Edinburgh is a city of contrasts; it embraces its inevitable clichés and rich history and yet superbly embraces modernity whenever possible. The result is a multi-faceted metropolis celebrated for its spiritedness and complemented by the hard-to-resist Scottish charm that would force a smile out of the most rigid of visitors.
I’ve had the immense pleasure of visiting the city on four different occasions, but if this is your first time here, get yourself acquainted with my absolute favourite things to do in Edinburgh for a well-rounded initial experience.
The Royal Mile
The Royal Mile, officially known as Lawnmarket and Canongate, is the core centre of the city. Not only does it pretty much splits it in two with the new town on one side and the old town on the other, it’s also the most buzzing area with hundreds of pubs, restaurants and landmarks in eyesight.
Mind you, it’s touristy as hell; but as it’s often the case with all touristy things, the Royal Mile is remarkably worthy of its hype and should not be overlooked despite its massive crowds of enthusiastic camera-toting tourists.
Tour the closes
Edinburgh’s old town is rather unique in that it features an intricate network of alleyways — referred to as “closes” on street signs and by locals — crisscrossing tall buildings and steep hills.
These closes, with regards to their narrowness, precipitous crooked stairways and dark corners, are generally regarded as being haunted by the not-always-friendly ghosts of plague and violently assassinated victims throughout the centuries. The Real Mary King Close is perhaps the most haunted of them all.
Visit the replica of a traditional distillery and learn how to taste the different aromas and ages of whisky along the way. A great activity even if you’re not into whisky.
Edinburgh’s most important religious spot for over 900 years, it’s often described at the Mother Church of Presbyterianism. The Cathedral was named after the saint patron of Edinburgh, who is also one of the fourteen Holy Helpers. The inside is just as beautiful and ornate as the outside, and won’t leave you disappointed.
A surprisingly large building to experience the busy factory feeling, admire the incredible techniques and machinery used and learn more about the whole weaving process from shearing sheep to selling kilts.
The many windpipe players
Don’t forget to tip if you take photographs or record videos. It’s the polite thing to do.
If you dare! Although I must admit that I scare easily, I was genuinely edgy during my nighttime ghost tour in Edinburgh, led by award-winning storytellers that scared the crap out of me.
I’m only slightly exaggerating; the atmosphere under the ancient streets of Edinburgh is super spooky and their ghoul stories did nothing to help.
Additional things to do
The fact that Edinburgh Castle is a renowned UNESCO World Heritage Site surprises no one.
Indeed, the historic fortress, whose location atop a rocky outcrop dominates the city of Edinburgh, has stood there in some shape or form since the 12th century and was the scene of at least 26 different sieges, most notably during the conflicts from the Wars of Scottish Independence.
The castle houses the Scottish regalia-crown jewels as well as the National War Museum of Scotland and serves as a striking backdrop to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo during the annual Edinburgh International Festival in August.
Despite the fact that hiking is not necessarily my idea of a good time — although I’m quite certain expert hikers would hardly qualify this gently uphill stroll of 205 metres as hiking — very few activities are as rewarding as climbing Arthur’s Seat. The extinct volcano overlooks the city of Edinburgh and offers unparalleled views of Fife, the North Sea, Leith and the Pentland Hills. Admittedly one of my favourite things to do in Edinburgh on a sunny day (yes, the sun occasionally does shine in Scotland — I kid you not!).
For the most effortless route to the top of Arthur’s Seat, take the path along Queen’s Drive, around St. Anthony’s Chapel Ruins and through the Dasses — opt for a slight detour by Dunsapie Loch for an even more moderate climb. If you simply want to get up there as fast as possible and don’t mind a strenuous hike, take a left at the Salisbury Crag and go up!
Dean’s Village & The Water of Leith
Although Edinburgh is arguably a time capsule in and of itself, the hamlet of Dean Village on the northwestern outskirts of the city centre is perhaps even more beautifully so.
It used to be a prosperous grain milling area with over 10 working mills at its zenith 800 years ago, in large part due to the mighty Water of Leith that flows through it. Remnants of the industry can still be seen to this day, making the whole area incredibly atmospheric and reminiscent of a bygone era. The stream runs along to a bucolic pathway leading to the beautiful St. Bernard’s Well, a classical temple and water well dedicated to Hygeia the Greek goddess of health; a natural mineral spring was discovered here in 1760 and soon became the preferred destination with the ill nobility as they believed “taking the waters” would remedy any and all of their ailments, even the least curable ones.
To get to Dean Village, either walk along the peaceful Water of Leith from Stockbridge or head towards Queensferry Road on foot from the new town. The most picturesque portion sits between Water of Leith Walkway and St. Bernard’s Well.
National Museum of Scotland
Don’t let the modernist exterior fool you into thinking that this is a modern museum; only the most curious visitors know that in fact, behind the turn-of-the-millennium façade, is a wonderful Victorian-era museum with a grandiose cast-iron main hall.
The National Museum of Scotland houses a rather eclectic set of collections spread across 16 galleries, from various Scottish archaeological finds to Elton John’s extravagant attires and Ancient Egyptian artefacts, encompassing topics like natural history and technological science.
Harry Potter in Edinburgh
Any Harry Potter fanatic worthy of the title knows that J.K. Rowling imagined and wrote most of the wizarding world’s premise in Edinburgh, where she lived in the mid-1990s.
A lot of Potterheads like myself have indulged in a pilgrimage of sorts, taking in the locations that sparked her imagination — a lot of the names you’ll encounter will sound incredibly familiar, leaving no doubt as to where the famed author drew her inspiration from.
Fancy a bit of magic with your cappuccino? The Elephant House is the official birthplace of Harry Potter, where J.K. Rowling penned the mythical world that revolutionised literature 20 years ago. And while the facade is filled with tourists posing with imaginary brooms or wands, very few actually venture inside.
Do go in the back room to take in the beautiful rustic decor, the spirited Scottish accent and the views over the castle; but don’t even try to accio coffee to your table.
Rowling strolled through the Franciscan graveyard on a regular basis and even based one of her main characters on a tombstone she came across, a certain Thomas Riddell… Rumour has it that she adjusted the spelling of Voldemort’s real name to ensure the innocent Riddell family wasn’t given a bad dark-magic rep.
J.K. Rowling wasn’t always the supra-wealthy author that she is now; during the early stages of Harry Potter she was actually penniless and heavily relied on her brother-in-law’s generosity, as he was the owner of a bright, first-floor pub named Spoon where she also used to sit down and write.
If you want to visit all the secret Harry Potter locations in Edinburgh and learn more about how the wizard came to be from J.R. Rowling’s brilliant mind, this walking tour is an absolute must for fans of all ages.
This was one of Edinburgh’s most important cattle market for well over 500 years and also where most executions took place.
Despite its sinister history, Grassmarket became one of the most popular spots in the city with quaint Scottish pubs, al fresco eateries, weekly flea market and imposing views of the castle. Don’t miss the colourful Victoria Street while you’re there.
Princes Street Gardens
Ideally located between the shopping centres, the train station and bustling Royal Mile, these gardens are the perfect place to give your legs a rest, eat an ice cream and give in to guilt-free people watching.
Sitting on these benches and admiring the panorama before you is the best possible way to really enjoy the city’s uncommon layout and really take in its vast, rich history.
While Arthur’s Seat offers the best overall views of the region, Calton Hill, on the other hand, is an incredible vantage point over the city itself — far enough to get a large perspective and a sense of place yet close enough that you can easily notice the details.
At just 10 minutes from the centre, it’s very much worth the small, and entirely free, detour.
The 19 listed brickwork arches now referred to as “the Waverley Arches” were initially constructed in 1875 in order to create double openings beneath Jeffrey Street; however, massive expansion of nearby Waverley railway station in the mid-19th century regrettably rendered them worthless until a brilliant group of entrepreneurs decided to meticulously transform this once neglected part of Edinburgh into a vibrant recreation and retail quarter in the heart of the Old Town.
The ensemble is enhanced by cohesive glass frontages and exposed stone ceilings for a modern yet historic allure.
A great place to spend an hour or two and discover some of Edinburgh’s most exciting new independent shops.
Circus Lane & Stockbridge
If you need to get away from the crowds of the Royal Mile and want to see a slightly less touristy part of Edinburgh, then Stockbridge is exactly where you need to go.
Either the starting or ending point of a leisurely walk along the aforementioned Water of Leith, Stockbridge is the epitome of Georgian Edinburgh and a rather affluent part of town, with attractive architecture — especially in and around Circus Lane — and cafés.
The Sunday farmer’s and flea market is also quite lovely and well worth a visit, just across the street from Scotland’s finest cheesemonger.
Things to do in Edinburgh – good to know
- August is the best time of the year to visit the city, as this is festival season. It’s also the busiest, so it would be wise to book your accommodation well in advance to get the best rates.
- Edinburgh is a very walkable city in terms of size — hiring a car is absolutely unnecessary — but the streets are often steep and uneven, which is undeniably part of the charm but could pose a challenge to some people.
- If this is your first time in Edinburgh and you plan on hitting all the main sights, then perhaps the Edinburgh city pass would be worth your while. It includes a 2-day ticket for the hop-on-hop-off bus and entry to the royal attractions.
The best day trips from Edinburgh
- Loch Ness, Highlands and Whisky Distillery
- Rosslyn Chapel, Dunfermline Abbey and Stirling Castle
- West Highland Lochs and Castles
- Holy Island, Alnwick Castle and Northumberland
- Speyside Delight – Scottish Whisky Tour
- St Andrews and The Fishing Villages of Fife
- Glencoe, Ben Nevis and Loch Ness
- Alnwick Castle and the Scottish Borders
- Rosslyn Chapel and Hadrian’s Wall
- ‘Outlander’ TV Locations
- Highland Whisky Experience
- The Magical Highland Tour Including the Jacobite Steam Train Journey
- Outlander Palaces and Jacobites
Where to drink & eat in Edinburgh