Edinburgh Scotland Tips

61 (Awesome) Things to Do in Edinburgh, Scotland

Jun 13

Victoria Street Edinburgh
Edinburgh is my favourite city in the world.

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 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).

Princes Street Gardens Edinburgh Castle

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.

Calton Hill is my favourite spot for a view of the city skyline, and I’d highly recommend heading there at sunrise or sunset.

Calton Hill Edinburgh View

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.

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.

Edinburgh 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.

View from the Scott Monument Edinburgh

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.

Arthur's Seat Edinburgh

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.

Edinburgh Royal Mile

20. Fireside

Newly launched at the end of 2017, Fireside is a pop-up venue that combines street food, live entertainment, drinks, and events.

The atmosphere is laid-back and the setting is fantastic: there’s an intimate outdoor courtyard with a fire pit and food stalls, along with a bar, ‘danceteria’, and an arcade-style games room spread throughout its indoor spaces.

21. 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

22. 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.

University of Edinburgh New College

23. 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.

Edinburgh Old Town, Victoria Street

24. 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.

25. 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 is also gorgeous in the spring when the cherry blossom trees start to bloom.


Tours


26. 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.

27. 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

Cherry Blossoms Edinburgh

28. 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.

29. 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.

30. 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.


Foodie experiences


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.

Street Food Fridays at Union Canal and The Food + Flea Market (located just off The Royal Mile) are both worth a visit as well.

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.

The Witchery Edinburgh

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.

White Horse Oyster Bar, Edinburgh

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)

Scottish oysters:

  • 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)

Seafood:

  • Fishers in the City
  • The Ship on the Shore
  • Cadiz

Multi-course tasting menus with local, seasonal ingredients:

  • The Gardener’s Cottage
  • Aizle

Fine dining:

  • The Kitchin
  • The Table

Handmade shortbread:

  • Pinnies & Poppy Seeds

Off the beaten path


36. Leith

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.

Grab a teapot cocktail from The Roseleaf, try the phenomenal fish and chips from The Tailend, or check out the cool events happening at Out of the Blue or The Biscuit Factory.

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

Dean Village Edinburgh

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 also can 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.

Portobello Beach Edinburgh

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 walk 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. Lesser-Known Museums

Edinburgh has its fair share of quirky and lesser-known museums: the Surgeons’ Hall Museum houses 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.

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.

The Royal Mile Edinburgh

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:

  • Usquabae
  • The Bow Bar
  • Whiski Rooms
  • The Canny Man’s

Scotch whisky Edinburgh

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.

Heads & Tales Edinburgh

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
  • Nobles
  • 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.

Read More: My Favourite Spots in Edinburgh via Instagram

Circus Lane Edinburgh

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.

National Museum Edinburgh Rooftop

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

Royal Military Tattoo Edinburgh Scotland

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.

61. Hogmanay

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.

Read More: Celebrating New Year’s Eve in Edinburgh? Read This First

What’s your favourite thing to do in Edinburgh? Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments!


Go beyond Edinburgh Castle and Calton Hill - there are so many incredible things to do in this city. Need a few ideas? Here's a list of 61 things to do, see, and eat in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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