Said to be built on seven hills, Scotland’s capital Edinburgh is often considered one of the most beautiful European cities. With its colorful history, incredible medieval architecture, and eclectic crowd, Edinburgh is a city to fall in love with. Here are some of the best things to do and see while in Edinburgh.
- Top Things to Do in Edinburgh
- When to Go to Edinburgh
- Where to Stay in Edinburgh
- How Long to Stay in Edinburgh
Top Things to Do in Edinburgh
There’s certainly no shortage of highlights in Edinburgh. But what makes it so unforgettable is the unique combination of rich history, scenic landscapes, and vibrant culture. That’s why rather than simply list its major attractions, I tried to come up with a more diverse mix of activities.
It might be subjective but I hope it gives a taste of what Edinburgh is all about. Of course, feel free to skip any of the suggestions or replace them with others more to your liking. After all, Edinburgh has something in store for everybody.
Stroll Through the Old Town
For me, the best way to get a first impression of Edinburgh is to simply go for a walk around the center. You will quickly grasp the vibe of the city, feel its rhythm, and see some of its beauty.
Besides, old Edinburgh is a fabulous place to get lost in. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the old town is a charming entanglement of cobbled streets, narrow passages, and striking medieval architecture where every brick has a story to tell.
To start, head over to the Royal Mile, a bustling lively street that connects the castle of Edinburgh with the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The processional route for kings and queens in the medieval era, it’s at the heart of today’s Edinburgh.
There’s plenty to marvel at on the Royal Mile with some buildings dating back to the sixteenth century or earlier. St. Giles Cathedral is my favorite, its prominent steeple dominating the skyline. But there are numerous others.
And while you’re at it, have a peek inside some of the narrow side streets that line the Royal Mile. Some of them are unexpectedly interesting! Local street musicians, authentic pubs, and souvenir shops are just some of the things you might discover there.
As fascinating as Royal Mile is, it isn’t the only cool area in Edinburgh. If you can, make your way to the Princes Street Gardens or the Dean Village. Both present a somewhat different perspective of Edinburgh and are well worth a stop.
Visit the Edinburgh Castle
Standing proud and tall on the hill right in the middle of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Castle is the city’s main landmark and attraction. And while it might not be the most striking Scotland castle by looks alone, few have such a long and captivating history.
For centuries, Edinburgh Castle has been a royal residence and an important military outpost. It took part in so many fierce battles that it’s considered the most besieged fortress in Great Britain and one of the most attacked citadels in the world.
Today, the castle offers various tours and exhibitions where visitors can learn all about its magnificent past. The highlights include the oldest Crown jewels in Britain — Honours of Scotland, the National War Museum, and Prisons of War.
Throw in fabulous views from atop its walls, and it becomes clear how one could spend hours exploring it. Edinburgh Castle is the most popular attraction in Edinburgh and a must-see for anyone interested in Scottish history or culture.
Watch the Sunset from Calton Hill
Scotland is famous for its gorgeous landscapes. And even though Edinburgh isn’t necessarily an obvious place to look for them, it sure gives a good first taste of what the rest of the country holds in store.
Like Rome, Edinburgh is built on seven hills (fun fact: the Seven Hills of Edinburgh trail is a well-known local hike). This means there are some excellent vantage points across town. The most popular and the closest one to the center is Calton Hill just east of the Royal Mile.
From the top of Calton Hill, you get an amazing unobstructed view of old Edinburgh and the castle. And because you’re looking almost due west, this is arguably the best spot to watch the sunset over Edinburgh.
A favorite among locals and foreigners alike, Calton Hill is a short walk away from the central area. It’s an absolute must-visit for photographers but I highly encourage you to go there even if you aren’t one. It’s not a hard climb, and the astonishing panoramic view fully justifies the effort.
As the sun begins to set, its soft golden rays set the buildings ablaze with beautiful crimson tones. As these slowly fade away, the street and car lights spring up instead, bright and vivid against the dark-blue sky. It’s a mesmerizing experience.
Book a Free Walking Tour
Walking around on your own is a great way to get a feel of Edinburgh. But an ancient city like this could tell a lot of fascinating stories. And if you’d like to hear at least some of them, consider a free walking tour.
If you never signed up for a free walking tour before, these are fantastic. They exist in many popular destinations and I always try to take one whenever I can. In about 2 hours you visit all the major attractions and hear a ton of interesting facts from a very knowledgeable guide.
And the best part is it’s all free. The only thing you pay is the tip at the end of the tour. It is completely voluntary (although highly encouraged) and you determine the amount. So if you didn’t like the presentation, you could simply walk away. But I never had that happen.
In Edinburgh, there are several tours every day. All you have to do is pick the date and a suitable time slot and show up at the designated location. You’ll have fun and learn a ton of interesting tidbits about Edinburgh.
Do the Underground Ghosts Tour
Every big city that’s been around for a while has a darker side, and Edinburgh is no exception. It keeps a lot of grim secrets but perhaps the most intriguing one is the legendary Edinburgh Vaults.
Known also as South Bridge Vaults, these are a series of catacombs below the arches of Edinburgh’s South Bridge. Constructed in the late 18th century, they initially housed taverns and workshops for various tradesmen, but quickly became a hotspot for the homeless and criminals.
Illegal gambling, prostitution, executions, and torture are just a few examples of events that happened in the vaults. There are even tales of bodysnatchers storing the corpses there.
Whether true or not, for many years this wasn’t the safest area of Edinburgh. And where there’s suffering, there are ghosts. Over time, rumors started spreading about the supernatural encounters in the vaults with dozens of incidents allegedly recorded by now.
And if this sounds exciting, you can now try your own luck at spotting the ghosts, hearing ghastly whispers, or feeling someone’s cold breath up your neck. Just pick one of many Edinburgh’s ghost tours and see what happens.
To be honest, I took the tour and didn’t notice anything supernatural or overly eerie. That said, it was still a hugely entertaining and enjoyable experience. Our guide did an outstanding job creating a fitting atmosphere and telling scary tales. A must-do in Edinburgh if you ask me!
Learn About the Scotch Whiskey
Breathtaking landscapes aren’t the only thing commonly associated with Scotland. The country is also famous for Scotch, a type of whiskey known for its distinct flavor and aroma. In some respect, you could argue it’s breathtaking too… just in a different manner.
What makes Scotch so interesting is that it isn’t just liquor. It’s centuries of culture and tradition, attention to every tiny detail, high-quality ingredients, and processes refined to perfection. Did you know that a bottle of Scotch can sell for up to 200 thousand pounds?
Luckily, you don’t have to pay anywhere near that to try it. And if you drink alcohol, try it you should. Scotch producers take great care to ensure that everything from the selection of ingredients to the aging and bottling of the product is done to the highest standard.
And even if you don’t drink, I think that learning about the effort and tradition that goes into every bottle of Scotch is still quite intriguing. To do that, head to Scotch Whiskey Experience and pick a tour to your liking. Tasting is included for those interested!
And for those who prefer a more…direct approach, shall we say, Macallan, Talisker, Bowmore, and Laphroaig are some of my personal favorites and typically available in any bar.
Spend an Evening in a Pub
Since we veered into the topic of drinks, spending an evening in one of Edinburgh’s pubs is another must-do. Not necessarily to drink or get drunk (although beer and Scotch selection would undoubtedly be excellent) but to tap into the local vibe.
Pub culture is a big part of social life in the UK in general and Scotland is very much on board with it. Pubs are where the locals meet after work for a friendly chat, a good laugh, and some quality time in a laid-back setting.
There’s certainly no shortage of cozy pubs with a relaxed and casual atmosphere in Edinburgh. You can find some solid guides online but my two recommendations are the Piper’s Rest and the White Hart Inn. I’m sure you’ll have a blast in either one!
Try the Mysterious Haggis
Once you find yourself in one of Edinburgh’s pubs, why not try the local specialty — the haggis? And for those who don’t know what it is, Haggis Scoticus is an elusive scruffy creature with four legs and a shaggy mane that roams the hills of Scotland and is notoriously hard to catch.
At least that’s what any reputable Scott will tell you, and with a perfectly straight face too. But of course, no such animal exists. In reality, haggis is a pudding made of sheep’s pluck minced with onion, oatmeal, and spices, and cooked in the animal’s stomach (sorry vegetarians!).
And if that doesn’t sound too inviting, don’t worry. Haggis tastes much better than you might imagine and is actually quite savory. It’s the national dish of Scotland after all, so trust me when I say they know how to cook it.
Haggis is a typical pub food but is often served in restaurants too. Give it a try, and you’ll have a cool story to tell your friends after the trip.
Take a Shot at Street Photography
This one might not be right up everyone’s alley but if you enjoy photography, Edinburgh is a terrific place to get some cool images. There’s plenty to choose from, too: landscapes, cityscapes, architecture, you name it.
But perhaps most importantly, it excels as a street photography venue. Even if street photography isn’t quite your passion, walking around with a camera and no plan is one of the best ways to explore Edinburgh.
There are hundreds of little scenes playing out every second in its passageways and some oddly bizarre characters. You won’t even have to look for them — many will happen right in front of your eyes. Just keep your camera ready.
For those interested, I wrote a whole separate article dedicated to photography in Edinburgh, the best photo locations, and some useful tips. Be sure to check it out.
Go on a Day Trip
Last but not least, if you ever get tired of Edinburgh, there are other incredible locations not too far away. These are perfect for exploring more of the country, especially if you don’t have time for a full-blown Scotland trip.
To begin with, Glasgow is only a 1.5-hour drive from Edinburgh. It is Scotland’s largest national culture hub with quite a few attractions of its own. If you’re up for more discoveries, give it a go.
Another top choice is Stirling Castle, one of the largest and historically important strongholds in Scotland. For history buffs, it is worth going to for that reason alone. You can then combine it with Wallace Monument and the Kelpies for an eventful day out of Edinburgh.
And if you can, try to see some of the amazing Scottish Highlands. As visitscotland.com puts it: “The Scottish Highlands is the Scotland of your imagination”, and I couldn’t agree more. The scenery there is breathtaking.
If you can stomach a lengthy drive, some tours from Edinburgh will take you to Highlands and back in a single day. And if you have 3 days to spare, how about a trip to the Isle of Skye?
When to Go to Edinburgh
Most of Edinburgh’s top attractions can be enjoyed all year round. That said, the weather is at its finest during the peak season of May through September. But, as is often the case, this is also the busiest and most expensive period.
Edinburgh hosts some spectacular international festivals that fill the streets with color and bring a range of exciting festive activities. For the festival season, August is undeniably the best month.
For those who prefer to experience Edinburgh in a calmer and more laid-back setting (and not spend a small fortune), nothing beats the shoulder season: September to October and April to May.
And of course, don’t discount winter. The weather might be dreary but it’s not overly cold. On the bright side, Edinburgh is quite charming when covered in snow. Plus, it’s the most affordable time of the year with some decent deals on tickets and accommodation.
Where to Stay in Edinburgh
No matter when you’re visiting Edinburgh, I highly recommend staying in the central area. If you can find something near the Royal Mile, you can easily explore Edinburgh on foot without ever needing public transport.
Keep in mind that Edinburgh can be outrageously expensive, especially during the high season and when the festivals start. In this case, the earlier you book, the better deal you usually get.
Lastly, if you can’t secure a reasonably priced hotel, consider Airbnb. It isn’t much cheaper, but sometimes there are reasonable options.
How Long to Stay in Edinburgh
This depends a bit on what you plan on doing. Edinburgh is very compact, so 2 days should generally be sufficient to cover its main attractions. Put aside three if you prefer a more relaxed itinerary.
If you have even more time on your hands, I suggest spending it on trips to other parts of the country. Scotland is blessed with some gorgeous and awe-inspiring scenery. I would much rather go see it first-hand than stay a few more nights in Edinburgh.
I have to admit, when I was preparing for my trip to Scotland, I initially thought of Edinburgh as merely a gateway. A necessary stop en route to something much more impressive and exciting that lies beyond.
Yet Edinburgh proved to be so much more than just that. It’s a charming and lively city with remarkable heritage and an admirable travel destination in its own right. There’s a ton to do and see there, and it was an immense pleasure to discover it all.
So if you ever travel to Scotland, I highly recommend stopping in Edinburgh for a night or two. I had a lot of fun there and am sure you would too.
Meanwhile, I hope you enjoyed this quick guide to Edinburgh’s highlights and must-do attractions. If you found it helpful or valuable, do me a favor and share it with friends and on social media. And if you have any questions, leave them in the comments below.
I have additional articles about Scotland and other destinations that you might be interested in. Feel free to roam the blog or check out some of these suggestions of my own:
- Edinburgh Photography Guide: Best Locations and Practical Tips
- Photography Guide to Scotland: How to Get Amazing Images
- One Week in Scotland: A Perfect Itinerary for Photographers
- Isle of Skye Photography Guide: Best Locations and Tips
- A Land of Wonders: 10 Great Reasons to Travel to Slovenia
- Why Leipzig is Worth Visiting: 10 Cool Things to See and Do
- Lisbon Photography Guide: 10 Fabulous Spots to Capture
- Charmingly Authentic: Reasons Why Passau Is Worth Visiting
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