Best things to do in Edinburgh: the essential guide

From landmarks and attractions to trendy cafes and secret viewpoints, these are the best things to do in Edinburgh for first-time visitors.

Riding the shuttle bus from Edinburgh Airport to the city centre, my arrival in the Scottish capital is a mundane affair, yet it’s also the most memorable. Peering out the window of the shuttle’s upper deck, I watch as suburban homes give way to an imposing medieval skyline, Edinburgh Castle presiding over it all like a smug king surveying his lands. Whether arriving by road or rail, visitors are greeted by the spectacular Old Town facade and the view from Waverley Bridge – right at the entrance of Waverley Station – is one of the best in the city. The walk from Waverley Station to Edinburgh Castle is a punishing crawl up Market Street best completed sans luggage, but as I climb the last few metres of Castle Hill the sun throws a golden glow over Edinburgh’s infamous fortress. I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face if I tried.  

Edinburgh will bewitch you. Down every laneway is an old-world scene, bagpipes sing on the Royal Mile and picturesque Victorian terraces line the curving cobblestone thoroughfares of Victoria and Cockburn streets. Scotland is the place where J.K Rowling dreamed up Harry’s adventures at Hogwarts, where today’s rain is welcomed as tomorrow’s whiskey, and the national animal is a unicorn. These are the best things to do in Edinburgh. 

St. Cuthbert's Church and the city skyline of Edinburgh
St. Cuthbert’s Church and the city skyline © Laura Barry

Best things to do in Edinburgh

Edinburgh Castle 

Set upon an ancient volcanic crag known as Castle Rock, Edinburgh Castle stands upon a site used by humans for 3000 years. The castle as we know it dates back to the 12th century and has served as a royal residence, military garrison, prison and fortress, gaining a reputation as the most besieged place in Britain. From the Great Hall to the dungeons and viewing the Honours of Scotland in the Crown Room, touring the castle is one of the best things to do in Edinburgh. 

Tip: Be sure to stick around for the one o’clock cannon, then get some fantastic cityscape photos from the Argyle Battery (the walls opposite the Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig statue near the War Museum), and over the wall of the car park on your way out. 

The canon at Edinburgh Castle
The canon at Edinburgh Castle © Laura Barry

Palace of Holyroodhouse 

Tucked away at the bottom of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, the Palace of Holyroodhouse was the temporary home of Mary, Queen of Scots, played host to Bonnie Prince Charlie and is now the official residence of King Charles the third should he visit the city. The State Apartments, Throne Room, Great Gallery and private chambers have been carefully preserved and restored for your viewing pleasure, and the audio guide offers fascinating insights into the history of the property. 

Tip: One of the best things to do in Edinburgh is visit the ruins of the abbey and the manicured gardens, and take a gander at the remaining bloodstain in the Queen’s bed chamber from the tragic murder of David Rizzio, secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots (and her suspected secret lover). 

Royal Mile 

Stretching from Edinburgh Castle down to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Royal Mile is a historic processional route from which all the city’s most interesting roads branch. Lined with shops, hotels, restaurants, tourist traps and bagpipers, this bustling thoroughfare is where you’ll find the Real Mary King’s Close, Scottish Storytelling Centre, St Giles’ Cathedral, Tolbooth Tavern, the Scotch Whiskey Experience, Camera Obscura and World of Illusions, and Edinburgh University’s School of Divinity and Library. 

Top tip: Visit the courtyard of Edinburgh University’s School of Divinity for a magical Harry Potter-esque scene of medieval buildings, stone staircases, ancient old doors and the spire of The Hub perfectly framed betwixt the university’s towers. 

A bagpiper on the Royal Mile; The Smallest Pub in Scotland on Grassmarket
A bagpiper on the Royal Mile; The Smallest Pub in Scotland on Grassmarket © Laura Barry

The Scotch Whiskey experience 

One of the best things to do in Edinburgh is learn about its key export, Scotch whisky. Located on the Royal Mile just steps away from Edinburgh Castle, the Scotch Whisky Experience is an interactive educational tasting tour that guides visitors through the key regions of scotch whisky production, the distillation process, and how to identify the different regions and ingredients in flavour profiles. The immersive technology and beautiful facility make this an interesting experience even for those who know nothing about Scotch whisky. A highlight is the museum room, which houses one of the world’s largest whisky collections. There’s also an onsite restaurant, Amber, and a souvenir shop. 

Victoria Street 

Victoria Street is a curvaceous little way that winds down from Lawnmarket to the pub run of Grassmarket. Filled with colourful Victorian terraces, quirky shops, pocket-sized bars and delicious eateries, many hypothesize this picturesque street was the inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s Diagon Alley. Strolling this cobblestone street is on of the best things to do in Edinburgh. 

Tip: For the full Harry Potter experience, line-up to snoop through Museum Context, an official Harry Potter merch store with photo ops and themed displays. Get an alternative perspective of the street by climbing the hidden stairs to Victoria Terrace. Then, descend Victoria Street onto Grassmarket and climb the stairs across the street to Vennel Viewpoint for a beautifully framed picture of Edinburgh Castle – perfect for snapping some holiday photos. 

Cockburn Street 

Linking High Street to Waverley Station via a snaking cobblestone street, Cockburn Street was created in the 1850s and is lined by beautiful Scots Baronial-style sandstone buildings, delicious cafes, restaurants and bars. 

Dean Village

Scotland is home to countless picturesque neighbourhoods and Dean Village is one of the prettiest. Located a five-minute walk from Princes Street with easy access to the Water of Leith riverside walking trail, Dean Village dates back to the 12th century and was once a milling community until the Great Fire of 1824 tore through and destroyed most structures. Today, a quiet walk through Dean Village is one of the best things to do in Edinburgh, offering visitors scenic vistas of 19th-century architecture, cobblestone streets and centuries-old stone buildings. 

Top tip: You’ll get the best pictures of the village from the bridge crossing the river and from Hawthornbank Lane onto the Water of Leith walk. 

Dean Village in Edinburgh
Dean Village © Adobe Stock

Writers museum 

Hidden away down Lady Stair’s Close is an old-world courtyard. This is where you’ll find the Writer’s Museum, a free attraction that delves into the lives of Scotland’s most important writers, such as Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, through their personal items and manuscripts. The Writer’s Museum is housed within Lady Stair’s House, a beautiful and historic structure built in 1622. 

Scott monument 

The spire that towers over Princes Street Gardens is one of the first sights that many visitors see when arriving in Edinburgh. Dedicated to literary luminary Sir Walter Scott, the Scott Monument was built in 1846 and has a spiral staircase that visitors can climb for views over the city. 

Top top: If you’re in the area, stop in at Starbucks at 120 Princes Street and grab a seat upstairs to get an extraordinary view of the castle and Princes Street Gardens. Then, journey into the gardens to take a peek at the Ross Fountain. 

Greyfriars Kirkyard & Greyfriars Bobby

A historic site that dates back to the 16th century, Greyfriars Kirkyard displays some spectacular pieces of stonework and is believed to have inspired elements of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. The site has a reputation for being haunted, but is most famous for Greyfriar’s Bobby, a statue of a skye terrier who famously guarded his owner’s grave in the kirkyard for 14 years after his death. 

Greyfriar's Kirkyard Edinburgh
Greyfriar’s Kirkyard © Adobe Stock

Calton Hill 

With panoramic views of Edinburgh’s old and new towns, Arthur’s Seat and the Firth of Forth bridge, Calton Hill is a grassy slope with expansive lawns and is visited for its historic buildings and monuments. Here, you’ll find the National Monument, a replica of Athen’s Parthenon, Nelson’s Monument, the Dugald Stewart Monument and the City Observatory.

National  Museum of Scotland

A trip to the National Museum is one of the more educational things to do in Edinburgh. Housed within a Georgian sandstone building with Victorian-style interior architecture, the museum showcases elegant archways, decorative columns and high ceilings, as well as an intriguing collection of artefacts, specimens, artworks and models. Visitors will find exhibits on Scottish history, ancient Egyptians, Celts, Vikings and Romans, science and fashion. 

National Museum of Scotland
National Museum of Scotland © Adobe Stock/Anton Ivanov

The Real Mary King’s Close 

Buried beneath the bustling Royal Mile lies a secret passage to Edinburgh’s past: Mary King’s Close. Named after a 17th-century merchant, this historic alleyway is now preserved for visitors to explore the hidden depths of Old Town. Guided tours of The Real Mary King’s Close tell visitors tales about the residents of centuries past, from plague outbreaks to everyday life.

Arthur’s Seat

You can hike to the top of Edinburgh’s extinct volcano in around an hour. Delivering 360-degree vistas of the city and beyond, Arthur’s Seat is a natural gem steeped in myth and magic, with tales of fairies, dragons and rituals buried within its past. It’s an easily accessible escape from the bustle of the city. 

Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh
Arthur’s Seat © Adobe Stock

Camera Obscura 

While Camera Obscura gives ‘tourist trap’ vibes, the historic tower houses a mix of illusions and a one-of-a-kind camera obscura, offering a live ‘virtual tour’ of the city through a giant lens. It also has some pretty spectacular skyline views from the rooftop terrace. 

Tolbooth Tavern

If you’re looking for things to do in Edinburgh that combine food with history, quench your thirst and fill your belly with pub fare at Tolbooth Tavern. The imposing medieval sandstone building was once used to collect tolls from travellers entering the burgh as part of the Canongate Tolbooth built in 1591. Since then, it served as a council chamber, police court and prison until the ground floor was transformed into a public house in 1820.

Tolbooth Tavern in Edinburgh
Tolbooth Tavern © Adobe Stock/Fotokon

Edinburgh Dungeon

Similar to the attraction in London, Edinburgh Dungeon uses live actors, special effects and rides to take visitors through the city’s dark past. You’ll learn about plague doctors, body snatchers and it’s one of the things to do in Edinburgh that might actually entertain a surly teenager. 

Circus Lane 

Love quirky things to do in Edinburgh? Check out Circus Lane. This historic alleyway is lined with charming 19th-century mews houses, and was once home to posh stables and staff quarters. Snap a pic (it’s super Instagrammable) and explore the Stockbridge area nearby. 

Circus Lane Edinburgh
Circus Lane © Adobe Stock

Jupiter Artland

Jupiter Artland, a 100-acre contemporary sculpture park near Edinburgh, spans eight hectares of meadow, woodland, and indoor galleries. It features over 30 permanent site-specific sculptures and offers a seasonal program of curated exhibitions and events, providing a unique cultural experience.

Do a day trip to see a castle  

There are 13 castles within easy driving distance of Edinburgh.

  • Blackness Castle (the film location for Outlander)
  • Stirling Castle 
  • Linlithgow Palace
  • Craigmillar Castle 
  • Craigcrook Castle 
  • Lochend Castle 
  • Crichton Castle 
  • Borthwick Castle 
  • Rosslyn castle 
  • Lauriston Castle 
  • Carlowrie Castle 
  • Dalhousie Castle 
  • Preston Tower 

Spot an Outlander film location

The smash-hit historical television show about a time-travelling woman and her love for a 17th-century Scotsman was filmed in many locations across Scotland, and you can find some of them in Edinburgh and within a few hours’ drive of the city.

Outlander film locations in Edinburgh

  • Tweeddale Court appeared as an 18th-century street in season three
  • Bakehouse Close was reimagined as Carfax Close, where Jamie’s print shop was, in season three
  • Summerhall anatomy lecture theatre appeared as Claire’s Boston classroom in season three
  • Craigmillar Castle was used to film Ardsmuir Prison in season three

Outlander film locations around Edinburgh

  • Newhailes House was used as Governor Tryon’s house in season four
  • Hopetoun House was used as Duke Sandringham’s home in season one
  • Midhope Castle is the famous Lallybroch homestead used throughout the series
  • Blackness Castle was used for filming Fort William scenes in season one and two
  • Linlithgow Palace was used for filming scenes of Wentworth Prison in season one
  • The historic village of Culross formed the backdrop of Cranesmuir in season one and two
  • Doune Castle stood in for Castle Leoch in season one
  • Falkland in Fife starred as the 1950’s version of Inverness in season one
Midhope Castle
Midhope Castle © Adobe Stock

Stop for a snack 

If you’re looking for an almost-Australian breakfast menu, fantastic coffee, a budget-friendly bite or food market, try one of these. 
The Milkman: You’ll find the best coffee at The Milkman (even by Australian standards), which has two shopfront on Cockburn Street. 
Laila: This aesthetically pleasing pastel pink cafe perched on Cockburn Street serves up a delicious breakfast and Mediterranean classics.  
Snax: Serving up cheap eats such as toasted paninis, sandwiches and traditional British breakfast fare, Snax Cafe is the perfect place for a pocket-friendly breakfast or lunch. You’ll find one on each Buccleuch and Register Streets. 
ESF: Edinburgh Street Food: This funky indoor food market has an alfresco area and indoor seating, with an array of local traders slinging all types of international fare, from Detroit-style pizzas and Mexican food to burgers, bao buns, pasta, and desserts. 

Read more: 
A journey through the Scottish Highlands
10 of the best photo spots in Scotland
Onboard the Royal Scotsman

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