15 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do In Edinburgh
Of all the cities in the world, Edinburgh - the capital and cultural center of Scotland for over 500 years - occupies one of the most beautiful locations. Sometimes described as the "Athens of the North", this famous festival city boasts Greek-style columns on Calton Hill, a wide choice of museums and art galleries, as well as a host of historical gems. Edinburgh actually consists of two cities: the castle, set on high basalt rock, dominates the densely populated Old Town, a labyrinth of narrow alleys and rows of houses. While grand squares, wide avenues and elegant facades characterize the Georgian New Town, a masterpiece of 18th century town planning.
See also: Where to Stay in Edinburgh
1 The Royal Mile
The Royal Mile refers to the road linking Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Lined with charming townhouses and historic landmarks, this splendid thoroughfare is a great first stop in Edinburgh with its fine shops (including kilt makers), numerous inns, museums, cafés and restaurants. Many of the buildings are tall, averaging six to 15-stories and referred to locally as "lands". Narrow little alleys, called "winds" with the hidden backyards "closes", weave in and around them.
Some of the most popular attractions are to be found at the upper end of the Royal Mile - commonly called Castle Hill - and include Outlook Tower and the Camera Obscura with its outstanding views; the Tolbooth (St John's Highland Church) with the city's tallest church tower; Gladstone's Land, a six-story merchant's house with pretty ceiling paintings and original furniture; and Lady Stair's Close, home to the Writer's Museum displaying manuscripts, portraits, etchings and memorabilia of the poet Robert Burns and writers Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.
2 Edinburgh Castle
Scotland's most famous landmark, Edinburgh Castle is one of Britain's most visited tourist attractions. Highlights include the One O'clock Salute from Half Moon Battery (cannon fire commemorates the tradition of helping ships synchronize their clocks); the impressive Scottish National War Memorial; and the stunning collection of Crown Jewels housed in the Royal Palace. Another notable feature is the Stone of Destiny (aka, the Stone of Scone), famously stolen by Edward I and placed under the English throne in London - only returned to Scotland 700 years later in 1996.
If you want to save time, consider purchasing a Skip the Line: Edinburgh Castle Entrance Ticket, so you can spend more time touring the castle instead of waiting in the long lines.
Address: Castle hill, Edinburgh
3 Palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Abbey
The Palace of Holyroodhouse is the Queen's official Edinburgh residence and has frequently been at the center of Scottish history: it was where James II and James IV were each married, where James V and Charles I were crowned, and where "Bonnie Prince Charlie" held court in 1745. When the Queen's away, public access is permitted to the stunning Historic Apartments (former home of Mary Queen of Scots) and the State Apartments, famous for their fine furnishings, tapestries and plasterwork.
The Great Gallery is also worthy of a mention with its portraits of Scottish kings, both legendary and real. Tours are also available of neighboring 12th century Holyrood Abbey, founded by King David I. Afterwards, be sure to snap a shot of the lovely Holyroodhouse Fountain outside the palace.
Hours: 9:30am-6pm (Apr-Oct); 9:30am-4:30pm (Nov-Mar)
Admission: Adults £16; Children (under 17), £9 (under 5, free); Families, £41
Location: Royal Mile, Edinburgh
4 Holyrood Park: Arthur's Seat and the Salisbury Crags
At 820 ft, Arthur's Seat is the highest point in the 640-acre Holyrood Park. The spectacular sightseeing views from the top encompass the whole city all the way to the mouth of the Forth. (The easiest way up is from the park's Dunsapie Loch.) Also an easy climb are the dramatic Salisbury Crags, a series of 151 ft cliffs adjacent to Arthur's Seat. Other features in this huge park are the ancient cultivation terraces - some of the earliest and best-preserved examples of ancient farming practices in Scotland, and the picturesque ruins of the medieval St Anthony's Chapel.
5 St Giles Cathedral
Consecrated in 1243, St Giles Cathedral is Edinburgh's principal church. The 161 ft central tower with its eight arched buttresses forms a huge crown (the Crown Steeple) and is a favorite backdrop for photos. Interior highlights include memorials to the dead of WWI, lovely stained glass windows, and a statue of John Knox, leader of the Protestant Reformation (his former home, 45 High St, is close by and contains a museum and related artifacts). The Thistle Chapel is known for its marvelous oak carvings, heraldic emblems and seals of the "Knights of the Thistle" (Scotland's oldest order of knights). Sir Robert Lorimer designed the chapel in 1911, and it is a superb example of modern Gothic style.
6 The Royal Botanic Garden
Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Garden is the second oldest such garden in Britain. Within its magnificent 70-acres are a herbarium and Britain's biggest palm house, a tropical house with exotic orchids, an alpine house, a terraced moorland garden, a heather garden, and an extensive arboretum with rare giant trees from the Himalayas, North America and China. Other highlights are the woodland garden with its colorful azaleas, hydrangeas, camellias and rhododendrons; an aquatic house with tropical water plants such as the pink water lily from India; and touring displays in the Exhibition Hall.
Hours: Daily, 10am-5pm
Admission: Garden - Free; Glasshoues - Adults, £5; Children (15 and under), Free
Address: 20A Inverleith Row, Edinburgh
7 National Museum of Scotland
Since opening in 2011, the National Museum has become one of Scotland's most popular attractions with close to two million visitors each year. It incorporates collections from a number of Edinburgh's older museums. Highlights include national archaeological collections, medieval artifacts, plus displays focusing on natural history, geology, art, science and technology. Among the 16 galleries, the most interesting of more than 8,000 artifacts on display include Dolly the sheep, the world's first cloned mammal, as well as some of Elton John's more elaborate stage costumes. Traditional museum displays include material from Ancient Egypt, and the infamous Maiden, an early form of guillotine.
Hours: Daily, 10am-5pm
Address: Chambers St, Edinburgh
8 Princes Street
Busy Princes Street is Edinburgh New Town's main thoroughfare. It extends for almost a mile and is lined with colorful gardens and elegant shops, including the tradition-conscious Jenners of Edinburgh, the world's oldest independent department store. House of Frasers at the western end is also quite grand, while Princes Mall with its small shops set among fountains and cafés offers goods of varying quality. As well as these temples to consumerism, Princes Street boasts several reputable hotels and restaurants, from fast food to gourmet bistros.
Of interest to those keen on genealogy is New Register House, home to the Scottish National Archives, some of which date from the 13th century. Princes Street's historic landmarks include the 200 ft tall Sir Walter Scott Monument, and the David Livingstone Memorial, a memorial to the missionary and African explorer. When you're done with all that shopping and history, head for Princes Street Gardens - home to the world's oldest floral clock (1903).
9 Art City: The National Galleries of Scotland
Paintings of Scotland's leading historic figures from the 16th century to the present day can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery, one of Edinburgh's three major art galleries. The highlight of the gallery's 65,000-plus pieces is the huge processional frieze showing Scotland's most famous personalities, including Robbie Burns, Sir Walter Scott, Sean Connery, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary Stuart and Bonnie Prince Charlie, among others. The second major art collection is housed in the Scottish National Gallery, which boasts Scotland's biggest collection of European paintings and sculptures, beginning with the Renaissance and including some Post-Impressionists.
Finally, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art displays paintings by Henry Matisse and Pablo Picasso, surrealistic works by Rene Magritte, Joan Miró and Max Ernst, contemporary paintings by Bruce McLean, Callum Innes and Gwen Hardie, and sculptures by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and David Hockney. It's a lot of art (and walking), so you may want to spread your visits over a couple of days.
Hours: Daily, 10am-5pm
Address: The Mound, Edinburgh
10 The Royal Yacht Britannia
One of Edinburgh's newest attractions is the Royal Yacht Britannia. Over the years, this luxurious vessel has hosted numerous famous people from around the world, although none perhaps as famous as the Queen. After more than 40 years serving the Royal Family, the 60-year-old vessel was sent to Leith, Edinburgh's port area, as the centerpiece of the Britannia Visitor Centre. Once aboard, you'll learn about the history of this and other Royal Yachts as you explore the ship's five main decks. Highlights include the Royal Apartments and bedrooms, the lovely sun lounge, and the onboard Royal Deck Tea Room.
Hours: Daily, 9:30am-4:30pm
Admission: Adults, £12.75; Children (5-17), £7.75
Address: Ocean Dr, Leith, Edinburgh
11 Calton Hill and the Scottish National Monument
Calton Hill provides a panoramic view of the city that should not be missed. To the west lie Princes Street and the castle, to the south the old town is silhouetted against Arthur's Seat. And in the east and north, the Firth of Forth and the docks at Leith are clearly visible. At the foot of the hill stands the 13th century Royal High School, where Sir Walter Scott was once a pupil.
Opposite Calton Hill stands a memorial to Scottish poet Robert Burns, a favorite of Edinburgh's highest social circles. Perhaps the most important of Edinburgh's many memorials is the impressive National Monument on Calton Hill, erected to remember the dead from the Napoleonic Wars. Henry Playfair designed the memorial using the Parthenon in Athens as his inspiration and work began in 1822, but the project had to be abandoned due to lack of money. Also of note here is Nelson's Monument, unveiled in 1816 after Horatio Nelson's victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.
12 National Library of Scotland
On George IV Bridge stands the National Library of Scotland, one of the largest libraries in Britain. Established around the collection of the former Advocate's Library in 1689, the library receives a copy of every book published in the UK. Notable features - apart from its huge book collection - are the seven figures in the entrance symbolizing different teaching methods. As well as its permanent exhibition on Scottish history, the library also houses touring exhibitions on historical themes. A popular stop for those with an interest in genealogy, the National Library is also a major European research library, and visitors are welcome to obtain a library card in order to review material in the facility's private reading rooms.
Address: George IV Bridge, Edinburgh
13 Greyfriars Church and Greyfriars Bobby
Located at the south end of picturesque Candlemakers Row, Greyfriars Church boasts the city's oldest graveyard that serves as the final resting place for a number of celebrated Scots, including poet Allan Ramsay (1686-1758). The first "National Covenant", directed against Charles I's attempt to impose the constitution of the Anglican church on Scotland, was signed here in 1638, under which framework, the Church would be subjected to the power of the state. Buried within the Covenanters Prison is James Hutton, considered by many as the father of modern geology. Perhaps the most famous name associated with the church, however, is Greyfriars Bobby. In 1858 this Skye terrier loyally followed the coffin of his master, John Gray, to the graveyard and until his death 14 years later refused to leave. A kennel was built for him to shelter in, and a famous landmark outside the church is a statue of Bobby erected in 1873.
Address: 1 Greyfriars, Edinburgh
14 Not Just for Kids: The Museum of Childhood
Fun for kids of all ages, the Museum of Childhood includes excellent collections of old toys including model railroads, dolls and games from around the world. But it's more than just a place full of old toys (as much fun as they are): the museum explores other aspects of growing up, including a fun look at schooldays, trends and fashions. Adding to the authenticity is a re-creation of a Victorian streetscape complete with outdoor toys, as well as an opportunity to dress up in period costumes and play the kinds of games our ancestors would have enjoyed.
Hours: Mon-Sat, 10am-5pm; Sun, 12pm-5pm
Admission: Free (Donations are welcome)
Address: 42 High St, Edinburgh
15 Our Dynamic Earth: Edinburgh's Science Centre
Our Dynamic Earth is a multi-media presentation that takes visitors on a 500 million year journey through the earth's history. Using hi-tech gadgetry and superb special effects, its displays realistically portray natural events such as volcanoes, tropical rainstorms and glaciation. Located at the foot of Arthur's Seat near Holyrood Park, this unique science center is housed in an ultra-modern tent-like structure and is particularly fun for kids. And thanks to facilities like the excellent 360-degree Showdome with its 3D movies, it's as entertaining as it is educational.
Hours: Daily, 10am-5:30pm
Admission: Adults, £11.50; Children (3-15), £7.50
Address: Holyrood Rd, Edinburgh
Where to Stay in Edinburgh for Sightseeing
If you're visiting Edinburgh for the first time and want to see all the main sights, the city center makes a great base, especially the areas of Old Town, with the Royal Mile, and New Town, with the fabulous shops of Princes Street. The more affordable West End is also a popular and convenient place to stay. These areas put you in close range of the city's top historic attractions, such as Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Abbey, as well as museums, galleries, and restaurants. Here are some highly-rated hotels in these central locations:
- Luxury Hotels: Steps away from the Royal Mile, Old Town Chambers offers fantastic value - especially for families and extended-stay travelers - with its luxurious contemporary apartments. Each is unique, with features such as exposed stone from the 15th century and gabled ceilings. In New Town, about a ten to fifteen-minute walk from the city center, The Howard is an affordable luxury boutique hotel occupying three Georgian townhouses and is much-loved for its personal butlers and sumptuous individually-decorated rooms. For those who prefer a large chain hotel, the Sheraton Grand Hotel & Spa, with a pool, is only ten minutes on foot from the castle. All the well-appointed rooms feature media hubs and glass-walled bathrooms, and some overlook the castle.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Sitting right on the Royal Mile, The Inn on the Mile offers great-value, stylish rooms with iPod docks and wonderful city views, a five-minute walk from the castle and Princes Street. In New Town, the Ibis Styles Edinburgh Centre St Andrew Square, with bold, colorful decor, is pet-friendly and a 12-minute stroll from the Royal Mile. Another excellent chain option in the heart of the city is the Premier Inn Edinburgh City Centre (Princes Street) Hotel, with castle views from its restaurant. It sits within walking distance of the castle and the Royal Mile, as well as Edinburgh's best museums and galleries.
- Budget Hotels: The great-value Travelodge Edinburgh Central Princes Street is in a fantastic location opposite Edinburgh-Waverley train station and close to shops, restaurants, and the Royal Mile, while the Cairn Hotel Edinburgh has compact, clean rooms. It lies less than a ten-minute walk from the city center. About a fifteen-minute walk from the Royal Mile, Regent House Hotel offers guest rooms and family rooms with period furniture and comfy beds.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Edinburgh
- Sightseeing Tours: If you're planning to see the city's top attractions, the Royal Edinburgh Ticket Including Hop-On Hop-Off Tours and Edinburgh Castle Admission will save you the hassle of finding your way around the city. Hop aboard the double-decker open-top bus and cruise around the sites, listening to the audio commentary and jumping off at your favorite attractions. The tour is valid for 48 hours. Best of all, it includes admission to prime sights such as the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the Royal Yacht Britannia, as well as fast-track entry to Edinburgh Castle.
- Day Trip Tours: Breathtaking countryside, quaint villages, and the famous Scottish Highlands beckon not far from Edinburgh, and you can save time and trouble if you explore the surroundings on a day trip tour. Let an experienced driver take you through the countryside in the comfort of a Mercedes van on the Loch Ness, Glencoe and the Highlands Small-Group Day Trip from Edinburgh. This full-day guided tour includes a visit to beautiful forested lochs, tiny villages, Glencoe, Cairngorms National Park, Fort Augustus, and the chance to search for the Loch Ness monster. Also focusing on the Scottish Highlands is the West Highland Lochs and Castles Small Group Day Trip from Edinburgh. Castles, lakes, breathtaking scenery, and small villages are the highlights on this full-day guided tour, which includes discounts at select local restaurants, shops, and attractions. You don't have to be a golfer to enjoy the St. Andrews and Fife Small Group Day Trip from Edinburgh. It includes a visit to the fishing villages of East Neuk, Falkland Palace, and, of course, a visit to St. Andrews, known as the home of golf as well as Scotland's oldest university. If you have more time and want to see the dramatic scenery of Scotland's northwest coast, consider the 3-Day Isle of Skye Small-Group Tour from Edinburgh. In the comfort of a Mercedes van, you'll visit the Scottish Highlands, with stops at Glencoe and Loch Ness, and the Isle of Skye. Included in the tour are a professional driver and guide, two nights at a B&B or three-star hotel, and two breakfasts.
Other Points of Interest in Edinburgh
City Art Centre
The City Art Centre is an important municipal art gallery. On Market Street, which runs parallel to Princes Street, it is near North Bridge and part of the Scotsman Building. As well as a large permanent exhibition of more than 3,000 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures (mainly by Scottish artists from the 17th to 20th centuries such as Hornel, Lorimer, Fergusson, Peploe and Elizabeth Blackadder) it's also a popular venue for major touring exhibitions.
Hours: Mon-Sat, 10am-5pm; Sun, noon-5pm
Admission: Free (Donations welcome)
Address: 2 Market St, Edinburgh
The Classical facade on the north side of Charlotte Square near the west end of Queen Street was completed in 1791 by Robert Adam and is widely regarded as his finest work. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, was born at No 16 and Joseph Lister, who first discovered the importance of antiseptics in medicine, lived at No 9.
An image of idyllic village life is created by Dean Village, northwest of Princes Street. This picturesque little spot lies in a wooded gorge carved by the meandering waters of the Water of Leith, which during the Middle Ages supplied the power for Edinburgh's many flour mills, as well as weavers and tanners. Inscriptions and house signs from the 17th century recall the bakers' guild, while St Bernard's Wall by Leith Walkway is an attractive example of classical landscaping. Alexander Nasmyth erected the round temple with a statue of Hygieia in 1789.
Picturesque Grassmarket has been one of Edinburgh's most important market squares since the Middle Ages. Mentioned in documents as early as 1477, it later became notorious as a place for public executions from 1660 (the exact location of the gallows is marked by a sobering plaque). On the north side of the market place stands The White Hart Inn where poet Robert Burns stayed and in 1791 famously penned his poem, Ae Fond Kiss for his beloved Clarinda. Another of the inn's famous poet guests was William Wordsworth. Located just a few minutes walk from Edinburgh Castle and Princes Street, it's a bustling pedestrian friendly area with shops and cafés that are equally as popular with students from Edinburgh University and locals as they are with tourists.