Edinburgh, Scotland is one of my favorite European capital cities (it’s the capital of Scotland, in case you didn’t know!). It has everything that I love in a city, including gorgeous architecture, access to nature, good transport links, and of course lots of interesting history.
Edinburgh as a city dates back to at least the 1100s, though the area was inhabited by different groups for centuries before that, and there was some sort of fortification atop Castle Rock since before the Romans arrived in the 1st century. Both the Old Town AND New Town of Edinburgh are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which is pretty impressive.
While it’s not a massive city (population just over 550,000 in the metro area), Edinburgh still offers up a ton of unique things to do. I’ve visited this city many times over the years, and still always find something new!
This list is based off my various visits to Edinburgh, and includes the things I personally think are worth doing/seeing.
The list below will cover ALL the best things to do in Edinburgh. But if you only have a short amount of time and want to tick off the absolute must-dos in Edinburgh, then you need to:
And read on for the full list, which also includes museums, Harry Potter sites, afternoon tea, Edinburgh’s darker history, and more!
I’m dividing this list into Old Town, New Town, and a little further out to make it a bit easier. And you can find most of these things plotted on a map towards the end of this post!
Edinburgh’s Old Town is, not surprisingly, the oldest part of the city. It includes the Royal Mile and famous palaces, as well as they city’s oldest architecture. Most visitors picture the Old Town when they think of Edinburgh, and usually spend most of their time here.
Edinburgh’s most famous attraction by far is the Royal Mile. Though “attraction” isn’t really the right word, since the Royal Mile is so much more than just a singular thing to see.
The Royal Mile stretches from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and actually measures 1.81 kilometers, or 1.12 miles long. Here you’ll find everything from pubs to tartan shops, and the pedestrian-only section is usually filled with street performers and buskers (including, always, at least one bagpiper).
As you make your way up (or down) the Royal Mile, there are plenty of historic sites and attractions you can check out, but I recommend walking the full length at least once during your stay!
You can’t really visit Edinburgh without visiting a castle (after all, there are two of them here!).
Edinburgh Castle, sitting proudly at the top of the Royal Mile, is the castle that you’ll see the most often since it’s visible from many parts of the city. It sits atop Castle Rock, and has been there since the year 1103 AD.
Edinburgh Castle has not been occupied for centuries, so what you’ll find inside consists mostly of the crown jewels of Scotland and some military exhibits, including the National War Museum.
I personally think the entrance fee (currently £19.50 for adults) is a bit steep for what you actually see, but go for it if it’s something you want to do. Just note that you’ll need to book a timed ticket in advance in order to visit, and these tickets DO sell out, especially during the summer months.
(If you do visit and want to get more out of your time there, pick up a skip-the-line ticket that includes a guided tour.)
You can’t miss this 14th-century cathedral with its crown-shaped steeple on the Royal Mile. St. Giles Cathedral (AKA the High Kirk of Edinburgh) was founded in 1124 by King David I, and the oldest parts of the current building date back to the 14th century.
Not only is St. Giles beautiful on the outside, but the church is just as pretty on the inside, too. Pop in to see the stained glass windows, pretty blue ceiling, and intricate Thistle Chapel.
(Note that St. Giles is usually open every day, though sometimes is closed to visitors for private events like weddings. It’s free to visit, though they do ask that you pay a small fee to take photos inside.)
Near Edinburgh Castle, you’ll come upon the Scotch Whisky Experience, which is one part museum and one part interactive tour. Even if you don’t love whisky, this is something worth doing in Edinburgh.
You can take a variety of tours that promise to help you “become a ‘one-hour-whisky-expert,’” and also see a collection of more than 3,300 bottles of Scotch whisky. The tour comes complete with a scratch-and-sniff card to walk you through different types of whisky, as well as one tasting.
(Book the 50-minute tour here, which is great for first-timers.)
If you want my honest opinion, I think that visiting the Palace of Holyroodhouse is more worth it than visiting Edinburgh Castle. This palace at the bottom of the Royal Mile has a similar entrance fee (£18 in advance, or £19.50 on the day) to tour, but offers the added bonus of still being an official royal residence.
Holyroodhouse is the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland. The late Queen would come to stay (and throw a huge garden party) every summer, and the current King will stay here, too.
On a tour of Holyrood, you get to see the State Apartments (which are still used), as well as the former chambers of Mary, Queen of Scots. Outside the palace, you’ll find some beautiful grounds, as well as the ruins of the Holyrood Abbey.
Booking a timed ticket in advance is recommended here! (Book your ticket here.)
If you’re in the mood for a more fun way to spend an hour or two, check out the Camera Obscura and World of Illusions right next to the entrance to Edinburgh Castle. This interactive museum is filled with optical illusions and fun puzzles, and is especially great if you’re traveling to Scotland with kids.
You can see the camera obscura itself and learn how it works, and the tower atop the building also gives you some great views out over the city.
Edinburgh has a very long history – and not all of it is nice. There are various tours you can take to explore the darker side of the city, from nighttime ghost tours to after-dark historical tours. Some even take you into the underground vaults beneath the current city streets.
Here are some spooky Edinburgh tours to check out:
You should also check out the Real Mary King’s Close, which is a complex of narrow alleyways partially hidden beneath the Royal Exchange in the Old Town. The area has plenty of dark stories associated with it, so be prepared for some goosebumps.
Speaking of spooky places, I really enjoy visiting old cemeteries when I travel. They can be hauntingly beautiful, and this is definitely true of Greyfriars Kirkyard, the graveyard surrounding Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh’s Old Town with graves dating back to the 1600s.
Greyfriars is famous for a couple of things, including Greyfriars Bobby, a little dog that guarded its former master’s grave in the graveyard for 14 years. (There’s a statue of Bobby near the graveyard’s entrance.)
The graveyard also is *supposedly* where author JK Rowling got a few ideas for names in the Harry Potter series, and you’ll find graves for the likes of Thomas Riddell, William McGonagall, Elizabeth Moodie, and Daniel Scrymgeour here.
Speaking of Harry Potter, there are lots of Harry Potter sites and activities around Edinburgh, due to the fact that the author lived in the city while she wrote many of the books. You can take a Harry Potter-themed walking tour to see a lot of the sites at once – I recommend the free walking tours with the Potter Trail.
(For more Harry Potter sites in Edinburgh, check out this post: A Harry Potter Lover’s Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland.)
Located below the Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle on the Old Town side sits the Grassmarket. What once was a historic market place is now filled with pubs, restaurants, and more of the city’s incredible architecture.
While you’re there, be sure to head up West Bow Street, which leads to one of my favorite streets in Edinburgh: Victoria Street.
The curving Victoria Street is one of the most photogenic streets in all of Edinburgh, and takes no time at all to walk up. (The best views of the street are actually from Victoria Terrace.)
The National Museum of Scotland is one of the best museums in Edinburgh. This museum is dedicated to the history of (you guessed it) Scotland, but has exhibits covering things like art, design, world cultures, and even dinosaurs, too. (Guys, they have the real Dolly the Sheep here!)
And, like with most museums in the UK, this one is free to visit. Definitely plan to spend a couple hours here, as there’s a lot to see!
Another good museum to visit in Edinburgh is the Museum of Edinburgh (bet you can’t guess what it’s about!). This museum right on the Royal Mile is unique in that it’s spread out across various 16th century buildings.
There are lots of things to see relating to Edinburgh’s long history, with some of the exhibits voted on by local people as the best representations of the stories that have shaped the city. This museum is free, too!
Did you know that Scotland (and Edinburgh more specifically) has produced a great number of writers and poets? The Writer’s Museum celebrates three of Scotland’s most famous literary figures: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
The free museum has things like portraits, rare books, and personal objects belonging and related to these famous Scottish writers.
You can also learn about Scotland’s greatest writers by going on a unique literary pub tour, which will have you tracing the city’s literary history by visiting places frequented by the likes of Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott.
While afternoon tea is often regarded as an English pastime, you can nevertheless find plenty of fancy tea options in Edinburgh, too. Some unique ones to consider include:
RELATED: 3 Days in Edinburgh: The Perfect Itinerary
Edinburgh’s New Town is only “new” in relation to its Old Town; this part of the city mostly dates back to the 1700s and 1800s. The architecture here is notably different, but still incredibly beautiful.
A great thing to do in Edinburgh New Town is strolling through Princes Street Gardens, which are technically two adjacent gardens in the center of Edinburgh, just down the hill from the castle on the New Town side.
The Gardens were created in the 1820s, after the Nor Loch (an ancient lake) was drained. Today, they’re a lovely place for an afternoon walk that offer up excellent views of Edinburgh Castle.
The Victorian Gothic monument dedicated to Scottish author Sir Walter Scott sits on the edge of Princes Street Gardens, and is one of the largest monuments to a writer anywhere in the world. You can’t miss it.
The Scott Monument is not an easy climb (it’s 287 steps up, and includes some extremely narrow passages), but climbing to the top will get you some of the very best views of Edinburgh.
Another one of the best museums in Edinburgh is the Scottish National Gallery, located on The Mound beneath Edinburgh Castle. Here you can see art from Scottish and international artists, and this museum is also free to visit.
Right on the border of the New/Old Towns you’ll find the Johnnie Walker Experience, a new facility for whisky tastings and tours. You can go on an interactive tour that includes 3 tastings suited to your personal preferences, do a chocolate and whisky pairing, or taste whisky straight out of the cask in the cellars.
The Johnnie Walker building also has a very nice gift shop you can visit without taking a tour, and a rooftop bar/restaurant that offers up excellent views of Edinburgh.
You’ll want to book both tours and rooftop reservations in advance! (Book the whisky tour here!)
While there are lots of cute shops in the Old Town, too, the best shopping in Edinburgh is in the New Town. George Street is lined with boutiques and shops, and the newer St. James Quarter just below Calton Hill is also popular for shopping and dining.
In the St. James Quarter, you’ll find new food court concepts like Edinburgh Street Food and Bonnie & Wild that are great for a cheap(er) meal.
One of my favorite spots in Edinburgh is Dean Village. This little neighborhood in New Town is characterized by colorful historical houses and the Water of Leith running through it.
It’s a great place for a walk – but beware that you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time here!
To find Dean Village, take Bell’s Brae down beneath the Dean Bridge, only about a 10- or 15-minute walk from Princes Street.
From Dean Village, you could also take a peaceful stroll along the Water of Leith. You won’t feel like you’re in a major city at all!
Located beyond the east end of Princes Street is Calton Hill, where you’ll find various monuments (like the Nelson Monument and Robert Burns Monument) and some more incredible views out over Edinburgh.
If you don’t fancy climbing the Scott Monument, definitely make sure you get to Calton Hill for the views. It’s a popular spot to watch the sunset in Edinburgh, but it’s great any time of day.
Staying at The Balmoral (a luxury hotel that dates back to 1902) may be out of your Edinburgh budget, but you can still enjoy this iconic hotel with a visit to its whisky bar called simply Scotch. Instead of bartenders, here “Whisky Ambassadors” wearing kilts can help you sample from one of Edinburgh’s largest collections of whisky.
Open to venturing a little further from the Old Town and New Town? Here are a few of the most popular things to do:
If you’re visiting during the spring or summer and the weather is nice, then a visit to the Royal Botanic Garden is lovely. These gardens are more than 350 years old and cover 70 acres north of the Edinburgh city center, displaying a “Living Collection” of plants from all around the world.
The most popular hike you can start right in central Edinburgh is the walk to the top of Arthur’s Seat. Arthur’s Seat is actually an ancient (extinct) volcano that rises 251 meters (823 feet) over Holyrood Park, which is the Royal Park next to Holyrood Palace.
The views from Arthur’s Seat over Edinburgh are fantastic, and the whole hike usually takes about 2 hours (there and back).
Formerly a favorite royal yacht of Queen Elizabeth II, the Royal Yacht Britannia is now permanently anchored in Leith, the trendy port neighborhood of Edinburgh. The yacht was in service from 1954-1997 (if you watched “The Crown,” you’ll remember it in the storyline), traveling more than a million nautical miles all around the world.
Today, the yacht is part of the National Historic Fleet and is a tourist attraction. You can tour the yacht to see its elaborate state rooms as they would have been used when the ship was a royal residence, and even have tea in its tearoom.
A little further out still, the iconic Forth Bridge spanning the Firth of Forth is worth seeing if you’ll be driving north from Edinburgh. The cantilever railway bridge stretches across the Firth of Forth, and is very striking. It dates back to 1890, and is even a UNESCO World Heritage Site!
One end of the bridge is in the town of (South) Queensferry, which plays host each New Year’s Day to the Loony Dook, an annual polar plunge tradition where people in costumes jump into the Firth of Forth. (I’ve done it as part of Hogmanay! It’s wild.)
There’s so much to do in Edinburgh itself, but if you want to explore a bit further, there are lots of excellent day tour and day trip options, too!
Some of the ones I’d recommend include:
Here are a few of my favorite places to stay in Edinburgh:
Mid-range hotel in the Old Town: Holiday Inn Express Edinburgh Royal Mile – I like this hotel on Cowgate because it’s close to the Royal Mile, and yet not super noisy. The rooms are bright and clean, the free wifi is fast, and you usually get free breakfast with your booking. (Read reviews | Book here)
Apartment in the Old Town: No1 Apartments Edinburgh – George IV Bridge – On a previous solo visit to Edinburgh, I rented a one-bedroom apartment on George IV Bridge through No1 Apartments. The apartment was gorgeous, and I had a view of Edinburgh Castle from my kitchen window! (Read reviews | Book here)
Apartment-hotel in the New Town: Eden Locke – For studio and one-bedroom apartments on George Street, I like Eden Locke. It’s perfectly situated near restaurants and cafes in the New Town, but still within walking distance to Princes’ Street Gardens and the Old Town. (Read reviews | Book here)
Luxury hotel in the Old Town: Radisson Blu Edinburgh – If you want to stay right ON the Royal Mile, check out the Radisson Blue with its contemporary rooms. (Read reviews | Book here)
Luxury close to the train station: Market Street Hotel – Right across the street from Edinburgh Waverley Station, this hotel is one of my favorites. It’s understated luxury with lots of added special touches, including a welcome glass of champagne and a free mini bar in every room. (Read reviews | Book here)
And now a few more commonly asked questions about Edinburgh!
If you want to truly soak in all the city’s history and charm, I think you need at least 3 days in Edinburgh. Can you do Edinburgh in 2 days? Yes, you can definitely see the highlights. But 3 days would be ideal!
The best time to visit Edinburgh (in my opinion) is in June. The weather is starting to get nicer, but it’s not yet as busy as it will get in July and August.
August is also a fun time to visit, though, as it’s Edinburgh Festival month. The Fringe Festival, Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and so much more happen in August! It’s a fun time to visit, but also very busy and expensive.
Edinburgh is also fun around the holidays. The city has Christmas markets, and the big Hogmanay celebration to ring in the New Year lasts several days.
Edinburgh is in Scotland, and Scotland is in the United Kingdom. They use the pound sterling (GBP) here, though if you get cash out the bills will be from the Bank of Scotland.
Edinburgh is not what I would call a cheap destination, but it’s not as expensive as London! There are lots of free things to do, too.
You can fly into Edinburgh Airport, take a train to Edinburgh Waverley Station from many UK cities (including London), or you can drive from other parts of Great Britain.
Have you been to Edinburgh? If so, what is your favorite thing to do there?