15 Ways to Escape the Edinburgh Tourist Crowds Without Going Far
Every year, Edinburgh receives more and more tourists. In 2017, 3.85 million people visited the Scottish capital. The population of Edinburgh is only 500,000, so this is a lot of extra people! August is especially popular as art lovers, performers and others arrive for the largest arts festivals in the world.
Of course, there are a lot of good things to say about Edinburgh in the tourist season. The city is busy, vibrant and packed with life. But there are downsides too.
Cons of Visiting Edinburgh in Summer
- It is sometimes impossible to walk along the pavement due to crowds of tourists. (Groups of foreign teenagers learning English tend to be the worst at blocking the pavement)
- When you go out for a walk on your lunch break at work, you are accosted by flyerers telling you about the amazing show that is at 2pm (when you need to be back at your desk, although the shows probably wouldn't be amazing . . . )
- Certain cafes and restaurants in Edinburgh that temporarily put their prices up for August, which is annoying if you are a local.
15 Edinburgh Escape Plans
Luckily there are lots of options to escape the city feeling and find greenery, countryside, the sea or water without going far. You can go up a hill, to the beach, visit some of the suburbs that still have a village feel, walk along the old railway line paths or the Union Canal, or go to Dalkeith Country Park, or the town of Queensferry. Most of these suggestions are less than 10 miles from the centre of Edinburgh.
Go Up a Hill
Edinburgh is known as the city of seven hills. If you fancy escaping up somewhere with a view of Edinburgh, here are four options.
1. Arthur's Seat
Arthur's Seat is the highest and best known of the seven hills of Edinburgh. You can't miss it from any vantage point of the city. Go for a walk up Arthur's Seat and soon you will feel like you are in the countryside in the middle of a city. The only downside is that during weekends and the busy tourist season, the crowds will follow you.
2. Calton Hill
This central hill is the easiest one to climb for excellent views over Edinburgh. Monuments on Calton Hill include the Nelson Monument, Dougald Stewart Monument and National Monument. The National Monument is known as 'Edinburgh's Folly', because building work started in the 1820s but was never finished due to funding running out. Calton Hill is often busy too.
3. Blackford Hill
Blackford Hill to the South of the city is popular with local dogwalkers, joggers and families. Alongside the Hermitage of Braid which connects to the Braid Hills, this area is a local nature reserve of 60 hectares.
4. Outside the City: the Pentlands
To the South of Edinburgh is a range of hills known as the Pentlands. If you want to escape up a hill without travelling far from Edinburgh, this is my top tip. There are also easy flat walks around the bottom of the hills and the reservoirs which provide Edinburgh with drinking water. For maps and directions on how to get to the Pentlands by bus see the information produced by the Pentland Hills Regional Park.
When I go to the Pentlands from the busy city, I feel a sense of relief as I cross over the bridge from Bonaly to the quiet hills.
Go to the Beach
Fancy building some sandcastles? Edinburgh is a coastal city so it is very easy to get to the seaside from Edinburgh.
The downside is that if it is a sunny day, you won't escape crowds as locals will flock to the beach. We don't get long sunny spells often in Scotland, so at the first sign of any sunshine, Scots rush to make the most of it. (This is also why at temperatures in which most around the world would still wear jeans and a t-shirt, some Scots immediately take their 'taps aff' (tops off) in the centre of a busy city and promptly turn a shade of bright red.)
Here are some of the beaches near Edinburgh.
5. Portobello Beach
Only 3 miles East of the City Centre, Portobello is easily accessible and has a sandy beach with a promenade. There are nice cafes you can nip inside if it starts to rain or you feel peckish. If sunny and a weekend it will definitely be busy, but still a change of scene.
To get to the beach you can jump on a Lothian bus (numbers 15, 21, 26, 40, 42, 45, 49 and 69 go to Portobello). You can also cycle or walk most of the way there off road along the Innocent Railway line (see below).
6. East Lothian: Gullane, Yellowcraigs and North Berwick
The best beaches are a few miles outside Edinburgh in East Lothian, the neighbouring county. Gullane, Yellowcraigs and North Berwick beaches are all good choices. You can get to North Berwick with the train (25 minutes). Gullane and Yellowcraigs can be reached with East Coast buses.
Visit the Former Villages of Edinburgh
The city of Edinburgh has grown massively over the last 200 years meaning that many former surrounding villages are now suburbs. However some of these former villages still retain the quaint village feel.
Duddingston is just 3 miles East of the centre of Edinburgh. With its cobbled streets, it has a charming medieval village feel.
Dr Neil's Garden
This is a real-life secret garden. At least in the sense that if you don't know to look for this garden you might not find it. This garden was designed by Drs. Andrew and Nancy Neil and is tucked behind the Duddingston Kirk.
At the edge of Duddingston in Holyrood Park, is the only freshwater loch in Edinburgh. A word of caution that when swans are nesting they can be aggressive if you get too close.
Sheep's Heid Pub
The Sheep's Heid Pub is thought to be Edinburgh's oldest pub, dating back until 1360. The pub is said to have been frequented by the likes of Mary Queen of Scots, and James VI of Scotland, as it is halfway between the Scottish royal residences of Holyrood Palace and Craigmillar Castle. A unique feature is the old-fashioned skittle alley. Recently I've had mixed experience of both the food and service, so can't strongly recommend it, but worth popping in for a drink.
Cramond is in the North West of Edinburgh where the River Almond meets the Firth of Forth.
At low tide, you can walk from Cramond across the causeway to Cramond Island, one of the islands in the Firth of Forth. Check the tidal times on the noticeboard so you don't get stranded! The buildings on the island are fortifications from World War II.
Back in Cramond, you can head from the Harbour on the walkway alongside the River Almond. This is a pleasant riverside walk past some small waterfalls. There are some steep steps along the route.
You can also go the other way along the esplanade, and admire the sea view.
History of Cramond
There is evidence of human settlement in Cramond dating back to the close of the Ice Age. When the Romans came to Scotland they built a fort in Cramond. The most famous archeological find is a giant stone lioness discovered in 1997 (you can see this back in town at the National Museum of Scotland). You can learn more about Cramond's past at the small locally run museum called The Maltings.
How to Get to Cramond
Lothian bus number 41 goes to Cramond from the centre of town. It is about 5 miles from town. Walking or cycling is also an option, see the section on Old Railway lines below.
9. Colinton Village
Colinton is another former suburb that still feels like a village. This is 3 and a half miles west from the city centre. The famous writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) spent time visiting his grandfather here, and there is a little trail you can follow that was inspired by him here.
There is not enough to do to spend an entire day in Colinton, but you could combine it with a walk along the Water of Leith (see below).
Check Out the Old Railway Lines
In the first half of the twentieth century, Edinburgh had an extensive network of suburban local railway lines. Most of these have now closed down and are footpaths you can walk or cycle along. You can buy maps of the cycle paths from the charity Spokes or use the (less good but still useful) free maps from the City of Edinburgh Council.
Here are a couple of routes.
10. Haymarket/Roseburn to Cramond
Starting near Haymarket Station, walk or cycle the 4.5 miles to Cramond, mostly along the old railway line, although part of the route goes through the leafy streets of the suburb of Barnton. (You can see mostly large modern houses here).
11. The Innocent Railway
The Innocent Railway path is a lovely path along the side of Holyrood through Duddingston, that can take you almost to Portobello beach (you just need to go a short distance on road). The route starts with a 500-metre-long tunnel which I find scary to walk through, but great for whizzing along with a bicycle.
Cruise the Canals and Walkways
12. Union Canal
Formerly used to transport goods between Edinburgh and Glasgow, the Union Canal is now a lovely place for a walk or cycle. If cycling, remember to slow down and ring your bell when approaching bridges (not doing this is how you end up falling in the canal).
Where the Canal Goes
The Canal is 31 miles long and ends up at the Falkirk Wheel. This is too far to walk in one day for most people, but you could cycle it. Alternatively, you could stop off a bit earlier (23 miles) at the pretty historic town of Linlithgow which has nice cafes and a castle. There are regular train services from both Falkirk and Linlithgow back to Edinburgh.
If you fancy a shorter walk from the centre of Edinburgh, a nice place to aim for is the village/suburb of Ratho which is 8 miles away. There is a pub called the Bridge Inn that looks over the Canal where you can have a drink or meal.
13. Water of Leith Walkway
The Water of Leith Walkway runs through Edinburgh alongside the river from Leith to Balerno for just over 12 miles, although there are a couple of places where you have to go back to the road.
I recommend starting from Tollcross along the Union Canal but turning off to the Water of Leith just after crossing the Slateford Aquaduct (don't go to the Water of Leith Visitor Centre—walk over the aquaduct and then when you get to the turning find the footbridge over the canal). You are then on a lovely tree-lined footpath stopping off at Spylaw Park and Colinton and then if you like onwards to the suburb of Balerno which is 7 miles away. You can jump on a number 44 bus back to town from there.
14. Dalkeith Country Park
Dalkeith Country Park is an 1000-acre country park 7 miles from central Edinburgh to the South East. It's a great place to walk, run around and explore. There is also an adventure playground for kids to play in for a small fee, and a restaurant and shop.
15. Queensferry and Forth Rail Bridge
Just outside Edinburgh is the town of Queensferry. A perfect place to visit for a bit of sea air and some ice cream or fish and chips. You can view the iconic Forth Rail Bridge here, and the two road bridges. You could also get the ferry for a trip across to Inchcolm island in the middle of the Forth.
© 2019 Marianne Sherret