Are you looking for things to do in Edinburgh? We asked local writer Karen Worral to share her insider tips and favorite Edinburgh attractions to make the most of your stay.
From the imposing Edinburgh Castle that looks over the city to the famous Royal Mile, Edinburgh is one of those places that will keep you coming back. Edinburgh is a city of historic stories, royal stories, gory stories, and ghost stories. It is a potent blend of old and new at every turn.
The Top Things to do in Edinburgh, Scotland
Having lived in Edinburgh all my life, it is not surprising that I think the city is incredible. With a massive amount of history, exciting nightlife, and epic places to see, you can easily become overwhelmed by all the things to do in Edinburgh. It is not only a great place to visit but to live as well.
Over the years I have been able to explore almost all Edinburgh attractions. That has given me the expertise to share with you all of the best things to do in Edinburgh whether this is a first-time visit or your 5th time you will find something that piques your interest.
If you are visiting Edinburgh for the first time it can be a little intimidating. We wanted to make things a little easier for you by providing you with up-to-date information about the best Edinburgh attractions as well as our tips for planning the perfect trip to this incredible city.
Surprisingly, a lot of Edinburgh attractions are free! Below you will find, in no particular order, what we consider the things you should not miss if you are visiting Edinburgh for the first time.
1. Edinburgh Castle
Visiting Edinburgh Castle is probably the number one thing to do in Edinburgh. It has been a vital fortification involved in military and strategic endeavors since the 12th century and has been continuously occupied in some form since then.
It proudly sits atop one of the city’s extinct volcanos, Castle Rock, and houses many treasures like The Stone of Destiny and the oldest crown jewels in the UK. If you are into Scottish history you must visit this Castle as it once housed important figures such as Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Don’t forget to stroll the grounds and be impressed by the massive cannons, The Great hall, and of course the Chapel that dates back to the 12th Century.
If you are a real Royal fan get yourself the Royal Edinburgh Ticket. It saves you money on this and other attractions such as, Holyrood Palace, The Royal Yacht Britannia, and 48-hour access to the HOHO Bus! Get Your Royal Edinburgh Ticket Here
The castle has been home to royalty, the chief seat of power, and a military base throughout the years. The one o’clock gun goes off from the front of the castle every day except Sunday. It is something you don’t want to miss. The gun was implemented to help with shipping and to keep time.
Insider Tip – This is one of the most popular attractions in the city and can get very busy, so try to visit in the morning if you can. I recommend that you book your ticket in advance and get one with fast track entry which will allow you to skip the ticket lines, especially if you are visiting during the busy summer season.
Hours: Summer (April 1-Sept 30) 9.30 am-6 pm (last entry at 5pm). Winter (Oct 1-Mar 31) 9.30 am-5 pm (last entry 4 pm). Price to Enter: Right now you must book a ticket in advance online for entry. Adult £15.50 online, Concessions £12.40 online, Children 5-15 £9.30 online. Under 5s are free.
2. The Royal Mile
The Royal Mile is the oldest part of the city and is one of my favorite things to do in Edinburgh. In brief, The Royal Mile runs from Edinburgh Castle all the way down the volcanic trail that takes you to Holyrood Palace – a mile down.
This is Edinburgh’s Old Town and Old High Street. It is chock full of history and stories worthy of its own guide. The Royal Mile area itself is actually 5 separate streets and it is worth it to explore all of them. High Street is full of sights and landmarks as well as restaurants and museums.
Even though the Royal Mile walk itself will only take you 15 minutes directly, I’d recommend spending a few hours here. Start at the castle and work your way down – it is easier walking downhill! If you plan to visit in the summer make sure to plan around the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as you won’t be able to move in the streets.
Is this your first time in Edinburgh? If so, check out our 3 Day Edinburgh Itinerary
3. Holyrood Palace
Holyrood Palace, which is located at one end of the Royal Mile and right across the street from the Scottish Parliament, is one of the most important palaces in Scotland. It is used as a museum for most of the year and is the official home to the Queen and the Royal family when they come to visit.
The Abbey was built before the palace dating back to 1128, by order of King David 1st of Scotland. In the 15th century, the abbey’s guesthouse was made into a royal residence and has been used by British royalty ever since. It is an important part of Scottish history.
Make sure not to miss the Mary Queen of Scots chambers. They are quite impressive. One quick note. Photography is not allowed inside but you can take photos of the gardens, exterior, and the Abbey. If you are interested at all in the Royal Family then you will want to add this to your list.
Admission to Holyrood Palace: They are only taking timed entries at the moment so they must be booked in advance. This tour offers a free audio guide as well.
4. National Museum of Scotland
If you are a museum lover then this will be at the top of your list when looking for things to do in Edinburgh. The National Museum of Scotland is situated on Chamber’s Street in the old town and is a fine Victorian building that opened in 1866.
The National Museum is free and the extensive range of topics covered is fantastic. Whether you’re interested in Scottish history, technology, inventions, world cultures, music, natural history, royalty, gory history, ancient civilizations, or natural disasters, it will have something for you.
You could definitely spend a lot of time in the National Museum, which welcomes over 2 million visitors a year, so make sure to plan accordingly.
If the weather is nice, make sure to head up to the rooftop terrace where you can take in some incredible views of the city and the surrounding area.
5. Scottish National Gallery
When visiting Edinburgh you must make sure to take a trip to The Scottish National Gallery. This is a fantastic Greek-columned complex that is art situated right in the middle of Princes Street in the very center of Edinburgh.
It consists of two buildings; the main National Gallery is the building at the back, with the one at the front being part of the Royal Scottish Academy. The main gallery holds permanent collections and is always free to visit.
If you are an art lover the Scottish National Gallery has you covered. With art from Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Gauguin to works from Scottish artists like Reverent Robert Walking and Henry Raeburn, the Scottish National Gallery has one of the premier collections in the UK. If you are an art lover, like I am, this will be one of the best things in Edinburgh that you will do.
Currently, you must book a timed entry ticket on their website. Scottish National Gallery Hours: 10 am-5 pm daily (Thursdays extended until 7 pm). Cost to Enter the Scottish National Gallery: Free for permanent exhibitions, some at RSA have a fee.
6. Climb Arthur’s Seat and walk in Holyrood Park
If you are looking for the best views of the city then you will want to climb up to the top of Arthur’s Seat for sure. Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags are the hills in Edinburgh’s city center and can be seen from almost anywhere in the city.
It is the site of a 350 million-year-old extinct volcano. The last eruption was more than 100 million years ago. Arthur’s Seat used to be a royal park (you can see from noting the crowns on the lamps on the way in), but was gifted by the Queen to the people, so is now a public park (Holyrood Park).
The easiest route up to Arthur’s Seat is to take the grassy slope on the east side from Dunsapie Loch on Queen’s Drive. It takes about 30 minutes to reach the top and is a relatively easy hike (but a bit steep). Make sure to dress for the weather as it can quite windy at the top.
We suggest heading up to Artur’s Seat for Sunset. The views of the city are magnificent and you are only 15 minutes from the city center. If you are looking for an alternative for sunset Calton Hill is a great alternative.
7. Princes Street Gardens
Princes Street Gardens is located in the middle of Edinburgh, on Princes Street right beneath Edinburgh Castle. They used to be the site of the Nor Loch – the North Loch which was drained when the New Town was built in the 1760s. The gardens have a wonderful view of the castle, and it is a great place to stroll or stop for a picnic.
They are also home to the Edinburgh Christmas market. If you are visiting in the winter you want to make sure to take this in.
8. Visit or Climb the Scott Monument
The Scott Monument, located at the eastern end of Princes Street Gardens, is not only one of the most impressive monuments in the city, but it also offers some unique views of Edinburgh Castle and other Edinburgh attractions.
Climbing up the narrow staircase (287 steps) of the Scott Monument may be one of the more adventurous things to do in Edinburgh but make sure to stop on the first level and learn a little more about the revered Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott.
Built in 1832 to commemorate the death of Sir Walter Scott, this gothic spire stands 200 feet high and is intricately decorated with beloved characters from his books. If you are interested in literature and the writings of Sir Walter Scott as well as Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson, and other Scottish writers we recommend visiting the Writers Museum near the Royal Mile.
9. Climb Calton Hill
The top of Calton Hill is one of the best spots for a spectacular view of the city, especially at sunset. It is a much easier climb than Arthur’s Seat, taking less than ten minutes to reach the top from Regent Road.
The top of Calton hill is home to the Nelson Monument (that looks like a sort of upside-down telescope), the National Monument, which is designed similarly to the Parthenon in Athens in Greece, and the City Observatory.
Even though the national monument remains unfinished 200 years later, it’s still very popular among visitors. Calton Hill is also a great place to enjoy the fireworks above the castle during Hogmanay.
10. Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
The Royal Botanic Garden is situated outside the city centre by the lovely village of Stockbridge and has been there since the Victorian era. It is another great place to get away from the crowds and enjoy nature, but here it is cultivated nature, with many beautiful flowerbeds. There are gardens and flora from many different countries including China, Japan, France, Spain, and Australia.
Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Hours: Daily 10am-6pm. Cost: Gardens free. Glasshouse £6.
11. Mary King’s Close
The Real Mary King’s Close is one of the coolest things to do in Edinburgh, mainly because it is all underneath the streets of Old Town and the Royal Mile.
What was once one of the busiest streets in the city was covered by construction back in the 19th century. But you can get a look at what life was like between the 16th and 19th centuries with a tour of the Real Mary King’s close.
You can only explore the area with a designated guide, so we suggest booking a guided tour to get the most out of this great Edinburgh attraction. FYI, there are no photos allowed on the tour.
12. Camera Obscura & World of Illusions
Camera Obscura & World of Illusions is by far one of the most fun things to do in Edinburgh, especially if you are visiting Edinburgh with kids. This attraction is made up of 2 different areas. The first is the World of Illusions, which is several floors of magic displays, optical illusions, interactive exhibits, and other fun things that everyone will enjoy. Make sure to try the Vortex!
But the main attraction is on the roof, which is the Camera Obscura. This is basically an old-fashioned projection system, but the demonstration and the story behind are what make this the star attraction. If cameras and magic are not too much of interest, the views from the rooftop over Edinburgh are definitely worth it as well. You can read the reviews and book your tickets here.
13. St Giles Cathedral
There is no shortage of churches in Edinburgh and most are quite impressive. But if you decide to visit only one of them you should make it to this one. It is hard to miss the crown-shaped steeple of St Giles Cathedral which dates back to the 14th century and is an icon of the Edinburgh skyline.
Located close to Old Town and the Royal Mile, it is impressive from the outside but I find the inside to be really beautiful. Don’t miss the Thistle Chapel (make sure to check out the ceiling) or the rooftop tour to make the most of your time there. Admission is upon donation and you can purchase a photography permit for 2 pounds at the information desk if you want to take photos inside, which I recommend.
14. Royal Yacht Britannia
You cannot visit Edinburgh and not visit The Royal Yacht Britannia in Leith. It is definitely one of the most popular things to do in Edinburgh.
This floating museum was Her Majesty the Queen’s ex-Royal Yacht. Built back in 1953 it served as the Royal Yacht until it was decommissioned in 1957. Several decks are open to the public to view the various staterooms and public rooms of the vessel.
You can take the audio tour to get all the inside royal details or you can have Afternoon Tea at the Royal Deck Tea Room for the full experience. Since it is Scotland’s Best Attraction according to the tourism site, you will want to book your ticket in advance to avoid the crowds.
Hours: 9.30 am-4.30 pm. Cost to visit the Royal Yacht Britannia: £17.00/15.00 concession, £8.75 for children 5-17.
15. Georgian House Museum
The Georgian House is a museum in Charlotte Square, which showcases the lifestyle of the high Georgian society in Edinburgh’s New Town (George Street). Built in 1796, and located in New town, its first owner was John Lamont, who was the 18th clan chief of the clan Lamont.
He moved to the city centre to find the best education for his sons and the best husbands for his daughters. People interested in Georgian times, architecture, and lifestyles would enjoy visiting the Georgian House at No. 7 Charlotte Square.
Note: They are closed at the moment. Please check their website for up-to-date hours. Hours: Summer hours (April-October) 10 am-5 pm daily. Winter hours (November-March) 10 am-4.15 pm daily.
16. Scottish National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery is one of Edinburgh’s best art galleries. If you are a fan of portraiture, then this is one of the things to do in Edinburgh that you don’t want to miss. It holds hundreds of paintings of distinguished Scots from royalty, lords, and ladies, to artists, poets and writers.
The gallery has a mix of mediums, from oil paintings to watercolors, to photography. Also, there is a statue of Robert Burns – Scotland’s bard – welcoming in the foyer.
17. Take a Ghost Tour
Edinburgh is reputedly one of the most haunted cities in the world. One of the factors that contribute to this includes the hundreds of plague sufferers who were walled in, in the old streets underneath the Royal Mile.
Another factor is all the hangings that happened in the Grassmarket, where some of the unhappy souls, and grieved innocent people hanged haunt the city. This is my favorite Ghost tour in Edinburgh. Great guides and actually quite scary.
18. Greyfriar’s Bobby
Greyfriar’s Bobby is the tale of a wee dog from the Greyfriar’s area of Edinburgh. His is a tale of friendship and devotion. A kind local policeman named Jock Grey adopted a little Skye terrier and named him Bobby when he was just a couple of weeks old. The pair soon became the best of friends, going everywhere, including the local pub by Greyfriar’s Kirk (church), together.
Sadly after only two years together, Jock passed away from tuberculosis, and Bobby was left master-less. The wee dog was broken-hearted, so spent every night of the rest of his life – another 14 years – sleeping on Jock’s grave. He was taken in by the community and given a license by the Lord Provost of Edinburgh and has been a sort of folk hero since.
Many people have taken to rubbing the statue of Bobby’s nose for luck and taking a photo with him, so don’t miss visiting the city’s favorite canine.
19. The Grassmarket Gallows
The Grassmarket is a bustling part of Edinburgh, which has great nightlife and places to eat, as well as an intriguing past. Situated in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle to the south, it is named, as it was the market where all animals that ate grass –as well as the grasses to feed them – were sold.
The bustling square hosts a food and craft market on Sundays and has a plethora of great old character-filled pubs to visit and great restaurants to sample Scottish or international food. Common criminals who had been sentenced to death were hanged here on the spot, which now is a raised platform with a cross on it.
Some infamous Edinburgh criminals such as mass murderer William Burke and thief Deacon Brodie met their end here.
20. Harry Potter in Edinburgh
You cannot say you have completed the best things to do in Edinburgh without taking in some of the Harry Potter attractions. JK Rowling lived in Edinburgh when she started writing Harry Potter, and during most of her time writing the tomes, so there are lots of links to the stories for those interested. If you are a Harry Potter fan you will love Edinburgh.
The way to get the best Harry Potter experience is to take a tour. This Harry Potter Walking Tour is one of the best in the city and is really affordable.
21. Tour the Harry Potter Locations in Edinburgh
You don’t need to take a guided tour to enjoy Harry Potter locations in Edinburgh. You can visit many by yourself. Here are a few of my favorites.
The Elephant Café – On George Fourth Bridge. This is a café where Rowling did a lot of writing during her early stages of the books.
Greyfriar’s Kirk – The grave of Scottish poet McGonagall was the inspiration for the character Ms. McGonagall, as Rowling enjoyed the irony of naming a very literate and clever character after someone infamous for his terrible poems.
Hogwarts – The description of Hogwarts is said to be an amalgamation of inspiration from three private schools in Edinburgh, Stuarts Melville, Fettes College, and George Heriots. All three schools aren’t far from the city center, with George Heriots situated right behind Greyfriar’s Kirkyard if you visit there, so are easy to go to see.
The Boy Wizard Shops– Harry Potter shops called The Boy Wizard are popping up around Edinburgh for all your Potter merchandise needs. There is currently one on South Bridge, The Royal Mile, inside the Tartan Weaving Center right next to the Castle downstairs, and one just opened in Edinburgh airport!
21. A Scotch Whisky Experience
You cannot visit Scotland and not experience Scotch. Well, this is what The Scotch Whiskey Experience is all about. Located across the street from Camera Obscura and The World of Illusions, this is one of the most fun adult things to do in Edinburgh hands down. Especially if you love whiskey.
Even if you don’t you will have fun learning about the process and why it is so popular in this part of the world. For those who are looking for just a taste I recommend The Silver your which is their most affordable and if you are more of a connoisseur then check out the Platinum tour or the Masterclass. This place can get pretty busy so I suggest grabbing a Skip the Line Ticket especially if you are visiting during the summer.
Edinburgh offers a ton of different whiskey tours throughout the city and I have done a few. The one above is my favorite but if you want to check some more of the city try this History of Whiskey Tour.
22. The Edinburgh Dungeon
Edinburgh has a long history and a tumultuous one. A visit to The Edinburgh Dungeon is a must if you like exploring a little of the macabre. This experience is done really well with live actors, special effects, and underground rides.
Walk the plagued roads of 1645, avoid Burke and Hare and you could even face prosecution at trial. The Edinburgh Dungeon holds late-night events as well that are adults only. You are guaranteed to have a good time.
How Much Time Should You Spend in Edinburgh?
Like most places, the amount of time you need in a city is solely dependent on how much you want to see and do.
We recommend spending at least 3 Days in Edinburgh, in order to take full advantage of visiting all the main Edinburgh attractions like Old Town, Arthur’s Seat, and Calton Hill as well as some of the more unique things like a ghost tour.
If you are really into Scottish history and Museums you might want to give yourself a little longer.
When is the best time to visit Edinburgh?
The best time to visit Edinburgh is in the summer. There are a lot of things happening and you are going to get the best weather. August is also the month when a lot of festivals take place such as the Edinburgh international festival, so you will want to factor that into your planning. The only caveat is that it will be quite busy.
If you want to visit when it is a little less crowded then the shoulder seasons of Spring and Fall are for you. Accommodation prices are a bit lower and the main attractions are less busy.
Don’t write off winter though, especially if you want to visit the Edinburgh Christmas Market.
How to Get to Edinburgh
There are direct flights to Edinburgh from any of the UK’s major cities and around Europe.
Plus many major cities are connected to the Scottish capital by train. The main train station is the Waverley Train Station but you can also take the train to Haymarket.
Buses also operate between London and Edinburgh.
Getting Around Edinburgh
The beauty of a compact city like Edinburgh is that you can easily access a lot of the main attractions on foot. If you are not into doing some walking (and some hill climbing) you can access the cities efficient bus and tram lines as well as the well-run taxi service.
There is also the HOHO Bust that is offered free for 48 hours on the Edinburgh Pass, another great way to get around.
Final Thoughts on Visiting Edinburgh
And that is my guide to the best things to do in Edinburgh, Scotland. Visiting these Edinburgh attractions should give you a great starting point when planning your trip to Edinburgh.
Regardless of whether you are visiting for a week or a weekend, I have tried to include things that are free to do as well as a lot of low-cost items. I hope you enjoy visiting my city as much as I do living here.