 

Another quiet but charming and close-to-it-all neighbourhood is Morningside, an ancient southside village that grew into urban prominence and respectability during Victoria’s long reign. 

Outside the City: Dunbar, Linlithgow, and Inverkeithing

The Local Edinburgh Experience

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 Linlithgow, Scotland

The Local Edinburgh Experience

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Dunbar Harbour, Scotland

The Local Edinburgh Experience

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Inverkeithing, Scotland

On a tight budget? Community trains constantly zip in and out of Edinburgh. You could stay in a quiet nearby Lothian or Fife town but spend your days soaking up Edinburgh’s touristy mayhem. Dunbar in the east, Linlithgow in the west, and Inverkeithing, north across the Forth Bridge are all lovely and regularly serviced.

Where Should You Eat And Drink?

The short answer is everywhere. The slightly longer one demands you forget lame jokes about sheep stomachs. If you’ve eaten a sausage in your life, you’ve had worse than haggis. Great food abounds here. (Tomatoes and chicken actually have flavour!) But beware: it’s not cheap. Savour these reco’s. 


Stockbridge, Edinburgh

One: Walkably central, Stockbridge off the New Town contains many fine, non-chain restaurants and funky character-filled boozeries. 

Nouveau local — that is, ScottISH — Chef Tom Kitchin’s Scran & Scallie is clever yet unpretentious. Book early to avoid disappointment. Mind, just across the street, La Bocca’s Italianesque tapas and the Raeburn Hotel’s patios are happy to pick up and cheer up those disappointed ones.

Stockbridge, Edinburgh

Nightcap yourself 600m up the road at the Baillie or Antiquary pubs. Both are populated by locals who won’t much mind outsiders asking about Nessie and the Proclaimers. 

Fun fact: For two decades, every Saturday in the tiny front of Kay’s Bar, locals have gathered at exactly noon to play The Guardian’s weekly trivia quiz. Newcomers are welcome enough if they know who played bass in the original Kinks lineup and that a group of ravens is an unkindness. 

Guildford Arms and Cafe Royal

The Local Edinburgh Experience

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The Sheep Heid

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Canny Man’s

Two: Utterly central, both the Guildford Arms and neighbouring Cafe Royal are pricey but unspeakably charming for dining or just drinks. Even if you can’t get a seat, walk through and marvel at the loveliness of the OTT décor and magnificent wooden bars. 

Two honourable, if not as central, gastropub mentions: The Sheep Heid in Duddingston Village dates back to the 1300s and, bizarrely, contains a bowling alley. 

And when good hoarders die, they go to the Canny Man’s in Morningside. Imagine God’s self-storage locker. This place is so packed with ancient and funky kitsch it even has an extra name: The Volunteer Arms. Enjoy the signature open-faced sandwiches; they’re unique, delicious, and legendary around town. 

The Shore

Sunshine on Leith River, Edinburgh

Three: Take the newly opened tram extension from Princes Street to The Shore in Leith. An ancient harbour town absorbed by Edinburgh a century ago, Leith is loved by locals but still welcoming to visitors. 

If stumped, order the fish soup at Fishers seafood restaurant. Beware: it’s another place you’ll need to book well ahead for seating. 200m up the road, the King’s Wark occupies one of the oldest and prettiest buildings in the city. A specialty (and centuries-old Edinburgh favourite) is oysters on a platter. 

Or follow those newly opened tram tracks 800m back towards town for funkier gastropub grub at The Lioness of Leith. You’re off what’s known as the Foot of Leith Walk, ground zero in Trainspotting. Slum your nightcap a few blocks up at the Bier Hoose. Formerly (and kind of still) known as the Boundary Bar, it boasts a gent’s trough where for decades crusty Leithers would joyfully micturate over the city border into Edinburgh. 

Things To Do And See

Like most of Britain, Edinburgh’ museums and galleries are free — a reprieve in an otherwise quickly impoverishing vacation destination. Check the online Edinburgh Timeout guide for what’s featuring during your visit; it’s always changing.

Museums and Galleries

Modern Art Museum, Edinburgh
Modern Art Museum

Example? The Scottish National Gallery only displays its collection of Turner watercolours during the weak light of each January. Crazy. If you miss that, the year-round collection of Raeburn portraits upstairs never disappoints.

Stroll the lovely Water of Leith path to the back entrance of the Modern Art Galleries One and Two. Start in Stockbridge, walking past the impossibly pretty Dean Village (you’ll know it by the Babel Tower of Insta-fluencers elbowing each other out of the way for the quaintest selfies). 400 scenic meters on, you’ll find a Secret Garden of stone stairs up through forest to Modern Two. Tip: Look for Douglas Gordon’s wall full of names.

Outdoor Recreation

Dean Village, Edinburgh
Dean Village

Having nice weather? Within minutes of arriving in Scotland, you’ll notice how green everything is. The temperate and wet climate creates an almost permanent spring. Visit the jaw-droppingly beautiful Royal Botanic Gardens. Unlike the painful £19 enema you suffered at London’s Kew Gardens during your Ted Lasso visit to Richmond, this is free.

Not free: I’m no sports guy but locals LOVE rugby and during the annual Six Nations Cup, the city vibes extra lively. Crosstown football clubs Hibernian (aka Hibs) and Harts respectively attract Catholic and Protestant supporters, though the ferocity of rivalry is nothing like Glasgow’s infamous Celtic and Rangers.

The Music Scene

Also not free: For such a small city, Edinburgh has a great music scene. The Jazz Bar on Chambers Street is sweaty, grubby, and wonderful! It shuts at 3am, ejecting refugees onto George IV Bridge Street, where Joanne Rowling wrote her first draft of Harry Potter. (See above re not staying in the old town during summer.)

Instead of Edinburgh Castle and Fringe Shows, Check Out the Less-Crowded Culture

Yes, perched atop a volcano, Edinburgh Castle is a must-see but honestly, only from the outside! It’s boring inside. Get your Insta-selfie from the Princes Street Gardens below. As far north as Hudson’s Bay, Edinburgh’s sky provides dramatic light; the constant winds provide dramatic skies. 

Any day but Sunday, shoot a video of the Castle from the Gardens between 12:59:55 and 13:00:05 to experience the One o’clock Gun, a 105mm field cannon (firing blanks). Count the startled faces around you who didn’t know the quotidian explosion was coming. 

Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh

For even better pix than the Castle Terrace offers, climb Arthur’s Seat for free. It’s the extinct volcano beside the Scottish Parliament and Holyrood Palace.

Have children? Craigmillar Castle, just 5km southeast, costs a third of the price for entry, rarely has a line, and features the ghoulish sort of things kids love in a castle, like battlements and a dungeon. 

Or if you’re crunched for time, Calton Hill contains some of Edinburgh’s finest classical structures. It’s free to see and climb and is just five minutes’ walk from the train station. 

The Fringe, a performance movement that grew up on the edges of the Edinburgh Arts Festival in the ’60s and ‘70s (hence, fringe) has almost subsumed all the other annual arts events here in Festival City. But it’s become uncomfortably expensive. To quote a surly local: “It used to be, you’d risk £3 (CAD $5) on what might be shite, but now it’s fifteen (exquisite expletive deleted) quid!” Tip: Listen to what Scottish people do with language, especially swearing. It’s free yet priceless.

George Street Edinburgh

All that said, the Edinburgh Fringe appropriates much of the town during the Festival. Entire squares in the University and wide roads like the New Town’s grand George Street are filled with temporary tables and pop-up open-air pubs. Travelers and performers flock from around the world. Why fight it? 

Rather than risking your anemic Canadian dollars on the Fringe, let the Fringe come to you. Performers, desperate for an audience, visit these temporary outdoor gathering spots presenting mini performances, pleading, and explaining why you should attend their show. It’s live and rarely boring advertising. You might not meet many locals but it’s still a uniquely Edinburgh experience.