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The Best Things To Do In Edinburgh

The Best Things To Do In Edinburgh

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Edinburgh is a small city with a big heart, where every hidden close and cobblestone street whispers tales of its enthralling ancient history. From the majestic Edinburgh Castle standing proudly on Castle Rock to the bustling streets of the Royal Mile, the Scottish capital offers a rich tapestry of experiences waiting to be explored. Join me on a journey through the enchanting streets as I show you the best things to do in Edinburgh.

I fell in love with Edinburgh when I lived there when I first moved to Scotland; it quickly charmed me and it tops my list of favourite city in the world.

Over the years, I have had a lot of fun exploring the cobblestone streets, admiring the beautiful gothic architecture and trying the many gins and whiskies on offer in the lively 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 compiled a list of the best things to do in Edinburgh for anyone visiting this bonnie city.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve got one day in Edinburgh or several- just choose the activities that appeal the most to you.

>> Read more: 50 Travel Tips for Scotland

A locals guide to the best things to do in Edinburgh

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle

Starting with one of the most popular attractions in the city, Edinburgh Castle is a defensive structure overflowing with history.

Here are a few of my favourite facts about Edinburgh Castle:

  • 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 love 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 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 burned at the stake in the esplanade outside the castle walls.
  • You can see this magnificent castle from almost anywhere in the city; if you decide not to pay to go inside the castle, there is a beautiful view from the castle esplanade which I highly recommend visiting.

Cost: £19.50 for adults; £15.50 for concession; £11.40 for children; children under 7 are free. Free for Historic Scotland members or holders of an Explorer Pass. Family passes also available.

Scotland Travel Tip

One of the most interesting things about Edinburgh Castle is its stories. My recommendation is to do your research prior to visiting, or book a guided tour of the castle.

👉 Book a guided tour of Edinburgh Castle (entry included)

Palace of Holyroodhouse

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 you visit you will be given an audio tour of the palace and learn 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 would spend a week here in July every year, hosting a party in the palace gardens.

Cost: £20 for adults; £13 for young persons (18-24); £10 for children (5-17) and disabled people; free for under 5s.

👉 Buy tickets for the Palace of Holyroodhouse

Royal Yacht Britannia

Visit the Royal Yacht Britannia, a former Royal residence that sailed over 1,000,000 nautical miles during 968 state visits with the Royal Family. Now Tripadvisor’s top UK attraction for 2023, explore five decks showcasing life at sea for the Royal Family.

Located in Leith, just two miles from Edinburgh’s city centre, experience Britannia with a free audio guide. Visit the State Apartments, Queen Elizabeth II’s favorite room, the Royal Sailing Exhibition, and relax at the Royal Deck Tearoom with delicious treats.

June closures: Please note that due to the construction work at Ocean Terminal Shopping Centre, Britannia will be closed 25 – 28 June 2024. The positive is that Britannia will also be gaining a new Visitor Centre and Gift Shop.

Cost: £19.50 per adult; £9.25 per child (5-17); Under 5s free.

👉 Buy tickets for the Royal Yacht Britannia

Hop On Hop Off Tour

The hop-on, hop-off bus in Edinburgh

If it’s your first visit to Edinburgh, the 24 hour Hop On Hop Off bus (HOHO) is a great way to establish 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.

I would recommend this tour to anyone who has mobility issues. You can also use the tour for transport to reach the main attractions.

They also have a 48-hour Hop On Hop Off option.

While earphones are provided, I recommend you bring your own pair for this tour. Save plastic!

Cost: From £18.

👉 Book the Hop On Hop Off bus

Money Saving Pass

Save £20 per adult when you book this package that includes entry to Edinburgh Castle, the Palace of Holyrood House, the Royal Yacht Britannia, and a 48-hour access to the Hop On Hop Off bus. This pass must be used over two consecutive days.

👉 Book the Royal Attractions with Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour package

The Real Mary King’s Close

The Real Mary King’s Close is one of my favourite guided tours in Edinburgh. Explore Edinburgh’s hidden history; Mary King’s Close was boarded up in the 17th century to make way for the new Edinburgh City Chambers. It was re-discovered in 2003, almost perfectly preserved from the 17th century!

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.

The street is named after the merchant burgess, Mary King, who lived on the close. It is also reputedly haunted and has featured in several paranormal investigation shows.

It’s a fantastic example of Edinburgh’s past, and traditionally dressed characters show you what life would have been like living in Edinburgh during the 1500s-1800s.

Cost: From £25 per person.

👉 Book The Real Mary King’s Close tour

The Scotch Whisky Experience

The whisky collection at the Scottish Whisky Experience in Edinburgh

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 Scotch Whisky Experience Gold Tour and Tasting. It lasts 75 minutes and you get to try a Highland, Lowland, Speyside, and Campbeltown whisky. You’ll also learn how to drink whisky (because let’s face it- it’s 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: £37 (and obviously, 18+).

👉 Book the Scotch Whisky Experience

Witches Old Town Walking Tour

Learn about Edinburgh’s history of witches on the Witches Old Town Walking Tour. Follow a character guide around Edinburgh’s Old Town and discover the tales of those wrongly accused of witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries.

This is a really interesting tour, and a homage to the women and men who suffered the injustices of witchcraft trials in Edinburgh.

This tour also includes access to ”The Lost Close”- underground vaults that date back to 1742.

Cost: From £15 per person

👉 Book the Witches Old Town Walking Tour

Edinburgh Zoo

The Edinburgh Zoo is a great family-friendly activity for all ages! See over 2500 animals, featuring all your zoo favourites such as lions, chimpanzees, and giraffes, and some Scottish animals too!

Edinburgh Zoo is home to two Scottish wildcats- Talisker and Rhu. These animals are sadly on the brink of extinction, and there are just a handful left of these beautiful cats.

You can also meet Scotland’s only female sloth, Feira!

The zoo has two restaurants, a café and several kiosks offering a variety of hot and cold food, snacks and drinks. I recommend eating at The Gannet- the menu is filled with fresh, locally sourced Scottish produce.

Cost: £24 per adult; £21.50 for concession; £15.25 for children (3-15 years); Under 3s free.

👉 Buy tickets for Edinburgh Zoo

>> Read more: What to pack for a trip to Scotland

Red Bus Bistro

Afternoon tea on the 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 Cocktail Afternoon Tea Experience for the gin lovers out there.

Cost: From £42.50 per adult.

👉 Book the Red Bus Bistro

Edinburgh Dungeon

The Edinburgh Dungeon is a great activity for teens over 15 and young adults. Learn all about Edinburgh’s gory past from the quirky characters that once walked the streets of Auld Reekie!

Cost: £24 per adult; 19.50 per child (5-15).

👉 Book the Edinburgh Dungeon

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 £20 per person.

👉 Book the standard Underground Vaults Tour
👉 Book the Underground Vaults Tour with whisky

Go on a pub crawl

cheap pubs in edinburgh scotland

Edinburgh is famous for its pubs, and a great way to experience a few is by going on a pub crawl!

This pub crawl is suitable for ages 18-35, takes you to 7 pubs, and includes 6 free shots.

Cost: £25 for 18+

👉 Buy tickets for the Edinburgh Pub Crawl

Camera Obscura and World of Illusions

The view of Edinburgh from Camera Obscura

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: £21.95 for adults; £19.95 for seniors (65+) and students with ID; £16.95 for children (age 5-15); under 5s are free.

👉 Buy tickets for Camera Obscura and the World of Illusions

>> Read more: 11 cheap pubs in Edinburgh

Afternoon Tea at The Witchery By The Castle

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.

>> Read more: 10 Must-Sees in Scotland You Can’t Miss

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: £50 Afternoon Tea; £65 Champagne Afternoon Tea; £75 Rosé Champagne Afternoon Tea.

>> Read more: The ultimate guide to spending 2 days in Edinburgh

>> Read more: How to spend 4 days in Scotland

MONEY SAVING TIP

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!

Scott Monument

Scott Monument

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 for children; Family ticket £20 (2 adults + 2 children or 1 adult and 3 children).

Craigmillar Castle

Craigmillar Castle

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.

Cost: £7.50 per adult; £6 concession; 4.50 for children (7-15); Family passes available.

Free things to do in Edinburgh

Calton Hill

The view from Calton Hill in Edinburgh

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

Arthur’s Seat

Arthur’s Seat in the distance

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 Arthur’s seat may have been home to King Arthur’s Camelot.

>> Read more: My tips for visiting Scotland on a budget

Cramond Island

Cramond Island

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.

The Royal Mile

The Royal Mile during the August festivals

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.

Dean Village

Dean Village

Dean Village is one of the prettiest villages in Scotland and 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

Did you know that my husband and I provide private driving tours in Scotland? We can take you on a day trip or multi-day tour departing Edinburgh. You can choose from our range of itineraries or we can take you wherever you want to go! Visit our website Kiwi and Haggis Tours for more information.

Have you tried any of these Edinburgh activities? I’d love to know how you found them, so comment below!

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!

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Cheryl B.

Thursday 22nd of August 2019

Your tips have made my three week trip more enjoyable. You have helped me immensely. I’m on day three of my 21 day trip and I’m going to try many of your suggestions. I have a knee injury so lots of walking is out. I am Scotland’s number one fan❤️

Yvette Morrissey

Monday 26th of August 2019

I'm so glad you've found my site helpful! Enjoy the rest of your time in bonnie Scotland :-)

ania

Tuesday 23rd of July 2019

I love Edinburgh, I lived there 12 years ago for a year and i loved it in the summer and hated it in the winter, but still I miss it

Yvette Morrissey

Wednesday 24th of July 2019

I agree- summer in Edinburgh is great, but I liked how quiet it was in the winter, and also- mulled wine!

Anisa

Sunday 22nd of July 2018

I have checked some of the things off on your list already but I hadn't even heard of Dean Village. That sounds lovely. Pinning for reference next time I am in Edinburgh

Arunima Dey

Sunday 22nd of July 2018

I love Edinburgh and your post just reminded of all the things I love about the place.

Danie

Saturday 21st of July 2018

Such a good article! I recently visited Endinburgh and I can’t wait to go back and knock some more of these off my list!