A book lover’s guide to literary Edinburgh

A book lover’s guide to literary Edinburgh

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.

Edinburgh bookshops

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.

Check out this list if you’d like to see the Outlander sites in and around Edinburgh on your own.

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.

14 comments | Comment

14 comments

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  1. Mary Becker says:

    Hi Anne,
    I enjoyed your post about Edinburgh and all the bookshops. My husband and I were there in 2012 and although it rained most of the time, I fell in love with the city! I wanted to tell you about a walk you can take that very few tourists would know about. I’m an Ian Rankin fan, so when I found he had an app for visitors I added that to our resources. On the app he provides a guide for a walk that was enchanting. Some stone monuments and small structures, gorgeous green surroundings and my favorite stone walls sprinkled with mosses and ferns. I think it takes about an hour.
    The day we walked down to Holyrood and Arthur’s Seat the Queen was having a garden party. All we had to do was walk partway up Arthur’s Seat and we could see into her garden. So iconic! Men in kilts! Women’s hats! And the Queen was easy to spot: pastel suit, matching hat and of course the handbag! As we left and walked back up the Royal Mile people were leaving the party so there we were among the kilts and hats-we were definitely in Scotland!
    Hope you enjoyed my little stories. I enjoy all you do😊

  2. Pia says:

    I’ve called Edinburgh my home for a year and a Half now (after first moving to Dundee that had it’s on literature festival in November which sadly isn’t on anynore!). Don’t have much for recommendations beyond that but there’s tons of lovely cafes to sit and read , and the cinema I manage has its own little free library (that I would love to improve some day!) Where people can take books and donate to charity. Books are definitely a part of the heart and soul of the city and definitely bookmarking this page for after Christmas when we are looking for things to do again!

  3. Suzann says:

    Hi! My sister and I were in Edinburgh for the International Book Festival last August (18). It was wonderful to poke around and see all the stunning special editions with bookcovers/art we would never see here in the States. I think Chelsea Clinton was in town promoting her latest book that day. Of course, being Scotland it poured on and off all day. I was able to pick up a few Muriel Spark’s special editions , that I treasure. They had all 22 of her works and each was numbered-I purchased #6 The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and # 22 The Finishing School. A fun memory! (Just couldn’t squeeze them all in my bag!!)
    Thank you for your bookshop suggestions. I will be back to explore Edinburgh and recommend venturing out and discovering the Highlands. Scotland is a magical, inspiring place.

  4. Camille Wilson says:

    Thank you for this post about all things literary in the the fascinating city of Edinburgh. So wish that I had this with me when I visited Edinburgh in October. Now I must go back with this great posting!

  5. aquagirl809 says:

    We have traveled all over Scotland and love Edinburgh. I agree that the city is very walkable and such a magical place! Thanks for your fabulous literary guide to Edinburgh – there is always so much more we want to see there. I have always imagined that if there is a destination where I would run away and live for an extended stay, that place would be Edinburgh!

  6. Angela says:

    Thank you so much for all the wonderful ideas of places to visit in Edinburgh. I am feverishly adding your suggestions to my travel journal.

  7. Annika Helena says:

    What a lovely post! I am grateful for having a trip to Edinburgh to look forward to next summer, and I will definitely have your post in mind! I once visited Edinburgh before and made my children walk all across town with me to New Town just to check out some places from the 44 Scotland Street. They were not impressed but know their mother’s bookish whims by now:)

  8. Julie Dowdall says:

    I enjoyed skim reading this too, while translating for a work colleague who was on a drip in Istanbul, Turkey. Brought back happy memories of visiting Edinburgh where one of my close friends live. And plans for places to visit when I go again in a few months.

    One of the biggest pleasures I had on my first visit was to see the statue of Greyfriars Bobby with his nose rubbed shiny with the affection bestown upon him.

    Lots of bookshops in Istanbul to visit too *subtle hint*. Have you read any of Barbara Nadel’s books? Istanbul comes to life with the Inspector İkmen books (sorry, slight digression but you have fans in this city too!)

  9. AnnJ says:

    I was in Edinburgh with my family in 2014. We also loved the numerous bookshops. They were usually small in size, but each book seemed so well chosen. We passed many hours browsing and buying–probably needed another suitcase to take our spoils home!

  10. Rachel W says:

    My husband and I celebrated our 20th anniversary in Scotland last June and spent a couple of days of the trip in Edinburgh. You mentioned Typewronger Books on the blog so we made a point to visit when we were there. What a delightful little shop. I bought a couple of the British versions of Harry Potter for my obsessed son and the owner marked each book with his distinctive stamp, inserted bookmarks and asked which miniature origami figure my son would like (we picked a dragon, naturally). My son still raves about his Scottish books and the origami figure (made from book pages) is prominently displayed in his room.

    I should add that the owner asked how I found the store, and I told him that he was a hit on the blogosphere in the US. He asked, “was it that lovely lady Anne who mentioned us?” I couldn’t wait to share that she was indeed the one who led me to his shop and he remarked how much he enjoyed meeting you. I treasured this face-to-face connection in our digital world. Thanks for making it happen!

  11. Elizabeth says:

    Hi Anne,
    I’ve spent the past year binge-listening to WSIRN and I’m finally caught up. My TBR list has never been so full, and I’m so grateful for all your content in my life! The podcast and this blog have also been really helpful in planning my teaching.
    But now I’m writing about a trip to London–do have any tips or suggestions for a book-lovers trip to literary London? I’ve been to Dickens’ house, and I plan to check out a lot of the sites where Victorian authors lived, and I’ve been to Highgate, but what I’m really looking for is out-of-the-way delightful bookstores (not Hatchards, though I’ll go there as well!).
    Thanks–and best holiday wishes to you and yours!

  12. Susan says:

    Edinburgh is one of my favourite cities. I have visited many times. I have been to many places you mentioned, but see some new ones, always good to have new sites for the next visit. I am an Alexander McCall Smith fan, so I sought out Scotland Street and area, as well as Bruntsfield (Isabel Dalhousie).

  13. Susan says:

    Oh, I forgot to mention a very significant memory. On my first visit, I attended an event at the Scottish Poetry Library. I was on holiday for rest and recharge after my mom passed away (ten years ago now). They suggested a hidden garden, across the street, but tucked behind high stone walls, easy to miss. They thought it might help me. It was perfect, just what I needed, and I return there every time now. Dunbar’s Close Garden. On Royal Mile, at the Holyrood House end, on same side of the street as Canongate Kirk. Maintained by the city as an example of a 17th century garden, terraces, squared off areas, layers. Beautiful and peaceful.

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