A student’s guide to living in Edinburgh
Scotland is probably best known for being a land of men in skirts (kilts), questionable dishes made out of a sheep’s stomach (haggis) and accents that can be pretty hard to work out.
You’ll soon come to realise that, while Edinburgh is home to all these quirky and unusual things, it’s also a place brimming with fun things to do, and some fascinating history.
What makes Edinburgh so special
There’s a reason Edinburgh has been inspiration to writers, filmmakers and authors for centuries.
It has a timeless quality that makes you feel like you could be trudging through a Jane Austen novel, but it’s also kept innovating itself to very much be a modern capital.
Here’s what makes Edinburgh so special.
History. Everywhere you look.
Perched on one of the city’s giant rocks (called ‘Castle Rock’) is Edinburgh Castle; a fortress for more than a thousand years and one of the most attacked places in the world. The ‘Black Dinner’ at Edinburgh Castle even inspired Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding. The Castle is home to the Scottish Crown Jewels, the oldest building in the city, and a fantastic view.
Views on views on views
Arthur’s Seat, the core of a long-extinct volcano, dominates the Edinburgh skyline. From the top (it’s not a long walk but do wear good shoes – tourists in heels will have some very serious regrets) you get one of the best views of the city. It also acts as a bit of a seasonal calendar, changing colour with the weather (a carpet of yellow flowers in the spring, frosty white in winter).
Back in the day, Edinburgh was known as ‘Auld Reekie’, (‘Old Smokey’ in non-Scots English). It got this name from the thick smog of chimney smoke that used to pour out of its old town, and the not very pleasant Nor Loch, a lake at the bottom of Castle Rock.
The Nor Loch used to be a pool of run off from Edinburgh’s Old Town, where people had no other option than to fling their waste into the street. Thankfully, it was drained and turned into lovely gardens and a handy train station.
If history isn’t your thing, there’s always amazing food (black sesame ice cream anyone? Or how about lunch with a social conscience?), ridiculously fun local dances called ceilidhs (pronounced ‘kay-lee’), festivals most months, cosy pubs, spots that inspired the author of Sherlock Holmes, filming locations, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a long tradition of great universities.
And of course, there’s Harry Potter. JK Rowling wrote a lot of the series in Edinburgh, and it’s easy to spot how it inspired people and places in the books.
There are character names taken from Greyfriar’s Kirkyard (there’s the headstone of Thomas Riddle and his son, the originally named Thomas Riddle, a McGonagall and a Moodie), castle-like schools which inspired Hogwarts and twisting streets crammed with shops that make you think you could be in Diagon Alley. And of course there are the cafés where Rowling snuggled up with a cup of tea and a notebook to write the tales.
Harry Potter mania is everywhere. Lots of shops sell Hogwarts scarves, beanies and jumpers, themed pop-up bars serve drinks inspired by Butterbeer and Firewhisky, escape rooms challenge you to defeat Voldemort, a local improv group perform a Harry Potter themed show every Thursday night and there are multiple shops dedicated to stocking Wizarding World merchandise.
Deciphering Scottish slang
It won’t take long after you arrive in Edinburgh to start seeing (or hearing) Scots (there’s a ‘Haste ye Back’ sign at the airport, which basically means ‘come back soon’). While it is similar to English, it is actually its own dialect. Plus, there’s Gaelic, which also pops up from time to time, but is more common in the Highlands and Islands.
It doesn’t take long to pick up some slang, and locals don’t mind explaining what words mean to you (if you ask politely). It’s easier if you read it in a Scottish accent.
Here are some words you’re likely to hear and see:
No and Not (you’ll hear this a lot in ‘nae bother’ meaning ‘it’s not a problem’, and ‘cannae’ or ‘canna’ which means ‘can’t’)
Cow, generally only used with the amazingly adorable Highland Coo
Old – you’ve probably seen this one in the classic Hogmanay (or New Year’s Eve, if you want to use the non-Scottish name) tune Auld Lang Syne (its author Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns is celebrated every January on Burns Night (if you’ve ever dreamed of seeing a haggis stabbed with a sword, this is for you.
Taps Aff/Taps Oan
Tops Off/Tops On. This is a must-know. If it’s going to be a hot, sunny day in Edinburgh (around 20°C), everyone will immediately find a place to sunbake. This website tells you if it’s Taps Aff weather, or if it’s ‘Pish’
Angry/on a rampage/mad about something
This one is actually a weather phenomenon where fog from the North Sea rolls over the city. You can see it creeping across from the water, giving the city a spooky vibe as the mist covers the skyline.
Making the most of Edinburgh's cultural scene on the cheap
You don’t have to look far in Edinburgh to find a dose of culture, whether it’s immersing yourself in traditional Scottish music, art, food and fashion, or taking in world-class festivals.
Know when the festivals are
Every August Edinburgh hosts six official festivals (and a few unofficial ones). This means the city is exploding with performers, artists and tourists.
Having the city so full of excitement, colour and noise (there are fireworks every night during the Edinburgh Military Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle) is an amazing thing to be part of. There are thousands of new people to meet, pop-up bars and food markets, and of course tons of shows to see.
The city is buzzing with noise, people and flyers (many people will try and hand you flyers – it’s fine to say ‘no’ to taking them, but be nice!).
Be a bit careful about where you’re eating and drinking out, because it’s becoming more common for bars and restaurants to tweak their prices to make the most of the tourist boom, and the crowds can be a little full-on.
During August it’s important to give yourself extra time to get to and from places in the middle of the city, as public transport can be delayed and it just takes more time to walk in the crowds. If you’re in student accommodation make sure you check you can stay during the month, as a lot of residences make the most of the university holidays and rent to visitors instead.
A lot of locals get out of the city and it’s apparently a sign you’ve become a local when you start complaining about ‘the Fringe’.
Know the local tips and tricks
August can be a very expensive month, simply because you’ll be out and about so much more, buying tickets, food and drinks while you enjoy the madness of every kind of event imaginable.
There are ways to save your pennies; the Free Fringe is now at a range of venues (although you are expected to put some money in for the performer), the Fringe Festival often has discounted ‘preview’ shows at the beginning of the month, two-for-one days, free shows, student discounts (sometimes) and cheaper tickets close to a performance time (see the Half Price Hut). If the Edinburgh Military Tattoo is more your thing, a full dress rehearsal show at the start of the month is a cheaper option than seeing the show at a later date (and it’s exactly the same – these tickets go on sale on the 22nd of July).
The Edinburgh International Festival has a 50% discount for students for some shows. Street performances and variety shows can also give you the chance to get a taste of what’s available and help you decide if you want to see more of something, or if it’s not for you.
Enjoy the year-round cultural scene
For the rest of the year there’s still plenty to see. If comedy is your thing, clubs like The Stand and The Monkey Barrel regularly host comedians who are trying out new material, or up-and-coming acts. Their cheap tickets and bar food mean you can have a night out for a few pounds, and see acts that would normally cost much, much more.
Musicals from London’s West End regularly tour, along with the Scottish Ballet and screened performances of The National Theatre.
How to deal with the weather
Here is the bad news for snow bunnies: it doesn’t snow that much in Edinburgh.
A ring of hills around the city (The Pentlands) and the Firth of Forth mean the city is pretty sheltered from extreme weather. So, while it might be merrily blizzarding in Glasgow, Edinburgh will be dry (or likely raining).
You can get your fix of the white powder in the highlands, and even just across the way in Glasgow. Winter of course can be icy, so good shoes and a warm coat are important, but this is stuff you can buy here (either on the cheap at a charity shop or in one of the many outdoor clothing stores in the city).
Be prepared for darkness
Winters can be tough, not so much because of the temperature, but because the daylight hours grow to be pretty short (the shortest day only gets light from 8:45am to 3.30pm).
A lot of people combat this with Vitamin D tablets. You can get these in most pharmacies and in some bigger supermarkets and they’re not very expensive. It can help your mood when it’s easy to feel down from the lack of light – maybe something to check with your doctor before you arrive.
Plan to get out and about – locally and further afield
You will want to get out of the wet weather, and luckily for you Edinburgh has a great bus network. There’s a simple app which does the planning for you, and you can buy tickets on another app, or in person (but cash only and no change, unless it’s an airport bus), or get a bus pass.
If you have the money you might want to book a trip to Spain, Greece or somewhere else where the sun consistently shines. During May and September flights are pretty reasonable and it will still be warm. If things are expensive from Edinburgh Airport you can always try Glasgow. It’s only a train and bus ride away.
Make the most of summer when it’s here
Scotland actually does get a summer, there are great sunny days, but you have to expect a rainy or overcast day after a good one. It does get to t-shirt and shorts weather (you’ll be astonished at how warm 21°C can feel).
Make the most of the long days – in peak summer there’s light from 4:30am until 10:00pm, plus the dusk/dawn light extends for longer, but also be aware you’ll find yourself not eating dinner until 9:00pm. Invest in a good eye mask (if your bedroom doesn’t have blackout curtains) and think about taking sunglasses out on a night out, particularly during August when clubs stay open until 5:00am, meaning you can be walking home in the daylight.