From window shopping to museums to castles, Edinburgh has it all. Here are 15+ things to do in Edinburgh that you absolutely can’t miss out on!
Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh, deserves a spot on your bucket list. Between its rich history, stunning architecture, and plethora of museums and shops, there is so much to do and see here. What initially drew me to Edinburgh was my dear friend, Flora. We met while studying abroad in Freiburg, Germany and we’ve remained close friends over the years. Flora grew up in Edinburgh, so I was able to stay with her and her family.
Seeing Edinburgh with a local as a guide was such a unique experience. I’ve not been back to Edinburgh since that trip, but I plan on revisiting someday soon. Although it’s a smaller city (compared to the likes of Rome or Paris, I mean) there truly are SO many things to do and see in Ednburgh, Scotland. I think I could return again and again and never get bored of this beautiful place!
Below you’ll find 15+ of my favorite things to do in Edinburgh and I’ve tried to include a few things that you won’t find on the usual Trip Advisor lists. If there’s anything I’ve forgotten to share, please let me know in the comments!
1. Visit Edinburgh Castle
Perched strategically atop a large rock, Edinburgh Castle is arguably the most popular Edinburgh attraction. Long before it was home to kings and queens, it was the site of a well-defended fort in the Iron Age. Edinburgh Castle was a bustling royal residence in the Middle Ages, then from the 1650’s onwards it became a military base. It’s thought to be the most besieged place in Great Britain and has been a much sought after stronghold for centuries.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Edinburgh Castle (although I preferred Holyrood Palace, more on that in a bit). Highlights of your visit include seeing St. Margaret’s Chapel (the oldest building in Edinburgh), the six ton siege gun called Mons Meg, the beautifully preserved Great Hall, and more.
Tip: Visit the castle as early in the day as possible. It gets incredibly crowded, especially if you’re visiting when the Fringe festival is going on.
2. Visit Holyrood Palace
Holyrood Palace is still used by Queen Elizabeth, and she stays in it for one week every summer (she apparently throws a phenomenal garden party while she’s in town). The palace is decked out to the extreme, and while there I found myself googling how much a solid silver chandelier would cost (quite a lot, unsurprisingly). The dining room was easily my favorite room in the entire palace, but I also enjoyed touring the rooms of Mary, Queen of Scots.
After the tour of the palace itself was over, I walked out the back and was shocked to find myself in the remains of Holyrood Abbey. In all my research, I had somehow overlooked the fact that Holyrood Palace is right next to an old abbey. The roof is missing, but the walls are still intact. I can only imagine how beautiful the abbey must have been.
Tip: Holyrood Palace has an art gallery, called the Queen’s Gallery. It costs extra to visit, but is well worth it!
3. Hike Arthur’s Seat
Arthur’s Seat is a massive hill in the middle of the city that has arguably the best view of Edinburgh. Definitely make the hike in sunny weather, otherwise it might be too cloudy for you to get a good view of the city. There are two paths that go up Arthur’s Seat, one that goes to the very top and another that takes you about halfway there and then heads back down again. The shorter route only takes about 30 minutes to ascend, but the view is still lovely.
I highly recommend wearing sturdy walking shoes when you visit Arthur’s Seat. It’s not a true hike, but tennis shoes or something similar will be the comfiest (and safest) option.
read more: 5 Spots with the Best Views of Edinburgh
4. Window Shop on the Royal Mile
I’m sure Edinburgh locals hate the Royal Mile, but it’s so fun to visit as a tourist! It’s shop after shop selling everything Scottish you could possibly want — tartan scarves made out of cashmere or wool, shortbread, fudge, all sorts of plaid outwear, and more.
My personal favorite discovery was butter tablet, which tastes like a praline cookie (like what you get in New Orleans), minus the chunky bits. Of course, everything sold on the Royal Mile is extremely overpriced, but if you’re not interested in hunting for better bargains elsewhere, you might as well window shop here!
Tip: I recommend walking down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh after you’ve visited the castle in the morning, though you’ll run into lots more tourists while you’re window shopping.
5. Walk up Calton Hill
Calton Hill was made popular during Scotland’s Enlightenment when people started promoting the great outdoors as being good for your health. It looks a bit like the city started building a mini-Athens on the hill and then gave up.
On one side, there’s a huge Acropolis that you can clamber up onto if you’re brave enough. The Acropolis is actually an unfinished monument, originally called the “National Monument.” It was started in 1816, but building stopped in 1822 when the funds ran out. There’s also the Nelson Monument, an observatory, and a few other buildings that you can poke your head into.
Calton Hill is a bit of a hike to get up, but the view is worth it. Give yourself an hour or two to walk up the hill and explore the buildings at the top. On a clear day, you can see most of Edinburgh from here!
6. Visit the Grassmarket
The Grassmarket is a historic marketplace filled with local shops, cafes, and merchants. It’s a good place to hang out if you need a break from the crowds of the Royal Mile but don’t want to walk too far away from the city center. Grab a table at a cafe or restaurant and watch the world go by!
Tip: St Andrew Square is another one of my favorites. It has a green in the middle and is a good place to stretch out if you’re craving a (very tiny) slice of nature.
7. Visit Hopetoun House
Hopetoun House dates back to the 17th century and offers a little of everything: a sprawling mansion, a beautiful estate with walking paths, and a deer park filled with the cutest herd of red deer.
Unlike other estate tours, visitors to Hopetoun House are given free reign of it. There’s no strict tour to follow, and nothing is roped off. You can’t enter the wing where the family currently lives for obvious reasons, but you’re otherwise able to go in and out of rooms as you please. In all honesty, I had goosebumps throughout the entire visit because it felt so weird to pass freely through someone’s house!
Hopetoun House is quite the commute if you take the bus, but in a car it’s only 30 minutes from the city center. (I got such a thrill visiting the house since many scenes from Outlander were filmed here!)
read more: Your Guide to Hopetoun House
8. Tour Lauriston Castle
Lauriston Castle is the hidden gem of Edinburgh. Contrary to what you might think, Lauriston Castle is not a real castle, but it’s quite grand nonetheless. It’s actually a tower house that dates back to the 16th century, and the interiors are primarily done in the Edwardian style.
Lauriston Castle overlooks the Firth of Fourth, and the view is absolutely breathtaking. The grounds are free to the public, and there’s a cricket field out back that you’re allowed to use (I saw lots of people playing when I visited!).
Tip: An hour-long tour of the house costs a mere £5 and it’s definitely worth going through. You learn so much more about the history of the house and the people who inhabited it on the tour.
read more: Your Guide to Lauriston Castle
9. Visit the National Museum of Scotland
Next to window shopping, one of my favorite things to do in Edinburgh is visit the many museums. I particularly loved the National Museum of Scotland because I was interested in learning more about Scottish history. We’re not taught much about Scotland in the US, so I was eager to read more about it.
I thought the museum’s information cards were excellent—enough information to make you feel like you’ve learned something, but not so much that you can’t concentrate long enough to read through all the way.
10. See St. Giles’ Cathedral
Also known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh, St. Giles’ Cathedral was founded by King David I in 1124. Over the years, the cathedral has experienced its fair share of history. Among other historic events, it’s been raided on numerous occasions, was the site where Bonnie Prince Charlie’s arrival in Edinburgh was announced, and a riot even took place here. The leader of the Scottish reformation, John Knox, even preached here!
If the hustle and bustle of the Royal Mile is getting to you, pop into the cathedral and take a load off. You can explore the cathedral, take a tour, climb the tower (for a fee), or attend a concert. It really is a gorgeous cathedral and is definitely worth visiting while you’re near the Royal Mile.
11. Wander Around Dean Village
If you were dropped into Dean Village from a helicopter, you’d have no idea you were actually in the middle of Edinburgh. It looks like a country town was plopped down into the city. Between the river running through the middle of the village, the cobbled stones everywhere, and the fairy tale-like houses, you’ll really feel like you’re in a different place altogether.
Dean Village was originally where the city’s water mills were located. If you know what to look out for, you’ll spot quite a few old mill stones scattered throughout the village. There’s not much “to do” in Dean Village, but it’s a beautiful area to walk around.
Tip: My friend, Flora (an Edinburgh native), told me that Dean Village is the place to take your boyfriend if you want him to make a move on you. 😉
12. Walk Down Princes Street
Princes Street has all the major retail stores and is just a 10-minute walk from the Royal Mile. If you’re looking for local boutiques and quaint cafes, steer clear of Princes Street. I enjoyed walking along it since there are lots of brands I can’t find in the US that Edinburgh has. There’s also a Marks & Spencer grocery store on Princes Street, which I recommend hitting up for uniquely British snacks (the shortbread here is cheaper than the ones sold on the Royal Mile, too!).
13. Explore Princes Street Gardens
Princes Street Gardens is one of the many green spaces in Edinburgh — and it’s easily one of the prettiest, too. The gardens were created in 1820 after the Nor Loch was drained. It’s the official divide between the Old Town and the New Town and spans 37 acres.
You can see Edinburgh Castle from the gardens, and there are lots of other statues dotted throughout them as well. The Scott Monument is located in the gardens too, and you get a good view of the city from the top of it.
14. Explore the Edinburgh Closes
Edinburgh’s Old Town is peppered throughout with closes. Closes are the small alleyways that lead off of the Royal Mile (or any main street, really). The closes of Edinburgh are typically small and narrow, and they will either lead you away from the Royal Mile entirely or they’ll take you to a cute patch of private property. Closes used to be gated off, but nowadays they’re open to the public.
There are lots of closes near the Royal Mile, with the “haunted” Mary King’s Close being one of the most popular. In the photo above, you can see the picturesque Lady Stair’s Close, so named because it’s the location of a 17th century townhouse called the Lady Stairs House. The house has since been converted into the Writers’ Museum.
Even More Things to Do in Edinburgh!
There are a few more things to do in Edinburgh that I wanted to share with you. Below is one of my favorite day trips from Edinburgh, as well as a little info about a festival that takes place every August.
Since these aren’t activities you can do “in” Edinburgh all the time, I thought they warranted their own special section of this blog post.
15. See the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
If you can, visit Edinburgh in August because that’s when all of its festivals are going on. It’s absolute chaos on the Royal Mile all month, but it’s all very exciting. Easily my favorite thing happening in August is the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which is a performance by various military bands from around the globe.
The whole show opened with dozens of bagpipers and closed with a rendition of “Scotland the Brave” by all the bands. I saw the Tattoo my last night in Edinburgh, and it made my last night the best yet.
16. Attend the Edinburgh Festival Fringe
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the largest arts’ festival in the world. It takes place every August and seemingly all of Edinburgh is taken over by it. There’s a little bit of everything happening at the Edinburgh Fringe. From theatre performances to comedy acts to everything in between. You have to pay to see some performances, while others are free.
And I’m only slightly exaggerating when I say there’s always something going on during the Fringe. Seriously, there are numerous venues — indoors and out — and there’s a constant stream of performers heading on and off the stages. Flora and I snagged tickets to see the Reduced Shakespeare Company (or at least a trio performing one of their shows … either way, it was hilarious!).
Edinburgh transforms itself during the Fringe, so while you might not get an “authentic” view of the city if you visit in August, it’s definitely worth visiting during this special time if you can swing it!
17. Take a Day Trip to North Berwick
North Berwick is a quaint seaside village just 30 minutes away from Edinburgh via train. On a sunny day, you can spend some time at the beach. If the weather’s poor, there are plenty of cute shops in the downtown area, as well as cafes. It was dumping rain the day Flora and I visited North Berwick, but we still enjoyed fish and chips on the pier, followed by a cozy catchup over a pot of tea at a local cafe.
Tip: If you plan on staying in the downtown area just to do a bit of window shopping, I’d say a half day in North Berwick is enough time to wander around at a leisurely place.
Excited to Visit Edinburgh, Scotland?!
I can’t recommend a trip to Edinburgh enough. There’s so much to do here and the people are some of the nicest I’ve met on my travels. It’s also home to some great cheap eats and lots of cute bakeries that are perfect to pop into after hitting up some of the busier tourist attractions.
The list above shares just some of the best things to do in Edinburgh, Scotland. I’m sure I’ve left quite a few things out, but hopefully this post has given you an idea of what to do in Edinburgh while you’re visiting.
Tell me: Are you planning to visit another city in Scotland while you’re in the area?
Planning a trip to Scotland?
- 9 Things You Have to Do in Glasgow
- Visiting Inverary, Gateway to the Highlands
- These 5 Spots Have the Best Views of Edinburgh
- Your Guide to Edinburgh’s Hopetoun House
- How to Spend a Day in Stirling, Scotland
- …All of my Scotland recommendations!
This post was originally published in September 2017 and was updated in June 2021.