Things to do around Edinburgh
Every single individual that contacts me about their Scotland travel itineraries wants to visit Edinburgh. Tourists flock to the capital en masse every month of every year, and with good reason. What few will do before heading up the well-trodden road to the Highlands, however, is take an extra few days to explore the city’s surrounding standouts. Here is my look at some top Lothian day trips and an array of things to do around Edinburgh:
In and Around North Berwick – 45 mins east of Edinburgh
If North Berwick were an infographic…..you could expect to see picnic baskets, golf clubs, buckets and spades, ice cream and leaping dolphins. Yes indeed, it’s your classic British seaside town. Beautiful coastal beaches offering terrific views over to Bass Rock in particular, this is also a nature spotter’s dream thanks largely to the Scottish Seabird Centre. Gannets, seals and even puffins can be scrutinised to your heart’s content with their telescopes and remote cameras that are running over on Bass Rock. Golf followers will doubtless know North Berwick well too – with Muirfield just one of the many options in the vicinity. It’s all very civilised in these parts.
Historic ruins abound out here too and Tantallon Castle is particularly outstanding. Dramatically perched over the coastline, this 14th Century treasure had more than its fair share of bruising conflicts over the centuries and was besieged on numerous occasions as the occupying Red Douglases jumped between Scots and English allegiance. Tantallon is also a firm favourite for photographers – with its simmering walls and the best photobombing efforts of Bass Rock in the background it makes for a glorious image.
While Tantallon takes the prizes for its photogenic qualities, nearby Dirleton is all about grim functionality. Menacing walls, terrifying dungeons and even remains of a drawbridge over a moat, the ruins make for my own personal image of your classic fortress. The modern day surrounding gardens are all well and good but there’s no disguising the real lasting impression of Dirleton and it has that Games of Thrones feel about it. Heads on spikes and all that. A bit of historical digging will reveal that it was the notorious Oliver Cromwell who oversaw the grimmest period in the castle’s history when his besieging forces hanged numerous defenders from Dirleton’s walls. Charming.
North Berwick is brilliant as a day trip from Edinburgh and I leave my personal favourite to last – the view over the town from North Berwick Law. A superb panorama on what is an otherwise flat stretch of Scotland, the views over the coastline as well as back towards the capital and the Pentland Hills are well worth the half hour or so ascent. On a sunny day it makes for an ideal picnic spot. The summit is marked by the unexpected site of a giant whale jawbone. Thought to have been a marker to guide sailor’s home (I’m a little sceptical) one has been there since 1709. You can read more about some of the best things to do in surrounding East Lothian here.
Rosslyn Chapel – 30 minutes south of Edinburgh
Ok so my earlier spiel about tourists not often exploring the regions around Edinburgh is not applicable to Rosslyn Chapel (a statistic that owes a big debt to Tom Hanks). One of the best architectural masterpieces in Scotland’s armoury, the designs on this 15th Century church tell a million stories and, if it weren’t for the hordes brought as a result of the filming completed here for the Da Vinci Code, you could drift dizzily around the place with your imagination going ten to the dozen. I’m particularly taken with the omnipresent Green Man – despite his rather menacing appearance, this is a pagan symbol for re-birth. Look out for him. Backed by an impressive new visitor centre and within a 10 minute walk to the signposted remains of Roslin Castle, this little gem is well worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time.
Linlithgow – 45 minutes west of Edinburgh
The town where it all began for the Scotlanders, Linlithgow is an attractive royal burgh that has a grand main street reminiscent of the capital’s Old Town and that is dominated by another of Scotland’s best loved ruins. Birthplace to Mary Queen of Scots and prominent during Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite Wars, Linlithgow Palace enjoys a serene spot overlooking the town’s beautiful Loch. A wander around the multi-level structure makes for an evocative journey. Of all the ruins in Scotland, Linlithgow is the one I feel saddest about. Bare and open to the elements, it could really benefit from some love and attention. The magnificent courtyard fountain aside, there is almost nothing remaining of the interior and when the fantastic efforts at Stirling Castle are considered, the two buildings could not be further apart in appearance today. That being said, it is still a favourite of mine and the views from the tower are amongst the best in the region. Enjoying long-standing popularity as a royal retreat as well, the Palace has had some pretty famous visitors in recent times too as it was used during the filming of Outlander.
In and Around Queensferry – 30 minutes west of Edinburgh
It has been thanks to Outlander – and the Forth Rail Bridge achieving well-deserved UNESCO status last year – that a new wave of tourist enthusiasm turned to this neck of the woods recently. Connecting Midlothian with Fife, the Rail Bridge stands as one of Scotland’s iconic images of magnificent engineering.
If visiting Queensferry I strongly advise making a day of it with a half hour boat trip out to Inchcolm Island. Famous for its abbey and its rather noisy birdlife, the island is only a mile from the Fife coast and has drawn comparisons with Iona due to its religious past. A hangout for Augustinian monks in the 12th Century, Inchcolm Abbey has predominantly been a place of peace and serenity. Except when it wasn’t. This is Scotland for goodness sake and nowhere emerges unscathed from some battle or other. Inchcolm was raided on occasion by the English, garrisoned as a military base and set up as a defence in anticipation of attacks during periods of conflict including the Napoleonic and World Wars. The Maid of the Forth runs regular cruises from Queensferry to Inchcolm but it is best to check times in advance. Your time on the island is around 90 minutes and, if the sun is making an appearance, a picnic is a good idea.
But what about Outlander, I hear you ask. Another of the many Scottish filming locations for the show was, and is, Hopetoun House and nearby Midhope Castle. Hopetoun is a couple of miles west along the Firth from Queensferry and is a palatial example of well to-do life for 18th Century residents. Grandness personified, the house enjoys some beautiful interior rooms in the stately home fashion. Add wonderful views from the roof and relaxing walking opportunities in the vast grounds and you’re set for a memorable visit. It was used in Outlander for many interior scenes and the cast have been frequent visitors over recent months and years.
As for Midhope Castle, this is to be found on the grounds of the Hopetoun Estate and it doubles as Lallybroch in the show, home of everyone’s favourite Jacobite Jamie Fraser. Given the fanatical social media reaction to my image posts, I’m almost reluctant to mention that it is in fact derelict and inaccessible. The exterior makes for an attractive shot however and you can gain access by requesting a free permit at the nearby Hopetoun Farm Shop. Note that as the area is used for hunting, you do enter the grounds at your own risk. Bit of excitement never did anyone any harm eh? If by now you’ve been taken down by the Outlander bug and just can’t get enough, you can continue a little further west down the coast to Blackness Castle. Another grim affair, it was a superb choice for the flogging scene for poor Jamie at the hands of Black Jack.
Sprawling out in all directions, these are my top tips for rewarding day trips from Edinburgh. The Lothians are regions packed with highly-accessible outdoor challenges, historical sites and fabulous architecture. Keep up to date with my regional wanders around Scotland on my Weekend In…. travel blog series.
You can follow the above in one of my interactive maps and see why it just might be worth adding a day or two to your stay in the capital. Just zoom in and out as needed and click on the pins for directions.