Scotland's capital may seem like a small city but when it comes to things to do in Edinburgh visitors are spoiled for choice. And whether you think of it as "The Athens of the North" or "Auld Reekie" (two of the many nicknames for the Scottish capital), a visit to this beautiful city is bound to leave a lasting impression.
Cradled by seven hills (more actually, but some are so covered with buildings they are hard to spot), Edinburgh life is sophisticated, youthful, lively, and very entertaining. It's crammed with history and historic monuments, shopping, art, and amazing festivals. These are 20 favorite things to do on a visit. Whether it's the first time or the 50th, you'll never be bored in Edinburgh.
(And, by the way, it's never pronounced "Edinboro" or "Edinberg". Say "Edinbruh" and the locals will love you.)
Celebrate Festival Season in August
Edinburgh reels from one fabulous festival to another. It doesn't matter when you go; you are bound to find a party. But during August the city goes all out with two fabulous multi-arts festivals, super duper fireworks and the world's most celebrated military spectacle.
The biggie is the Edinburgh Fringe, the world's largest performing arts festival. It takes over the city for at least three weeks in August — with drama, comedy, dance, music, cabaret, puppetry and kids shows — briefly doubling the city's population and making it the second largest in the UK. Alongside it, there's the Edinburgh International Festival, a curated event featuring the world's top theater companies, orchestras and soloists — including, in 2019, rappers, performance poets and pop icons.
And while all that is going on (as well as book festivals and food festivals too) the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is thrilling crowds on the hill beneath the castle with colorful displays of marching bands, massed pipers and Hjaltibonhogo, the remarkable dancing Shetland fiddlers.
It all finishes in one of the biggest fireworks concerts in the world with 100,000 fireworks set off around Edinburgh Castle to the strains of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
Don't worry if you can't make it for the August festivals. Several ancient Celtic festivals have, in the 21st century, become colorful public spectacles with costumed participants and loads of ritual fire demonstrations. Since the millennium, the revival of Beltane welcomes the summer on Edinburgh's Calton Hill. Climb the hill on April 30 to join the Green Man and newly awakened May Queen for a fiery pre-Christian blow-out that welcomes the summer. This is a ticketed event — and it may not be family friendly. Afterall, Beltane is a fertility festival — the only one of the four Celtic quarter days that has resisted becoming Christianized (the others becoming All Hallows, Christmas and Easter). Some of the performers wear very little clothing and the celebrations can become somewhat uninhibited.
At the end of December, Edinburgh's streets and parks fill with revelers for Hogmanay. This Scottish version of New Year's Eve is a three or four day party that includes a huge, family-friendly torchlight parade, indoor and outdoor concerts all over the place, amazing fireworks and the Loony Dook — a freezing cold dip in the sea on New Year's Day. The planning goes on for most of the year and Hogmanay is actually a much bigger celebration than Christmas — with more days off work for the locals to nurse their hangovers. Keep up with the events and the concert line-ups on the official Edinburgh Hogmanay website.
Go Aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia
Between 1954 and 1997, when the Queen and senior members of the royal family made state visits around the world, they traveled on the Royal Yacht Britannia, a magnificent ocean-going vessel that's more like a small cruise ship than a yacht. The ship was used on trade missions and was permanently moored at Leith in 1997.
Today the Royal Yacht Britannia is one of Scotland's top visitor attractions, with hundreds of thousands going aboard every year. Visitors can tour the yacht's five main decks and see the state apartments including the Queen's bedroom; shielded behind glass, it is the only bedroom of a living monarch that can be viewed by the public.
One of the interesting things about Britannia is that the Queen herself took charge of the interior decoration of the family quarters. The traditionally furnished sitting room looks just like a slightly larger version of a living room in a middle class American home.
The visit includes a look at the crew quarters as well as life below decks in the sick bay and laundry. Britannia was crewed by volunteers from the Royal Navy and, when the Queen was aboard, a contingent of Royal Marines. You can also have a very posh tea in the Royal Deck Tea Room.
And except for July and August, you can also see the Royal Racing Yacht Bloodhound — where Prince Charles and Princess Anne learned to sail as children.
Edinburgh Castle, at the top of the city's "Royal Mile", looms over cityscape atop an outcrop of volcanic rock (most of Edinburgh's hills are the plugs of extinct volcanoes).
The views over Edinburgh are just spectacular but the castle's treasures are worth exploring. It houses the Scottish Crown Jewels — known as the Honours of Scotland — a crown, sceptre and sword. The story of how they were found, hidden in a chest, with clues discovered by author Sir Walter Scott makes seeing them a real even more interesting.
And, since 1996, the Stone of Destiny — also known as the Stone of Scone. Since ancient times, this was the symbol of the Scottish monarchy, used in the coronation of Scottish kings. But in 1296 it was stolen by King Edward I and placed in his throne. It has been part of the coronation chair of British monarchs ever since. It was returned to Scotland in 1996 but — if Scotland is still part of the UK when the next King is crowned, it will be brought to Westminster Abbey for the ceremony.
The castle's Great Hall is where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to King James VI of Scotland (later James I of England). And St Margaret's Chapel within the castle walls, built by King David I in 1130 to honor his mother, is the oldest building in Edinburgh and still used for christenings and weddings.
Unless you happen to be staying in Edinburgh's Old Town, it's a steep, but pretty, climb through the Princes Street Gardens to the castle. Dress warmly, no matter what time of year, because it's always windy and cold up there. And wear comfortable, sturdy shoes.
At the bottom of the Royal Mile, the Palace of Holyroodhouse was once the home of the Kings and Queens of Scotland — including Mary Queen of Scots. It's still the British monarch's official residence in Scotland (as opposed to Balmoral, which is her private country estate) and she entertains official guests there for a short period every year.
Holyrood Palace is still a working government building, much of it dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. But within its grounds you can also see the private apartments of Mary Queen of Scots and the 16th century tower. It was here that Mary's jealous husband Lord Darnley burst in on her,dragged off her private secretary David Rizzio, and stabbed him 56 times.
Besides the dramatic story of the murder, Holyrood House is the place to explore the history of Scottish royalty. Next to the palace, the Queen's Gallery, hosts changing exhibits from the Royal Collection.
See Government in Action at the Scottish Parliament
When The Scottish Parliament building was first proposed in the 1990s, it was estimated to cost 10 million pounds. By the time it was opened by the Queen in 2004 it had cost a whopping 414 million pounds. Whether it was worth it is up to the Scots to decide, but as a visitor you'll find the building, designed by Spanish architect Enric Miralles, breathtaking.
Visiting the public areas of the Scottish Parliament is free. And if you happen to arrive when Parliament is in session, you can watch from the visitors' gallery. Don't miss the astonishing, high tech debating chamber.
A variety of free tours about Scotland's contribution to science, art, architecture, literature and politics can be booked online before you go. It's worth joining one of the frequent, hour-long tours of the building itself to learn more about its craftsmanship, functions, symbolism and architecture. There's also a family-friendly cafe and a well stocked gift shop.
How many cities do you know that have a mountain right in the center of town? Well, okay, maybe there's Rio de Janeiro. But Corcovado and Sugar Loaf are on the outskirts of the city. Edinburgh actually wraps itself right around Arthur's Seat. And it's an extinct volcano.
Climbing Arthur's Seat is a popular pastime with locals and visitors alike and there are a range of paths leading to the summit. They vary from a longish Sunday stroll with a bit of rock scrambling at the top (families with children and grannies do it in good weather), to the more challenging quarry climb — not a route for beginners. You can, of course, take the easy way by driving up Queen's Drive to the parking at Dunsapie Loch. From there it's an easy – but steep — 15 minute walk to the summit. Whichever route you choose, it's worth the effort because the views from the summit, all the way to the Firth of Forth, are spectacular.
Get Lost in a National Art Gallery
Rainy days are made for museums and galleries. And in Edinburgh, you don't have to wait long for weather to change to its gallery-going best. Luckily, Edinburgh has loads of art museums and some of them are real crackers.
The three national art galleries are centrally located, eye-poppingly good and all free.
- The Scottish National Gallery in Princes Street Gardens features European and Scottish art from the Renaissance to the19th century. If paintings by Raphael,Titian, El Greco, Velazquez and Rubens, as well as such modern masters as Van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne, Degas and Gauguin are your cup of tea, this is the place for you.
- The Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street takes a very broad approach to portraiture, representing important figures in Scotland's history and culture with sculpture, photography, film and digital art as well as painting.
- The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is about a mile and a half to the west. It's arranged in two buildings, across the street from each other, with 20th century French, Russian and Scottish art as well as contemporary art ranging from Andy Warhol to Tracey Emin and Rachel Whiteread. Shock your sensibilities with Dadaist and Surrealist work and sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, Damien Hirst and Eduardo Paolozzi. Paolozzi's monumental sculpture "Vulcan," commissioned for the great hall of this gallery, is among its highlights.
Learn Something New at a Scottish Museum
Art not your thing? There are still marvels to see in Edinburgh's museums. At the National Museum of Scotland you can explore exhibits and collections covering millennia of Scottish and world history as well as nature, art, design, fashion, science and technology. And families will enjoy Dynamic Earth, at the bottom of the Royal Mile near the Scottish Parliament building. It's an interactive and immersive experience full of films and special effects, covering volcanoes, oceans, the Ice Age, the age of dinosaurs, space exploration and more. It's a sort of earth science and biology lesson with bells on.
Shop 'Til You Drop
Edinburgh is a great city for shophounds. Besides the usual major department stores (Harvey Nichols, Debenhams, Marks and Spencer and Jenners — one of the oldest department stores in Britain) there are pockets of independent and quirky boutiques all over the place.
Try St. Stephen Street in Stockbridge for quirky vintage shops. Victoria Street is a colorful, cobbled curve that runs down from Bank Street in the Old Town toward Grassmarket (and more shops including Mr. Wood's Fossils). It's a rainbow of brightly painted shops, stocking anything from indie fashion designers to whisky sellers and antiques dealers. Rose Street, north of Princes Street in the Georgian New Town is another place to look for pockets of style. If you love cheese, look for branches of I. J. Mellis. They have a shop in Victoria Street, another in Stockbridge and more branches around town. Go in the morning and they might even have warm bagels to go with your cheese.
Peer Into The Camera Obscura
You might think that Edinburgh's Camera Obscura (beside the castle) with its light shows, optical illusions and magic tricks, is a modern attraction, but you'd be wrong. This arrangement of lenses and periscopes in the attic of a Victorian tower in the Old Town has been around, in one form or another, for about 150 years — and it's actually rather good fun.
Created in the 19th century, the camera obscura was owned by various amateur scientists and social improvers; one owner, Patrick Geddes, a town planner and sociologist, wanted to improve people's outlook on life by showing them all of Edinburgh in miniature. From the 1940s to 1982 it was owned by Edinburgh University. More recently, it's been run by a tourism publisher and attraction operator. And "The World of Illusion" has been added.
If you've ever made a pinhole camera out of a shoe box and watched an upside down world in miniature play out on the back of the box, you've made a camera obscura — only Edinburgh's Camera Obscura fills several stories of a building and the resulting image is projected onto a curved white table, 21 feet in diameter.
Guides take you through the experience of watching the city go about its daily activities (looking like a film but actually a projected reflection). Some of the optical illusions that can be achieved are astonishing. With guidance you can, for example, pick up a tiny moving pedestrian in the palm of your hand.
They've added quite a few other optical attractions arranged over six floors. You can spend about two-hours taking it all in. Go early on rainy days when it is most popular.
Spook Yourself Silly in Edinburgh's Closes and Vaults
The Royal Mile, running downhill from the Castle to Holyrood Palace, sits on a rocky spine. Very narrow streets and lanes (called closes and wynds), where the poor and working poor of Edinburgh lived, lined that rocky spine. The streets were noxious and unhealthy, filled with tall, narrow tenements and centers of plague and disease. Over time most of them were demolished or simply built over, but some remain as the closes and vaults of haunted Edinburgh.
The Real Mary King's Close
Instead of fully demolishing this 17th century close, the Edinburgh city fathers left parts of it as the foundations of the Royal Exchange (now the City Chambers and home of Edinburgh City Council). Remarkably, people continued living in these underground tenements, sealed off from the sky, as late as 1902 when the last resident was forced out.
Today The Real Mary King's Close is a commercial visitor attraction, complete with costumed guides telling about life for the residents — before the close was sealed off, and after — as well as ghoulish tales of murders and hauntings. Despite its commercialization, the whole idea of the place is fascinating and unique to Edinburgh. It's definitely worth a visit if you don't mind steps and don't get claustrophobic.
The Edinburgh Vaults
The Edinburgh Vaults are a series of chambers within 19 arches under the city's South Bridge. For a short period in the 18th century they were used by tradesmen for storage, for taverns, barbershops and other businesses. But their biggest claim to fame, especially for tourists of the ghoulish, was as the place where early 19th century grave robbers and serial killers Burke and Hare stored the bodies they sold to an Edinburgh University medical professor for his anatomy lectures. Fittingly, after his conviction and hanging, Burke was used for anatomy lessons himself. And if you are truly ghoulish, you can see his skeleton at the Anatomical Museum of the University of Edinburgh where it is still displayed.
The vaults can only be visited on guided tours led by Mercat Tours who have exclusive access.
Edinburgh's medieval attractions are justly famous, but a completely different experience awaits visitors to the National Trust for Scotland's Georgian house in Edinburgh New Town's Charlotte Square.
The house, designed by Scottish architect Robert Adam, has been restored to the condition it might have been when the first owner bought it in 1796 for 1,800 pounds (more than 200,000 pounds today but still, in British terms, a rather reasonable price for this grand house). See artworks, furniture, silver that would have belonged to the Lamonts. an upper middle class family of the period. The kitchen and servants rooms below stairs show the hardship that paid for the genteel upstairs lifestyle.
Immerse Yourself in the Edinburgh Music Scene
Edinburgh is home to one of the UK's top universities and, like most university towns, you can count on great pubs and a lively music scene. The best way to tune in to what's on when you're visiting is to check out the online entertainment listings in the local newspaper, the Scotsman, or the Edinburgh pages of the popular British entertainment magazine, The List.
It's always worth seeing what's on at Henry's Cellar Bar, one of the city's longest running, independent live music venues. It's a tiny club on Morrison Street and music there is certainly varied — rock, punk, garage, indie, electro, blues, alternative, country, hip hop, folk, hardcore and what Henry's calls "krautrock" — and, oh yes, jazz too. The Jam House, on Queen Street, attracts a slightly more grown-up crowd (over 21). The dress code is what the British call "smart casual". You can dine and drink as well as enjoy timeless jazz, rock and blues curated in a style established by founder TV presenter and pianist Jools Holland.
Laugh at a Comedy Show
Edinburgh is about comedy. If you've ever considered going to the Edinburgh Fringe, you've probably noticed that comedy plays an over-sized role in the schedule. The Stand Comedy Club, one of the big producing venues for the festival, keeps up the comedy scene in Edinburgh year round. Top touring acts and local comedy talent keep this basement comedy club buzzing on York Place right next to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
Go Whisky Tasting
No trip to Edinburgh would be complete without learning a bit more about Scotland's amber nectar, Scotch whisky. Don't bother with the whisky themed tourist traps at the top of the Royal Mile — there are many better whisky bars where you can imbibe and learn. Here are some of our favorites:
- The Abbey Bar on South Clerk Street, stocks 120 different whiskies as well as Scottish food. There's also beer and other tipples, alcoholic and non if you are traveling with companions who don't indulge.
- The Black Cat is a strange little place on Rose Street that opened in 2011 but looks like it's been around forever. They have a good range of whiskies and some outdoor seating.
- The Bow Bar on West Bow in the Old Town, is tiny and usually crowded with locals come to sample more than 300 different Scotch whiskies. If you are willing to join in the banter you shouldn't be intimidated.
- The Balmoral Whisky Bar is a very special experience for a true Scotch whisky fancier. You can't miss the Balmoral, it's a luxury hotel that's an Edinburgh landmark — that clock tower you see in lots of pictures of the city. Their whisky bar stocks 500 different types, representing all regions of Scotland and all styles. You can stop by the bar to try one or two whiskies — a whisky ambassador will help you choose — accompanied by dark chocolate (the connoisseur's favorite with single malts) or smoked almonds. Their specialty, though, is a range of whisky "journeys". You can try a dram from each of the five main regions for 65 pounds per person; sample four whiskies with a total age of 100 years for 100 pounds per person, or really go for broke with the "Rare and Ghosted" — four different whiskies from rare, limited edition or closed distilleries, starting at 150 pounds per person.
Raise a Glass to Greyfriars Bobby
The true story of Greyfriars Bobby inspired one of the most unashamedly sentimental classic British movies ever made, "Greyfriars Bobby: The True Story of a Dog." Bobby, a faithful Skye terrier, pined at his master's grave, in Greyfriars Kirkyard, for 14 years until his own death. Locals fed him and the Lord Provost of Edinburgh paid for his license. After his death in 1872, the Lord Provost's daughter commissioned the statue of him that still stands today near Greyfriars Kirk.
Handily, the statue is right outside a family and dog-friendly pub, Greyfriars Bobby's Bar on Candlemakers Row.
It's hard to imagine the words "tenement" and "luxury" going together in the same building but, when it was built, in 1550, that's exactly what this narrow, six-storey building on the Royal Mile was.One of the oldest buildings in Edinburgh, it had become derelict and scheduled for demoltion when the National Trust for Scotland acquired it in 1934 and began restoration. What they uncovered were the remains of the luxurious interiors created for merchant Thomas Gladstone between 1617 and 1620. These included unusual Scottish Renaissance painted ceilings and hand painted interiors.
Not only did Gladstone decorate the house for himself, but he also created separate apartments rented out to various wealthy tenants including the minister of a nearby church and a high-end grocer who occupied a ground floor shop. Today a museum on the first two floors offers a glimpse of what daily life was like for people from different social classes in 17th century Edinburgh Old Town.
Edinburgh's Museum of Childhood is the world's oldest museum completely devoted to childhood. Founded in 1955 by a city councillor who was an avid collector of toys himself, the museum's recently refurbished and redesigned galleries are filled with toys, games, clothing, school uniforms, kids club regalia and all sorts of paraphernalia related to being a child and growing up from the late 18th century through to modern times. Among the highlights are a rare wooden Queen Anne fashion doll dating about 1740 and a Kindertransport teddy bear — a tiny Steiff teddy that traveled on the last Kindertransport train that rescued Jewish children from Nazi Germany in 1939. The museum, on the Royal Mile, is free and is so popular with families that people say it is the noisiest museum in Scotland.