Edinburgh is city that sees tour buses cram its historic cobblestone streets all year, yet it’s still possible to get out of the tourist zone and experience the city the way that locals do.
We did and we loved it.
Here’s what I recommend you do:
1. Stay in Stockbridge
You don’t have to stay in Stockbridge as such, but my husband and I did (in an elegant Georgian apartment) and we loved it. Wherever you stay and whatever you do, rent an apartment instead of checking into a hotel for a much more local experience, and choose a neighbourhood like Stockbridge, which has loads of great cafés, pubs, restaurants, and shops.
2. Start your day with oats
The locals love their porridge. In fact, many would argue it’s Scotland’s quintessential breakfast. The best local brand to buy is Stoats, which you can get from good supermarkets or Edinburgh’s Farmer’s Market (see 3.), where you can also try it from the Stoat’s truck. Be prepared to queue as it’s very popular – locals love it with cream!
3. Shop Edinburgh’s Farmer’s Market
Held beneath Edinburgh Castle every Saturday morning, this superb farmer’s market (edinburghfarmersmarket.co.uk is Scotland’s largest. Take a couple of empty shopping bags and fill them with fresh, local organic produce, bread, cheeses, and meats (venison is a specialty!). Don’t forget to try some Stoat’s porridge if you get there early or if you arrive late, a scrumptious pork roll.
4. Get tips from The List
For tips on where to shop, eat and drink, things to do, gigs to see, and events to go to, buy a copy of The List (list.co.uk), Edinburgh’s version of listings magazine Time Out magazine. The publishers also release an excellent annual eating and drinking guide to Edinburgh, put together by food critic Donald Reid.
5. Learn local secrets
While you’re in the bookshop, ask for a copy of the Local’s Guide to Edinburgh (localsguidetoedinburgh.com), published by local resident Owen O’Leary (@LocalsGuidetoEd) to find out where the city’s locals suggest you go and what they reckon you should do – this little book is full of hidden gems and secrets spots you won’t find in other guidebooks.
6. Listen to (or learn to tell) stories
You only have to look around the city at the monuments to Scotland’s literary greats to realise Edinburgh has a long history of storytelling, poetry and literature. Pick up a programme at the Scottish Storytelling Centre (scottishstorytellingcentre.co.uk) and pop along to a lecture, class or event to learn more. If you’re in Edinburgh in January, make sure you go to a Burns Night Supper for a real local experience.
7. Wander the Water of Leith
Everyone will tell you to go to the Royal Mile, which is historically important – and it is grand. But it’s also very touristy. A much more local walk to do, and one that became my favourite, is to stroll along the Water of Leith, a tranquil waterside trail where Edinburgh’s locals love to walk their dogs, stroll hand in hand, and go for an early morning job. The stretch between Stockbridge and Dean Village is prettiest.
8. Try local specialty foods
Edinburgh’s suburbs boast loads of specialties shops where you buy some delectable produce to take home and cook, and the friendly proprietors are happy to provide advice as to how you should prepare it. We bought seafood from fishmonger George Armstrong, some haggis from butcher George Bower, and some local cheeses from I.J.Mellis, where the staff let us try before we bought.
9. Sip Scotch Whisky
Learning about (and learning to love!) the local drop is essential to your Edinburgh experience, so begin by doing a tour at the Scotch Whisky Experience (scotchwhiskyexperience.co.uk), which, while aimed at tourists, will teach you everything you need to know and incorporates a tasting. Then, either make friends with a local, who can get you into the members-only Scotch Malt Whisky Society (smws.co.uk) or book a table there for dinner to get access. The knowledgeable staff will help you find the Whisky for you.
10. Shop the Thrift Stores
You’ll notice more thrift stores or charity shops in Edinburgh than any other European city – it apparently boasts the highest number, and the greatest concentration is in Stockbridge. There are dozens of shops selling clothes, books and records, so pick up some vintage threads, rare books, or collectible records if you want a unique souvenir.