The Scottish capital is steeped in history, with many tales to tell. Learn why it’s dubbed the Athens of the North, discover its spookiest spots and find out how to gain entry to one of the biggest attractions, for free. Here’s our guide to Edinburgh’s unmissable points of interest.
The most famous historic landmark in the region is impossible to miss when traversing the city. From its high vantage point on an inactive volcano, the iconic 12th-century fortress has been home to monarchs and military in its time. While entry is pricey, if you’re a member of the Armed Forces, have a Historic Scotland pass, or visit on St Andrew’s Day, you can get in for nothing.
Officially named the High Street, this quaint cobbled Old Town artery is more commonly known as the Royal Mile. Stand in the middle and you’ll glimpse the sea to one end and the castle at the other. It’s the heart of the bustling tourist quarter, with its Gothic architecture, haunted underground passages and many national attractions. The narrow lantern-lit Fleshmarket Close, just off the Mile, was the inspiration for one of Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels and is well worth a spooky wander at dusk.
This legendary Victorian terrier was immortalised in statue form at the entrance to Greyfriars Kirkyard. Bobby held a daily vigil at his master’s grave for a full 14 years after John Gray’s death in 1858 and was the only canine to be awarded the Freedom of the City by the Lord Provost. A tradition of rubbing the statue’s nose began, revealing the golden brassy colour beneath. But with Bobby’s snout now wearing away, it’s far better luck to leave him be and snap a photo instead.
If you’re seeking fresh air and panoramic views over the region, take an hour or two to hike up this ancient volcanic peak. The magnificent skyline includes an expanse of rolling hills, the sea on two sides and a bird’s eye perspective of the capital. It can get busy and extremely windy, so for optimum serenity, it’s best enjoyed at sunrise on a calm day.
The Grassmarket was the macabre scene of public executions in the 17th and 18th centuries. But today it’s the place to be for cosy historic pubs, outdoor dining and boutique shopping. Stand on the spot of the “last drop” hanging, then queue for a creative double-scoop gelato from Mary’s Milk Bar, a destination ice-cream shop with daily changing flavours.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Calton Hill has amazing views, iconic structures and a stargazing observatory. Its National Monument, designed by Charles Robert Cockerell and William Henry Playfair in the mid-19th century, bears an uncanny resemblance to the Parthenon in Greece – and thus how the city gained its nickname, the Athens of the North. The hill is a short and easy climb if you access it from Royal Terrace, with gentle sloping pathways taking you all the way to the top.
The castle may be the most famous royal landmark in the city, but it’s actually the Palace of Holyroodhouse that plays hosts to Her Majesty when she’s in town. A visit is enhanced with the audio tour, and if you fancy the closest thing to tea with the Queen, book a deluxe champagne afternoon tea in the mews of her Edinburgh home.
The unusual contemporary building housing the Scottish Parliament is found directly opposite the Palace of Holyroodhouse. It was designed by Spanish architect Enric Miralles who sadly died before its completion. The structure has generated a marmite effect – voted among Britain’s Most Vile Buildings by the public in a 2005 Channel 4 poll – but it has also won many plaudits, including the Stirling Prize. Love it or loathe it, you mustn’t miss it.
Climb 287 steep steps up a narrow spiral staircase and you’ll reach the top of one of the world’s tallest monuments dedicated to a writer. Inaugurated in 1846 in honour of Sir Walter Scott, it straddles the New and Old Towns from its perch in Princes Street Gardens. The dark granite silhouette looms over the city in imposing Gothic style.
After four decades as the Royal Family’s floating holiday home, this elegant liner relocated to the Port of Leith to take on a new life as a five-star attraction. Explore the engine room, state apartments and stand at the ship’s wheel, as you learn about her illustrious maritime history. Visitors can now stay in regal luxury next door, on Britannia’s boutique sister ship, the recently launched Fingal.
The striking, red Forth Rail Bridge is another of the region’s UNESCO World Heritage sites and one of Scotland’s most recognisable points of interest. It was completed at the turn of the 20th century, later joined by a parallel road bridge and then, in 2017, by a third roadway, the Queensferry Crossing. See them close-up in South Queensferry, on the outskirts of Edinburgh, or from the capital’s many hills and rooftop bars.