I’ve been living in Edinburgh since April 2018. I fell in love with Scotland’s capital city after I realised there were 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 cobble stone streets, admiring the architecture and testing the many whiskys on offer.
Because there is so much to do here, that 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 my favourite 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.
Disclosure: Some tours and tickets in this article were gifted, however all opinions are my own and I would only recommend tours and attractions I rate highly. 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.
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 oldest surviving building in Scotland. It was built by David I in the 12th century who dedicated it to his pious mother. The story of David I’s parents, Malcolm III and St Margaret is one of my favourites. After Malcolm III was killed during battle, his wife 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 now houses the Scottish crown jewels.
- Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to King James VI and I of England at the castle.
- Witches were burnt at the stake in the esplanade outside the castle walls.
Cost: £19.50 for adults or £17.50 with skip the line access if purchased online here.
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 makes for a great 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!
Holyrood Palace is situated at the lower end of the Royal Mile and has a rich history. I explored the Palace of Holyrood with fellow travel writer, Corina. We 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 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 also 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: £15 for adults; £13.50 for students/60 years and above; £8.70 for under 17/disabled; free for those under 5.
Get your skip the line pass here.
Hike to the top of Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano that offers stunning views of Edinburgh.
The hike is rated easy/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, which is located in Holyrood Park, may have in fact been home to King Arthur’s Camelot.
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 the structure from afar for free.
Cost: Adult £8.00; Concession (OAP / Child / Student); £6.00 Family ticket; £20 (2 adult + 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 Holyrood (at the eastern end).
There are souvenir shops aplenty, but it is also the location of Giles Cathedral, Deacon Brodie’s pub, the Heart of Midlothian (a heart made in the cobblestones that people spit on for good luck), and World’s End.
If you look through the curtain of tourists carefully, you’ll find many tiny streets called ‘closes’ which are pretty fun to explore.
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 are 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 £35 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 (5 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.
This Unique Scottish Experience
I like authentic experiences; experiences that really get into the heart and soul of a country. This is why I recommend going on the Scottish Heritage Experience, run by Inspired By Scotland.
Spend the evening in a local Scot’s kiltmaker shop and learn about tartan and the art of kiltmaking. Later in the evening you have the option to be fitted in a kilt and hear some of the enchanting stories of Scotland and her history. I consider myself a Scotland history fanatic, and I was surprised to learn a few new things- for example, before charging into battle, the Scots would remove their kilts and run into battle naked! No wonder the English were terrified of the Highland charge…
During the course of the evening you have the option to taste three drams hand selected by a whisky specialist (what a job!).
This is a very cool experience and something intimate and a little different than your standard walking or bus tour.
Cost: £45 per person (£15 additional for whisky tasting).
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 has 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 offer a underground vaults 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.
Have you tried any of these Edinburgh activities? I’d love to know how you found them, so comment below!
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