I have lived in Edinburgh for around 15 years. I moved here to go to University and never really left (apart from a few years stint in London in my 20’s). It’s a wonderful place to live and I certainly take it for granted. The architecture is beautiful and there are so many things to see and do.
Edinburgh is Scotland’s capital city and home to so many world class visitor attractions. Definitely one for the bucket list. Every summer the worlds biggest arts festival plays out and whether you visit to be entertained, for the castle, the shopping and museums or simply to wander around the old towns cobbled streets, you are guaranteed to have a good time.
What follows is my list of the top 20 things to do if you plan to visit. All photos were taken by me 🙂
1 – Edinburgh Castle
Arguably the most popular tourist attraction in Edinburgh, the scenery is truly stunning. The castle is located in the town centre and you should buy your tickets online before visiting to guarantee entry on your chosen day. Open every day from 9.30 – 5pm (last entry 4pm). You can take a guided tour, follow an itinerary or just wander round depending on your preference and time available. Prepare yourself when Mons Meg, the one o’clock gun, bellows across the city.
The castle has guarded many great moments in history and was home to kings and queens for many centuries. Whether you are interested in the rich historical detail or just want to visit this famous landmark, give it a try.
2 – Arthur’s seat
Arthur’s seat is a short walk from the Royal Mile (1 mile east from the castle), it’s actually an ancient volcano, and sits 251m above sea level. If you make it to the top you are rewarded with excellent views of the city. I have climbed Arthur’s seat many times while living in Edinburgh and I would recommend doing so on your visit, certainly for the views but also because it’s just a really nice climb. There are different ways to reach the top but my advice is to wear suitable footwear as it can be challenging and the terrain is very uneven (stoney and quite steep in places). There are places to park at the bottom if you are bringing your car and there is usually an ice-cream van in situ during the summer months. A chance to escape the city and have a proper hill walk.
3 – Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Edinburgh Festival is famous for being the largest arts festival in the world. It runs each year during the month of August and attracts people from far and wide who come to see the shows and experience the festival atmosphere. It is the single largest celebration of arts and culture ever seen, anyone can participate with any type of performance making it fairly unique. There are so many acts from cabaret, children’s shows, dance, music and so many more, comedy is the biggest section with over a third of all shows falling into this bracket. The city comes alive during August and there are free shows all over the city, you would be hard pressed to walk around the town in August without seeing someone casually performing to an audience in the street. If you are coming to Edinburgh during the festival you should plan well in advance as accommodation in particular is very hard to come by, gets booked up very early and prices tend to be very high.
4 – Christmas Market
The Christmas Market is a big deal in Edinburgh and attracts many visitors from all over. People come for the fair and also for the Hogmanay celebrations, so Christmas is a great time to visit the city (albeit very cold!).
The market starts toward the end of November and is usually housed on Princes Street Gardens and also sometimes in the centre of St Andrews Square or Castle Street. There are a number of attractions for adults and children, including a big wheel and the famous Star Flyer (if you are brave enough to try this 60m high swing type ride you will get great views of the city), lots of eating and drinking options, market stalls selling a variety of goods and a chance for kids to meet Santa. There is usually an open-air ice rink but it’s not on this year. Open 10am-10pm everyday with some exceptions and weather dependant for a lot of the rides.
5 – Edinburgh’s Hogmanay
One of the world’s greatest New Year celebration parties. There is music, concerts, fireworks and lots more. The “street party” (which takes place on Princes Street) is renowned, wrap up warm and expect lots of crowds. I have been to the street party a number of times in the past, but now prefer to stay indoors where it’s warm 🙂 The fireworks as the bells chime to bring in the new year are quite a spectacle.
6 – Shopping
Edinburgh has some great shopping options. Scottish souvenirs can be found all over the Royal Mile and Princes Street, where all the usual high street shops are also found. There are numerous out of town shopping centres, which are better if you have a car as parking in the town centre is difficult and expensive. If you are looking for high-end designer then head to George Street and then St Andrews square where you will find Harvey Nichols. Multrees walk (right next to Harvey Nics) has Louis Vuitton, Mulberry, Burberry and a number of other top designer stores.
7 – Victoria Street
One of the most instagrammed spots in the city, tourists come to photograph this street with its gentle curve and colourful shop fronts. Located in a charming corner of the old town between the royal mile and the grassmarket. Built between 1829 and 1834, Victoria Street is the masterpiece of architect Thomas Hamilton, it houses a number of independent shops and really is an extremely pretty, colourful and happy street. If you are a Harry Potter fan you will be interested in the fact that apparently Victoria Street is the inspiration for Diagon Alley and last time I was on Victoria Street I noticed a Harry Potter shop located half way up (on the non-colourful side of the street).
8 – The Vennel
Another popular Instagram spot in the city. This alleyway provides an amazing view of the castle, climb to the top of the steps then turn around to admire the view and take a few snaps. You may need to wait a while for other photographers and tourists to clear as it is a popular spot. Located just off the grassmarket (a few mins walk from Victoria Street). The word vennel is an old Scottish word, derived from the French word venelle, meaning ‘little street’. Definitely worth a visit for the photo opportunity alone.
9 – The Royal Mile
The Royal Mile runs through the heart of the old town between the castle and Arthur’s Seat. The cobbled street of the Mile (which actually measures more than a mile) is flanked on either side by impressive tenements, between which closes and stairways interlock to create an underground world. One of the busiest streets you will encounter in the city with lots of options to eat and drink. The High Street is where you will find St Giles’ Cathedral an impressive structure from the 14th century, visit to see the beautiful stained glass windows and intricate building details.
10 – Mary King’s close
Hidden beneath the Old Town and the Royal Mile is a set of underground spaces and streets, which come with many chilling stories of ghosts and ghouls. A warren of hidden ‘closes’ where real people lived, worked and died. A good example of Edinburgh life between the 16th and 19th centuries. Many tours are available.
11 – Camera Obscura
A fun day out – located on the walk up to the castle at the top of the Royal Mile. Every time I pass there are big queues so plan your trip and timings. 5 floors and over 100 different exhibits there is a lot to see and do, fun for kids and adults alike. This place gets amazing reviews on Trip Advisor and when you go you will see why with optical illusions, tricks, vortex tunnel, mirror maze and shrinking room. A purpose-built attraction, established in 1835 tickets are not cheap but are valid all day (you can come and go as you please with a hand stamp). Lots of cool photo opportunities. Please note this attraction is located in a very old building with no lift so may not be suited to people with mobility issues.
12 – Scott Monument and princes street gardens
At 200 feet (61 meters) the Scott Monument is the largest monument in the world dedicated to a writer. Dedicated to Sir Walter Scott the spire is decorated with figures representing characters from his books. It’s 287 steps to reach the top, but if you are able you should try it for more great views of the city and well just to say you have done it. Open daily £8 for adults and £6 for kids. You can of course just stand outside and marvel at the structure if you don’t want to climb.
Princes Street Gardens is a beautiful green space that runs adjascent to Princes Street. It separates the Old Town from the New Town. Measuring over 37 acres. A great place to hang out in the summer months and the location of the Christmas markets in winter.
13 – Calton Hill
A hill in central Edinburgh, located beyond the east end of Princes Street, another great viewpoint to look out over the city and yet another spot for a great photo! A great walk and there is a café at the top where you can sit and chill. There’s also a few notable landmarks at the top, including the Scottish National Monument, the Old Observatory House, Nelson’s Monument and the Dugald Stewart Monument. Apparently it is nice to visit at sunrise or sunset. Would you believe I have never visited – must get there soon!!
14 – Royal yacht Britannia
Her Majesty the Queen’s former home for over 40 years now berthed in Edinburgh. Explore the five decks with a free audio tour (included in entry price). You will be visiting where Prince William and Prince Harry spent their summer holidays 🙂 This attraction is based in Leith and can be accessed through Ocean Terminal (a shopping centre with many restaurants, shops, and a cinema). This is another thing I have not done yet despite living in Edinburgh for all these years, added to my list!
15 – Royal Botanic Gardens
One of the worlds leading botanic gardens and a lovely walk and day out. 70 acres of beautiful landscapes, 100,000 plants and a focus on the importance of plants in our world. Located just a mile from the city centre. There is a lovely café where you can have lunch or a snack and a restaurant offering more substantial meals. There is also a lovely gift shop at the entrance/exit. There is ample parking in the streets surrounding the gardens but it tends to get very busy especially on sunny days.
16 – Edinburgh Dungeon
Underground tourist attraction in the city center using live actors and interactive rides to act out historical events from Scottish history in a scary fun style with audience interaction and special effects. Visitors are taken on a journey through 500 years of Edinburgh’s history. There are usually long queues to get in at popular tourist times of the year and it’s not cheap, so plan your visit well.
17 – Zoo
Edinburgh zoo is a great fun day out for all the family, it has over a thousand animals and on your visit you can see the famous penguin parade, live talks, feeding demonstrations and you can visit the giant pandas (the only ones in the UK). There are several different eating options, a great gift shop and several play areas suitable for various ages of children.
18 – The Scotch Whiskey Experience
The Whisky making process tour starts with a ‘barrel ride’, it’s a giant whisky barrel on tracks that drives you through a short but informative show on how whisky is made. You are shown a video of the different sections of Scotland and what type of whisky they produce and then visit the master whisky tasters room where you will pick the type of whisky you want to try. The most exciting bit for many is when you see the worlds largest collection of whisky, it is filled roof to floor. You are then taught how to ‘taste’ the whisky and you get to keep your whisky glass after also. Great day out for Whiskey lovers and those interested in the history of the drink.
19 – Edinburgh Gin Distillery Tour
The Edinburgh Gin Distillery is a small venue close to the city centre, everyone is encouraged to get involved and taste the ingredients whilst going through the history of gin. There are tasting sessions and a miniature to take home. You get to make your own gin and name it too which is so cool. If you like your own concoction you can also re-order as they keep your unique recipe! A really great experience for Gin lovers (like me!)
20 – So many amazing places to stay, eat and drink!
Personal Hotel recommendations
These are hotels I have personally stayed in the city centre and would recommend:
- The Balmoral – situated on Princes Street, this magnificent 5 star hotel is highly recommended.
- The Sheraton – situated on Lothian Road (just a few mins walk from Princes Street) this 5 star hotel is wonderful and has super modern rooms. It also has a fabulous spa, so be sure to get a room rate that includes spa access!
- Tigerlily – situated on George Street right in the heart of the city, this is a boutique hotel joined to a restaurant /bar/ nightclub.
- Caledonian – Sitated at the opposite end of Princes Street from the Balmoral, another wonderful 5 star hotel right in the heart of the city.
- Bonham – Located in Drumsheugh Gardens (about 10-15 mins walk into town) a lovely traditional Edinburgh building with wonderful newly refurbished suites.to
- Harvey Nichols 4th Floor – Refined Scottish dining above Harvey Nichols offering views over the Firth of Forth. 2 options the Brasserie which is more casual dining and the Restaurant which is a bit more formal. Great cocktails too!
- Tattu – Modern chinese cuisine.
- Ivy on the Square – The Ivy on the Square is an all-day British brasserie with an all-encompassing menu serving modern British and international Ivy-inspired classics from dawn until dusk
- Ondine – The finest seafood and shellfish from the East Coast of Scotland and beyond.
- Chaophraya – Classic Thai food in a lovely venue with castle views – ask to sit in the “glass box” if possible.
- Steak – Does what the name suggests – Great steak!
Bar Recommendations – so many to choose from!!
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