Discovering Edinburgh: 8 quirky attractions and hidden gems

Ross Fountain in Princes Gardens, Edinburgh
Ross Fountain in Princes Gardens, Edinburgh

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Edinburgh? Mysterious? Rainy? Quirky? If you said all of the above, you wouldn’t be wrong. The Scottish capital can definitely be moody (as the weather can typically go from summer sunshine to November rain few times a day), but it is also full of surprises and hidden gems.

With less than half a million inhabitants, Edinburgh is Scotland’s second biggest city, right after Glasgow. Historically, it is part of the county of Midlothian (or Edinburghshire) and it’s been recognised as the capital of Scotland since the 15th century. Edinburgh is the seat of the Scottish Government, and the city’s Palace of Holyroodhouse is the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland. So, don’t be surprised if you meet the Queen casually strolling down the Royal Mile ;).

Unlike many big European capitals, Edinburgh is not at all sprawled out, and its compact, walkable old town is very easy to explore on foot. But at the same time, you can easily get lost in its mysterious closes and alleys. To help you navigate through the Old Town and discover its best attractions, I’ve selected the quirkiest attractions you won’t want to miss while in Edinburgh. Ready? Here goes!

side tInside the Edinburgh castle
Walking around the Edinburgh castle complex

1. Edinburgh Castle

No matter where you go in Edinburgh, you really cannot miss the majestic castle perched on top of the Castle Rock. The original fortress, built on one of the (extinct) volcanoes in the medieval city of Edinburgh, dates back to the 12th century. The castle continued to be a royal residence until 1633, and its history is simply fascinating – you wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity to learn all about the Scottish history and their famous kings and queens, now, would you? You don’t need to be an expert or history enthusiast to get caught up in the tragic story of Mary Queen of Scots. So, without further hesitation, head up Castlehill to kick start your journey of discoveries and hidden gems of Edinburgh – you’re up for a treat!

Currently, Edinburgh castle is Scotland’s most-visited paid tourist attraction, and while it’s not the cheapest, it is absolutely worth it. On my first day in Edinburgh, I easily spent half a day just wandering through the enormous castle complex, and discovering all it has to offer! The good thing is, instead of the traditional paid guided tour, there are multiple volunteers offering free tours at different parts of the castle, so you can join them at any time and place – they leave every 30 minutes from the main square. However, if you’re like me and prefer exploring at your own pace, you can choose to get a feel of the whole place first, take in the views of Edinburgh from the battlements, visit the Great Hall or admire the Scottish crown jewels inside, and only join the tour guides when it tickles your fancy.

Edinburgh Castle, Castlehill, Scotland
Edinburgh Castle, Castlehill, Scotland

Location: Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2NG

Opening times: Mon – Sun 9.30am – 5pm

Costs: Adults £19.50 / Children 5-15 years £11.50

Tip: Get your tickets in advance, if you want to be guaranteed entry on the day of your choice. The online tickets will cost you £17.50 for an adult. If you want to go for the 9.30am slot, you’ll need to book your ticket online at least a day in advance.

For tickets and more detailed info, go to www.edinburghcastle.scot

‘The Potter trail’ free walking tour

Hands down my favourite activity in Edinburgh was the free (!) Potter Trail tour. You really don’t have to be a Potterhead to enjoy the quirky facts presented by one of the dedicated volunteer guides. During a highly enjoyable 1,5 hour walk through the old town of Edinburgh, the guide will take you to mysterious places, such as the Greyfriars Churchyard (where you’ll see the original Tom Riddle’s tombstone) or the inspiration behind the Diagon Valley, better known as the Victoria Terrace (the most colourful street in Edinburgh!).

Upon meeting up with the guide (check the exact location below), he or she will gather the group and hand out the wands. You will be advised to hold on to your wands, since they will help you magically change the traffic lights as you make your way through all the magical places around Edinburgh! Believe me, it is as much fun as it sounds, and since the tours are run for free and do not have to be booked in advanced, it makes for a perfect, budget-friendly activity.

Greyfriars Bobby statue Edinburgh, Scotland
Greyfriars Bobby statue, Candlemaker Row, Edinburgh

Meeting point: the statue of Greyfriar’s Bobby (Candlemaker Row / George IV Bridge junction)

Starting time: Sept – March 2pm daily / April – Aug 12pm and 4pm daily

Duration: app. 1,5 hours

Costs: the tours are run for free, but you’re expected to contribute a donation when the guide passes around the sorting hat (app. 10-15 euros)

Bonus tip: While not included in the tour itself, I’d highly recommended visiting the Elephant House and enjoy a cup of coffee here, with a view of the Edinburgh Castle. Besided being a lovely place for a hot cup after a day of walking, The Elephant House is one of the numerous places that claim to be the place where the idea of Harry Potter was born – this is not a verified fact, but it is true that J.K. Rowling frequented this delightful coffee shop regularly and wrote a major part of the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, while sipping coffee in here.

Address: 21 George IV Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 1EN

Opening times: Mon – Thu 8am – 10 pm

Friday 8am – 11 pm / Saturday 9am – 11pm / Sunday 9am – 10pm

oy Wizard Harry Potter shop Edinburgh
Boy Wizard aka Harry Potter shop, Victoria Terrace, Edinburgh

3. Camera Obscura And World of Illusions

One of Edinburgh’s quirkiest attractions is the Camera Obscura museum, which is essentially an optical illusion museum with a few surprising twists. If you have a few hours to kill (or, as in my case, it’s raining cats and dogs outside), this is the place to be!

Being the oldest tourist attraction in town, it is fair to say that you shouldn’t expect a high-standard technological exhibition. You’re not in Singapore, after all, but rather in an old, quirky building in medieval Edinburgh. What you can expect are a lot of steep stairs and labyrinth-like rooms, filled with fun, albeit a bit old-fashioned illusions and photo ops.

The best way to explore the museum is to start on the top floor, where you can join a demonstration of the camera obscura (meaning ‘dark room’) technology. You’ll be amazed to see the Edinburgh castle projected on a simple white table inside the museum, through nothing else but a small round hole in the roof. Even though you’re sitting inside, in complete darkness, you will be able to watch people walking in and out of the castle – it’s feels like a very first CCTV!

After the demonstration, take your time to make your way through several floors of interactive exhibitions, optical illusions, walk through the mirror maze with cool light effects, or – if your stomach is strong enough – try the vertigo light tunnel. Can you tell the last one on the list was not my favourite? But, overall, the building is packed with fun activities and you can easily spend a rainy afternoon goofing around here.

Rooftop view of Edinburgh Old Town from Camera Obscura
Rooftop view of Edinburgh Old Town from Camera Obscura

Honestly, I think the rooftop view is the best part of the Camera Obscura museum; the viewing platform on the 6th floor offers beautiful views of the city, and on a clear day, you will be able to see Calton Hill with its famous monuments, as well as Arthur’s Seat in the distance.

Location: Castlehill, Royal Mile, Edinburgh EH1 2ND

Costs: Adults £16,50 / Children 5-15 years £12,50

Opening times: Mon – Sun, 9am – 9pm

4. Scott Monument

Another not-so-hidden gem in Edinburgh is the imposant Scott Monument. This 61 meters high Neo-Gothic monument, dedicated to Sir Walter Scott, is impossible to miss while in Edinburgh. But what many visitors don’t realise is that you can actually climb up the structure – improbable as it seems, there are hidden flights of stairs inside one of the supporting columns, and if you’re not discouraged by a lot of steps (287 to be precise) and very narrow spaces, you will be rewarded with awesome views of the old town.

The guided tour starts on the first floor, where you’ll learn more about the structure, the history of the monument, and the beloved Scottish writer himself. From the Museum Room dedicated to  Walter Scott, the steps get steeper and narrower, but the views from the 2nd and 3rd floor are absolutely worth the climb (and the jelly feet!).

The best part of climbing the monument is that it gives you the opportunity to admire its ornate decorations from close up. What you can’t really see from the ground is that the whole monument is decorated with over 160 statues, including 60 heads of famous Scottish writers, and – last but not least – two dog and one pig faces. Yes, this is Edinburgh at its best (and quirkiest).

Location: Princes St Gardens, Edinburgh EH2 2EJ

Costs: Adults £8 / Students & children £6

Opening times: Mon – Sun, 10am – 3.30pm

5. The Writers’ Museum

This cute little house is a real hidden gem in Edinburgh, and by hidden I mean I had walked past it at least three times before actually being able to locate it. This beautiful mansion, commonly called Lady Stair’s House, is hidden in a small courtyard of Lady Stair’s Close, just off the Royal Mile. Today, it houses the Writers’ Museum, with a large number of artifacts related to the lives and literary works of the three biggest Scottish writers: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

The house itself was built in 1622 for Sir William Gray of Pittendrum, who was a wealthy merchant at the time. Later on, it was named after the Gray’s granddaughter, Lady Stair (Elizabeth) who purchased the building in 1719. The museum is full of quirky objects, all owned by or related to the great Scottish writers; from portraits, rare books and personal objects, they all tell a fascinating story (if you’re a a bit of a book nerd, or majored in English literature, that is). But even if you’re not a big Scottish literature fan, I’d recommend just stopping by, because it is seriously one of the most beautiful houses in Edinburgh, and, well, it’s free to visit. Need I say more?

Location: Lawnmarket, Lady Stair’s Close, Edinburgh EH1 2PA

Costs: Free

Opening times: Mon – Sun 10am – 5pm

6. School of Divinity

As you might know, Edinburgh is home to the University of Edinburgh, which was founded in 1582. The university owns multiple buildings located around the town, and you’ll definitely notice the large student population while strolling through The Meadows or chilling in the Princes Gardens. But there is one building in particular, the School of Divinity (or the New College), which you should not skip on your trip.

Admittedly, there are many ‘Harry Potter-like’ places in Edinburgh – but I can guarantee you the School of Divinity will give you serious Hogwarts vibes. The courtyard, with its high towers and impressive entrance gates, is very well hidden, but open to public on regular working days. You cannot enter the actual buidlings, but it is worth just stopping by. It is one of those places where time seems to stand still, and you will find yourself speaking in a quiet voice, or just silently looking up those dignified towers.

Location: Mound Pl, Edinburgh EH1 2LX

Open: Mon – Fri 9am – 5pm

School of Divinity, New College, University of Edinburgh
School of Divinity, New College, University of Edinburgh

7. The Scottish National Gallery

You don’t have to be a huge art fan to appreciate the two beautiful buildings that together constitute the Scottish National Gallery: the National Gallery Building and the Royal Scottish Academy Building. Both of these buildings, designed by William Henry Playfair and opened to public in 1859, proudly stand in the very centre of Edinburgh, making it a convenient stop and a welcome refuge on a rainy day (which is pretty much every day in Edinburgh; mark my words!).

Both buildings are incredibly impressive, built in a neoclassical style and beautifully decorated. Besides the architecture itself being amazing, their art collections are equally impressive: you will find masterpieces by Botticelli, Raphael, Titian and Monet, but also a large number of Dutch masters, such as Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer and Vincent Van Gogh. Against all expectations, the Scottish National Gallery turned out to be one of me favourite places in Edinburgh, as you can easily wander around for hours – for free. Read that again, and thank me later.

Location: The Mound, Edinburgh EH2 2EL

Costs: Free entry

Opening times: open daily, 10am – 5pm, Thursday until 7 pm

8. Calton Hill

Calton Hill view of Edinburgh, Dugald Stewart Monument
Calton Hill view of Edinburgh, Dugald Stewart Monument

I saved the best – and quirkiest – part of Edinburgh for last, but definitely not least. On the contrary, Calton Hill, with its numerous monuments scattered around the large park, is probably on every visitor’s list. And it should be, as it represents everything that is typically Scottish: their national pride, the beautiful nature, and, well, their quirkiness.

There is no better word to describe the improbable combination of a public park, a famous viewpoint and a sort of open-air museum that Calton Hill is meant to be. To begin with, it is absolutely worth the rather steep uphill walk. Calton Hill is no joke, and it tested my fitness to such an extent that I doubted whether I really have to make it to top. But once you climb this extinct volcano, reaching 103 meters above sea level, you will be rewarded with breathtaking views. While both old and new parts of Edinburgh will be all spread out in fron of you on one side of the hill, don’t miss out on the views from the other side, with Arthur’s Seat rising from the mist riht above the Holyrood Palace, and the Firth of Forth in the distance.

When you get your breath back, make sure to check out the various monuments and take your time to walk around and admire the views. One of the unmissable sights is the Dugald Stewart Monument, which provides a beautiful (read: Instagrammable) spot during sunset, with Edinburgh Castle as its impressive backdrop. Another monument worth visiting is the Nelson Monument, which houses a small exhibition about the life and achievements of Admiral Horatio Nelson, mostly celebrating his victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. For a small entrance fee, you can actually climb the tower, which provides an even more impressive view of Edinburgh’s Old Town. And lastly, the quirkiest of them all: the National Monument of Scotland, better known as ‘the Edinburgh’s Folly’. Modelled upon the Parthenon in Athens, the monument was sadly left unfinished when the money ran out in 1829.

Once you’ve visited both Calton Hill and Edinburgh Castle, you’ll understand why the Old Town of Edinburgh has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. I can’t think of another place in the world with such a large density of historical monuments, beautiful medieval architecture and unspoilt atmosphere. The Old Town just breaths history, wit hits mysterious closes, countless ghost stories and beautiful monuments at literally each step.

Bonus tip: Arthur’s Seat

Arthur's Seat view from Calton Hill, hiking near Edinburgh
Arthur’s Seat rising from the mist near Edinburgh, Scotland

So, have I persuaded you to visit Edinburgh yet? I know I’ll be definitely coming back when I get the chance – for sure,there are many hidden gems I haven’t discovered yet. Next time, if weather and time allow, I’m hoping to visit the Holyrood Palace, and hike up Arthur’s Seat. If you find yourself in Edinburgh on a reasonably sunny day, don’t miss out on the opportunity to climb the highest vantage point near Edinburgh, which offers stunning views of the whole of Edinburgh and the beautiful countryside that surrounds it.

You can start the hike from the Holyrood Park (making a stop at the Holyrood Palace first), and then make your way up, with breathtaking views of Salisbury Crags on the west side. The hill rises above the city to a height of 251 metres and provides for a very popular walk, especially during the summer months, for locals and tourist alike. For me, it is one of the many reasons I hope to return to Edinburgh soon!

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