Whether you’re interested in witchcraft, royals or writers, there are many must-see attractions in the Scottish capital.
No visitor will be short of things to do in Edinburgh. There are, of course, many historic sites, from the castle on its rugged crag to the distinctly spooky Greyfriars churchyard. However, other attractions bring visitors bang up to date – there’s Dynamic Earth for science buffs, as well as outstanding modern art collections. Put on your walking shoes to navigate the hills and cobblestones and get exploring.
This unmissable Edinburgh museum comprises two contrasting but complementary buildings: a Victorian palace made of wrought iron and glass and the other a modern sandstone fortress with a striking circular tower. With everything from Dolly the cloned sheep to a fashion gallery and extensive displays on world cultures, it’s hard to know where to start. This excellent combined Edinburgh History Walk and National Museum tour will help focus your explorations.
Trippy and inspiring, the Camera Obscura and World of Illusions is Edinburgh’s oldest purpose-built visitor attraction, created back in 1835. This alluring labyrinth contains a maze of mirrors and a magic gallery, with plasma balls and both optical and old-style illusions. The star of the show (and namesake), the camera obscura, sits within the Victorian rooftop chamber, offering unrivalled views of the surrounding city streets and the citizens who walk them – you view the action via the magic of pinhole technology. This popular tour will help you get the best out of this historic yet strangely futuristic attraction.
The mighty fortress of Edinburgh Castle towers over the city, on a rock formed as a result of millennia of glacial erosion. This guided tour is a great way to explore the best of this complex of buildings and its history of monarchs, sieges and battles. At 1pm each day, a gun salute booms out from the castle across the capital. Other military attractions include the 1457 Mons Meg cannon and a war museum, while kids can seek out the soldiers’ dog graveyard. It also offers panoramic views of the beautiful city sweeping down to the sea.
Gracefully guarding the bottom end of the Royal Mile near the Scottish Parliament Building and Arthur’s Seat is the opulent Palace of Holyroodhouse. This royal residence has been the home of kings and queens of Scotland since the 16th century, and it remains an official residence of the Queen. Expert tours of the palace take in the state apartments, Mary, Queen of Scots’ historic chambers and the evocative ruins of the neighbouring abbey.
One of Edinburgh’s many wonderful (and free) gems, the Scottish National Gallery is housed in a grand Neoclassical temple in Princes Square Gardens, containing the national collection of fine art. As well as masterworks by art history heroes Raphael, Botticelli, Turner, Monet and van Gogh, there’s an excellent collection of Scottish art, including sensitive portraits by 18th-century genius Allan Ramsay.
Greyfriars Kirkyard offers an alternative way of exploring Edinburgh’s history, via mortsafes and funeral monuments that date back to the 16th century. Most famous for loyal canine visitor Bobby, the graveyard has a more grisly past; a Covenanters’ prison sits alongside the tomb of Sir George ‘Bluidy’ Mackenzie, whose poltergeist spirit is said to interrupt these chilling graveyard tours often – take one if you dare.
Travel under Edinburgh’s skin into a maze of subterranean streets and closes from the 16th through 19th centuries. The Real Mary King’s Close, lurking below the Old Town, is the source of many a juicy and macabre tale, from plague outbreaks to a mysterious royal visit, brought to life on these excellent guided tours.
Taste the water of life at The Scotch Whisky Experience, and let the whisky gurus reveal all there is to know about Scotland’s national tipple. Tour the replica distillery, gawp at 3,500 bottles of the iconic elixir, ride in a whisky-barrel car and take home a tasting glass. There’s an attached shop, restaurant and whisky bar, should you fancy a post-tour dram.
Known locally as The Botanics, these extensive gardens are one of the most colourful ways to spend an afternoon in Edinburgh. Discover approximately 13,500 species, including a giant lily pond, a Scottish heath garden and Victorian glasshouses filled with exotic plants from around the world. Its café is famed for its excellent scones, which you can take away and enjoy on the cool grass on a hot summer’s day. In winter, the Royal Botanic Garden transforms into a white wonderland.
Walk in the footsteps of royalty and climb aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia, which once ferried the Queen from port to port. This royal vessel, in service from 1954 until 1997, is berthed at Ocean Terminal in Leith and is well worth a visit. These audio tours tell of celebrity visitors (Liz Taylor and Frank Sinatra among them) and share delightful anecdotes such as the glowing Rolls-Royce Phantom V onboard, which was used when her majesty disembarked.
There’s no better way to honour Edinburgh and Scotland’s rich literary heritage than with a visit to The Writers’ Museum. This intriguing place lies within Lady Stair’s House, tucked away down a close off the Royal Mile. Explore a fascinating array of portraits, publications and personal objects related to Scottish literary heroes Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson.
The home of Scottish rugby, BT Murrayfield is a great draw for local and international sports fans. The stadium opened in 1925 with a victory of the home rugby team over England, an intense rivalry that continues to this day. Stadium tours take you through the famous tunnel and onto the pitch, as well as around displays of memorabilia, including the Calcutta Cup.
Standing stoic on the buzzing Royal Mile, St Giles’ Cathedral is dedicated to Saint Giles, the city’s patron saint and protector of cripples and lepers. The vaulted ceilings, intricate carpentry and stained-glass windows of the (mostly) 15th-century structure have an undeniable wow factor, while the famed crown steeple plays a notable role in Edinburgh’s skyline. Outside the western door, look out for the Heart of Midlothian, set into the cobbles – the somewhat icky local tradition says that spitting on it brings you good luck.
This wonderful old timbered house dates back to 1470 and is the only one of its type left on the Royal Mile. Lively tours shed light on the oak-clad interiors, as well as on former residents, including Reformation leader and preacher John Knox and James Mossman, friend and goldsmith to Mary, Queen of Scots who was ultimately executed.
From Cubism and Expressionism to 20th-century Russian and French pieces, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is unmissable for art buffs. With two early-19th-century buildings to explore (Modern One and Modern Two) and sweeping green spaces dotted with sculptures (including monumental earthworks by Charles Jencks), it’s well worth leaving the city centre to explore the galleries. Modern Two contains the intact studio of erstwhile Edinburgh sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi.
The Victorian Gothic pinnacle of the Scott Monument is the world’s tallest tribute to an author, erected in honour of Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott. Located in Princes Square Gardens, it stands 61 metres (200 feet) high and has 287 steps – those who climb the narrow, spiralling, dark stone stairs will be rewarded with some of the best panoramas in town.
This wonderfully nerdy centre covers everything you ever wanted to know about earth science, from the Big Bang and abiogenesis to glaciation and plate tectonics. Sitting under the crags of Arthur’s Seat under a huge tent-like structure, Dynamic Earth’s standout experiences are a trip in the Deep Time Machine and a virtual underwater exploration in a yellow submarine.
The Scottish Storytelling Centre puts on a variety of performances and other events | Courtesy of Scottish International Storytelling Festival
The Scottish Storytelling Centre is an arts venue that’s home to the Scottish International Storytelling Festival, putting on plays, film screenings and exhibitions that serve to preserve and play with the nation’s narratives. Study its events listings and time your visit for a story session. On the outside, you’ll see a bold contemporary building; on the inside, it’s an immersive experience for the imagination.
Make new memories by exploring the playtime of children from centuries past at the Museum of Childhood. As the first-ever museum dedicated to the history of childhood, this time capsule contains youthful curiosities such as tin soldiers, toy trains and spinning tops. The engaging collection of memorabilia dates as far back as the rare wooden Queen Anne Doll of 1740.
Blink and you’ll miss Makars’ Court, a secluded courtyard commemorating Scotland’s greatest writers via inspiring quotes inscribed on a patchwork quilt of flagstones. Sited next to The Writers’ Museum, this ongoing national literary monument honours makars (makers) of the craft of writing. Scotland’s current official makar (the country’s equivalent of a poet laureate) is Jackie Kay.