Few cities can claim to be built around a volcano, but Edinburgh is one of them. Arthur’s Seat — the remains of said volcano — may now be extinct, but this rugged peak still dominates the cityscape. Nature abounds in the Scottish capital, and countless green spaces can be found among the Gothic spires and Georgian townhouses.
There are formal parks, such as Princes Street Gardens and the Royal Botanic Gardens, and more elemental landscapes, like Holyrood Park and Carlton Hill.
Here’s a roundup Edinburgh’s finest green spaces. And best of all — they are free to visit.
Holyrood Park is more like a brooding Highland landscape than a city park. Rich in geology and wildlife, this vast, 640-acre site encompasses Arthur’s Seat, Salisbury Crags cliff face and Duddingston Loch.
The park is located next to Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s Scottish residence, and is said to have been a royal park since the 12th century. Archaeologists have found evidence of human presence in the park grounds that dates back as far as 5,000 B.C., and the 15th-century St. Anthony’s Chapel is a medieval highlight.
Nowadays, Holyrood Park is a favorite destination for hikers, dog walkers, picnickers and runners alike. Active visitors who walk up Arthur’s Seat will be rewarded with incredible views that extend to the Firth of Forth.
Royal Botanic Garden
Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden was founded in the 17th century and remains an important center for the study of plant science to this day. In the 72 acres of sumptuous gardens, you’ll find flora from around the world. Step inside the Victorian Temperate Palm House, built in 1858; it is one of 10 glass houses scattered around the garden and displays more than 3,000 plants.
Outdoors, you can stroll through the Chinese Hillside, marvel at delicate alpines in the Rock Garden, and see native plants in the Scottish Heath Garden. Alternatively, bring a picnic and relax under your tree of choice; the giant redwoods are not to be missed.
Located close to Stockbridge, “The Botanics,” as they are affectionately known, can be easily reached on foot or via public transportation from the city center. The John Hope Gateway Visitor Centre is the go-to spot for information, and there are several restaurants and a shop on site.
Princes Street Gardens
Picturesque Princes Street Gardens are a series of formal parks in the heart of the city. Created in the 18th and 19th centuries when the Nor Loch (lake) was drained, the gardens cascade gently down from Princes Street to a railway line below. The gardens are situated between Edinburgh’s medieval Old Town and Georgian New Town, and Edinburgh Castle looms over their western end.
Highlights include the 19th-century Scott Monument, built in honor of Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott, and a Floral Clock, which was first planted in 1903. Each year, the clock is freshly designed and can contain up to 30,000 plants.
Like Holyrood Park, Carlton Hill has a natural feel. From the top, there are views over Arthur’s Seat, the Old and New Towns, and the Firth of Forth. The distinctive 19th-century National Monument — built to commemorate the lives of Scots who died in the Napoleonic Wars — was inspired by the Parthenon in Athens; its hilltop location means this Greek-style structure can be seen from miles around.
Carlton Hill is also home to the Robert Burns Monument and the domed City Observatory, which is being redeveloped as a contemporary art space.
If you are visiting Edinburgh on April 30, don’t miss the extraordinary Beltane Fire Festival, a recreation of an ancient Celtic celebration. On the night itself, the May Queen and the Green Man lead a procession of revelers up Carlton Hill to dance, light fires and mark the arrival of spring.
The Water of Leith
The nine-mile riverside walk along the Water of Leith is a nature lover’s paradise. This tranquil woodland pathway meanders along the water close to famous sights, such as Dean Village, the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art, Stockbridge and the Royal Botanic Gardens.
The walkway is easy to follow and has been recognized as an important Urban Wildlife Site. Bird-watchers can keep an eye open for more than 80 species, including buzzards, herons, kingfishers and swans, and fans of mammals may encounter foxes, bats or even albino squirrels.
The trail ends in Leith, a waterside district famed for its restaurants and bars. Enjoy some delicious post-walk Scottish seafood or — in colder months— warm up with a whisky in a traditional pub.