When I first visited Edinburgh back in 2011, I had a long list of must-dos and must-sees, which mostly featured the city’s top attraction. Back then, I had no idea that there are plenty of quirky and unusual things to do in Edinburgh.
I walked up Arthur’s Seat and Calton Hill on the same day (I was 21 and in a much fitter state than I am now), popped into every shop and museum along the Royal Mile and High Street in one afternoon, ventured into the haunted underground chambers and experienced the city’s pub scene on the same night, and got assaulted by a seagull in Princes Street Gardens twice in two days.
When I re-visited Edinburgh in 2012 and again in 2015, I found myself repeating the things on my 2011 to-do list. I joined a different ghost tour, went back to all museums in the city centre, and climbed up Arthur’s Seat again (although this time I took an easier route). Once again, I ended up doing all of those touristy things because I was unfamiliar with the lesser-known, yet equally amazing parts of Edinburgh.
In 2017, I moved to Scotland and spent three years living in Edinburgh, where I got to explore the city’s quirky neighbourhoods and lesser-known sites. So I’ve decided to write this guide for anyone who wants to get off the beaten path in Edinburgh and discover the city’s non-touristy side.
Here are my top suggestions for unusual things to do in Edinburgh.
Recommended hotel in Edinburgh
If you’re looking for a central hotel in Edinburgh, I highly recommend staying at ibis Edinburgh Centre on South Bridge (just around the corner from the Royal Mile).
My husband I have stayed here a couple of times and we loved it. The rooms are very clean and modern – and the beds are super comfy!
The ibis also has eco-friendly bathrooms and free Wifi.
1. Go on a coffee and cake crawl in Bruntsfield
Bruntsfield is my favourite neighbourhood in Edinburgh, mainly because this place is teeming with coffee shops serving artisan brews. Bruntsfield is also the place where you can find some of the best cakes in the city.
If you want to get away from the crowds without straying too far from the city centre, go for a walk up Bruntsfield Place, a long street lined with gift shops, food stores, cafes and coffee shops. On a nice day, you can sip your coffee in Bruntsfield Links, a gorgeous park right across the Meadows.
In June 2017, I moved to Polwarth, a neighbourhood close to Bruntsfield, and since then I have spent many days drinking coffee at some of the wonderful places in Bruntsfield Place.
These are my favourite coffee shops in Bruntsfield:
Cuckoo’s Bakery: A gorgeous coffee shop that serves the best cupcakes in Edinburgh. Make sure you get to try their Red Velvet Cupcake and Nutella Cheesecake Cupcake.
Artisan Roast: This cosy place serves freshly roasted and award-winning gourmet coffee.
The Chocolate Tree: If you want to spoil yourself, head to the Chocolate Tree for some delicious vegan cakes and ice-cream.
Project Coffee: Not only do they serve high-quality coffee here, but they also make delicious scones and brownies.
2. Walk along the Water of Leith
A river runs through the heart of Edinburgh, although it’s well-hidden and very easy to miss. The Water of Leith Walkway is a beautiful walk through some of the the city’s most beautiful residential areas.
Start your walk from the scenic Dean Village or Stockbridge, and keep walking until you reach The Shore in Leith (although you may turn back or leave the walkway at any point, of course).
3. Go cycling or hiking along the Union Canal
Another thing I love about my current neighbourhood, Polwarth, is that it’s right next to the Union Canal. The route along the canal is perfect for walkers, joggers and cyclists – although some parts of the path are a bit bumpy. The canal starts from Edinburgh city centre – more specifically, an area called Fountainbridge, where you can find a few nice restaurants, including a Swedish cafe – and goes all the way to Falkirk.
The route runs through some of the city’s most scenic neighbourhoods. If you don’t want to travel far from the city centre, you could stop at Harrison Park for a wee picnic or to snap photos of the colourful barges in this area. You could also stop for a coffee from The Counter on the Canal, a canal boat that serves lovely coffee and treats.
Recommendation: Baja Bikes offer amazing bike tours in Edinburgh, where you get to see the city’s landmarks as well as some hidden gems. They also offer bike rental services.
4. Explore the Hermitage of Braid and Blackford Hill
Want to go on a wee adventure in the city? The Hermitage of Braid is a walk through the city’s woodland, where you can do some wildlife-spotting or just enjoy a peaceful hike along the stream. If you’re staying in the city centre, you will need to get a bus that stops at Comiston Road. There is a cafe at the entrance of the Hermitage, although I do suggest you pack some food and water before heading there.
Next to the Hermitage you’ll find Blackford Hill, which offers panoramic views of the city and the Firth of Forth. The steps leading up the hill are a bit exhausting – but you won’t be disappointed when you reach the top!
Want to go hiking in Edinburgh? Check out these scenic hiking trails.
5. Visit Craigmillar Castle
It may not be as popular and majestic as Edinburgh Castle, but Craigmillar Castle is still worth a visit. This medieval castle has starred in Outlander and it is one of my favourite places in Edinburgh.
There are many secret passageways and chambers in the castle, making it a joy to explore, especially if you’re visiting Edinburgh outside the peak travel season. I visited in December and November and had the whole castle to myself!
6. Lose yourself in the city’s second-hand bookshops
Edinburgh is home to several quirky second-hand bookshops, which makes the city a mecca for bookworms and collectors of old books. A great place to start your ‘bookshop crawl’ is West Port, near the Grassmarket.
Tip: If you want to sit in a cosy place with a cuppa after your book haul, head to Lovecrumbs; a coffee shop in West Port that serves amazing cakes.
7. Have a picnic in Inverleith Park
Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre, Inverleith Park is a nice, quiet park where you can just unwind with a bottle of wine and absorb the beautiful views of the New Town and the castle.
Inverleith Park is situated right next to the Edinburgh Botanic Garden, and boasts a large pond and a hill that serves as the perfect viewing point for the fireworks on Hogmanay and during the festival season.
Princes Street Gardens and The Meadows tend to be a bit busy in the summer, but Inverleith Park remains fairly off the tourist radar, which makes it an ideal place for picnics or sunbathing.
8. Watch an indie film at the Cameo
The Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh is one of the oldest cinemas in Scotland. Housed in a Victorian tenement building, this cinema has remained largely unchanged since its opening in 1914. In fact, you can still see some of its original features, including the ticket kiosk and Art Nouveau decorations, like columns and mouldings.
The Cameo only has three cinema screens and mostly showcases indie films and classic movies. The cosy Cameo Cinema Bar is the perfect place to enjoy a nice snack, like homemade soups and cakes, before or after your film.
9. Take photos of Edinburgh’s Wild West
Did you know that Edinburgh has a hidden Wild West town?
Tucked away in a wee alley in the neighbourhood of Morningside, this Wild West set was built by a furniture company in the 1990s to be used in its advertising features.
Nowadays, the film set mainly serves as garages and workshops. If you find yourself in Morningside, pop into this alley for some cool photos.
10. Visit the cute animals at Love Gorgie Farm
Looking for more unusual things to do in Edinburgh? Take a trip to Love Gorgie Farm, where you can meet a range of adorable animals, including ducks, guinea pigs and sheep. There is also a herb and vegetable garden.
The farm offers an inclusive and relaxing space for the local community and runs several educational tours and workshops.
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