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The best things to do in Edinburgh

Here’s our pick of the best things to do in Edinburgh from the Gothic atmosphere of the Old Town to the Georgian grandeur of the New Town and beyond…

Here’s our pick of the best things to do in Edinburgh, from the Gothic atmosphere of the Old Town to the Georgian grandeur of the New Town and beyond…

Words by Sally Coffey

From the medieval charm and higgledy-piggledy wynds and lanes of the Old Town to the refined elegance of the Georgian New Town, the city of Edinburgh has endless appeal.

And that’s before you even consider all the other neighbourhoods, such as Leith, Abbeyhill, and Portobello (to name a few), which are becoming increasingly attractive to out-of-towners looking for a more authentic visit to the Scottish capital.

It can be said that many of the city’s most alluring features – from the castle to the palace to Arthur’s Seat, Calton Hill, and Charlotte Square – are time-honoured, but as a major city, Edinburgh is also constantly evolving.

As of early 2024, Edinburgh has five Michelin-starred restaurants – though as any local will tell you, a Michelin star is not the only indication of food excellence – and in this year alone, at least 15 new hotels are either in the works or have opened in the city.

With so much happening, it can be hard to keep up, so follow our guide to the best things to do in Edinburgh, from the best attractions to our favourite areas and some top tips on visiting Edinburgh – start planning your next visit now! 

The best things to do in Edinburgh

The Old Town

Bookending the Royal Mile, the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Edinburgh Castle are the obvious draws to the Old Town, but there is also lots to do between the two big hitters along the famous thoroughfare.

The Scottish Whisky Experience has been given a recent revamp, while even if the nearby World of Illusions doesn’t appeal, the Camera Obscura at the top of it is very unusual. 

You can of course spend all day nosing into some of the many shops and exploring historic sites such as St Giles’ Cathedral, but in Edinburgh there is also a lot to see beneath street level, so consider a subterranean tour, whether it’s at The Real Mary King’s Close or on one of the spooky City of the Dead tours in the city’s vaults.

Edinburgh Castle
best things to do in edinburgh
Edinburgh Castle esplanade. Credit: VisitScotland / Kenny Lam

If Edinburgh were to have its own monarch, it would be its castle, which lords over the city from atop Castle Rock, like a king or queen upon their throne. It’s certainly attracted its fair share of royals, good or bad. Robert the Bruce had the castle torn down in 1314 after reclaiming it from the English (though another castle soon replaced it). Henry VIII tried to burn it down during his Rough Wooing of Mary, Queen of Scots, and later, the Scottish queen retreated here to give birth to her son, the soon-to-be King James VI, after the murder of her secretary David Rizzio at the nearby palace.

Today, as well as visiting Edinburgh’s oldest building within its walls – St Margaret’s Chapel, dedicated to King David I’s mother and the only surviving building of Robert the Bruce’s time – most people come to visit the Honours of Scotland (Scotland’s Crown Jewels).

Even if you never set foot beyond its walls, the castle will be ever-present on your visit to the city as it can be seen from almost everywhere, and you will no doubt hear the One O’Clock Gun, fired from the castle’s ramparts every day except Sundays, Christmas Day, and Good Friday.

edinburghcastle.scot

Camera Obscura
best things to do in edinburgh
Camera Obscura and World of Illusions on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh. Credit: VisitScotland / Kenny Lam,

Renowned for being the oldest purpose-built attraction in Edinburgh, this tall building opposite the Scotch Whisky Experience has changed a fair bit since first opening to Victorian visitors in the mid 19th century.

The camera obscura – an early form of moving images that uses a periscope and pinhole camera to project street scenes from down below onto a screen up above – is still up top and is fascinating to see (it’s also a great spot for taking in panoramas of the city’s skyline). But on the way up, there is a World of Illusions that includes a maze of mirrors and lots of head-scratching tricks that is a lot of fun for kids, both big and small.

camera-obscura.co.uk

The Scotch Whisky Experience
best things to do in edinburgh
The Scotch Whisky Experience, Edinburgh. Credit: Brendan MacNeill Photography

Just a short hop down the hill from the castle, this attraction gives a great introduction into the world of whisky. The experience starts with a barrel ride through the history of whisky making in Scotland, and a choice of tours offer different levels of nosings and tastings at the end – depending on how much of an aficionado you are, and how much you are willing to spend. If you don’t fancy a tour, you can still visit the excellently stocked whisky shop, or dine on Scottish tapas in the Amber Restaurant, where the dishes draw on ingredients sourced from Scotland’s abundant larder.

scotchwhiskyexperience.co.uk

St Giles’ Cathedral
best things to do in edinburgh
St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh. Credit: Mark Sykes/ AWL Images Ltd

 

 

 

 

About midway down the Royal Mile stands this cathedral, whose unusual spire marks it out as one of the city’s best-known landmarks.

It was here, in September 2022 that Her Majesty The Queen lay in state, guarded by the Royal Company of Archers – the monarch’s bodyguard in Scotland. Though the stained glass inside is beautiful, The Thistle Chapel with its decorative ceiling and detailed carvings around each of the 16 stalls of the Knights of the Order of the Thistle, is the star attraction.

The Order, Scotland’s highest order of chivalry, meets here biennially and counts Princess Anne and Prince William among their number. King Charles III, formerly a Knight, is now Sovereign of the Order.

stgilescathedral.org.uk

Palace of Holyroodhouse
Mary, Queen of Scots’ bedchamber at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Credit: Royal Collection Trust/His Majesty King Charles III 2024/Peter Smith

At the opposing end of the Royal Mile from the castle is the palace, the King’s official residence in Scotland and where Scotland’s Royal Week celebrations (Holyrood Week) take place each year from late June to early July. The ornate State Apartments, which include the Royal Dining Room, the King’s Bedchamber, and the Great Gallery – where Bonnie Prince Charlie once held decadent balls – are a must. The highlight of a visit though is surely Mary, Queen of Scots’ bedchamber in the northwest tower – scene of murder, intrigue, and scandal.

rct.uk/visit/palace-of-holyroodhouse

Mary King’s Close
best things to do in edinburgh
Mary King’s Close

Virtually opposite St Giles’ Cathedral is this award-winning underground attraction, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and offers a snapshot into life in Edinburgh in the 1600s. Once a busy community, the street’s close quarters, named after a former resident, were mysteriously covered up, possibly to stem the spread of the plague. Today the tours, led by a costumed guide, tell the stories of some of its past residents, including ‘Annie’, a small child who is said to haunt the close and who visitors have been leaving dolls for in the site’s 17th-century preserved house for decades. Of all the paid-for attractions in Edinburgh, this one seems to sell out the fastest, so make sure to book well in advance.

realmarykingsclose.com

The Scottish Parliament Building
best things to do in edinburgh
Scottish Parliament Building. Credit: VisitScotland / Kenny Lam

Just across from the historic palace, this modern building is conspicuous in its daring design. The jury is out on whether the building, which first held debates by Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) in 2004, is a welcome addition to the cityscape. You can’t argue with the sense of occasion though, and being able to take a free guided or self-guided tour of the building where Scottish decisions are made or watch the First Minister field questions from other MSPs every Thursday feels like a real privilege. Just make sure you book.

parliament.scot/visit

Arthur’s Seat
best things to do in edinburgh
Arthur’s Seat

Overlooking the palace, this ancient volcanic hill in Holyrood Park offers a little taste of what the Highlands have to offer, right here in the capital. As you might imagine, the views of the city from its peak are fabulous, but it does involve some proper walking, so it’s not to be underestimated. Before you set off, visit the Holyrood Lodge Information Centre, which will give you a bit of history of the park that surrounds it and its fellow hills and staff can offer advice on reaching the top, or you can join one of the ranger-led walks.

historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/holyrood-park

 National Museum of Scotland
The Lewis Chessmen. Credit: National Museums of Scotland

Most museums in Scotland are free, though you may have to pay for some special exhibitions, and this, the country’s largest, is no exception. Inside, there are all kinds of artefacts and treasures among its 12 million items that tell Scotland’s story, from some of the Lewis Chessmen – beautifully carved 12th-century ivory chess pieces found on Uig on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides – to Dolly the Sheep, the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell.

Don’t miss the 7th-floor roof terrace for amazing city views.

nms.ac.uk

Greyfriars Kirk
Greyfriars Bobby, Edinburgh. Credit: VisitScotland / Kenny Lam,

Just a short walk from the National Museum is this churchyard, scene of many crucial moments in the city’s history, not least when Scottish Covenanters were locked up here. Today though there are two main reasons people visit: to visit the graves that are thought to have inspired JK Rowling in the creation of some of her Harry Potter characters, and to see the grave of Greyfriars Bobby, a little terrier whose devotion to his owner – he is said to have taken his cue from the One O’ Clock gun each day and legged it through the city to sit at the grave of his late owner – has made him a local legend. A statue of him is just outside the churchyard.

greyfriarskirk.com

Victoria Street
best things to do in edinburgh
Victoria Street, Edinburgh

Harry Potter fans often hotfoot it to this curved street that leads from the George IV Bridge down to Grassmarket – a historic cobbled square – as it is supposedly the place that called to JK Rowling’s mind the iconic, cobbled wizarding street, Diagon Alley. It’s not the only place in the UK to make that claim, but true or not, its colourful shop fronts and selection of good pubs and restaurants make it more than worthy of your time.

ewh.org.uk/street-stories/victoria-street

Where to stay in Edinburgh Old Town

 

The Witchery
If the pull of the Royal Mile and its fascinating history and bustling atmosphere is too hard to resist, then go all out and book a stay at The Witchery – Edinburgh’s most outlandish and decadent hotel, mere metres from the castle’s esplanade.

where to stay in Edinburgh old town
The Turret suite, The Witchery. Credit: David Cheskin

Housed in a collection of 16th-century buildings, The Witchery’s nine lavish suites play on Edinburgh’s Gothic atmosphere with a heavy helping of romance and theatrics. Here you will find four-poster beds and roll-top beds complemented by old tapestries, rich fabrics, tasselled lampshades, blood-red velvet throws and curtains, and lots and lots of curious items.

Though it’s not a place for the shy and retiring type, it’s hard to deny that The Witchery is utterly beguiling and you won’t get closer to the castle than this.

Where to eat in Edinburgh Old Town

Dinner at The Witchery. Credit: David Cheskin.

The Witchery by the Castle restaurant serves classic dishes such as lobster thermidor, haggis, and Angus beef tartare in its opulent oak-panelled dining room, using well sourced Scottish produce. Other great choices include seafood restaurant Ondine; modern Scottish restaurant Wedgwood, which sits further down the Royal Mile towards the palace; and David Bann for vegetarian dining.

The New Town

Though the Royal Mile and the Old Town may be the places that most first-time visitors will have heard of, in our view the smart choice is to base yourself just the other side of Princes Street Gardens, in the New Town.

Must-see attractions include the Johnnie Walker Experience – an immersive whisky tour that will challenge your perception about blended whisky – and the Gothic monument to Sir Walter Scott, which you can climb for panoramic city views.

In terms of culture, there’s the excellent National gallery on the Mound, which houses everything from Renaissance art to contemporary Scottish paintings and is free to visit. Until 26 November 2024 you can also catch the Allan Ramsay exhibition at the Georgian House in Charlotte Square. For something a little different, take a walk along the Water of Leith to Dean Village, an old milling village that feels like a local secret

Johnnie Walker Princes Street

best things to do in edinburgh
Johnnie Walker Princes Street, Edinburgh. Credit: Graeme Macdonald

The latest addition to Edinburgh’s whisky scene, a visit to this New Town attraction is highly recommended. Through an interactive tour you’ll learn more about whisky in 90 minutes than you ever thought possible. The price of the standard tour includes three cocktails, and whether you head there afterwards or book a seat without doing a tour, don’t miss a visit to the 1820 rooftop bar, which boasts possibly the best view of the castle in the city.

johnniewalker.com/en-gb/visit-us-princes-street

The Scott Monument

Scott Monument in Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh. Credit: VisitScotland / Kenny Lam

On the other side of Princes Street Gardens from the Old Town, this huge memorial to one of Scotland’s most cherished writers marks the entry point to the New Town. Sir Walter Scott was instrumental in romanticising Scotland in the eyes of outsiders, helping fire-start tourism here, so it’s fitting that he should be celebrated in such a big way. While many visitors make do with admiring the Gothic-inspired landmark from afar, for a small fee (£8) you can take a tour to the third floor viewing platform for a closer look.

edinburghmuseums.org.uk/venue/scott-monument

The National Gallery: Portrait

best things to do in edinburgh
Edinburgh’s National Portrait Gallery. Credit: Mark Sykes/ AWL Images Ltd

Edinburgh has lots and lots of excellent art galleries, but this one in a neo-Gothic building in the New Town – the world’s first purpose-built portrait gallery – is our favourite. One of the city’s three ‘National Galleries’, it houses the most important portrait collection in Scotland and indeed is seen by many as a shrine to Scotland’s heroes and heroines. The painted frieze featuring many famous figures from Scottish history that you see on entry is truly spectacular and is like a love letter to Scotland.

nationalgalleries.org/visit/scottish-national-portrait-gallery

Dean Village

things to do in edinburgh
Sunset over Dean Village along the Water of Leith. Credit: istock/stephen bridger

Another surprise find in Edinburgh lies a little to the west. Dean Village, an old watermill village, is like a little piece of Amsterdam right here in Scotland. There’s not much to do here except admire the old buildings that line the Water of Leith before walking the riverside path all the way to Stockbridge, where on the weekend you will find a tempting food market, but sometimes doing little is what we like doing best.

ewh.org.uk/world-heritage-sites/dean-village

Where to stay in Edinburgh New Town

where to stay in edinburgh new town
View from the Archibald Suite at 100 Princes Street

One of the most anticipated new hotel openings in Edinburgh this year is 100 Princes Street, a Red Carnation hotel situated in the former Royal Overseas League building, which takes its name from its address and once hosted world dignitaries, including a few prime ministers.

As befitting its prestigious past, 100 Princes Street has a private members club feel – indeed only guests are permitted entry – and it offers exemplary service, elegant and sumptuous accommodation, plus astounding castle views. If you want a hotel where you will feel fully pampered, this is it.

While beds, bathrooms, and mini-bars in the Scottish explorers-themed rooms offer supreme comfort, with all sorts of mod cons, what really stands out about 100 Princess Street are the personal touches – at evening turn-down slippers are placed by the bed, any leads are neatly tied with tartan bows, and freshly made sweet treats are set by the bed for you. There are even two options for dressing gowns.

In fact, you are so well looked after that you could be tempted to let the hotel concierge organise your whole Edinburgh holiday, with exclusive access for guests to accomplished textile makers, perfumers, and distillers, offering a deeper, more fulfilling experience than most hotels.

Where to eat in Edinburgh New Town

Guests at 100 Princess Street can choose from a hearty all-day menu in The Wallace, while a short stroll brings you to the cool brasserie-style Huxley, which has recently been given a fun makeover (its adjoining hotel The Rutland also offers fabulous views from its castle view rooms). The Huxley is a good spot for coffee, cocktails and sharing plates after a visit to the Johnnie Walker Experience over the road, while nearby George Street, which runs parallel to Princes Street, is packed with smart restaurants such as Contini and The Dome.

Leith

For a long time, Edinburgh’s old port was a downtrodden part of the city, but not anymore. Now, home to the Royal Yacht Britannia – one of Scotland’s most popular attractions – over the past decade it has emerged as Edinburgh’s food hotspot. Many superb restaurants line its Shore and the surrounding streets, including three of the city’s five Michelin-starred restaurants.

After a visit to the royal yacht, head to the Port of Leith Distillery – Britain’s first vertical distillery – for either a tour or a coffee in the chic bar up top.

The Royal Yacht Britannia

things to do in edinburgh
The Royal Yacht Britannia. Credit: Marc Millar Photography

You can read more about the Royal Yacht Britannia and see behind the scenes photos of the royal family’s yacht, in our article here. 

Where to stay in Leith, Edinburgh

Berthed in a basin just away from the main throng, the luxury yacht hotel Fingal provides a peaceful bolthole that is brimming with character.

A former tender for the Northern Lighthouse Board, which occasionally assisted the Royal Yacht Britannia on the Royal Family’s official visits to Scotland, Fingal has been sensitively restored into a luxury boutique hotel with just 22 classy cabins, each named after a Scottish lighthouse.

Nautical features include map contours on the headboards, curved cabinetry that hide minibars, and ship-wheel taps. There is a gorgeous circular glass elevator to all decks, and rope handrails on the stairs guide guests to the excellent Lighthouse restaurant.

Where to eat in Leith, Edinburgh

things to do in edinburgh
Afternoon tea on board Fingal. Credit: Brendan Macneill

Afternoon tea and dinner can be enjoyed aboard Fingal itself – the AA Rosette restaurant’s menu leans towards seafood, including salmon that is smoked on board. However, a short walk will bring you to some excellent restaurants, including the Little Chartroom and one of Edinburgh’s newest Michelin-starred restaurants: Heron.

Abbeyhill

things to do in edinburgh
Dugald Stewart Monument, Calton Hill. Credit: Shaiith

A lesser-known spot, which refers to the area behind the palace and Calton Hill, Abbeyhill is popular with locals due to its elegant façades and profusion of independent cafés, bars and restaurants.

Here, you are still within easy reach of many of the city’s attractions but it’s less touristy and more arty. You can visit St James Quarter for some high-end shopping, climb Calton Hill for exceptional city views or to see landmarks such as the Parthenon-inspired National Monument up close. There’s also a good art gallery/hub in The Collective, or you could always climb Arthur’s Seat itself.

Calton Hill and the National Monument

The National Monument on Calton Hill, Edinburgh. Credit: VisitScotland / Kenny Lam

If you’ve ever wondered what that Romanesque building you can see atop a hill to the east of Waverley Station is, then you need to climb Calton Hill to find out. The National Monument is an incomplete monument to lives lost during the Napoleonic Wars and is a reminder of the city’s rare folly as it was considered an ambition too far in pursuit of the city’s desire to be hailed the Athens of the North. Whilst here, pop into the Collective – a modern gallery in the city’s old observatory buildings – or book a table for a lavish lunch at the glass-fronted Lookout by Gardener’s Cottage.

ewh.org.uk/world-heritage-sites/calton-hill

Where to stay in Abbeyhill, Edinburgh

places to stay in edinburgh
A colourful and comfortable room at 24 Royal Terrace

Housed in one of the many Georgian townhouses that line Royal Terrace, an smart street designed by revered architect William Playfair in 1820, this luxury small hotel is more modern than its façade would suggest, with colourful rooms – some with free-standing baths in the bedroom – and things like Apple Airplay and on-demand streaming that will appeal to younger guests.

Where to eat in Abbeyhill, Edinburgh

The Lookout by Gardener’s Cottage atop Calton Hill is great for event dining with sensational views, while for something a little more low-key, check out Montrose, a new chic and relaxed wine bar serving inventive small plates from the team behind Edinburgh’s other new Michelin-starred restaurant, the excellent Timberyard.

Portobello

things to do in edinburgh
Portobello Beach is a lovely place for an afternoon seaside stroll. Credit: VisitScotland / Kenny Lam

A little out of town, to the east of the city centre, this seaside suburb is a great place to escape the crowds. Walk the promenade, swim, build sandcastles, stop for ice cream or simply embrace the fresh sea air.

Where to stay in Portobello, Edinburgh

Straven Guesthouse
This charming B&B offers personal service and comfy rooms and is a much more affordable option than some. Ask for the sea-view room and look forward to a home-cooked breakfast in the morning, with all produce sourced locally.

Where to eat in Portobello, Edinburgh

The Beach House Cafe, Portobello

There are lots of great laid-back lunch and brunch spots in Portobello, including local favourite Espy and The Beach House, which both look onto the sand. The latter serves delicious smoothies and grows its own salad and herbs.

Attending the Edinburgh Festival? Here’s our guide to navigating it

Each summer, the Edinburgh Festival, which encompasses several festivals, including the Edinburgh International Festival, the Edinburgh Fringe, the Edinburgh Art Festival, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Edinburgh International Film Festival and – of course – the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, takes over the Scottish capital for the month of August.

It’s an exciting time that attracts thousands upon thousands of visitors, when it seems as though every corner of the city is taken up with shows, street performers, spin-offs, and pop-ups, with revelry going on from the morning until late in the night.

If you’re planning to attend during this time, it’s always wise to book as far ahead in advance for the best accommodation deals – this year, though rooms are still available, they tend to be at the high end of the scale. Some savvy visitors decide to avoid staying in Edinburgh during the festival altogether and get the train in from Glasgow each day or from Fife or Berwick. It’s also wise to book tickets for one or two things you wish to see, but then leave some time for flexibility, as part of the fun of the festival is seeing things you wouldn’t normally consider seeing.

Since Covid, the Edinburgh Festival has been slightly more restrained but 2024 is expected to see a return to form. At the time of writing, there were still tickets available for the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which this year will have the theme of ‘Journeys’. 

Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Credit: VisitBritain/Andrew Pickett

Read more about the Tattoo, here.

Taking place from 2-24 August on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle, watching the Tattoo is an unforgettable experience, from the grand spectacle of the massed pipes and drums, right up to the poignant moment when the lone piper stills the crowd with his slow lament.

The Edinburgh Fringe festival website has excellent advice on how to plan your time and how to get the best priced tickets (clue: check out the Half-Price Hut), while the Edinburgh Festival City website has information on each of the individual festivals, including the Tattoo.

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