How to Enjoy Edinburgh Outdoors: a Weekend Walking Guide

by Patrick Carroll

Edinburgh is an impressive hub of thriving culture, history and of course, hospitality. It makes sense that a lot of your time there may be spent indoors, eating tasty food, enjoying drinks or wandering museums. However, Edinburgh also has the highest percentage of green spaces in the UK, meaning you could make an entire weekend out of exploring its green spaces! In this guide, I’ll be telling you how to do just that – from parks to gardens to hills. This is the right page if, like me, green spaces are at the top of the list when you travel to or consider making the move to another city.

Dunstable Loch - Holyrood Park

1. Holyrood Park

Living in Edinburgh for nearly a year now, I’m extremely envious of city centre dwellers. On their doorstep they plenty of choices to escape the traffic and the irritating white noise of the bustling city (the same cannot, unfortunately, be said for Gorgie!). There is Princes Street Gardens, Calton Hill and of course, the massive Holyrood Park. It’s incredible to find a green space not only of this magnitude, but also natural diversity, smack-bang in the middle of a busy capital city. In my short time living here, each time I’ve visited Holyrood Park I’ve had a completely different experience – the sheer size of the park means you can take a different route each time you go.

Whether you’re looking for a challenging hike or a relaxing walk, there are routes to suit every mood. The sloping path from the north side, and over the admittedly arduous rock formations, will take you 251m up to the iconic Arthur’s Seat (legend claims that this mysterious Arthur used the hill as his chair!), where you’ll get an amazing panoramic view of the city and beyond – on a clear day, you may be able to see as far as Fife. My first route into the park started from Dr Neil’s Garden (coming up later!), along the eastern road to the Meadowfield Park entrance, up to Dunsapie Loch and a very steep walk up a pathless hill to Arthur’s seat. A strange path to take, yes, but exactly why I love this park! A more laid-back route to take would be the Salisbury Crags, with the paths being much gentler but still offering fantastic views of Edinburgh.

There are many entrances into the park. If you’re going from Princes Street, a 20-minute walk or the 3, 29 or 30 will take you to St Patrick’s Square, were you can walk to the entrance near Holyrood Distillery.

(Forewarning: while you can indeed get a great view of the sunrise or sunset, most people in the city have the same idea – make sure to beat the crowds if you want a view of the sun and not a sea of heads!)

2. Calton Hill

Calton Hill is perhaps one of the more recognisable spaces in the city, right next to the often extremely busy Princes Street. One of the best things about the park is its ease of access – exiting Waverely station, you’ll get a clear view of it – a short walk from a densely packed row of shops, a short walk up the hill (it may be steep for some, but still far easier than Holyrood Park!) and you’ll be rewarded with a spectacular view of Edinburgh from all angles. The most iconic of these views may be of Old Town, with the Dugald Stewart Monument in the foreground. While it’s tempting to take tons of pictures while you’re there, it’s also a great place to put the phone away and disconnect from everything and relax, with plenty of green fields or benches to sit and watch the day go by, read a book, or bring a picnic.

There are also some interesting monuments atop the hill, one being the National Monument inspired the Athenian Pantheon in Athens. You might wonder why it looks half-finished, and that’s because it is! In a typically British story, it didn’t receive enough funding to be completed. However, it has now become emblematic of Edinburgh as an iconic photo spot, where you’ll often see people having a hard time climbing up to get picture.

From Waverley station, it’s essentially a straight line to the park – carry on walking towards Hanover street until you get to a set of steps, the entrance to the hill.

Hot tip – if you’re looking for a sunset spot in Edinburgh, forget Arthur’s Seat and stay at Calton Hill. It’s usually much quieter, so in the end you’ll get a better view.

3. Royal Botanical Gardens

About a mile north of the new town in the city centre and towards Stockbridge, you’ll find the Royal Botanical Gardens. For any gardening enthusiasts or those who want something a little bit more tame than Arthurs Seat or Pentland hills, then this is a perfect choice. It’s also a photographer’s dream!

With a range of themed gardens and collections to explore, there’s a stunning amount of brightly coloured flora and trees all throughout the year. I was amazed at the variety of life in the Rock Garden, with plants from nearly every corner of the globe and every kind of landscape. The highest point also gives you a great view of the Edinburgh skyline, with the fantastic backdrop of its massive plant collection. The Woodland Garden made for a peaceful stroll, being surrounded by some of the world’s tallest species of trees as well as more familiar native species. I’d recommend visiting here in September or October when the rowan and birch trees’ leaves and fruits start to change colour, and you get the fresh smell and air of autumn.

Having lived in China before, my personal highlight was the Chinese garden – it feels incredibly similar to the countryside of China which I became intimately familiar with, and provided a certain element of nostalgia for me. With over 1,600 plants from Southwest China, it’s one of the largest collections of Chinese plants cultivated outside China.

From the city centre, stop GP at Hanover Street, take the 8, 23 or 27 directly to the gardens (the stop is called Royal Botanic Gardens).

Pentland Hills

4. Pentland Hills

Pentland Hills is a lot further out than the rest of the parks, but trust me, it’s well worth the journey. About a 40-minute journey by bus south of the city centre, there’s a whopping 20 miles of nature and spectacular scenery to enjoy. This one, I have to say, is my personal favourite – there are few places like this in the UK where you can enjoy genuine tranquillity. Whatever path you take you’re guaranteed to not see another person for large parts of your journey, busy day or not. It was here that, for one of the few times in the UK, I experienced complete silence, nothing but nature around me.  There were some moments when I felt I was in Lord of the Rings, traversing the rocky paths alongside clear streams, while the grassy hills loomed over me. Its highest peak, in fact, sits over double the height of Arthur’s Seat at 579m!

Much like Holyrood park, there are a range of routes to choose from, varying in difficulty and terrain. One of the more popular treks is the hike up the Scald’s Law, taking around 5 hours. You’ll pass through a fantastic variety of beautiful landscapes along the way – bright blue reservoirs, moorlands, river paths and mountain passes. My route passed from the east end at Flotterstone Inn, to the west end at Balerno, around 3-4 hours, walking alongside the beautiful Glencourse reservoir and through the mountain pass between Hare hill and Black hill. There are hundreds of species of flora and wildlife that you wouldn’t be able to find inside the city. There have been sightings of Ospreys, white-tailed eagles and merlin in the region, so any keen birdwatchers will certainly be in their element here.

From Princes Street (stop PV), you can take the 101 directly to Pentland Hills. After about a 40-minute ride, stop at Flotterstone Inn and then walk for a few minutes to get into the park.


Corstorphine Hill

5. Corstorphine Hill

Since most of this list has been around the city centre, I thought I should include somewhere for those who live on the west side. Corstorphine Hill may not possess the same scale as Arthur’s Seat or Pentland hills, but it’s a lovely nature retreat and woodland walk, just next door to Edinburgh Zoo. It’s my place of choice when I need to get out of the apartment and see a bit of green, but don’t fancy riding the bus.

While it may appear small, Corstorphine is in fact the biggest area of woodland within Edinburgh. Its highest point nearly matches Arthur’s Seat at 161 metres and gives you stunning views of Edinburgh. At the summit, you’ll find Scott tower, a memorial to famous novelist Sir Walter Scott (the tower is usually opened two days a week by the charity organisation Friends of Corstorphine Hill. Although the paths can be quite steep, it still makes for a relaxing walk and a great escape from the city. It’s also home to a famous colony of badgers, which you’ll have a very hard time spotting since they’re nocturnal and extremely wary of humans.

There we have it, just a few of the parks you can explore in Edinburgh to make your weekend much greener. Add any of these parks to your Edinburgh itinerary to make your trip a little more green and escape the crowds of the city.