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18 Excellent Things to Do in Edinburgh

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18 Excellent things to do in Edinburgh
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Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland, is filled with so much history and beauty. Whether you’re looking for a hillside walk, a tour of 1,000-year-old buildings brimming with history, a spooky outing that delves into Edinburgh’s dark past or a trip to one of the city’s many great tourist destinations — Edinburgh has a lot to offer! Here are a few of my favourite spots:

Things to Do in Edinburgh, Scotland

Arthur’s Seat

Arthur's Seat lined with people climbing in Edinburgh, Scotland

Located in Holyrood Park, just 15 minutes from the Royal Mile, lies the extinct volcano known as Arthur’s Seat. This natural wonder is the main peak of a spectacular group of hills speckled with heather and wildflowers to the east of Salisbury Crags. It’s a fairly easy climb to the top, from where you’ll be rewarded with stunning panoramic views of Edinburgh and beyond.

The views span so far you can easily spot the Firth of Forth and its famous railway bridge — the Forth Bridge. I recommend checking out Arthur’s Seat as early as possible to avoid crowds. If you get there super early, you’ll also have the chance to watch the sunrise from the peak, which is a beautiful way to spend a morning.

Swan swimming in St. Margaret's Loch next to Arthurs Seat in Edinburgh, Scotland on a sunny day

Bonuses: When you visit Arthur’s Seat, you can also take a look at Saint Anthony’s Chapel on your way up. This historic attraction is located on a rocky outcrop, high above St. Margaret’s Loch. Not much is known about these ruins, but some speculate that the chapel could date back to the 1300s and be possibly used as an outlying chapel for Holyrood Abbey. As you descend from Arthur’s Seat, visit the nearby St. Margaret’s Loch to hang out with some beautiful swans!

Princes Street Gardens

Princes Street Gardens is a beautiful park in the middle of the city centre. It lies between Princes Street and the Mound, which leads to the Royal Mile. Considering how close they are to the busy city centre, the gardens are a remarkably relaxing place where you can sit and unwind. I’ve often made up a picnic and taken it down to enjoy it amongst the trees.

Gardener's Cottage in Princes Street Gardens
Gardener’s Cottage in Princes Street Gardens (Sometimes called the Gingerbread House)

The history of Princes Street Gardens is an interesting one. It used to be the location of the Nor Loch, which is a marshland polluted by sewage and household waste. It was even the final resting place for many suspected witches who were drowned. No wonder the gardens are so lush and green nowadays!

Scott Monument

Scott Monument on Princes Street

Scott Monument towers over Princes Street with its beautiful Victorian Gothic architecture. It’s a monument to Scottish author Sir Walter Scott and a marble statue of him sits in the centre. Inside there’s a spiral staircase with 287 steps divided between four levels.

It sounds normal enough, but you’ve got to be pretty brave to climb to the top! At first, everything seems fine as you make it to each level and step out to admire the view. But the higher up you go, the narrower the stairwell becomes. Soon only one person can fit in the stairwell at any time and you hope you don’t run into anyone going in the opposite direction.

The climb does pay off and when you get to the very top, you get some lovely views of Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh Castle and Calton Hill. This is another example of things to do in Edinburgh I highly recommend visiting on a quiet day. If you see loads of people climbing upwards — stay away!

Related Post: Things to do in Edinburgh: Scott Monument

Calton Hill

Calton Hill in Edinburgh Scotland

Located at the end of Princes Street is Calton Hill, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a photographer’s dream. Here the Dugald Stewart Monument is a hugely popular photography spot because it boasts spectacular views of Edinburgh in the background. Calton Hill is also the location for the annual Beltane Fire Festival — a modern reinterpretation of an ancient Celtic ritual.

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle on a dark misty night

One of the most famous things to do in Edinburgh, Scotland, Edinburgh Castle is definitely worth the visit. Sitting atop a rocky hill, this magnificent fortress is home to both the Stone of Destiny and the Crown Jewels. Edinburgh Castle also has a spooky past, which you can learn about in my The Ultimate Spooky Scary and Haunted Attractions in Edinburgh. My favourite part of the castle is the dog cemetery which acts as a final resting place for soldiers’ loyal pets.

St Giles Cathedral

St. Giles Cathedral on Royal Mile

Founded around 1130 and located on the Royal Mile, St Giles Cathedral is the place of worship of the Church of Scotland. The magnificent building features a stunning display of incredible architecture, including the crown steeple dating back to the 15th century. Inside, the cathedral offers beautiful stained glass windows depicting Scottish saints, the Thistle Chapel and several military memorials for the Royal Scots.

Heart of the Midlothian
Heart of the Midlothian with an extra special piece of litter

Bonus: Just outside St Giles’ Cathedral is the heart of the Midlothian — a heart-shaped mosaic built into the pavement. This spot marks the original doorway of the Old Tolbooth prison where executions took place. Make sure to step around or over the heart and not on it because locals like to spit onto it as a sign of disdain for the former prison!

The Scotch Whisky Experience

Scotch Whiskey Experience in Edinburgh Scotland

If you used to watch the show The Magic School Bus as a child, get ready for some nostalgia because that’s how I describe the first half of the Scotch Whiskey Experience. You climb into a barrel, much like an amusement park ride, and head off on an adventure to learn how Scotch whisky is made, all the while feeling like a tiny adventurer in your barrel. At the end of the tour, you go into a spectacular room with the world’s largest Scotch whisky collection for some tastings!

Holyrood Palace

Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh Scotland

Holyrood Palace (also known as the Palace of Holyrood house) is the official residence of Queen Elizabeth II when she’s staying in Edinburgh. The palace has been the principal residence of Scottish Kings and Queens, including Mary Queen of Scots, since the 16th century. My favourite parts of Holyrood Palace are the beautiful gardens and the ruins of the Augustinian Holyrood Abbey. The palace is located at the end of the Royal Mile, adjacent to Arthur’s Seat.

Victoria Street

Victoria Street from above

Victoria Street is a picturesque cobblestone street that leads down from Grassmarket towards Castlehill. This street is so captivating it was the inspiration for Diagon Alley in Harry Potter. The real lane even has its own Harry Potter shop, aptly named Diagon House. Victoria Street is lined with vibrant, colourful buildings full of independently owned shops. If you’re a big Harry Potter fan or if you just want to see one of the most beautiful streets in the city, definitely add this place onto your list of things to do in Edinburgh.

Greyfriars Bobby & Greyfriars Kirkyard

Statue of Bobby the Skye Terrior from Greyfriars Bobby

Greyfriars Bobby is a statue of a Skye terrier who became well-known throughout the city, following the story of him spending 14 years guarding the grave of his owner. The statue is located just outside of Greyfriars Kirkyard which today is his (and his owner’s) final resting place.

Related Post: Explore Historic Cemeteries around Edinburgh

Grassmarket

Lively Grassmarket in Edinburgh

Situated below Edinburgh Castle and still one of the liveliest parts of the city, Grassmarket was originally one of Edinburgh’s main market places. Today it’s home to a wide range of pubs, including Scotland’s smallest pub, The Wee Pub, which can only hold about 20 people at a time.

The Grassmarket is also where you’ll find one of the scariest haunted pubs in Scotland, called The White Hart Inn. This pub is rumoured to have been the hunting place for Edinburgh’s notorious murderers Burke and Hare.

Surgeons’ Hall Museum

Skulls and things in jars at Glasgow University
No photography is allowed at Surgeons’ Hall Museum so these are from Glasgow University! It gives you an idea, though.

If you’ve ever wanted to see amputated fingers, surgically removed organs or diseased brains and skulls in jars, the Surgeons’ Hall Museum is your place. The exhibitions are split up into pathology, dental and surgery, so you can discover how medical practices worked in the past.

I look at the museum as one of the best educational things to do in Edinburgh, Scotland, as it provides you with loads of fascinating information about the human body. The museum also guards the death mask (a plaster cast of a person’s face following their death) of the infamous Burke, of the body-snatchers Burke and Hare.

Water of Leith

Water of Leith Walkway

The Water of Leith is a 12-mile river that runs through Edinburgh. Lining it on one side is a walkway that offers a serene and peaceful walk through the vibrant, bustling city. You can spot all sorts of wildlife here, such as a beautiful heron searching for his lunch. Taking a leisurely stroll around here is one of the most relaxing things to do in Edinburgh if sightseeing gets a bit too much for you. 

Dean Village to Stockbridge Walk

Dean Village in Edinburgh

Located on the Water of Leith is Dean Village, a quaint little place full of cute houses and cobblestone pathways that were once a milling village. The walk from Dean Village to Stockbridge is the most popular in the area because the route is overflowing with history and beautiful sites, including man-made waterfalls, St Bernard’s Well and the historic Dene bridge. When you arrive at Stockbridge, you’ll see the streets, in particular, the picture-perfect Circus Lane is lined with charming Georgian and Victorian terraced houses.

Related Post: Things to do in Dean Village in Edinburgh Scotland

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

SCOTTISH NATIONAL GALLERY OF MODERN ART

I stumbled across the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art on one of my walks along the Water of Leith walkway. It’s a free art gallery that boasts collections by artists including Picasso and Warhol.

Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh

This is one of my favourite things to do in Edinburgh, Scotland! The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is a beautiful, lush garden filled with all sorts of different types of trees, plants and flowers. The gardens encompass ten glasshouses, including the Victorian Temperate Palm House, the Tropical Palm House and the Queen Mother’s Memorial Garden, all just a 20-minute walk from Princes Street. 

Edinburgh Zoo

Cute little gentoo penguin looking up at the camera at Edinburgh Zoo
My cute little penguin friend at Edinburgh Zoo

Having worked at Edinburgh Zoo, my views might be a little biased, but the Edinburgh Zoo is one of my favourite zoos in the world. It’s located in Corstorphine and sits on quite a steep hill. Here you can meet several very cool animals, such as chimps, penguins, owls, koalas, pandas and the Scottish wildcat! You’ll get in a good leg workout as you spend a day exploring the zoo, so make sure you bring decent walking shoes.

Pentland Hills

A view from within the Pentland Hills
A view from within the Pentland Hills

Pentland Hills, part of the Pentland Hills Regional Park, is a range of hills in the south-west of Edinburgh. These hills are stunning when seen from afar, especially when they’re covered in a light dusting of snow, and are the perfect place to head to for an afternoon walk. As well as the hills, the rest of the park is filled with well-maintained trails, reservoirs and several conservation areas. It’s the perfect place to spend a day relaxing with a picnic or getting a good workout on a hill trek.

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Comments 21

  1. I would add the museum, jazz bar and ghost tours. Also believe it or not I haven’t been to surgeons hall, i should probably go some time.

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      Really?! Next time I’m in Edinburgh we will go. I do think the museum is an excellent choice! And it’s free! I should write a blog post about free things to do in Edinburgh!

  2. Scotland seems to have so much to offer, I should try to visit there someday!

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  3. What an amazing and thorough post! I’ve only been to this magical place once, and only for three days which certainly wasn’t enough. Your piece definitely makes me consider going back. Your photos are incredible by the way.

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      Yes, definitely go back! Edinburgh is a place that you can visit over and over and keep finding new gems to explore! Thank you! I took those photos over the time I lived there without thinking of ever posting them on a blog – so I am glad they worked out!

  4. This is such a great mix of places. Definitely something for everyone! So many beautiful spots in Edinburgh.

    Zoos make me sad, but that penguin is adorable!

    I love that there is a dog cemetery at the Edinburgh Castle. Any castle with those priorities is top in my books! I’m not sure if it would actually make me really sad, though.

    Surgeon Hall Museum is of course right up our alley! Not that I’ll be bringing Jeremy along, but I could quite happily wander around for ages on my own.

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      Yes! Edinburgh really has things for every person. No matter what you’re interested in – Edinburgh has a place for it. I also really loved the dog cemetery at the castle! It made me happy to see that they remembered and respected the lives of the dogs that served with them.

      I have a post coming up on the 12th about Edinburgh Zoo and my views on zoos in general (specifically Edinburgh Zoo as the zoo and I spent a lot of time together during my stay) – let me know your thoughts when that post goes up!

      Surgeon Hall is definitely a hit with me! It was truly fascinating to see how certain illnesses and diseases affected how the bones grew as the diseases took over.

      Thanks for reading Dagney!

      1. Oh! Can’t wait to read the zoo post 🙂 I love how you have one scheduled. Which is normal. We’re so disorganised…

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          Haha do not worry! I had a few days off of work at Christmas and tried to get a few posts scheduled so I can try to be more organized! I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

  5. Scotland has been on my bucket list for absolute ages. I am determined to go this year! Edinburgh looks super beautiful and I love your recommendations. I will definitely be checking out Surgeons’ Hall Museum, I have a taste for the dark so this looks super interesting! Thanks for sharing 🙂

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      I notice you are from the UK too! You should definitely head up there! It’s so close and so amazing. I have a friend who lives in Gloucester (originally from South Hampton) and he never came up to Scotland until I was living there for a visit. Go and tell me all about your trip to Surgeons’ Hall, please!

  6. It’s been quite a few years since my last visit to Edinburgh and so article has me feeling a little nostalgic. I especially remember walking up Arthurs Seat and needing a stop or two on to catch my breathe, but the gorgeous view of the city was a nice reward. Didn’t quite make it to the Edinburgh Zoo, the Botanical Garden or Surgeons’ Hall Museum. So looks like a return trip is in the future. ?

  7. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve been to Edinburgh and this post has me feeling a little nostalgic. I especially remember Arthur’s Seat. I had to stop a very times on the way up to catch my breath, but the gorgeous view of the city was certainly worth it. I didn’t quite make it to Edinburgh Zoo, Royal Botanic Garden or Surgeons’ Hall Museum, so it look like another trip is in the future. ?

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      I love nostalgia! I am glad this post made you feel nostalgic about your past trip to Edinburgh! I am also so happy it has inspired a future trip! I have really been craving another visit to Edinburgh, too. It’s such a wonderful city!

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      Thank you! You should head there when you can! It’s a wonderful place! Thank you for your comment.

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      Thank you! I hope you do make it back! Edinburgh is worth visiting over and over again. Thanks for your comment!

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