The capital of Scotland, Edinburgh is a beautiful city with many attractions. It’s a hugely popular place for tourists and it’s easy to understand why. The city has a great vibe and many of its sites are within walking distance of each other. It’s also packed with history and culture. A major highlight is the old town which is very pretty and attracts many admirers. It’s castle in particular is well known and dominates the cityscape. The natural features around the city make for some great views, with Arthurs Seat and the Salisbury Crags looking over the city. From various points you can look out across the Firth of Forth, an estuary which leads out to the North Sea.
In this blog post we’ll look at some of the best things to do and see in Edinburgh. We’ll also look at some essential information, like how to get there, how many days to take, where to eat and so forth.
Getting to Edinburgh
If you are flying into Scotland, then Edinburgh Airport connects the country with many other major European cities. It also has many flights from England, from cities such as London and Bristol.
If coming by train, there are plenty of links between Edinburgh and the rest of Scotland. There are express trains here from Glasgow which take under 50 minutes. If arriving from England, there are now express services from London. There are also direct trains from major cities like Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.
If you are driving from England, consider heading along the coast from Newcastle upon Tyne. This way you can stop at Bamburgh, which has a great castle, and Berwick-upon-Tweed, a market town near the border. It was historically a site of great contention between Scotland and England is the past.
Things to do and see in Edinburgh
To be clear and honest, Edinburgh has far more to do than what I’ve listed here. These are the highlights from my own two trips so far. I think they cover a good amount of the city and would be great for anyone visiting for a long weekend. There is of course much more to see though and I hope to return in future and keeping adding to this post. You can find a suggested 3 day Edinburgh itinerary further down.
Located on Castle Rock overlooking its surroundings, Edinburgh Castle is defiantly the number one attraction in the city. There is a lot to see here so I’d recommend setting aside at least 2 to 3 hours to explore it all. As well as exploring the castle itself you can take some time to enjoy the amazing views it gives you. You can see all over Edinburgh and beyond!
The castle was first constructed in the 11th century and has come to play a big role in Scottish and British history since. It has been the home of many Scottish Kings and Queens in the past, and you can even view the Scottish crown jewels here. The castle has seen plenty of conflict, having been assaulted, occupied and put under siege multiple times in it’s history. It’s also hosted prisoners of war, and there are displays to teach you about those held here.
The castle’s oldest surviving building is St Margaret’s Chapel, which was built around 1130 CE. It was actually used as a gunpowder store for awhile, though has returned to be being a chapel. There are some lovely intricate stain glass windows here which were put in during 1922.
Located within the castle you can also find the Scottish National War Museum. It gives you a great look at Scottish military forces over the centuries, including at Scottish solders who served in British colonial forces and in the two World Wars.
The Royal Mile and Old Town
Actually composed of several streets, Edinburgh’s royal mile runs from the castle at its top to Holyrood Palace as it’s bottom. Hence the name ‘Royal Mile’ as it’s links to the two royal residences, one historic and one modern. It’s the main route through Edinburgh’s historic old town, where you can see many of Edinburgh’s oldest buildings. As well as many local shops, eateries, pubs and other delights.
One building I recommend looking out for is the Canongate Tolbooth, pictured below. It was built in 1591, and was a centre of justice for the burgh of Canongate. At the time this was separate from Edinburgh, being outside of the town walls. When walking the Royal Mile you can look out for the markers which show you where these old town walls used to be.
St Giles’ Cathedral
Founded in 1124, and located on the Royal Mile, St Giles’ Cathedral is an important church in Scottish Christianity. It is often called the ‘Cradle’ or ‘Mother Church’ of Presbyterianism. That is to say it played a big part in the Scottish Reformation, particularly the founding of the Presbyterianism branch by John Knox who preached here and was elected as the Cathedral’s minister in 1559.
Architecturally it has gone through many change since it’s founding, and is an interesting building to admire form that perspective. My personal highlight is it’s many stain glass windows, they have many intricate designs including a memorial window to Robert Burns. This was actually a late edition, being installed in 1985. Many of the others were put in during the late 1800’s.
The Scottish National Gallery
If you enjoy art, then the Scottish National Gallery is a great highlight of any trip to Edinburgh. It has a really good collection, which is free to view. I’d recommend setting aside around two hours for a visit here, there is a lot to see. You can find out more information, including about the artists on display, on it’s website here: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/visit/scottish-national-gallery
This prominent hill in Edinburgh features some great views as well as interesting sites such as the National Monument and the Nelson Monument. The former is dedicated to Scottish servicemen who died in the Napoleonic wars, the latter to Horatio Nelson who is a famous naval figure in British naval history.
There are great views from all around hill, though the most famous is the view from the Dugald Stewart Monument (pictured below). It gives you a great look across Edinburgh’s old town and beyond. It’s named for a Scottish philosopher who lived 1753–1828 CE.
Holyrood Park – Arthur’s Seat and The Salisbury Crags
Overlooking Edinburgh are a set of hills and cliffs, formed from an ancient volcano. They are part of Holyrood Park, a beautiful green space close to the centre of Edinburgh. It is in fact found at the bottom of the Royal Mile, where you also find the British Monarch’s official residence in Scotland, Holyrood Palace.
Walking up to the top of Arthur’s Seat, whish ascends 250.5 meters high, is a great way to see all across Edinburgh and around. It’s definitely worth heading up to appreciate the views. Just watch out for the wind though, it can get very windy in this part of Scotland so I recommend checking the weather forecast first. Whilst you’re here you may also be interested to walk along the Salisbury Crags. These are a set of impressive cliffs running off of Arthur’s Seat.
Look out for the ruins of St Anthony’s Chapel when visiting Athur’s Seat. The chapel’s origins are unknown but it is older than 1426, as there are records of a request to the then Pope for funds for it’s repair.
Scottish Parliament Building
At the bottom end of the Royal Mile, near to Holyrood Park, you can find the Scottish Parliament building. It opened in 2004, having been constructed after Scotland voted for devolution in 1997. It is where the Members Of The Scottish Parliament (MSP’s) debate and vote on laws effecting Scotland as per current devolution. However the country is still part of the United Kingdom, and also sends MP’s to the House Of Commons in London. Scottish independence is a big ongoing issue effecting the country and you may see pro or anti independence protesters around here.
It’s not necessarily a tourist attraction I’d recommend to visit per say. However due to it’s location you will probably pass by it whilst exploring the rest of the places on this list. In which case I think you may as well have a look, even if it’s a quick one.
National Museum of Scotland
This huge museum covers the history of Scotland as well as well as featuring more global exhibitions. It’s a really great museum with some fascinating collections. I really enjoyed all the Scottish history on display, from the pre-historic to the Viking age to devolution and more. I think the way it mixes Scottish and global history is very enjoyable and makes for a great day out.
There is honestly a lot to see here, so if you’re planning to cram it all it one day then you’ll need several hours! Otherwise it’s best to prioritise what you’re most interested in. You can use their website to plan ahead: https://www.nms.ac.uk/national-museum-of-scotland/things-to-see-and-do/explore-the-galleries/
The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
This botanic garden has been here since the 1820’s, having moved here from a previous location. It’s a scientific centre of research as well as a great place to enjoy nature. I think it has a really nice collection of plants, with great variation and plenty to admire. I’d recommend taking several hours here, there is plenty to walk around and see. Look out for the Victorian era ‘Palm Houses’ here, they are two wonderful examples of that ages’ architecture.
The Edinburgh Dungeon
One of several ‘dungeons’ across the UK, the Edinburgh Dungeon uses live actors and theatrics to tell gruesome tales from Scottish history. It’s a lot of fun and well worth the entry cost. It can be quite scary so it’s not for the fainthearted!
You can check out their website for tickets and timings here: https://www.thedungeons.com/edinburgh/
In the centre of Edinburgh, in the Princes Street Gardens, you can find the Scott Monument. It was built in honour of Sir Walter Scott, a famous Scottish writer. Completed in 1844, it has a Victorian Gothic style and is visually impressive in how in dominates the street. You can usually enter it and climb up however it has been closed due to covid and does not currently have a reopening date.
Food and Drink in Edinburgh
A great place to grab lunch, just off the Royal Mile on Jeffery Street, is Rocksalt Cafe. It’s Mediterranean inspired and does some great Greek style food. I recommend the Borek! Another place near the Royal Mile, on Cockburn Street, is the Southern Cross Cafe. It’s particularly good for a cooked breakfast.
If you are looking for a vegan restaurant, try Harmonium. It’s on E London Street, so a bit away from the Old Town, but worth the trip.
There are many pubs in Edinburgh, so you won’t have a hard time finding somewhere to drink. There are several in the old town including on and just off the Royal Mile. Walk up and down the mile and you’ll spot plenty.
If you are a fan of rock, metal, punk and alternative music, be sure to check out The Banshee Labyrinth. The self-declared ‘most haunted pub in Scotland’ even has a cinema room, as well as hosting gigs and other events. It’s just off the Royal Mile too, on Niddry Street.
For a speakeasy inspired cocktail bar, try Panda & Sons. It’s on Queen Street in Edinburgh’s new town. To find it, look out for the strange barbershop entrance that doesn’t quite fit.
Yes in general Edinburgh is very walkable. However it is also very hilly, so expect lots of ups and downs as you walk around.
As with most European cities, the closer you are to the centre the easier it will be to visit the attractions. The old town is of course the favourite place to stay for most tourist, however it can be expensive. If you don’t mind being a bit further out, then you can get cheaper prices. I’ve stayed with friends near Easter Road before and that was a great location for both walking into the old town and visiting Arthur’s Seat.
I have previously stayed at the Castle Rock hostel in Edinburgh. It has a fantastic location and has a really nice set up.
I recommend staying at least 3 days in the city if you plan to visit all the major attractions.
Yes, and there are two in particular who are the biggest clubs here. These are Heart of Midlothian F.C. and Hibernian F.C. More commonly known as Hearts and Hibs.
The huge arts and culture festival, known as ‘The Fringe’ takes place in Edinburgh annually in August.
The city can get very windy in the winter, and Scottish weather can be very wet. On the other hand, the summer months can be very busy, particularly for the Fringe. Personally I would recommend visiting between March and May or in September. These are the best months for a combination of fewer crowds and hopefully decent weather.
Suggested 3 day Edinburgh Itinerary
As I mentioned above, I recommend staying in Edinburgh for at least 3 days to see the cities major attractions. Here is a quick 3 day Edinburgh Itinerary which covers them.
Day 1 – Start off with Edinburgh Castle, which is worth at least a couple of hours to explore and admire the views. After that walk down the Royal Mile, stopping to see St Giles Cathedral. Grab lunch and then spend a couple hours at the The Scottish National Gallery to admire all the work there. If there is still a good amount of daylight left then head up to Calton Hill to enjoy the views.
Day 2 – Time to climb Arthur’s Seat. If the weathers poor though (aka too windy) it might be worth switching this around with another morning. You can also check out the Crags if you feel up to it, and look around Holyrood park. In the afternoon head to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh for a few hours. You may be temped to fit more in but honestly these 2 activities encompass a lot of walking. If you do want to add anything else then it’s a good time for checking out more of the old town and visiting any shops you fancy.
Day 3 – Spend your morning at the National Museum of Scotland. Then after lunch brave the Edinburgh Dungeon! This is also near to the Scott Monument and Princes Street Gardens, so check them out either before or after your trip to the dungeon. If you ran out of time to see Calton Hill on day 1 now is the time to check it out. In the evening enjoy some of Edinburgh’s great pubs and nightlife.
Thanks for reading!
You can find more posts about Scotland here. If you’re looking to combine a trip to Edinburgh with a visit to a Scottish island, then I very much recommend the Isle Of Arran.