Best things to do in Edinburgh – Ultimate Guide by a local

Edinburgh city view

1. Edinburgh Castle

Sitting atop an extinct volcanic rock in the heart of Edinburgh’s old town, this 900-year-old castle is one of the top tourist destinations in Scotland drawing in millions of visitors every year. Once there, listen to its fascinating past, look around and give your eyes a treat to the cracking open view across Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth.

Edinburgh castle houses an amazing display of weapons and armours in the Great Hall, the Honours of Scotland – the oldest crown Jewel in Britain, the Stone of Destiny (a sacred object earlier used in Coronation ceremonies), the 15th Century mighty gun – Mons Meg, National War Museum and the Royal Palace. You would easily spend a few hours exploring the castle and admiring the view of the surrounding.

Top tips: While you are in Edinburgh Castle, don’t miss the One O’clock gunfire – once a maritime timekeeper, now a spectacular show that happens every day at 1 pm except Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas Day.

Advance booking to the castle is definitely recommended to avoid the queue particularly in summer. If you are visiting Edinburgh in August, you are in luck. The world- famous Royal Military tattoo is held at the Castle Esplanade.

2. Palace of Holyroodhouse – The Royal abode in Edinburgh

The official residence of Her Majesty the Queen in Scotland, Holyrood Palace is one of the top tourist attractions in Edinburgh. Explore the grand interiors and tapestries of the historic state apartments in this palace. Step back in time and discover this 16th century palace’s association with Mary, Queen of Scots and the Bonnie Prince Charlie – two very important royal figures in Scottish history.

Queen usually spends a week (known as Holyrood week) in this palace every summer when she is in Edinburgh. The Throne room is used for receptions and state occasions.

Outside the palace, you would find the ruins of 900-year-old Holyrood Abbey and a magnificent garden. Bit of a hidden gem in the garden is Queen Mary’s Bathhouse, a two-storied turreted building.

Queen’s gallery is also worth a visit which displays exhibitions from the Royal collection.

This palace is open throughout the year except when the Royal members are visiting. Advance online booking is recommended, particularly in summer.

3. The Royal Mile

The Royal Mile is the most vibrant place in Edinburgh and runs from Edinburgh Castle to the Holyrood Palace – a distance of about a mile. This iconic street is lined up with several souvenir shops, historic landmarks, pubs and restaurants. Very Frequently you would get to enjoy many street performances including the soul-stirring sound of bagpipes. Though it’s very touristy, a ramble along the Royal Mile would be a very memorable experience of your Edinburgh trip.

4. Holyrood Park and Arthur’s Seat

Holyrood Park lies at the east end of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. This 640-acre vast stretch of greenery at the heart of Edinburgh is walkers and jogger’s paradise. There are two lovely lakes at the two ends of the Holyrood Park – Duddingston Loch and St Margaret Loch, always bustling with swans and geese. High above St Margaret Loch, lies 700-year-old ruins of St Antony’s Chapel.

Salisbury Crags skirts the Holyrood Park with series of spectacular cliffs and the highest point is Arthur’s seat, a 314m high extinct volcano. From the top of Arthur’s Seat, you will get a breath-taking panoramic view of Edinburgh skyline and the Firth of Forth. There are quite a few different walking routes to climb up and they are all extremely popular with locals and tourists.

Photography tip: Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags are very popular sunrise and sunset spots in Edinburgh.

5. National Museum of Scotland

One of the finest museums in the UK, National Museum of Scotland is located just opposite of Greyfriars Bobby. Pop into this free Edinburgh attraction and discover the history and culture of Scotland. They have an amazing collection and artifacts from all over the world. Some popular attractions of the Museum include replica of Dolly the Sheep (first mammal cloned from an adult cell in Roslin Institute near Edinburgh), Millennium Clock, the Grand Gallery, Lewis Chessmen, Animal world, Ancient Egyptian Gallery.

Insider’s tip: National Museum of Scotland has a rooftop terrace which offers a stunning panoramic view over Edinburgh old town. If you can’t find it, ask any of the staff for direction.

6. Scott Monument – the Gothic rocket in Edinburgh

Scott Monument is the second largest monument in the world that’s have been ever dedicated to a literary figure. This 60m high Gothic rocket in Princes Street garden was built to honour Sir Walter Scott – a legend in Scottish literature, who wrote masterpieces like Waverley, Rob Roy, the Heart of Midlothian. A statue of him sits at the base of this monument. There are viewing platforms set at different levels to offer gorgeous view of Edinburgh landmarks. There are 287 steps to climb up to the top platform. The last few steps are very steep and narrow, but the view is totally rewarding.

7. Scottish National Gallery

If you are a fan of art, you will have to keep Scottish National Gallery on your Edinburgh itinerary. Located at the Mound, this free attraction houses some of the greatest collection of paintings from Italian renaissance to the early 20th century art. You would get to witness some of the finest works of Raphael, Rembrandt, Botticelli, Monet, Titian, Turner and the Scottish painters like Ramsay, Raeburn and Wilkie. There’s a gallery bus that you can hop on to travel other national galleries in Edinburgh.

8. St Giles Cathedral

st giles cathedral

Founded in 1124, St Giles Cathedral is one of the prominent historic buildings in Edinburgh.  It’s technically not a cathedral – rather a church that stands right on the iconic Royal Mile with distinct crown spires, popularly known as lantern towers. Take a free guided tour in this Edinburgh attraction and listen to the riveting story of reformation when John Knox was a priest. Highlight of your visit would be the Thistle Chapel, situated at one corner of the church.  It has ornated roofs and impressive wood carvings including coats of arms of the sixteen nights, swords, thistles. Also, don’t miss the large stained glass-window above the main entrance depicting the national poet of Scotland, Robert Burns.

Viewpiont: They have guided rooftop tours available at weekends which costs £6 per adult. From the top, you will get stunning view of the Royal Mile and Edinburgh Old town.

9. Grassmarket – historic marketplace of Edinburgh

A historic marketplace directly under Edinburgh castle, Grassmarket is one of the vibrant and lively places in Edinburgh Old town. This area has some of the oldest pubs in Scotland. One of them is the White Hart Inn, a 500-year-old pub where many famous people spent the night including William Wordsworth and Robert Burns. It was also frequented by the notorious body snatchers of the 18th century, Burke and Hare.

Grassmarket was also a place of public hanging in past. You can still see the Covenanters Memorial, a stark reminder of the fact that 100 Covenanters were killed here in the 17th century. One interesting story goes about Maggie Dickson – an 18th century fish hawker, who was popularly known as Half Hangit Maggie. She came to life within a few hours after being declared dead in her execution. There is a pub named after her in Grassmarket.

Today, Grassmarket is home to many events including the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Every Saturday, you would get many fresh and local produce in the Farmers Market. There are many independent shops and cafes in this area that you would also love popping into.

10. Calton Hill

One of the best viewpoints in Edinburgh, Calton Hill lies at the east end of Princes Street and is super easy to access. Just a few steps up and you would get a gorgeous view of Edinburgh skyline and its landmarks. It’s a very popular spot to see the sun setting behind the city. Not only the view, you would also have a few things to explore on the Calton Hill:

Dugald Stewart Monument – A memorial to Dugald Stewart – one of the important figures of Scottish Enlightenment. The design was inspired by the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens.

National Monument of Scotland – A memorial to honour the Scots who died in the Napoleonic war. It was designed based on the Parthenon in Athens in early 19th century but couldn’t be completed due to lack of funding – hence nicknamed ‘Edinburgh’s Disgrace’.

Nelson Monument – A monument to commemorate the victory of Admiral Lord Nelson in the early 19th century. Later on, a time ball was installed on this upturned telescope-shaped tower to synchronise with the One O’clock Gunfire when the ball was lowered. This acted as a signal to the ships docked at the Port of Leith to check their time. Climb up to the tower and savour a stunning panoramic view of Edinburgh. Ticket Price: £6/ Adult.

City Observatory – Modelled on a Greek temple of the Four Winds, City Observatory is now a contemporary art centre. They have a glasshouse restaurant as well to enjoy a meal with the stunning view of Edinburgh skyline. 

Also explore the Burn’s Monument, which is not exactly on the Calton Hill, rather on the Regent Road below the Calton Hill.

11. Edinburgh Royal Botanic Garden

Fondly known as the Botanics to the local, the Royal Botanic Garden boasts of having more than 100,000 plants from around the world. Just a mile away from the city centre, this 70-acre gorgeous garden is a great choice to visit while in Edinburgh. Take a wander around the Chinese Hillside, Rock Garden, Redwood trees in the woodland garden, Inverleigh House and 10 glorious glasshouses which includes the Victorian Temperate Palm house. Entry to the garden is free except the Glasshouses which is £7 per adult.

Opposite the west side of the Botanics lies the Inverleigh Park and the Pond. A nice spot to take a stroll in the lush green and get another glorious view of Edinburgh Castle.

12. Princes Street Garden

Prices Street Garden at the heart of Edinburgh is a great place to hang out beneath the imposing Castle Rock. In summer, you will find the garden teeming with locals and tourists sunbathing and chilling out.

The Mound which houses the Scottish National Gallery, divides the garden in two. In East Princes Street Garden, stands Scott Monument – an iconic landmark of Edinburgh. During Christmas time, that entire garden is turned into a Winter Wonderland.

The West Princes Street Garden is comparatively large stretching from the Mound till the St Johns and St Cuthbert’s Parish church at the start of Princes Street. Centre piece of the garden is the Ross Fountain, which has undergone a complete makeover a few years ago. A few interesting things to watch out for in West Princes Street Garden:

Statue of Wojtek: A solider bear who carried ammunitions during World War II.

Gardeners Cottage: This gingerbread house used to be home of the head gardener. A very photogenic place in Edinburgh.

Floral Clock: World’s first floral clock dating back to early 20th century.

Ross Bandstand: Various festivals and concerts are held here including Edinburgh Festival Fireworks Concert, Hogmanay, Diwali.

13. Victoria Street – Edinburgh’s own Diagon Alley

One of the prettiest and most photographed streets in Edinburgh, Victoria Street is like a magic alleyway that will make you disappear from the historic Grassmarket and pop you out near the iconic Royal Mile. The Colourful stretch of old Flemish Style buildings with arch shaped facades are bound to cast a spell. No wonder this street is the inspiration for Diagon Alley in Harry Potter series.

Tip: Don’t miss the terrace above Victoria street. You would get some fantastic photo opportunities.

14. Circus Lane

circus lane

Super famous on the social media, Circus Lane is one of the most photographed places in Edinburgh. This curved cobbled street is lined up with picturesque mews houses in a quiet residential area, some with hanging flower baskets, red roses. St Stephens Church stands tall in the backdrop. There’s certainly a romantic vibe in the air – who won’t fancy a stroll!It’s fast becoming a mainstream tourist destination in Edinburgh.

While you are in Circus Lane, explore the surrounding Stockbridge area which has loads of independent coffee shops, brunch places and some of the finest restaurants in Edinburgh. On every Sunday, locals and the visitors flock to the local Farmers Market, a great place to shop the fresh produces and taste some amazing delicacies at the pop-up food stalls.

15. Dean Village

Dean Village was bit of a hidden gem a few years ago but this is now one of the top tourist attractions in Edinburgh. A short walk from the city centre, you would get the complete vibe of a village. Originally a milling village of 11 working watermills, this is now a picture perfect place on the Water of Leith and very popular with tourists and joggers. The prettiest part of this popular Edinburgh attraction is around the Well Court which has an iconic clock tower. Modern Gallery One and Two are also very close from here along the Water of Leith walkway.

Take a peaceful stroll along the soothing sound of Water of Leith towards Stockbridge and you would spot St Bernard’s Well, a Greco-Roman style temple of the 18th century.

16. Writers Museum & Makar’s Court

Located at Lady Stairs close off the Royal Mile, Writers Museum houses magnificent collection and memorabilia of three legends of Scottish literature – Robert Burns, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Highlights of your visit would be the first edition of Scott’s Waverley, Burn’s writing desk and a rare cast of his skull, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s personal items. Also, you would get to know a lot about their literary life.

Just outside the Writers Museum lies Makar’s Court, an open space where famous quotes of Scottish writers are etched on flagstones – possibly the most fitting feature to honour Edinburgh, the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature.

17. Greyfriars Bobby

Greyfriars Bobby is most certainly one of the top tourist attractions in Edinburgh. The story goes that Bobby, a Skye Terrier, guarded the grave of his master, John Gray at Greyfriars Kirkyard for 14 years after his death in late 19th century. Bobby became very famous in his lifetime and people from all over Edinburgh used to come to watch and feed him. You would find Bobby’s headstone near the entrance of the Kirkyard. A bronze statue of Bobby is placed just outside the Kirk which is now a star attraction of Edinburgh Old town – many tourists rub his nose for luck.

18. Greyfriars Kirkyard

If you are a Harry potter fan, Greyfriars Kirkyard (kirk means church in Scottish) should be a must-visit on your Edinburgh itinerary. Some of the important characters of Harry Potter series were born in this Kirkyard. As you stroll around the graveyard, you would spot the name of Harry Potter Characters all around – Tom Riddle, McGonagall, Mad-eye Moodie and of course Potter. Adjacent to the kirkyard lies the imposing turreted George Heriot’s School, believed to be the inspiration for Hogwarts.

This Kirkyard is also said to be one of the most haunted graveyards in the world. Majority of the paranormal activities are believed to be related to George Mackenzie – a merciless judge who imprisoned and executed 1200 Presbyterian Covenanters in the late 17th century. Black Mausoleum, where he is buried, and Covenanters’ Prison are not open to the public. If you are interested to explore those corners of this Edinburgh kirkyard, you can book with the award-winning City of the Dead Tours. But go at your own risk!

Did You Know? The Elephant House, now a famous café in Edinburgh, is just a stone’s throw away from the kirkyard where the author J.K. Rowling used to come around very frequently and wrote the first few novels of her Harry Potter series.

19. Forth Bridge

An iconic landmark of Scotland, Forth Rail Bridge is an engineering marvel over the Firth of Forth – estuary of the River Forth. When this rail bridge was completed in 1890, it was the longest single cantilever bridge in the world. Located about 10 miles west of Edinburgh City Centre, this bridge connects two Scottish villages – North and South Queensferry. Forth Rail Bridge is a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2015.

20. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art lies at the west end of Edinburgh in two separate buildings, Modern One and Modern Two. They have a fantastic collection of international and Scottish contemporary arts including some of the famous works by Matisse, Picasso, Bacon, Léger and Scottish artist Eduardo Paolozzi. Moreover, there are many interesting outdoor sculptures and art installations on the ground that you would love exploring. This art gallery of Edinburgh is completely free to explore.

Tip: Adjacent to Modern Two lies the Dean Cemetery which has many Victorian ornated monuments and tombstones. Recommended a visit.

21. Royal Yacht Britannia

A floating palace moored in Leith, Royal Yacht Britannia is one of the top attractions in Edinburgh. This Royal vessel has sailed one million nautical miles, hosted several State Receptions and dignitaries, and a few Royal honeymoons – she served the Royal Family over 40 years. Explore the five decks of this ship, the state apartments and the Sun Lounge – which was the Queen’s favourite room here. If you fancy a bite with the stunning view, pop into their onboard restaurant, The Royal Deck Tearoom.

22. John Knox House

John Knox House is a historic house on the Royal Mile associated with John Knox. He was a 16th-century priest and religious leader of reformation who played a prominent role in the abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots – a confirmed Catholic. Though, it’s a matter of debate how long he lived here. But certainly, this house is steeped in the history of Scottish reformation. Plus, this is one of the oldest buildings in Edinburgh. The exterior of the building is very picturesque and atmospheric.

Step inside the house and discover the medieval luckenbooths (or locked books), Castle Gallery, wooden painted ceilings. Also, you would be able to learn a great deal of history.

23. Scotch Whisky Experience

Established in 1988 on the former premise of a school close to Edinburgh Castle, Scotch Whisky Experience Centre is a 5-star visitor attraction in Edinburgh. Now, don’t ask me why a school was turned into a Scotch Whisky Experience Centre – I don’t have answer to that. Jokes apart, it has world’s largest collection of whisky bottles. If you are a whisky lover, it’s your paradise. Plus, they have different range of tours for Scotch whisky tasting.

24. Craigmillar Castle

One of the well-preserved medieval castles in Scotland, Craigmillar Castle lies just 3 miles southeast of Edinburgh city centre. Climb up to the Tower House of this ruined castle and enjoy a stunning view of the city skyline. This castle is steeped in history and had a close association with Mary Queen of Scots. She hid in this castle in the 16th century following the murder of Rizzio, her close aide and private secretary. Also, in this castle the plot was planned to murder her husband, Lord Darnley.

25. Union Canal

This 30 mile stretch of water from the Lochrin Basin in Fountainbridge to the Falkirk wheel is a man-made strategic waterway built in early 19th century to connect Edinburgh with Glasgow. After the advent of Railway, Union canal lost its value and the commercial navigation stopped by mid-20th century. Today, the towpaths on the canal are popular for jogging and cycling. The canal is now used for wide range of activities including canoeing and boating.

26. Cramond Beach

About 6 miles from Edinburgh city centre, Cramond is one of the oldest and pre-historic settlements in Scotland. In Low tide, walk over the impressive Causeway to a small tidal island which offers a fantastic view across Firth of Forth and the villages of Fife. But make sure you have enough time to come back. There are many instances of people being stranded. Also, head towards the nearby Cramond Falls, about 10 minutes walk along the Almond River Walkway. You would also be interested exploring the Cramond Kirk, Cramond Fort and nearby Silverknowes Beach.

27. Blackford Hill

One of the seven hills of Edinburgh, Blackford Hill is located about 3 miles south of the City Centre. This 164 metre high hill is home to the Royal Observatory, a green dome-shaped building used for astronomical research. Once there, you would get a stunning view of Edinburgh Castle and Arthur’s Seat among many other city landmarks. This is a popular spot for watching fireworks over the city during Edinburgh Festival.

28. Nelson Monument

A monument to commemorate the victory of Admiral Lord Nelson in the early 19th century. Later on, a time ball was installed on this upturned telescope-shaped tower to synchronise with the One O’clock Gunfire when the ball was lowered. This acted as a signal to the ships docked at the Port of Leith to check their time. Climb up to the tower and savour a stunning panoramic view of Edinburgh. Ticket Price: £6/ Adult.

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