Beyond the Royal Mile: Edinburgh’s Exciting Second-Tier Sights

Edinburgh's National Gallery, straddling the train tracks of Waverley Station, is just steps from the famous Royal Mile and surrounded by strollable gardens.
The elegant National Gallery holds a small but impressive collection of European masterpieces.
By Rick Steves

In Edinburgh I learned "Scotch tape" is called "Sellotape" here, and when someone stops breathing, rather than "mouth-to-mouth resuscitation," you give them "the kiss of life." I was also reminded that Edinburgh is one of the most dynamic cities in Europe — packed with history and fun, and always changing. Though the following sights aren't as famous as the city's castle and fabled Royal Mile, these lesser-known museums and experiences are worth working into your next visit.

Everyone visits imposing Edinburgh Castle, which pummels you with history and old stuff. But tucked away on the far side of the hill-capping fortress is the excellent (and generally overlooked) National War Museum of Scotland, which thoughtfully covers four centuries of Scottish military history. Instead of the usual musty, dusty displays of endless armor, this museum offers an interesting mix of short films, uniforms, weapons, medals, mementos, and eloquent excerpts from soldiers' letters. A pleasant — or exhausting — surprise just when you thought your castle visit was over, this rivals any military museum you'll see in Europe. Don't miss it.

Just below the castle, the huge National Museum of Scotland has amassed more historic artifacts than everything I've seen in Scotland combined. It's free and wonderfully displayed with fine descriptions offering a best-anywhere hike through the history of Scotland. Start in the basement and work your way through the story: prehistoric, Roman, Viking, the "birth of Scotland," Edinburgh's witch-burning craze, clan massacres, all the way to life in the 20th century. Free audioguides offer a pleasant descriptions of various rooms and exhibits, and even provide mood music for your wanderings.

What's new about ? My take on the place: For years I considered Scotland's National Gallery second-rate compared to its awesome cousin in London. But this elegant Neoclassical building has a delightfully small but impressive collection of European masterpieces, from Raphael, Titian, and Peter Paul Rubens to Thomas Gainsborough, Claude Monet, and Vincent van Gogh. A highlight (along with guards in plaid trousers) is Canova's exquisite Three Graces. And it offers the best look you'll get at Scottish paintings. The skippable Royal Scottish Academy, next door, hosts temporary art exhibits and is connected to the National Gallery at the garden level (underneath the gallery), and offers a fine café and restaurant. After your National Gallery visit, if the sun's out, enjoy a wander through Princes Street Gardens.

Scotland's Parliament originated in 1293, was dissolved by England in 1707, and returned in 2000. Its extravagant, and therefore controversial, new digs opened in 2004. The eco-friendly building, by Catalan architect Enric Miralles, mixes wild angles, lots of light, bold windows, oak, and local stone into a startling complex that would, as he envisioned, "arise from the sloping base of Arthur's Seat and arrive into the city as if almost surging out of the rock." For a conversation starter, ask a local what he or she thinks about the place. For a peek at the building and a lesson in how the Scottish Parliament works, drop in and find the visitors' desk. You're welcome into the public parts of the building, including the impressive "Debating Chambers."

The immense Dynamic Earth is located about a five-minute walk from the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Filling several underground floors, this immense exhibit tells the story of our planet, filling several underground floors under a vast Gore-Tex tent. It's pitched, appropriately, at the base of the Salisbury Crags. The exhibit is designed for younger kids and does the same thing an American science exhibit would do — but with a charming Scottish accent. Standing in a time tunnel, you watch time rewind from Churchill to dinosaurs to the Big Bang. After several short films on stars, tectonic plates, and ice caps, you're free to wander past salty pools, a re-created rain forest, and various TV screens. End your visit with a short video finale.

The much-revered royal yacht Britannia, which carted around Britain's royal family for more than 40 years and 900 voyages before being retired in 1997, is permanently moored at the Ocean Terminal Shopping Mall in Edinburgh's port of Leith. It's open to the public and worth the 15-minute bus or taxi ride from the center. Explore the museum, filled with engrossing royal-family-afloat history. Then, armed with your included audioguide, you're welcome aboard. You'll tour the bridge, dining room, and living quarters, and follow in the historic footsteps of such notables as Churchill, Gandhi, and Reagan. It's easy to see how the royals must have loved the privacy this floating retreat offered. If you're doing a city bus tour, consider one that includes transportation to the Britannia.

Edinburgh's Literary Pub Tour — interesting even if you think Sir Walter Scott was an arctic explorer — is a great evening out. You'll follow the witty dialogue of two actors as they debate whether the great literature of Scotland was high art or the creative recreation of fun-loving louts fueled by a love of whisky. You'll wander from the Grassmarket, over the Old Town to the New Town, with stops in three pubs as your guides share their takes on Scotland's literary greats.