A Book Lover’s Guide To Edinburgh
As an American university student who decided to study abroad, I had a select few options that would work with my major in English Literature. After browsing several programs throughout the United Kingdom (every English major’s dream study locale), I decided to move my life to the highlands of Scotland for a semester. While I wasn’t necessarily worried that I wouldn’t have the same literary goldmine as London, I was gladly surprised at all of the amazing opportunities for book lovers in both Glasgow and Edinburgh. If you’re a literature buff or bibliophile like me, here’s a guide to enjoying Edinburgh through a literary lens.
Fans of Scottish writers, Scottish history, or literature in general, will appreciate and enjoy the Writer’s Museum. Located off of High Street and open Wednesday through Sunday during the winter months, the Writer’s Museum provides great information and storytelling about the lives of Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Housed in the historic Lady Stair’s House, you can see rare items from each of the writer’s lives, including books, possessions, and paintings. You don’t need to have read these authors’ works to enjoy the wonderfully presented displays curated here! Check for events and other information on the website.
If you have the time, take the Book Lover’s Walking Tour and visit the many sites and haunts of legendary authors in Edinburgh. You’ll see a historical side of Edinburgh that most tourists miss, and be entertained by the fantastic tour guides that know their stuff. If you don’t have the time to take the Book Lover’s Walking Tour, make sure to find a walking tour that fits into your schedule as many of them feature Edinburgh’s literary history and J.K. Rowling fun facts.
One of my secret indulgences during my semester abroad was finding used bookstores and discovering beautiful copies of classic literature from across the centuries. Edinburgh was the perfect place for that, and I didn’t even know it! In fact, I spent a whole day with a buddy going from bookshop to bookshop, excitedly sharing our finds and amazed at what was available.
In the heart of Old Edinburgh in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle are a handful of stores that collect and sell used and vintage books. Start on Victoria Street (a must-visit), and step into Old Town Bookshop. A small but packed shop, you’ll be sorting through copies of Dickens, Austen, and Carroll for ages. I was lucky to find several copies of Bronte novels from the early 1900s and late 1800s, in prime condition and for a great price. The man that runs it is lovely and directed us to other bookshops like his in Edinburgh.
Walk downhill towards Grassmarket Square. (Sidenote: Take some time to wander around this area as well, it has a TON of history and many lovely shops to buy authentic Scottish souvenirs and gifts.) Grassmarket will turn into West Port, and you’ll soon see Armchair Books and Peter Bell Books on the left side of the street. Both are lovely and full of great finds, but the books in the greatest condition and rarest of finds are not cheap. If you want to spend over 100 pounds on a collector’s book, these two stores are your place. My friend was lucky enough to find a copy of a classic book that had the name of a schoolboy inscribed on the inside of the cover. Trust me, I tried to get her to give it to me but she knew how incredible it was!
Up West Port, when it turns into Bread Street, you’ll see Edinburgh Books on the right side of the street. This place is SO FUN. They not only sell books but music records and sheet music, postcards, and other quirky finds. The gentlemen that run it are a delight to chat to, and will honestly tell you whether or not they have the book they are looking for.
This place is overflowing with books, and I snatched an original edition of Breakfast at Tiffany’s right out of the front window display. Take your time here to seriously sort through the stacks and you’ll be rewarded with many finds from the 20th-century all the way back to 18th-century classics. Don’t forget to greet Clarence, the Water Buffalo!
If you’re looking for quirky vintage or antique finds amidst books, Cabaret down the street is also your jam. They have a jungle of a shop, and if you find the stairs down to the basement, you’ll find loads of lovely copies of 19th-century literature. The smell alone in some of these shops will send any book lover over the edge.
Closer to the University of Edinburgh, Lighthouse is “Edinburgh’s Radical Bookshop,” with a vast selection of political and social commentary literature. They also hold events with authors and other speakers, and everyone that works there was lovely to chat with and answered all of our questions.
Last on my list is Till’s Bookshop, close to Lighthouse, which has a lovely selection of contemporary and antique used books. It’s a bit overwhelming but well organized, especially in comparison to some of the West Port shops. The owner is very kind and loved talking to us about American bookstores and studying abroad in Scotland. It was a great end to our long day of browsing books, and still found treasures here that we couldn’t find anywhere else.
**Make sure to check the hours of each store before you venture there to make sure they will be open! Some of these stores are open only a few days a week and hold odd hours.
The Elephant House is one of the best coffee shops in Edinburgh but is also famous for being the location that J.K. Rowling spent most of her time writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. This coffee shop has a great view of the city, wonderful drinks and food, and during the weekdays it’s possible to get a table! Elephant House was one of my favorite places to stop by whenever I happened to be in Edinburgh, literary reasons or otherwise.
The gigantic Sir Walter Scott memorial may not be a secret, but it’s a joy to walk around and view for half an hour. If you’re lucky enough to visit during Christmastime, you’ll see it surrounded by the famous Edinburgh Christmas Markets and holiday lights!
If you do the Book Lover’s shop run like I described above, one of the best tea and lunch shops in Edinburgh is Lovecrumbs, sandwiched between Edinburgh Books and Main Point Books. They serve tea like no one else, and their food options are wonderful. I ended up sitting there for an hour or two one afternoon reading my new-found book and sipping their fantastic (refillable!!) tea.
For the bibliophiles and history buffs alike, these are a few ways to enjoy Edinburgh from a historical and literary perspective! Do you have a favorite secret bookshop or historical literary spot?