It wasn’t even on my radar until a friend graciously invited me to visit her in Edinburgh back in 2012, and I quickly fell in love with the city. (Jokes on her because I can’t stay away from Edinburgh and now she can’t get rid of me.)
Visiting Edinburgh was the catalyst that led me to move to Scotland, and it triggered my obsession with all things Scottish (any fellow Outlander fans?! Hit me up in the comments).
After living in the city for two years, and revisiting many, many times, I consider myself somewhat of a pseudo-local. Apart from recommendations from an actual local, I’d like to think my tips are the next best thing. 😉
I’ve intentionally omitted certain attractions from this post; it doesn’t include day trips from Edinburgh – only things to do in the city.
You also won’t find any generic recommendations, like ‘pamper yourself at the spa’ or ‘visit the zoo,’ because, quite frankly, you can do those things anywhere.
Instead, I chose to focus on the city’s most popular attractions, off the beaten path spots, and unique things you can only see, eat, and do in Edinburgh (or Scotland).
Table of Contents
Top sights and attractions
1. Climb Arthur’s Seat
If you’re in Edinburgh and the weather is decent (read: it’s not raining sideways), head straight for Arthur’s Seat – a dormant volcano in the centre of the city, within Holyrood Park.
The climb is relatively easy and the panoramic views from the top are breathtaking. You can choose from several paths, but I’d recommend the red route for a gentle, steady ascent.
2. Visit Edinburgh Castle
One of the most iconic attractions in the country, this 12th-century castle affords one of the best views in the city, along with various buildings and structures to explore – including the crown jewels of Scotland and the National War Museum.
3. Walk up Calton Hill
A quick five-minute walk will take you to the top of Calton Hill, another extinct volcano in the city centre. It’s the site of a number of monuments and landmarks – including the National Monument and the Nelson Monument – and it’s one of the best spots to admire the city skyline at sunrise or sunset (or any time of the day, really).
A new contemporary art gallery, Collective, has recently opened in November 2018 in the restored City Observatory at the top of Calton Hill, along with The Lookout – a new restaurant in the same building with floor to ceiling windows and panoramic views over Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth.
4. Picnic in Princes Street Gardens
One of the top things to do in Edinburgh for visitors and locals alike is hang out in Princes Street Gardens, especially If it’s a (rare) warm, sunny day. The view of the castle from that spot never gets old.
5. Stroll along the Royal Mile
The Royal Mile may be touristy, but it’s well worth a visit. Towering tenement buildings stand alongside Gothic cathedrals, and winding streets give way to hidden closes and courtyards. Every inch of this thoroughfare is steeped in history.
A few beautiful and significant facades to look for along this stretch are The Hub, Canongate Tolbooth, and St Giles’ Cathedral.
If you’re fascinated by Edinburgh’s history and Old Town architecture, you may want to visit Gladstone’s Land, one of the oldest buildings on the Royal Mile and once home to some of the city’s wealthiest tenants.
6. Get lost in Old Town
Edinburgh is a city of secrets – from its hidden nooks and crannies to its underground vaults – and Old Town is the best place to explore this facet of it.
Walk along its closes and you’ll find surprises around every corner: Dunbar’s Close conceals a secret garden and Advocates Close offers a sneaky glimpse of the Scott Monument in the distance.
Along with the Royal Mile, colourful Victoria Street and the Grassmarket are two must-see spots in Old Town.
7. Take in the views from the Scott Monument
Apart from the castle, the most prominent landmark in Princes Street Gardens is the Scott Monument, a striking Gothic-style structure dedicated to famous author and poet, Sir Walter Scott.
For £5 fee, you can climb to the top for 360-degree panoramic views of the city from viewing platforms on various levels. The 287-step spiral staircase is extremely narrow so you might want to skip this attraction if you’re claustrophobic.
8. Wander around the Grassmarket
Historically, the Grassmarket was one of the city’s main marketplaces and a site for public executions. Today, it’s is a lively hub with independent shops, restaurants, cafes, and traditional pubs.
While you’re in this area, head to Mary’s Milk Bar for some of the best gelato in the city, Oink for cheap and tasty pulled pork sandwiches, or I.J. Mellis for artisan Scottish cheese.
9. Discover New Town
A stark contrast to Medieval Old Town, Edinburgh’s New Town is characterized by 18th-century Georgian-style architecture, grand squares, and sprawling gardens. It’s the city’s shopping and commercial hub, along with some of Edinburgh’s most popular tourist attractions.
Peek into the past and get a glimpse of opulent New Town architecture at the Georgian House, an 18th-century townhouse restored by the National Trust, designed to showcase what life was like during the late 1700s and early 1800s.
10. Have a dram at the Scotch Whisky Experience
Love it or hate it, whisky and Scotland are inextricably linked. Visit the Scotch Whisky Experience for an introduction to the country’s beloved spirit; their tour is highly engaging and interactive, with tastings and a glimpse of the world’s largest collection of Scotch whisky.
11. Explore the Palace of Holyroodhouse
Located at the end of the Royal Mile, the Palace of Holyroodhouse is The Queen’s official residence in Scotland. Admission includes a self-guided audio tour of the stately residence which once housed a number of famous monarchs, including Mary, Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie. The entry fee also includes the ruins of the 12th-century Holyrood Abbey.
12. Follow the Harry Potter trail
I feel like I’m the only person in the world who isn’t into Harry Potter, but apparently, lots of people come to Edinburgh to see the sites that inspired various elements of the book series.
Beyond The Elephant House cafe, essential Harry Potter landmarks include Greyfriars Kirkyard, George Heriot’s School, and Victoria Street.
13. Visit Greyfriars Bobby
This monument is dedicated to one of the most famous icons in Edinburgh: Bobby, the loyal Skye terrier who (according to legend) guarded his master’s grave at Greyfriars Cemetery for 14 years.
His statue sits at the top of Candlemaker Row, across from the graveyard where he allegedly sat guard all those years.
14. Tour the Royal Yacht Britannia
This regal vessel is the former yacht of the Queen and Royal Family. It’s now a museum open to the public, where you can take a self-guided audio tour through various rooms of the ship.
15. Embrace your inner child at Camera Obscura
Camera Obscura is part funhouse, part interactive science museum. The building has five floors filled with optical illusions, mazes, and puzzles, along with a rooftop terrace offering panoramic views of the city.
16. Experience The Edinburgh Dungeon
This attraction brings Edinburgh’s fascinating and gruesome history to life with actors, rides, and live action shows. A full-on sensory experience, it’s a completely unique way to learn about some of Scotland’s most sinister characters and notorious historic events.
Free things to do
17. Free walking tour
From the Royal Mile to Greyfriars Bobby, Sandemans Free Walking Tour covers the most popular sights in Edinburgh’s Old Town, along with a few hidden gems thrown in for good measure. (FYI: It’s a tip-based tour, so technically not completely free.)
18. St Giles’ Cathedral
From its striking Gothic architecture to its distinctive crown steeple, St Giles’ Cathedral is one of the most impressive buildings along the Royal Mile. Inside, you’ll find gorgeous stained-glass windows, vaulted ceilings, and the incredibly ornate Thistle Chapel.
If you visit St Giles’ Cathedral, keep an eye out for the Heart of Midlothian, a heart-shaped symbol embedded into the cobbled pavement nearby. This symbol marks the location of the Old Tolbooth, a building that’s best known for housing one of the UK’s most brutal prisons. Today, it’s customary for locals to spit on the heart – a tradition that allegedly began as an act of contempt for a site where so much terror and torture took place.
19. National Museum of Scotland
The National Museum of Scotland houses a diverse range of collections and interactive exhibits covering technology, nature, science, world cultures, and more.
Travel back in time through Scottish history, see Dolly (the famous cloned sheep), or marvel at the skull of a 40ft sperm whale that was found beached on the banks of the River Forth.
20. Edinburgh Galleries
Explore the city’s finest art collections and exhibitions free of charge at these galleries:
- Scottish National Gallery
- Scottish National Portrait Gallery
- Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
- City Art Centre
- The Fruitmarket Gallery
- Collective (Newly opened in November 2018, located in the restored City Observatory at the top of Calton Hill)
21. Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
Beyond its 70 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds, highlights of the Royal Botanic Garden include the Scottish Heath Garden, the Queen Mother’s Memorial Garden, and the Victorian Temperate Palm House – which dates back to 1858.
22. Farmers’ markets
- Stockbridge Market
Stockbridge is one of Edinburgh’s loveliest neighbourhoods and it’s definitely worth a visit, especially on Sundays when the Stockbridge Market is running. The market is open from 10am – 5pm every Sunday and features independent traders showcasing art, jewellery, food, and more.
Don’t miss Steampunk’s coffee and gyoza from Harajuku Kitchen.
- Edinburgh Farmers’ Market
Head to Castle Terrace on Saturday’s for fresh produce, organic meat, artisanal sweets and bread, and hot food at the Edinburgh Farmers’ Market.
- Grassmarket Market
Located in the heart of Old Town, the Grassmarket Market hosts a range of vendors offering crafts, gifts, baked goods, and street food.
I’d recommend Mademoiselle Macaron for a sweet treat or the mouthwatering arepas from Orinoco Latin Food.
- Leith market
The Leith Market features street food, unique artwork, crafts, and more from a range of local, independent traders. There’s also a Vegan Quarter on the first Saturday of every month, with various vegan businesses and products.
23. Scottish Parliament
In terms of architecture, the Scottish Parliament building stands out like a sore thumb; its design is a modern and complex combination of concrete, stainless steel, glass, and oak. If you want to explore the building, free guided tours are available from Monday to Saturday.
24. Sunbathe in The Meadows
Yes, Edinburgh’s weather can be terrible, but this city is absolutely glorious in the sunshine. When the sun does come out, one of the best places to catch some rays is The Meadows. This sprawling park has walking paths, tennis courts, and a free public golf course. It’s also gorgeous in the spring when the cherry blossom trees start to bloom.
25. Literary tour
Edinburgh is the first UNESCO city of literature and The Literary Pub Tour is a great way to delve into the city’s extensive literary history. Led by professional actors, this tour lets you follow in the footsteps of Edinburgh’s famous writers and poets while exploring historic pubs along the way.
26. Photography tour
Edinburgh is ridiculously photogenic, so if you want to capture professional-style photos of the city – and learn about its history – I’d highly recommend booking a photography tour. I learned so much from James Christie, professional photographer and founder of Edinburgh Photography Tours.
Read More: A Photography Tour of Edinburgh
27. Ghost tours
From public hangings to witch burnings, body snatchers and serial killers, it’s no surprise Edinburgh is considered to be one of the most haunted cities in the UK. For a unique look at the city’s gruesome history, book a ghost tour to explore Edinburgh’s sinister underground vaults, eerie graveyards, and haunted sites.
28. Mary King’s Close
Curious to see how Edinburgh residents lived during the 17th century? The Real Mary King’s Close tour takes you below the Royal Mile to explore a network of subterranean streets that were once above ground. This tour covers a range of historic events, including the city’s plague epidemic.
29. Gin tour
It’s true Scots love whisky, but they also love gin. Roughly 70% of the UK’s gin is produced in Scotland, and the country’s craft distillery movement is flourishing.
One of the best places to sample the local tipple is The Edinburgh Gin Distillery. Their Gin Discovery Tour includes the history behind Edinburgh Gin, a tour of the distillery, and a gin tasting.
30. Silent Disco Walking Tour
So, silent disco walking tours are a thing now, apparently – and they seem to be pretty popular in Edinburgh. Silent Adventures offers their “famous one hour guided adventure” year-round, typically on weekends.
31. Indulge at a street food market
Whether you’re craving traditional Scottish fare or something more exotic, you’re sure to find something delicious at Edinburgh’s street food markets.
My favourite street food market is, hands down, The Pitt in Leith. Every Saturday between 12pm and 10pm, they have live music, craft beer, cocktails, and an ever-changing rota of food trucks and stalls from some of the best purveyors in the country.
32. Have dinner at The Witchery
If you’re looking to splurge, consider dining at The Witchery, a beautiful restaurant housed in a 16th-century building next to Edinburgh Castle. The Gothic-style dining room is incredibly atmospheric, and the menu showcases a range of dishes featuring local, seasonal ingredients.
33. Book a food tour
There’s more to Scottish cuisine than haggis and deep-fried snacks. If you want to try some of the country’s most popular foods and a few lesser-known dishes, I’d highly recommend a tour with Eat Walk Edinburgh. Their Old & New Town Tour is a great introduction to both traditional and contemporary Scottish cuisine.
34. Try a deep-fried Mars bar
Scotland’s culinary scene is fantastic, but it’s also the home of a few
dozen questionable foods, including the infamous deep-fried Mars bar. I’ll admit the first few bites are pretty tasty, but it becomes sickly fast.
If you want to try one, head to Cafe Piccante or The Clam Shell. If you really want to increase your risk of a stroke – or if you’re severely hungover – add a pizza crunch (deep-fried pizza) and a bottle of Irn Bru to your order. Hangover sorted.
35. Dine at amazing Scottish restaurants
Here are some of the city’s best restaurants for Scottish food:
Contemporary Scottish food:
- The Dogs
- The Outsider (Tip: their lunch menu is ridiculously inexpensive)
- Ondine (£1 oyster happy hour Monday – Saturday from 5:30pm to 6:30pm)
- White Horse Oyster Bar (£1 oyster happy hour Monday – Thursday from 4pm to 6pm)
- Fishers in the City
- The Ship on the Shore
Multi-course tasting menus with local, seasonal ingredients:
- The Gardener’s Cottage
- The Kitchin
- The Table
- Pinnies & Poppy Seeds
Off the beaten path
This up-and-coming port neighbourhood may be a bit rough around the edges, but there’s plenty to love about Leith. Once an industrial area, it’s now a hot spot for young creatives and home to some of Edinburgh’s best restaurants and bars.
37. Dean Village
Walking through Dean Village is like stepping into another century. Historically a grain-milling hamlet, Dean Village dates back as far as the 12th century. Today, the mill buildings have been converted mostly into residential flats and offices, but it’s still one of the most tranquil spots in the city. Despite its secluded feel, it’s only a short walk from the west end of Princes Street.
Read More: Hidden Edinburgh: Dean Village
38. Blackford Hill
Located south of the city centre, Blackford Hill offers an equally spectacular view from a completely different perspective; the city skyline is clearly visible with Arthur’s Seat looming in the distance. Near the top, you can also visit the Royal Observatory for an evening of stargazing.
39. Cramond Island
Situated roughly six miles from Edinburgh’s city centre, Cramond Island is a tidal island, accessible via a causeway at low tide. On the island, you’ll find barracks and other remnants from World War II, and fantastic views of the Forth Bridge. It’s possible to get stranded on the island, so be sure to check the tide times before visiting.
40. Portobello Beach
Portobello Beach is a charming seaside suburb characterized by its Georgian and Victorian architecture and long stretch of golden sand. It’s never really warm enough to sunbathe in Edinburgh, but there’s still plenty to see and do here: take a stroll along the picturesque promenade, grab a decadent pastry from Twelve Triangles, or have dinner at one of the beachfront restaurants (The Espy is one of my favourite spots).
If you fancy a dip in water that isn’t quite as chilly as the Firth of Forth, check out the traditional Turkish baths at the Portobello Swim Centre.
41. Water of Leith Walkway
Another place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city is the Water of Leith Walkway, a 12-mile river-side path winding through the middle of Edinburgh. One of the best sections of the path is between Dean Village and Stockbridge, with the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in between.
42. Quirky museums
Edinburgh has its fair share of quirky and lesser-known museums: the Surgeons’ Hall Museums house one of the oldest collections of surgical pathology in the world, and the Writers’ Museum showcases the works of famous Scottish writers like Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
There’s also the People’s Story Museum (offering insight into everyday Edinburgh residents from the 18th to the late 20th century), the Museum of Childhood (dedicated to the history of childhood), and the Museum on the Mound (all about money, Scotland’s banking history, and more).
43. Union Canal
Stretching from Edinburgh to Falkirk, this scenic trail is a lovely spot for a walk, bike ride, or boat ride. Fancy a gin tasting or afternoon tea on the water? Book a Juniper gin tasting cruise or an afternoon tea cruise.
44. Craigmillar Castle
Craigmillar Castle is one of the most well-preserved castles in Scotland. Dating back to the 15th-century, it’s best known for its association with Mary, Queen of Scots, who resided here twice throughout the 1500’s.
It’s a ruin, so don’t expect the grandeur of, say, Edinburgh Castle. That said, the building is largely intact and you can explore its various nooks and crannies – everything from the courtyard to the prison cell and great hall (without any crowds!)
45. Gilmerton Cove
If you can’t get enough of Edinburgh’s haunted and mysterious attractions, you may want to add Gilmerton Cove to your must-visit list.
Located south of the city centre, Gilmerton Cove is a series of hand-carved subterranean passageways and caves. Smugglers lair, drinking den, witches coven – theories surrounding its origin and purpose abound, but both remain a mystery.
Quintessentially Scottish activities
46. Dance the night away at a ceilidh
A ceilidh (kay-lee) is essentially a Scottish party with folk music and traditional dances.
While ceilidhs are normally held at weddings and special events, you can join in as a visitor. Ghillie Dhu is one of the best spots to show off your best dance moves – they offer ceilidh nights every Friday and Saturday evening in their beautiful auditorium.
47. Have a dram of whisky
A trip to Edinburgh wouldn’t be complete without a glass of the amber-coloured spirit Scots refer to as “the water of life.” Try these whisky bars for a dram:
- The Bow Bar
- Whiski Rooms
- The Canny Man’s
- at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society
48. Catch a traditional music session
One of the best things about Edinburgh’s pubs? Live music. Sandy Bell’s is one of the best folk music venues in the city, with sessions every night of the week. The Royal Oak and Whiski Bar also feature live music every day, while The Black Cat hosts traditional bands on Monday, and Wednesday, and Sunday.
49. Eat all the haggis
Yes, haggis (AKA sheep intestines mixed with oatmeal and spices) sounds a bit disgusting, but try it anyways – I can guarantee you’ll like it. A few of the best restaurants for haggis in Edinburgh are Mums, Whiski Bar, and The Royal McGregor.
50. Experience Edinburgh’s pub culture
There’s no better way to get a feel for the city than through its pubs. There are literally hundreds to choose from, but in terms of decor, atmosphere, and history, here are a few of Edinburgh’s best traditional pubs:
- The Royal Oak
- Cloisters Bar
- The Cafe Royal
- Bennets Bar
- Kay’s Bar
The best spots for photographs
51. Circus Lane
As much as it pains me to say this, Circus Lane is one of the most Instagrammable streets in Edinburgh. It does have pretty much all the qualities every millennial looks for in a selfie backdrop: cobblestones, picture-perfect mews houses, and bright, blooming flowers.
52. The Vennel
Running between Heriot Place and the Grassmarket, this laneway is a fantastic spot for a snapshot of the castle.
53. The Outsider
The Outsider has incredible food (try the gnocchi if you see it on the menu!), but there’s also an amazing view of the castle from the restaurant’s back window.
54. The National Museum of Scotland’s rooftop terrace
One of my favourite viewpoints in Edinburgh is from the rooftop terrace at the National Museum of Scotland. Located on the 7th floor, it offers a stunning view of the city below.
55. New College
New College is one of the University of Edinburgh campuses, but it looks like something out of Harry Potter.
56. St Giles’ rooftop
For a completely unique vantage point overlooking the Royal Mile, book a guided rooftop tour of St Giles’ Cathedral.
57. The path in Princes Street Gardens
One of my favourite walking paths in the city descends from the esplanade of the castle through Princes Street Gardens. At the top, you’ll get a fantastic panoramic view of New Town and the Firth of Forth in the distance.
Festivals and seasonal events
58. Fringe Festival
During the month of August, Edinburgh is insane. Thousands of people flock to the city for The Fringe Festival, the largest arts festival in the world. There are thousands of performances at hundreds of venues from mainstream headliners to up-and-comers and everyone in-between.
The Fringe Fest is an experience like no other – the city turns into a massive, never-ending street party with buskers on every corner, food trucks, pop-up cocktail bars, and tons of events happening at any given moment.
Read More: How to Survive the Edinburgh Fringe Festival
59. Year-round festivals
No matter what month you decide to visit, you’re guaranteed to find an exciting and unique festival taking place in Edinburgh. You can find a full list of Edinburgh’s festivals at this site, but here are a few highlights:
- International Science Festival – March – April
- International Film Festival – June – July
- Jazz and Blues Festival – July
- The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo – August
60. Christmas Markets
Edinburgh’s Christmas Markets are open from the middle of November to the first week of January. Situated in Princes Street Gardens, you’ll find a range of handmade crafts, artisanal gifts, and festive food and drink.
There’s also a range of festive events and activities happening around the city throughout the month of December, so be sure to check out the ‘What’s On’ section on Edinburgh’s Christmas website.
Vikings wielding torches, kilted men dancing beside a 12th-century castle, an unforgettable display of fireworks – New Year’s Eve in Edinburgh is awesome. From the Torchlight Procession to the massive street party, it’s a NYE celebration you need to experience at least once in your lifetime.
What’s your favourite thing to do in Edinburgh? Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments!