Best things to do in Edinburgh
Edinburgh is Scotland’s capital city and is one of the most visited cities in Great Britain. It’s easy to see why with its medieval old town and elegant Georgian new town as well as the endless amount of gardens and public spaces to explore. Edinburgh is also a hilly city with the Edinburgh castle perched up at one end and Calton hill with its many monuments at the other. Above these is also the imposing peak of Arthur’s seat looking down towards Holyrood House. From here you can head up and join many others watching the sun go down over this fabulous city!
There are so many things to do in Edinburgh that it’s impossible to visit them all especially if only staying for a short period of time. I recently spent 5 days in the city and got to visit most of the highlights and some of the lesser know things to do as well. So here I’m giving my top recommendations of places to visit if planning a trip to this beautiful city. A couple of these places I never managed to visit myself but have heard great things about them so I’ve included them in my list. I covered a variety of experiences from exploring castles and stately homes to family friendly attractions, hikes, wildlife and museums so hopefully there is something for every type of traveler. For details on pricing and opening times etc, I have given a link to the official websites.
If on a budget or looking for free things to do in Edinburgh, then read my Budget guide to Edinburgh here
These are in no particular order:
Edinburgh Castle is probably the most famous landmark and visited attraction in Edinburgh, it is thought over 1 million people visit each year. It sits predominately on Castle Rock, looking down along the Royal Mile dominating the city landscape. If you want to read a more detailed account about Edinburgh Castle then check out my visitor guide here
Inside the castle you will be able to marvel over Scotland’s crown jewels and the historic Stone of Destiny, visit the oldest building in Scotland at St Margret’s Chapel, discover how prisoners of war were treated in the 1700’s, as well as visiting monuments, exhibits and museums, such as the Scotland’s National War Museum. You will also get some of the most amazing views over Edinburgh!
If you are not too fussed by crowds then a popular time to visit is around 1 pm when they fire the gun on Mills Mount Battery, this tradition goes back to 1861 when it was used as a time keeping device for ships in the harbor. If however crowds aren’t your thing then I recommend getting there early, as soon as the castle opens and if possible book tickets in advance, the queues by mid-morning are extreme especially during popular summer times! I was there in September and the ticket line was still pretty bad. For more information click here
Edinburgh Zoo is a popular attraction for animal lovers and families, many people especially go just to catch a glimpse of the Giant Panda’s, it’s the only place in the UK to see them. However I’ve been to many Zoo’s and have seen Giant Panda’s at Chiang Mai Zoo in Thailand so I gave this place a miss. However if this is something that interests you I have heard great things about this zoo including the chance to walk with the penguins. The penguin parade happens when the penguins decide to go for a walk outside there enclosure with their keepers, however as this is completely voluntary for the penguins there is no guarantee that they will leave the enclosure on any given day. You should also note that entrance to the Giant Panda enclosure is by being given a viewing time slot, and again there is no guarantee that the panda’s will be awake or in the viewing area. For more information click here
If you love Whisky or want to find out more about this famous Scottish drink, then a tour at the Scotch Whisky Experience is a must! Again I didn’t visit as the smell of whisky makes me feel sick (drank far too much of it a while back!) However if you don’t have this issue then you can either take one of the tours or just enjoy a meal and drink in the restaurant. The tours last from 50 mins to 3 hours and cost between £13.50 and £73. For more information click here
Walk the royal Mile
The Royal Mile connects Edinburgh Castle all the way down to Holyrood House. This road is the most famous street and runs through medieval Edinburgh. The Royal mile is a Scots old mile although not used since the 18th century and is 1.81 km long. As you can imagine this is also one of the busiest roads in Edinburgh and is closed off in parts only allowing pedestrian access. Along the Royal Mile you will find an abundance of souvenir and whisky shops, restaurants, cafes and museums.
You are likely to find yourself up and down this street many times, I recommend walking down its many closes exploring the little hidden away courtyards and shops.
Climb Arthur’s seat
As you walk down the Royal Mile towards Holyrood house you will find the towering remnants of an extinct volcano, Arthur’s seat.
If you are brave enough to take the hike up to the top you will be blessed with the most amazing views of Edinburgh including the docks and the Forth Rail Bridge in the distance. I climbed up to the peak around 6 pm so I could watch the sunset and was surprisingly met with about another 100 people doing the same! To be honest I couldn’t blame them, the views are truly spectacular and the sunset was beautiful. Do be warned though it is a lot colder up the top than down below so make sure you bring some warm clothes in a bag and don’t under estimate the climb, I was truly exhausted by the time I got to the top so make sure you have plenty of water with you as well. The climb itself is not too difficult, depending on which trail you use, some are worse than others. The quicker routes are generally the most steep, therefore making it harder for some.
Head up Calton Hill
If Climbing up Arthur’s Seat is too much for you then maybe have a go at Calton Hill. This hill sits towards the end of princes Street and you can’t really miss it if in Edinburgh due to it resembling the acropolis of Athens. This is in fact an unfinished monument called the ‘national Monument’ and was built in 1822 but never finished. It was meant to be a replica of the Parthenon in Athens, as a memorial to those who died in the Napoleonic wars. You will also find Nelson’s Monument which has a famous time ball mechanism by which ships used to set their chronometers.
Calton Hill is a lovely hillside park that has wonderful views on Edinburgh and Arthur’s Seat, the plus point being it only takes 5-10 mins to walk up from the stairs located on Regent Road on the south side. For a small fee of £5 you can go inside and view the museum.
Unknown to most people underneath the Royal Mile is a secret world of underground vaults and even some old medieval streets. There are lots of different tours to take but these are the two that I done. You can book many of these underground tours and walking tours on line, however you can also book them in the street, you will see lots of advertisers along the top of the Royal Mile, near the Cathedral looking for people to join in tours. You will also find many free walking tours available.
The Real Mary King’s Close, this tour was my favorite of the two, you literally step down into another world as you explore Edinburgh’s only preserved 17th century Street. The street itself is underneath what is now known as the Council Chambers and as this is a government building you are unable to take photos which are a shame. The tour begins by giving you a history of how the street became underground (it never used to be) and goes into a lot of detail about the ordinary lives of those who lived there as well as the story of the night Mary Queen of Scots found herself here. The entrance to the tour is on the Royal Mile across the way from St Giles Cathedral. Tours run every 15 mins until 9.30 pm. For more information click here
The other tour I took was the Double Dead Tour run by City of the Dead Tours which covered the underground vaults and Greyfriers Kirk. I took the 8pm tour as I didn’t fancy the late night tour by myself, at least at 8pm it was still dark enough to be slightly scary or so I though. The tour itself was really good however there were a few moments that my heart leapt out of my chest! I won’t spoil it by giving away any details but If you are up for a good ghost tour, than this is the one to do. For more information click here
Check out the museums
Edinburgh has a vast array of museums all within walking distance from the Royal Mile, some of my favorites where The Museum of Scotland, Museum on the Mound, Museum of Childhood and the Surgeons Hall Museum. Many of these museums are free to enter but request small donations.
The Museum of Scotland is absolutely massive with the most amazing architecture. This museum is over 3 floors and has a huge inner courtyard with gallery’s either side displaying a diverse collection taking you on a journey of the history of Scotland and around the world. This is a very good place to take children as well as there are lots of interactive elements for them to explore. For more information click here
The Museum of Childhood, this museum takes you back on the history of childhood and toys. It has a vast selection of old toys from across the generations as well as exploring other aspects of growing up such as schooling, clubs, clothing, health and holidays. For more information click here
Surgeon’s hall Museum, this museum may not be for everyone but as I work as a theatre nurse I found it especially interesting. It is not free to get in at a cost of £7 but NHS workers get a discount at £4. The museum is owned by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh which was founded in 1505, originally opened as a teaching museum for students, the collections, including bone and tissue samples, artefacts and works of art have been open to the public since 1832. This is a wonderful museum if you are interested in health and there are a variety of interactive displays and computer simulation. For more information click here
Visit Royal Yacht Britannia
The Royal Yacht Britannia was once the floating palace of Her Majesty Queen Elisabeth for over 40 years and has been voted Scotland’s Best Attraction by Visit Scotland for 12 years running! The Site itself is out of Edinburgh City Centre in Leith Docks Ocean Terminal Shopping Centre but is easily accessed by Bus, Lothian Buses number 11 and 22 run every 10 minutes and the site also has free parking.
The tour itself is a self-guided audio tour which guides you through the ship across its many decks, visiting the private Royal quarters, including the Queen’s bedroom, the room in which Charles and Diana spent their honeymoon as well as the crews quarters, work areas, right through to the engine room. I believe the ship can get very crowded at peak times so recommend arriving early or later in the day like I did, I arrived around 3 pm and it wasn’t too crowded. If feeling hungry you can have afternoon tea in the ship restaurant or you can head over to the Ocean Shopping Centre where you will find plenty of restaurants and shops. For more information click here
Palace of Holyrood
At the bottom of the Royal Mile you will find Holyrood Palace, this palace is the official residence of the Queen in Scotland and served as principle residence of Scottish royalty since the 16th century including Mary Queen of Scotts and Bonnie Prince Charlie. As well as taking an audio tour around the historic rooms that have held many a state visit, you can also wander the beautiful gardens and visit the remains of the 12th century Holyrood Abbey.
Please note, due to this being an official residence you are unable to take photos inside the palace. For more information click here
Visit Dean Village
If you fancy escaping the hustle and bustle of the city then a walk to Dean Village is sure to relax and recharge the batteries. Dean village is located about a 15 min walk from the Royal mile, however most people don’t realize this little gem exists. The Village itself is only small but after exploring the beautiful peaceful surrounding you can walk along the river back towards town, along the way you will also find St Bernard’s well.
You won’t find any cafes or shops here just beautiful old architecture and greenery so much so you’ll think you have been transported to somewhere in the countryside.
A day out to Cramond Island
If you really want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city then take a day trip out to Cramond Island. This little gem is easily accessed by Lothian bus number 41 from the city centre. The little village of Cramond has a beautiful little harbor and numerous walks along the shores. You can also walk along the causeway at low tide to visit the peaceful Cramond Island. However be sure to check tide times before making the trek across. It is best to arrive early in the morning; I arrived at 9 am which gave me around an hour to explore the island before having to get back to the mainland. For more details about Cramond Island and how to get there, check out my post here
Walk across the Forth road bridge
Just 30 mins out of Edinburgh by Lothian bus number 43 you will arrive at South Queensferry. This is a lovely peaceful town with pretty houses and shops and a long promenade looking out towards the River Forth and its 3 spectacular bridges. Most people come to have a look at the famous Forth railway Bridge but if you are feeling energetic than you can walk across the Forth Road Bridge, be warned its longer than you think and took me 45 mins just to walk across it, however the views from the bridge are amazing and well worth the effort to walk across, not for those scared of heights!.
If like me you don’t feel like walking back across then you can either get the bus back or take the train back to Edinburgh Waverley Station.
Harry Potter trail
If you are a massive fan of Harry Potter then there are plenty of Harry Potter sites to explore, from the cafes that J.K.Rowling sat in whilst writing the books to the places and names that inspired the stories. The most popular way to explore the Harry Potter trail is by taking a walking tour, as I’m not that in to Harry Potter I never felt the need to do this but did come across many tours whilst in Edinburgh. One free tour that was recommended to me was the Potter Trail which shows all the sites that gave inspiration for Hogwarts and the characters within. For more information click here
So there you have it my recommended best things to do in Edinburgh. You probably won’t want to visit every place on this list but I hope it gives you a good starting point for planning your trip to Edinburgh.
Have you been to Edinburgh? Is there any other attractions you would add to this list, or are you planning to visit any of these locations? If so let me know in the comments below, plus if you like this post then please share and subscribe to be the first to read my other blog posts,