The Top Things To Do in Edinburgh

Circus Lane is just one highlight in Edinburgh
Circus Lane is just one highlight in Edinburgh | © Oliver Hitchen / Alamy Stock Photo
Home to classic literature, diverse culture, fine food, an uproarious nightlife and some of the world’s most iconic historical structures, Edinburgh has a charm and versatility that many cities don’t have. Make the most of your time in the Scottish capital by following Culture Trip’s definitive bucket list of the best things to do.

With rugged hills, monstrous monuments and sleek glass architecture punctuating its skyline, Edinburgh is a city where old meets new and the past overlaps with the present. As such, it makes for an incredibly diverse itinerary. By day, there are museums and galleries to see, not to mention the castle to explore up close. By night, you can taste the true nature-to-plate dining experience in one of its many restaurants and visit a boisterous backstreet pub to find overflowing pints and fiddlers playing into the wee hours. With so much to do, it’s daunting to know where to start. Whether you’re a temporary resident or an Edinburgher by birth, check off everything on this list, and you can officially say you’ve ‘done’ Edinburgh.

Gaze up in awe at Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle, Scotland. © Bailey-Cooper Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

While Edinburgh Castle is worthy of a visit, any city native will tell you that the panoramas are the best part of the entire tour. Instead of buying an entry ticket, walk up to the castle and soak in its surrounding grounds and views for free. From there, intrepid explorers might consider walking from the castle, down towards Holyrood Palace, and finishing with a scale of Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano. A post-hike pint (be it of ale or orange juice) and some tasty pub grub at The Sheep Heid Inn in Duddingston will serve as your reward.

Devour chips with ‘salt and sauce’

Clamshell Fish and Chips shop, Royal Mile, Edinburgh. © Jonathan Littlejohn / Alamy Stock Photo

No trip to Edinburgh would be complete without a visit to one of the city’s many chip shops. L’Alba D’Oro in Canonmills is a local favourite, as is Leith’s Pierinos, which was bestowed the honour of Best Fish and Chip Establishment at the 2018 Food Awards Scotland. While there’s plenty to tempt you on Pierinos’s menu – breaded fish, deep-fried pizza, sweet chilli haggis – get a portion of chips with “salt and sauce” on the side. What is “salt and sauce”? It’s a condiment peculiar to the region that is, quite simply, a mixture of malt vinegar and brown sauce, sprinkled with salt. Get it to take away and gorge yourself by the waters of The Shore.

Enjoy a glass of the good stuff at a whisky-tasting tour

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society Tasting Room, Edinburgh. © Universal Images Group North America LLC / DeAgostini / Alamy Stock Photo

Leaving Edinburgh without tasting some fine whisky would be sacrilege. There are countless whisky tours and tasting sessions to choose from, but Culture Trip recommends wetting your whistle with liquid gold at the majestic Scotch Malt Whisky Society, a private member’s club with venues all over town. Offering tasting sessions to all patrons – including non-members – it’s home to the most varied selection of single-malt, single-cask whiskies in the entire world. True connoisseurs of the tipple will be forgiven for never wanting to leave this old-school establishment.

Soak up culture at the city’s many galleries and museums

The William Hole entrance hall, Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Sérgio Nogueira / Alamy Stock Photo

With so many galleries and museums spread across Edinburgh, which ones should you prioritise? Start with the Scottish National Portrait Gallery – a grand gothic building housing the national collection of portraits of famous Scots – located just off Princes Street. In Dean Village, you’ll find the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, with works from Andy Warhol, Salvador Dalí and many others hanging on its alabaster walls. The National Museum of Scotland and adjacent Royal Museum, however, are perhaps the most crowd-pleasing, with collections covering science, technology, natural history, world culture and, of course, Scottish heritage.

Amble along the Royal Mile

Looking down the royal mile, Edinburgh. © Loron Black Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

Stretching from Castle Rock to Holyrood Palace is the Royal Mile – a cobbled street that is, essentially, Edinburgh’s main artery. Although it’s energetic year-round, the road is particularly rambunctious come August as festival flyerers and street performers vie for your attention. Start at Holyrood and work your way up, stopping to take in St Giles’ Cathedral and the Heart of Midlothian – a mosaic heart crafted into the cobblestone that marks the site of the Old Tolbooth (a once-notorious prison) – which locals spit on for luck. Alternatively, side-step into The Fudge House for a wholesome sweet treat. Finish your saunter with a riffle through the curiosity shops on Victoria Street.

Discover fine Scottish cuisine at The Kitchin’s acclaimed restaurants

Celebrated chef duo Tom Kitchin and Dominic Jack are behind The Scran and Scallie © The Scran and Scallie

No one puts Scotland’s bountiful natural larder to better culinary use than The Kitchin, a Michelin-star restaurant housed in an old whisky warehouse in Leith, and its sister restaurants, which you’ll find dotted around the city. In Stockbridge, there’s The Scran & Scallie, a gastropub with a modern Scottish menu and a Scandi-Scot interior with open fireplaces and sheepskin throws layered over wooden dining chairs. Order the steak pie. New to Bruntsfield is Southside Scran, an achingly stylish bistro complete with a Maestro Rotisserie in the dining room. In Old Town, there’s Castle Terrace restaurant – another Michelin-star venue specialising in British dishes made with French techniques.

Climb Calton Hill at sunset

View across the city of Edinburgh from Calton Hill © Anthony Brown / Alamy Stock Photo

A mere stone’s throw from Princes Street stands Calton Hill – a protruding green-grass pasture in the heart of the city. Atop it sits a domineering Athenian acropolis; the sheer size needs to be seen up close to be believed. From the hill’s peak, you’ll be treated to unrivalled views across the capital, which always looks its prettiest set against a sunset sky.

Laugh until your sides get sore at The Stand Comedy Club

The Stand Comedy Club in Edinburgh © Jeffrey Blackler / Alamy Stock Photo

Edinburgh is a city that takes its comedy seriously. When the world-renowned Fringe Festival isn’t taking place, The Stand Comedy Club is every funny aficionado’s first port of call. Whether you have a penchant for stand-up, skits or new talent, you’re sure to get your fill via one of the club’s four nightly acts. Ticket prices start from just £3, peaking at £18 for headliners, but get there early on a Sunday to watch the improv sessions for free.

Scare yourself silly on a ghost walk

A tour guide talks to a group of tourists in St Cuthbert's Churchyard in Edinburgh's old town. © Ian Rutherford / Alamy Stock Photo

Every city has dark tales to tell, and Edinburgh has some of the darkest, with the gruesome account of William Burke and William Hare – who murdered 16 people and sold them to physician Robert Knox for dissection at his grisly anatomy lectures – being one of the most stomach-churning. With its narrow, winding alleyways and underground crypts, Edinburgh is a playground for ghost-hunters, and you’ll have fun on one of the Auld Reekie walking tours. With different locations across Old Town, you’ll explore the infamous vaults hidden under the South Bridge; they were once the local haunt of career criminals, body snatchers and witches alike. After the fright fest, head to The Devil’s Advocate for a nip to help settle your nerves.

Snap the perfect Instagram shot on Circus Lane

Circus Lane in the Stockbridge area of Edinburgh © Edward Herdwick / Alamy Stock Photo

Naturally, you’ll want to document your time in the Scottish capital with an Instagram post, and the best place to take that all-important shot is Circus Lane. A leisurely 10-minute walk from Princes Street, Circus Lane was once a service street to house coaches and horses. Today, it’s a quaint, cobbled thoroughfare where the much-coveted houses are decorated with wisteria and ivy. Beautiful and perfectly framed, it’s as if it was built with the intention of being photographed in a tiny square composition.

Listen to Scottish music at Sandy Bell’s

Interior view of the Sandy Bell's Folk Bar, Edinburgh. © Karol Kozlowski Premium RM Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

From smooth jazz at Jools Holland’s The Jam House to a cavernous club space at Cabaret Voltaire, Edinburgh’s after-dark scene will appease every type of night owl. Those looking for something more traditional should make a beeline for Sandy Bell’s – a folk bar where live Scottish music is played until the wee hours. It first opened its doors in the mid-’60s and has been an Edinburgh institution ever since. Entry is free, and the drinks are reasonably priced. While dancing is not essential, it is recommended.

Watch your favourite books come to life before your eyes

The Elephant House cafe Edinburgh. © Bailey-Cooper Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

A city steeped in history makes for the perfect literary backdrop, and Edinburgh’s influence can be felt in some of the most important books of our time. On Old Town’s Candlemaker Row, at the gate of Greyfriars Kirkyard, stands the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye terrier that spent 14 years guarding the grave of his owner until he died in 1872. Inside the graveyard, eagled-eyed visitors may recognise some of the names on the tombstones – Moodie, McGonagall, Riddell, Potter. That’s right, this is where JK Rowling found the monikers for some of the characters in the Harry Potter books. Then, just a two-minute walk away is The Elephant House, the café where she wrote much of the acclaimed novels.

If sleuthing is your pastime of choice, trace the footsteps of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. There’s The Conan Doyle, a pub located close to Conan Doyle’s birthplace. Next, visit Old Town’s Surgeons’ Hall Museums, where there’s a permanent exhibition showing the link between Doyle’s medicinal (he also studied medicine) and literary works. The exhibit also focuses on the relationship between Doyle and Doctor Joseph Bell, the man who inspired the character of Sherlock Holmes.