Most cities are good destinations for book lovers. Take a novel to your nearest cafe and enjoy! But what if you’d rather soak in the sights while doing something literary? Edinburgh offers an array of things for bibliophiles to do.
It’s not surprising. In 2004, Edinburgh became the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature. The city also plays host to the Edinburgh International Book Festival. That’s before you even consider the creativity on display in the annual Fringe.
Some fantastic characters also call Edinburgh home. Look at Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus or the cast of Trainspotting and Outlander. You’ll spot plenty of locations from your favorite novels or cinema adaptations.
Let’s look at five cool things for book lovers to do in Edinburgh!
1. National Library of Scotland
Being the capital, Edinburgh is home to the National Library of Scotland. They host exhibitions alongside their book collections. These are a great way to escape the bustle of the Royal Mile. The library also runs workshops on all sorts of topics. Learn to use maps in historical research or start your family tree.
You can also relax with a coffee in their cafe and buy books from their bookshop. If you’re spending more time in Edinburgh, register for access to the book collections.
The National Library of Scotland is a research library, not a lending library. You can only access books in their reading rooms. Pore over manuscripts, rare books and music in the Special Collections Reading Room. Or stick to the General Reading Room for books, newspapers and journals.
They also hold maps and cartographic reference books in the Maps Reading Room. You can find it in the Causewayside building in Salisbury Place.
In May 2019, Ian Rankin donated his literary archive to the National Library.
2. Writers’ Museum
You can also find the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. It’s a fabulous place to refill your creative well, with its mix of design, natural history, science and tech. But book lovers get a museum of their own, lurking in a close off the Royal Mile. It’s also free to visit!
Head to Lady Stair’s Close and you’ll find the Writers’ Museum. The museum focuses on Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns. Lady Stair’s House, which hosts the museum, dates to 1622.
Plenty of exhibits await you in this unusual museum. See one of three plaster casts of Burns’ skull and his writing desk. Find the printing press used to produce Scott’s Waverley novels. Or check out Stevenson’s riding boots and a ring presented to him by a Samoan chief.
The building is half grand home, half rabbit warren of corridors and staircases. Even if you’re not a fan of the three writers, it’s worth exploring its twists and turns. Some TripAdvisor reviews call it “dimly lit” but that’s part of its charm. You never know what you’ll find in the next room.
Elsewhere, visit the famous Gothic memorial to Sir Walter Scott on Princes Street. Pop into St Giles’ Cathedral to see a memorial to Robert Louis Stevenson. Go in the main entrance and look to your right for the bronze engraving. The pencil he holds is a cigarette in the original engraving held in America.
3. Scottish Storytelling Centre
The Scottish Storytelling Centre stands on the Royal Mile. Their mission is to preserve Scotland’s cultural heritage through music, dance and storytelling. Founded in 2006, the Centre encourages repeat visits through their rolling events programme.
They play host to theatre performances, music and exhibitions. The Centre also offers workshops in everything from narrative art to Irish dancing. Home to the Scottish International Storytelling Festival, they’re best known for live storytelling. If you’ve never seen a live storyteller before, then you’re in for a treat.
John Knox House stands next door and dates to 1470. It’s the oldest medieval building on the Royal Mile. It’s so named because preacher John Knox lived here in the months before he died in 1572. Knox’s links with the house saved it from the wrecking ball in the 1840s. David Tennant played Knox in the film, Mary Queen of Scots. The building now houses exhibitions about the Scottish Reformation.
Find the center’s bookshop in the medieval luckenbooths in John Knox House. There’s also a section on specialist history if you’d like to learn more about John Knox and Mary, Queen of Scots.
4. Walking Tours
You can scarcely move on the Royal Mile without bumping into a walking tour and they cater to all tastes. Want to see the South Bridge vaults? Done. Up for exploring a poltergeist location in a former prison? No problem. Keen to walk in the footsteps of body-snatchers and murderers? Sorted.
If you want something a little more ‘literary’, the Edinburgh Book Lovers’ Tour might be for you. You’ll see the old haunts of writers like J. M. Barrie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Walter Scott and J. K. Rowling. It’s a ninety-minute walk around Edinburgh’s Old Town. It starts outside the Writers’ Museum.
For the Potter fans among you, try the unofficial Potter Trail. It promises the locations that inspired Rowling, where she wrote the books and even a few spells. This tour operates on a ‘pay what you want’ model, so you only pay what you think it’s worth.
5. Three Different Kinds of Bookshop
Edinburgh boasts plenty of bookshops – perfect for a City of Literature. And there are different bookshops for every type of book lover!
If you’re interested in antiquarian or rare books, then try McNaughtan’s Bookshop. It opened in 1957 and is Scotland’s oldest second-hand bookshop.
The shop expanded in 2010 to include an art gallery. The gallery now hosts Typewronger Books. This new bookshop sells vintage typewriters alongside brand new books.
But not everyone has £800 to spend on a rare first edition, so how about Armchair Books? Located in West Port, they offer the floor-to-ceiling shelving book lovers want to see. If you can bear to part with any of your collection, Armchair Books also buy books for resale.
Or are science fiction and fantasy your preferred genres? Then Transreal Fiction, on Candlemaker Row, is a must-visit bookshop. Then when you’ve finished browsing, pop around the corner to Greyfriars Kirkyard! Head through the Kirkyard to see George Heriot’s School beyond. It apparently served as inspiration for Hogwarts.
The question is… which of these things will you do first?
Edinburgh offers plenty to keep book lovers occupied. Its mix of Georgian architecture and twisted closes sparks the imagination. But its museums, bookshops and tours get you close to the writers that make Edinburgh unique.
Who knows? Maybe you’ll find your own inspiration in this ancient city!
Here are some recommended books set in Edinburgh
- Knots and Crosses – Ian Rankin. If you love crime fiction and Edinburgh, check out the Rebus series.
- Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh. Choose life.
- The Skeleton Road – Val McDermid. When a skeleton is discovered hidden at the top of a crumbling, gothic building in Edinburgh, Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie is faced with the unenviable task of identifying the bones. As Karen’s investigation gathers momentum, she is drawn deeper into a dark world of intrigue and betrayal.
- Book Lovers’ Edinburgh – Allan Foster. Part guidebook, part readers’ companion, Book Lovers’ Edinburgh is an exploration of a great city that has been celebrated for its literature since ancient times.
- 44 Scotland Street – Alexander McCall Smith. Welcome to 44 Scotland Street, home to some of Edinburgh’s most colorful characters.
- City of the Dead – Jan Andrew Henderson. A history of the occult, a guide to grisly and paranormal locations, and an investigation into Edinburgh’s numerous supernatural phenomena. Is there really something strange and sinister lurking in its shadows?