Disclosure: Spending money was gifted by Hotels.com [who offer a fantastic range of hotels in Edinburgh city centre] for some of the tours and attractions listed in this article. All views [as always] are my own. This article may also contain links to products/services I love that I may earn a small commission from- at no extra cost to you. This helps me to run this site!
I fell in love with Scotland’s capital city when I lived there when I first moved to Scotland; there are so many things to do in Edinburgh no matter the weather or the time of year!
I have had a lot of fun exploring the cobblestone streets, admiring the beautiful buildings and trying the many whiskies on offer in the busy pubs.
Because there is so much to do here, it can often seem overwhelming for anyone visiting. I’m often asked what Edinburgh activities I recommend, so I’ve decided to compile a list of the best things to do in Edinburgh.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve got one day in Edinburgh or several, just pick and choose the activities that appeal the most to you.
Covid-19 notice: While I’ve tried my best to keep this article updated with the latest information, due to the pandemic some attractions and places mentioned in this article may be closed. Be sure to plan ahead, check what’s open before you visit and read my Covid-19 Scotland guide for more information on travel in Scotland.
A locals guide to the best things to do in Edinburgh
An obvious choice, but there is SO much history in this castle and it would be a crime to skip it. Here are a few of my favorite facts about Edinburgh castle, which I am sure will make you want to visit:
- The castle was built on an extinct volcano and people have inhabited the rock since the Iron Age.
- St Margaret’s Chapel, inside the castle, is the oldest surviving building in Scotland. It was built by David I in the 12th century who dedicated it to his mother. The story of David I’s parents, Malcolm III and St Margaret is one of my favourites. After Malcolm III and another one of her sons was killed during battle, Margaret was so overcome with grief she died a few days later.
- During the 13th and 14th centuries [the time of the Scottish Wars of Independence], the castle changed hands between Scotland and England several times.
- Edinburgh Castle was a royal residence from the 12th century up until the reign of Charles I.
- The castle is home to the Scottish crown jewels.
- Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to the future King James VI and I of England at the castle.
- Witches were burnt at the stake in the esplanade outside the castle walls.
Cost: £15.50 for adults; £12.40 for concession; £9.30 for children; children under 5 are free. Family passes available.
Hop On Hop Off Tour
If it’s your first visit to Edinburgh, the 24 hour Hop On Hop Off bus is a great way to find your bearings.
The tour comes with an audio guide that points out interesting buildings and features and gives you an introductory history of Edinburgh. It takes approximately 1 hour, and buses run every 10-20 minutes. You can ride it as many times as you like.
While earphones are provided, I recommend you bring your own pair for this tour. Save plastic!
They also have a 48 hour Hop On Hop Off option. I would recommend this for anyone who has mobility issues to use for the tour aspect and also for transport to the main attractions.
Cost: From £16.
The Scotch Whisky Experience
The Scotch Whisky Experience has got to be one of my favourite tours in Edinburgh!
I’m a huge whisky fan. I’ve visited several whisky distilleries across Scotland and I believe The Scotch Whisky Experience is a perfect introduction to single malt whisky.
They have several tour options, but I recommend the Silver Tour. It lasts one hour and you get to choose either a highland, lowland, Speyside, Campbeltown or blended whisky to taste. You’ll also learn how to drink whisky [because let’s face it- it’s basically an art].
The interactive display is super impressive, and you are taken on a literal journey as you are transported from room to room [including the room that holds the largest unopened collection of whisky in Scotland!].
Booking in advance is recommended, especially in the busy summer months.
Cost: The Silver Tour is £17 [and obviously, 18+].
>> Read more: What to pack for a trip to Scotland
Afternoon Tea at The Witchery By The Castle
I don’t consider having Afternoon Tea at The Witchery By The Castle as simply having afternoon tea.
It’s an indulgent experience!
The Witchery offers lunch, dinner and even accommodation too- but I personally love it for the Afternoon Tea experience. It’s also one of my favourite romantic restaurants in Edinburgh for couples.
The atmosphere is exactly what you’d expect of a fancy yet traditional Scottish restaurant from the 1800s.
Visualise this: a room illuminated by both natural and candlelight, carefully decorated with traditional Scottish decor including ancient oak, stonework, and tapestries. Look up and you’ll notice the hand-painted ceiling, taking your eyes away from it only when your waiter approaches and asks for your order.
The food and service is impeccable; if going for the afternoon tea option you’ll be served a selection of sandwiches, scones and cakes, and some Scottish classics. You can opt for Billecart-Salmon champagne or simply choose from their range of teas.
I chose the Radiant Rose fruit tea- which was delicious!
And as the name suggests, The Witchery is located next to Edinburgh Castle. It is the perfect romantic activity for couples visiting Edinburgh.
You have to book in advance here- it is busy for a reason. You can do this on their website.
Cost: From £30 per person.
>> Read more: The ultimate guide to spending 2 days in Edinburgh
Camera Obscura and World of Illusions
Camera Obscura and the World of Illusions is a fantastic activity for groups and families. There are five floors of illusions, each with a different theme that will confuse and bedazzle you!
The top floor is home to the camera obscura, which projects live images of the streets of Edinburgh on a screen in the darkened room. To see it in action you have to book a tour [which is included in your ticket].
I recommend visiting with a friend- this isn’t a solo activity as you’ll need another person to try many of the activities.
There are also some of the best views of Edinburgh from the roof!
Cost: £15.75 for adults; £13.95 for seniors and students with ID; £12.15 for children; infants are free.
>> Read more: 11 cheap pubs in Edinburgh
The Real Mary Kings Close
Closes are small residential streets without any thorough access. They are so narrow or ‘close’ that is how they got their name. They were often named after rich merchants, and the lower levels housed the poorest of the poor.
Mary Kings Close was sealed up when the Royal Exchange [now the City Chambers] was built on top of it. It reopened as a tourist attraction in 2003, showing tourists what life would have been like for those living in Edinburgh during the 1500s-1800s.
The only way to see Mary King’s Close is by booking a one-hour tour. The Real Mary King’s Close tour is like stepping back to the 16th century; everything inside has been so well preserved it feels like you’re on an ancient movie set!
>> Read more: How to spend 4 days in Scotland
MONEY SAVING TIP
A National Trust for Scotland membership or a Historic Scotland membership is a fantastic way to save money if you plan on visiting many of the attractions Scotland has to offer. Each membership grants you free entry to many of Scotland’s main attractions, free parking, discounts at selected shops and a quarterly magazine!
The stunning cityscapes you see on postcards and promotional material for Edinburgh are often taken from Calton Hill. It’s a super easy walk 20-minute walk from Old Town to the top of Calton Hill, and it is an easier alternative to hiking up Arthur’s Seat if you are wanting good views of the city.
It is also a fantastic place to watch the sunset. Don’t forget your camera!
>> Read more: The most romantic places to visit in Scotland
Palace of Holyroodhouse
The Palace of Holyroodhouse or, Holyrood Palace, is situated at the lower end of the Royal Mile and has a rich history. When I visited I took an audio tour of the palace and learned about its history since its construction in 1128 by David I.
Holyrood Palace has had many royal visitors over the years, these include:
- Mary, Queen of Scots once lived here with her husband, Lord Darnley. The supper chamber inside the palace was the site for the gruesome murder of David Rizzio, Queen Mary’s Private Secretary and suspected lover by Darnley. Darnley had an associate murder Rizzio in front of Queen Mary, stabbing him 57 times!
- Bonnie Prince Charlie is another royal figure who stayed at the palace after he seized Edinburgh in 1745.
- Queen Victoria would often stay at Holyroodhouse and renovated the old royal apartments on the first floor.
- Queen Elizabeth II spends a week here in July every year, hosting a party in the palace gardens.
Cost: £16.50 for adults; £14.90 for students and seniors; £9.50 for children; free for under 5s.
Hiking to the top of Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano, is one of my favourite free things to do in Edinburgh. The summit offers stunning panorama of Edinburgh.
The hike is rated easy to moderate, and takes 2-2.5 hours. Make sure you wear hiking boots or runners, as the terrain can be rough and rocky in parts.
Arthur’s Seat is located in Holyrood Park, and you begin your walk near the entrance to Holyrood Palace.
It is thought Arthurt’s seat may have been home to King Arthur’s Camelot.
>> Read more: My tips for visiting Scotland on a budget
While everyone has heard of Edinburgh Castle, many have not heard of the other castle in Edinburgh: Craigmillar Castle.
Craigmillar Castle has a fascinating history. Mary Queen of Scots visited this castle on a few occasions to go horse riding and hunting. It was also the location where the plan for the ‘Craigmillar Bond’ [a plan to assassinate Mary’s spoilt husband, Lord Darnley] was hatched.
It has also been used as a filming location for Outlander and Outlaw King.
When it’s a sunny day in Edinburgh, I recommend spending the day at Cramond Island!
Cramond Island is a tidal island, and when the tide is low you can actually walk to the island. Just make sure you check the tide times before you visit so you don’t get stranded on the island when the tide rolls back in! Check out my guide on planning a day trip to Cramond Island before you go.
There are also lots of other things to see and do in the area. Cramond village is located on the mainland, and Romans once lived there. This area is one of the most important archeological sites in Scotland and there are lots of interesting things to see, including the Cramond Roman Fort and Cramond Tower.
It’s pretty hard to miss the Scott Monument if you’re hanging around Waverley Train Station or Princes Street. This towering Gothic structure was built in the honour of famous literary figure Sir Walter Scott, and it’s a fitting tribute.
You can even climb to the top of the monument for stunning views of the city, or you can marvel at the structure from afar for free.
Cost: £8.00 for adults; £6.00 Family ticket; £20 (2 adults + 2 children or 1 adult and 3 children).
The Royal Mile
A visit to Edinburgh is not complete without walking the famous Royal Mile. Yes it’s a complete tourist thing to do, but after living close to the Mile for several months I still find it fascinating. The Royal Mile links Edinburgh Castle (at the western end) and the Palace of Holyroodhouse (at the eastern end).
There are souvenir shops aplenty, but it is also the location of Giles Cathedral, Deacon Brodie’s pub, and the Heart of Midlothian (a heart made in the cobblestones that people spit on for good luck).
If you look through the curtain of tourists carefully, you’ll find many tiny streets called ‘closes’ which are pretty fun to explore.
>> Read more: Coastal hikes close to Edinburgh
Red Bus Bistro
I like quirky tours; tours that are different from your typical ‘jump on a bus and see some stuff.’
This is why I adore the Red Bus Bistro tours where you hop aboard a double-decker bus and served afternoon tea, while taken on a tour of the city. And get this- the Red Bus Bistro has a licensed bar SO YOU CAN DRINK WINE.
You’re probably thinking, wouldn’t this end up being like a giant food fight? Well, the food is served on trays that are secured to the tables inside the bus, however, you’re responsible for your wine.
I went on the Edinburgh Afternoon Tea tour, but they also have a Gin Afternoon Tea Experience for the gin lovers out there.
Cost: From £37 per adult.
Going for a stroll along the Water of Leith Walkway to Dean Village is a great way to spend a sunny afternoon. It’s a little hard to believe that the idyllic beauty of the Water of Leith walkway is situated so close to Edinburgh’s city centre- just five minutes from Princes Street!
The milling of water mills once took place in Dean Village, and the remains of this can still be seen today.
If you’re into Scottish cemeteries, Dean Cemetery on Dean Path is eerie yet beautiful. Dean Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art are nearby and worth checking out as well.
>> Read more: My guide to moving to Edinburgh
Go on Haunted Tour
I went on a tour of the Underground Vaults with Mercat, which was fantastic. They are the only tour group in Edinburgh that hasve access to the Blair Street Underground Vaults, known as Edinburgh’s most famous haunted site. Our guide was enthusiastic and engaging, and I learned a lot about Edinburgh’s gory past.
Mercat also offers an Underground Vault Tour with Whisky, which is great if you need a bit of Scottish courage. While there are some free haunted tours available in Edinburgh [although tipping is expected], a Mercat tour is definitely worth paying for.
Cost: From £16 per person.
Have you tried any of these Edinburgh activities? I’d love to know how you found them, so comment below!
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