Last Updated on 29th June 2020 by Sophie Nadeau
Edinburgh is one of those places you could return to time and time again, and still never manage to scratch the surface of. Luckily, this guide and itinerary will help you understand the city on a more local level by offering you an Edinburgh Walking Tour that’s free, self-guided, and a trail you’ll actually want to follow!
Highlights of Edinburgh Walking Tour: Tips & Tricks
The Scottish Capital, like many European cities, is a place best enjoyed on foot and so you’ll want to allocate yourself a nice sunny day (if possible) to truly make the most of this walking tour. Make sure to wear sturdy walking shoes and bring an umbrella in case of showers (there’s a reason Edinburgh is such a green city!)
Much of Edinburgh is constructed on the remnants of ancient volcanic activity, meaning that there are lots of hilly roads and steep lanes in much of the city. During this walk, the best place to grab a bite to eat are along the Royal Mile or in the Grassmarket, where you’ll find plenty of traditional Scottish Pubs. On a warm day, it’s also possible to enjoy a picnic in the calm area of Dean Village or atop the high and windy peak of Arthur’s Seat.
Walking time: 1 hour 42 minutes
Distance covered: 4.5 miles (7.3 kilometres)
Probably the most picturesque area of Edinburgh, Dean Village is an area of the city that shouldn’t be missed on any trip to the Scottish Capital! For this self-guided walking tour of Edinburgh, you’ll start your stroll in this stunning location.
First constructed for workers of the nearby mills, the Edinburgh district is now home to some of the prettiest and most exclusive real-estate in Edinburgh. Just remember to bring your camera, you’ll likely want to snap a photo or two! Nearby, the river provides a quiet spot of calm in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Scotland’s capital city.
Scottish National Gallery
After visiting Dean Village, you’ll embark on your first steep hill walk of the day (which will, unfortunately, be the first on many). Like I said, wear sturdy walking shoes! Home to some of the best paintings to be found anywhere in Scotland, including iconic works by well-known Scottish artists, the Scottish National Gallery is open on a daily basis and is free to visit.
All of the priceless works date from the middle ages, right up until the present day and the museum is a must-see for any art lover. Those who fully want to explore the many paintings on offer may well want to dedicate at least an hour or two to understanding and admiring all of the works of art. All in all, a visit to the Scottish National Gallery is easily one of the best things to do in Edinburgh.
The Writers’ Museum
From the National Gallery, it’s just a short walk until you stumble upon the Writers’ Museum. Tucked away in a little alcove and just metres away from the Royal Mile, this may well be the quaintest exhibition space the city has to offer. Open from Wednesday through to Sunday, the Museum is just one of the contributing factors that led to Edinburgh being named the first ever UNESCO City of Literature back in the early 2000s.
The culture space is free to visit and most of the works are dedicated to three of Scotland’s leading writers; Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Within the museum, there are countless exhibitions comprising of photographs, notebooks, and more. Right next to the museum, you’ll find a lively outdoor bar by the name of ‘Wash Bar’.
Although I would have liked this walk to have started from the place where Edinburgh itself may well have begun, Edinburgh Castle, it’s best to enjoy the castle in the middle of the day when the sun is shining down and tourists still number less than those in the afternoon. The aptly named mount of Castle Rock is home to Edinburgh Castle, where evidence suggests that people have been constructing fortifications since the Bronze Age, and perhaps earlier.
Although you have to pay to enter the castle, it’s easily one of the best attractions the city has to offer. Fun for all ages, Edinburgh Castle is open on a daily basis from 9:30 AM and is easily one of the best castles in and around Edinburgh.
To make the most of a castle visit (and get your money’s worth!), you’ll want to allocate yourself at least a couple of hours. Just outside the castle, an ice cream van sells refreshments throughout high season- perfect for picking up a quick snack along the route of this Edinburgh Walking Tour.
Wander down the steps or road from the Castle (the steep steps being the quickest option), and you’ll be rewarded with some of the best views of Edinburgh, as well as the perfect shot for Instagram. The Grassmarket is an ancient market space and place for events in the old part of the city. Today, the area is the perfect place to sample one of the many local beers on offer in one of the many traditional Scottish pubs which surround this centrally located square!
From the Grassmarket, it’s just a short walk eastwards before you stumble upon Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. Situated on the Southern edge of the Old Town, the ancient cemetery was established in the mid 16th-century. When JK Rowling was writing the Harry Potter series in the nearby Elephant House, she would have likely looked out the window and seen Greyfriar’s Churchyard stretching out below.
Further on, and you can see the historic George Heriot’s School. Turreted and founded in 1628, it even has four Schools, just like Hogwarts! Back at the graveyard, wander among the many gravestones and you’ll spot plenty of names on the headstones that are easily recognisable from the wizarding series; ‘Riddell’ and ‘McGonagall’ to name just a couple…
Drink a coffee in the Elephant House!
For fans of the wizarding series that is Harry Potter, I’m sure that the Elephant House will need no introduction. Famously the place where JK Rowling wrote many of the earlier books, today the Elephant House is understandably always busy!
Best seen earlier in the day so as to avoid the majority of the crowds, even if you don’t want a drink, you’ll need to pay a £1 entry fee to check out the toilets (a weird thing to say, but the graffiti covering the cubicles is truly unique!) and coffee shop interior. For more wizard-inspiration, check out our Harry Potter Tour of Edinburgh!
Walk the Royal Mile
Following the small detour to admire some Harry Potter locations and historical sites, it’s a quick wander back up the hill, and onto the Royal Mile! Spanning the stretch of street between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s Official Residence in Edinburgh, most of the action which can be found in Edinburgh is centred around this street.
Along the Royal Mile, you’ll find all manner of attractions; the city’s main cathedral, St Gile’s Cathedral, several covered marketplaces, and oodles of historic eateries can be found here. Other points of interest include the entrance to Mary King’s Close (Edinburgh’s secret underground city- book a guided visit here), as well as the Museum of Childhood.
Palace of Holyrood
The official residence of Elizabeth II in Scotland can be found at the end of the Royal Mile, in the form of the Palace of Holyrood. This is one of the final stops on this Edinburgh walking tour and the Royal Residence’s interior can be visited for a fee.
Open on a daily basis, you’ll want to give yourself at least an hour or two to admire the palace’s ancient abbey ruins, wander the Palace Gardens, and see various lavishly decorated Scottish interiors. Nearby, the quirky structure of Queen Mary’s Bath House can be found, an unusual example of a 16th-century summerhouse or pavilion.
Although its tiny interior is closed to the public, the unusual exterior may well be the oldest surviving tennis pavilion in the world. Just a three minute walk away from the Palace of Holyrood, it’s also possible to admire the exterior of the ultra-modern Scottish parliament buildings.
For the best views of Edinburgh (and a great place to enjoy a picnic), this walking tour of the city ends at Arthur’s Seat. There, you’ll find epic sights such as Holyrood Palace, the ruins of Holyrood Abbey, and onto the waters and rolling hills beyond.
Contrary to popular belief, Arthur’s Seat is not named after the King of Celtic Legend, but instead is likely a mispronunciation of its middle ages name ‘Àrd-na-Said’ (Heigh of Arrows in English). However, Arthur’s Seat won its name, you’ll want to dedicate around an hour to climb up and down its towering peak.
This time allocation will need to be more if you’re looking to picnic at the top (or simply wish to give yourself a quick breather). On the way down, it’s possible to wander the remains of a 14th-century chapel dedicated to St Anthony. For more information check out our guide on hiking an extinct volcano in Edinburgh!