18 February 2019 – If you love literature, there's so much you'll be able to see when you visit Edinburgh, even for a single day.
You know that when people think of Scotland’s capital city, witches and ghosts seem to come to mind more than books. Yet Edinburgh’s literary history is even richer and more extensive than its mythological lore.
From Sir Walter Scott to J.K. Rowling, many of the world’s most influential writers have lived and worked in this city. Edinburgh was even designated a UNESCO City of Literature in 2004!
This one-day itinerary will take you through some of the most important landmarks of Edinburgh’s literary heritage, and give you a great introduction to the city in the process.
Here's what your one-day itinerary will look like:
The route begins at 17 Heriot Row, in Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town.
Number 17, with its iconic red door, was home to Robert Louis Stevenson from 1856-1880. The author lived in the house with his mother and nurse Alison Cunningham, who cared for him as he was too sickly to attend ordinary schools.
It is said that the stories she told him during his childhood at Heriot Row sparked his imagination, preparing him for the eventual writing of such classics as Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Stevenson House is currently a working Bed and Breakfast, and worth considering if the idea of staying in a house steeped in literary history appeals to you. Another option for a Bed and Breakfast nearby is Castle View Guest House.
After a short walk, you will find yourself on Edinburgh’s main shopping hub, Princes Street.
You'll see the imposing Scott Monument, a gothic tower dedicated to the life and work of Sir Walter Scott. Scott was born in Edinburgh, and his work was deeply shaped by the Scottish cultural landscape he lived in. He wrote some of the most important books in the English canon, including Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, and Waverley.
If you choose to visit the monument, a short climb up stairs will bring you to a small central chamber lined with stained glass windows. Inside, you will find an exhibit about Sir Walter Scott’s literary career. And if you keep climbing, the staircase opens onto the roof of the monument and its spectacular views of the city.
The monument doesn’t have an elevator and to reach the top, you'll have to climb 287 steps. Best to know that before you start!
Next, make your way to Greyfriars Kirkyard, where Edinburgh’s many ghost stories intersect with its literary heritage.
This graveyard is thought to be the most haunted in Europe. Even Robert Louis Stevenson knew about the risks of visiting one particular mausoleum, that of Sir George MacKenzie (known as Bloody MacKenzie). Stevenson once wrote that he’d be surprised if anyone living near the graveyard got any sleep, what with all the noise George MacKenzie’s ghost made.
Extending into modern day, Greyfriars Kirkyard has been a source of literary inspiration for many.
Two gravestones are particularly interesting, as they served as inspiration for central characters in J.K. Rowling’s best selling series Harry Potter.
Look out for the grave of Thomas Riddell (which became Tom Riddle in the series). And see if you can find the grave of William McGonagall, who became Professor McGonagall in Harry Potter. Funnily enough, William McGonagall was a poet himself. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a very good one, gaining notoriety as ‘Scotland’s worst poet.’
When you exit Greyfriars Kirkyard, you may be hungry: a two-minute walk will bring you to The Elephant House. This café has become famous for being the place where J.K. Rowling penned the first chapters of what was to be one of the most extensively sold books of all time, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It also happens to be a great place to sit down for some lunch and a hot drink to warm up. The bathroom is especially interesting, as it has gathered a beautiful collection of graffitied Harry Potter quotes from fans throughout the years.
The line-up to get a seat at the Elephant House can be long, and the café doesn’t take reservations. If you don’t feel like waiting in line, there are plenty of restaurants and places to eat nearby. The rooftop café of the National Museum of Scotland is a great alternative. If you’re a meat lover, you can also try a ‘hog roll’ (seasoned Scottish pulled pork in a bun) from Oink, which is also very close by.
Armchair Books is right out of a bohemian dream, with stacks of old books on the floor and bursting from shelves along the walls. Fairy lights give a soft glow to the place, and it has become a sanctuary for many book lovers in the city. It is a perfect spot to find both second-hand copies of modern novels and extremely rare antiques (I once bought a collection of Scottish fairy tales there. It was from 1830 and only cost me 3 GBP, approx. 5 USD!)
Edinburgh Books is also worth visiting - if you're given to this sort of thing - because of its unusual collection of taxidermied animals, including one enormous water buffalo head named Clarence. The basement is perfect for musicians and packed wall to wall with sheet music for sale.
No visit to Edinburgh would be complete without a visit to the Scottish Storytelling Centre on Canongate. A newly refurbished 17th century home, the centre won a design award for successfully introducing modern architectural styles while preserving the historic charm of the initial building. Be sure to check out events listings on their website, as they usually have storytelling sessions every day. These are a great opportunity to rest your legs while hearing classic Scottish myths and legends told by storytellers from all over.
If you’re more interested in poetry, the National Poetry Library can be found on the same street, and is completely dedicated to any sort of poetic work. It also hosts regular events, including readings and spoken word slams. You can find more information on their website.
Still have plenty of time or want yet another alternative? Consider visiting the Writer’s Museum just off the Royal Mile for more bookworthy lore.
End your day back in Edinburgh’s New Town. Have dinner at the historic Conan Doyle Pub, built in the house where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) used to live and write. Specialties are classic British pub food with a local twist: try the Venison, Rabbit, and Edinburgh Gin Pie, or the Haggis, Neeps and Tatties (Haggis with mashed potatoes, turnips, and gravy).
If you have more than a day to spend on your Edinburgh visit, you could range a bit further afield to one of these sites.
The Rosslyn Chapel is a short day trip out of the city. Edinburgh Bus Line 37 stops on Princes Street and gets you to Roslin Village in 45 minutes (or take a reasonably-priced tour). The Chapel is an easy walk from the bus stop and is ideal for Da Vinci Code and Dan Brown fans. Characters Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu follow clues that take them from the Louvre in Paris to London and finally to Rosslyn Chapel. Parts of the Da Vinci Code movie were also shot at the Chapel.
Even if you’re not a fan of the books, nearby Roslin Glen is a wonderful place for a short walk in a forest steeped in fairy lore.
Edinburgh sits on highly volcanic territory. The most striking evidence of this is Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh’s own extinct volcano, which offers beautiful views of the city should you wish to climb it (it is a short and relatively easy climb if you’re moderately fit). Like many places in the UK, it claims a connection to the legend of King Arthur. According to stories, King Arthur actually set up camp on the volcano, giving it its name.
Calton Hill is another volcanic hill in Edinburgh, and is an easy walk for people of all fitness levels. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and offers great views of the city and houses many famous landmarks. Visit the monument to Sir Robert Burns, Scotland’s most famous poet. You should also make sure to check out the National Monument, more commonly known as ‘Edinburgh’s Disgrace’. It was meant to be a model of the Parthenon in Greece, but funding ran out before construction ended, so only half the parthenon was ever built.
This guest post was written by Alejandra Armitage, who can most commonly be found writing history essays at the University of Edinburgh, or standing in airplane boarding queues. You can follow her on Instagram @tkfpodcast, or check out her website at The Kitchen Floor.