Long Reads

How to Make the Most of Your Time in Edinburgh

Simple strategies for the best trip ever.

June  9, 2016

As soon as I booked my plane ticket to Scotland for a trip with my fiancé Tyler, I started researching the best way to spend time our time there. After reading what felt like hundreds of TripAdvisor articles and Yelp reviews, I was already tired and stressed.

Around then, I realized I was doing it wrong: Planning, let alone living, a wide-ranging, chock-full, timetabled vacation works against my nature. I am an introvert, contentedly so at home. It dawned on me that it’s essential to respect that part of myself when abroad as well.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

While often described as shy, awkward, and quiet, introversion underlies personality in a more basic way:Extroverts find interacting with other people energizing, whereas introverts require time to recharge from and reflect on social interactions and usually enjoy spending more time alone. (If you’re interested in the subject, Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking offers a history of introversion as well as insight into how many introverts develop extroverted personas to meet work obligations and social expectations.)

Some people might be better described as ambiverts, with roughly equal characteristics of both categories, but I am an introvert through and through. And trips, as wonderful as they are, do not change my core self. Even on another continent with a limited number of days to experience stuff, I remain my quiet-speaking, quiet-seeking self. And I'm happiest, and get the most out of visiting a new place, when I keep that in mind.

Photo by James Ransom

Most travel guides good-naturedly advise you to do it all—ten places to eat grand breakfasts, five informative and fun tours, restaurant and hotel recommendations out the ears, nightlife, festivals, spas, etc. Instead, while planning and living this trip, I did my best to pay attention to what would actually make me and my partner happiest, even if “missing out” on some possibilities was the inevitable consequence.

So when we narrowed our plans to Edinburgh instead of trying to cram in London and the Highlands, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. As things went on, I asked myself questions like:

  • How do I find a balance between feeling at home and experiencing the newness of another place?
  • What are some strategies for the introvert abroad?
  • What are some quiet but amazing things to do around the city?

Instead of making a schedule, I researched neighborhoods and kept lists associated with each in my notebook. So that if we found ourselves in New Town, for instance, we might know ahead of time to stop into Söderberg Bakery for Scandinavian treats.

A sheep in the Pentland Hills.

The following are some notes towards traveling that work with, rather than against, introverted tendencies, with a guide to my favorite bits of Edinburgh folded in. (You can also skip the tips and head straight for my city suggestions.)

1. Stay somewhere where you can meet and talk to a local or two.

For our stay in Edinburgh, we booked a nineteenth-century tenement flat through Airbnb. It turned out to be the top floor of the building, which meant scaling flights of spiraling stairs several times a day. The bedding was a little spare, and the water pressure wasn’t great.

The view through our kitchen window.

But I would choose that flat in Morningside again any day over the hotels: Not only did we get to have a taste of living in a building that people have been inhabiting continuously for more than a century, but we were able to meet and talk with our host. It’s not like we became close friends over the course of the week, but we made a connection that significantly enriched our visit through a series of occasional and low key conversations.

For me, staying in someone’s home was a valuable way to orient myself and engage socially in a new place without having to muster a super-outgoing approach. All Airbnb hosts won’t be chatty, and Airbnb isn’t without controversy, but it seems to me that the odds of making a friend or two when staying in someone’s home is much higher than at typical lodging. Small hostels and traditional bed and breakfasts may also create low-pressure ways to meet people who are interested in your life and can give insight into a local person’s life.

2. Vary restaurant meals with picnics and, if possible, cook.

At the best of times, especially on a trip, a restaurant surprises and restores, as well as keeps everyone back from the precipice of hangry.

I could have stayed at Roseleaf, a mismatched-everything, fancy-hat-adorned café where we stopped after a long morning’s walk along the Water of Leith Walkway, for months.

A much different experience, but equally happy-making, was dinner at Tuk Tuk with a group of Tyler’s colleagues. A server with a kind grin and theatrical voice boomed an introduction of each food as he filled the table with steaming bowls and baskets.

Right around the corner from our flat, we found The Hermitage Bar, a cozy pub named after the nearby Hermitage of Braid (an eighteenth-century house that is surprisingly fancy for something called a hermitage). The bar’s wallpaper features close-ups of red grouse. They have draught ales and serve cozy classics like sausages with mash and mussels with chips.

Just across the street, we drank americanos and read a couple of afternoons away at the Leaf and Bean, where pleasant baristas perch a square of tablet, which is Scottish sugar and condensed milk alchemy, on the edge of every saucer. Visiting these places more than once gave us time to settle into them, to feel at ease and grateful, on the cusp of familiarity.

But although eating out is fun, if I have to go to out for every meal, it’s not long before I feel worn out by negotiating menus, loud dining rooms, chatting with waitstaff, and settling bills. Three meals or so into any vacation, and I fantasize about leisurely suppers at home. This time, I was lucky enough to have access to a kitchen.

Our most elaborate home-cooked meal was roasted Aberdeen beef short ribs with new potatoes, carrots, parsnips, and leeks. One of the easiest consisted of pies by Simple Simon filled with venison collops alongside gloriously traditional Traquair House ale. My favorites though, were the long breakfasts we had in the flat with various permutations of runny eggs, grilled chestnut mushrooms and tomatoes, Stornoway black pudding, baked beans, toast with butter, blackcurrant jam, digestive biscuits, and infinite cups of milky black tea.

I love grocery stores inordinately, and they are always a place I seek out when I travel or move. Spending time prowling local markets always makes me feel more embedded in a place, more able to see and appreciate differences and similarities. There was a fancy French épicerie near our flat, a cheesemonger, and more bakeries than I could possibly have tried in my time there. But when in need of provisions, I most often headed to the nearby Waitrose.

It had no piped-in music, the building was oldish, and the ambience reminded me uncannily of the Food Lion of my childhood. I felt happily anonymous there, but secretly abuzz with excitement because many of the foods were intriguingly unfamiliar. For a run-of-the-mill grocery store, a significant number of items were proudly labeled with Scottish flags to show their provenance. (We found Scottish eggs, in particular, to be approximately a thousand times better than their American supermarket equivalent.) I spent a good twenty minutes peering at biscuit and oatcake packages one day, and I flew home with a kilogram of Scottish oats in my suitcase.

More immediately relevant to this article, Waitrose was the perfect place to stop in and get everything necessary for picnics. Picnics are true holidays. There’s the anticipatory excitement of picking out treats and bundling them up, the mild thrill of finding a spot to settle, the intimacy of eating with someone else or alone in a space that becomes yours only for a meal’s ephemeral interval. Then we brush away our crumbs and leave the spot open again for the next people who pause.

Our first day in Edinburgh, we set out for Arthur’s Seat, the extinct volcano that looks just like a lion reposing above the city. It was windy and dramatic. Somewhere on the lion’s flank, we broke out our uncomplicated lunch of Cornish yarg (a cheese beguilingly cured in nettle leaves), apples, carrots, and tiger rolls while a friendly jackdaw hopped around hoping for crumbs. It was an antidote to being stuffed in jets and airports, the perfect way to consider a new city from above after walking its streets for the first time.

Gorse atop Blackford Hill, with Arthur's Seat in the distance.

3. Intersperse days exploring a city with visits to green spaces.

I like cities, but the constant interactions they require wear me out. On this trip, we tried to alternate days of urban exploring with strolls in the countryside. Edinburgh is perfect for this: A twenty-minute train ride and you’re out among villages where you can wander along the Fife Coastal Path, a greenway that switches between dramatic rocky coastline, little towns, and hedgerows. We walked the path between the villages of Burntisland and Aberdour, where we explored Aberdour Castle, which has sections dating from the twelfth century, winding staircases, ruins, and gardens. There were no crowds, so we wandered there for a long time, able to touch the stonework and walls and wonder about the many generations of people who lived there.

In the opposite direction, it’s sheep pastures among the rolling, ancient Pentland Hills that border the city to the south. There are lots of planned-out hikes around the Pentlands, but we sort of cobbled our own together through bucolic fields of ewes and their lambs. Towards midday we climbed along the cairn-dotted ridge between Allermuir Hill and Caerketton Hill, high enough that, for a while, we were encircled with gray clouds and a skylark sang at our eye level before descending below the crest of the hill.

On our town days, we strolled up the Grassmarket and down the Royal Mile, amazed at the sheer number of cashmere scarves for sale and the luxuriance of the handwoven Harris tweeds. We had devil-may-care beers with our burgers at Holyrood 9a and, another time, found our way to the Cowgate for pints at the hip BrewDog. We whiled away hours at Armchair Books (our favorite) as well as Edinburgh Books and the Oxfam bookstore on Morningside Road (close seconds). The Scotch Malt Whisky Society at 28 Queen Street had a mind-boggling archive of single cask whiskies to taste by the glass and lovely fine-dining permutations of traditional Scottish dishes.

4. Set a reasonable number of goals for each day.

Whether country or city, one of the best strategies we found for keeping feelings of being rushed or overwhelmed at bay was to settle on three goals or so per day (for two days running, one of my goals was ice cream from S. Luca). If we decided to do more or less as the day went on, great. But by starting with a limited number of intents, we avoided feeling pressured by everything we ought to do.

This left more time to climb hills, watch birds, appreciate the expansive views, linger in bookstores, rummage through vintage and charity shops, and sit in parks watching everyone hurrying along or settling in themselves. On the flipside, having a couple of things we aimed to do every day kept us from burrowing too tenaciously into our books and cozy flat.

5. Read books about the place you are.

Before we left home, Tyler began Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian. It’s set in Edinburgh, but three centuries ago, and filled with admittedly romantic scenery and period characters. The novel’s story became a map that helped us navigate the old city practically and to access some of the city’s history in ways that didn’t require being part of a tour group.

Without that book, we would not have known that the windblown Salisbury Crags were, for generations, only haunted by outlaws, hermits, and poets. Now, visitors stroll and children feed swans at St. Margaret’s loch below the ruins of St. Anthony’s Chapel, as if they always have. In Scott’s time and our own, coconut-scented gorse swathes the hillsides.

Edinburgh loves Walter Scott. The Heart of Midlothian is one of the Waverley novels, a giant sequence of books that the city honors with the giant Waverley train station. It’s a fairly massive station with twenty platforms, festooned with Scott quotations. One of the best is, “A glass of good wine is a gracious creature.”

And I myself happened upon a less historical confluence of reading and travel when I picked up Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. She describes a sky the color of a wood pigeon’s breast, and I knew precisely the soft expanse and shade of dusty pink-purple-gray she means—a thing that would have escaped me a few days earlier in Seattle.

6. Spend a few minutes each day reflecting on and preserving experiences.

Along with reading to better understand a place, writing offers a chance to absorb and transmute experiences in a place. I am not a natural diarist, but writing as a ritual in Edinburgh became one of the most enjoyable parts of the day.

Either after breakfast or before bed, accompanied with yet another cup of tea, I cozied up at the kitchen table and relived what had happened over the last day. For twenty or thirty minutes, my concentration was captured by articulating rather than doing or planning. In those pages, the blur of being in a new city and the hurry to experience it becomes reflection and record of detail.

Over the course of the trip, my journal became something to go back to. Like Edinburgh.

And to refer back to the places I listed above...

Restaurants, bars, coffee shops:

Groceries and provisions:


Green spaces and old places:

  • Arthur’s Seat
  • Fife Coastal Path
  • Aberdour Castle
  • Pentland Hills
  • St. Anthony’s Chapel and St. Margaret’s Loch
  • Edinburgh Castle

Got your own suggestions for keeping vacations stress-free? Or for navigating Edinburgh? Share them with us in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Lynn Leeder
    Lynn Leeder
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  • Kate Preston
    Kate Preston
  • Matt
Kate K

Written by: Kate K

I live with two parrots and one human. We all eat almonds.


Lynn L. June 16, 2016
Interesting article. Glad you liked Edinburgh, it's a fantastic city. Ground coffee available almost everywhere here.
karla T. June 13, 2016
If that were the case it would indeed be an embarrassment difficult to live down.
karla T. June 9, 2016
My biggest recommendation for coffee drinkers is to bring your own (ground) coffee and press pot so that you can have the start to your day you are accustomed to. Otherwise, you might find only tea (Turkey), boiled grounds and water (Czech Republic), coffee bags (Great Britain), or other less satisfactory options.
Kate P. June 11, 2016
Coffee bags? I'm from the UK and have no idea what they are! I've never had a problem finding ground coffee at home, (there are specialist shops everywhere....) although hotels do tend to give you instant :(
Matt June 13, 2016
Perhaps Karla is embarrassing herself by thinking that British tea brands such as Tetley, Yorkshire, or PG Tips are ground coffee bags, due to the tagless habit of British tea bags? Even more embarrassing would be going to the continent that revolutionised coffee consumption for the rest of the world and bringing a pre-ground coffee (like Folger or Maxwell's house?).