Edinburgh is one of the most beautiful cities in the UK and the most beautiful city in Scotland. There’s so much charm, so much history here… But Edinburgh is also a very lively city with a great mix of history and contemporary lifestyle.
There is so much to see and do in Edinburgh that the choice of where to go and what to skip might be really overwhelming. Especially if you are visiting for the first time and only have a day or two…
So in this guide, we selected only the most unique experiences, the very best things to do in Edinburgh. This list features the most famous landmarks and best tourist attractions in Edinburgh that are worth your time the most. Depending on how much time you have, simply start with the attractions on the top of this list, and work your way down.
If you have the time to cover everything from this ‘best of Edinburgh’ list, you’ll have seen the very best that the city has to offer. Even if you just see half of these places, you’ll have a very good idea of what Edinburgh is truly about. Find out!
To help you plan your visit, we created this map of the best things to do in Edinburgh that are mentioned in this article.
If you are short on time and are wondering how to best plan your time in the city, please check our guide to one day in Edinburgh. It has a suggested 1-day itinerary that covers the main attractions of Edinburgh in a day.
How to Use This Map: Use your computer mouse (or fingers) to zoom in or out. Click on the icons to get more information about each place. Click the arrow on the left top corner for the index. Click the star next to the title of the map to add this map to your Google Maps account. To view the saved map on your smartphone or PC, open Google Maps, click the menu button, and go to ‘Your Places’/’Maps’.
These are the top tourist attractions, absolute best things to do in Edinburgh:
1. Edinburgh Castle
No visit to Edinburgh would be complete without a visit to its magnificent Castle, which overlooks the city from atop an extinct volcano. It is, of course, steeped in history. Many exhibitions focus on the long-running Wars of Independence when the Scots fought with the English for control of their country.
On arrival at the Castle, head straight for the Honours of Scotland, which are the Scottish crown jewels. They are the most popular part of the Castle for most visitors, so try to beat the crowds and long queues by visiting here in the morning.
Another popular spot is St. Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh. Serene and beautiful, it’s a lovely spot to linger and think about the Scottish Royals who would kneel for worship within its walls.
You can get a real glimpse of what life at the Castle must have been like in times gone by, particularly when you pay a visit to the Great Hall. With one of the best wooden roofs to be found in Britain, the Hall was used for magnificent banquets and ceremonial events. Its high, wood-paneled walls are lined with suits of armor and weapons. You can easily imagine important dignitaries warming themselves in front of the roaring logs in Great Hall’s beautiful fireplace.
TIP: At 1 pm be sure to join the crowd gathered outside the Redcoat Cafe in order to see (and hear!) the firing of the One O’Clock gun. This tradition started in 1861 when it was used for time-keeping, and the gun is now fired at 1 pm every day (except Sundays).
Practical info: For opening times and tickets, please check the official website of the Edinburgh Castle.
2. Views from Calton Hill
For the very best views of Edinburgh and beyond – and for some stunning photos by which to remember your visit – you must take a stroll up Calton Hill. It’s just a short walk from the East End of Princes Street. The walk itself is not too demanding, but absolutely worth the effort. On a clear day, you can see for miles, taking in the city’s skyline and Arthur’s Seat, across to Leith, and the Firth of Forth.
The 360-degree views are breathtaking whatever time of day you choose to visit but are simply spectacular at sunrise or at sunset. It’s also a great spot to stand at night, when you can see the lights twinkling across the city and when certain monuments are beautifully illuminated.
There’s more to Calton Hill than just the views! At the summit, there are some amazing buildings, including the Nelson Monument, with its Time Ball that drops daily at 1 pm, and the City Observatory, a beautiful building that looks just like a Greek temple.
You’ll also see the 12 columns of the National Monument – a commemorative building inspired by the Parthenon in Athens that was – sadly – never completed.
TIP: If you are lucky enough to be celebrating Hogmanay in Edinburgh (the Scottish celebration of the New Year), head up Calton Hill to enjoy a bird’s eye view of the fireworks!
3. Walking the Royal Mile
Extending from the Castle and all the way down to Holyrood Palace, the Royal Mile is the name given to the succession of streets that make up the main thoroughfare of the city’s Old Town. The Royal Mile functioned as a processional route for kings and queens and is 1.81 km long (1 Scots mile long), thus the name.
Lined with cobbles and bustling with visitors, it has a vibrant atmosphere and is one of the most famous streets in Britain.
The area is quintessentially Scottish and the best place to see men in kilts (along with the shops selling them) plus buskers dressed in traditional clothing and playing bagpipes. There are scores of historical sites – including St. Giles Cathedral and the Real Mary King’s Close (see below) – and dozens of lively cafes, restaurants, and pubs.
The Royal Mile is a great place to buy souvenirs, although it’s best to avoid the tourist traps and look for shops selling authentic Scottish merchandise. These include specialist whisky from Cadenheads, luxurious cashmere from Elgin Cashmere, and a genuine kilt from Geoffrey Tailor!
It’s easy to spend a full day walking the Royal Mile, particularly when you take the time to explore every little staircase, alley, and courtyard you pass along its length. Taking your time here is the best way to discover wonderful little boutiques, antique shops, and eateries that you may otherwise have missed. This is also an excellent place to find traditional pubs serving typical British dishes.
4. Palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Abbey
Often referred to as Holyrood Palace, this is the official residence of the Queen of England when she comes to visit Scotland. The ruins of the Holyrood Abbey are connected to the Palace on one corner.
Despite its city-center location, the Palace of Holyroodhouse – set in beautiful parkland and overlooking Arthur’s Seat – feels a million miles away from Edinburgh’s hustle and bustle.
The Palace is open to visitors all year round. It gives you a fantastic opportunity to take a glimpse into history without battling the crowds that you tend to find at Edinburgh Castle.
The State Apartments are truly gorgeous, lavishly decorated, and with beautiful ceilings and tapestries. You can climb a narrow winding staircase that leads to the chambers of Mary, Queen of Scots’. Don’t miss the sumptuous Great Gallery which was used for balls and receptions by Bonnie Prince Charlie. The Palace gardens are also worth a visit.
Holyrood Abbey was one of the Scotlands’ grandest medieval abbeys. It was a site of the marriage of James IV to Margaret Tudor in 1503 and the coronation of Charles I in 1633. Whilst it may be in ruins, it remains one of the best places to see in Edinburgh. It has a somewhat ethereal atmosphere and – with its incredible stonework – is hauntingly beautiful.
Practical info: You can find more information and book Palace of Holyroodhouse tickets here.
5. Harry Potter Tours
J. K. Rowling’s beloved Harry Potter books are intrinsically bound to Edinburgh. This place not only inspired many of the characters and scenes but some of the books were actually written in Edinburgh.
Harry Potter tours are great for the whole family; Harry Potter fans and non-fans alike. They visit sites like the High Street that inspired Diagon Alley and the spot where Lord Voldemort is buried. You can also see the real Grave of Tom Riddle in Greyfriars Kirkyard and even JK Rowling’s golden handprints outside the City Chambers!
Sadly, Nicolsons – the cafe in which J.K. Rowling did the majority of her writing – has since closed down. But most tours will include a visit to the location, where you will see a plaque on the wall recognising the area’s connection to one of the world’s best-loved literary characters.
6. National Museum of Scotland
Located on the south side of the center of Edinburgh and just a short walk from the Royal Mile, Scotland’s National Museum is the UK’s most popular tourist attraction outside of London. And it certainly lives up to its reputation! With thousands of exhibits and displays in galleries devoted to art and design, fashion, science and technology, the natural world and Scottish history and archaeology, this museum is must-see in Edinburgh!
Free to visit, this is very much a hands-on, interactive museum, making it just as fascinating for children as it is for adults! Its highlights include the 800,000-year-old iron-type Muonionalusta Meteorite, which weighs 170 kg (375 lbs) and which you can actually touch.
Fans of Harry Potter will recognize the enigmatic Lewis chess pieces. Consisting of 93 12th-century chess pieces carved from walrus ivory, this is one of Scotland’s best archaeological finds. These chess pieces were brought to life in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
An even stranger Scottish discovery are the spooky Arthur’s Seat Coffins, which you can find tucked away on the museum’s upper floor. These tiny coffins containing wooden figures were found on Arthur’s Seat in 1837. No one knows what they represented, or why they were made!
You can also visit Dolly the Sheep, the world’s first-ever mammal to be cloned from an adult cell. Dolly was born in 1996 and died in 2003, but her legacy lives on and she’s still attracting crowds from all over the world.
7. Princes Street and Gardens
Princes Street marks a clear division between Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns. On one side, you’ll find all the high street stores you’d expect in a big city, along with countless coffee bars and eateries. Whilst on the other side, you’ll find the steps that take you down to the Gardens and, further, to the Old Town.
The Princes Street Gardens are yet another of Edinburgh’s many spots where you can experience the tranquility and beauty of nature within a distinctly urban setting! This is the place where both visitors and locals come to relax, to roller-skate, or to simply enjoy the gorgeous floral displays and tiered gardens.
At one end of the Gardens, you’ll find the Victorian ‘Gardener’s Lodge’ cottage, which looks like something straight out of a fairytale.
At the other end, sits the splendid Ross Fountain. Recently refurbished, this cast iron fountain is one of only three Grade A Listed fountains in Scotland. Its stunning colors look striking by day, whereas the subtle illumination placed around it makes this fountain look equally beautiful by night. Get the angle just right as you photograph the fountain, and you can use the Edinburgh Castle perched atop its hill as a striking backdrop!
8. St. Giles’ Cathedral
St Giles’ is a working church in the city’s Old Town and is the High Kirk (church) of Edinburgh. Interestingly, though, it’s not technically a cathedral, because it doesn’t have a bishop! Nevertheless, it’s wonderful to visit, with its varying architecture representing many reformations throughout the ages.
One of the Cathedral’s best features is its stained glass windows. They flood the inside of the building with gloriously colored light. The rich purple hues of the north window – that show Christ calming a storm – are especially stunning.
From the windows, your eyes are drawn upwards to the high ceiling. It is tierceron-vaulted (rib-vaulted) and the effect is simply spectacular, especially set against the beautiful blue background.
The atmosphere is one of serenity and peace, and you are welcome to spend as long as you like admiring the beauty of the building and visiting the many memorials dotted throughout. Don’t miss the bronze memorial of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, which is located in the Moray Aisle.
9. The Real Mary King’s Close
Edinburgh is full of hidden gems – and The Real Mary King’s Close is one of its most popular. Located beneath buildings on the Royal Mile, just across from St Giles Cathedral, the Close is a subterranean maze of preserved 17th-century streets, homes and alleyways.
Taking the tour of the Close connects you to history in a way you’ve never experienced before! It’s easy to picture the people that lived, worked, and died here. It’s also easy to imagine – as you look at the cramped tenements and learn about hygiene standards at the time – just why the plague swept so quickly through the population.
The knowledgeable guides – dressed in character costumes – will share with you all kinds of stories connected to these streets, including fascinating myths and macabre legends. You’ll learn all about the ghost of Annie, to which people from all over the world bring dolls and toys. And you’ll meet a whole host of colorful characters from the past and hear their fascinating stories!
Myths and legends aside, The Real Mary King’s Close gives a very authentic glimpse into Edinburgh’s history. It also forms the perfect contrast to the tourist-packed thoroughfare overhead! It’s definitely one of the most authentic, unique things to do in Edinburgh!
10. Camera Obscura & World of Illusions
Camera Obscura & World of Illusions is a quirky little museum just down the hill from the Castle. It’s one of the most popular Edinburgh attractions and great fun for the whole family.
The museum is set over 5 floors and contains hundreds of illusions, many of which are interactive. Sit on the opposite side of a screen to your travel companion and watch as your faces merge together. Or enter a special booth and watch as your face morphs into that of a monkey or even of the last person to use the booth!
The Mirror Maze is great fun too – and surprisingly difficult to find your way out of. One of the most disorienting exhibits is the incredible Light Tunnel, a walk through which you’ll never quite forget!
The star of the show is the Camera Obscura itself. A Victorian ancestor of the modern cameras we use today, it projects an image of Edinburgh onto a large, bowl-shaped screen. It may not sound exciting, but it’s actually quite amazing to witness first-hand!
TIP: You can also get some fantastic views of the city from the roof of the museum. There are also powerful telescopes here that will help you make out the smallest details, right up to the horizon!
Practical info: For more information, opening times, and tickets, check here.
11. Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
Just half an hour’s walk from the crowds of the city center is the 350-year-old Royal Botanic Garden. This is the place to lose yourself for a few hours among the beautiful floral displays, following secret winding paths that take you through wooded areas and past thousands of spectacular plants.
There are too many photogenic spots to list here. But one of the best places for a truly memorable shot is in front of the rock garden waterfall, with the varying hues of the surrounding foliage providing a heavenly backdrop.
The gardens contain 10 different glasshouses. They all have different climatic zones and are filled with exotic plants from all over the world. Highlights include a 200-year-old palm tree in the tropical zone and the massive lily pads which almost look too big to be real!
The Botanic Gardens are free to enter and a wonderful place to unwind. They are also the perfect spot for a delicious lunch, with a cafe and a restaurant that prepare amazing meals from ingredients grown in the on-site Market Garden.
12. Royal Yacht Britannia
If you’d like a taste of how the other half lives, then step aboard the Royal Yacht Brittania, the personal ship of the Royal family from 1953 to 1997. Located in the harbor of Leith, which is easily accessible from Edinburgh’s city center, the ship has 5 decks just waiting to be explored.
The rooms in which the Royals spent the majority of their time are on the upper decks. You can stand just where they used to relax in the Sun Lounge or entertain their guests in the impressive State Dining Room. You can even see the Royal Bedrooms and learn more about all the places the yacht has visited.
Of course, life aboard the Royal Brittania wasn’t quite so luxurious for everyone. So you also get to see the engine room and all the other areas of the ship where the Royal Yachtsmen both worked and lived.
TIP: The Yacht is the ideal place to enjoy a cream tea, which is served in the Royal Deck Tea Room. This beautiful cafe on the top deck of the ship gives you a taste of how it feels to dine like a Royal, whilst the glass walls allow you to enjoy the beautiful views across the water.
TIP: If you have at least two days in Edinburgh, consider this popular combination ticket that includes the bus for 48 hours, and the tickets to the main Royal attractions in Edinburgh such as Edinburgh Castle, Holyroodhouse, and the Royal Yacht Britannia. It’s a great way to see some of the best places of Edinburgh and save money.
13. Arthur’s Seat
Arthur’s Seat is a hill, the highest point in Holyrood Park. It’s actually a volcano sitting 251 m above sea level. A trip up the hill and back takes a couple of hours and some parts can be fairly strenuous, with loose rock underfoot. But you are ultimately rewarded with some of the best views of Edinburgh the city has to offer.
If you’re not feeling up to the challenge to climb all the way to the top, there’s an easier path you can follow. Whilst it may not go all the way to the summit, you will still find countless opportunities to take exceptional photographs of the breathtaking scenery.
Yet the fantastic views are only part of the reason for taking the climb here. The journey takes you past some fascinating volcanic geology and you can actually walk through the crater and over old lava flows. Wildflowers abound and the area has several Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
When you sit at the summit of Arthur’s Seat surveying the jaw-dropping landscape all around you, it’s easy to forget that all this natural beauty is just a short distance from the heart of a busy and vibrant capital city!
14. Scottish National Gallery
Scottish National Gallery is located right on the mound that separates the two sides of Princes Street Gardens. Free to enter, it is truly an art lover’s paradise, containing one of the world’s finest collections.
Here you’ll find everything from Scottish art – featuring the works of local artists like McTaggart, and Ramsay – to incredible pieces by the Old Masters, including Raphael, Vermeer, Van Dyck and Rubens.
The staff are knowledgeable and only too happy to discuss the artwork with you. There is plenty of room to stand back and admire the exhibits, or simply sit and reflect on them.
Depending on the day you visit, you can also take part in one of the Gallery’s events or activities – just visit the website ahead of time to see what’s available. These will sometimes include fascinating storytelling sessions and the Gallery’s very popular life drawing classes.
Not all the art is housed inside the museum. The building itself is well worth appreciating and is a stunning example of neo-Classical architecture.
Practical info: For more information, opening times, and special events, please check the website of the museum.
15. Get to Know the Darkside of Edinburgh
Few cities have a history as dark, grisly, and rich in skulduggery as Edinburgh! And you can get to know it all by taking one of the many dark-side tours.
Take a tour that goes beyond tartan and bagpipes to get to the grimly fascinating facts. Learn why the city may have felt less than safe in times gone by when medical schools were happy to pay for dead bodies and murderers roamed the streets in search of likely victims! Hear about Edinburgh’s famous serial killers Burke and Hare, who cold-bloodedly killed 16 people in 10 months and sold them to Dr. Knox for dissection in his anatomy classes.
This was also a time when witch hunts were rampant, and anyone could be accused of witchcraft and burnt at the stake. You can visit the spot at Calton Hill where the burnings took place (which these days is used instead to admire the Edinburgh skyline).
Edinburgh also had its share of graverobbers, body snatchers, and even cannibals. Some tours include visits to cemeteries and Kirkyards, where you can see for yourself the caged graves and mausoleums that families used to protect their departed loved ones.
You’ll also hear the chilling story behind the death of the husband of Mary Queen of Scot’s and learn about the tiny, creepy coffins discovered at Arthur’s Seat that you can now see in the National Museum of Scotland.
16. Dynamic Earth
Located at the foot of the Salisbury Crags, Dynamic Earth is a five-star museum that takes you on an incredible journey through Earth’s history. Using a combination of interactive exhibits, you can see, feel, and hear the momentous events that shaped our planet.
Try standing beneath the Aurora Borealis in the Polar zone, where it’s so cold that you can see your breath, while your fingers and toes go numb. You can even touch an iceberg! Use the Time Machine to travel back to where it all began. And feel the ground shaking as volcanoes erupt, sending streams of molten lava your way.
Alternatively, enjoy the aquatic views from the portholes of the Yellow Submarine, where you can look for whales or man the periscope as you learn all about the oceans and their importance to life on Earth.
One of the highlights of the museum is its 360-degree full-dome film theater with surround sound – the only one of its kind in Scotland. It provides a totally immersive movie experience, taking you on a trek across the globe or whizzing through the solar system.
This museum is an unforgettable adventure for the whole family, combining a fantastic educational experience with lots of fun.
17. The Museum of Childhood
The Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh was the first museum in the world to focus solely on childhood. Recently completely renewed, the result is a celebration of books, toys, games and dolls all the way from the early 1800s to the present day.
Free to enter, this one-of-a-kind museum is located on the grounds of Sudbury Hall on the Royal Mile. It’s a small museum and you can see most of it in about half an hour. While not a must-see, it’s something nice to do in Edinburgh with kids. Also a great place to visit when it rains.
Children love to see what their parents and grandparents would have played with in the past, marveling at the comparison between the electronic gadgets of today and the more simple pleasures of times gone by. For adults, this is a great place for nostalgia. You’re likely to come across many exhibits that you remember from your childhood and had completely forgotten about!
One of the highlights is the incredible 21-roomed dollhouse. It contains over 2,000 objects including tiny bathroom towels and little skittles in the nursery!
There are also some rare exhibits to enjoy, such as the Queen Anne Doll made around 1740. Also the Kindertransport bear – a little Steiff bear that, poignantly, traveled on the last Kindertransport train out of Vienna in 1939 to rescue Jewish children from Nazi Germany.
So, this is our guide to the very best things to do in Edinburgh and top attractions for first-time visitors.
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If you are also visiting London, check these guides for travel inspiration and useful tips:
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- Hidden Gems of London
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- Best Things to Do in Greenwich
- London with Kids
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