Edinburgh is one of the most loved cities in the world. Not only is the Scottish capital steeped in rich (and gory) history, but it is also home to a vibrant cultural scene. The city stuns visitors with its world-famous castle, as well as its beautiful Victorian and Georgian architecture, while also playing host to a variety of festivals, including a few offbeat events.
If you are visiting Edinburgh for the first time, you wouldn’t want to miss the city’s main attractions. However, you might also want to explore Edinburgh beyond the guidebook
by visiting some lesser-known sites in the city. Regardless of when you go, there’s plenty to keep you busy during your stay. In fact, it is likely that you won’t be able to tick off all the places on your list, which is why I have decided to share my top recommendations with you.
In this blog post, I have rounded up the best things to do in Edinburgh (all tried and tested by yours truly), from the touristy to the not-so-touristy and bizarre. Whether you’re looking for free things to do in Edinburgh or just want to see as many attractions as possible, check out my list of not-to-miss attractions in this marvellous city.
I highly recommend staying at ibis Edinburgh Centre
on South Bridge. While the rooms may be a bit pricey during peak season, the hotel is very modern and central (just a corner away from the Royal Mile). Oh, and the beds are super comfy!
FREE THINGS TO DO
1. Stroll through the Saturday market in Grassmarket
Formerly a place of public executions, the Grassmarket is nowadays a hive of activity (not of the gory type), where you’ll find a variety of restaurants, pubs and cafes, plus a few quirky shops. Every Saturday, local farmers, bakers and artisans set up stalls with fresh, mouth-watering treats. If you’re visiting Edinburgh on a budget, the Grassmarket is the perfect stop for a quick bite – but you wouldn’t want to drop by on an empty stomach!
There are also a number of events taking place at the Grassmarket throughout the year, including vintage fairs and unplugged sessions.
TIP: On a nice, warm day, you can enjoy some delicious ice-cream from Mary’s Milk Bar
2. Go up Arthur’s Seat
Wherever you are in Edinburgh, you can always feel the presence of the mighty Arthur’s Seat at your shoulder. The remnants of an extinct volcano, Arthur’s Seat looms over the city at 251m above sea level.
The climb is not as daunting as it looks, and there are different paths you can take to get to the rocky summit. Your reward? Well, you’ll get some staggering views of Edinburgh, and afterwards you can head back to the city centre and spend the rest of the day gorging on some of the best cakes in Edinburgh
TIP: You need at least two hours to go up and down Arthur’s Seat. Check out this guide
for more information about the walk.
3. Take a walk along the port of Leith
The Port of Leith is definitely worth a visit if you want to get out of the city centre for a day. The old maritime centre of Edinburgh, Leith is now home to a bustling shopping mall, but many tourists head to the port to see the Royal Yacht Britannia; the Queen’s floating residence.
Instead of taking the bus to the port (Ocean Terminal), you might want to follow the path along the river, known as the Water of Leith Walkway
. This public footpath passes through some of the most beautiful areas in Edinburgh, tucked away from the commotion of the city centre. This walk is also a great way to explore the little-known side of Edinburgh. There are plenty of pubs and cafes in Leith, particularly at The Shore, where you can enjoy a drink and a nice meal at the waterfront.
TIP: Clock on the Shore
in Leith serves delicious and cheap meals. After lunch, you can head to Mimi’s Bakehouse for a sweet treat.
TIP: Clock on the Shore in Leith serves delicious and cheap meals. After lunch, you can head to Mimi’s Bakehouse
for a sweet treat.
4. Explore Dean Village
Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the city is the charming Dean Village, where chocolate-box houses sit on the banks of the Water of Leith. It’s easy to forget that you’re in Edinburgh when visiting this sleepy village, despite being a mere five-minute walk from the city centre.
Dean Village used to be a grain milling area, where eight mills were powered by the strong currents of the river. One you get there, keep following the footpath along the Water of Leith until you arrive in the gorgeous neighbourhood of Stockbridge.
5. Have a picnic in Princes Street Gardens
You’ll find it hard to believe that these beautiful gardens used to be a boggy lake. On a nice day, Princes Street Gardens are teeming with people basking in the sun. If you need to give your feet a well-deserved rest, grab some food and plant yourself in the gardens, under the watchful eye of the castle.
TIP: If you’re in Edinburgh in spring or summer, you will normally find a busking band playing at The Mound (next to the Scottish National Gallery). The Spinning Blowfish
tend to attract a large crowd with their upbeat music.
6. Absorb stunning views from Calton Hill
Calton Hill is the place to go for some great shots of the city. Crowned with an Athenian acropolis, which was erected as a memorial to those who perished in the Napoleonic Wars, Calton Hill is a popular spot among tourists and local photographers.
7. Take a stroll through the Royal Botanic Garden
If you’re just tried of all the sightseeing and want to spend a a day just relaxing, head to the botanic garden with a book and plant yourself in a nice spot. You can even treat yourself to a nice hot drink and cake from the cafe on the hill and just take in the beautiful views of the city’s skyline.
8. Get to know Scotland’s famous writers at The Writers’ Museum
The Old Town of Edinburgh is characterised by towering tenements and narrow streets. In the seventeenth century, the need to accommodate for the growing population inevitably led to higher buildings and the narrowing of existing passageways.
The enclosures between tenements, also referred to as ‘closes’, became Edinburgh’s slum areas. Nestled in one of these closes, you can now find one of Edinburgh’s lesser-known gems; the Writers’ Museum.
Situated in Lady Stairs Close, The Writers’ Museum
boasts a collection of manuscripts, furniture pieces and everyday necessities that had once belonged to Scotland’s finest writers. Visitors get an insight into the lives of Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, including an invitation into the latter’s dining room.
9. Get lost in an illusion at Camera Obscura
Close to Edinburgh Castle is an entrance into the world of illusions and magic, the Camera Obscura
. The museum’s collection of optical illusions will make you see everyday situations through a different lens (literally), which might leave you feeling rather mystified, and perhaps even a bit light-headed.
10. Brave your way through the city’s haunted underground
As you walk down the Royal Mile you’re bound to come across different tour companies promoting ghost walks in Edinburgh’s underground chambers.
The underground vaults located beneath Edinburgh’s South Bridge were once used as storage space by tradesmen in the late eighteenth century. As the industrial revolution gained momentum, these merchants had to abandon the vaults due to the incessant amount of sewage that had started to leak through the ceiling.
The vaults were soon occupied by the city’s poorest families. At the same time, these underground chambers became a target area for robbers and murderers, including the notorious serial killers Burke and Hare.
During the Great Fire of 1824, many town dwellers took refuge in the vaults, thinking they would be completely safe within stone walls. However, they did not realise that stone would gradually heat up, which led to hundreds of people trapped inside the vaults being cooked to death.
It is no surprise, then, that the underground vaults are allegedly the most haunted place in Scotland.
11. Visit Edinburgh Castle
It might be the most touristy thing to do in Edinburgh, but you can’t visit the Scottish capital without exploring its star attraction. Scotland’s iconic castle houses the country’s Crown Jewels, the stunning Great Hall, and the oldest building in Edinburgh; St. Margaret’s Chapel, among other historical treasures.
12. Experience the Fringe
Edinburgh becomes one big festival venue in summer, as thousands of tourists flock to the city to attend the world-famous Edinburgh Festival Fringe
and The Royal Military Tattoo. Streets, theatres and pubs are packed throughout the months of July and August, so you should only book a summer trip to the city if you’re willing to join the festive buzz… and pay higher prices for accommodation.
Edinburgh becomes one big festival venue in summer, as thousands of tourists flock to the city to attend the world-famous Edinburgh Festival Fringe and The Royal Military Tattoo
. Streets, theatres and pubs are packed throughout the months of July and August, so you should only book a summer trip to the city if you’re willing to join the festive buzz… and pay higher prices for accommodation.
13. Participate in pagan rites at the Beltane Fire Festival
Another equally exuberant event is the Beltane Fire Festival
on the eve of May Day. Every year, the Beltane Fire Society traces the pagan roots of May Day and brings the ancient sabbath to life on Calton Hill. The festival reenacts the pagan ritual of the May Queen and the Green Man. Fire dancers give a spectacular show, while performers covered in tribal body paint dance to the beat of drums.
14. Spend a few hours exploring Craigmillar Castle
15. Indulge your inner history geek at the National Museum of Scotland
Museums aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but the National Museum of Scotland
is something special. Delve into the fascinating history of Scotland and the wider world, and let yourself be transported back in time. You may also want to go up to the terrace where you get some staggering views of Edinburgh.
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