Edinburgh is a captivating city, known for its majestic castles and vibrant festivals.
However, there’s a lot more to the Scottish capital than meets the eye. Behind its Georgian facades, you’ll find a wealth of culinary delights and curious attractions.
In this post, I share the best things to do in Edinburgh (all tried and tested), from the touristy to the not-so-touristy. So, let’s dive right in!
Table of Contents
Best things to do in Edinburgh Old Town
Let’s start with the main attractions. Here are the top things to do in Edinburgh Old Town.
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.
Edinburgh Castle houses the Crown Jewels and the Stone of Destiny, among other priceless artifacts. It’s also home to the oldest building in Edinburgh: St. Margaret’s Chapel.
You’ll need at least two hours to explore the entire castle, and I highly recommend booking your tickets online to beat the queues.
Get lost in an illusion at Camera Obscura
Founded in 1835, Camera Obscura is one of the oldest tourist attractions in Edinburgh.
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.
On a clear day, you can climb up to the roof to enjoy beautiful views of the Old Town.
Indulge in a literary treat at The Writers’ Museum
Situated in Lady Stairs Close, The Writers’ Museum weaves together the lives and works of three iconic authors: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
The museum offers a glimpse into the profound impact these writers had on Scottish literature and beyond. You can admire a collection of rare manuscripts and original editions, as well as a few interesting items that once belonged to these writers.
Grab a bite to eat or a unique souvenir from the 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 and food artisans set up stalls with mouth-watering treats, including homemade pastries, cheeses, and freshly baked bread.
There are also stalls with vintage items and bric-a-brac, like vinyl records, coins, and ornaments, as well as beautiful hand-crafted gifts.
On a warm day, you can sit outside with a nice drink, or grab a delicious ice cream from Mary’s Milk Bar.
Venture into the city’s haunted underground
The underground vaults beneath Edinburgh’s South Bridge were once used as storage space by tradesmen.
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 later occupied by the city’s poorest families, who became a popular target 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. But they did not realise that the stone walls would gradually heat up, and they ended up cooked to death.
These vaults are thought to be the most haunted place in Edinburgh. One of the chambers houses a temple that was once used by a local Wiccan coven.
Best things to do in Edinburgh New Town
Edinburgh’s New Town is characterised by elegant Georgian houses, cool cafes, and cozy gardens. It’s also home to a few hidden gems.
Here are the best things to do in Edinburgh New Town.
Explore Dean Village & Stockbridge
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. The mills were powered by the strong currents of the river.
Once you get there, keep following the footpath along the Water of Leith until you arrive in the gorgeous neighbourhood of Stockbridge.
There are several nice gift shops and cafes in Stockbridge. Some of my favourite places include:
- Caoba, a gift shop with colourful Mexican-inspired items
- Soderberg, a Swedish bakery and coffee shop
- Cafe No. 33, a cafe that serves delicious soups and sandwiches
While you’re here, make sure to check out Circus Lane. This cobbled alley is lined with cute little houses and flower pots.
From Stockbridge, you can make your way up to Princes Street. There are several restaurants and shops along the way.
Go for a stroll in Leith
The Port of Leith is definitely worth a visit if you want to get out of the city centre for a day.
Formerly the maritime centre of Edinburgh, Leith is now home to a thriving food and drink scene, its quaint streets lined with hipster cafes and bistros.
You can take a walk along the waterfront and breathe in the fresh air. Then, you can stop off at the Shore and enjoy a nice meal with views of the old harbour.
After lunch, you can head to Mimi’s Bakehouse for a sweet treat.
From here, you can make your way back to the city centre along the Water of Leith. There’s a walkway that winds around the river and takes you through some of the prettiest neighbourhoods in Edinburgh, including Stockbridge.
The walk from Leith to the city centre will take about 30-45 minutes, but it’s a peaceful trail and you might spot some herons and swans along the way.
Visit the galleries
You don’t need to be an art aficionado to enjoy these galleries. The buildings in themselves are beautiful works of art, and the rich collection of paintings will walk you through the colourful history of Scotland and beyond.
Best things to do in Edinburgh on a sunny day
If you’re visiting Edinburgh in summer, you might get some lovely warm weather. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to soak up the sun in the city.
Have a picnic in Princes Street Gardens
You’ll probably find it hard to believe that the lush Princes Street Gardens used to be a boggy lake. On a nice day, the area is 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.
I also recommend climbing up Castle Hill for beautiful views of the New Town. There is a path that zigzags across the hill, plus a few benches where you can rest and take in the views.
Enjoy the views from Calton Hill
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.
The hill is one of the best places to watch the sunset, especially in summer, when the days are longer and the evenings warmer.
On a clear day, you can even see the Kingdom of Fife on the other side of the firth.
Step into paradise at the Royal Botanic Garden
The Royal Botanic Garden is a wee slice of paradise in the city, and you can explore it for free!
On a beautiful day, you can stroll through the 70 acres of gorgeous landscape, with hidden paths and little ponds. Alternatively, you could take a book and plant yourself in a quiet spot.
If you get hungry, there’s a cafe that serves snacks and hot meals. From here, you can also enjoy beautiful vistas of the city’s skyline.
Go up Arthur’s Seat
Wherever you are in Edinburgh, you can always feel the presence of 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 to the viewpoint is not as daunting as it looks, and there are different paths you can take to get to the rocky summit.
Your reward? You get some staggering views of Edinburgh!
Go for a breezy walk along Portobello beach
Did you know that Edinburgh is home to a beautiful sandy beach?
Portobello is a lovely neighbourhood situated along a long stretch of sandy coastline. The promenade is lined with beautiful Victorian beach houses, as well as a few cafes.
The beach is very busy on a warm summer day. This is also a great spot for watching the sunset.
Best things to do in Edinburgh on a rainy day
Dreich day? Dinna fesh! You can still have a wonderful time in Edinburgh when the weather’s bad.
Here’s what to do when it won’t stop raining.
Step back in time 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, marvel at fascinating artifacts from different cultures, explore scientific inventions, and learn more about some of the world’s most amazing creatures.
You can spend the entire day here. There’s even a nice cafe and restaurant.
Make sure not to miss the Millennium Clock Tower, which plays every hour on the hour.
Take a food tour with a local
Scottish cuisine doesn’t get the attention and praise that it deserves. Believe it or not, Scottish food is more than just haggis and deep-fried mars bars.
If you want to get a true taste of Scotland, consider taking a food tour with a local. It’s also an excellent activity for a rainy day!
My top recommendation is the Edinburgh Secret Food Tour. Led by a local, this tour takes you to some of the best lunch spots in Edinburgh, where you get to try a variety of dishes and sweets, including cullen skink, artisan cheeses, and homemade fudge.
Plus, you get to learn some interesting facts about Edinburgh along the way!
Pop into the secondhand bookshops
Edinburgh is home to several second-hand bookshops. In fact, the city is a mecca for bookworms and collectors of old books.
A great place to start your “bookshop crawl” is West Port, near the Grassmarket.
For example, Cabaret Antiques, Curios & Books is packed to the rafters with classic hardbacks and old bric-a-brac. There are also Armchair Books and Edinburgh Books, where you’ll find a vast selection of fiction and nonfiction titles.
Hit the malls
Edinburgh is home to several malls, including the newly revamped St. James Quarter in the city centre.
Here, you’ll find a large selection of shops, cafes, and restaurants. In fact, there’s plenty to keep you busy on a rainy day.
Best things to do in Edinburgh to escape the crowds
Edinburgh can get quite crowded in summer, especially during the Fringe Festival. Fortunately, there are plenty of places that offer some respite from the crowds.
So, here’s how to get away from the touristy spots.
Take a trip to South Queensferry
Want to get out of the city, without leaving the city?
Take a trip to South Queensferry, a beautiful suburb of Edinburgh that sits on the Firth of Forth.
Here, you can admire the majestic Forth Bridge, a railway bridge built in the late 1800s that’s considered to be an architectural marvel.
South Queensferry is home to some of the best fish and chips in the country, as well as a few good ice cream parlours. Plus, you can take a boat cruise around the firth, where you get to visit a medieval abbey on a wee island. You might even spot some sea lions!
You can get to South Queensferry by bus (the journey takes around 45 minutes), or by train (just a 10-minute trip).
Hike the Hermitage of Braid Trail
Fancy a wee hike in Edinburgh?
There is a clear path that runs along a stream and takes up several hills, where you can take in panoramic views of the city.
To get to the Hermitage, you’ll need to get the bus to Comiston Road in Morningside.
Explore Edinburgh’s lesser-known castle
Craigmillar Castle may not be as popular as Edinburgh Castle, but its ruins are a playground for curious explorers.
This is one of the best-preserved medieval castles in Scotland. For a while, it served as the residence of Mary, Queen of Scots.
The castle has a network of secret passageways and chambers, and its towers offer panoramic views of Edinburgh’s outskirts. You can also spend some time exploring the castle’s beautiful surroundings.
Frequently asked questions about Edinburgh
Now that we’ve looked at the best things to do in Edinburgh, let’s address some of the most common questions about the city.
Are 3 days enough for Edinburgh?
If you’re only interested in the main attractions, then yes – three days should be enough for Edinburgh.
However, if you want to get to know the city beyond the tourist sites, you’ll need at least 4 days.
What are the top things to do in Edinburgh?
Here are the best things to do in Edinburgh if you’re only in the city for a day or two:
– Visit the castle
– Explore the Royal Mile
– Climb Calton Hill
– Walk through Princes Street Gardens
– Take a tour of the underground vaults
What are the top things to do near Edinburgh?
Want to get out of the city centre for a day? Here are the best places to visit near Edinburgh:
– South Queensferry
– North Berwick
Recommended Edinburgh tours
Want to explore Edinburgh with a guide? Here are my top recommended tours.
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