The list of the best things to do in Edinburgh generally starts with enjoying the city’s remarkable sights. The stunning architecture is often the first thing to strike people. The grand Gothic landmarks and cobbled streets in the Old Town make Scotland’s capital a strong contender for prettiest city in the UK. But it also has a dark side, with tales of witches and grand battles throughout its history. It’s often a good idea to take a guided walk to learn more about Edinburgh's myths and legends.

    The city centre is quite small but it’s also steep. You’ll be getting a good workout as you climb the streets of the Royal Mile in the Old Town. It’s best seen in summer, when festivals take place throughout the city and you can explore the gardens and natural spaces that can be found all over Edinburgh.

    What are the best things to do in Edinburgh?

    1

    The Royal Mile

    Discover many of Edinburgh’s most famous landmarks

    This steep street in Edinburgh Old Town captures the essence of the city. It’s central to the history of Scotland’s capital as well as the heart of the tourist trade. Historic monuments are pretty much wherever you look, including St. Giles’ Cathedral, Holyroodhouse Palace, and Edinburgh Castle at the top of the hill. Scattered in between, you’ll find souvenir shops, quaint pubs, and a hive of activity. 

    This small area of the city used to charge a toll to get in and out, which meant that the very poorest people were effectively trapped in. Joining a walking tour is the best way to find out more about its fascinating history.

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    Location: Royal Mile, Edinburgh, UK

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    2

    Edinburgh Castle

    Visit the Throne Room to see Scotland’s Crown Jewels

    Edinburgh Castle looms over the city, from its strategic location on top of Castle Rock. There has been a castle standing here for over a millennium. It’s one of the oldest castles in the UK and, like a lot of Edinburgh, its history is both fascinating and grisly. 

    Take a tour through the castle and learn about daring night sieges and fierce battles against the English. The Great Hall has held countless royal ceremonies throughout the centuries, and as you walk through the grand drawing rooms, you can feel the sense of prestige in the air. 

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    Location: Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2NG, UK

    Open: Daily from 9.30 am to 5 pm

    Phone: +44 (0)131 225 9846

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    3

    National Museum of Scotland

    Learn about Scotland’s rich heritage

    The National Museum of Scotland houses a reputed 12 million items, covering everything from nature, art, design, and technology. Regular scheduled events also take place at the museum, which could be a fashion show or an interview with an astronaut. The Grand Gallery is an impressive space. The tall atrium has a glass roof which floods the building with light, and large exhibit hang from the ceiling. 

    The Museum of Scotland is free to enter although donations are welcome. To make the most of your visit, download the National Museums Scotland app called Highlights, which adds added relevance to the exhibits. It’s available in 4 languages.

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    Location: Chambers St, Edinburgh EH1 1JF, UK

    Open: Daily from 10 am to 5 pm

    Phone: +44 (0)300 123 6789

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    4

    Arthur’s Seat

    See Edinburgh from the best viewpoint in the city

    At over 820 ft tall, Arthur’s Seat is hardly an epic hike, but it offers a panoramic sweep across all of Edinburgh. It takes about 1 hour to walk to the summit. Start your walk from Holyrood Palace.

    Some say the name is in reference to King Arthur and that this hill was once Camelot, and while that’s probably just a myth, the area does have an aura of something special. Prehistoric remains have been found all around this area. Be careful of walking if rain is forecast, it’s exposed to the elements and can get very windy. 

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    5

    Calton Hill

    A romantic vantage point with stunning sunset views

    At 103 metres tall, Calton Hill is one of the highest points in Edinburgh. It’s also a great place to enjoy a romantic sunset as hues of orange and purple dance off the cityscape, the Water of Leith and landmarks like Edinburgh Castle and the unfinished yet iconic National Monument. Other monuments atop Calton Hill include Nelson Monument and the Dugald Stewart Monument.

    We recommend ascending to the top of Calton Hill at least 1 hour before sunset to make sure you can get a seat. After admiring the view, explore the neighbourhood at the bottom of the hill. You’ll find attractions such as the Palace of Holyrood as well as several vibrant bars at its foot.

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    Location: Edinburgh EH7 5AA, UK

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    6

    Palace of Holyroodhouse

    Explore the monarch's official residence in Scotland

    The Palace of Holyroodhouse is a massive royal residence dating back to the 17th century where you can see a magnificent exterior and detailed apartments inside. Inside, you'll find a Baroque ceiling and Italian paintings on the wall, one of which dates back to 1550. On the grounds, you'll find additional sights to explore, like the statue of Edward VII. One of the most iconic aspects of this palace is the intricately designed Forecourt Fountain. You can see it all on the Royal Mile on the opposite side from Edinburgh Castle.

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    Location: Canongate, Edinburgh EH8 8DX, UK

    Open: Thursday–Monday from 9.30 am to 4.30 pm (closed Tuesday–Wednesday)

    Phone: +44 (0)3031 237306

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    7

    Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh

    Friendly wildlife and bucolic gardens

    The Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh, founded in 1670, really comes into bloom in summer. The Queen Mother’s Memorial Garden is split into 4 distinct areas of the world, with plants from Asia, Europe, North America, and the southern hemisphere. Look out for special summer events, such as guided walks with expert horticulturists and botanical art courses.

    Hungry ducks will swim up for bread at the large duck pond, a kids’ highlight of these bucolic gardens. Enter the vast Victorian glasshouse, where little ones can try to spot the lemons among the trees, or red pompoms flowers in the Rainforest House.

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    Location: Arboretum Pl, Edinburgh EH3 5NZ, UK

    Open: March–September: daily from 10 am to 5 pm. October and February: daily from 10 am to 4 pm. November–January: daily from 10 am to 3 pm

    Phone: +44 (0)131 248 2909

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    8

    Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

    See masterpieces of modern art

    The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is a museum with collections of modern and contemporary art that dates back to 1900. The museum has 2 adjacent buildings that house over 6,000 paintings, sculptures, art installations, video, drawings and prints. The first building, Modern One, features European art from the early 20th century and special highlights from artists like Matisse and Picasso, as well as rotating exhibitions. The second building, Modern Two, is home to world-class exhibitions of surrealism from Dali and Magritte, Dada works and early 20th-century artists and Scottish artists.

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    Location: 75 Belford Rd, Edinburgh EH4 3DR, UK

    Open: Thursday–Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm, closed Monday to Wednesday

    Phone: +44 131-624-6200

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    9

    Scott Monument

    Climb to the top of this elegant Victorian landmark

    This iconic Gothic monument is a tribute to Sir Walter Scott, the famed novelist of Ivanhoe and Rob Roy, among many other novels and poems. This Victorian structure is the centrepiece to Princes St Gardens in the city centre. Standing 61 metres tall, there are several viewing platforms reached by a spiral staircase going up the central spire. Keep your eyes open for 64 statues placed on Scott Monument, all of which relate to characters from Scott’s novels.

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    Location: E. Princes St Gardens, Edinburgh EH2 2EJ, UK

    Open: Daily from 10 am to 4 pm (open until 7 pm in the summer)

    Phone: +44 (0)131 529 4068

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    10

    Leith

    Edinburgh's dockland is a cool, up-and-coming neighbourhood

    Leith, 3 miles north of Edinburgh city centre, is a coastal neighbourhood with lots to explore. The Royal Yacht Britannia is moored here, and you can explore the former floating residence of Queen Elizabeth II, complete with an audio guide.

    The old worn-out docks of Leith have been given a new life, with new waterfront developments bringing fancy restaurants and boutiques to the area. The largest shopping mall in Edinburgh, Ocean Terminal, is also in Leith. It’s the best place to shop in the city. Every Saturday, Leith Market is set up at Dock Place, offering artisanal food and fashion.

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    11

    Edinburgh Festival Fringe

    Have a giggle at a stand-up comedy show

    The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is one of the leading arts and comedy festivals in the world. The month-long festival runs throughout August every year and features up-and-coming artists, along with a few already-famous ones. The Edinburgh Fringe is known for unearthing the next generation of talent. You might see anything from stand-up comedy to ballet – all art forms are welcome.

    Gigs and live shows are held in hundreds of different venues throughout Edinburgh, from Old Town pubs to pop-up tents, and even out on the streets. Head to the Royal Mile and see artists trying to drum up business for the next performance. 

    Location: Held at hundreds of different venues throughout August

    12

    The Scotch Whisky Experience

    Sample some single malt Scotch and learn about how it’s made

    Few things are more Scottish than a glass of whisky. This tour, located on the Royal Mile, is a great introduction to the world of whisky. There’s an interactive whisky barrel ride that whisks you through the stages of production, an explanation of the aromas, and you get to taste the finished product (under-18s are given Irn-Bru as a substitute). Audio guides are available. There’s a restaurant onsite called Amber that serves locally sourced dishes, including haggis. Try the Taste of Scotland menu, which presents the best of Scotland’s seasonal produce.

    For real whisky connoisseurs, book the Masterclass package. It includes a tasting session after the tour, which introduces classic drams from the 4 whisky-producing regions of Scotland. You are sure to walk away with a greater appreciation of the famed drink.

    Location: The Royal Mile, 354 Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2NE, UK

    Open: Daily from 10 am to 6 pm

    Phone: +44 (0)131 220 0441

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    Paul Smith | Compulsive Traveller

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