Due to current world events, I’m spending a few weeks exploring the best walks and hikes in Edinburgh. Although I love traveling the world, I still enjoy coming back to my “home base,” and the trails are a big factor in that.
It’s pretty rare for a city to have a volcano in the center; most people in Portland, Oregon don’t know there’s one in their city. Edinburgh has three! One isn’t particularly recognizable, as they built the Edinburgh Castle atop it. The second is Calton Hill where you can enjoy the Beltane and Samhuinn Fire Festivals. Arthur’s Seat is the third, located in the center of Holyrood Park. Granted, the volcano is 300 million years old and significantly smaller than it was when active, but it still provides a fantastic walk in the center of town, not to mention a 360° panoramic view of all Edinburgh.
Arthur’s Seat might have gotten its name from the lore of King Arthur, but in this case, “seat” refers to a place of power rather than a chair. It’s comical how many negative reviews there are from people who couldn’t find a sofa, restrooms or a restaurant at the top of the hill. This isn’t that kind of tourist attraction. Part of its beauty is the rugged nature, although there are remnants of an ancient fort at the pinnacle.
Getting to the top of Arthur’s Seat is simple. There’s hardly a spot in town where you can’t see it. The simplest entrance to Holyrood Park is by the Queen’s Palace. From there, there are two primary trails up to the summit. I consider the west trail to be the front trail, as it faces the city center and the castle, but it’s also a steeper trail with a couple hundred stairs switching up the side of the hill. The east trail on the back side of the hill is a bit easier, which of course makes it longer.
Bring a good jacket for the top, as it’s very rarely not blustery up there. Also, take care if it’s raining or icy, as the paths can be very slippery. I’d give the difficulty level about a 3 out of 10. My dad climbed to the top just before he turned 80, and I had a good friend reach the summit wearing heels!
If Arthur’s Seat is my favorite hike in Edinburgh, then Portobello is my favorite walk. Portobello Beach is a mile-long sandy beach on the Firth of Forth. Although a mile isn’t that long, you can continue eastward into Musselburgh Beach and beyond. To the west, the coast turns rocky and the buildings are industrial.
On the beach, there are several really nice cafes. My favorite is The Beach House. In the summer, there’s also a food truck selling Scottish specialties like fish and chips, and an ice cream vendor (open year-round).
Edinburgh (and Scotland in general) has some pretty epic tidal changes – as much as 20 feet every six hours! At high tide, the water can get quite close to the promenade wall, On the other hand, the water can recede over 500 feet! I personally like to walk on the sand, but you can stick to the paved promenade if you prefer.
Another walk in the center of town is the Union Canal. Did you know you can get between any two cities in the UK by canal?! They predate the highways by decades. In Falkirk, you can visit the Kelpies which are a tribute to the canals and the steel era of the UK.
I would have assumed the canal was named after the connection (unification) of Edinburgh and Glasgow, but it was simply the name of the company that built it in 1822. In Edinburgh, the terminus is located in the Fountainbridge financial neighborhood. Fountainbridge is really interesting as it’s an uber-modern group of buildings in a city that has a distinctly historic architectural design.
The canal is only 5 feet deep and runs 30 miles on one level from Edinburgh to Glasgow. Obviously you don’t have to walk the whole 30 miles, but every day you will find thousands of people along the walking trail, including runners and bikers. There are also dozens of people who kayak up and down the canal. If you have a bit of extra cash, you can even rent some of the houseboats on Airbnb!
The Water of Leith
In contrast to the straight, level path that Union Canal provides, the Water of Leith has a slightly more challenging trail. This is the river that starts in the Pentlands to the south of Edinburgh and winds through the city before emptying into Leith Harbor. The river itself is 22 miles long, but the hiking trail only follows 12.25 miles of the river (more than enough for a good day’s walk).
It would be hard to say which is my favorite part of the trail. The harborfront in Leith is just gorgeous, especially at night when all the lights reflect off the water. Less than a mile inland, the trail passes by the Botanical Gardens, which are worth a visit in their own right.
The next big attraction along the Water of Leith is Dean Village. I like to refer to this part of Edinburgh as the hidden elven village frozen in time. The Dean Gardens section of the trail is a beautiful woodland walk with Dean Bridge spanning the valley overhead. It’s hard to believe that so many gems exist around Edinburgh!
My dad now lives not far from the end of the Water of Leith trail. At this time of travel restrictions, I’m getting in a daily walk either finding new trails in the Pentlands or running along the Water of Leith. Thank god I have so much nature near my base at this time.
A poet once said that Edinburgh was the city of seven hills. I don’t know which seven he was referring to as there are far more than that (it’s actually a reference to the Seven Hills of Rome), but Blackford Hill is definitely one. This is the location of the Royal Observatory and also a Hermitage House within a local nature reserve.
As beautiful as the hikes around this hill are, I’ve only been there a couple times, preferring to hike Arthur’s Seat instead, or taking a bus to Portobello Beach or the Pentlands. Blackford Hill is only a mile and a half south of the city center, and I used to live less than a mile away; I’m not sure why I didn’t hike there more often!
This large hill in the western side of the city is also one of the seven hills of Edinburgh, and the one hike on this list I’m least familiar with. I’ve been to the Edinburgh Zoo, which covers the southern side of the hill. It’s a hike in itself to get to the top of the zoo and back down, but there are many more trails around the hill I’ve never explored. There’s a large golf course on the eastern side of the hill and a quarry to the north. Other than that, there are several trails winding through the forests atop the hill, with Corstorphine Hill Tower in the center.
The Pentland Hills
Finally, I have to talk about the Pentland Hills, or Pentlands for short. This isn’t just a single hike, but rather a massive expanse of hills with hundreds of hiking trails crisscrossing them. To be specific, the hills span over 35 square miles, and there are over 60 miles of designated trails, not including all the unofficial animal trails, forests and grazing land. While the Right to Roam in Scotland allows you to cross private land responsibly, take care in designated farmland, during lambing season and when no trespassing signs are posted.
If you don’t have your own transportation, you can take the 47 bus from the city center to the last stop at Mauricewood Road where you’ll find the Midlothian Snowsports Center (with plastic ski slopes). There’s a hiking trail here which leads up into the hills and then branches off into several different paths.
Personally, my favorite trail starts at the Pentland Hills Regional Park parking lot on the east side of the hills. From there, you can follow the road past the Glencorse and Loganlea Reservoirs, or you can head up slopes toward the Bonaly Reservoir.
Obviously, there are far more hikes in the Pentlands than you could ever do in a day. If you’re up for an adventure, you’re free to camp in the Pentlands and spread out your hike over a couple days. Although I haven’t done it myself, I’ve been told it’s a good two-day hike between the northern and southern ends of the hills. Someday I’m going to cross camping in the Pentlands off my bucket list.
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Looking for a less-physical activity in Edinburgh? Here are some other activities to partake in around my favorite city.
- The Village Hotel in Edinburgh is So Much More Than a Hotel
- There’s a Cat Cafe in Edinburgh!
- Enjoying the Happiest Place in Scotland at Edinburgh’s Chihuahua Cafe
- Begin Your Journey in Scotland with a Secret Food Tour in Edinburgh
- What the Da Vinci Code Didn’t Show You About Rosslyn Chapel
- Camera Obscura in Edinburgh Brings Out the Kid in You
- Experience the Underground Preservation of Mary King’s Close
- Escape Edinburgh: The Most Fun Activity in Edinburgh’s New Town
- Finding the Best Ghost Tours in Edinburgh
- 9 Free Attractions to Visit in Edinburgh
- 10 Activities for The Perfect Day Trip from Edinburgh
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.
- 5 Steps to Book Cheap Flights
- Hostels: To Book or Not to Book
- Is Workaway Worth it for the Traveler?
- Click here to claim your $25 credit with AirB&B
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