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Edinburgh is Scotland’s capital city and is famous for its literary heritage, historic landmarks such as the famous Edinburgh castle, and scotch whiskey.
It’s a buzzing city with something happening on any corner, and not just in August for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Needless to say, there are plenty of things to do in Edinburgh to keep you busy.
In this insider’s travel guide to Edinburgh, Jools Stone, who has lived in Edinburgh for more than 10 years, shares his inside knowledge on what to do in Edinburgh, including the best Edinburgh attractions, places to eat, drink, stay, and hang out.
Is Edinburgh Worth Visiting?
Before we get into the best things to do in Edinburgh, let’s quickly ask ourselves if it’s worth it.
Edinburgh has pretty much everything a traveller could ask for, apart from decent summer weather.
Centuries of history, beautiful architecture, a great dining scene, tonnes of good pubs, lots of arts and culture, lovely green spaces, the works.
It’s also very safe and easily walkable, since you can get from attraction to attraction on foot.
For these reasons, it’s absolutely worth visiting.
Best Things to Do in Edinburgh
If you’re looking for Edinburgh tourist attractions to add to your list, then you’re going to love these unmissable things to do in Edinburgh.
1. Visit Edinburgh Castle
Most people will want to see Edinburgh Castle when they visit the city. And for good reason.
Edinburgh Castle is steeped in the country’s rich history. Located on top of an extinct volcano, its iconic silhouette has been the backdrop of Edinburgh’s skyline since the Iron Age.
Thousands of years later, it still stands as one of Scotland’s most iconic attractions and continues to captivate tourists from all over the world.
There’s also plenty to explore indoors, like Edinburgh dungeons and The National War Museum which has uniforms, and military equipment, medals, weapons, paintings, and more, casting a light on Scotland’s military history throughout the centuries.
When planning your visit, don’t forget to watch the military ceremony known as the One O’clock Gunfire which occurs daily!
2. Check out the National Museums
The National Museums are a body of museums in Scotland that are famed for their historical importance and contributions to Scotland’s culture.
They are made up of the National Museum of Scotland, National Museum of Flight, National Museum of Rural Life, and National War Museum.
Only the National War Museum (in Edinburgh Castle) and the National Museum of Scotland lie in Edinburgh, but if you have the time, I would recommend seeing them both.
The National Museum of Scotland is a museum dedicated to Scottish events and acheivements, and has exhibitions on scientific breakthroughs as well as the exquisite Scottish art and fashion from throughout the years.
There’s no better place to learn about Scotland’s history and culture than visiting this museum.
3. Marvel at the architecture of The Parliament Building
The national museums and galleries are all very good. But if you want to see works of incredible architecture, The Parliament building is quite a structure and is certainly interesting to look at.
The Parliament Building is a significant landmark in the country. It was created through an international competition that took place in 1998 and it started serving as the Seat of the Scottish Parliament the following year.
Within its impressive architecture, you can see the nation’s rich history and its political evolution in its grandeur.
Visitors can enter the building and see exhibitions related to politics and culture, or take a guided tour.
What’s wonderful about visiting The Parliament Building is how dynamic it’s become; visitors can book tickets to witness live debates and meetings, there’s always something significant happening within its premises.
4. Wander the Royal Botanical Gardens
The Botanical Gardens are well worth a stroll around. The Royal Botanic Garden was founded in 1670 and contains a stunning collection of over 13,000 species of plants and fauna.
In addition to admiring the breathtaking plant life, you can explore the indigenous Scots Pine woodlands and rock gardens or take part in guided tours and educational activities.
And if you have time and are looking for things to do in Edinburgh with kids, there are a pair of Giant Pandas at the Zoo.
5. Learn About Medical Science at Surgeon’s Hall Museum
I also like the Surgeon’s Hall Museum, which has lots of ghoulish things and connections with Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle.
Located in Edinburgh’s old town, it houses a wide range of artefacts related to medical science.
It’s exhibits contain detailed anatomical models that date back to 1832 and showcase more than 300 years worth of scientific research.
Visitors can learn more about the anatomy and pathology of the human body with 3D visuals, specimens preserved in jars and audiovisual presentations.
No matter how scientific or non-scientific you’re inclined, there are so many wonderful things to learn here.
6. Eat a Delicious Scottish Breakfast at Monpeliers
For tasty, good-value food, Monpeliers in Bruntsfield is always a good bet.
You’ll get a decent Scottish breakfast or Morning Roll there too – it’s most famous for its brunches. Or should I say, infamous, since the Full Monty breakfast is quite the monster!
And since it’s located in the heart of Edinburgh, it’s easily accessible no matter where you stay in the city.
The restaurant prides itself on being a local restaurant, bringing locally-sourced Scottish products to your table.
7. Sip Craft Beer at The Canny Man, Edinburgh
My favourite place to drink in Edinburgh is the Canny Man, partly because it’s just across the road from me, and partly because it’s a very atmospheric place with lots of quirky old paraphernalia hanging from the rafters and a good beer garden, which is rare here.
It was built in 1871 and has been passed down through generations of the Kerr family, and is still a family-run pub to this day.
It’s a free house, which means it has no chain or brewery company above it, so it serves only the best quality produce and ales.
8. Drink at Scotland’s Oldest Pub
Scotland’s oldest pub, the Sheep’s Heid (you have to say it with a Scots accent!) is also worth the country walk to Duddingston Village. It is said to date back to 1360, though it has been lovingly restored since then!
The Sheep Heid Inn is a bar and restaurant that has an elegant-looking interior. It used to be a favourite amongst the monarchs and poets of Edinburgh, and so it has an air of pretentiousness about it.
If you’re looking for romantic things to do in Edinburgh, then a meal here would certainly make date-night more special.
9. Paint the Town Red in The Old Town
The Old Town has a good concentration of bars, spit-n-sawdust boozers, and a few clubs, and a decent mix of tourists, students, and locals.
If you’re looking for somewhere to party at night, then this is the district to head to.
Though lively, I’d avoid the Grassmarket and Cowgate on a Friday or Saturday night, unless you like to run shoulders with the stag and hen party crowds.
10. Shop ‘Till You Drop at The Markets
Edinburgh doesn’t have much in the way of markets, but the Farmers Market on Saturdays is good for local foodie stuff.
Lots of little women’s boutiques around the West End.
George Street and Rose Street are good for that too. Great little arts & design and vintage shops around Victoria Street and the Grassmarket.
Princes Street is the main shopping drag with all the chainstores you’d expect, and it’s a good deal more attractive than most cities’ as well, thanks to Princes St Gardens and views of the Old Town skyline.
11. Experience The Madness of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival
Festival madness descends on the capital in August, when we have the Fringe Festival (comedy, theatre, cabaret) which has been running throughout the whole of August, every August, since 1947.
For anyone who doesn’t know about the Fringe festival, it’s the place where artists come to make a name for themselves.
Usually, comedians, performing artists and theater companies will first showcase their new shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, which will then receive reviews in the UK national papers, and serve as the reviews you see on flyers for their following tours – so for artists, it’s a big deal.
Also in August is the International Festival (more highbrow, opera, ballet, dance, big productions of classic theatre) and the International Book Festival, plus an art festival and half a dozen other satellite festivals.
There’s other stuff on throughout the summer of course, most notably the Film Festival in June, but really if you’re going to come here, then August is the hot month for events (not literally though!), hands down.
12. Take a Day Trip to South Queensferry
South Queensferry is a lovely seaside resort, dominated by views of the impressive Forth Bridges and boat trips out to Inchcolm Abbey, a ruin where you can sometimes see seals and dolphins en route.
It’s an incredibly picturesque town with old churches and buildings. It’s an ideal destination for those in search of breathtaking landscapes and wonderful discoveries around every corner.
While there, it’s worth exploring some of the amazing sites that define South Queensferry’s unique identity, such as St Mary’s Episcopal Church and Rossend Castle ruins.
Or, take a boat trip down the Forth Canal, or if you’re visiting in the summer, head to one of two waterfront beaches – Hawes Pier Beach and Dalmeny Beach.
North Berwick and Dunbar are two other seaside towns that are worth visiting if you have more time. They both have retained their character very well, easily reached by a 30 minute train ride from Edinburgh.
13. Walk the Royal Mile to Palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Abbey
The palace of Holyrood, or Holyrood Palace or Holyroodhouse as it is also known, is the official residence of the British royal family in Scotland.
It’s located at the bottom of the Royal Mile, a strip of road that connects it to Edinburgh Castle, and has been the principal royal residence since the 16th century.
Still to this day, it is used by the royal family for events and hosting engagements.
Visitors can check out the Queen’s Gallery, which was built at the western entrance to the palace and showcases works of art from the Royal Collection.
One of the highlights of Holyrood Palace is the chambers of Mary Queen of Scots’ who lived in the palace from 1561-1567.
Be sure to walk around the gardens, Holyrood park, and take in its natural setting. Hike up to Arthur’s Seat, the highest point in Edinburgh.
If you’re interested in the British royal family, you can also visit the former royal yacht Britannia, which has retired in Edinburgh and sits in Leigh at the Ocean Terminal.
14. Visit Princes Street Gardens
Princes Street Gardens has been around since the 1820. Initially, it was used as a reservoir to supply water to locals, but after the draining of the North Loch, it became a stunning public park separating the old Edinburgh with the new.
In addition to being an awe-inspiring sight, Princes Street Gardens also offers plenty of activities that you can enjoy while there.
From boating on the garden’s tranquil pond, to exploring the gorgeous Floral Clock garden, there’s something for everyone!
15. Walk Down Mary King’s Close
Mary Kings Close in Edinburgh is a historical attraction that allows you to get up close and personal with Scotland’s history through historical reenactment. You will learn about events that date as far back as the 1600s when Edinburgh was stricken by plague and subsequently sealed over.
You can take a guided tour through small spaces and ancient streets and learn fascinating stories of real people who lived in these places, their tragedies, and their lifestyle from the past.
For anyone looking for something different or wanting to explore another side of Edinburgh – Mary Kings Close is a must-visit!
16. Take a Harry Potter Tour
If you’re a Harry Potter fan, or if your kids are Harry Potter fans, then you’ll want to take a Harry Potter tour of Edinburgh.
On this walking tour, you’ll pass sites that were used in the film sets, or were inspiration for the novelist, J.K. Rowling.
See sites that inspired Hogwarts, the characters, Diagon Alley, and even places where she wrote the books, like the Elephant Cafe.
It even takes you to the Grave of Tom Riddle in Greyfriars Kirkyard, and you can see JK Rowling’s golden handprints outside the City Chambers.
Harry Potter fans may also like to take a trip down to London for the Warner Bros Harry Potter Studio tour!
17. See Optical Illusions at Camera Obscura and World of Illusions
It can be a little gimmicky, but it can also be a lot of fun. Have fun with the special effects and optical illusions at this unique 3D museum!
18. Sample Local Whiskeys on the Scotch Whisky Experience
Looking for unique things to do in Edinburgh? Consider a whisky-tasting experience!
On a guided whisky tour you get to learn the history behind Scotland’s most famous product – scotch whisky.
You will visit one of the world’s largest collections of Scotch whisky (3,500 individual bottles) and learn about the production and manufacturing process.
Then you’ll get whisked away to five Scotch whisky-producing regions in Scotland to learn about their unique blends.
And of course, you get to try a tipple or two.
19. Check Out the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
If you’re searching for the perfect attraction in Edinburgh for a rainy day, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is an ideal option.
With a grand history that dates back to 1850, it boasts a large collection of modern and contemporary art in Scotland, featuring four separate galleries, and café.
Inside the gallery you’ll find an extensive collection of both Scottish and international artists including Johannes Vermeer, Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh.
The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is also worth a visit for its collection of renaissance portraits.
20. Visit the Monuments on Calton Hill
If you a blessed with good weather, why not hike up Calton Hill to see the monuments?
The Nelson Monument in Edinburgh is an iconic landmark built to honor Admiral Lord Nelson. This tall stone memorial was completed in 1815 and stands atop Calton Hill at a height of 95 feet.
The monument has an observation platform on its roof, offering gorgeous 360-degree views across Edinburgh – perfect for taking some amazing photos.
Inside there’s a museum devoted to Lord Nelson and his career as well as a shop selling souvenirs of your visit.
Another monument worth visiting is the National Monument, dedicated to Scottish soldiers and sailors who died during the Napoleonic Wars. From here you can see incredible views of the city from atop of Calton’s Hill, which was Scottish Writer Robert Louis Stevenson’s favourite spot in Edinburgh.
Just a short 10-minute walk away is the Scott Monument, dedicated to Sir Walter Scott, one of Scotland’s most beloved writers. It stands at 61 meters high, making it the largest monument in the world to a writer.
The tower has been decorated with 68 statues featuring several prominent Scottish writers, such as Mary Queen of Scots, Robert Burns and Lord Byron.
Best Time to Visit Edinburgh
August is the best time to visit Edinburgh since it’s when the Edinburgh Fringe Festival happens, meaning there is thousands of performing arts, comedy, music and theatre events happening all over the city at all hours of the day.
However, it’s the most popular month and is packed with people (not to mention the prices are sky-high).
If you prefer a quieter month, then visiting in April during the Spring is a good time, since there’s usually clear skies and fewer crowds. Be sure to visit any time outside the school holidays and you’ll have a nice quiet time.
How Many Days Needed in Edinburgh?
4 or 5 days should cover most stuff in the city centre and key neighbourhoods nearby, but the East Lothian and Fife coast is perhaps worth extending your trip by a few extra days for.
Glasgow too, since it’s less than an hour away by train and is very different type of city with great shopping and nightlife. You could stay in Edinburgh and visit for a day trip or two.
Where to Stay in Edinburgh
I’m a big fan of Malmaison hotel chain. Their one here is in Leith, right on the waterfront.
If you’re looking for a unique and local stay we highly recommend you check out Airbnb. Click here to see the properties available during your stay.
The Bonham is a very cosy, genuinely boutique near the West End and close to everything. There’s a fair few hostels too. There’s a great one on Belford Road, in a converted church near a lovely river walk.
In terms of neighborhoods, I would say Leith, Stockbridge and Bruntsfield are the best areas to stay.
The latter two are quite villagey and studenty. The waters of Leith has been gentrified a lot since the days of Trainspotting, but still has a multi-cultural, earthy vibe.
The New Town’s really beautiful too.
For places to stay in Edinburgh choose from the largest range of hotels, apartments, and guesthouses with our partner Booking.com. You get free cancelation on most rooms, and in most cases, you only pay when you stay. You can also use the map below to help you find your perfect accommodation.
Getting To and Around Edinburgh
If you’re coming from afar, your best bet is probably a flight to London, followed by the train, since there aren’t that many affordable direct long haul flights here anyway.
The train from London takes around 4.5 hours and you can break the journey in York, which is another fine, historic British city.
I wouldn’t bother with the bus (or coaches as we’ll call them here) unless your budget is uber-spartan, but the Megabus sleeper bus from London is a low-cost option (if it doesn’t break down on you). National Express also offer coaches but they are a little pricier than Megabus – though more reliable.
Once you’re in Edinburgh, you can walk almost everywhere, if you don’t mind the odd hill.
Buses are frequent and reliable and there’s a small tram line that has 14 stops between St Andrew Square in the New Town and Edinburgh Airport. This is an affordable and convenient way to get into the city from the Airport.
If you do need to take the bus, make sure you don’t get suckered in by the extortionate tourist pass though and get a Day Saver ticket instead, which gets you unlimited rides on Lothian Buses for a day for just for £5.50.
Final Thoughts on Things to Do in Edinburgh
So there you have it, that’s Edinburgh and all its wonderful attractions! It’s certainly the best looking British city for its age!
When you first arrive, make sure you get yourself a ‘Jimmy hat’ to blend in properly with the natives.
For more ideas about things to do on that road trip, planning information, beautiful photos, and practical maps to help you plan your travels, check out ZigZag on Earth’s eBook: The Road Trip Guide: Edinburgh to Skye and if you are traveling further in Scotland, you will want her Road Trip Scotland guide.
Bio: A freelance writer and social media junkie, Jools runs Trains on the Brain, a blog dedicated to trains and the places they take you. He also looks after the social presence of the Train Chartering Company, which runs all sorts of fun events on rails and offers travel on all of the world’s greatest luxury train rides. You can also go hang out with Jools on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.
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Do you have any travel tips for Edinburgh? Let us know in the comments!
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