Are you planning a trip to the spectacular Scottish capital? You will certainly have no problem finding fabulous things to do in Edinburgh.
Sometimes referred to as the “Athens of the North,” the city is far more than just being easy on the eye. Be prepared to get lost in its history – even if you don’t mean to. There’s nowhere quite like it, which makes it the ultimate destination at any time of the year. Every time you visit you are welcomed with new experiences or colorful festivals whether it be the world renowned Hogmanay at New Years Eve or the memorable summer Fringe Festival.
This post will explore what to see and do in Edinburgh. Get ready for world-class beauty at every turn, kilts, bagpipes and lots of fun with the best activities in town.
Don’t forget to also read my post The Best First Timers Tips For Visiting Edinburgh.
The Best Things To Do In Edinburgh
Visit Edinburgh Castle
This is definitely one of the best things to do in Edinburgh! Indeed, if you visit the Scottish city you can’t miss a trip to the symbol of Scotland itself. Located on Castle Rock, Edinburgh Castle towers above the city and offers panoramic views of the city and beyond.
A visit will grant you insights into the history of Scotland. Inside, you can admire historical artifacts, period costumes, weapons and even the Scottish Crown Jewels (known as the Honours of Scotland). Among the most impressive sights there are St. Margaret’s Chapel, which dates back to the 12th century, and the Great Hall. The Castle is where the Scottish National War Memorial and the National War Museum of Scotland are located.
But there’s more. If you visit at 1:00 pm (except on Sundays) you’ll be able to hear a traditional cannon fire, a practice that started in 1861 to signal the arrival of ships in the harbor. Whether you explore from the inside or outside you’ll soon realize why this magnificent castle is a testimony to the spirit of the Scots. It is worth it, especially if this is your first time visiting a Scottish castle.
This is probably the most popular attraction in Edinburgh so you should book your visit in advance. The ticket to go inside costs £18 GBP (around $22 USD) for adults; the reduced fee is £14.50 (little less than $18) whereas children aged 5 to 15 pay £11 (little over $13 USD). You can get tickets to the Edinburgh Castle here. Keep in mind this attraction is included in the Royal Edinburgh Ticket, which you can get here.
Admire the Scott Monument
The Scott Monument is located on Princes Street, just above prices Street Gardens. It was built in 1832 to commemorate the death of Sir Walter Scott, a beloved Scottish writer author of Ivanhoe and The Lady of the Lake, and the inventor of historic fiction – actually one of your favorite genres.
At almost 61 meters (200 feet) and 237 steps (a mighty spiral staircase) high, it is the tallest memorial for a writer in the world. Today, you can go to the top and the middle of the gothic monument on a tour. A small museum is located on the first level of the climb. There you can learn about Scott’s life and his work.
Breathe in Princes St Gardens
Princes Street Gardens is one of the nicest green spaces in the city and it separates the new town from the old town. Not only is this a great place to relax or meet up with friends, you can take some outstanding photos of the castle from here, especially from in front of the famous Ross fountain. Undeniably, it’s beautiful at any time, cold or hot, rain or shine.
Where the gardens lay now used to be a marshland that was turned into the artificial lake of Nor Loch, used for defensive purposes and later on, during medieval times, as a sewage and dump for the city. The lake started being drained in the 1760s and the gardens (Princes Street Gardens East, and Princes Street Gardens West) were subsequently created.
The Meadows, close to the University buildings, is another great place to chill.
Check out Blackness Castle
Another really cool castle you should consider visiting is the 15th century Blackness Castle, located on the Firth of Forth. Inside, you can learn about the history of the Crichtons, one of the most powerful families of Scotland, and climb the towers and walls to admire the views of the region.
Blackness Castle is about 35 minutes from the center of town and tickets cost £7 GBP ($8.50 USD) for adults, £5.50 (about $6.70 USD) for visitors who are 65 year old and older, and £4 (around $5 USD) for children between 5 and 15 years of age. Opening hours vary with the season.
Get lost in Edinburgh’s Old Town
The old town is exactly what it describes itself to be. Old! Enjoy walking around this area through the small alleys, cobbled streets and picturesque houses. Get your camera ready because whatever the weather, you’ll be able to get some incredible historical photos, whether you’re into photography or not.
Make sure not to miss a visit to Victoria Street to see the curve of colorful buildings. Arguably, it is one of the best photo opportunities in Edinburgh and you can go on the terrace to shoot from different angles!
There is the option to take a free walking tour of the old town. This guided tour will take you across Edinburgh to see the highlights of the old town. You will have the opportunity to delve into stories about the city, its people and its history. Of course, there are many companies but City Explorer has a good reputation if you’re struggling to choose. Alternatively, sign up for this Edinburgh Old Town tour – it’s a great way to get to know a bit more about its history.
Go to the Dungeon
A cool place to visit to learn more about the history of Edinburgh and Scotland is the Dungeon. At easy walking distance from Waverley station, it is one of the most popular Edinburgh attractions for families with children – though keep in mind they may get easily scared.
Much like the London Dungeon, this is a very interactive attraction where actors will take you along the history of Scotland, including its most gruesome past. Special effects abound to make sure your adrenaline levels are up throughout the visit. There are currently 10 shows – the Witches’ Judgement, Castle Ghosts and Anatomy Theater are just a few.
Purchasing tickets in advance is highly recommended as this is one of the most popular attractions in Edinburgh. You can get your tickets on the official website here. Please be advised that the recommended minimum age is 8.
Walk Edinburgh’s Royal Mile
Known as the beating heart of Edinburgh, brave the crowds and walk from the castle to Holyrood House Palace. You can feel the rich history and it’s the best way to admire some of the oldest buildings in the city. Can you hear the traditional bagpipes? Can you smell the shortbread? There’s always something happening on Edinburgh’s most famous and oldest street.
Make sure to check out this Royal Mile walking tour.
Admire the city from the Camera Obscura and World of Illusions
For incredible views of the city, and especially of the Royal Mile, make sure to visit the Camera Obscura and World of Illusions. The latter is a series of rooms with visual games and tricks and one of the most fun things to do in Edinburgh with kids.
The Camera Obscura is one of the oldest attractions in town, dating back to the 19th century. Make sure to go all the way to the rooftop of the tower for stunning views of the castle and the city.
You can get your tickets in advance here.
Explore Holyrood House Palace
The official palace of the Queen of Scots and where Mary Queen of Scots used to live between 1561 and 1567, nowadays Holyrood Palace is the official home of the King when in Scotland, and one of the most interesting places to visit in Edinburgh. Its name comes from the Holyrood Abbey, an Augustinian Abbey that was built here in the 12th century and lays in ruins today.
The highlight of the visit will likely be the Royal Apartments and the State Apartments, but if the season is right you should also explore the garden.
You’ll find Holyrood Palace just across from the Scottish Parliament, pretty much at the other end of the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle. Make sure to book your visit in advance – opt for a guided tour or an audio-guide for a more in depth experience. Photography inside the palace is not allowed.
You can get your Palace of Holyrood House ticket here. Keep in mind Holyrood Palace is included in the Royal Edinburgh Ticket, which you can get here. You will need a separate ticket for the Queen’s Gallery.
Located just in front of Holyrood Palace there’s the Queen’s Gallery, which houses an exhibit of pieces from the Royal Collection. You can easily add it to your Edinburgh itinerary.
Adore St Giles’ Cathedral
While there are many churches you can visit in Edinburgh, if you pick just one it has to be this one! St Giles’ Cathedral is one of the main landmarks on the Royal Mile and was founded in 1124. Make sure to admire the gorgeous 1911 Thistle Chapel, built in honor of The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Scotland’s most important Order of Chivalry which was first founded in 1687.
Admission to the cathedral is free but a £5 GBP donation is recommended. You can also climb to the rooftop to see panoramic views of the city for a small fee, and go on a 45 minutes free walking tour – there are two daily departures. Photography is allowed upon purchase of a photography permit.
Stroll around the Royal Botanic Garden
Prepare to taste nature in the free Royal Botanic Garden that is only one mile out of the city center – it’s about a 30 minutes walk, or you can go there by bus.
Once located in Holyrood Park in 1670, the plants were moved to their current location in 1820. Inside, you can slow down and experience the 70 acres of stunning landscape that dates back over 300 years, with a whopping 273,000 plants. Don’t miss the Queen Mother’s Memorial Garden, the Rock Garden, and the Victorian Temperate Palm House.
If you enjoy botany, the glasshouses are definitely worth the £7 GBP (ABOUT $9 USD) fee, as you get to experience 10 different climatic zones and enjoy the serenity of the 3,000 exotic plants.
Explore Dean Village
Take a moment of peace in this colorful, fairy tale village. Stroll down the hill and see the quaint, picture perfect canal and fall in love. It’s crazy to think that you are so close to a capital city; it feels like you’re much more rural, with the river flowing and the quiet, calming atmosphere. It’s a great place for a walk and a coffee.
Climb Arthur’s Seat
Without a doubt, one of the best views over Edinburgh is the highest of the city’s 7 peaks. The towering rock face takes around 45 minutes to hike to the top and if you’re lucky and the sky is clear you will have a 60-mile visibility. Once you are up, you can visit the 15th century St Anthony’s Chapel, Salisbury Crags, and Duddingston Loch.
Many people go for sunrise and sunset, why don’t you join them? Remember, although it is not too difficult (just over 250 meters, or 820 feet) you should wear appropriate footwear and take water with you. Also, how amazing is it that you can climb an extinct volcano in a capital city?
Go up Calton Hill
The UNESCO World Heritage site is centrally located and was built in 1816 as a monument to remember all those who died in Napoleonic wars. Calton Hill is one of the “postcard pictures” of Edinburgh and is a popular spot for sunrise and sunset, as you can see the city from above. It only takes 15 minutes to climb, which is a great alternative to Arthur’s seat if you’re not a hiker; there are quite a lot of stairs though.
Once you are up, other than the views there actually are quite a few monuments and buildings to check out. The first ones you’ll likely spot are the National Monument and Dugald Stewart Monument. There’s also the impressive (and free to visit) City Observatory, a 1818 building designed by William Henry Playfair. No longer an observatory, this remains the largest building on Calton Hill and now houses a contemporary art exhibition center.
Another place you may want to visit in Calton Hill is the Nelson Monument. The museum is dedicated to Admiral Horatio Nelson – yes, the same of the Battle of Trafalgar. For a small fee you can climb the 143 steps to the 32-meter tall (105 feet) terrace for stunning views of the city.
The Nelson Monument is temporarily closed.
Stop by at the Secret Herb Garden
Head to the outskirts of Edinburgh and you won’t be disappointed with this herb haven. The Secret Herb Garden is a café and shop set amongst 7.5-acre gardens and you can sample the produce they grow. The glasshouse is impressive and cozy and you can easily see why people have weddings here.
Unwind at One Spa
Adjacent to the Sheraton Hotel, you’ll feel calm as you enter the One Spa after a busy day exploring the city. If you’re looking for a treat or if it’s a special occasion, it’s worth a splurge for this experience. Rejuvenate in the exemplary rooftop Hydropool and feel on top of the world.
Celebrate at a Festival
Do you want to visit for a party? The big month in the calendar is August, when the annual Fringe Festival transforms the city.
There are hundreds of shows: cabaret, comedy, theatre, and circus acts. If you can think of it, it will probably be there. It’s exciting because the venues are all over the city. You do have to pay for some, but there are plenty of amazing free shows too.
There is also the famous Hogmanay festival, which is a street party that takes place annually on New Years Eve. It is known as one of the top travel experiences in the world and when the clock strikes midnight, join in the Auld Lang Syne with your friends in the world’s largest rendition of the song! What an experience.
Greyfriars Bobby’s Statue
This is one of the best free things to do in Edinburgh. The statue sits on the corner of Candlemaker Row and George IV Bridge. The heart-warming story goes that in the 19th century this Skye terrier guarded its owner’s grave for over 14 years until he died. It’s similar to the Futurama episode “Jurassic Bark” where Fry’s dog mourns his freeze. Remember, if you do rub his nose for good luck be careful and do it gently as it’s already been restored twice and the locals aren’t happy…
In the Greyfriars Cemetery behind the statue, you will be able to find the grave of the owner and also Tom Riddell’s grave, which is believed to have inspired JK Rowling.
Revel at the Restoration Yard in Dalkeith Country Park
Another out of town experience, located just 20 minutes from the center is the Restoration Yard. The shop has a range of quirky products, there’s local food and it’s located in renovated 18th century stables. Breathe in the beauty and take a walk in the country park or have brunch in the cafe. They even put on yoga classes at their “Wellbeing Lab” if that’s your vibe!
Learn at The National Museum of Scotland
The free museum is one of the most popular attractions in Edinburgh, and its exhibit is ever changing with new pieces. It boasts over 20,000 exceptional artifacts and you can learn about the history of Scotland, with pieces such as jewelry, letters and even furniture that will give you some insights into the life and history of Mary, Queen of Scots.
There’s also an excellent exhibit about pretty much anything world history, with Egyptians pieces, science and modern technology, nature and more.
Head to the roof terrace at the top of the building to see breathtaking views of Edinburgh Castle. For an extra treat, have a meal or a drink at the Tower Restaurant run by James Thomson.
Check out the Scottish National Gallery
Another great (and free) museum in Edinburgh is the Scottish National Gallery. The 1859 neoclassical building is reason enough to go – it was designed by William Henry Playfair. Here you’ll find a fantastic collection of paintings and sculptures by Scottish and international artists, dating back from the Renaissance times, through the impressionist period and all the way to the beginning of the 20th century.
You’ll find this museum on The Mound, close to Princes Street Gardens and the Scott Monument.
Visit other Museums in Edinburgh
If you are into museums, you will find many more that are worth visiting. Here are a few:
GEORGIAN HOUSE MUSEUM – a great museum to learn how Edinburgh’s wealthy used to live during the 18th and early 19th centuries.
SCOTTISH NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY – built in 1889 in Gothic style specifically to house the portraits of Scottish people, you’ll find portraits of various Stuart royals.
SCOTTISH NATIONAL GALLERY OF MODERN ART – By far the best museum in town if you are into modern and contemporary art.
Visit the Royal Yatch Britannia in Leith
Easily one of the best places to visit in Edinburgh, this is also known as Her Majesty’s Yatch Britannia. Moored at Ocean Terminal in Leith (about 15 minutes from the center of town) this “boat” (that’s a massive understatement) was home to Queen Elizabeth II for more than 40 years, between 1954 and 1997.
Highlights of the visit include seeing the Queen’s bedroom, the room where the Prince (now King) and Princess of Wales (Charles and Diana, btw!) spent their honeymoon in 1981, the dining and drawing rooms and the bridge. If you have time, you can also stay on board and have tea at the Royal Deck Tea Room.
Attend the Scottish Ballet
Rumor has it that illusionist The Great Lafayette, who died in the theater during a fire, haunts the Edinburgh Festival Theater. Whether this is true or not, seeing this theater – which was first opened in the 19th century – is a must. It’s now home to the Scottish Ballet. Attend a show to check out on that ghost or – more simply – enjoy a sophisticated night out.
Go on a Real Mary King’s Close tour
Definitely one of the most fun attractions in Edinburgh, a Real Mary King’s Close tour takes you to a series of tunnels right under the streets of Edinburgh. But what is it? Mary King’s Close is named after Mary King, a prominent local woman who lived there in the 1630s. Back in the day this was one of the busiest streets of the city. The close was completely buried by construction in the 19th century, but you can now visit it on a tour that will take you back in time.
You can book your guided tour here. Photography during the tour is not permitted.
Experience Scottish writers and their stories
Edinburgh is home to many literary geniuses including Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson and it’s easy to see how they were inspired after living in the city. Stevenson once wrote “There are no stars so lovely as Edinburgh street-lamps” and I’m sure you’ll agree. You can easily trace their footsteps in the city.
For younger generations though, it is J. K. Rowling’s places that you’ll want to explore. Indeed, one of the best things to do in Edinburgh with kids is going back to the places that inspired Harry Potter, where writer J. K. Rowling worked on her novels.
The most popular places to check out would be Nicolson’s Café – on the corner of Nicolson and Drummond Street – except the café does not exist anymore. In its place you will find a bistro; and the Elephant House, which instead still exists, and where you can go in for a drink.
Other places that are said to have inspired the writer are the cemetery of Greyfriar’s Kirkyard; George Heriot’s School; Victoria Street (apparently Diagon Alley in the book); and the historic Balmoral Hotel where the writer specifically stayed in room 552 (though you can only see the room if you actually pay to sleep there).
You can book a Harry Potter tour in Edinburgh here.
Try local specialties
Trying traditional Scottish food such as Haggis (a mix of sheep heart, lungs and liver with onions, fat, oats all stuffed into a sheep’s stomach and served with “nips and tatties” aka mashed parsnips and mashed potatoes) should be added to the things to do in the Scottish capital – but we won’t hold it against you if you can’t. Other local specialties to try include black pudding, cullen skink (which is a smoked haddock, potato and onion soup) and stovies.
You’ll be glad to know that if haggis and black pudding are not your cup of tea, you can count on lots of other less traditional food – good fish and chips, for example, but also steaks, and lots and lots of vegetarian and vegan options.
Have a Scotch Whisky drink
Having a drink is definitely one of the things to do in Edinburgh! The creative spirit of Edinburgh shines through its nightlife and it’s not difficult to have a great night out. Try Voodoo Rooms, for incredible cocktails and a vibrant atmosphere, Devil’s Advocate for a more chilled, sophisticated evening and Panda & Sons for a secretive underground vibe and extravagant cocktails (just make sure you book ahead).
If you want to go on a Scotch Whisky tasting tour, I recommend the Scotch Whisky Experience. The experienced guides will help you to discover your whisky flavor. Otherwise, simply visit the Holyrood Distillery, which is centrally located.
You can book your whisky tour here. If you don’t want to go on a tour but want to try some go to Ox184 and have the Oban Whiskey from the extensive list.
Discover the history of Irn Bru
If you thought drinks in Edinburgh are all about alcohol, you are mistaken. One of the most popular local drinks is actually Irn Bru, formerly known as Iron Bru. If you are not a fan of very sweet soft drinks chances are you won’t like it (I don’t!) but alas, you can still have a little taste.
Irn Bru was first invented in 1901 and soon became known “Scotland’s other national drink” (other than whisky) and the drink “Made in Scotland, from Girders” (a reference to the color). It is made of lots and lots of sugar, caffeine (much like Coca Cola) and 32 secret ingredients – but not iron. The lack of the iron ingredient brought to its name change in the late 1940s, following stricter regulations demanding a clearer labeling of the components.
Sold across the country, now that you know its story, you’ll surely want to try it when in Edinburgh?
Planning a month or so in the United Kingdom? Make sure to read these other posts to help you plan your trip!
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This post was contributed by Rachel and Nico, bloggers at AverageLives. Rachel and Nico are passionate travelers, who aim to show that travel can be accessible and affordable for everyone. They enjoy city breaks, road trips and hiking. Follow their stories and journey on their blog and on their Instagram.