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

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. Here you’ll learn the story of how the fierce and courageous Scottish warrior changed from being a symbol of resistance against Britain to being a champion of that same empire. Instead of the usual musty, dusty displays of endless armor, this museum offers an interesting mix of videos, 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.

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, Rembrandt, and Rubens to Gainsborough, Monet, and Degas. Next door, the Royal Scottish Academy, hosting temporary art exhibits, is skippable, but offers a fine café and restaurant, and is connected to the National Gallery at the garden level (underneath the gallery). After your National Gallery visit, if the sun's out, enjoy a wander through Princes Street Gardens.

While the National Gallery features a few underrated Scottish painters, you'll get a better look at Scottish art at the National Portrait Gallery. From its Neo-Gothic facade to a grand entry hall featuring a Who’s Who of Scotland, to galleries highlighting the great Scots of each age, this impressive museum will fascinate anyone interested in Scottish culture.

The immense Dynamic Earth is located about a five-minute walk from the Palace of Holyroodhouse, near the base of the Royal Mile. 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 machine," you watch the years rewind from cave dwellers to dinosaurs to the Big Bang. After several short films on stars, tectonic plates, ice caps, and worldwide weather, you're free to wander past salty pools and a re-created rain forest.

The much-revered royal yacht Britannia, which transported Britain's royal family for more than 40 years and 900 voyages (an average of once around the world per year) 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 won an Oscar for playing General Patton — 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 and New Town, with stops in three pubs as your guides share their takes on Scotland's literary greats.