Top 21 Things to Do in Edinburgh

This post provides the 21 best things to do and see in Edinburgh throughout the year. 

For even more ideas, make sure to read our posts. 

 

1. Visit Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle sits high atop a bluff, a site where humans have lived since the 2nd century AD. The castle itself has been there since the 12th century.

Over the centuries the castle has served as a military barracks, home to royalty, and a stronghold that has experienced at least 26 sieges in its history.

 

 

Today it houses a war museum, a 12th-century chapel, the crown jewels of Scotland, and a medieval great hall. Allow for at least two hours to see the highlights.

Though tickets are required to tour the castle (see below), the esplanade is free to stroll. Tickets include an optional guided tour of the main parts of the castle. You can purchase an audio guide if you like.

Castle Hours:

  • April 1-September 30: 9:30-18:00 (6:00 PM)
    • last entry at 17:00 (5:00 PM)
  • October 1-May 31: 9:30 to 17:00 (5:00 PM)
    • last entry at 16:00 (4:00 PM)

Note that the castle is busiest from 9:30 AM to 11:00 AM.

National War Museum Hours:

  • April 1-September 30: 9:45-17:45 (5:45 PM)
    • last entry at 17:30 (5:30 PM)
  • October 1-May 31: 9:45 to 16:45 (4:45 PM)
    • last entry at 16:30 (4:30 PM)

Tickets:

  • Adult (age 16-59): £19.50
  • Concession (age 60+ or unemployed) £16.00
  • Child (age 5-15) £11.50
  • Child under 4 Free
  • Purchase here.

It is recommended that you buy tickets in advance since the cost to purchase at the gate is £2 more per ticket.

If you want to save time, there are some guided tours that include skip-the-line tickets.

Tickets are free with an Explorer Pass and 25% off with the Royal Edinburgh Ticket Pass. Read more about these savings here.

Audio Guide Price

  • Adult £3.50
  • Concession £2.50
  • Child £1.50

Get 20% off audio guides with the Explorer Pass.


2. Take a Hop On Hop Off Tour

This is the best way to get your bearings in Edinburgh. If it’s sunny, sit up top for the best views of this stunning ancient city.

You can either do a 60-minute loop of the city in one trip or get off at any stop and explore. Buses run every 12 minutes and start at Waverley Bridge. See your options here.

Before buying tickets, keep in mind that a number of hop on hop off tours are free with the Edinburgh City Pass and the Royal Edinburgh Ticket.

 

Edinburgh Bus Tour

 

Operating Hours:

  • April-May 9:00 AM -18:00 (6:00 PM – last departure)
  • June-August 9:00 AM -19:00 (7:00 PM – last departure)
  • September: 9:00 AM -18:00 (6:00 PM – last departure)
  • November-March: 9:00 AM -16:00 (4:00 PM – last departure)

Tickets (good for 24 hours):

  • Adult (age 16-60) £16
  • Senior (age 61+) £15
  • Children (age 5-15) £8

Buy your ticket here.


3. Climb Arthur’s Seat

Arthur’s Seat sits to the east, not far from Edinburgh’s city center, in Holyrood Park.

This long-ago extinct volcano is the perfect location for a spectacular 360-degree view of Edinburgh.

 

Arthur's Seat

 

The walk is fairly easy if you are in decent shape, although a bit steep in places. Plan to take at least 45 minutes to get to the top.

The trail is usually quite busy during festival time (August) and less so the rest of the year.

Trails can be wet so supportive and waterproof footwear is necessary. It is windy at the top so be sure to wrap up well.


4. Take an Underground Vaults Tour

This 75-minute ghostly daytime walking tour takes you into the vaults of Edinburgh’s Old Town.

You’ll descend underground to the chambers where in days past one would find illegal whiskey distilleries and taverns.

Hear about bodysnatchers who stored corpses in the vaults. Your cloaked guide will set the mood and share the vault’s dark history.

 

 

 

Times:

  • Daily at 11:00, 13:00 (1:00 PM), 15:00 (3:00 PM), and 17:00 (5:00PM)

Tickets:

Purchased here.


5. Climb Nelson’s Monument

This monument was built in honor of Admiral Lord Nelson, the British naval war hero.

Completed in 1815, it sits with stones darkened black, shaped like an upturned telescope atop Carlton Hill.

Around the base are displays dedicated to various historical people and groups, and to the Battle of Trafalgar.

 

Nelson's Monument

 

The platform on the monument, reached after a climb of 143 narrow and winding steps, allows for panoramic views of Edinburgh.

Hours:

  • Monday: 10:00-16:00 (4 PM)
  • Tuesday-Sunday: 10:00-17:00 (5 PM)
  • Last entrance half an hour before closing time

Tickets: £6:00 (visit the official website)

Free with the Edinburgh City Pass.


6. Take a Harry Potter Walking Tour

JK Rowling, the fabulously creative person behind the Harry Potter series, is Edinburgh’s most famous daughter.

It was here in the city’s cafes that Rowling created this fantasy world that millions have enjoyed.

The city’s spires and dark alleys inspired her vision of the world of Harry Potter.
 

 

The Harry Potter tour is the perfect way to learn more about the locations that sparked JK Rowling’s creativity and about Edinburgh itself.

The tour is included for free with the Edinburgh City Pass.


7. Climb Aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia

For 44 years this ship served members of the royal family, ferrying royal figures to far-flung destinations in style. 

Today she is one of the most visited attractions in Edinburgh and stands moored in the Port of Leith.

 

Royal Yacht Britainnia

 

A complimentary audio guide easily helps you explore her 5 decks, from the State Apartments to the cramped Crew Quarters.

There is a “find the corgi” trail for children, and visitors can stay for soups, sandwiches, tea and scones in the Royal Tea Deck Room.

Fingal, her sister ship moored right next door, has a champagne tea, a bar, and a 23 room luxury hotel.

Hours:

  • January-March 10:00 AM
    • last admission at 15:30 (3:30 PM)
  • April-October 9:30 AM
    • last admission at 16:30 (4:30 PM)
  • November-December 10:00 AM
    • last admission at 15:30 (3:30 PM)

Closed on December 25 and January 1, with early closing times the day prior

Tickets:

  • Adults: £17.00
  • Seniors (aged 60+): £15.00
  • Children (aged 5-17): £8.75
  • Students (with ID): £15.00
  • Families (2 adults, up to 3 children): £47.00
  • Armed Forces (with ID): £8.75

Tickets can be purchased here.


8. Take a Boat Tour

The Maid of Forth provides well-reviewed sightseeing cruises that take place on the Firth of Forth, just outside of Edinburgh.

Their 90-minute 3 Bridges Tour shows you the Edinburgh Skyline, as well as Fife and a number of islands, along with the 3 bridges that provide transport links between Edinburgh and Fife.

This tour is free with the Edinburgh City Pass.
 

 

Maid of Forth offers other tours as well, ones that visit castles, ruins, and stately homes, using boats, trains, and buses, including one that offers tea.


9. Take a Free Walking Tour

Pay-what-you-like walking tours are led by locals who charge no upfront cost. You determine at the end of the tour how much it was worth.

Our post on free walking tours of Edinburgh explains these types of tours in detail.

 

 

See what tour options are available to you.

Before you book, if you are considering purchasing a tourist attraction discount pass, note that the Edinburgh City Pass includes several walking tours absolutely free.


10. Walk the Royal Mile

This stretch of cobblestone street runs from Edinburgh Castle down to Holyrood Palace, through the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town.

This was at one point the city’s main street, with back alleys and below-ground living quarters dotting the way, while trade took place at every corner.

 

 

The architecture makes it easy to imagine the past, and one finds symbols of Scottish history at every turn.

While it is a tourist area, where loads of shops sell the usual tartans and cheesy souvenirs, one also finds statues, churches, the Scottish Parliament, John Knox house, along with restaurants, pubs, and cafes.


11. Stroll through the National Museum of Scotland

This museum is located close to the Royal Mile. Plan to spend all day here, because there is that much to see. Entrance is free!

Natural history, cultural history, modern history, and more. The museum interior is stunning.

 

 

The museum is spread across three large floors, with a number of interactive exhibits, a cafe and a gift shop.

As it has merged with the Royal Scottish Museum just across the street, one has access to that collection as well.

Hours: 10:00 – 17:00 (5:00PM)

Check the museum’s website for more information.


12. Relax in Princes Street Gardens

Located in the center of Edinburgh, the Princes Street Gardens is the best place in the city for a break. Grab a park bench or stroll among her gardens.

At all times of the year, you’ll find statues, lush lawns, and a stunning view.

 

Princes Street Gardens

 

In the shadow of the Castle, with the backdrop of Old Town, one can behold the majesty of the city.

You can’t miss Scott Monument, the 200-foot Victorian Gothic celebration of Sir Walter Scott.

Its 200 steps can be climbed for £5.00. Be sure to stop and see the floral clock usually themed depending on the time of year.

In the winter there is a Christmas Market with stalls and a Ferris wheel.


13. Explore St. Giles Cathedral

This Gothic cathedral stands at the halfway point of the Royal Mile. The church was founded in 1124 and was the center of the Scottish Reformation.

Inside is the Thistle Chapel, a spectacular sight to see, with intricate wood carvings and stained glass windows.

You can visit this stunning cathedral for free, though a £5 donation is requested. Also, free 30-minute tours are offered at 10:30 and 14:30 (2:30 PM)

 

 

Tickets: Entrance is free but a £5 donation is requested.

Hours:

  • Church
    • Monday-Saturday 9:00-17:00 (5:00 PM)
    • Sunday 13:00-17:00 (1:00 PM -5:00 PM)

There is a free 30-minute walking tour twice a day at 10:30 and 14:30 (2:30 PM).

  • Rooftop Tour
    • Saturday 10:30 AM- 16:00 (4:00 PM)
    • Sunday 13:30 – 16:00 (1:30 PM – 4:00 PM)
    • Maximum 4 people and £6 per person. Bookings are taken that day

Read more about how to visit St. Giles Cathedral here.


14. Try Haggis

It’s not a trip to Scotland unless you indulge in a national delicacy, Haggis. What is Haggis, you ask?

Well, it’s either a calf’s or sheep’s offal mixed with onion, suet, oatmeal, salt, and spices. At times nutmeg or cinnamon is added as well.

 

Haggis and Potatoes

 

You can find it boiled (the traditional way), baked, or deep-fried and it’s often served with a side of mashed potatoes and mashed yellow turnips (“AKA mashed tatties and bashed neeps”).

In the past, it was the traditional meal of Burn’s night, an annual celebration of Scotland’s favorite poet, Robert Burns.

Today it can be found just about anywhere in the country, from grocery stores, to fast food places, to high-end restaurants.


15. Visit the Palace of Holyroodhouse

This palace sits at the end of the Royal Mile, the official residence of Queen Elizabeth when she is in Scotland.

Around 900 years ago an Augustinian Abbey was first built on this site, the ruins of which can be found today next to the palace.

As the abbey prospered and grew over the years, it added a royal chamber. In the 1500s James I decided to convert these chambers into a palace.

 

 

Rulers have since renovated and rebuilt the palace many times until 1679 when it largely became what we see today.

One can now visit the apartment of Mary Queen of Scots, atop a tower reached by a small spiral staircase.

One can step into the Great Gallery where Bonnie Prince Charlie set up court for a short period of time. Throughout the house, one will find portraits, tapestries, furnishings, thrones, gardens, and more.

An audio tour is on offer and there are activities for children. Pictures are allowed outside and in the main courtyard. There is a lovely cafe and a royal gift shop as well.

Hours:

  • November 1 – March 31 9:30 – 16:30 (4:30 PM)
    • Last admission at 15:15 (3:15 PM)
  • April 1 – October 31 9:30 – 18:00 (6:00 PM)
    • Last admission at 16:30 (4:30 PM)

16. Join a Whiskey Tasting Tour

Whiskey is Scotland’s biggest export and its most loved liquor. Whiskey is a complex liquor and there is quite a lot to learn — and lots to taste!

On a guided whiskey tasting tour, you’ll get a brief education on whiskey while you taste different kinds.

 

 

In Edinburgh, there are a number of ways to enjoy a tasting, from a walking tour to a 4-hour pub crawls. There is even a whiskey tasting with storytelling (particularly fitting for a country excels at oral tradition).

It’s easy enough to find the type of whiskey experience that will most appeal to you.

TIP: A visit to the Holyrood Distillery is free with the Edinburgh City Pass.


17. Admire Art at the Scottish National Gallery

At the Scottish National Gallery (formerly the National Galleries of Scotland), you will be taken aback by the breadth of the permanent collection displayed in this small collection.

From old masters (Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Botticelli) to the best of Scottish artists, you can find them here.

Particularly popular is Sir Edwin Landseer’s “The Monarch of the Glen” stag painting, commissioned to hang in the Palace of Westminster.

 

Scottish National Gallery

 

Keep an eye out for special exhibits and displays, such as the January 2020 exhibition of Turner’s landscape oil paintings and works on paper.

There is a museum shop, an excellent cafe, lockers to be rented for £1, all of it in the city center.

Hours: Check the website as hours change often.

Admission: Free. Special exhibitions may have a cost.

TIP: There is a gallery shuttle for £1 that travels between the Gallery of Modern Art and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.


18. See a Show at the Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre

The Edinburgh Festival Theatre is Scotland’s largest performance venue. There has been a theatre on this spot since the 1830s.

The current building was refurbished in 1994 to provide modern-day comfort, space, and acoustics while retaining the look of an antique auditorium.

 

Edinburgh Festival Theatre

 

The theatre, a short walk from the Royal Mile or 10 minutes walk from Princes Street, is Scotland’s premier dance and opera house.

Here you’ll find large scale musical events and touring shows. It’s also a major venue for the Edinburgh International Festival.

Visit their website for information on shows and ticket pricing.


19. Visit Greyfriars Kirkyard

This cemetery, where burials have been taking place since 1561, is considered the most haunted place in Edinburgh.

It is the resting place of many well-known residents of Edinburgh, the most famous of which is likely Greyfriars Bobby (read below).

 

Greyfriars Kirkyard

 

The name, Greyfriars, comes from the color of the robes, gray, that Franciscan friars housed on this site once wore.

Throughout its history, there were a number of revolts and rebellions over the chosen stage religion, one which saw over 1200 people held and tortured in the prison of Greyfriars Kirkyard.

See their website for more information to plan your visit.


20. Visit Greyfriars’ Bobby

Scottish 19th -century lore says that Bobby, a Skye terrier, belonged to a nightwatchman named John Gray. When Gray died he was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard.

Day after day for 14 years, Bobby sat at his master’s grave, until his own death in 1872.

A year later, Lady Angela Burdett-Coutts paid for a statue of Bobby that stands today at Candlemaker Row. 

 

Bobby

 

No one knows if the tale behind the statue is accurate, but it captured the imagination of the Scottish people in the mid-1800s and does still today.

To this day, Bobby remains a beloved figure in Scottish history. Read more about Bobby here.


21. Camera Obscura

This very popular and very old (1853) attraction near Edinburgh Castle has something for all ages.

Over 5 floors and hundreds of exhibits, one finds all sorts of illusions, including on the top floor, a 360-degree projected panorama of Edinburgh.

There’s a Magic Gallery of optical illusions, the Electric Gallery which allows you to hold lightning in your hand, the Light Fantastic which is full of holograms, and Eye Spy Edinburgh which allows you to see the city in three different dimensions.

 

Camera Obscura

 

It is well-reviewed and visitors are often surprised at just how much they enjoyed it.

*Hours:

  • April-June
    • Sunday-Friday 9:30 AM – 20:00 (8:00 PM)
    • Saturday 9:30 AM – 21:00 (9:00 PM)
  • July-August
    • Every Day 9:00 – 22:00 (10:00 PM)
  • September-October
    • Sunday-Friday 9:30 AM – 20:00 (8:00 PM)
    • Saturday 9:30 PM – 21:00 (9:00 PM)
  • November-March
    • Hours not listed

*in April, December, and January there are special hours on certain dates so be sure to check the website

Tickets:

  • Adults: £16.50
  • Seniors (aged 60+): £14.50
  • Children (aged 5-15): £12.50
  • Age 5 and under: Free
  • Students (with ID): £14.50

There are discounts to be hard for parties of 10 or more as long as they are booked in advance over the phone.

Tickets can be purchased here or at the door.

 


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