Are you a planning a visit to the Scottish capital, Edinburgh? Have you been trawling blogs and websites researching the must-visit sites? Well, if you’re looking for the places you won’t find in the guide books, you’ve come to the right place! We lived in this beautiful city for almost 12 years and got to know many of Edinburgh’s hidden gems. This is our list of secret, hidden, off the beaten track Edinburgh activities, experiences and places to visit.
Quirky Things to do in Edinburgh
So let’s start with some of the more unusual things to do Edinburgh… And of course, be sure to check out our post on unique and quirky bars in Edinburgh for some off the beaten-track must-visit watering hole suggestions.
If are looking for somewhere rather unique to visit and don’t mind a little bit of blood and gore, then Surgeons Hall could be right up your street. Located on South Bridge, this museum was originally brought into existence in 1699 as a medical resource centre for would-be doctors. It is now one of Europe’s largest pathology collections and with this in mind, it might not come as a surprise what lurks behind the large wooden doors. Yes, there is a good range of body parts in glass jars, but it is also a fascinating insight into the history of medicine. Oh yes and there is the skeleton of the famous Edinburgh grave robber William Burke, nice!
Edinburgh Photography Walking tour
If you’re wanting to hone your photography skills and learn a little about Edinburgh’s history in a fun way, then this is the tour for you. I took part in this photography walking tour several years ago and to this day, it remains one of my most favourite bucket list experiences! The sites visited include The National Monument of Scotland, The Nelson Monument, The Robert Burns Memorial, Queen Mary’s Bath House, The Scottish Parliament Building, many historic sites on the famed Royal Mile and of course, the iconic Edinburgh Castle.
Rock Climbing at Alien Rock Indoor Climbing Centre
If you have been enjoying the amazing food that Edinburgh has to offer a little too much and the gym is not your thing, then how about a visit to a church? The church in question shut its doors long ago to the normal congregation and has instead become Scotland’s first indoor climbing centre. Head to Alien Rock in Edinburgh’s Newhaven neighbourhood and challenge yourself to climb to the heavens or at least to the top of the very high ceiling.
Take part in a Wizardry Escape Game
Have you ever taken part in an escape game? We recently discovered the fabulous Department of Magic, located just a stone’s throw from the Royal Mile. Think potion making and cocktail drinking. Not only is it a really fun place to go for a drink but you can also take part in two fun escape games. Choose from either the Prophecies Quest or the Dark Lord Resurrection. Who’s game?
Visit The Scottish Parliament
The Scottish Parliament, located at the end of the Royal Mile, has a rather unusual, modern, quirky design. It was designed by Spanish architect, Enric Millares and took 5 years to build (and its final cost was over 10 times higher than its initial estimates!) It’s worth a visit from the outside and if it’s your bag, you can even venture inside for a free guided tour. Check the official website for details and visiting times.
Walk The Water of Leith Walkway
The 35km long Water of Leith is a small, mostly hidden river which runs through the centre of Edinburgh. The source is at Millstone Rig in the Pentland hills and it flows into the sea at Leith. There are numerous places to join the walkway that follow its banks and there are many places along the way that make you feel you are deep in the countryside.
Perhaps one of the more obvious places to join in the wind in the willows fun is Dean Village in the West End, very close to Princes Street. From this point you can either walk in the direction of the Edinburgh Modern Art galleries or to Stockbridge and even onwards to the Shore area at Leith. Perhaps stopping off to tour the Royal Botanic Gardens on the way as it’s on route (Dean Village to Canonmills stretch).
Some of the highlights of walking the Water of Leith include Stockbridge, the Shore at Leith, the Modern Art Gallery, Dean Village, Royal Botanic Gardens and Canonmills. There is a lot of wildlife along the way and a couple of small water falls to add some interest if you’re visiting with kids.
Wander around The Royal Botanic Gardens
The Royal Botanic Gardens are an amazing contrast to the city centre which is only about 20 minutes away. Upon entering the gardens you will find yourself in a natural oasis of rare flora from around the globe. The garden itself is very large, there is a relaxed café for cakes and a light lunch in the centre next to an old manor house (Inverleith House) as well as a modern, more upmarket restaurant near the West Gate. From the lawn in front of the Inverleith House is a spectacular view of the city skyline including the castle.
Take Some Fun Snaps Up Calton Hill
Although there are a few contenders… the ultimate view of the city has to be from Calton Hill. It’s a fairly steep climb to the top via a staircase and a winding tarmac path from Regent Road. Once at the very top, you will be rewarded with excellent views to the Firth of Forth, Arthur’s Seat, the Port of Leith, the Pentland hills and of course right down Princes street towards the castle. From here, you will instantly realise that Edinburgh does indeed sit in a very privileged position with so much beauty close by.
Calton Hill is also home to several unusual monuments. Firstly the national monument which looks like it was built by the Romans. It was in fact built in 1826 and is in memory of soldiers and sailors that died in the Napoleonic wars. However it was never finished as funding dried up before it was completed. Next, the Nelson monument which looks like a lighthouse and was built in 1807 to commemorate Lord Nelson’s victory at the battle of Trafalgar. To add a little more interest to this tower, a signal to shipping was added in 1853, it has the exciting title of the Time Ball. There is also the rather impressive City Observatory (built 1745) which appears very Greek in architectural style. Since 2012 the observatory has been used as a gallery/museum.
Have a Boogie on a Silent Disco Tour
The latest craze seems to be silent disco tours! So how do you fancy dancing your way down the Royal Mile to the rhythm of the beat? Get your dancing shoes on and leave your inhibitions at home – this is certainly a more unusual and fun thing to do on your week-end in Edinburgh!
Have A Coffee & Cake at the Chihuahua Café
A chihuawhat? Yes, you read that correctly, a chihuahua café! Apparently, Edinburgh is home to the world’s first chihuahua café. Our 10 year old daughter is mad about dogs (especially chihuahuas) so when I came across this canine café, I knew I had to add it to Santa’s gift list this year! It was really a fun, quirky experience and the staff were incredibly friendly. The visit lasts 50 minutes and involves some play time (if the dogs are up for it) and lots of stroking time.
Have a Laugh at The Stand Comedy Club
This excellent comedy club first opened its doors back in 1996, so it’s had a few years to perfect what it does best, which is great stand up in an intimate venue. The small club is centrally located on York Place (around the corner from St Andrews Square) in the cosy basement of an old Georgian apartment block. Some top touring acts can be found here throughout the week and on a Sunday night, experience a comedy cocktail of at least 5 acts to finish the week off with a laugh. There is also a bar and decent pub style food is available.
Go Back in Time at The Dominion Cinema
You may be wondering what’s so quirky or unique about a trip to the cinema… Well, I’m guessing you’ve probably never been to the Dominion cinema. Located in Morningside – a neighbourhood in south west Edinburgh – this 1930s art deco cinema is something of an institution in the capital. Enjoy your film whilst relaxing in a lovely comfortable sofa with a drink and nibbles. Alternatively choose the first class experience where you’ll be sat in reclining leather sofas and served drinks in glasses and your nacho or popcorn in proper bowls. Be warned though, other cinema experiences will never be the same again, lol.
Blow Away The Cobwebs at Cramond
Okay, this isn’t technically in Edinburgh but it’s definitely worth including on your off the beaten path Edinburgh itinerary. Cramond is a quaint coastal village in north-west Edinburgh that can be reached by bus (no 41 – download the Lothian bus app) or by car (20 mins). Choose between a river or sea front walk and if timed correctly, you can even cross over to Cramond island at low tide where you’ll be able to explore old war defences. This island is thought to have inspired the writer Robert Louis Stevenson to write Robinson Crusoe. There’s a lovely café by the waterfront where you can stop for cuppa.
Take Part in a Park run
If you’re a keen runner then why not take part in a Saturday morning Park Run? If you’re planning a visit to Cramond then you could head there on a Saturday and combine a visit + some exercise! It’s a 5km timed run that takes place along Cramond’s promenade every Saturday morning at 9:30am. It’s sure to blow away the cobwebs!
Alternatively there are 2 park runs that take place in the city: one in the Meadows (South side of the city) and one at Inverleith Park (next to the Botanic Gardens). You simply have to sign up online beforehand so that you can get your official time.
Alternative Art & Museums in Edinburgh
Most people head to the National Museum of Scotland or the National Gallery (both of which are well worth a visit by the way), however, if you’re looking for something a little more off the beaten track, we’ve got some suggestions for you.
Scottish National Portrait Gallery (FREE ENTRY)
Firstly, wow what a building! Beautiful red sandstone with gothic arches on the outside while inside you will find the spectacular frescoed and ornately columned atrium, rising over 3 floors. Then, of course, there are the paintings and photographs and if you happen to a fan of Scottish history, you are in for a treat. There are ancient and original portraits of Mary Queen of Scots, Robbie Burns, Flora Macdonald, Sir Walter Scott and a cast of Robert the Bruce’s skull.
If your preference is for something more modern then how about a portrait of Calvin Harris, Alan Cumming or Tilda Swinton. To complete your visit, have a bite to eat at the Portrait Café which sources ingredients from local producers.
Edinburgh Modern Art Galleries: Edinburgh Modern Art Museum & Dean Gallery [FREE ENTRY]
If you’re feeling energetic, you could actually walk all the way to Edinburgh’s Modern Art Galleries along the Water of Leith. Alternatively, you’ll need to either drive (parking fee of £2 for the day) , catch public transport (check Lothian buses for the best bus route) or the best option is to catch the gallery bus. There is a free shuttle bus (£1 donation requested) that runs a circular route around the 3 galleries (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery).
Once there, you’ll discover two beautiful and historic buildings situated either side of the road. Both have sculptured gardens which can be enjoyed on warmer days. Inside, you will find great art on display by famous artists which is mostly free to enjoy. And it’s no problem if all this culture makes you hungry and thirsty as there are two cafés on site.
The City Art Centre [FREE ENTRY]
Conveniently placed right next to Waverley train station, you couldn’t get a much more central location. The flavour at the City Art Centre is Scottish modern and historic art. The centre is spread over 6 floors although don’t worry as there is an escalator and a lift to aid your tired legs.
You can expect to see photography, paintings, sculptures and crafts within these walls. Works on display range from modern art by upcoming artists to the largest collection of classical fine art in Scotland. Feast your eyes on paintings of medieval Edinburgh for some idea of what life was like for city dwellers in the Old Town. At the end of your visit, recharge with a cup of coffee in the superb café or explore the gift shop for a special something.
Jupiter Artland – 25 minutes from Edinburgh
Jupiter Artland is located on the outskirts of Edinburgh, however, it’s well worth the detour if you have the time and transport. It’s a contemporary park showcasing art installations, a woodland art trail, grass sculptures and more. There’s also a lovely tea-shop if you need to refuel at any point. If you’re on a budget, head there on a Monday for ‘‘pay what you want Mondays’ and note that it’s only open from May to September.
Edinburgh’s Off the Beaten Path Neighbourhoods
Walk along the Royal Mile or the Grassmarket and you will find no shortage of typical tourist experiences, but why join the crowds when you can truly experience the real Edinburgh. The capital has many different neighbourhoods that are well worth exploring.
Stockbridge is essentially a village within the city and it’s full of excellent independent shops, cafés and restaurants. It’s great for lunch and there is enough going on for a night out too – check out the Antiquary bar. It’s popular among the young and trendy and to many, it’s a place they call home. On a Sunday morning, there is even a small farmers market called the Stockbridge Market with great local products.
This part of town, situated to the north of Princes Street, was designed and constructed in Georgian times, which its architecture reflects in all its glory. And of course, over the years, Edinburgh New Town hasn’t been without its fair share of famous residents – people such as Alexander Graham Bell, Sir Sean Connery, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Muriel Spark, Robert Louis Stevenson and of course J.K Rowling to name but a few. The movie ”Shallow grave” starring Ewan McGreggor was even filmed just a few steps from here and Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street was set in Edinburgh’s New Town. Don’t miss Kay’s Bar (Edinburgh’s tiniest bar!) or the Cumberland if you’re in the neighbourhood!
Hip Broughton Street
We’ve just finished writing a mammoth guide on Edinburgh’s Broughton Street and thought we should really include it in this off the beaten path Edinburgh post! It’s a wonderfully arty, bohemian street tucked away on a gentle slope near the east end of Princes Street. It’s packed with an eclectic mix of unique shops and restaurants and has a relaxed, friendly and community feel.
In Dean Village you will feel that you have gone back in time, surrounded by buildings of a forgotten age, when water had the power to fuel industry. Yet, you are just minutes from the hustle and bustle of Princes Street, Edinburgh’s busiest shopping streets. It feels good to be in this peaceful haven standing on an old stone bridge watching the water flow beneath. You can join the Water of Leith path and walk all the way to Leith or in the other direction, to the Modern Art Galleries – see below for further details.
The Meadows Park
The Meadows is a large area of green parkland in the southern part of the city centre. It’s a very popular place to run, play cricket, and practice golf or rugby on a Sunday. As this is also something of a student area, it’s not uncommon to see students enjoying a bit of park life on a sunny day, socialising with friends. It’s a safe area and even has a bit of a village square feel to it. There is an excellent and bustling playpark for younger children with a large variety of activities. Adjacent to the playpark area are professional style tennis courts. These are run by Edinburgh council and it’s even possible to play for free at certain times of the day.
A lovely Victorian residential area borders the park with a selection of trendy cafes and boutique type shops to explore, if you get bored of all that gorgeous grass.
The Shore at Leith
Not so long ago, this area would not necessarily have been on a list for must-see Edinburgh. However, following a major regeneration programme, this neighbourhood now offers a fantastic vibrant collection of top bars and restaurants, all situated next to the water. The Royal Yacht Britannia is even moored very close to here, at the Ocean Terminal shopping centre.
Cycling in Edinburgh
Cycle Path: Edinburgh New Town to Cramond
Rent a bike (check out the bike rental scheme recently launched in Edinburgh) and combine sightseeing with a bit of exercise. There is a decent network of cycle paths that cross the city and even make getting to the beach a possibility. For example from the city centre (Haymarket), it’s possible to cycle to the beautiful little fishing village of Cramond, which is now part of Edinburgh. Once there, you can join the locals and cycle along the seafront coastal promenade.
Edinburgh New Town to Portobello
If you are after a full on beach experience, then head to where the locals go and visit Portobello, also known as ‘Portie’. There is a big sandy beach with a promenade and lots of sea facing restaurants and bars. A busy place on a warm sunny day. To get here, take the cycle path from New Town to the Shore and then the route from Leith to Portobello. For more information look up the Edinburgh innertube map where you will find a tremendous amount of detail.
So hopefully you’ve found a few fun and quirky places to tick off your alternative Edinburgh bucket list! As always, let us know in the comments of any hidden gems that we might have missed ⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓