Edinburgh is without a doubt the most important city in Scotland. It is the capital, but this city has a special place in our hearts. Edinburgh was the first place we (Bruno and I) travelled as husband and wife. To be specific, Edinburgh was our honeymoon destination. I still can remember how happy and excited we were when we stepped out of the train station in the centre of the city. We fell in love with Edinburgh and its people. That is why we went back to explore more.
Edinburgh is one of those cities that has a lot to offer for any type of travellers. There are plenty of things to do and see in Edinburgh. No matter how many times you visit it, you can always find something fun to do and never get bored.
These are the top things to do in Edinburgh, especially if you are visiting this city for the first time.
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Visit Edinburgh Castle
Let’s start the list with (probably) the best thing any traveller should do in Edinburgh, visiting the most iconic landmark in the city: Edinburgh Castle.
You can easily see the castle from every corner of the city. This castle is the most famous and important castle in the whole of Scotland and sits atop an extinct volcano high above the city.
Edinburgh Castle has a long history as a royal residence, military garrison, prison and fortress, and it is considered one of the oldest fortified places in Europe.
I recommend you pre-purchasing your tickets online to avoid queuing at the entrance. Inside the castle, you will see Scottish artefacts, historical weapons and clothing, and also the “Scottish Crown Jewels”.
The best time to visit the castle is at 1 pm almost any day of the year (except Sundays and bank holidays) when the cannon is fired. This tradition goes way back to 1861.
You can also read: 7-day Scotland Road Trip Itinerary
Walk around the Old Town
The Old Town, as you can guess by its name, is the oldest area of Edinburgh, where the city originally was built and it is still the main part of the capital of Scotland. Much of its medieval streets and buildings.
When you step out of Edinburgh Castle, you will find yourself on Royal Mile Street, which is the historical and cultural playground of the Old Town. There are plenty of boutique shops, restaurants, cafes, museums and a lot of things to see.
While in the Old Town, make sure to walk down Victoria Street, one of the prettiest places in Edinburgh. Its curve and colourful shopfronts make it a popular location for photographers. Here you can find some of the local boutiques, cafes and fine restaurants.
Camera Obscura and World of Illusions
For me, the most fun thing to do in Edinburgh is indeed visiting the Camera Obscura and World of Illusions. On the Royal Mile, not far from Edinburgh Castle, you will find this attraction which has 5 floors of interactive displays and over 100 illusions. On the rooftop, you can enjoy the panoramic view of Edinburgh Castle and the Old Town.
This is a fun place where you can easily spend a couple of hours, especially if you are with kids. Keep in mind that it is a very popular attraction and I recommend booking your slot in advance. You can check the availability and purchase the ticket here.
Stroll through Princes Street and Gardens
Princes Street is part of the New Town and it has been the heart of the city since 1770. It got its name from the sons of King George III. Despite the fact that it started out as a residential street, it is now Edinburgh's iconic shopping street, with a mix of architecture from the Georgian period to the late 20th century.
One of the best things to do in Edinburgh is to walk through the Princes Street Gardens, one of the most beautiful urban parks in the city. This park actually separates Edinburgh’s Old Town from the New Town.
By strolling through the park, you can see a series of monuments including the Ross Fountain and St Margarets Well. Here you can also have a great view of the castle. Probably, this is one of the best places in the city to take an epic photo of Edinburgh Castle. You can use the trees to frame the castle on top of the hill.
Visit the Scott Monument
Standing next to the Princes Street Gardens, Scott Monument is one of Scotland's most impressive landmarks. It is dedicated to Sir Walter Scott, a Scottish historical novelist and playwright. This 61-meter monument is the world’s largest dedicated to a writer.
Climbing the Scott Monument is one of the best things to do in Edinburgh. On the third floor, you can enjoy the breathtaking views of the city. Unfortunately, the monument had to close temporarily in 2021, so you can check here to find out when it will reopen.
Pay a Visit to Greyfriars Bobby
The most famous dog in Scotland is Greyfriars Bobby, who spent 14 years guarding the grave of his owner until he died and was buried here.
This story continues to be well known not only in Scotland but the world, through several books and films. The most famous movie was produced by Walt Disney in 1961.
The statue of Greyfriars Bobby sits across the road from the National Museum of Scotland on the corner of Candlemaker’s Row and George IV Bridge. You can pay a visit to Bobby’s grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard, where also his owner, John Gray was buried. You can easily find his grave since people leave sticks or even dog toys on it.
Hike up Arthur’s Seat
No visit to Edinburgh is complete without a trip to Arthur’s Seat, the highest of a group of hills in Holyrood Park. There are various routes suitable for all abilities. However you might find some steep slopes on some of the routes, but all paths are pretty safe throughout the year. If you are looking for the shortest and easiest walk, drive or walk along the Queen’s Drive to Dunsapie Loch and then take a path to the summit.
The interesting fact is that Arthur's Seat formed from the remains of an ancient volcano, and sits 251 meters above sea level. This means that at the top you will be rewarded with amazing views of the city.
Climb the Calton Hill
If you don’t fancy walking all the way to Arthur's Seat, but you still want to have a great view of Edinburgh in every direction, you can head up to Calton Hill.
At the east end of Princes Street, you will find the steep but short set of stairs which take you to the top. The walk is relatively short and easy.
Calton Hill is part of Edinburgh's UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is home to some iconic Scottish monuments and buildings including the City Observatory. This is one of the best stops to watch the sunset in Edinburgh.
Visit the Holyrood Palace
The Palace of Holyrood House, commonly referred to as Holyrood Palace, is the official residence of the Queen in Scotland. It has served as the main home of the Scottish monarch since the 16th century.
Mary Queen of Scots, the queen of Scotland, once lived in this palace between 1561 and 1567 and you can visit her chambers.
The entrance fee is around £16.50 per adult and you can purchase it here. The Palace is closed every Tuesday and Wednesday, on the 25 - 26 December and during royal visits.
Have fun at Portobello Beach
It might come as a surprise to you that just 20 minutes from Princes Street, sits the 2-mile sandy beach of Portobello, a perfect place to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.
This charming seaside suburb is a popular destination for swimming and sunbathing, especially on a warm and sunny day. There are several bars, cafes and ice cream parlours on the promenade.
Portobello was used to be an independent town until 1896, but it still keeps its unique character. Taking a trip to the seaside is one of the best things to do in Edinburgh. Even if you don’t fancy swimming in the ocean, you can still enjoy watching the waves and walking alongside the beach.
Get Spooked on a Haunted Tour
Edinburgh is home to some of the most haunted places in the world. Its narrow ancient streets and its old spooky looking graveyards provide the perfect setting for some of the scariest haunted stories and tours around the city.
One of the spookiest sites in Edinburgh is Greyfriars Kirkyard, the final resting place of Sir George Mackenzie, a former Lord Advocate, who prosecuted many people brutally in the same graveyard. In this place, there have been multiple recorded incidents of poltergeists attacking people. You can join the guided Graveyard Tour and explore the haunted streets of Edinburgh and hear stories about notorious criminals.
If you like to add some fun to your spooky tour, you can take the Underground Vaults Evening Ghost Tour with Whisky, one of the oldest ghost tours in Edinburgh. This tour will take you to the city’s underground vault and the guide will reveal the dark side of Edinburgh's history during the 2 hours tour.
Leith has served as the port of Edinburgh for hundreds of years and the original harbour dates back to the 14th century. Now it is a lively district with plenty of restaurants and bars.
The main attraction here is the Royal Yacht Britannia, also known as Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia, which served the British Royal Family from 1954 until 1997. It is now open to the public and the ticket includes a self-guided audio guide (in 30 languages). You can end your tour by drinking tea or coffee while enjoying the amazing waterfront views in the Royal Deck Tea Room.
Try some traditional Scottish foods
In addition to all the fun things to do and amazing places to see in Edinburgh, you should also try some traditional Scottish food.
You can start your day with traditional Scottish Porridge which is usually served for breakfast. Unlike other porridge, the Scottish porridge is a savoury breakfast. This means fresh porridge oats cooked in milk with salt instead of sugar.
No visit to Scotland is complete without trying Haggis, Scotland's national dish. The traditional haggis is made from the innards of the sheep mixed with onions, oatmeal, suet and herbs. I know this might not sound appetizing at all, but if you are adventurous, you should give it a try. Otherwise, you can order vegetarian Haggis. I have to admit that I couldn’t eat the traditional Haggis and went for the vegetarian option, and I loved it. It was tasty and very satisfying. Most restaurants in Edinburgh have both options.
Other Scottish dishes to try include Scotch pie, local Scottish salmon, Cullen skink (which is smoked salmon, onions and potatoes soup), black pudding and fried Mars bar.
Take a Harry Potter Tour
Edinburgh is where JK Rowling started writing the famous Harry Potter books. To be specific, she wrote the first of the seven fantasy novels in The Elephant House cafe. That is why checking out the Harry Potter sites is one of the best things to do in Edinburgh for the fans.
One of the best ways to explore Harry Potter’s related sites is to join the 2-hour Harry Potter Magical Guided Walking Tour. In this tour, you will visit the real Grave of Tom Riddle in Greyfriars Kirkyard and will learn about the city that inspired JK Rowling to write the books. Check the availability and prices here.
Go to Dean Village
When it comes to exploring Edinburgh, most first time visitors stick to visiting the top places in the city centre, but just a 7-minute drive from Princes Street, sits Dean Village, one of the prettiest villages in Scotland.
You can find this small but picturesque village right next to the Water of Leith. The village is a quiet residential area. There is not much to do apart from strolling around the narrow cobblestoned streets and taking photos. There are some stairs down to the river, where you can have a better view of the colourful buildings and houses.
Take Day Trips
One of the most popular things to do in Scotland is to take a road trip around the country. Scotland is famous for its breathtaking landscapes, amazing lakes, fairytale castles and beautiful islands. Thus, when visiting Edinburgh, why not use this opportunity to explore other parts of the country.
You can take day trips from Edinburgh by renting a car, or using public transports including coaches and trains, or you can simply book a day tour.
One of the best day trips from Edinburgh is Loch Ness, Glencoe & the Scottish Highlands Tour. By taking this tour you will be able to see the best of Scotland’s Highlands while exploring the traditions, nature and legends of the country. Check the price and availability here.One of the most unique experiences you can have in Scotland is going on a day trip for Discovering Malt Whisky. On this tour, you not only visit the picture-perfect Loch Lomond National Park, but you will also be able to see the process of turning barley, water, and yeast into whisky. Check the price and availability here.