One of the most pleasant ways of exploring Edinburgh is by bicycle. The city is probably the most bike-friendly in the UK, and many residents – and a growing number of visitors – use two wheels as their preferred mode of transport. Be aware, however, that not all motorists are quite so tolerant of cyclists. Furthermore, cycle lanes are not nearly as prolific as in the Netherlands or Denmark. That being said, within the compact city centre, a bike is faster than a car. And although the city has an efficient bus service, this can’t compete with the freedom and flexibility that a bike can offer.

It’s true that Edinburgh, like Rome, was built on seven hills. But, with the exception of the steep climb up to the castle, the gradients are less demanding than you might think. A bigger turn-off is the cobbled streets, which can shake the bike and rattle the cyclist. Fortunately, these are confined to small areas (notably the New Town and Stockbridge) and can be avoided with a little planning.

For visitors who want to try cycling in Edinburgh, there are two options:

Option #1: Bring your own bike

If you’re planning to travel to Edinburgh by train, you’re unlikely to have a problem bringing your bike with you. The three train operating companies that serve the Scottish capital all carry cycles, though the rules vary. Scotrail (which provides services within Scotland) lets you take your bike free of charge, but space on trains is limited. It’s best to avoid busy services, such as commuter routes in the rush hour. On long-distance services, like those from Aberdeen or Inverness, you can reserve a place.

Both National Express East Coast (serving Edinburgh from London via York and Newcastle) and Virgin Trains (from north west England, the English Midlands and the south west) require a reservation for your bike (free on National Express, £3 each way on Virgin). With luck, you might be allowed on the train without one, but you shouldn’t rely on it.

Airlines also carry bikes, provided they’re packed in special protective boxes or bags. You’ll need to remove the pedals, fix the handlebars sideways, and deflate the tires. Some carriers (example: British Airways) count the bike towards your normal checked-in baggage allowance. Others (example: EasyJet) charge an extra fee. KLM requires that you obtain “advanced approval” for checking a bike. (See also Edinburgh Airport’s web site.)

Within Edinburgh, buses are not equipped to carry bikes. The city’s spacious “black” taxis (the kind you hail in the street) are large enough to carry a bike, but  are not obliged to do so. Most drivers will happily let you take your cycle on board, provided it’s not covered in mud.

 Option #2: Pick one up here

 If bringing your own bike sounds like too much trouble, you can rent one after you arrive. Bike Trax (in Bruntsfield) is the largest cycle rental outlet in the city. They’ll rent you a mountain bike, city bike (hybrid) or Brompton (folding bike) for £15 for half a day, £70 for one week, or £125 for two weeks. A repair kit, pump and helmet are included.

 Leith Cycle Company (at 276 Leith Walk, about two miles from the city center) and Edinburgh Cycle Hire and Safaris (just off the Royal Mile) also rent out bikes. The tariffs of all these companies are similar.

Edinburgh Bike Tours (in Leith) has 12 new bikes they will rent for GBP 18 a full day. They also organise a variety of guided tours around the city, from 6 miles to 26 miles, adults and kids. Fr

Grease Monkey Cycles also rents bikes for £26 per day. The hire includes free delivery and collection from anywhere in Edinburgh, helmet, lights, lock, cycle maps and a tool kit in the pannier bag. 

 As an alternative to renting, consider buying a refurbished bike from the Bike Station and donating it back to them when you leave. The Bike Station is a community project which recycles old bikes for use by the unemployed, homeless, and other “priority groups”. They also sell a proportion of their bikes to raise funds.

With luck, you can pick up a serviceable adult cycle from the Bike Station, average price of an adult's bike is around £75, but prices start at £45/50, which is about the same as one week’s rental. Bear in mind that they might not have a bike in stock that suits you, and their limited opening hours might not fit in with your schedule. But if you do find a bike there, you’ll save money and have the satisfaction of helping a worthwhile cause.

Where to ride

You can cycle just about anywhere in Edinburgh, including to all the tourist attractions. Bikes are allowed on all roads - even those that are closed to general traffic. This includes Princes Street, the city’s main thoroughfare and shopping street. Edinburgh also boasts a network of attractive off-road bike trails. Based mainly on disused railways, these provide safe, level routes to many parts the capital. Note that the city centre now has tram rails on Princes Street and some adjacent streets - cyclists should take particular care.

The best way to explore the city by bike is to get hold of the excellent Spokes Edinburgh Cycle Map (from local bike shops and larger bookstores). This shows all bike trails, on-road cycle lanes, and recommended low-traffic roads – and also places where cycling is not such a good idea, such as particularly dangerous junctions – not to mention those pesky cobbled streets.

Out of town

As well as having its own bike routes, Edinburgh is an important hub in the National Cycle Network (NCN). This is a comprehensive network of long-distance routes – ideal for longer rides into the delightful Scottish countryside. For an overview of these routes and some suggested outings, see Escape Edinburgh by Bike.

Cycling with others

If you like the idea of cycling in a group, you’ll have no problem finding one to ride with. Several local cycling groups organize regular weekly or monthly runs, and visitors are always welcome – usually free of charge or for a modest fee. The rides vary considerably in distance and pace. Some are short meanders around the city’s bike trails. Others are faster, full-day runs of 60 miles or more. All are led by knowledgeable guides.

You can find an up-to-date listing of these rides at Organized Bike Rides in and around Edinburgh.

More links:

Spokes. Edinburgh-based cycle campaign group. 

Sustrans. The people in charge of the National Cycle Network.