Scotland’s capital city has romantic appeal, defined by its gothic architecture and a skyline littered with spires that have inspired reams of poetry, but it also has an ‘overtourism’ problem. A report by the World Travel & Tourism Council in 2019 listed Edinburgh as a hotspot for tourists, “that can no longer cope with its own popularity” and it’s set to be the first city in the UK to implement a tourist tax.
By Jenni Flett, with additional photographs by Aga Lapucha
Introduction: Edinburgh, Tourism, and Sustainability
Edinburgh tourism: what do the stats say?
Reports by Visit Scotland tell us that in 2018 Edinburgh had two and a half million international visitors who spent £1.1 billion in the city, averaging £102 a day. Visitors gave several reasons for coming to Edinburgh, 67% on holiday, 10% for business and the rest visited family or friends. Considering the city has a population of under 500,000, residents are worried about this explosion of tourism in the city centre, rising rent and impact on their daily lives.
How can tourists and locals tackle ‘overtourism’ in Edinburgh?
There can be a conversation on managing this growth and what locals, residents and tourists can do to support the local economy, which is beneficial to everyone. An economic boost to local businesses makes a positive impact, but it also needs to go deeper than that. Being mindful in our choices of where we go, what we buy and where we eat also creates a community, and this social aspect is just as integral to creating a sustainable environment.
The Sustainable Guide To Edinburgh
Collectively there are ways to protect the fabric of the city. The reason so many people want to live here is the same reason there are so many tourists. With that in mind, these are the things we can do to promote a more sustainable Edinburgh and a local’s recommendations on places to visit, eat and explore.
Lesser-Known Tourist Attractions, Galleries, and Museums
The top five visitor attractions in 2018 were the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh Castle, Scottish National Gallery, St Gile’s Cathedral, and the Royal Botanic Garden. According to the visitor exit survey, it found that the city’s history and culture were the motivation behind 65% of visits to the city. These places are worthy of visiting, but other attractions will diversify the itinerary. Money spent on entry tickets goes towards the upkeep of heritage sites, visitors learn more about local culture and history and it gives expats to the city rich context to draw from.
The first suggestion is to leave Edinburgh and go to Jupiter Artland, a contemporary sculpture park and art gallery who run workshops, classes, and community events. It’s accessible by bus and car and is situated on the picturesque Bonnington House estate. Back in the city centre is the National Portrait Gallery which is free to enter and has exquisite decorative murals and embellishments inside, it also runs photography and art exhibitions. The City Art Centre is located next to Waverley Station, it has a beautiful shop and champions historic and contemporary Scottish artists. Don’t miss the delectable Mimi’s Bakehouse café here for a yummy slice of cake!
Inside Edinburgh University is the Talbot Rice Gallery, a leading contemporary gallery who run educational outreach programmes for schools and community groups. Centre for contemporary art Dovecot Studios also run apprenticeship programmes and are renowned for their tapestries studio and focus on craft and design. For a gallery with a view, climb Calton Hill and visit Collective which presents contemporary art inside a city observatory and supports new and emerging talent.
One wonderful thing about the city’s museums is the number of free museums, including the National Museum of Scotland. Discover the history of the city in a 16th- century house on the Canongate in the Museum of Edinburgh. See Edinburgh through its diverse communities in The People’s Story, a unique insight into the lives of the city’s working-class from the 18th century to the late 20th century. The Writer’s Museum in Lady Stair’s Close celebrates the lives and work of Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson who are Scottish literature’s most famous sons.
One thing to look out for in Edinburgh are open days which allow people to see inside various buildings of historic value that wouldn’t normally be open to the public. This normally happens for a weekend in September and December during the 24 Doors of Advent and can include venues such as The Playfair, Anatomical Museum, Custom House, and King’s Theatre.
Other museums are limited in when you can visit, but tours can be organised, such as Trinity House in Leith which gives you the maritime history of the Leith neighbourhood when it was an active port. For a more gruesome experience, Surgeon’s Hall is fascinating with its body parts in jars which is all in the name of science as it documents one of the oldest surgical corporations in the world.
Edinburgh was once known for the three Bs: biscuits, books, and beer. These industries are still present in the city, with a revival in recent years. Brewery tours and tastings are available in Stewart Brewing, an award-winning, independent brewery. Meanwhile, in Leith, you can visit the taproom of Campervan Brewery on Fridays and Saturdays. Barney’s Beer is a microbrewery in Summerhall, a multi-arts venue who run tours through Scotbeer Tours and you’ll also find Pickering’s Gin distillery here too.
Family activities in the city can be quite expensive, but there are lovely free things to do that don’t involve museums. Although not a hidden gem, the Botanic Garden is a wonderful place for learning and taking in the beauty of nature. Less frequented are the grounds of Lauriston Castle near Cramond with its Japanese Friendship Garden and the ruins of Craigmillar Castle in Edinburgh’s Southside. Newhaven Harbour near Leith is an area with an interesting maritime history, a beautiful old lighthouse, and views across the River Forth.
For those who love a mystery, Gilmerton Cove is an incredible experience. The cove is a series of hand-carved passageways and chambers and nobody knows how, when, or why it was built! Tours must be pre-booked, and it does cost to enter.
The tourism board, Visit Scotland, conducted visitor exit surveys in 2016 and found that satisfaction with the availability of local produce when eating out was 7.1 out of 10 and 46% of people said shopping was an activity they undertook in Edinburgh. In the city centre, tacky souvenir shops selling your ‘family tartan’ lure you in with brash bagpipe music, while chain restaurants and bars conveniently place themselves next to tourist attractions.
To counteract this, choose to go local and not to a big chain. This doesn’t have to mean sipping a tiny espresso in a hipster coffee shop, it means supporting generational family businesses, independent businesses creating an income for people living in the city. Local designers, artists, small business owners, social businesses, and suppliers all benefit from people eating, shopping, and drinking locally.
Gift Shops and Scottish Designers
Mass-produced plastic tat is not what you want to gift someone or yourself! Avoid the touristy souvenir shops and head to places like The Cat’s Miaou on Leith Walk, a small but charming shop filled with quirky gift choices from Scottish designers. Flux on The Shore also offers unique gifts with a lovely children’s section. In the city centre, Etch’d on Rose Street is a shop where they personalise products like phone covers which is a wonderfully unique concept, plus they sell products from local designers. Located in Ocean Terminal shopping centre is the Scottish Design Exchange, a social enterprise supporting local creative talent. Finally, on the Royal Mile, Cranachan and Crowdie are a small, independent shop who specialises in food, drink and gifts made in Scotland.
Nestled in the leafy neighbourhood of Bruntsfield, close to the Meadows, is The Edinburgh Bookshop. Founded in 2007, they have won awards for being Scotland’s best independent bookshop and they have regular events throughout the year. They run a story-time for the under 5’s every week on Thursday and Fridays and book groups for adults and children. Armchair Books is near the popular Grassmarket area and its charm lies in being an old shop, with shelves that go from the floor to the ceiling filled with second hand and antique books. On St Stephen’s Street find The Golden Hare; in 2019 they won best independent bookshop in the UK! They run events and bookish nights out for everyone to enjoy.
Vintage, Second-Hand and Fashion Boutiques
There is an abundance of independent vintage clothes shops in Edinburgh. In the Stockbridge neighbourhood, you can meander around the second-hand shops run by various charities and find lovely bargains. Those Were The Days is a vintage shop in this area, best known for its wedding section and exquisite dresses. Notable local charity shops to check out in various locations are St Columbus Hospice and Bethany charity shops (homeless charity) – they both have shops in Leith. On the Grassmarket is Armstrong’s Vintage who was one of the original vintage stores selling clothes, shoes, and accessories. A short walk from here is Godiva, a colourful fashion boutique and on St Stephen Street, men’s fashion store Kestin Hare focuses on UK production and materials.
You never know what you might find in a market, but you do know that it will be fresh, home-made and of decent quality. There are three weekly markets, in Leith, Stockbridge and on the Grassmarket (Saturday and Sunday) with passionate, independent traders selling street food, original artwork, creative crafts and local produce. Newly opened Old Tolbooth Market is open every weekend, this community arts and commerce project has street food, a bar, an exhibition space curated by a local arts charity, local vendors, and events.
The Pitt Market is now a Leith institution on Pitt Street, it runs on weekends with a winter break. The Pitt experience is all about the amazing street food, craft beer, live music, and events. For a traditional market head to The Edinburgh Farmer’s Market on Castle Terrace on a Saturday. Their vendors stock the best food and drink products in the country, with restaurant quality meats, cheese, fish, organic vegetables, and appearances from Slow Food Edinburgh.
Eco-Friendly and Independent Food and Drink Shops
Edinburgh has surprisingly been vegetarian and vegan-friendly for a long time. Alternative health food shops like Real Foods started trading here in 1975, they have shops across the city and are popular with the vegan community. New sustainable shops like The Refillery in Newington and The Eco Larder on Morrison Street offer people a way to shop plastic-free for food and household products. Foodies will enjoy the cheesemonger who supplies Edinburgh’s restaurants, I.J. Mellis on Victoria Street. Tea-lovers should head to Eteaket in the city centre for afternoon tea and Rosevear Tea (Broughton Street and Clerk Street) for tastings and tea products. One of Scotland’s top exports is whisky and Royal Mile Whiskies is one of the most respected whisky merchants in the world with a true passion for our national tipple.
The café scene in Edinburgh has exponentially grown in the last decade with an increase in independent and family-run ventures. In Leith, Ostara is a café – bistro who focus on local and sustainable food and serve one of the best brunches in Edinburgh. Next to Haymarket is Grams, who use zero dairy, gluten or refined sugar and specialise in meal plans for home cooking. Social business Social Bite (Rose Street and Shandwick Place), are a chain of sandwich shops set up by young entrepreneurs, focus on tackling homelessness in Scotland. Patrons can gift food and drink to the city’s homeless population. Meanwhile, The Grassmarket Café is part of a social enterprise that uses locally sourced ingredients in support of the Edinburgh community.
Independent coffee shops in Edinburgh outdo chain coffee shops after a real coffee revolution in the city. The award-winning Artisan Roast are renowned for their use of fair-trade beans, Williams and Johnson are a local coffee roasting duo with two cafés in the city and Grow Urban near Fountainbridge is a café in a lush plant shop. If you’re looking to lunch in a long-running family café, head to Cowan and Sons in Stockbridge. As for specialist cafés try Twelve Triangles in Leith or The Bearded Baker on Rodney Street for a doughnut and coffee fix and Bross Bagels on the West End for boss bagels!
Edinburgh has a diverse restaurant scene who all endeavour to give customers the best local produce. Foraged and local seasonal menus in a relaxed fine dining environment are the speciality of Gardener’s Cottage, Forage and Chatter and Aizle. Vegan and vegetarian-friendly dinners are best experienced at Kalpna in Newington, a 30-year-old South Indian restaurant, Harmonium on The Shore who specialise in everyday food done vegan including quarter pounders and Hanover Street’s Hendersons who opened in 1962 and is the UK’s longest-running vegetarian restaurant.
Mosque Kitchen is a great curry house who opened to the public after the attacks on 9/11 to create a more inclusive environment. International flavours are all over the city with Locanda de Gusti in Dalry, a truly authentic Italian. Newington is another area where you can find every cuisine, from Korean at Kim’s Mini Meals, Tibetan at the Himalaya Café, Chinese hotpot at Lian Pu or Malaysian from Kampong Ah Lee.
Family-owned eateries in the city include Nobles on The Shore who do beautiful brunches and dinner with seasonal and local produce. Another is Spoon in the city centre who always have inventive veggie and vegan options. Brunch is a phenomenon that has exploded in Edinburgh with the most delectable choices being The Pantry in Stockbridge, Roseleaf on The Shore, and Salt in Morningside. For a truly British experience head to a traditional pub for “pub grub” and choose independently run places like real ale specialists The Stockbridge Tap, The Regent which is also LGBTQ+ friendly or local’s favourite Teuchters Landing.
Bars and Pubs
It’s a fact that Edinburgh has more pubs per person than anywhere else in the UK. Drinking sustainably means choosing to take your business to independent places, specialist bars, and bars making a positive impact on the community around them. One such bar is Leith Depot – an independent music venue with a bar and kitchen who fought alongside the community to protect buildings in Leith earmarked to become a commercial hotel and expensive flats and won that campaign! Swedish Sofi’s is another Leith bar running events like clothes swaps and live music and nearby Bar Brig host events like local markets and comedy nights.
For a traditional pub, serious about Scottish beer, ales and a wee nip of whisky try Malt and Hops on The Shore, Monty’s on Morrison Street, and Bow Bar on Victoria Street. On the flipside, Edinburgh has world-class cocktail bars like Bramble or Panda and Sons on Queen Street, The Voyage of Buck on William Street, and Dragonfly on West Port. LGBTQ+ friendly bar, CC Blooms is an Edinburgh institution that also has a daytime café and serves food. If bars with a bit of attitude are your thing then The Dog House in Newington and the Mousetrap in Leith are places where you can order a Butter Beer (one for Harry Potter fans) and enjoy an inclusive atmosphere.
Small local distilleries and breweries have bars, like The Royal Dick in Summerhall (Barney’s Beer and Pickering’s Gin) and The Hanging Bat on Lothian Road (own microbrewery). As a bonus, you’ll find bars and pubs in Edinburgh are mostly dog-friendly – just look for the ‘Dugs in Pubs’ sticker on the door!
Get to Know The Local Community – Festivals and Independent Venues
Known as the ‘Festival City’ for good reason, Edinburgh hosts the largest arts festival in the world in August, but it divides the residents of the city. Thousands visit the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and International Festival in August and over Christmas into New Year’s Eve for the Hogmanay Street Party. These two events command a large slice of the international visitor pie, which sadly goes mostly to outside production companies. Luckily, there are also smaller festivals which support local communities, arts organisations, and educational programmes that locals and tourists can easily be a part of and held in independent venues.
April sees the Edinburgh Science Festival take place with a host of interesting workshops, in-depth talks, and discussion panels, with a mix of paid and free activities for all ages. Supporting local artists, musicians, theatre, and filmmakers is Hidden Door Festival who create immersive experiences for their audiences including art shows, poetry readings, plays and gigs. In the city’s coolest neighbourhood, check out the free Leith Jazz and Blues Festival in June which is a series of free gigs in pubs around Leith with local musicians. Leith also enjoys an annual Leith Festival in June with markets, concerts and free events including exhibitions.
The Leith neighbourhood has transformed compared to its working-class past, it’s now a vibrant, multi-cultural community and it’s thanks to places like the Out of the Blue Drill Hall. This independent venue has a community café and runs all kinds of events like flea markets, art shows, and even weekly ping pong tournaments, as well as running training programmes and doing vital community work. In a similar vein is Summerhall, a multi-arts venue in Edinburgh’s Southside which hosts a weekly ceilidh club, schools’ programmes, art shows and has a community café and bar. Comedy buffs head to The Stand Comedy Club, they are especially well known for Red Raw on Monday’s, their beginner’s showcase. The Queen’s Hall in Newington is a well-loved music venue in the city, and they run youth and community engagement programmes as well as provide space for Scottish musicians across all genres to play.
Nature in The City and Lothian Region Day Trips
One reason Edinburgh is consistently voted as one of the best places to live is its green credentials. It is the greenest city in the UK, with over 130 parks and National Heritage sites and there are more trees than residents. This gives visitors and residents great reason to enjoy walks, hikes and gardens in the city and its proximity to the countryside and coastal towns also supplies excellent day trip options.
A walk around Arthurseat (a mammoth hill in the city centre) will bring you to Dr Neil’s Garden in Duddingston with a view on to Duddingston Loch, this botanical garden is a serene place to visit and contemplate and its volunteers work hard to maintain its beauty. Another lovely discovery is the Secret Herb Garden near the Pentland Hills who grow herbs, run classes, and educate people in the uses of herbs. They also have a shop with products from the garden and a café.
Hikes and Walks in The City
The most romantic walk is along the Water of Leith to Stockbridge with a stop in Dean Village. It takes you right out of the noise of the city sweeping you back in time! Near Morningside is Blackford Hill, this hill gives fantastic views over the city and home to the Royal Observatory. On the outskirts of Edinburgh is Cammo Estate, a favourite for dog walkers this is an old estate with a tower, walled garden, and ruins to explore. Nearby is Cramond Island which is walkable when the tide is out and it’s also a wonderful village in the city where you can enjoy walks along the beach and a drink in a local pub. Finally, take a hike up the Pentland Hills which surround the south of the city and discover its lush peaks – the Harlaw woodland biodiversity trail is especially scenic.
Explore the Lothians (The Edinburgh Region)
The city’s public transport is world-class with buses that run all over the city and the surrounding region. As a bonus, Lothian Buses have invested in cleaner and greener transport with zero-emission electric and low emission buses. Jump on board, pay with your card and travel to places like Portobello Beach, South Queensferry, Dunbar, and North Berwick.
Seaside town Portobello has an old promenade which people flock to in the summer. It’s the perfect spot to walk along the beach, have an ice-cream and play in the old arcades on penny slot machines – a very British experience! Portobello is another up and coming area on the outskirts of Edinburgh, find lovely independent places to eat such as Bross Bagels, Skylark bistro and The Esplanade Bar and Restaurant.
Towards Fife, are the cute cobbled streets of South Queensferry which are famous for having unbeatable views of the Forth Bridges. Walk around its harbour, marvel the bridges, and stop for a bite to eat in Down the Hatch in Port Edgar marina or a sip a silky hot chocolate in Manna House Bakery. You can also visit nearby Hopetoun House, a stately home with a deer park, nature trails and café.
Another seaside town is North Berwick, somewhere you could easily spend a day meandering around. There’s a slew of charity shops, vintage shops, an indoor market with deli counters and independent specialist shops such as Lockett Bros whisky and wine merchants on the main street. Go for a hike up North Berwick Law, visit the Scottish Seabird Centre and take a boat trip to nearby islands. Try the Rocketeer for fresh seafood, or North Berwick Fry for proper fish and chips and enjoy coffee and cake in the legendary Steampunk Coffee.
Further, along the coast is Dunbar, nicknamed ‘sunny Dunny’ by the locals because it gets a lot of sunshine! It has beautiful twinned harbours with castle ruins and is the home of John Muir Country Park, a famous conservationist born here. Families will also enjoy East Links Family Park which is a farm with lots of activities including a ropes challenge over water. It has a high street full of unique and quirky shops, cafés, bars, and restaurants. Seafood aplenty along these shores and especially tasty at Creel Restaurant. Go local with a visit to Dunbar Community Bakery and Graze Coffee and Chocolate House is cosy with vegan and gluten-free options.
A Local’s Last Words
If you come to Scotland, you might hear ‘Lang may yer lum reek’ which translates to ‘long may your chimney smoke’ and it’s our way to wish someone a long life. It also helps to explain why Edinburgh’s nickname is ‘Auld Reekie’, a nod to the city’s industrial past when it was the three Bs (biscuits, beer, and books). This city continues to evolve, and while it may not be known for the industries it once had, it continues to carve out the Scotland of the future and we are all a part of creating that sustainable story as locals and tourists with mindful choices and strong communities.