For a fabulous weekend getaway that will leave you feeling like you’ve been away for months, you have to visit Edinburgh. There’s a reason it makes number one spot on my best romantic cities in the UK list! Just a hop on a plane from London, you can be there in no time at all and make the most of all this Scottish wonder has to offer.
From an iconic wander down the Royal Mile, to experiencing J.K. Rowling claims-to-fame, or diving into fascinating geology at Dynamic Earth, there’s really something for everyone. Here are the best things to do in Edinburgh:
1. Wander the Royal Mile
I’ve got to kick off with suggesting you take an amble along the Royal Mile. The Royal Mile is actually over 1 mile with an additional 107 yards, if we’re being picky! It links the impressively majestic Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s official residence and a place packed with Scottish royal history. It will of course feature amongst your top things to do in Edinburgh.
This is a great way to start your trip to Edinburgh as it will give you a really good feel for this small and compact city as it runs right through the heart of the old town. The little cobbled alleys which offshoot from the main thoroughfare will no doubt tempt you for a detour.
Lots of Edinburgh’s attractions sit along the Royal Mile, from the Scottish Parliament to The National Gallery and the Real Mary King’s Close.
2. Enjoy outstanding Scottish fare
It’s tricky to nail down just a handful of places to suggest as fabulous places to eat in Edinburgh, but lesser-known Pibroch is definitely worth a visit and one to watch. This contemporary Scottish restaurant is actually in the process of moving to the Royal Mile and I’m sure this is going to add to the incredible authenticity and warm welcome you’ll get.
The food is absolutely incredible. From warming and hearty Cullen Skink through to Haggis, Neeps and Tatties; this is Scottish food done exceptionally well. Don’t forget to leave room for the Cranachan Parfait – you won’t be disappointed!
For something a little more decadent, I highly recommend Forage and Chatter. The food is truly excellent, using locally sourced produce to create some genuine culinary masterpieces! It’s located in the heart of Edinburgh’s West End, so it’s easily accessible.
3. Do magic at the Department of Mysteries
If you’re a Wizarding World fan, or simply excited by all things themed, magical and fun, then you absolutely have to visit the Department of Mysteries and their Magical Potions Tavern. Without a shadow of a doubt, it is one of the best things to do in Edinburgh, especially if you love all things Potter.
There are two magically themed escape rooms (one is a short walk away) which aren’t just themed fantastically; they are mighty clever and engaging, even for the most die-hard escape artists. I really recommend starting with The Prophecies Quest and then, if you’re completely hooked, fitting in Dark Lord Resurrection too.
What you really must do is order a Magic Potion and Magic Shot in the Tavern afterwards (non-alcoholic versions available and just as awesome). It’s an experience you’ll not forget!
Edinburgh is awash with things to do as a Harry Potter fan. From visiting the sites that inspired J.K. Rowling’s books to themed tours, there’s something for all Potterheads. I really recommend heading to Victoria Street (which is a very quintessential and architecturally pleasing street) and visiting a store called Museum Context which is bursting with official merchandise. If you get peckish, I can rate grabbing yourself a cracking bap stuffed with pulled pork and apple sauce, with crackling on the side, from Oink which is virtually opposite.
4. The Real Mary King’s Close
Actually found under the Royal Mile, expect an immersive and impressive excursion into 400 years of Edinburgh’s history. The character guides bring this incredible site to life and, if you weren’t a believer in Edinburgh’s spooky side before, you will be by the time you finish your tour. This is the only preserved 17th century street in Edinburgh, and it’ll really give you a fascinating insight into life during the Plague and lots of other times in history too. Can you hear the little girl crying?
5. Hike up Arthur’s Seat
Right, this isn’t your average city break! Slap bang in the heart of Edinburgh, in Holyrood Park, is Arthur’s Seat. It’s a rocky outcrop which is the remains of an extinct volcano – yes, effectively it’s a mountain. Standing proud at 251m above sea level and therefore dominating the Edinburgh landscape and affording incredible vistas, Arthur’s Seat has to be on your Edinburgh to-do list.
There are a number of different routes which take you to the top. Now you could take the most popular, steep-but-fast route up from Dunsapie Loch. It’ll give you the tick, but honestly, it’s not the full Arthur’s Seat experience in my opinion. Instead, I recommend combining your hike with a trip to Dynamic Earth (see below) and walking up from the other side. These routes are longer (albeit gentler) but the views are worth it. So, pack your walking boots for this city break!
6. Dynamic Earth
Come down off Arthur’s Seat and enjoy the rest of your day at Dynamic Earth. It will bowl you over with its hands-on story of planet earth as you move through impressively interactive galleries. You’ll actually feel the rumble of seismic shifts and feel the piercing intensity of laying your hand on an iceberg. Watch the Big Bang or explore the Rainforest. If evolution even just slightly fascinates you, then Dynamic Earth will satiate your curiosity.
7. Camera Obscura and World of Illusions
For another cool thing to do in Edinburgh (and a great place to dodge in from the rain), take a visit to the Camera Obscura and World of Illusions. As well as with the Camera Obscura itself (which is very clever), the rooftop boasts 360° views of the city. Indeed, you’ll feel like you can almost reach out and touch the people walking up the Castle concourse!
Once you’re done up top it’s time to enjoy five other floors of bewildering and discombobulating illusions. You’ll have tonnes of fun in The Vortex Tunnel, and will likely spend a ridiculously long time trying to navigate yourself out of the Mirror Maze (or was that just me?).
The World of Illusions is consistently rated as one of the most fun things to do in Edinburgh.
8. The Scotch Whisky Experience
Ok, as you’d expect, this is a tourist mecca, but it’s still worthy of your time and attention.
There are various tours that you can enjoy at The Scotch Whisky Experience, but if you’ve got kids with you then stick to the Silver option. You’ll be taken on a fascinating tour of how Scottish whisky is made, and the importance of the landscape in its development. I loved the 360° aerial tour of Scotland zooming me outside of the city limits to places like Skye. And the child in you will squeal with delight at the adult scratch-n-sniff card for discovering the different whisky aromas.
You finish off the tour with your very own dram of your own choosing (Irn Bru for the littlies), before spending some time in The World’s Largest Collection of Scotch Whisky. You’re even given a crystal tasting glass which makes for a perfect souvenir of your Edinburgh trip.
9. Scottish National Gallery
Before you even head to Scotland, you need to dedicate a couple of hours to watching Sunshine on Leith. Homage to famous Edinburgh band, The Proclaimers, this is an upbeat musical film set in Edinburgh and showcasing it at its best. Anyway, one scene that will etch its way into your feel good best-ever-movie-moments has The National Art Gallery as the backdrop, with the scene taking place on the infamous Mound. So, for that reason alone (as well as lots of other Sunshine on Leith sites), you have to visit Edinburgh.
Inside the Scottish National Gallery, you can step away from the bustling streets to find a wonderful collection of fine art (both Scottish and international) spanning history from the Renaissance up to the early 20th century.
If modern art is more your thing, then the Gallery of Modern Art is just a few minutes away and also really worth a visit.
10. Go shopping and take in views
Whether you want to relax away an hour or two in an authentic Scottish pub or stock up on shortbread alongside designer pieces, Princes Street is the place to go. Here you’ll find contemporary shopping in a wonderful setting.
Whilst you’re here, pop into Princes Street Gardens and check out the views from the top of the Scott Monument. You’ll have to wend your way up 267 narrowing winding steps (not for the faint-hearted!), but the panorama is completely worth it.
And of course, whilst in Edinburgh, you must nab yourself a kilt in the tartan of your clan! There are several places on Princes Street, The Royal Mile and Victoria Street too.
11. Edinburgh Castle
Of course, top of your list of things to do in Edinburgh is going to be a visit to Edinburgh Castle. Wherever you go in the city, the Castle is there, providing a majestic backdrop. There really is so much to do here that it can easily be a whole day excursion or more.
Highlights include the 12th century St Margaret’s Chapel, Lang Stairs and witnessing the One O’Clock Gun.
12. The Edinburgh Fringe
Every August, for three weeks, Edinburgh takes its usual energy, vibe and eclecticism and takes it to the next level with The Edinburgh Festival Fringe – the world’s largest arts festival. Expect show after show, music after music and everything from books to modern media galore.
The Fringe is intense, vibrant and so much fun. If you can handle the city being awash with even more tourists than usual, you have to be there.
With very similar dates to The Fringe, a bucket-list item is The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. These series of tattoos (shows, for those not in the know) are incredible military displays on the Castle esplanade. Expect bagpipes, marching, music and fireworks.
13. Journey beyond the city
One of the fantastic things about Edinburgh is that it’s perfectly positioned for exploring so much else in Scotland. There are loads of things to do around Edinburgh, so it’s difficult to pick just a few. Even better, if you go by train you get to experience the very famous Waverley Station.
One favourite of mine is a quick hop to North Berwick (foodie haven!) where you can choose between fabulous crab, seabass, line-caught mackerel and, of course, lobster at The Lobster Shack, or dip into Tom and Michaela Kitchin’s The Bonnie Badger. Another favourite is the university town of St Andrews. Of course, Loch Ness is do-able in a day. I do love the crumbling ruins of Tantallon Castle and the nearby caves. If you’re an Outlander or Monty Python fan, I also recommend a trip to Doune Castle (A.K.A. Castle Leoch to Jamie adorers…).
14. Feel at home in Grassmarket
Just behind the castle is the area known as the Grassmarket. Although rich with history, this area is often considered to be the modern and thriving heart of the town. It’s packed full of independent stores and boutiques, eateries, bars and pubs. It’s quite a different shopping experience to Princes Street, so if you have time, I recommend both.
15. Royal Botanic Gardens
There are few things quite so pleasurable to do on a pleasant summer afternoon in Edinburgh as the Royal Botanic Garden. Just a mile from the city centre, the gardens are awe-inspiring (and scientifically really important!). The views from here are worth it alone. There are 72 acres to explore, so pack a picnic and have some fun.
Edinburgh is a city that keeps on giving. You’ll need to be realistic and accept that you’ll be coming back again and again. That’s okay though – you’ll want to! Once Edinburgh has got into your heart, it’s there to stay!
If you’re looking for somewhere to stay, I can wholeheartedly recommend Crescent House. This is where I stayed when I visited – the house is absolutely stunning, and the hosts Paul & Mike are so wonderful and welcoming. Use the code Fringe2021 for 10% off Fringe accommodation.
Do you have any other recommendations for the best things to do in Edinburgh? If so, leave a comment or get in touch on social media!