Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland and everyone includes a visit to this vibrant city on any trip to Scotland. It is known for its culture, history, beautiful landscapes and particularly for Edinburgh Castle that keeps a watchful eye over the city. Edinburgh is a perfect weekend getaway or a gateway to discover more of Scotland. It is also home to many cultural events including the Edinburgh Fringe and Edinburgh Festival. Some come and enjoy this wonderful old city by exploring the best things to do in Edinburgh.
What to See and Do in Edinburgh
Edinburgh has many great things to do. If it is your first trip to Edinburgh, here’s my list of the things you mustn’t miss when visiting Edinburgh.
Edinburgh Hop-on Hop-off Sightseeing Tour
I always like to start my visit to any big city with a hop-on hop-off sightseeing tour. Why? Because they will take me to all the best bits of a city and tell my why I should spend my time there. After taking this hop-on hop-off bus tour I can then decide the places I want to discover. Edinburgh has a wonderful hop-on hop-off tour and I highly recommend it, particularly if it is your first time in Edinburgh. You can book your ticket online for the Edinburgh Hop-on Hop-off sightseeing tour here.
Explore Edinburgh Castle
You cannot miss Edinburgh Castle as it is a key component of Edinburgh’s skyline. The castle stands atop a tall rock, making it visible from most parts of the city it overlooks below. The site of the castle has been used for centuries as the perfect defensive location and this castle, Edinburgh Castle has played a great part in Scottish history. At the entry gates you will see where William Wallace’s head was displayed after his beheading. It was also home to Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie. And if you take the tour of the castle, you will see the bedroom where Mary gave birth to her son.
Also on display in Edinburgh Castle are the Crown Jewels of Scotland and the Stone of Destiny which has been used in the the coronation of British monarchs for many centuries. Located within the castle is the National War Museum that explores Scotland’s history of war. See military artefacts such as uniforms, banners and medals. Discover the Highland-Lowland battles in the 17th and 18th including up to Scotland’s modern-day military presence. History buffs, such as myself, will absolutely love visiting Edinburgh Castle.
I suggest touring the castle in the morning as it can become busy with visitors later. However, if you can stick around for the firing of the One O’Clock Gun. This has been fired every day, except on a Sunday, since 1861. Maritime captains would set their clocks to navigate the oceans by it. If you have moved on before this happens, don’t worry, you will hear it if in the local vicinity.
Walk the Royal Mile
The Royal Mile is the cobbled street that you have probably walked up to get to Edinburgh Castle. It links Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyrood House at the bottom of the road. It is wonderful walking up or down the Royal Mile which will only take about 15 minutes if you don’t deviate into the shops and museums along the mile. My favourite museum was the Scotch Whisky Experience where I learnt about distilling of scotch whisky! Do ensure you have good walking shoes on as it is a cobbled street with lots of uneven surfaces. You could spend quite a few hours along the Royal Mile as there are plenty of unique shops, cafes, museums in some of the oldest buildings in Edinburgh that you could visit on your way down to the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
Visit the Palace Of Holyrood
The Palace of Holyrood is the residence of the reigning British monarch when in Edinburgh. It is located at the bottom of the Royal Mile and across from the Scottish Parliament. Built in 1678, the palace has housed generations of queens and kings. A visit will show you what royal life was like in the 17th century. Visit the State Apartments which are used by the British Royal Family today when they are in residence. See the fine art on the walls and step into Mary Queen of Scots’ chambers (she lived there between the years of 1561-1567) that includes the room where her secretary was murdered in 1566 by her husband. Lots of history to discover here.
To avoid the queues book your ticket online for Holyrood Palace here.
Stroll through the Old Town
The Old Town of Edinburgh is exactly that, the old part of town. The Royal Mile is part of the Old Town, so after walking the Royal Mile, go down some of the side streets and visit some of the local boutiques and tasty cafes. The whole old town looks like something from Harry Potter. Speaking of Harry Potter go on the Harry Potter tour to some of the spots that inspired JK Rowling in Edinburgh. Or visit the Real Mary King’s Close while here. It is a hidden system of streets and spaces built hundreds of years ago underneath the streets of the Royal Mile and Old Town.
Book your ticket for a Harry Potter 2-hour Walking Tour here.
Book your ticket for the Real Mary King’s Close here.
Shop till you Drop on Princes Street
Any visit to Edinburgh should involve visiting the historic Princes Street. Princes Street has been the heart of Edinburgh since 1770 and is its main thoroughfare. Shop till you drop along Edinburgh’s most popular retail hubs. You will find big high street stores to unique boutiques and plenty of coffee shops to wet your whistle. And you will also get great views of Edinburgh Castle while walking along Princes Street. If you need a break from shopping, head to the Princes Street Gardens that features a beautiful floral clock, war memorial and green lawns that are perfect for a rest or a picnic.
There are also a number of historic Edinburgh landmarks along and near Princes Street. The Scott Monument has a distinctive gothic-style architecture that was constructed in 1844 in dedication to the Scottish author Sir Walter Scott. It reaches 61 metres high and is the world’s tallest monument to a writer! The monument also features statues of other prominent Scottish poets and writers including Robert Burns and Lord Byron. Take the steps to the monument’s top for great views over the city and the Princes Street Gardens.
Hike up Arthur’s Seat
Even if you aren’t an outdoor enthusiast, Arthur’s Seat is a must-visit and one of the best things to do in Edinburgh. Arthur’s Seat is actually a dormant volcano that is one of the highest points in Edinburgh. By hiking to the top, which can take around 30 minutes, you will be treated to breath-taking views over Edinburgh. Plus, you will find a hill fort dating from around 600 A.D. Arthur’s Seat is a historical place and is considered to be the possible location of Camelot, King Arthur’s legendary castle! How cool is that! Well worth getting puffed out for! I would suggest only doing this hike when the weather is clear as the views won’t be that great on a foggy day.
TIP: Take a coat on windy days as it can get quite blustery up there.
Visit National Monument of Scotland on Calton Hill
Get great views over Edinburgh at Calton Hill
If you don’t fancy the walk up to Arthur’s Seat, don’t worry, there is an alternative, Calton Hill. The National Monument of Scotland lies on Calton Hill. The monument was designed to commemorate Scottish soldiers. It has stood there since 1829 and tourists and locals flock to this unfinished structure. Mostly they go for the breath-taking views across the city instead of hiking up Arthur’s Seat.
Discover the Scottish National Gallery
The Scottish National Gallery is Scotland’s national art gallery so if you are a art nut, it is a must-see during your Edinburgh visit. Located in the heart of Edinburgh on Princes Street, the beautiful neoclassical building houses some of the rich fine art with work by Van Deck, Rubens and Gainsborough plus a number of Scottish artists include Sir David Wilkie and Sir Henry Raeburn. After enjoying the art you can head to the cafe and restaurant and get fabulous views across the Princes Street Gardens. That is an artwork within itself! It’s also a good place to be when it is cold and wet outside.
Be amazed by the National Museum of Scotland
The National Museum was one of my favourite places to visit while in Edinburgh which is why it made my lifestyle of best things to do in Edinburgh. Now I know museums aren’t for everyone but I really enjoyed strolling around the museum check out the natural history section, seeing the iconic Grand Gallery and exploring the World Cultures Gallery. But that is just me, I do enjoy a good museum, particularly when it is cold outside!
Visit Leith and the Royal Yacht Britannia
In the late 1980s and 90s, Leith was probably a neighbourhood in Edinburgh you would avoid. This has now changed, and this waterfront setting, only fifteen minutes from the centre of Edinburgh is a great place to enjoy a drink and dinner. Or you could get a cuppa on the deck of the Royal Yacht Britannia which is moored at Ocean Terminal in Leith. To get here, take the Line 35 bus from Chambers Street that is next to the National Museum of Scotland, or take a taxi or Uber.
3 Day Edinburgh Itinerary
So these are my favourite things to do while in Edinburgh. If you want to know how to structure your time while in Edinburgh here is a suggested 3-day Edinburgh itinerary. If you want to do other things in Edinburgh, just add a day or two to the itinerary.
Day 1 – Start by doing the Hop-on Hop-off Sightseeing Tour. Then head to Edinburgh Castle, walk down the Royal Mile and enjoy the Palace of Holyrood. Maybe discover the Old Town and go on a 2 hour Harry Potter Walking Tour.
Day 2 – Hike up Arthurs Seat for great views over the city before discovering a museum. Head to Leith for dinner and a drink.
Day 3 – Shop till you drop on Princes Street and visit some of the old buildings, museums and monuments on and just off Princes Street.
Are You Ready to Discover Edinburgh?
Edinburgh is a fascinating city with a lot of history. It is the doorway into the rest of Scotland and with all the great things to do in Edinburgh, is a must on any trip to Scotland.
Plan Your Trip to Edinburgh
How to get to and around Edinburgh
Edinburgh has its own airport and major train (Waverley Station) and bus stations so you will be able to get to Edinburgh either by plane, train or bus. Once in Edinburgh you can get around on the Lothian Buses.
Where to Stay in Edinburgh
Most of the best things to do in Edinburgh are located close together so staying in the centre of Edinburgh will allow you to walk to most places.
LUXURY: The Native Edinburgh is a 5-star hotel located not far from Edinburgh Castle. Great spot with all the luxuries you’d expect.
MID-RANGE: The Britannia Edinburgh Hotel is not too far from the Royal Mile. This is where I stayed and enjoyed it immensely. It had everything I needed and was in easy reach of all the best things to do in Edinburgh.
For more accommodation options in Edinburgh check out Booking.com.
Day Trip Ideas from Edinburgh
If you have more than 3 days in Edinburgh, here are some day trip ideas. Visit Glencoe in the Highlands, or Loch Ness or the golf courses at St Andrews. Outlander lovers may want to go on an Outlander tour.
Extend Your Stay in Scotland with a UK Working Holiday Visa. One of these will let you stay in Scotland (Wales, England and Northern Ireland) for up to 2 years to work and travel. You could make Scotland your work abroad and travel base for further travel to Europe and beyond.