The Best Things to do in Edinburgh, Scotland

The 15 Best Things to do in Edinburgh, Scotland

Few British cities capture the imagination quite as much as Edinburgh. There’s a reason this timeless Scottish capital should be on every traveler’s bucket list! To inspire your next trip, we’ve put together our list of the top things to do in Edinburgh.

Start with a stroll along the famous Royal Mile, the historic highway that connects Edinburgh’s fearsome 11th-century castle with the regal refinery of Holyrood Palace. You’ll hear bagpipes playing, see tartan kilts for sale, and find pubs a-plenty as you explore Edinburgh’s most famous thoroughfare. 

You can stop for a dram or two of Scotch, or book a tour of the Scotch Whisky Experience to indulge in Scotland’s finest export, or you can plan an active weekend getaway by hiking to the top of Arthur’s Seat (an extinct volcano) for the best views of Edinburgh! Don’t forget to visit the National Museum of Scotland to learn more about the nation. And when you need a break from urban life, Edinburgh’s stunning seaside is never far away. 

But a trip to Scotland’s capital city is as much about experiencing its cultural events as it is about ticking off those Edinburgh sightseeing attractions. Visit in the summer, and you can throw yourself headfirst into the world-renowned Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Arrive in the winter, and you’ve got all the splendor of a Christmas in Edinburgh, plus the fiery events of Hogmanay – the Scottish New Year – to contend with! 

With so many exciting things to see and do in Edinburgh, you might not know where to begin your trip. That’s why we decided to compile our list of the absolute best things to do in Edinburgh to help you make the most of your Scottish vacation. Stick to these fun and unique Edinburgh bucket list recommendations, and there’s no doubt you’ll have an amazing time in Scotland’s capital!

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The 15 Best Things to do in Edinburgh

1. Walk the Royal Mile

Cool Things to do in Edinburgh: Royal Mile

The Royal Mile is Scotland’s most famous street, and we highly recommend making this the first stop on any Edinburgh sightseeing itinerary. This long, often cobbled thoroughfare is one of the most famous Edinburgh attractions, and it extends for one “Scottish Mile” from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace.

This is the best place to start your trip, and you can walk the Royal Mile from or to the castle, stopping off along the way at unique museums, traditional taverns, and historic sights and attractions. If you start at the eastern end of the Royal Mile, you’ll begin your walk at the British monarchy’s official Scottish residence, Holyrood Palace. You’ll soon walk past the modern Scottish Parliament Building, the medieval buildings of Canongate, and the Museum of Edinburgh

Keep strolling, and you’ll reach the Gothic spires of St Giles’ Cathedral, and soon enough, the road will begin to turn uphill as you near Edinburgh’s 11th-century castle. You can walk right up Castlehill, through the historic gates of the fortress, to end your journey with sweeping views over the city from the castle towers! 

We should warn you: the Royal Mile is just about as touristy as it gets in Edinburgh. But we know you’re going to love listening to bagpipers, spotting traditional tartan in the shops, and hunting for souvenirs as you take in the historic surroundings around you. 

2. Get Historical at the National Museum of Scotland

Fun Things to do in Edinburgh: National Museum of Scotland

If you’d love to learn more about Scotland’s rich history, then there’s no better place to learn than the National Museum of Scotland. You’ll find Scotland’s premier museum on Chambers Street, overlooking the learned buildings of the University of Edinburgh just a few blocks back from the Royal Mile. 

The National Museum of Scotland merges history and archaeology with natural history, technology, and culture to tell the fascinating tale of Scotland’s past, present, and future. Start in the Grand Gallery, where you’ll find the aptly named Window on the World. This is a collection of hundreds of objects from around the world. Together, they provide a brief insight into the collections that await you inside the galleries themselves. 

Move into the Discoveries Gallery, and you’ll learn about the famous Scots who helped shape Scottish and world history, while in the Natural World Galleries, you’ll be amazed by the fossils and reconstructions of prehistoric creatures that once roamed the Scottish highlands. 

There are galleries devoted to fashion, as well as exhibits focused on medicine, communication, transport, and so much more awaiting you at the National Museum of Scotland. With so much to see and do, we think this excellent museum is up there as one of the top things to do in Edinburgh!

3. Stand on the Ramparts of Edinburgh Castle

Best Things to do in Edinburgh: Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle is easily one of the must-do things in Edinburgh, and we won’t be surprised if it’s already at the top of your bucket list. This is one of the most important and dramatic sights in Scotland, and you can’t miss the castle’s imposing turrets and gatehouses as they stand high above the city on top of a craggy volcanic rock. 

Edinburgh Castle has stood guard over the city (and Scotland) since the 11th century, but Castle Rock has been inhabited since at least the Iron Age. The castle was often the scene of fierce battles throughout the Middle Ages (generally between the English and Scots). Even today, parts of the fortress remain under the control of the British Army, who also operate a number of intriguing military museums inside the castle grounds.

You can enter the castle through its enormous gatehouse after walking along the Royal Mile and up Castlehill. Once inside, you’ll find an endless number of towers, turrets, walls, and gun batteries to visit. Although, we recommend joining a castle tour to really bring the fascinating history of Edinburgh Castle to life! 

Take a tour and skip the line!

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4. Feel Like Royalty at Holyrood Palace

Cool Things to do in Edinburgh: Holyrood Palace

You’ll find Holyrood Palace at the opposite end of the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle. You’ll definitely want to make sure this historic royal residence is high up on your Edinburgh bucket list! You’ll love how Holyrood Palace is the official residence of Queen Elizabeth II when she’s visiting Scotland, although luckily, the palace is still open to visitors all year round. 

Holyrood Palace has the feel of a grand countryside estate, although it’s firmly in the center of Edinburgh city. Take a tour of the palace, and you’ll see the ruins of Holyrood Abbey in the gardens. The abbey dates back to the 12th century, while the palace that you see today was mostly built in the 16th century when it became home to the Scottish (and then British) monarchs. 

Holyrood Palace has seen some of Britain’s most famous (and infamous) historical figures pass through its hallways. You can see the rooms of Mary Queen of Scots, who spent time here before being forced to abdicate. You can explore the courtrooms and great halls of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the grand thrones commissioned by King George V, and the State Apartments of the current royal family (when they aren’t staying here, of course). 

Get your Entry Ticket

5. Take a Tour of the Scottish Parliament Building

What to do in Edinburgh: Scottish Parliament Building

Adjacent to Holyrood Palace, you can find one of Scotland’s most important contemporary buildings. You’ll spot the unique modern design of the Scottish Parliament Building – which contrasts wonderfully with the historic architecture of the city – from a royal mile away. Plus, depending on when you visit, you may even be able to join a guided tour to see inside.

Scotland’s Parliament Building was opened in 2004. This was a few years after Scotland was granted devolution from London when the Scottish people were given the power to elect an assembly in Edinburgh. It was a historic moment for the proud people of Scotland, and the parliament building was designed to embrace Scotland’s modern, forward-looking identity. 

Guided tours are free of charge, and they allow you to visit the debating chambers, committee rooms, the Garden Lobby, and much more. You’ll be given insider info on what happens inside the Scottish parliament, as well as a whistle-stop tour through centuries of Scottish politics!

6. Hike to the Summit of Arthur’s Seat

Edinburgh Things to do: Hike to the Summit of Arthur’s Seat

You’ll love how easy it is to escape the city when you’re exploring Edinburgh. Make it to Holyrood Palace, at the end of the Royal Mile, and you’ll find yourself in almost open countryside. This is the expansive Holyrood Park, and right in the middle of it is an extinct volcanic peak known to locals as Arthur’s Seat.

The old volcano rises some 820 feet (250 meters) above sea level, creating one of the best viewpoints in Edinburgh. Hike through the royal park, and you can follow the winding trail, which gently encircles the hill and slowly rises to the summit. It’s a beautiful walk, and you’ll have increasingly fantastic views as you near the summit.

Set off from Holyrood Palace, and the hike to the top should take no more than 30 minutes if you’re in reasonable shape. The path is easy to follow, and given that Arthur’s Seat is the highest point around, there’s not much chance of getting lost!

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7. Enjoy the View from Calton Hill

Cool Things to do in Edinburgh: View from Calton Hill

Just north of the Royal Mile and Edinburgh Waverley Station, you’ll find Calton Hill, and at the top, one of the best views of the city. 

Calton Hill is also known as Edinburgh’s Acropolis because the summit is home to some of Scotland’s most important memorials and monuments. Calton Hill is studded with beautiful architecture, and you’ll see the Nelson Monument standing proudly alongside the Observatory when you make it to the summit. 

Much of the unique architecture was inspired by Greek architecture of the ancient world. That’s why the hill is called the Acropolis and why you’ll see vast Grecian columns rising upwards. These columns are part of the National Monument, a Victorian memorial that was dedicated to the memory of soldiers lost in battle, but a memorial that was never finished. 

While the monuments, memorials, and Greco-Roman architecture of Calton Hill are worth the walk themselves, the panoramas should seal the deal and put this high up on your list of things to do in Edinburgh! From Calton Hill, you’ll have sweeping views over Edinburgh’s historic Old Town, including the Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle. You’ll also be able to see Holyrood Palace and Arthur’s Seat, and on a clear day, the North Sea! 

8. Go Shopping on Victoria Street

Must do things in Edinburgh: Shopping on Victoria Street

Victoria Street is easily one of the most photographed streets in Edinburgh. We’re sure you’ll recognize the signature curve and colorful terraced buildings as soon as you step foot here! 

Victoria Street is known for its gradual, downward spiral, as it meanders through Edinburgh’s Old Town and draws in tourists and locals alike through the day and night. 

Victoria Street dates back to the 1830s, and you’ll love the stunning Victorian architecture that rises gracefully from the cobblestone streets. This is a street that’s packed with character and history. You can easily spend hours browsing through boutique shops before stopping off for a few refreshments in the buzzing pubs and cafes that line Victoria Street. 

9. Drink a Dram or Two at the Scotch Whisky Experience

Best Things to do in Edinburgh: Scotch Whisky Experience

Do you love a good Scotch whisky? Then we’re happy to say you’re in the right city! While you can find excellent and authentic Scotch in any good pub, bar, or restaurant in Edinburgh, you have to visit the dedicated Scotch Whisky Experience to try the best. 

You’ll find the Scotch Whisky Experience on the Royal Mile, just outside Edinburgh Castle. Inside, you’ll be taken on a fun journey through the history of Scotch and the production process. There’s even a whisky barrel ride that spins you around the experience! 

You’ll have the chance to admire the world’s largest collection of whisky before having the opportunity to sample some of the finest whiskies from across Scotland in the tasting bar. If that’s not enough, you can sign up for an intense one-day training course at the Experience’s Scotch Whisky School, where you’ll learn everything you could ever need to know about Scotch! 

Book your Scotch Whisky Experience Tour

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10. Tour Through Edinburgh’s Best Gin Distilleries

Unique Things to do in Edinburgh: Best Gin Distilleries
Images courtesy of Pickering’s Gin Distillery

Scotch whisky might be Scotland’s most famous alcoholic export, but did you know that Edinburgh is also home to some of the UK’s best gin distilleries? 

If you love a good gin and tonic, you’ll find them in spades in Edinburgh because craft gin is huge in this city! The most famous distillery in Edinburgh is the aptly named Edinburgh Gin Distillery, a locally run boutique producer of quality craft gins that have recently begun to take over the world! 

You can see where it all began with a tour of the Edinburgh Gin Distillery’s production facilities, followed, of course, by some delectable tastings of their craft gins and gin liqueurs. 

If you’re a real gin connoisseur, you’ll also want to take a tour of Pickering’s Gin Distillery. This distillery’s Gin Jolly Tours are an Edinburgh classic, and you’ll be shown how the team lovingly handcrafts their boutique gins before enjoying a guided gin and tonic tasting session in the bar. 

11. Have a Bite to Eat of Haggis and Neeps

What to do in Edinburgh: Haggis and Neeps

After all that walking (and all those whiskies and gins), we suspect that you might be starting to feel hungry! 

Don’t worry, because there’s lots of good eating to be had in Edinburgh. If it’s your first time in Scotland, then you’ll need to start with the classics. That’s haggis and neeps, with the infamous deep-fried Mars bar for dessert! You’ll find haggis in all good pubs and deep-fried Mars bars in many takeaway shops. 

But Edinburgh’s dining scene is much, much more varied and refined than this. The city is one of the UK’s most exciting culinary destinations, and we have more recommendations than you could ever hope to try on one vacation alone! 

If you love pork sandwiches, then head to Oink, Edinburgh’s famous hog roast diner. For fish and chips, The Fishmarket Newhaven is always a winner, while Pickles is highly regarded for its chutneys and charcuterie boards. 

For fine pub-style dining, you can enjoy The Scran & Scallie’s gastro-take on pub classics. Or, for an atmospheric, gourmet, and romantic meal, we suggest reserving a table at the medieval-inspired The Witchery by the Castle

12. Explore Edinburgh’s Subterranean Underworld

If you’re looking for a spooky adventure, there’s a hidden, subterranean underworld waiting to be explored below the city! 

The Edinburgh Vaults are an extensive network of manmade caverns and tunnels, which were built in the 18th century. If you join a dedicated “ghost tour” of the vaults, you’ll learn how they were originally used as storehouses and workshops before taking on more nefarious uses. 

By the 19th century, the vaults had become notorious haunts of criminal activity, with many of Edinburgh’s poorest residents using the underground caves as slums. Legends and dark stories began to brew, and you can find out all about the harrowing characters who lived here and the bloody events that took place below the city on a guided, nighttime tour of the vaults. 

Go on an Underground Vaults Tour

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13. Attend the Largest Arts Festival in the World

Edinburgh Bucket List: Largest Arts Festival in the World

Visit Edinburgh in August, and you’ll find that the city has been taken over by the world’s largest arts festival! August is when the city plays host to the epic Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and it’s the most exciting time to be in Edinburgh! 

For almost the entire month of August, Edinburgh’s streets are filled with musicians, performers, and entertainers, while every pub and venue in the city is packed with bands and comedians vying to draw in the crowds with their routines and performances. 

The festival isn’t just for big names (although there are always a few in the lineup). Budding performers from around the world flock to Edinburgh to embrace the opportunity to make a name for themselves. There’s something here for everyone, and whether you enjoy watching standup comedy or have a passion for Shakespeare, you’re guaranteed to find a show you love every night throughout the Edinburgh Fringe. 

Festival dates can vary year to year, but generally, the first events begin toward the end of the first week in August and then run until the end of the month. There are so many different acts and events to see during the Edinburgh Fringe, and each show will have its own runtime and dates within this. You can check out the upcoming schedules on the Edinburgh Fringe website to help you plan your trip to the festival! 

14. Celebrate Hogmanay in Edinburgh

Edinburgh Bucket List: Celebrate Hogmanay

The Scots know how to throw a party, and one of the best times to be in Edinburgh is the New Year. Edinburgh’s New Year’s Eve celebrations are like nowhere else in the world because for the Scots, this is Hogmanay.

Hogmanay is the name given to the last day of the year in Scotland (New Year’s Eve, in other words), and the traditions have their roots in the ancient Gaelic and Norse cultures that still influence modern Scotland today. 

Hogmanay isn’t your usual New Year’s Eve party, and in Edinburgh, you can see long torch-lit processions in the streets, which often end with the burning of a Viking longship. There are fireworks too, of course, and you can expect music and drinks until the early hours of the New Year!

Hogmanay celebrations and events also take place in the days leading up to the New Year, from December 29 onwards. The New Year celebrations are the end of the long festive period in Edinburgh, and you’ll find Christmas markets and cheer throughout the Scottish capital all through December. 

15. Escape to the Seaside 

Unique Things to do in Edinburgh: Escape to the Seaside

When you’re strolling through Edinburgh’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed old town, it’s easy to forget that this is very much a coastal city. You’re never too far from the Firth of Forth – a wide estuary leading inland – and the North Sea, and if you’re visiting in the summer, you can even take a dip in the water! 

Leith, where you’ll find the Forth Lock and one of Edinburgh’s most iconic waterfronts, is just a 10-minute drive from the city center, but you could make a night of it and stay on a repurposed yacht in the harbor. 

A little further afield is Portobello Beach, where you can enjoy a beautiful stretch of golden sands in front of a Victorian-style esplanade. Beaches abound all along the coast, and we think you’ll agree that a seaside escape is one of the best things to do in Edinburgh! 

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There you have it! The 15 best things to do in Edinburgh. What’s your favorite thing to do in Edinburgh?

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