Having lived in Edinburgh all my life, it is no wonder that I think the city is incredible. With its massive amount of history, great nightlife, and epic places to see, you can easily get overwhelmed with all the things to do in Edinburgh. It is not only a great place to visit but to live as well.
In fact, I love this place so much I became an official tour guide for the city.
Edinburgh is a city of stories. Historic stories, royal stories, gory stories, and ghost stories. It is a potent blend of old and new at every turn.
Over the years I have been able to explore every nook and cranny. That has given me the expertise to share with you all of the best things to do in Edinburgh whether this is a first-time visit or your 5th time you will find something that piques your interest.
The Top Things to do in Edinburgh
1. Edinburgh Castle
Visiting Edinburgh Castle is definitely one of the best things to do in Edinburgh.
It has been a vital fortification involved in military and strategic endeavors since the 12th century and has been continuously occupied in some form since then.
The castle has been home to royalty, the chief seat of power, and a military base throughout the years.
The one o’clock gun goes off from the front of the castle every day except Sunday. It is something you don’t want to miss. The gun was implemented to help with shipping and to keep time.
**Insider Tip** The castle is one of the most popular attractions in Edinburgh and can get very busy, so try to visit in the morning if you can.
I recommend that you book a ticket with fast track entry in advance to skip the ticket lines, especially if you are visiting during the busy summer season.
Hours: Summer (April 1-Sept 30) 9.30am-6pm (last entry at 5pm). Winter (Oct 1-Mar 31) 9.30am-5pm (last entry 4pm).
Price: Right now you must book a ticket in advance online for entry. Adult £15.50 online, Concessions £12.40 online, Children 5-15 £9.30 online. Under 5s are free.
2. The Royal Mile
The Royal Mile is the oldest part of the city and is one of my favourite things to do in Edinburgh.
In brief, The Royal Mile runs from Edinburgh Castle all the way down the volcanic tail that takes you to Holyrood Palace – a mile down.
This is Edinburgh’s Old Town and Old High Street. It is chock full of history and stories worthy of its own guide.
I’d recommend spending a few hours here (although the walk itself will only take you 15 minutes directly), beginning at the castle and working your way down – it is easier walking downhill!
If you plan to visit in the summer make sure to plan around the Fringe Festival as you won’t be able to move in the streets.
Is this your first time in Edinburgh? If so, check out our 3 Day Edinburgh Itinerary
3. Holyrood Palace
Holyrood Palace is one of the most important palaces in Scotland. It is used as a museum for most of the year, and Scottish home for the Royal family when they come to visit.
The Abbey was built before the palace dating back to 1128, by order of King David 1st of Scotland.
In the 15th century, the abbey’s guesthouse was made into a royal residence and has been used by British royalty ever since.
Make sure not to miss the Mary Queen of Scots chambers. They are quite impressive.
One quick note. Photography is not allowed inside but you can take photos of the gardens, exterior, and the Abbey.
Admission: They are only taking timed entries at the moment so they must be booked in advance. This tour offers a free audio guide as well.
4. National Museum of Scotland
If you are museum lover then this will be at the top of you list when looking for things to do in Edinburgh.
The National Museum of Scotland is situated in Chamber’s Street in the old town and is a fine Victorian building that opened in 1866.
The museum is free and is very extensive.
The range of topics covered is fantastic. Whether you’re interested in history, technology, inventions, world cultures, music, natural history, royalty, gory history, ancient civilizations, natural disasters, it will have something for you.
5. Scottish National Gallery
The Scottish National Gallery is a fantastic art gallery situated right in the middle of Princes Street in the very center of Edinburgh.
It consists of two buildings; the main National Gallery is the building at the back, with the one at the front being part of the Royal Scottish Academy.
The main gallery holds permanent collections and is always free to visit.
Artists on display in the gallery are Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin, Scottish artists Reverent Robert Walking and Henry Raeburn.
If you are an art lover, like I am, this will be one of the best things in Edinburgh that you will do.
6. Climb Arthur’s Seat
If you are looking for the best views of the city then you will want to do this for sure.
Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags are the hills in Edinburgh’s city center and can be seen from almost anywhere in the city.
It is the site of a 350 million-year-old volcano. The last eruption was more than 100 million years ago.
It used to be a royal park (you can see from noting the crowns on the lamps on the way in), but was gifted by the Queen to the people, so is now a public park.
It takes about 30 minutes to reach the top and is a relatively easy hike (but a bit steep). Make sure to dress for the weather as it can quite windy at the top
7. Princes Street Gardens
Princes Street Gardens is located in the middle of Edinburgh, right beneath the castle.
They used to be the site of the Nor Loch – the North Loch which was drained when the New Town was built in the 1760s.
The gardens have a wonderful view of the castle, and it is a great place to stroll or stop for a picnic.
8. Visit or Climb the Scott Monument
The Scott Monument is not only one of the most impressive monuments in the city, it also offers some unique views of the Edinburgh Castle.
Climbing up the narrow staircase may be one of the more adventurous things to do in Edinburgh but make sure to stop on the first level and learn a little more about the revered Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott.
9. Climb Calton Hill
Edinburgh is built on Calton Hill, like Rome in Italy and Bergen in Norway.
The top of Calton Hill is one of the best spots for a spectacular view of Edinburgh, especially at sunset.
It is a much easier climb than Arthur’s Seat, taking less than ten minutes to reach the top from Regent Road.
The top of the hill is home to Nelson’s Monument (that looks like a sort of upside-down telescope), the National Monument, which is designed similar to the Parthenon in Athens in Greece, and the City Observatory.
10. Royal Botanic Garden
The Royal Botanic Garden is situated by the lovely village of Stockbridge and has been there since the Victorian era.
It is another great place to get away from the crowds and enjoy nature, but here it is cultivated nature, with many beautiful flowerbeds.
There are gardens and flora from many different countries including China, Japan, France, Spain, and Australia.
Hours: Daily 10am-6pm.
Cost: Gardens free. Glasshouse £6.
11. Mary King’s Close
The Real Mary King’s Close is one of the coolest things to do in Edinburgh, mainly because it is all beneath the streets of the city.
What was once one of the busiest streets in the city, it was covered by construction back in the 19th century. But you can get a look at what life was like between the 16th and 19th centuries with a tour of this close.
You can only explore the area with a designated guide, so we suggest booking a guided tour to get the most out of this great Edinburgh attraction.
FYI, there are no photos allowed on the tour.
12. Camera Obscura & World of Illusions
This is by far one of the most fun things to in Edinburgh, especially if you are visiting with kids.
This attraction is made up of 2 different areas. The first the World of Illusions, which is several floors of magic displays, optical illusions and other fun things that everyone will enjoy. Make sure to try the Vortex!
But the main attraction is on the roof, which is the Camera Obscura.
This is basically an old-fashioned projection system, but the demostration and the story behind are what make this the star attractions.
You can read the reviews and book your tickets here.
If cameras and magic are not too much of interest, the views from the rooftop over Edinburgh are definitely worth it as well.
13. St Giles Cathedral
There are no shortage of church’s in Edinburgh and mpost are quite impressive. But if you decide to visit only one them you should make it this one.
It is hard to miss the crown shaped steeple of St Giles Cathedral which dates back to the 14th century.
It it impressive from the outside but I find the inside to be really beautiful. Don’t miss the Thistle Chapel (make sure to check out the ceiling) or the rooftop tour to makr he most of you time there.
Admission is upon donation and you can purchase a photography permit for 2 pounds at the information desk if you want to take photos inside, which I recommend.
14. Royal Yacht Britannia
One of the most popular things to do in Edinburgh is visiting The Royal Yacht Britannia in Leith.
This floating museum is Her Majesty the Queen’s ex-Royal Yacht.
Built in 1953 it served as the Royal Yacht until it was decommissioned in 1957.
Several decks are open to the public to view the various staterooms and public rooms of the vessel.
You can take the audio tour to get all the inside royal details or you can have Afternoon Tea at the Royal Deck Tea Room for the full experience.
Since it is Scotland’s Best Attraction according to the tourism site, you will want to book your ticket in advance to avoid the crowds.
Cost: £17.00/15.00 concession, £8.75 children 5-17.
15. Georgian House Museum
The Georgian House is a museum in Charlotte Square, which showcases the lifestyle of the high Georgian society in Edinburgh’s New Town.
Built in 1796, its first owner was John Lamont, who was the 18th clan chief of the clan Lamont.
He moved to the city to find the best education for his sons and the best husbands for his daughters.
People interested in Georgian times, architecture and lifestyles would enjoy the Georgian House.
Note: They are closed at the moment. Please check their website for up to date hours.
Hours: Summer hours (April-October) 10 am-5 pm daily. Winter hours (November-March) 10 am-4.15 pm daily.
16. Scottish National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery is one of Edinburgh’s best art galleries.
If you are a fan of portraiture, then this is one of the things to do in Edinburgh that you don’t want to miss.
It holds hundreds of paintings of distinguished Scots from royalty, lords, and ladies, to artists, poets and writers.
The gallery has a mix of mediums, from oil paintings to watercolors, to photography.
Also, there is a statue of Robert Burns – Scotland’s bard – welcoming in the foyer.
17. Take a Ghost Tour
Edinburgh is reputedly one of the most haunted cities in the world.
One of the factors that contribute to this include the hundreds of plague sufferers who were walled in, in the old streets underneath the Royal Mile.
Another factor is all the hangings that happened in the Grassmarket, where some of the unhappy souls, and grieved innocent people hanged haunt the city.
This is my favorite Ghost tour in Edinburgh. Great guides and actually quite scary.
18. Greyfriar’s Bobby
Greyfriar’s Bobby is the tale of a wee dog from the Greyfriar’s area of Edinburgh. His is a tale of friendship and devotion.
A kind local policeman named Jock Grey adopted a little Skye terrier and named him Bobby when he was just a couple of weeks old.
The pair soon became the best of friends, going everywhere, including the local pub by Greyfriar’s Kirk (church), together.
Sadly after only two years together, Jock passed away from tuberculosis, and Bobby was left master-less. The wee dog was broken-hearted, so spent every night of the rest of his life – another 14 years – sleeping on Jock’s grave.
He was taken in by the community and given a license by the Lord Provost of Edinburgh and has been a sort of folk hero since.
Many people have taken to rubbing the statue of Bobby’s nose for luck and taking a photo with him, so don’t miss visiting the city’s favorite canine.
19. The Grassmarket Gallows
The Grassmarket is a bustling part of Edinburgh, which has great nightlife and places to eat, as well as an intriguing past.
Situated in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle to the south, it is named, as it was the market where all animals that ate grass –as well as the grasses to feed them – were sold.
The bustling square hosts a food and craft market on Sundays and has a plethora of great old character-filled pubs to visit and great restaurants to sample Scottish or international food.
Common criminals who had been sentenced to death were hanged here on the spot, which now is a raised platform with a cross on it.
Some infamous Edinburgh criminals such as mass murderer William Burke and thief Deacon Brodie met their end here.
20. Harry Potter in Edinburgh
You cannot say you have completed the best things to do in Edinburgh without taking in some of the Harry Potter atractions.
JK Rowling lived in Edinburgh when she started writing Harry Potter, and during most of her time writing the tomes, so there are lots of links to the stories for those interested.
The way to get the best Harry Potter experience is to take a tour. This Harry Potter Walking Tour is one of the best in the city and is really affordable.
Harry Potter Locations in Edinburgh
The Elephant Café – On George Fourth Bridge. This is a café where Rowling did a lot of writing during her early stages of the books.
Greyfriar’s Kirk – The grave of Scottish poet McGonagall was the inspiration for the character Ms. McGonagall, as Rowling enjoyed the irony of naming a very literate and clever character after someone infamous for his terrible poems.
Hogwarts – The description of Hogwarts is said to be an amalgamation of inspiration from three private schools in Edinburgh, Stuarts Melville, Fettes College, and George Heriots. All three schools aren’t far from the city center, with George Heriots situated right behind Greyfriar’s Kirkyard if you visit there, so are easy to go to see.
The Boy Wizard Shops– Harry Potter shops called The Boy Wizard are popping up around Edinburgh for all your Potter merchandise needs. There is currently one on South Bridge, The Royal Mile, inside the Tartan Weaving Center right next to the Castle downstairs, and one just opened in Edinburgh airport!
21. A Scotch Whisky Experience
You cannot visit Scotland and not experience Scotch. Well, this is what The Scotch Whiskey Experience is all about.
This is one of the most fun adult things to do in Edinburgh hands down. Especially if you love whiskey.
Even if you don’t you will have fun learning about the process and why it is so popular in this part of the world.
For those who are looking for just a taste I recommend the Silver your which is their most affordable and if you are more of a connaseur then check out the Platinum tour or the Masterclass.
This place can get pretty busy so I suggest grabbing a Skip the Line Ticket especially if you are visiting during the summer.
Edinburgh offers a tone of different whiskey tours throughout the city and I have done a few. The one above is my favorite but if you want to check some more of the city try this History of Whiskey Tour.
And that is my guide to the 21 best things to do in Edinburgh Scotland. This should give you a great starting point when planning your trip to Edinburgh.
Regardless of whether you are visiting for a wekk or a weekend, I have tried to include things that are free to do as well as a lot of low cost items.
I hope you enjoy visiting my city as much as I do living here.
Have you visited Edinburgh Scotland before? Do you have any cool things to do in Edinburgh that would like to add? If so, just leave them in the comments and we will be sure to add them.
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