Best Things To Do in Edinburgh
When you think Edinburgh, you might quickly conjure up images of grassy hills, rowdy pubs, a sea of tartan – but this ancient city has so much more to offer. Take a walk down Old Town's Royal Mile and you'll find yourself face to face with the iconic Edinburgh Castle. Explore the nearby seaside and you're likely to stumble upon the Royal Yacht Britannia. And if you're visiting Holyroodhouse Palace, you might suddenly fancy a wander up the adjacent Arthur's Seat or Calton Hill for some magnificent Scottish views. And come festival season in August, expect the city to be alive with libations as Edinburgh celebrates the beloved annual Military Tatto, Fringe Festival and the Edinburgh Festival. For help navigating the city's many attractions and events, consider enlisting the help of a local by signing up for a guided tour.
Updated August 18, 2016
- #1View all Photos
If you're like the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, you might enjoy the view from Calton Hill; this spot was a favorite of his. One of the most popular vantage points for photo ops (and included in the city's UNESCO World Heritage site distinction), Calton Hill affords a majestic panorama of the city below – so don't forget to bring your camera, or make sure your phone is charged. Located east of New Town, Calton Hill is one of the country's first public parks, founded in 1724. Today, the hill supports several iconic buildings and monuments, so much so that it has been nicknamed the Athens of the North. Some of these structures include the Burns Monument, erected in honor of Scottish writer Robert Burns, the Nelson Monument, designed by Robert Burns, and the National Monument, modeled after the Parthenon but given the name "Edinburgh's Disgrace" for never having been completed.
Recent travelers loved Calton Hill for its beautiful views, peaceful surroundings and relatively easy hike to the top. With Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh Castle and the sea in sight, some visitors say the best time to go is during sunset or sunrise. Calton Hill is less than a mile from the Royal Mile and less than a half-mile from Edinburgh Waverly train station.
- #2View all Photos
Arthur's Seat, located in the verdant Holyrood Park, affords one of the best views of the city. Standing 800 feet above sea level, Arthur's Seat is the highest point in the park, providing panoramic views of the sea and nearby sites, including attractions like Edinburgh Castle and the Scott Monument. If you're wondering how Arthur's Seat got its name, chances are you may never get a clear answer. Legend has it that it was the site for Camelot while others claim William Maitland, a Scottish politician, believed the name was derived from Ard-na-Said, a Gallic phrase meaning "height of narrows." The attraction was also a former volcano. Trails are accessible off of Queen's Drive near Holyroodhouse Palace, which is located at the base of Arthur's Seat.
Some recent travelers mention the hike was a bit more strenuous than they thought it would be. Visitors not prone to regular walking might find it difficult. Keep in mind that the journey to Arthur's Seat is all uphill, so make sure to wear comfortable walking or hiking shoes and bring water. Once you reach the top, many travelers say you'll find the 360-degree views worth any sweat you might've worked up. Arthur's Seat is free to access.
- #3View all Photos#3 in Edinburgh2.7 miles to city centerParks and Gardens, Sightseeing, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND2.7 miles to city centerParks and Gardens, Sightseeing, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
If you're looking for some peace and serenity after a long day on the Royal Mile, the Royal Botanic Garden is the perfect place to rest your feet. This garden, which covers 70 acres, brims with so much beautiful foliage you're likely to forget that you're in one of Scotland's biggest cities. The Royal Botanic Garden houses 3,000 exotic plants from around the world, spread out among its 10 glasshouses, each with a different climatic zone. The garden is also very famous for its rhododendron flowers. The Royal Botanic Garden's collection of the flower is considered the world's richest assemblage of species rhododendrons, and the Edinburgh location has been seen as a major center for study since the late 19th century. After you've visited these famous flowers, take a stroll through the giant redwood trees in the Woodland Garden, or view the contemporary art gallery in the adjacent Inverleith House.
Recent visitors strongly recommended this attraction simply for its beauty and the serenity it brings. Travelers say no matter what time of year you visit, there is always something in bloom, and that the extra fee for entry to the Glasshouse is worth every penny. And don't forget to take your camera; the garden is as photogenic as you can imagine.
- #4View all Photos
If Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Yacht Britannia and Holyroodhouse Palace don't quench your thirst for some Scottish history, take a trip to the National Museum of Scotland. The museum houses a whopping 20,000 historical artifacts spread out through its numerous, diverse galleries. Here, visitors will find exhibits dedicated to art and design, the natural world (which features a giant T. rex skeleton), history, archaeology and world cultures. And don't leave without visiting the Dolly the sheep display (named after Dolly Parton), the first mammal to ever be cloned from an adult cell.
Recent visitors said this is a great place for a family outing, and can easily be enjoyed by all ages. Children especially enjoyed the taxidermied animals in the Natural World galleries and adults appreciated the free admittance. Keep in mind this museum is big, so if you're on a time crunch (visitors reported spending a few hours here), map out what you'd like to see before your visit.
- #5View all Photos#5 in Edinburgh1.6 miles to city centerMuseums, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND1.6 miles to city centerMuseums, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
If you're traveling with kids, there is no better place in Edinburgh to bring them than Camera Obscura and World of Illusions. Located at the top of the heavily (tourist) trafficked Royal Mile, Camera Obscura is filled with enough colorful puzzles, games and optical illusions to keep the kids entertained for days. It's also the city's oldest attraction, having opened in 1835.
Inside this Victorian tower of a building, visitors will find the 175-year-old Camera Obscura show, which is led by a (usually funny) tour guide. There's also a mirror maze and photogenic vortex tunnel in Bewilderworld, Light Fantastic, the U.K.'s only permanent gallery on the science and art of holography and the hands-on Magic Gallery, where visitors can catch their shadows, shake hands with their ghost and even walk on water. There's also something for the history buffs; the 3-D Edinburgh Vision exhibit takes you through the city from the 1850s to present day.
- #6View all Photos
If you're one for the royals, a stop at the Palace of Holyroodhouse is a must. The palace is the official Scottish residence of the queen and has housed many other notable royal figures throughout history, including King George V, Charles I and Mary, Queen of Scots. When the current queen isn't home (she tends to visit during Holyrood Week, which takes place from the end of June to early July), visitors are welcome to tour parts of the property. Visitors are able to explore Mary, Queen of Scots' Chambers and the State Apartments, which include the Throne Room, the area where new knights are decided, the Morning Drawing Room, where the queen entertains private audiences and the Great Gallery, which houses portraits of all the kings of Scotland. During the summer months, travelers also have the opportunity to tour The Abbey by wardens dressed in ancient hunting garb.
Recent travelers enjoyed their time exploring the Palace of Holyroodhouse and were delighted by how little time they had to spend touring the property (some reported less than two hours). Visitors particularly loved the on-site gardens and enjoyed the view of Arthur's Seat from the palace. Some strongly recommended utilizing the audio guide or taking a guided tour, as it helped the great history of the attraction come alive. Several of Edinburgh's top tours make stops at the Palace of Holyroohouse.
- #7View all Photos
Did you know Princess Diana and Prince Charles honeymooned aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia? You'll find the impressive yacht anchored at the Leith Docks, just north of central Edinburgh. Along with serving royal honeymooners (the Duke and Duchess of York used it as well), this yacht served as a residence for the royal family for more than 44 years. Throughout that time, the Royal Yacht Britannia traveled to 600 ports in 135 countries, clocking in more than one million nautical miles for 968 state visits. This not only made the queen the most traveled monarch in the world, but the total distance traveled is equivalent to circling the globe once a year. Visitors can now come aboard and tour the boat fit for a king, or rather a queen; everything from the crew's quarters to the State Apartments, which have housed the likes of Nelson Mandela and Ronald Reagan. You can even have tea in the Royal Deck Tea Room, the same place where the royals used to dine.
Recent travelers found the interiors to be stunning, the history fascinating and the overall layout of the museum to be very organized. Even those travelers who reported having little interest in the royal family enjoyed the attraction. Some strongly encouraged future travelers to take advantage of the free audio guide given with the ticket, as it made the experience much more informative.
- #8View all Photos
Stretching from the high-on-a-hill Edinburgh Castle to the Holyroodhouse Palace, the Royal Mile is both Old Town Edinburgh's main thoroughfare and one of the city's main streets. Here you'll find top attraction after top attraction, including the Scotch Whisky Experience and Camera Obscura and World of Illusions, as well as a big concentration of shops, restaurants and pubs housed in stunning architecture along this cobblestone street. Most travelers note the Royal Mile's propensity toward tourist traps; they also say it's a must-do considering all its amenities. The Royal Mile is seen by many as the center of the city, so be prepared for crowds at all hours.
Many of Edinburgh's top tours make stops at the Royal Mile.
- #9View all Photos
Hoisted high atop Edinburgh, almost as if it's monitoring its city below, Edinburgh Castle is not only one of Scotland's most recognized landmarks, but one of the country's most-visited attractions. Not only has the castle housed various royals throughout history, but also once housed military prisoners and was the site of a back-and-forth capture with the English. Inside its stone walls (which survived a World War I bombing), some of the attractions available for visitors to view are the Honours (or crown jewels) of Scotland, St. Margaret's Chapel (Edinburgh's oldest building), Mons Meg (considered one of the greatest guns in medieval Europe), the National War Museum, The Great Hall and the vaults that once held prisoners of war (located under the Great Hall).
Some travelers express disappointment in the castle's high price of admission but that grievance was quickly followed up with a strong recommendation to visit this attraction. Visitors loved learning about the castle's history, exploring the grounds and enjoyed the attraction's expansive views of the city. Some suggested springing for an audio guide or tour while others urged planning your visit around 1 p.m. Monday through Saturdays, when guns are fired on the premises, a tradition that harks back to the 19th century. Several of Edinburgh's top tours make stops at the castle.
- #10View all Photos#10 in Edinburgh1.6 miles to city centerTours, Wineries/BreweriesTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND1.6 miles to city centerTours, Wineries/BreweriesTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
If you're interested in broadening your whisky repertoire, you might enjoy spending time at the Scotch Whisky Experience. The Scotch Whiskey Experience features a variety of tours varying in price. The standard Silver Tour includes a whisky barrel ride through the production of scotch whisky, introductions to whisky aromas, a dram of whisky and a glimpse into the largest collection of scotch whisky (more than 3,300 bottles!). There's also a Gold Tour and Platinum Tour, which includes all that is offered in the Silver Tour as well as extras, including tastings of single malts. If you don't want to necessarily go on a tour but still want a taste of the experience, visit Amber Restaurant, located on-site.
Whisky connoisseurs and casual drinkers both found this tour to be fun and fascinating. Travelers especially enjoyed learning how the whisky is produced and appreciated the friendly and knowledgeable staff. The Silver Tour is 14.50 pounds (about $21) and 50 minutes long, the Gold Tour 25.25 pounds (about $37) and 70-90 minutes long and the Platinum Tour is 35 pounds (about $51) and 90 minutes long. Hours are seasonal but generally the attraction is open from 10 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m. year-round. You can find the Scotch Whisky Experience on the Royal Mile, right next to Edinburgh Castle and Camera Obscura and World of Illusions. For more information, visit the Scotch Whisky Experience's website.
Explore More of Edinburgh
If you make a purchase from our site, we may earn a commission. This does not affect the quality or independence of our editorial content.