Must-Visit Attractions in Edinburgh

You certainly wont be short of things to do in a city as exciting and historic as Edinburgh
You certainly won't be short of things to do in a city as exciting and historic as Edinburgh | © JOHN KELLERMAN / Alamy Stock Photo
Culture Trip

Edinburgh, the craggy, walkable capital of Scotland, is utterly beguiling. Edinburgh’s many attractions stretch from the centuries-old cobbled streets and wynds (narrow lanes) of the compact Old Town to the graceful Georgian squares and wide, sandstone house-lined streets of New Town; from the crag of Arthur’s Seat to the port of Leith. Whether you’re into royals, castles, contemporary art or pub crawls, book yourself into into one of the best cheap hotels in Edinburgh (or one of the best luxury hotels in Edinburgh), and get exploring. If you’re thinking of visiting in August, when the city becomes one massive party, book your accommodation way ahead.

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Edinburgh Castle

At the top of most visitors’ lists of things to do in Edinburgh, this imposing military stronghold has been sitting amid the black crags of Castle Rock for almost a thousand years, repelling invaders marching up from England and doubling as a royal residence. Don’t miss the recreated prisons inside the castle vaults, the Honours of Scotland (Scotland’s crown jewels) and the Stone of Destiny on display inside the Royal Palace, the Romanesque St Margaret’s Chapel (Edinburgh’s oldest building) or the pageantry of the One O’Clock Gun.

Writers’ Museum

If you’re a devotee of Scottish literary giants Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott, look out for a narrow close between the Royal Mile and the Mound that leads you to this engaging museum inside the 17th-century Lady Stair’s House. One for diehard fans, it allows you to wander around the premises, perusing the writers’ original manuscripts as well as personal effects and first editions of Scott’s Waverley and Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses.

Real Mary King’s Close

A tour of this subterranean labyrinth – a mediaeval Old Town alleyway that was perfectly preserved for more than 250 years beneath the foundations of the City Chambers – is justifiably one of Edinburgh’s top attractions. Costumed actors regale you with gruesome and ghostly tales as they lead you through the plague-stricken home of a 17th-century gravedigger and a 16th-century townhouse, among other buildings. Some visitors claim to have seen the ghost of a child called Annie in one of the rooms.

Scottish Parliament Building

Opinions are very much divided about the aesthetic appeal of the seat of Scotland’s devolved government, opened by Her Majesty in 2004. It’s well worth seeing this Edinburgh attraction for yourself during one of the free hour-long tours to make up your own mind about the asymmetrical panels on the main facade (open curtain = government transparency), the triple-arched concrete ceiling of the Main Hall and the strangely shaped windows on the western wall that are a nod to one of Scotland’s most famous paintings. To catch a parliamentary debate in session, book a ticket to the Debating Chamber.

Palace of Holyroodhouse

If you’re into gossip involving royalty, intrigue and grisly murders, this place is for you. It’s Queen Elizabeth II’s official Scotland residence, but that little factoid takes a backseat to the story of Scotland’s ill-fated 16th-century monarch – Mary, Queen of Scots. Inside this handsome building, you can visit the bedchamber where pregnant Mary was held down by her second husband – who had her favourite secretary, David Rizzio, murdered next door by his henchmen in a fit of jealousy. Don’t miss the Great Gallery, lined with portraits of Scotland’s monarchs through the ages. Make sure your visit doesn’t coincide with Her Majesty’s, as the palace is closed to visitors.

Arthur’s Seat

Located in Holyrood Park, this is a craggy reminder that Edinburgh was built on a long-extinct volcano; it’s also the city’s highest point at 251m (823ft), a place where university graduates come to celebrate by carving their names into the rock at the very top, and where outdoorsy dog-walkers bring their pooches during their Sunday constitutionals. Sit and daydream while looking out over the city panorama and the Highlands on the horizon. Various trails criss-cross the place; it takes fit walkers around 45 minutes to reach the top if setting off from Holyrood.

Our Dynamic Earth

Designed to teach young’uns all about the environmental and geological marvels of our planet, this futuristic attraction is one of Edinburgh’s top attractions for families with kids. Multimedia exhibits inside this huge white marquee are an enjoyable ramble from the Big Bang up to the 21st century; highlights include presentations about dinosaurs, as well as 3D films on various themes.

National Museum of Scotland

Spread across two buildings – a contemporary, fortress-like construction of honey-coloured sandstone, and a 19th century Victorian edifice that hides a striking wrought-iron and glass atrium – this fantastic Edinburgh museum is an enjoyable romp through the history of Scotland, from its earliest inhabitants through industrialisation and fashion through the ages to Dolly the cloned sheep. Find artefacts from the Islamic world, ancient Egypt, China and beyond in the Victorian building.

Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Not to be confused with the Scottish National Gallery, the collection of portraits inside this Venetian Gothic palace, across the street from New Town’s Queen Street Gardens, is one of Edinburgh’s biggest attractions. The photographs, paintings and sculptures are an extensive Who’s Who of Scotland’s most famous sons and daughters, from Mary, Queen of Scots to thespian Sean Connery, while the frieze in the Great Hall depicts early Scottish greats, starting with Calgacus, a fierce Caledonian chieftain who (unsuccessfully) fought against the invading Romans.

Surgeons’ Hall Museums

Considering a career in surgery or dentistry? Don’t let the exhibits at these fascinatingly gruesome 19th century teaching collections put you off: this is compelling viewing. Step inside this splendid Ionic temple building and peruse the collections of ye olde dental tools in the Dental Collection, as well as the tumours and various bodily organs floating in jars of formaldehyde in the Pathology Museum. Sherlock Holmes fans shouldn’t miss the display on Dr Joseph Bell, on whom Arthur Conan Doyle’s character was modelled, nor the pocketbook made from the skin of executed murderer Burke inside the History of Surgery Museum.

Camera Obscura & World of Illusions

It’s such a deceptively simple device, yet utterly captivating. Spy on unsuspecting passers by, whose live perambulations are captured on a large horizontal screen with the help of a 19th century camera obscura – a clever contraption made up of mirrors and lenses. Other rooms in the Outlook Tower are dedicated to illusions of different kinds, and there are terrific views of the castle and Old Town from the rooftop.

The Scotch Whisky Experience

If you have even a passing interest in Scotland’s national drink (no, not Irn-Bru), step inside this multimedia centre near the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle to learn all about whisky-making, from barley to bottle. The immersive experience engages all your senses and highlights include viewing the world’s largest collection of single malts and tasting a few of them (the exact number depends on the tour you’ve opted for).

Rosslyn Chapel

A couple of miles south of Edinburgh, this intricate 15th-century chapel is well worth your time. You may remember the theory spun by the novel The Da Vinci Code – that the Holy Grail is buried beneath the spectacularly carved Apprentice Pillar inside. While that’s not actually true – though plenty of Da Vinci fans have come in search of it – Rosslyn is arguably Scotland’s most beautiful church, with striking architectural features. Don’t miss the spectacular vaulted ceiling, the upside-down Lucifer in the Lady Chapel, or the Green Man – a pagan symbol of spring – also in the Lady Chapel.

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Stuck for things to do in Edinburgh during inclement weather? This contemporary art gallery, reachable via a scenic walk from Dean Village along the Water of Leith, features a show-stopping collection of contemporary art. While various 20th-century European movements are accounted for, with works by the likes of Giacometti, Picasso, Matisse and Miró, it’s the home-grown talent that dominates here, from the Scottish Colourists of the early 20th century to the hottest names from the present day.

Royal Yacht Britannia

Most of us are curious by nature and, if we’re honest, love to poke around other people’s houses. One of the fun things to do in Edinburgh involves heading over to Leith (Edinburgh’s port) – or staying in one of the best hotels near the Royal Yacht Britannia – then wandering the decks of the royal family’s floating holiday home from 1953 to 1997 and getting a real insight into Her Majesty’s private life. We won’t spoil it for you, but suffice to say that Her Majesty’s personal tastes skewed towards austere decor, that she and Prince Phillip did not share a cabin, and that travelling involved five tonnes of luggage and an entourage of dozens.

Edinburgh Zoo

The royal yacht aside, if you’re out and about in Leith with your kids, you may as well check out another stellar Edinburgh attraction: one of the world’s top conservation zoos. Besides the different climate zones dedicated to creatures from various corners of the earth, there’s the entertaining penguin parade (daily, after lunch) and you may spot the zoo’s most famous residents: giant pandas Tian Tian and Yang Guang. The zoo’s captive breeding programme has helped to bring red pandas, Siberian tigers and pygmy hippos back from the brink, among others.

This is an updated version of a story by Tori Chalmers and Helena Smith.

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