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Alternative Things To See And Do Edinburgh

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In our last alternative sightseeing blog we explored the fun and fascinating gems of New York City. This time we're searching a little closer to home in the Scottish capital Edinburgh. Some of these ideas represent fairly new ventures, others longer established but less familiar, and a few are old classics viewed from a fresh perspective. Along the way we've included a bunch interesting eating and drinking recommendations, both within the city centre itself and out towards the coastal suburb of Leith. Why not enjoy the suggestions and itineraries listed below alongside one of Edinburgh's numerous year-round festivals, a combination that'll guarantee a unique day out.


Alternative Things To See And Do:

Explore Stockbridge:

This leafy and architecturally rich suburb of Edinburgh borders the north-eastern end of the New Town, and is often overlooked by visitors who only have time to experience the capital's main attractions. If you are feeling adventurous, however, then wander beyond Queen Street, up Howe Street past the gardens, then veer left into Circus Place. Here you'll encounter a circular array of tree-lined, cobbled streets flanked on all sides by tall and beautiful Georgian Houses.

The whole area serves as an excellent avenue for a morning or afternoon stroll, particularly Circus Lane, a narrow 18th century mews widely regarded as one of the most beautiful in Edinburgh. Colourful climbing plants snake along the terrace façades like emerald veins, electric lights are contained with original gas lanterns, and the looming spire of the nearby Episcopal Church adds a delectably old-timey charm. Be sure to have your camera prepared for this place if nothing else. Do so later in the day and you could potentially finish up by rejoining Howe Street, where Mothers Gin Bar channels its bohemian vibes onto passers-by.

Should your visit fall on a Sunday then check out the Stockbridge Market. It graces the Jubilee Gardens alongside Kerr and Saunders Streets, and is open all year round at the end of each week between 10:00-17:00. The atmosphere's always lively, the food stalls invariably delicious, and everything's set against a historic skyline.

Follow-up your browse of the market stalls by crossing Water of Leith into Raeburn Place. As main roads go it's a fairly busy spot, and is lined with all the small businesses, chain eateries and independent gastropubs you'd expect. Make a stop here if you're feeling peckish or curious for a browse. Afterwards, do a little backtracking and proceed down Saunders Street (or Dean Terrace), and join the Water of Leith nature walkway. Follow the route as it passes through Dean Gardens, beneath Thomas Telford's Dean Bridge, then onto Dean Path via Miller Row.

By this point you'll probably notice the architecture turning rather rustic. That's because you're approaching Dean Village, a former milling centre dated back to 1128. Though its industry died out in the 19th century many of the buildings, all from varying centuries, have been wonderfully maintained and meld stunningly with the green banks of Water of Leith. Dean Village is often referred to as a 'tranquil oasis', and it's plain to see why from a simple stroll.

Continue east of Dean Village towards our last Stockbridge recommendation, Scottish National Gallery Of Modern Art. Admission is free (besides special exhibitions) and the grounds feature a vast sculpture park. There's two buildings to explore, the Modern One and Modern Two. The former hosts works by Matisse and Picasso, along with brilliant cubist paintings and early 20th century French and Russian art. The latter is mainly dedicated to modern Scottish art, but compliments this with a renowned collection of post-war international pieces.

Explore Leith:

The coastal district of Leith is one of Edinburgh's fastest developing culture hubs, and not to mention of its most important historical centres. Its centuries old port remains one of the country's busiest, meaning that for those arriving by cruise ship it's potentially their first point of landfall in Scotland. We'd suggest making your way to Leith either by following Water of Leith Walkway to its terminus, or taking the Majestic Bus Tour from the city centre.

Once you arrive make for the 'Shore', a riverside street that serves as the heart of district. This area brims with top class bars, restaurants and independent emporiums. If you're a fan of brownies, cupcakes and a whole manner of other baked goods then check out Mimi's Bakehouse at the southern end of the Shore. An interesting bar worth checking out is the chic and modern Wolf And Water along Commercial Street. It does a wide variety of hearty pub grub, has a spacious outdoor terrace, and whips up great cocktails.

The artistically minded might like to check out the recently established 'Biscuit Factory' on Anderson Place, an upcoming venue for arts and fashion that's sure to play host to a great deal of exhibitions and festival instalments in the coming months.

One highlight that nobody can afford to miss while in Leith is Royal Yacht Britannia, the former official sailing vessel of the British Royal Family. After being decommissioned in 1997 it was brought to rest at Ocean Terminal and adapted for its new roll as a museum ship. Today visitors have the freedom to explore all of the yacht's main decks, learning about the events and exploits that took place onboard as they go.

What's the best time to visit Leith? For all of its year-round attractions we'd still highly recommend visiting Leith during the summer. These months see Leith Festival bring the entire district to life (10-18 June, 2017), and the Edinburgh Mela Festival take place on Leith Links (2017 date TBC).

Take A Forth Bridges Cruise:

One of our favourite Edinburgh bus tours departs Waverley Bridge four times each day between March 28th and October 31st. It begins by winding its way towards the pretty seaside town of South Queensferry, before joining up with the Forth Belle, a sightseeing ship that sails beneath the famous bridges and across to Inchcolm Island. Travellers are treated to live commentary on both bus and boat, and during the first three departures you'll have time for a 1.5 hour on-foot excursion around Inchcolm. The 'Iona of the East', as the island is known, is a stunning wildlife habitat as well as a place brimming with history. Its abbey was founded by King David I in the 12th Century and during World Wars I & II it was transformed into a defensive fortress. 2016 tours are bookable here.

Feel Your Skin Crawl On the Ghost Bus Tour:

Gothic Edinburgh is famous for its tales of ghosts and ghouls, but besides a Mercat walking tour the experience we'd most recommend is the Edinburgh Ghost Bus Tour. It blends dark storytelling and real-life facts with a healthy dose of comedy and twilight sightseeing. We took the tour in December 2015 (and survived!); you can read our thoughts on it here.

See Vibrant Tapestries At Dovecot Studios:

Edinburgh is a city stretched at the seams with artistic institutions, but the alternative that piqued our interest was the Dovecot Studios on Infirmary Street, just off the Royal Mile. Its exhibitions focus on contemporary art in the medium of fabric. Expect displays of unparalleled colour, dynamic form and thematic diversity.

Take A Free Guided Tour Of Holyrood Abbey:

Most Edinburgh lovers are familiar with Holyrood Palace, but directly behind the royal residence sits the ruins of an even older structure- Holyrood Abbey. Dating back to the days of King David I it's now part of the Royal Collection Trust, a roster of buildings including Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and more. Free tours are conducted during the summer months by professional guides who specialise in tales of monarchical intrigue and Edinburgh's political history.

Visit The Revamped Surgeon's Hall Museum:

There's body museums, and then there's Surgeon's Hall Museum. This fascinating attraction displays thousands of anatomical specimens, and after a 4 million pound refurbishment in September 2015 it's ready to captivate a whole new generation of visitors. While not ideal for the squeamish, it'll blow away anyone harbouring an interest in science, biology and their histories. Popular exhibits include a book made from the bound skin of William Burke, the dental collection (including artworks), and the hypertelorism displays.

Meet Wojtek The Bear At Princes Street Gardens:

Even if you're a first time visitor to Edinburgh you'll probably have heard of the city's most iconic four-legged friend, Grey Friars Bobby, whose visage stands immortalised at the top of Candlemaker Row. However, Bobby's not the only one with a tale to tell. Next time you're walking through Princes Street Gardens drop in on Wojtek the Bear. Wojtek was the mascot of the Polish 22nd Artillery Supply Company during World War II, and due to the cultural connections Scotland and Poland (and work by the Scottish Polish community) it was decided that a commemorative statue would be erected in the city's iconic parkland. He was unveiled in November 2015, and so is yet to meet Edinburgh's vast summer crowds.

Browse The New Waverley Arches:

Towards the end of 2015 Edinburgh's long abandoned Waverley Arches underwent a redevelopment that would see them transformed into a modern leisure/retail environment. Enter 2016 and the area has already welcomed its first customers. Head along and see the place for yourself in 2017. When the summer festivals get under way it's likely that various business will set themselves up as performance spaces, so the atmosphere, we hope, will match that of other famous streets.


Cafes To Look Out For:

Maison de Moggy Cat Cafe (17 West Port)

Love cats? Scotland's first cat cafe opened January 2015 in Stockbridge. It then moved to West Port beneath the southern end of Edinburgh Castle and has since grown to become a massive local hit.

Cafe Royal Edinburgh (19 W Register Street)

Sitting slap-bang in the middle of West Register Street, and tucked away just out of sight of Princes Street, Cafe Royal seems to us like some ornate, 3-story Victorian TARDIS. You won't be bending space time, and you won't find Peter Capaldi inside (we think), but you will find renowned seafood and real ales in an authentically 19th century establishment.


Restaurants To Look Out For:

The Outsider Restaurant (George IV Bridge)

This diverse eatery does a whole variety of quality European dishes. One of it's most talked about features (besides the food) is its sweeping views of Edinburgh Castle and its busy yet warm atmosphere.

The Dome (14 George St, New Town)

The Dome offers top class dining in unrivalled neo-classical elegance. Both inside and out, it's an awesome sight to behold.

NMS Tower Restaurant

Didn't know the National Museum of Scotland was renowned for a delectable and yet affordable dinner menu? Well in its Tower Restaurant you can either head along for an evening meal surrounded by Edinburgh's majestic skyline, or come up earlier for the brunch, lunch and afternoon tea selections.

Byron Burger Edinburgh (Lothian Road & North Bridge)

London's posh burger franchise made its way onto the streets of Edinburgh around the middle of 2016. There's two of them, one on Lothian Road and another on North Bridge. As someone who's sampled the beefy fare of both cities, I can say that the Edinburgh menus aren't quite as diverse as those of its southern peer. However, a waitress in the Lothian Road eatery did assure me that this was simply due to a shortage of professional staff. In other words, the best of the best were still down in London. Perhaps the situation has changed since my last visit, but either way, it's still a place well worth checking out.

Browns Edinburgh (131-133 George Street)

This restaurant on George Street offers a sophisticated dining experience in a laid back atmosphere. It even features a live pianist on Wednesday and Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons. Food wise, their speciality is a mix of seasonal Scottish dishes and contemporary British classics.

Three Birds Restaurant (3-5 Viewforth, Edinburgh EH10 4JD)

Tucked away just a few meters off Bruntsfield Place the Three Birds is a hospitable little bistro that's won many a heart for its wholesome and ever changing seasonal menu. It's a rustic modern place that feels like it has soul from the moment you walk in, with happy regular clientèle to back the impression up.


Bars To Look Out For:

Stramash (207 Cowgate, Old Town)

This recently established live music venue opened on the Cowgate last year, replacing previous tenant Sin Club & Lounge. It currently boasts the largest television screen in Edinburgh, a dedicated live music stage with seating on two floors, a live streaming for sports events. All-in-all, a welcome new addition to one of Edinburgh's bustling nightlife streets, where options theretofore ranged from The Three Sisters open-air beer garden, various small pubs, and some iconic (yet no frills) nightclubs. Picture 'Stramash Live Music' © Waysted Photography.

The Pear Tree (38 W Nicolson St)

Located next to the University of Edinburgh this historic pub and beer garden is one to consider if you're strolling around vicinity of the Meadows. Summer is arguably its busiest time, when the outdoor benches are filled and live music is playing.

Hoot The Redeemer (7 Hanover St)

Modelled after a vintage funfair this new and unique place specialises in three things: slushes (alcoholic), cocktails and boozy ice cream. Its fun loving carnival theme extends to the décor, where 50s style illustrations and other circus paraphernalia line the walls. If you never thought such things to could meld together convincingly, then roll up and be amazed.