The Scottish city of Edinburgh is at the top of the list of must-see European cities. Surrounded by undeniable natural beauty, including an extinct volcano, there is something extraordinary in the way the city balances the natural world with modern life. As Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh has long stood as the historical heartland of the country, and the plethora of historical sites are a testament to this.
Alongside its natural beauty and historical significance, Edinburgh is also a centre for the arts. Home to the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – the largest arts festival in the world – the city is a mecca for all things creative. Often called the Athens of the north, Edinburgh is undoubtedly a must-visit British city. Take a look at these 15 things to do when in the Scottish capital.
1. Edinburgh Castle
There are few Edinburgh sites more iconic than its castle that sits atop the hillside. Standing here for nearly 1,000 years, the dominating structure can be seen no matter where you are in the city. The castle has played a huge part on the history of both the city and Scotland itself. Research suggests that the castle has been besieged over 26 times, making it one of the most attacked forts in the entire world.
Take a tour of this stunning example of medieval construction and learn all about its bloody past. Either wander its halls and walls at your own pace or plan your visit to coincide with one of the castles many dramatised historical recreations, where the castle and its past come to life before your very eyes.
2. Arthur’s Seat
There aren’t many cities that can say they have a volcano within their city walls, but Edinburgh can. Arthur’s Seat is an 800ft extinct volcano that rises up in the east of the city, providing an area of stunning natural beauty. Rising out of the grasslands of Holyrood Park, Arthur’s Seat is an ideal place to gain impressive views of the city and surrounding lands below.
Relatively easy to climb, Arthur’s Seat is a great location for hikers and walkers of all abilities and fitness levels. The myths and history entwined with Arthur’s Seat give visitors a true taste of Scottish culture and mythology as they enjoy the awesome views.
3. National Museum of Scotland
Established in 2006, the National Museum of Scotland was formed as a merger of collections from the Royal Scottish Museum and Museum of Scotland. This huge organisation has set out provide the best insight into all things Scottish, be that history, science or the natural world. When visiting this jam-packed museum, you’ll be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of artefacts and exhibitions on show.
Divided into two separate buildings standing side by side, the enormity of the National Museum of Scotland may take more than one day to fully explore. The museum also hosts a variety of ever-changing exhibitions, so be sure to research what’s on before you visit.
4. The Old Town
Edinburgh’s Old Town is the name given to the oldest part of the Scottish capital that is now recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Old Town has preserved much of its medieval street plan and renaissance-era architecture, giving it an unchanged quality that is both interesting and idyllic.
The cobblestone streets that adorn the Old Town blend perfectly with winding alleyways and historic buildings. No visit to this modern capital is complete without wandering through its old town. The ‘Royal Mile’ that stretches from Edinburgh Castle to Holyroodhouse makes up the Old Town and is considered to be the centre of the city.
5. Mary King’s Close
Deep under the city’s Royal Mile lies a hidden world of historic streets known as Mary King’s Close. Named after a 17th-century merchant burgess who lived on the Close, the underground streets were lost for many years. Now, you can delve under the Edinburgh streets and be led by one of the knowledgeable guides.
The guides in Mary King’s Close don historical dress and act as real residents of late medieval Edinburgh, bringing the whole experience to life. Make your way through the hidden streets and listen to stories of times gone by. Those of you who enjoy tales of the paranormal can also take one of Mary King Close’s nail-biting ghost tours.
6. Camera Obscura and World of Illusions
One of Edinburgh’s oldest attractions, the Camera Obscura first opened its doors in the mid 19th century. Step inside to a world of mirrors and reflective glass structures that take you on a journey of obscure visions of size and shape. The Victorian structure is made up of five different floors, each one with a different set of illusions and sights.
Slightly more modern additions have been made to this nearly one-hundred-year-old attraction. Now visitors can see a projected tour of the city, achieved by modern techniques. The unusualness and age of this attraction make it a must when visiting Edinburgh.
7. Scotch Whisky Experience
No visit to the Scottish capital would be complete without a little time spent learning and sampling one of the nations biggest exports – Scotch whisky. The Scotch Whisky Experience is an attraction set up to completely immerse you in the world of whisky-making including its history and its cultural impact.
Choose from a number of different tours and packages, each including freebies and take-home souvenirs, depending on the level of the tour. Tours will take you through the making process and open up the world of whisky tasting. One of the tour highlights is visiting a room full of Scotch whiskey – arguably the largest collection of Scotch whisky in the world.
8. Princes Street Gardens
In a city with a seemingly endless list of green spaces, it is hard to choose a favourite one, yet Princes Street Gardens is a very strong contender. Located in the heart of the city and situated between the old and new city, Princes Street Gardens are a welcome relief from the city streets.
Created during the late 18th – early 19th centuries, the Victorian parks are decorated with exquisite stone fountains and floral gardens, making a fantastic place for a picnic in the sun or an Autumnal stroll. During the latter part of the year, the gardens are transformed into a winter wonderland with a Christmas feel.
9. Scott Monument
Standing in the Princes Street Gardens is the second largest monument to a writer in the entire world. Dedicated to the Edinburgh novelist, poet and playwright, Sir Walter Scott, this Victorian Gothic monument has become an iconic image of the Scottish literary scene.
Designed and erected in the mid-19th century after a lengthy competition, it now dominates the park and surrounding landscape. You can also climb to the top of the monument’s gallery, a feat that allows you to see a 360 picture of the city from the very centre.
10. Edinburgh Zoo
Located a short bus ride east of the city, Edinburgh Zoo is a fantastic day for the whole family and especially for animal lovers. Formally known as the Scottish National Zoological Park, Edinburgh Zoo is considered one of the best in the world. Home to over one thousand animals, including rare species such as the giant panda, this zoo pulls out all the stops for its many visitors.
The first zoo in the world to house and breed penguins, Edinburgh Zoo is a the forefront of zoological research and it shows. Apart from the animals, Edinburgh Zoo’s gardens boast one of the most diverse tree collections in all of the Lothians.
11. Palace of Holyroodhouse
The Palace of Holyroodhouse, sometimes known as Holyrood Palace, is the Royal Residence of the reigning British monarch and family. Home to Scottish royalty since the 16th century, the palace is equivalent to London’s Buckingham Palace. Touring the palace provides a look behind the door of royalty through the ages, from Mary Queen of Scots, Bonnie Prince Charlie, to the modern uses it is put to today by Queen Elizabeth II.
Wander through the throne room, great gallery and the elaborate decorated and adorned palace bedrooms. Walk out into the palace gardens for a look at floral luxury and grand garden designs at their very best.
12. Inchcolm Abbey and Island
Located off the Firth of Forth, or the estuary of the River Forth, is the island of Inchcolm. Taking a boat trip from the city or the hour’s drive is worth it to see this iconic and historic island. The most breath-taking site on the island is the Inchcolm Abbey, built during the 12th century.
Visiting this abbey on such an isolated island is an experience in itself, and with such a well-preserved structure, it’s age is surprising. The Abbey has the most complete surviving remains of any Scottish monastic house.
13. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art isn’t just one of the best cultural attractions to visit in the city, but it’s also one of the best free things to do in Edinburgh. Before you even step inside the museum, get ready to be amazed by its neoclassical architecture and immaculately landscaped gardens.
Comprising two buildings, Modern One and Modern Two, you can wander through exhibitions with artwork dating back as far as the 1900s and as recently as 2019. Art aficionados will be glad to hear that you’ll find work from international artists such as Matisse and Picasso as well as Scottish artists such as Fergusson and Redpath.
14. Calton Hill
Sitting in Edinburgh’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, Calton Hill is one of the most famous hills in the city.
There are two reasons why so many people choose to visit this prominent landmark. Firstly, Calton Hill provides panoramic views over Edinburgh, the Royal Mile and over to Arthur’s Seat. Nowhere else in the city will you be rewarded with such a stunning view.
Secondly, Calton Hill is home to a number of historic monuments that tell of the city’s colourful past. These include the National Monument, Nelson Monument and City Observatory.
15. Royal Botanical Gardens
Situated just north of the city, but still within easy walking distance, the Royal Botanic Gardens are well worth a visit if you’re in Old Smoky. Considered to be one of the leading botanical gardens in the world, you can walk through four different gardens during your visit: Benmore, Logan, Dawyck and Edinburgh, each of which boast their own unique selection of carefully placed flowers, trees and bushes.