11 Best Things to See and Do in Edinburgh

By: Tom Honeyman

Edinburgh, situated on the Firth of Forth on the east coast, is Scotland’s capital city and grabs the attention of travelers and tourists alike.  With the famous castle perched on its basalt shelf at the heart of the town, peering over the New Town to the north and the Old Town to the south, Edinburgh is one of the world’s most visually stunning cities.  It was the epicenter of the Scottish Enlightenment in the 18th century and has a rich literary and philosophical history.  Edinburgh remains one of Europe’s cultural and artistic centers, described perfectly by the author Alexander McCall Smith as; “A city so beautiful it breaks the heart again and again.”


11. Victoria Street, The Grassmarket and The Cowgate

Tucked away behind the Royal Mile is Victoria Street.  A beautiful collection of colorful craft shops, galleries and restaurant fronts, sat on a cobbled slope which gives way to the expanse of The Grassmarket.  In this area, it’s not easy to choose where to eat or drink as the choice is pretty comprehensive.  Once you’ve made your decision, many of the pubs offer live music indoors, or a view of the Castle towering overhead outdoors.  If you’re on a tighter budget, go along the Cowgate to check out the backpacker hostels.  The bars don’t stop either, Dropkick Murphys on Merchant Street just behind the Cowgate is ideal for a drink or 2 (or 3 or 4…).

trotalo / Shutterstock.com
trotalo / Shutterstock.com

10. Explore Stockbridge and the Royal Botanic Gardens

Stockbridge is an easy 15 minute walk from the city center, as it’s at the bottom of a big hill at the northern end of the New Town.  Treat yourself to a delicious cupcake from Cuckoos Bakery at the bottom of Dundas Street, and head along Henderson Row and Hamilton place, perhaps stopping at one of the gastro-pubs on the way.  A further 10 minute walk takes you to the Royal Botanic Gardens, which contains one of the world’s largest collections of living plants.   If you happen to be there in spring, try and catch the famous rhododendrons coming into bloom, and if the weather turns nasty nip indoors to one of the many  glasshouse displays, the Gateway Restaurant or the Terrace Café.  Admission to the glasshouse is £5 or about $8 USD, seasonal opening hours apply.

Royal Botanic Garden Edniburgh

9. The University of Edinburgh and The Meadows

Edinburgh university was founded in 1583 and, along with the universities of Glasgow, Aberdeen and St. Andrews, is one of Scotland’s four ancient universities.  The main university campus sits on the Southside, about a 20 minute walk from the Royal Mile, and beside a large green space called The Meadows.  A very popular student hang-out for BBQs and alfresco refreshments in early summer, it takes about an hour or two to saunter round the parks tree lined pathways.  Close by is Teviot Row House, one of the university’s student union buildings which, since 1889, is the oldest purpose-built student union in the world.  Inside, The Library bar lays on reasonably priced food and drinks in an ornate and cozy setting.

University of Edinburgh

8. The National Museum of Scotland

The museum is located on Chambers Street in the Old Town, and is an amalgamation of the Royal Museum and the Museum of Scotland.  Re-opened after the last of a series of refurbishments in 2011, the two architecturally contrasting buildings stand side by side to complete the museum.  The collection includes areas dedicated to natural history, European art, world cultures and science and technology.  Notable displays include flags raised at the Battle of Culloden in 1745, and Dolly the cloned Sheep – stuffed of course.  Regular opening hours are 10am – 5pm daily.  Entry is free, and donations are accepted.

Brendan Howard / Shutterstock.com
Brendan Howard / Shutterstock.com


7. Princes Street Gardens

Running almost the full length of Princes Street in the city center, and sandwiched against the castle are the gardens.  The gardens were created in the 19th century after the draining of Nor Loch, which was used as a defense for the castle, and are ideal for a peaceful walk or seat away from the busy street level meters above.  From mid-November until Christmas, the eastern section of the gardens are transformed by a European-themed market, with food stands, mulled wine bars and outdoor ice rink.  Also set up is a 108 foot (33 meter) Ferris wheel, which allows a fantastic view of the festivities below.

Princes Street Gardens

6. Edinburgh Castle

The jewel in the crown, Edinburgh Castle sits proud atop castle rock and is visible from even the outskirts of the city.  The spot where the castle stands today has been in use since the Iron Age when a fort sat on its defensive position.  Through the years it has been through battles, sieges, housed royalty and military.  Today the castle is Edinburgh’s most famous tourist attraction and contains the Crown Jewels, The Stone of Destiny and the 1 o’clock gun – fired everyday but Sunday.  Make sure you don’t miss the views of Edinburgh from the battlements.  Adult entry is £16 or about $26 USD.

Edinburgh Castle

5. Walk/ Explore the City

For a city of close to half a million inhabitants, Edinburgh maintains a remarkable ‘small town’ feeling, and is a marvelous city to simply meander through.  Start in the winding alleys of the medieval Old Town, cross North Bridge, past the ornate and imposing Balmoral Hotel, into the Georgian grid of the New Town.  Both areas of the city have been UNESCO world heritage sites since 1995 and are easily manageable to navigate in a day.  If you don’t trust your map reading skills, or would like a bit of extra information about the sights as you go, free walking tours depart daily from the Tron Kirk on the Royal Mile.

Edinburgh street

4. Drink Whisky

The whisky industry is worth more than £4.25 billion to the UK economy, and a trip to the capital wouldn’t be compete without sampling some of Scotland’s most famous export.  A great place to start is The Scotch Whiskey Experience on Castlehill, right at the gates of the castle.  Tours are available for all levels of experience, from tasting novice to seasoned connoisseur.  Learn about the whisky making process from the comfort of your very own barrel, as it flies through a mock-up brewery, before finding out what should be your scotch of choice based on your particular tastes.  Tours run daily and start at £13.50 or about $22 USD.

Scottish Whiskey distillery

3. Watch the Sunrise from Salisbury Crags

In Scotland’s summertime, the sun rises early.  In winter, it’s a bit on the cold side.  Whatever comfort you sacrifice to make the climb, the view you’ll get of the sun rising over the Firth of Forth will be well worth it.  The Crags are part of a collection of hills with the highest point on the extinct volcano Arthur’s Seat, situated in Holyrood Park. If you’re feeling up to the hike, the panoramic views of Edinburgh from the peak of Arthur’s Seat are stunning, with the Forth Bridges and The Kingdom of Fife stretching north into the distance, and the unmistakable Scottish Parliament buildings and Holyrood Palace – the official residence of the Queen in Scotland – closer by.  The 260 hectare park is in the center of Edinburgh, easily accessible at the east end of the Royal Mile.

Salisbury Crags


2. Ring in the New Year

Hogmanay – as New Year’s Eve is known in Scotland – is a big date in everyone’s calendar, and nowhere in the UK does it bigger than Edinburgh.  Hundreds of thousands of revelers flock to the city center as Princes Street and the surrounding area hosts one of world’s biggest street parties.  There are numerous stages for live music performances:   The main stage, located in the Gardens, draws big name acts from the UK and beyond, whilst on the Mound you can hear traditional Scottish dance tunes blaring from the ceilidh stage, with no shortage of traditional Scottish dance moves to go along with them.  When midnight comes, the sky is an explosion of color as crowds are treated to one of the best fireworks shows they’ll ever see, set off from the castle high above.

New Year's Eve

1. Visit During the Edinburgh Festival

The Edinburgh Festival, or The Fringe as it’s also known, happens for 3 weeks every August.  The population of the city doubles in size and every spare courtyard, empty room, doorway or street corner is turned into a stage, concert or bar.  Household names, breakthrough acts and relative unknowns perform comedy, music, theater, cabaret, spoken word and more at over 250 venues throughout Edinburgh.  Check out the Pleasance for an evening show and a drink at the pop-up courtyard bar.  Visit the Udderbelly venue – a massive purple tent shaped like an upside-down cow – in Bristo Square, and enjoy a pint outside on The Pasture bar.  Do your best to catch some cabaret at The Famous Spiegeltent. In 2013, 2,871 shows were performed 45,464 times, making it the largest arts festival on earth.

jan kranendonk / Shutterstock.com
jan kranendonk / Shutterstock.com