It’s tough to argue with the appeal of Edinburgh as it’s one of the most stunning cities in Europe. The Scottish capital has a long and dark history. The city center is split in two between the jumble of medieval buildings in the old town and the perfectly lined Georgian buildings of New Town. The city, in many ways, is a mess, but a beautiful one at that! It’s brimming with class, tourist sites, and character. I assure you there is no shortage of things to do in Edinburgh.
The city is one of many contrasts that offers everything from world-class art festivals to fine dining, rowdy pubs, designer shops, comedians, luxury hotels, and hip coffee shops. It’s almost impossible for any visitor to have the same experience or opinion of Edinburgh. We tried our best to enjoy a bit of it all, but we’ll have to return someday with more time like all visitors.
We break down our favorite things to do here from tourist staples, shops, coffee shops, bars, and historical monuments. This is what we loved in Edinburgh and what we suggest for an excellent intro to Scotland’s capital city.
Where is Edinburgh?
Before we dig into the best things to do in Edinburgh, let’s break down the location. Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland, located in the southeast, and one of the best places to visit in Scotland. Edinburgh’s location along the North Sea means the city sees varying types of weather. Most visitors to Scotland will likely enter through the Edinburgh Airport, meaning everyone has the opportunity to visit Edinburgh!
The hilly capital has a medieval old town and a stunning Georgian New Town. There is plenty to do here for all as there is a vibrant history with a nice blend of old and modern throughout the city walls.
The Best Things To Do In Edinburgh!
Explore Edinburgh on Foot
One of the best things to do in Edinburgh is walk around and enjoy the city. What we love about Edinburgh is that it is compact and walkable.
The city center is packed with shops, sights, restaurants, and history all within walking distance so there is no need to use public transport when exploring the city. Instead, hit the pavement and explore the nooks and crannies of Edinburgh up close.
Climb Calton Hill
Climbing Calton Hill is one of the best things to do in Edinburgh! If you’re looking for the best view of Edinburgh, head up to Calton Hill. The small monument is an iconic staple of Edinburgh’s skyline and can be seen throughout the city.
The hill may be smaller than Arthur’s Seat, but it’s centrally located and only a five-minute walk up. This makes for an intimate view that is easy to reach. If it’s a beautiful day, we suggest watching the sunset in the city from up here.
Get Artsy at the National Gallery of Scotland
The National Gallery of Scotland has one of the best collections of artwork in the city. We’re big fans of art, and the galleries house all forms of work spanning millennia. While it’s easy to make a jest of modern works of abstract art, the expression and freedom of art in the modern era is something to be celebrated.
Climb the Scott Monument
If there was one sight in Edinburgh that we had to visit, it was the Scott Monument. The monument to author Sir Walter Scott makes a cameo in Tasha’s favorite movie, Cloud Atlas.
We think it’s one of the best movies of the last decade and the monument is a pivotal setting in the film. The 287 steps to the top of the monument are another great place to take in views of the city. This is easily one of the best things to do in Edinburgh.
Go on a Ghost Tour
Edinburgh has a long and bloody history, so there is hardly a better place to go on a spooky ghost tour. Your tour guide meets you at the Mercat Cross before taking you into Edinburgh’s brutal and historical past.
The tour even descends into the underground, and you’ll feel the chills roll down your spine as you hear stories about the residents who still remain.
Hit The Royal Mile
The aptly named Royal Mile is a mile-long street that cuts through the center of the old town and ends at the Edinburgh Castle. It’s more or less a tourist thoroughfare. It’s always buzzing with people and buskers as it’s lined with pubs, overpriced gift shops, and restaurants.
The cobblestoned street is home to several other things to do in Edinburgh, and we often found ourselves walking along the street throughout the day.
Picnic in the Meadows
This large public park to the South of the city is the perfect place to have a picnic. We spent a few hours here relaxing one afternoon and found it filled mostly with local Scotts walking their dogs, playing football, or going for a run.
Catch an Old Film
This is a classic cinema and the perfect way to spend an evening in Edinburgh. It’s been referred to as one of the best cinemas in the world to catch a flick and is the oldest cinema in Edinburgh. They show a mix of blockbuster, indie releases, and classics. Check out what’s on the big screen here!
Photograph the Dome
This bar and restaurant has to be seen! Although meals and drinks here fetch a high price, the interior is decadent and amazing. It’s been open for over two decades now and is now considered an institution in the city often filled with locals and tourists alike. The stunning domed ceiling in the Grill Room with a large circular bar is sure to wow anyone.
Catch a Play
The Traverse Theatre is known for putting on some of the best shows in Scotland. It has bestowed upon itself the title of “Scotland’s New Writing Theatre” and is the place to go if you’re looking to a new play. Within the theatre, you should also check out Dine for drinks and dinner. They serve up some innovative cocktails that rotate with the seasons and serve a wonderful a pre-theatre set meal that doesn’t break the bank.
Stroll Around Leith
This waterfront suburb is a hit with locals. It has a number of cute cafes with outdoor seating and a number of restaurants, including a Michelin, starred fine dining restaurant. It’s also the home of the Royal ship, Britannia.
The floating palace is still owned by the Royal family, and it’s a popular tourist attraction. However, after visiting the Castle of Mey on the North Coast 500 we decided to give it a skip.
Have a Wee Dram of Whisky
A Scottish fact to know is that it’s “Whisky,” not whiskey. The Irish invented the difference in spelling in a bid to differentiate themselves from Scotch when selling to the American market. There are many bars, shops, and tours that specialize in the famed Scottish drink. We stuck to Edinburgh’s cocktail bars but managed to sample Balblair, Dalmore, The Singleton, Talisker Storm, and Lagavulin.
Our picks? I personally love the smokiness of peat from Islay whiskys and would choose the Lagavulin (rejoice Parks & Rec fans!), while Natasha would go with a 15-year Dalmore from the renowned distiller. Another great whisky is Talisker Storm from the Isle of Skye.
Make Sure to See the Grassmarket District
Historically, this square pedestrian area was the cattle market and where public executions regularly took place. The area is now filled with several pubs, hotels, restaurants, and shops. Including one of the best vintage shops, we found in the city, W Armstrong & Son.
Take a Photo of Greyfriars Bobby
It may be a small statue of a dog, but it’s regarded as one of the most iconic parts of Edinburgh. Sure, it’s not the most exciting thing to do in Edinburgh, but it is iconic. In fact, the local municipality has given it the same protected status as the Castle of Edinburgh.
The statue is dedicated to a Skye terrier who waited for his owner at his grave for years after he passed. It’s worth passing by, but please don’t touch his nose like so many tourists feel the need to do so. (Must we ruin everything?!)
Have a Coffee at Elephant House Cafe
Harry Potter fans rejoice because Edinburgh has plenty of things to keep you entertained. The most important is Elephant House Cafe where J.K. Rowling penned much of the first book.
Visitors have turned the cafe into an attraction with Harry Potter paraphernalia. Truthfully, there are much better cafes and restaurants in Edinburgh, but it’s a can’t miss for Potter fans!
Enjoy Princes Street Gardens
This lovely park is the calm in the middle of a busy city. At one point it was even a Loch where most of the city’s water and sewage came and went. Now, it’s been drained for over a century and serves as a lovely place to relax or enjoy any of the city’s many festivals or their famed Christmas market.
Catch a Festival
Edinburgh hosts a slew of world-class festivals year-round. It’s likely everyone has heard of their most famous, The Fringe, which is considered the largest art festival in the world. However, there is a lot more to the city than that!
We were lucky enough to ring in the New Year at Edinburgh’s Hogmanay and it was easily one of our best New Year’s Eve celebrations to date. The last day of the year is referred to as Hogmanay in Gaelic.
Every year people from around the world and Scots gather together in Edinburgh to ring in the New Year at an impressive festival. It’s a three-day celebration and involves concerts, fireworks, street parties, torchlight procession, and a dip in the freezing cold Firth of Forth at the Loony Dook.
Listen to the Bagpipers
If you’re looking to hear the famous Scottish instrument, you won’t have to look hard. There are performers all over the city offering visitors a chance to listen to them blow. We found they tend to jockey for several spots in the city considered to be the best.
Two of the best spots to find them are at the end of the Royal Mile in front of Camera Obscura and between the Scottish National Gallery and The Royal Scottish Academy.
Have a Drink at the Printing Press
The bar and restaurant are a part of The Principal Hotel On George Street and deliver on the atmosphere. They serve up some of the best cocktails in the city and the hip bar is was buzzing on a Friday night. It tends to pack in an older and hipper crowd as cocktails are around 10 GBP.
Take the train to North Berwick
This charming seaside town makes for a great escape from the city. It’s really easy to hit multiple destinations outside the city with Scotrail. It’s about a 30-minute train ride away from Edinburgh Waverly and is a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Our day in North turned out to be one of our favorite days in Scotland, and all we did was walk around the beach and enjoy the sound of the seagulls. The town has a number of lovely shops, restaurants, and a wonderful cafe where we enjoyed a tasty brunch.
Head to the Scottish Seabird Center
This experience isn’t in the city center, but it’s still one of the best things to do in Edinburgh and just outside the city. The center helps manage a number of habitats along the Scottish coast, one them being Bass Rock. It is home to one of the largest bird colonies in the world. It was one of the most incredible things we have seen in all our time in Scotland. The island rises out of the sea in dramatic cliffs that are home to nearly 150,000 gannet birds.
Sir David Attenborough has named it one of the greatest wildlife spectacles in the world. We may not have as much experience as him, but we’ve already had some amazing wildlife experiences.
This is one of the most iconic buildings in all of Edinburgh. It’s a prominent fixture of the city’s skyline and well worth a trip to see it up close. The grandiose facade sits on top of an extinct volcano. The oldest part of the castle that’s still standing is the St. Margaret’s Chapel, built in the 12th century.
They offer a lot of historical reenactment events that bring the centuries old stone walls to life. There’s also a traditional tea room here, to partake in a beloved pastime of the region.
Just outside of Edinburgh lies the surreal and verdant Jupiter Artland. It’s a 120 acre sprawling contemporary sculpture park on the grounds of the private 19th century Boddington House.
There are permanent pieces by Charles Jenck, Jim Lambie, Anish Kampoor, and more as well as rotating temporary artworks. They range from small to massive, thought provoking to simply strange. It’s only open seasonally, so be sure to check the schedule before heading over.
Arthur’s Seat is an extinct volcano with a peak of 823 feet above sea level. It’s surrounded by the grasslands of Holyrood Park. The hike or bike to the top is fairly easy and offers some of the most spectacular panoramas over Edinburgh. It takes about 45 minutes to reach the highest point.
There’s a diverse range of flora and geology to see in this protected, ancient natural space as well. It can be climbed in almost any direction, though the east is the most recommended route. It’s also home to a large, well-preserved facade dating back over 2,000 years ago.
Stroll Victoria Street
This iconic street in Edinburgh stretches between two other beloved landmarks, the George IV Bridge and the Grassmarket. It boasts the best selections of independent shops in the whole city and strolling the area is one of the best things to do in Edinburgh!
There are a variety of styles of storefronts to check out: contemporary fashion, vegan couture, independent booksellers, artisan wares, cheesemongers, whisky purveyors, foodie delights, and even Harry Potter paraphernalia.
Royal Botanic Garden
Right on the edge of New Town sits the 17th century Royal Botanic Garden. Inside you’ll find plants and flowers from all over the world. Set over 70 acres, there are over 13,000 living specimens. Plus stumbling across the panoramic views of the city itself is breathtaking.
If you work up an appetite, stop in at the adorable Terrace Cafe. The grounds include climates of many kinds from a serene Chinese Garden to an otherworldly lily pond to a Victorian glasshouse.
The Queen’s Hall
Queen’s Hall is one of the coolest live music venues in Edinburgh. There’s a wide range of world class artists that perform on the intimate stage, which makes for memorable, one-of-a-kind shows.
It has a capacity of 900 seats and hosts around 200 performances each year. It’s been around since 1979; hosting jazz, folk, rock, and classical musicians. The structure was originally built in 1823 as the Hope Park Chapel.
Commonly referred to as Porty by the locals, Portobello Beach is a charming seaside village just outside of the Edinburgh city center. It’s home to a quaint promenade, a tight-knit creative community, and many adorable shops and cafes.
It was once a popular resort back in the 19th century, though today most of the Victorian style attractions are long gone. In the summer months, it’s a great spot for swimming and water sports. In the colder season check out the last remaining Turkish sauna in Scotland at the Portobello Swim Centre.
Camera Obscura is five floors full of wild illusions. It also happens to have a rooftop with one of the most picturesque views overlooking the city. It’s a fun-filled adventurous attraction for all ages. Inventors, artists, and technical experts all create mind bending installations. There are over 100 interactive and hands-on wonders to explore here.
Summerhall is a vibrant one-stop shop set in a historical building in the heart of Edinburgh. It has a little bit of everything when it comes to cultural activities. Music venues, art galleries, cinemas, bars, and restaurants are all a part of this bustling bastian of cool. It offers a full program each year, of cutting edge performances, exhibitions, and workshops.
A hidden gem in Edinburgh, the stunning coastal grounds of Tantallon Castle make for a lovely excursion just outside of the city. The estate was first created in the mid-1300s and was standing until its last siege in 1651.
It’s located right on a cliff’s edge, making them some of the most magnificent ruins to see in Scotland. It’s also a great way to trade any hustle and bustle for a more tranquil scene.
Shop at the Markets
Edinburgh is home to countless major weekly markets throughout the city and its surrounding boroughs to discover. One of the older family markets is called Stockbridge. It’s on Sundays and is located on Saunders Street.
It’s a haven of independent traders selling gourmet fares, fresh produce, creative crafts, and original artwork. Pitt Market is located in an industrial yard. It’s an independent street food and events venue. There are a wide variety of vendors offering all the cuisine you can imagine alongside craft beer and live music performances.
National Museum of Scotland
Set in the smack dab of Old Town, the mission of the National Museum of Scotland is to preserve, interpret, and make accessible the past, present, and natural heritage of the country.
It’s the largest multidisciplinary space of its kind in Scotland since 1985. There are 12 million items in the permanent collection. The range of exhibitions runs the gambit, including favorites like the Audubon’s Birds of America or the Typewriter Revolution.
Enjoy the Galleries
The city of Edinburgh is known for its thriving arts scene. Sometimes it’s more fun to skip the big name museums in favor of exploring the smaller local galleries. Fruitmarket Gallery was once a fruit and vegetable market back in the 1930s.
Today the warehouse space has been converted into one of the coolest places to see some contemporary art. Talbot Rice Gallery is part of the University of Edinburgh. It has three distinct sections: modern art, 17th century Dutch art, and works from young, experimental artists.
The Johnston Terrace Wildlife Garden
Located in the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town, this little refuge feels like an urban oasis. It’s famous for being the world’s smallest inner city reserve, but don’t discount it because of its size.
Beautiful wildflower meadows and breathtaking views make it an inspirational example of how preserved green spaces can be transformative. It can be closed and locked at times, so be sure to check the schedule before arriving.
Royal Observatory Edinburgh
On the Southside of the city atop Blackford Hill sits the Royal Observatory Edinburgh. It’s one of the top centers for astronomical research in Europe. Dating back to 1786, it offers such a cool way to learn about the mysteries of the cosmos in the starry skies above. There are regular open evenings and you can also book an appointment, depending on weather conditions and light pollution of course.
Dean Village is a charming hamlet that was known for grain milling for over 300 years. It only officially became a part of the city in the 19th century. It’s a quaint and quiet residential nook with some interesting history.
The buildings and the scenery make it a super photogenic spot to go for a stroll. Check it out on a sunny day and be sure to go over the four arched Dean Bridge while wandering here.
Mary King’s Close
Mary’s King Close is the only preserved 17th century alley in Edinburgh. It has become a popular tourist site, and requires a ticket to get in below street level. It feels like a transportive journey back in time, so you can get to know the hidden history of the area.
Learn about ancient myths and legends, famous royal visitors, and a deadly plague. Be sure to check out the quirky gift shop and tasty coffee house before heading out.
Lauriston Castle is a local treasure that often gets overlooked. It first existed in the 12th century, but got destroyed at the start of what was known as the Rough Wooing. It was rebuilt later in 1593, with more additions being made in the 1800s.
Tours are available and they host some select events in the castle as well. Many of the rooms are fully decorated just the way they were left in 1926. See if you can spot the secret room in the Victorian library, where the entrance is hidden behind shelves of fake books.
This is actually one of the most mysterious coves in the city, which is really saying something. Gilmerton is a series of hand carved tunnels and passageways. Still to this day, no one actually knows why they were carved or by whom.
It didn’t even open until 2003. There are public guided tours, which will go over the myriads of theories that are still swirling around this secret subterranean lair.
Enjoy the cool Street Art
For such a historically rich city, it’s super cool that Edinburgh is also known for an abundance of street art. Unexpected installations pop up all over the place, especially if you know where to look. Quality Yard is an 18th century walled courtyard covered in bright murals for a full 360 degree experience.
Colinton Tunnel is the largest mural inside of a Victorian railway tunnel in all of Scotland. It’s a landmark that celebrates local history and heritage. The Edinburgh Book Sculptures can be spotted all around town so keep your eyes out. They were donated anonymously and are all made out of famous poetry titles.
Blackness Castle is a 15th century fortress on the south shore of Firth of Forth. It was used both as a residence for noblemen and as a state penitentiary for high status prisoners. Today it’s famous for being the setting for several films, such as Hamlet.
Due to its unique jutting position and narrow shape, it’s commonly referred to as ‘the ship that never sailed.’ It is recommended to book online before you go to guarantee entry here.
Dr Neil’s Garden
This hidden gem is one of the most remarkable botanical gardens in Scotland. Dr Neil’s is open daily to the public and the entry is free. It’s a super tranquil space that began back in the 1960s. The views looking out over the lake will take your breath away. It can be hard to find, tucked away behind a 12th century church, but that’s really all part of the charm.
Download directions on your map ahead of time and keep your eyes out for the small rod iron gate. There’s a lot of different bird species to spot and a psychic garden full of medicinal plants, though the serene scenery is reason enough to go for a stroll here.
Cramond Island is known as a bit of a ghost town. The 0.3 mile long stretch of coast was totally deserted except for a few residents for most of its history. Today, it’s only accessible at low tide and is covered in WWII ruins.
The causeway here is lined with massive concrete pillars once used to keep submarines and ships safe as well as several bunkers now dawning graffiti. The whole place comes across like an accidental brutalist sculpture, and is ideal for snapping some unique pics.
Chocolatrium is one of the newest attractions in the entire city. The experience tour tells you all about the history of chocolate, the very particular process it takes to make it, and all the varieties that are possible.
There’s a lot of tasting involved, which is of course the best part. Stop by the small shop at the end to take some of the best treats in Edinburgh home with you.
Surgeons Hall Museum
This is actually three museums in one, the Wohl Pathology Museum, the History of Surgery Museum, and the Dental Collection. It’s certainly more of an unusual attraction, but it’s a great stop for anyone interested in science or medical curios.
It holds the largest collection of pathology paraphernalia in the whole world. The exhibits range from historical and educational to bizarre and grotesque.
Where to Stay in Edinburgh?
There are so many amazing things to do in Edinburgh, so get out there and start exploring!
READ MORE SCOTLAND TRAVEL TIPS
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