Edinburgh City Guide
Sunk into the gnarled caldera of an ancient volcano, the city of Edinburgh is teeming with endurance opportunities. Its immediate and neighbouring landscape provides a full range of terrain and facilities for solid endurance training, matched by a depth of hospitality you would expect from a capital city. Edinburgh erupts each summer in August when it becomes the global focus for independent performing artists and enthusiasts, while the beautiful city lights help bring a throng of tourists to the city during the winter months. Home to locals and monkish mountaineers, the confines of the Scottish outdoors present a place far removed from the business of the city, especially when they’re cloaked in the hellish weather of this corner of the British Isles.
To make the most of this guide, note a few patterns and features. Facilities are broken into categories according to their running, cycling or swimming focus, with a separate section highlighting quality gym facilities in Edinburgh. Exact hours aren’t indicated unless very restrictive, and prices are also omitted in the knowledge that no listed facility charges more than £20 for day access. Instead, a full directory of telephone numbers is provided in the final Directory section, so you can call ahead to confirm your intended training time. The place names in Directory link directly to the Google Maps profile of the given entity – click on the venue’s name to generate directions. Finally, a Sleeping & Eating section towards the end of the guide provides an insight into good places for accommodation and fuelling during your time in Edinburgh.
Orientation & Logistics
Completed in the 12th century, Edinburgh Castle acts as the vital waypoint to the Scottish capital’s orientation, with notable patches of high ground a few hundred metres east, Carlton Hill, and one mile south-east, Arthur’s Seat. However, a more noteworthy midpoint of the city is best identified as Quarter Mile, a stretch of road that connects the high ground occupied by Castle with the lower Holyrood Palace, one of the official residences of the Queen and now the side of Holyrood Parliament, Scotland’s devolved national assembly.
Immediately to the north of Quarter Mile is Waverley Station the railway tracks that connect Edinburgh with Glasgow (west), Dundee (north) and London (south). Not even a hundred yards further north of Waverley Station is the most popular commercial thoroughfare, Princes Street, marking the beginning of New Town. New Town’s Georgian architecture is visibly different from the more compact neighbourhoods that start half a mile south of Quarter Mile, in neighbourhoods known as Marchmont and Newington. Between this architectural split are two major features – the campus of the University of Edinburgh and the spacious Meadows, populated by runners through the year and the slippery run up from cricketers defiantly playing the sport during the Scottish summer.
Edinburgh has a temperate climate with patches of permanent snow and ice during the winter months, anytime from early December to the beginning of March. Though the streets are gritted, you will often come across ice on the roads outside the city during the winter. The unpredictable weather means you’ll always need a jersey of some kind with you, whatever the season – summer temperatures average at 17°C, with winter a chilly 3°C. North Sea water temperatures off Edinburgh are brisk – as low as 6°C in the depth of winter and only as ever as high as 16°C in the summer. On the Winter Solstice (December 21), sunrise is around 8:41am, with sunset taking place less than seven hours later at 3:39pm. This short say length is just about made up for during the summer months when Edinburgh enjoys over 17 hours of sunlight.
Edinburgh’s running routes can be divided into three groups. The first set are those that route the Meadows in the center of town, dimly lit by street lamps at night. Second are the various routes that crawl around the protruding rock that makes up Arthur’s Seat (251m), home to a remarkable variety of surfaces and gradients reserved for walkers and runners. The final group of running options requires some travel out of town to the rangier trails in the Pentland Hills, a 25-minute bus ride from the city centre. Of course there are many ways of accessing these three sets of trails, and running tracks exists for focused intervals, but these areas serve as a refined set and provide plenty of training options for any serious runner.
The Meadows is an area of roughly 30 acres of flat land south-west of the University of Edinburgh, predominately used for casual sports games. The entire area is patch is triangulated by numerous tarmac paths which, though busy during peak times, are at least lit by the city. A main road dissects the flat land from a patch of earth that slowly rises to the south. Two key runner segments are worth scoping out in Edinburgh’s Meadows: 1. An entire loop of the northern (larger) section of the Meadows which is pan flat and 2.3km. 2. A shorter ramp of 500m at 2%, ideal for a long interval with plenty of width on the tarmac ramp. Taking a freelance approach to the northern portion can break down intervals, and offers a perfect place to train with groups of varying ability (shorter-cuts are abundant).
Your athletics friends will have a go at you if you don’t try to tackle Arthur’s Seat, especially as plimsolled tourists can be seen scaling its various faces throughout the year. The mound has two major access points: from the city centre, take the stairway assault, leaping from roughly 110m above sea level to a ledge at 208m, the negotiation of a mere 400m of horizontal metreage. The alternative option is to route around the perimeter road anti-clockwise to the south side of Arthur’s Seat until you see a grassy bank that ramps steadily back to peak (600m at over 13%). From the top of Arthur’s Seat you’ll be able to view the city, Scotland’s north-east coast, and the Pentland Hills towards the interior. This viewpoint is by far the best way to orientate yourself and get an idea of the city’s modest scale.
Two other routes that play with Arthur’s Seat include the sharp Salisbury Crags, known locally as simply The Crags. This impressive ledge can be traversed over 700m at 12% (left to right with your back to the city), or indeed brought into a complete summit of Arthur’s Seat. Move off the trail to the perimeter road and you’ll find that a good tarmac surface loops around Arthur’s Seat. Take the loop clockwise from the Holyrood Parliament to enjoy a 5.2km / 88vm test.
Though the Meadows and Arthur’s Seat tee up good training sessions, more relaxed long runs can be routed via two other areas. For rolling trail within wilder terrain, head out of town to the Pentland Hills ( #44 bus to Balerno). Alternatively, if you’re looking for some gentle gravel trail within the city, get onto Leith Walk which follows the tumbling stream to the North Sea. Set Anthony Gormley’s iron men as your waypoints – Stockbridge, Powder Hall and a sixth at the Sea of Leith, 7km from Stockbridge, the most suitable drop-in point for this trail.
Edinburgh’s major running track is at Meadowbank Sport Centre, another relic from the Commonwealth Games. The track is undergoing repairs until 2020 so you’ll have to organise your track workouts at the less central Saughton Athletics Track (14 minutes on the #22 from Princes Street).
Any rift between the Westminster and Holyrood Parliaments might be detected in the paucity of parkrun 5km runs in Edinburgh. Despite their being nearly 400 events across the British Isles, the Athens of the north has a charitable scatter, with only the Portobello parkrun being centrally located. If you’re looking to get a race under your belt during a visit, look to Scottish Running Network who list local races, or venture into the hills with Scottish Racing to try your hand at fell running.
When it comes to running supplies in Edinburgh, Run4It is Scotland’s foremost dealer of quality running gear, stocking the best brands and catering for the trail demands of native and transplant fell runners.
Edinburgh’s tough winters and wide summer days creates an odd platform for its resident cyclists. Continue cycling through the winter and you’ll be in impeccable shape for the summer, when you can further extend your regime with long rides before and after work. This radical filter might not be the most heartening for cyclists visiting the city, but it is at least strung around a set of quality roads that route with and further south from the Scottish capital.
Even before thinking about navigating Edinburgh’s ring road dual carriageway, take a peak at the 5km loop around Arthur’s Seat. This clockwise loop includes some aggressive elevation – 110m gain over 5km – and is outside the busy thoroughfare of the city, itself only routing to a small car park on the south side of the seat.
Heading due south and south-east opens up some beautiful farm country with quiet, smooth roads into the county of Lothian. The most natural route out of town is to point your wheels towards Dalkeith before heading onto Haddington. Look then to turn around in North Berwick and stop at the Scottish Seabird Centre for a coffee on the waterfront. You’re bound to get a grab a headwind on either your outbound or return leg, but won’t have difficulty navigating an escape if you tuck alongside the coast and cycle home via Gullane and the industrial chimney at Prestonpans with the Firth of Forth on your right (no hills to speak of). If you’re feeling a little more comfortable, you can dive off this route toward the south and broaden the loop – see example on Strava.
Aside from using Arthur’s Seat for your hill rides, you can also look to insert Whitehill into your ride out south of the city and attempt some hill repeats. This climb is 1.1km long, averaging at 7% gradient with minimal traffic. Just be sure to navigate the road junction at its foot.
For bike repairs in Edinburgh, drop into The Bike Station in the old town – suitably positioned with access to buses across the city in case you need to leave your bike in-store. If you’re looking for a premium road bike during your time in Edinburgh, think to book a bike with Bike Craft.
Originally built for the Commonwealth Games in 1970, Edinburgh’s only Olympic-length pool has received a thorough update in recent years, opening its renovated lanes to swimmers in 2012. The Royal Commonwealth Pool’s 50m length is no doubt its striking characteristic, though the pool is shortened to 25m by a boom during busy swimming times. Though the city does have other pools, you’re best off structuring your training around RCP’s available hours.
For open water swimming near to Edinburgh, Threipmuir Reservoir is open during the brief summer season, the backyard of Pentland Triathlon. The triathlon arm of the Edinburgh Road Club also run Friday night open water sessions on Portobello Beach from May until October. Another Edinburgh swimming group called “Wild Ones” gets into the sea throughout the year, every Sunday at 09:15 from Portobello Swim Centre.
The Royal Commonwealth Pool doubles as an excellent high performance gym with barbells, cages and pull-up bars, with the 50m Olympic swimming pool taking up the background. Near to Carlton Hill is the Omni Center, a cinema complex and home to Nuffield Health gym who accept a free 1-day trial but if you’re looking to get recurring usage, you’re best off with PureGym’s venues west of Edinburgh Castle (Exchange Crescent) or at the University (QuarterMile).
Sleeping & Eating
The centre of Edinburgh’s hospitality clusters around Princes Street, generally within a few blocks north and south of this axis. The city’s old buildings and tiered elevation sets it up for evening dining, with the dark and sometimes dank stairways of the city leading to incredible pockets of food and drink – a restauranter’s silver lining.
On George Street in New Town, you can find Wellington Coffee, Stockbridge Farmers Market on Sundays and L’Escargot Blanc for dinners. Nearer to Edinburgh Castle, Timberyard has a seasonal menu and barn-like interior. Within 100m of Timberyard is the site of the Edinburgh Farmers’ Market which takes place on Saturday mornings from 9:30am to 1pm. Puddledub’s buffalo burgers are a special highlight at the pop-up market – leaner than beef and just as delicious, if not more so. Skirt along the south side of the Castle to a small roundabout that docks with the Royal Mile and you’re practically at the indulgent institution, The Witchery.
If you’re in Old Town near to the University, swing via Brew Lab and eavesdrop on conversation about philosophy, literature and art – students of the University of Edinburgh seep into this venue with remarkable consistency. To the south of the Meadows is Victor Hugo, a deli that is ideal for lunches or if you’re stopping off on the way back from a bike ride or run.
Just beyond the formal catchment of the city is the hamlet of Duddingston and the cosy 16th century pub known as The Sheep’s Heid, visited only by the most outgoing tourists or those famished after an assault on Arthur’s Seat.
Though convenient, sleeping right on Quarter Mile or Princes Street comes bundled with the cacophony of noise and the surest way to become sick of the sound of bagpipes before you leave. Nevertheless, generally speaking, staying north of the University of Edinburgh keeps you within 20 minutes of any evening attraction, even if the weight of the city’s athletic facilities fall to the south.
Just off University of Edinburgh’s George Square is Hotel du Vin, a cosy, two-storey building with an excellent in-house restaurant that serves wholesome and hearty dishes. Hotel du Vin is very central, surrounded by the university and within a 2-minute jog to the Edinburgh Meadows for running intervals.
Further north in the city’s New Town is the 72-bedroom Eden Locke, a 2018 development that occupies several storey’s at the west end of George Street. Eden Locke don’t have a gym or breakfast but make up for this with access to free yoga, and an in-house coffee setup with pastries and fresh roasts. They’re bedrooms are also designed to self-cater, including hobs, microwaves, fridges and a mini-dishwasher catering to long stays. This aparthotel concept is matched by beehives on the roof, serviced by Webster Honey.
A hidden gem in Edinburgh’s hospitality sector are the self-catered apartments at Quarter Mile, a wonderful development that integrates old features from the city’s medical buildings, now converted into a few dozen glass-fronted apartments. Many apartments look onto the various pathways of the Meadows, and the entire block sits on top of a small supermarket and Söderberg The Meadows, a daytime restaurant that has a menu to fill a week of meals.
Arthur’s Seat: no number
Meadows, The: no number
Threipmuir Reservoir: no number