About this time last year, my husband Will and I went to Scotland. It was our first trip, and we loved it.
We were there for a week, which was both a long time to be gone, and not nearly long enough. We spent the first half in Wigtown, Scotland’s national book town, which I told you all about in that post. And then we drove north to Edinburgh.
Edinburgh, along with the rest of the country, has a rich literary history, and vibrant contemporary literary scene. It was designated a Unesco City of Literature—the first!—in 2004. Even the train station takes its name from a book!
The city is home to countless literary sites and people: Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Robert Burns are the best known, plus Kenneth Grahame, J.M. Barrie, Muriel Spark, Ian Rankin, and Alexander McCall Smith. That’s just the beginning.
While we weren’t there strictly for bookish sightseeing, of course we were interested in seeing the city’s literary sites. Though we only skimmed the surface, I’m overdue to give you a look at what we saw, and what we want to see next time.
The contemporary scene
Edinburgh has been home to world-class literature for centuries, but, as far as this tourist could tell, the contemporary literature scene is fantastic. There are bookshops everywhere, both new and used—we could barely walk a few blocks without stumbling into one!—plus educational institutions and cultural events that celebrate the written word.
Edinburgh isn’t a huge city, home to just under half a million residents. It’s very compact, which makes it easy to browse all the sites and shops. A good thing, because Edinburgh has so many bookshops! A far-from-complete list follows. Some of these I got to visit myself; others have since been recommended by enthusiastic readers.
My favorite new shop was Typewronger Books in Haddington Place, a small shop with a carefully curated collection of new books which doubles as a typewriter repair shop.
The new indie Topping & Company Booksellers is just a three-minute walk away on Blenheim Place, with a beautiful space and a robust events calendar.
Golden Hare Books in Stockbridge was named the Independent Bookshop of the Year for all of UK and Ireland at the British Book Awards 2019.
Lighthouse Bookshop, located near the University of Edinburgh, is known as Edinburgh’s radical bookshop, calling itself “politically engaged and socially conscious.” They’re also home to Word Power Books, an independent Scottish publisher.
The cozy Edinburgh Bookshop has signed books and readings, in Bruntsfield.
For more coziness, check out the used bookstore Armchair Books at West Port, where they describe the shop’s contents as “very nearly alphabetized chaos.” (And take a peek at their adorable logo!)
The Portobello Bookshop is another new bookshop in the community of Portobello, recently opened in a space that hosted a fishing tackle shop for thirty years.
In addition to the bookshops, we also noticed an abundance of Little Free Libraries or similar book exchanges, like this Book Box perched in front of a school on the Royal Mile. The painted message says, “come have a look and exchange your book”
You can’t talk about the contemporary scene without talking about the two literary sensations that dominate it …
Pottermania!!! (And a little Jamie Fraser)
I’ll admit, when we first booked our trip I was clueless about the deep connection between Harry Potter—and his creator, J.K. Rowling—and Edinburgh. If you’re a Potterhead, there’s lots to see and do, and multiple guided tours. The Potter Trail is the original tour that takes fans to Rowling’s writing haunts, the graveyard where a headstone inspired Lord Voldemort, and loads more Potter sites.
We didn’t lean in to Harry Potter on our trip, but we did see The Elephant House, one of several cafés that claim the status of Harry Potter’s birthplace. We wouldn’t miss Victoria Street, one of the inspirations for Diagon Alley. And we couldn’t help but notice shops with names like “Boy Wizard” all over town.
After reading about Rowling’s grand gesture to finish Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows in the book Deep Work, I was curious to see the luxury hotel The Balmoral, where she lived for six months—in secret!—beginning in August 2006 in order to finish her manuscript. (I’m sorry to say I did not see the famed room 552 on my trip.)
As for Jamie Fraser: I should have seen the Outlander frenzy coming, but I didn’t. Jamie Fraser posters and stand-ups were everywhere, especially near the Royal Mile. You could buy Outlander merch and book your tours to the Scottish Highlands.
The guidebook-worthy historical institutions
For those who want to see the Very Serious Destinations worthy of travel guidebooks, Edinburgh has plenty to choose from, so I’m limiting myself to the most-visited literary destinations. Bookish tourists can actually take an official literary Edinburgh tour, including the Royal Mile and the nearby area.
First up: The National Library of Scotland, located near the Royal Mile, is the largest library in Scotland and one of Europe’s most significant research libraries. The sheer volume in this building is mindblowing: it houses 24 million printed items, two million maps, plus copies of the Gutenberg Bible, a First Folio of Shakespeare, and the archive of Scottish author Muriel Spark.
The Writers’ Museum (pictured above) in the Old Town is dedicated to three of Edinburgh’s most influential authors: Scott, Stevenson, and Burns. The museum houses their manuscripts, portraits, and personal objects.
The Scottish Poetry Library is at the foot of the Royal Mile, by Parliament. The modernist building itself is incredibly striking, precisely because it’s so ostentatiously new in a city full of traditional stone buildings. They have a vast collection, thousands of poems on listening discs, cheerful and helpful librarians, and the full archives of celebrated Scottish poet Edwin Morgan.
Unsurprisingly, many of Edinburgh’s graveyards are literary destinations We ducked into Canongate Kirkyard to visit the grave of poet Robert Fergusson. The grave of Adam Smith was just steps away.
More literary fun in Edinburgh
I highly recommend high tea at Colonnades at the Signet Library—although since our trip was unexpectedly shortened by a day, we didn’t get to do this ourselves! Our friends, who didn’t leave early, said it was incredible. They sent me photos to back up their claims, and I’ve since sent quite a few Edinburgh travelers to the Signet for their own experience, and they’ve all raved. Please visit, and think of me when you do.
(Though if a literary pub tour is more your style, Edinburgh’s got you covered!)
Edinburgh is a year-round literary town, but their most famous literary event is its international book festival, held every August in Charlotte Square in the New Town. Can you say “bucket list”?
Speaking of the New Town: is this a safe space to share literary regrets? I realized on the plane home that we’d been two blocks from the New Town neighborhood where contemporary Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith sets his 44 Scotland Street series, which I began reading for the trip. I intend to remedy that on my next trip. Maybe I’ll take this walking tour of the series’ sites?
Have you been to Edinburgh? I’d love to hear about the literary sites you’ve loved, whether it’s a bookshop or café or revered institution. Are you planning a trip, or dreaming of going one day? Tell us about your Edinburgh wish list in the comments section!
P.S. If you enjoyed this post, make sure to read about our visit to Wigtown, Scotland’s national book town. And don’t miss this post dedicated to Scotland-related travel reading.