20 Edinburgh Hidden Gems and Secret Spots
So, you’ve already visited all the usual things to do in Edinburgh and you’re looking for something a little different? Well, if you’re on the lookout for hidden gems in Edinburgh, we’ve got a treasure trove of secrets to tell.
1. Discover Calton Hill, right on our doorstep
One of our favourite hidden gems in Edinburgh happens to be right on our doorstep here at Parliament House Hotel. While most people head up Calton Hill for the spectacular views (and who could blame them?). What they don’t know is that amidst the ancient monuments and historic architecture is a wonderful collection of new work by up and coming artists.
Also, on Calton Hill is the beautiful 1818 City Observatory. Inspired by a Greek temple of the Four Winds, this is a fascinating place of historic scientific discovery. Now an art gallery and museum, this is a wonderful place to add to your list of must-sees! Pop into the Collective Gallery and see what’s on display.
2. Tour the oldest building on the Royal Mile
No trip to Edinburgh would be complete without walking the cobbled streets of the Royal Mile. And while a turn down just about every winding close and hidden path is bound to unearth a treasure trove of hidden gems, you don’t want to miss out on a tour of John Knox House. This little gem is the oldest building on the Royal Mile (which is saying something!). Take a step back to the 15th century as you hear the drama unfold in each room of the medieval house.
3. Find the beautiful Thistle Chapel in St Giles’ Cathedral
Making your way up the Royal Mile towards Edinburgh Castle, stop in St Giles’ Cathedral and marvel at Edinburgh’s most impressive architecture. But don’t forget to look out for the tiny Thistle Chapel in the south east corner the cathedral. With extraordinarily intricate carvings and painted fittings, it really one of Edinburgh’s hidden gems. And be sure to look up at the magnificent ceiling!
4. Cross the threshold of Gladstone’s Land
Gladstone’s Land is just a little further along the Royal Mile. Dating back to the 1550s, the building was once the home of a wealthy merchant, Thomas Gledstane. In the 1930s, the National Trust for Scotland rescued the ancient building from demolition and restored it to its former glory. The reconstructed rooms, priceless Renaissance painted interior, low ceilings and tiny windows offer an inside peak into the cramped conditions of high-rise tenements 400 years ago.
5. Visit the Anatomical Museum at the University of Edinburgh
This amazing collection of anatomy, pathology and zoology is within the Old Medical School building on Teviot Place. The Anatomical Museum is one of the lesser-known museums in Edinburgh, and is only open on selected days. It’s really worth a visit if you’re lucky enough to be in Edinburgh on an open day. With around 12,000 items to see, including anatomical models, skeletal remains, dried preparations and preserved specimens.
6. Take the most mysterious underground tour in Edinburgh
One of Edinburgh’s greatest hidden gems is beneath the ground. You’ve probably already visited underground attractions like Mary King’s Close and the Edinburgh Vaults. But just south of the city is Gilmerton Cove, a series of underground caves. Unlike those other sites, no one really knows why these amazing hand-carved caves exist at all. You can take a tour of Gilmerton Cove, but you have to book your appointment ahead of your visit.
7. Visit Edinburgh’s art tunnel
The Colinton Tunnel was an old Victorian railway tunnel, on a line which closed in 1967. For years, it remained dark and unwelcoming. Until, in 2020, it was completely transformed with bright and colourful artwork from artist and muralist Chris Rutterford. Taking inspiration from the Robert Louis Stevenson poem “From a Railway Carriage”, it features some amazing imagery. The tunnel is on the Water of Leith Walkway, and you can access it from Colinton village, south west of the city.
8. Explore Edinburgh’s Graveyards
A graveyard might not immediately spring to mind, when you’re thinking of things to do in Edinburgh. But these historic places can be fascinating to explore. You can learn about the lives people led hundreds of years ago from their gravestones. And there are many interesting memorials and statues. Take a look at these old graveyards to visit in Edinburgh. Such as the Old Calton Burial Ground and Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. Harry Potter fans may wish to seek out the graves that inspired various names in the series.
9. Take in the starry sights
When it comes to hidden gems in Edinburgh, the sky’s the limit. The Royal Observatory is the perfect spot for budding astronomers and starry-eyed stargazers. Like most buildings in Edinburgh, the beautiful building itself is a sight to behold. And with a number of exciting cosmic events throughout the year, you can take a tour of the incredible Victorian telescope dome, discover a constellation or two, and travel light-years ahead through time and space along the Milky Way.
10. Seek out a secret garden
If you’re looking for a bit of peace and tranquillity, but you want an alternative to the usual Princes Street Gardens or Royal Botanic Gardens, check out these hidden gardens in Edinburgh. Including Dunbar’s Close, a quiet garden just off the busy Royal Mile, the tranquil Kyoto Friendship Garden at Lauriston Castle, and Granton Castle Walled Garden, which is currently being restored by the community.
11. Embark on a gin-tastic tour
If there’s one thing Scotland is famous for, it has to be our whisky. But despite the fame of the single malt, we’ve started to make a name for ourselves in gin too. With the annual Edinburgh Gin Festival, countless gin tasting events throughout the year and our very own Edinburgh Gin, the spirit is gaining popularity ground in leaps and bounds. With not one, but two hidden gems in Edinburgh itself, a tour to one of Edinburgh’s gin distilleries is a real treasure.
12. Take the plunge at Portobello Beach
You might not think of Edinburgh as a seaside town, but the beach is not far away! Just a 20-minute bus ride from the city centre, the soft sands of Portobello Beach attract hardy swimmers who brave the cold waters of the Moray Firth for a dip in the great outdoors. And on sunny days, the long stretch of coastline is a great place for a picnic.
13. Scrub up at the Turkish Baths
Scotland’s capital city might be the last place you’d expect to find a Turkish Baths, but we have one nevertheless. Just on the city outskirts, near Portobello Beach, you’ll find the first (and probably, only) Turkish baths in the capital. It’s a taste of Middle Eastern flair and tradition amid the sea-front takeaway shops and arcade galleries.
14. Find the Botanic Cottage in the Royal Botanic Gardens
The Botanic Cottage in Leith was built in 1764-5 by two renowned architects of the time, John Adam and James Craig. And it is here that medical students of the past were taught botany during the height of the Scottish Enlightenment. Sadly, the cottage was nearly lost to neglect and vandalism. But luckily, a local community campaign brought it back to life. Now, rebuilt and restored to its former glory it is open to the public to visit. Here, educational activities, community sessions, and public events are hosted throughout the year.
15. Look out for Lambs House in Leith
Lamb’s House is a spectacular historic A-listed building in Leith. Dating as far back as 1610, this residence was occupied by an Edinburgh merchant called James Lamb. Interestingly, the site it was once visited by Mary, Queen of Scots. Luckily, in 2010, before the house was bought by potential developers, conservation architects Kristin Hannesdottir and Nick Groves-Raines snapped it up. And as a result, it has been lovingly restored to its former glory, with exceptional gardens. Although not open to the public, it’s definitely a building to look out for while visiting Leith.
16. Stroll along the Water of Leith
Then there is the Water of Leith Walkway, which is a popular walking and cycling path with Edinburgh residents. Here you can explore this natural hidden gem. Follow the waterway as it flows through the city and out to a vibrant dock. Starting at the Pentland Hills, it winds through the heart of Edinburgh. Finishing at the Firth of Forth at Leith – once Edinburgh’s industrial heartland. Notably, it powered over 70 mills, producing paper, fabric, and flour in its day. Furthermore, the river mouth was a vibrant dock and boat building industry. But today the river is home to a wide diversity of wildlife. so you can enjoy a variety of plants and animals such as wild garlic, orchids, brown trout, heron, kingfisher and otters. You can explore it by foot or bike along the 12 and 3/4 mile walkway.
Additionally, you must visit the Water of Leith Visitor Centre. Here you can enjoy the little café, free exhibitions and a lovely gift shop selling books and souvenirs.
17. Visit Edinburgh’s other castle
Everyone knows about Edinburgh Castle. But just a short taxi or bus ride away, Craigmillar Castle also awaits. Just one mile outside the ‘old city walls’ this castle is famous for its connection to Mary Queen of Scots. She used the castle as a safe haven in 1566. Before its owner, a year later, became her jailer. And it is here where you can climb one of Scotland’s oldest tower houses, exploring fascinating features such as the great hall and prison. This Scottish castle enjoys wonderful views from the tower across Edinburgh, Holyrood Park and Edinburgh Castle among other landmarks. It’s easy to step back in time and get lost in the castles ‘nooks and crannies’ with its mysterious chambers. And after, why not pop along to Prestonfield House for an opulent afternoon tea with the peacocks?
18. Explore the Surgeons’ Hall Museums
Another short taxi ride, or a pleasant walk from our Edinburgh hotel, you will find the Surgeons’ Hall Museums. This award-winning group of museums is home to one of the largest and most historic pathology collections in the UK. And is one of the oldest museums in Scotland! Interestingly, the collections began in 1699, after ‘natural and artificial curiosities’ were publicly sought for medical teaching. And now this place is a source of curiosity, set in a spectacular historic building. So this is definitely another place to add to your list of places to visit in Edinburgh.
19. Enjoy a pint at The Guildford Arms pub
Just a short walk from Parliament House Hotel and our home on Calton Hill, you can enjoy the spectacular building of the Guildford Arms. Opened in 1866, the building has a magnificent Jacobean-style ceiling which dominates the public bar. Most of the original features remain, including ten traditional real ale fonts with their blue porcelain handles and an ornate restaurant gallery. Here wood panelling conceals a hidden room. This is said to have been a store for spirits and liquor, pumped up to the room from street level. A true hidden gem in the city of Edinburgh and a great place for quality ales and good food.
20. Find a secret speakeasy
There are a few secret bars in Edinburgh, that you have to be in-the-know to find. For example, Panda and Sons on Queen Street may look like a barbers shop. But venture inside, through the hidden door and you’ll discover a wonderful vintage-style bar with an unusual cocktail menu. The elusive Never Really Here on Rose Street might be tricky to find, buy you’ll be rewarded when entering this cosy and welcoming little cocktail bar.
If you’re visiting Edinburgh this spring, why not take advantage of our special offers at Parliament House Hotel? With our Spring Special, there’s no better time to travel.