21 Things to do in Edinburgh Scotland: The Highlights

There are so many things to do in Edinburgh Scotland! We have been living in a village near Edinburgh since February and are still discovering so many new things each time we visit. But I wanted to share a guide to some of the top things to see in Edinburgh for those planning a visit. A first time visitor naturally wants to see some of the highlights of this gorgeous city that holds two UNESCO designations for its higgledy-piggledy medieval Old Town and its well-planned Georgian New Town. Our recommendations include visiting the city’s iconic medieval castle, climbing an extinct volcano, visiting the world’s largest monument to a writer, seeing Scotland’s crown jewels, sipping whisky, going underground to explore some of the city’s medieval past, viewing world-class art, and paying homage to a famous little dog. If you have control over the timing of your visit, you may want to plan to attend at least one of the city’s 12 major festivals. These 21 things to do in Edinburgh are meant to be a guide to build your trip itinerary, whether it be a short one day visit or a week-long trip. 

top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland

Basic Information for Visiting Edinburgh 

Where is Edinburgh? 

Edinburgh is in Scotland, which is the northern part of the United Kingdom. It’s in the southeast part of Scotland, around 60 miles north of the Scotland – England border, and around 50 miles east of Glasgow, which is Scotland’s largest city.

Best ways to get to Edinburgh? 

There are multiple options for visiting Edinburgh. First, you can fly into the Edinburgh Airport, which has flights from destinations in Europe, the US, the UK and the Middle East. If there is no direct flight, connecting flights from London or Dublin are frequent. The airport is a short bus, taxi, or tram ride from town, so this is a very practical option. If you’re don’t want to fly, then there’s a fast train service from London to Edinburgh, which takes around 4.5 hours. You can also catch trains from cities throughout the UK or take the EuroTunnel to get here via France if you are coming from Europe. You can save a lot of money on fares by booking train tickets well in advance. If you are in the UK and would rather travel by bus, there are daily coach connections to Edinburgh from a number of cities which take longer but may save you money compared to train fares. You can check National Express for coach connections and prices. Finally, you can also drive to Edinburgh, although be aware that most hotels, particularly those in the city center, don’t offer free parking. 

Best times of year to visit Edinburgh? 

Edinburgh is a city that you can visit year round, with plenty going on throughout the year. If you are hoping for warmer, drier weather, then the months of May to September will be your best bet, but the weather in Scotland is fickle, so the best plan is to pack layers and be prepared for at least a little rain.

If you’re interested in the Edinburgh festivals, then you may want to visit during August, when some of the biggest festivals take place. Note though that during this time the city is a lot busier than usual, and accommodation is both pricey and hard to come by so book in advance. If you are not interested in the August festivals, we would recommend avoiding Edinburgh at that time. 

Best way of getting around Edinburgh? 

The center of Edinburgh is easily walkable, with the majority of attractions easily accessible by foot. Some attractions (e.g., zoo, botanic garden, Leith docks) are a bit further out, in which case we recommend either local buses, which are very well priced, or local taxi services. There are also a few different companies offering hop-on hop-off bus services in Edinburgh that stop near most of the sites mentioned in this article. You don’t need a car to travel around Edinburgh as public transit can get you just about anywhere in and around the city, so we’d only really recommend a car if you are planning to head into the countryside or smaller villages. Most cities and towns in Scotland are well connected by train and bus. Even many of the small villages outside of Edinburgh, including our own, is well connected by bus so we rarely drive into the city to avoid paying for parking.

How much time should I spend in Edinburgh? 

This of course depends on how much you want to do and how much time you have to vacation, but I would highly recommend spending at least 3 days for sightseeing in Edinburgh. There are so many great attractions, museums, places to eat, parks, etc. to see here and most visitors who spend a rushed day or two in the city tell us they regret it. You could easily spend a week and not run out of things to do in Edinburgh.

Where can I find more information? 

For more Edinburgh trip planning tips, a good place to start your planning is the Edinburgh city tourism website. If you have already exhausted the attractions of interest mentioned in this post, check out these 25 additional things to do in Edinburgh. If your travels in Scotland are taking you beyond Edinburgh, head to the VisitScotland tourism website for planning the rest of your travels throughout Scotland. You can also browse through my other UK travel posts and the dozens of UK posts over on Laurence’s blog. For more specific Edinburgh Festival information, you can find loads of information on the Festivals Edinburgh website and read our planning guide to the six August Edinburgh festivals.

21 Things to do in Edinburgh Scotland

There are a lot of things to do in Edinburgh, but we have narrowed it down to 21 highlights that we think any first time visitor should know about and consider for their trip. We chose a variety that will suit a number of travelers: the majestic castle, a palace, a famous ship, gardens, whisky tasting, family-friendly attractions, hikes, and several museums. These are listed in no particular order!

Edinburgh Castle

If this post was titled “top thing to do in Edinburgh”, this would likely be our choice. Edinburgh Castle is the most recognizable landmark in the city, it sits atop a volcanic peak and dominates the city skyline. The castle was the setting for so many historical events in Scotland and so many famous people once visited or lived within its walls including Mary, Queen of Scots. Inside the castle, you’ll get to see loads of historical Scottish artifacts, including weapons, clothing, and even the “Scottish Crown Jewels” which are known as the Honours of Scotland. The castle is also the site of the Scottish National War Memorial and the National War Museum of Scotland (entry included with castle admission price). Other highlights for us were the Great Hall and the 12th century St. Margaret’s Chapel which is the oldest surviving structure in the castle and in Edinburgh. From the castle terrace and towers, you can enjoy great sweeping views over the city. A popular time to be at the castle is for the firing of the gun, which takes place nearly every day of the year to mark 1pm. This practice started in 1861 as a muzzle-loading cannon was fired each day to serve as a vital timekeeping device for ships in the harbor. Today the gun is fired just for tradition and show. If you’re interested in seeing the gun fire, be sure to head to the Mill’s Mount battery inside the castle well before 1:00 to secure a good viewing spot.

top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland

top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland

Walk down the Royal Mile

From Edinburgh Castle, the next logical thing to do is to stroll down the Royal Mile. This is the medieval city’s main highway, and is still a very busy place today. It runs almost a mile from the castle at the top of the hill to Holyrood Palace at the bottom, and spans five different streets, none of which are actually called the Royal Mile. This is a busy street and there are a lot of things to see along the way, including many of the attractions we note below as well as many restaurants, cafes, museums, and shops. You’ll likely find yourself on and off this street many times during your visit!

top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland

Camera Obscura and World of Illusions

Near Edinburgh Castle on the Royal Mile is the Camera Obscura and World of Illusions. This attraction has two main features – first, it has several floors featuring optical illusions, light tricks, old-fashioned games, and magic displays which we had a lot of fun playing with. Then, the “main attraction” is the Camera Obscura on the roof. A camera obscura is basically an old-fashioned projection system, which directs visible light from the outside world onto a viewing surface in a darkened room. These have been known about for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and were a particularly popular attraction in Victorian times. In fact, Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura dates from the 19th century, making it one of the oldest visitor attractions in the city. The rooftop of the tower also includes pretty amazing views of the castle and the city of Edinburgh. We really enjoyed our visit here and it is a great place for families. We have heard from some visitors that when it is crowded, it can be less enjoyable, so we would recommend visiting outside of the busier summer months or to visit this attraction soon after opening in the morning for the best experience.

top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland

Scotch Whisky Experience

Across from the  Camera Obscura is The Scotch Whisky Experience, which is a very popular place to visit along the Royal Mile. You can take tours, masterclasses, training sessions or just enjoy some food and whisky at their restaurant. We took the Silver Tour which is their shortest and least expensive whisky tour experience and we both really enjoyed it. It begins with a fun and informative whisky barrel ride and then a self-guided tour to learn about whisky, then a tasting experience, and then finally a look around a giant whisky collection, the largest collection of its type in the world. Laurence really enjoys whisky, and he has visited this attraction more than once, always enjoying the experience. I don’t even really like the taste of whisky but still enjoyed my visit as I learned a lot, and I’d recommend the hot chocolate with whisky drink in the restaurant for non-whisky lovers! If you’re particularly interested in whisky, then you may also consider taking a more in-depth tour where you get more samples and tasting instructions or book ahead for a masterclass or one-day training course. Whisky lovers will find shops selling whisky all over the city and those who really love Scottish whisky may want to check out the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. If you are interested in more whisky taking experiences outside Edinburgh and want to visit some distilleries, you can read more on Laurence’s blog of our experience taking a Scotch whisky tour from Edinburgh.

top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland

Mary King’s Close

Did you know that there’s a hidden part of Edinburgh underneath the city streets? Well, there is. One of the best places to find out more about, and visit this hidden part of the city, is to take the Real Mary King’s Close tour. Covered over by construction in the 19th century, Mary King’s Close was previously one of the busiest streets in the medieval city, located just off the Royal Mile. It was named after Mary King who was a business woman who lived in the close in the 1630’s. The tour of Real Mary King’s Close aims to provide information and examples of what life would have been like in Edinburgh between the 16th and 19th centuries. The tour takes you into a warren of what were bustling streets, shops, animal pens, and homes that sit just below the current street level. Note that photography is not allowed during the tour at the time of this writing.

top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland

St. Giles Cathedral

Near Mary King’s Close and a fixture in Edinburgh’s skyline is the beautiful St. Giles Cathedral with its crown shaped steeple. If you are only going to visit one church in Edinburgh, this would be our recommendation. St. Giles, also known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh, is the principal place of worship for the Church of Scotland and the church itself dates from the 14th century. Our favorite part of the church interior is the Thistle Chapel, built in 1911 for The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, which is the most important Order of Chivalry in Scotland. This order was established in 1687 and is presided over by the Queen. The Thistle Chapel is small, but the ceiling is absolutely beautiful, as are the sixteen stalls, one for each Knight of the Order. Guided rooftop tours are also given on most days and can be booked in advance (fee), offering a great view over the city. Admission is free to the cathedral although a donation is requested. Photography of the interior is not permitted without a photography permit which is £2.00 and can be obtained from the Information Desk. Purchasing a permit is a worthy investment in our opinion and a great way to contribute to the upkeep of this beautiful church.

top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland

Holyrood Palace

At the opposite end of the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle, you’ll find the Palace of Holyrood House, usually referred to simply as Holyrood Palace. Holyrood Palace is the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland. It has served as the principal residence of the monarchs of Scotland since the 16th century. The name comes from the 12th century Augustinian Holyrood Abbey that was built here and the ruins of which can still be visited today. Mary Queen of Scots resided here, as have other notable historical figures over the centuries. Self-guided audiotours includes both historic rooms as well as those used for contemporary state visits, including the royal apartments in the north-west tower of the palace which were occupied by Mary, Queen of Scots. The historic Royal Apartments and State Apartments of Holyrood Palace can be visited most of the year (when not being used for state functions), as well as the gardens and grounds. Note that photography is not allowed inside the palace, but you can take photos of the exterior, gardens, and abbey. Visitors may also wish to visit the Queen’s Gallery in front of Holyrood Palace, which contains a rotating exhibition of art and historical artifacts from the Royal Collection. Combination tickets are available.

Palace of Holyrood House top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland

National Museum of Scotland

Leaving the attractions of the Royal Mile, we’d recommend taking some time to explore the vast collection at the National Museum of Scotland. This excellent free museum contains exhibits on all sorts of things related to both Scotland and the world, from Scottish history and culture to art and fashion to science and technology. Some highlights for me were objects related to Mary, Queen of Scots, which include jewelry, coins, letters, and furniture. The museum’s huge collection is set across two main buildings, a more modern building dating from 1998 and a Victorian era section from the 19th century. The Victorian section features a wonderful cast iron grand gallery, which is a museum piece in itself! The museum is constantly adding new pieces and bringing in new exhibits, so is a great place to re-visit if you haven’t been in a while. After your visit, we can also very much recommend popping up to the James Thomson-run Tower Restaurant located on the roof of the museum. On a fine day, there’s an excellent view across the rooftops of Edinburgh to Edinburgh Castle, which you can enjoy whilst drinking a cup of tea or sipping on a cocktail. The dining options are also fabulous – we had an excellent dinner here, and can thoroughly recommend it.

top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland

Try some traditional Scottish foods 

In addition to visiting all the wonderful attractions and museums, you’ll want to try some traditional Scottish foods during your stay in Edinburgh. Haggis is the national dish of Scotland and a must try for all visitors. Haggis is traditionally made of sheep parts (heart, liver, lungs) that are mixed with onion, spices, fat, oatmeal, stock, and spices and then stuffed in a sheep’s stomach. It was a food eaten by the poor and similar foods have been eaten since ancient times. Although honestly, most restaurants cater to modern palates and finding a truly traditional haggis is difficult (especially those encased in a sheep’s stomach); however, the more modern haggis versions are more tasty in most visitor’s views. Haggis is typically served with “neeps and tatties” which are mashed turnips and potatoes, and sometimes with a side of whisky sauce. You can even get “vegetarian haggis” at many places, although we’re not sure you can still call it haggis! Other dishes to try in Scotland include local Scottish Salmon, black pudding (Stornoway is famous for its black pudding), cullen skink (smoked haddock, potato and onions soup), stovies (potato dish), sausage, beef, and lamb dishes. We often just ask for what is local and fresh at restaurants. Dishes enjoyed throughout the UK, like fish and chips, large breakfasts (try a full Scottish breakfast and you won’t need to eat lunch!), meat pies, and traditional Sunday roast dinners are also popular throughout Scotland. Scottish sweets and desserts include cranachan, fried Mars Bars (about anything can be fried by the Scots it seems!), tablet, shortbread, and Dundee cake. For drinks, there is of course whisky, but black tea is probably the most widely drank beverage and be sure to try the popular Irn Bru (an orange carbonated soda).

top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland

Scott Monument & Princes Street Gardens

Edinburgh is a UNESCO City of Literature, and the most famous Scottish writer is Sir Walter Scott. He wrote poems, plays, and novels, and is credited with inventing the genre of historical fiction and is best known for his works such as Ivanhoe, Waverley, The Lady of the Lake, and Rob Roy. He is definitely a well-known and much-loved figure in Scotland and even Edinburgh’s main train station is named after his first novel Waverley. As such, there are a number of monuments to him with the most significant being the huge Scott Monument (the largest monument to a writer in the world!), which sits on Princes Street, just above the Princes Street Gardens. Get up close to the monument and you’ll see figures from Scott’s novels, as well as other famous Scottish writers, poets, and figures. This iconic monument is open to the public, and you can climb to the top for a good view of Edinburgh. There’s also a museum room, within which you can find information on the life and works of Sir Walter Scott. We’d also recommend visiting The Writers’ Museum (just off the Royal Mile) if you’d like to learn even more about Scott and other famous Scottish writers. If you are a real Scott fan we’d recommend a trip out to the beautiful Scottish Borders, where Scott drew a lot of inspiration and where he built his home and is buried.

Just below the monument is the Princes Street Gardens. Once a marshland, the area was later turned into an artificial lake called the Nor Loch that was used as a defensive barrier to Edinburgh Castle and as a dumping spot for the sewage and trash of medieval Edinburgh. Beginning in the 1760’s, the Nor Loch was drained over time and turned into gardens, with two gardens being formed – Princes Street Gardens East, and Princes Street Gardens West, separated by a man-made hill known as “The Mound”, which was formed from the excavation of the New Town. Today the public gardens are a popular spot for visitors and tourists alike, and there are often outdoor events taking place in this area. It is a good place for getting nice views of Edinburgh Castle and for savoring a sunny Edinburgh afternoon (they do happen, I swear!). 

top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland

top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland

Climb Arthur’s Seat

One of the best things about Edinburgh is that you can find wide open green spaces just outside the city center. Not far from Holyrood Palace, you’ll find the towering remnants of an extinct volcano, which has come to be known as Arthur’s Seat; the name is believed to have come from the legendary tales of King Arthur. You can get good views of Arthur’s Seat from Calton Hill and Nelson’s Monument among other places. Arthur’s Seat is the highest point in Holyrood Park, and you can climb Arthur’s Seat to burn some calories from all the Scottish food and to get a wonderful view across Edinburgh and the Lothians. It is a bit of a steep walk to the top (wear hiking shoes and take water), but the views are very much worth it as on a clear day you can see for miles in every direction. If you are looking for the shortest and easiest hike, park in the lot near Dunsapie Loch and take the much shorter hiking path to the summit. Within the park you might also want to visit the 15th century St Anthony’s Chapel, get close to the Salisbury Crags, and check out the birdlife at Duddingston Loch.

top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland

Edinburgh Zoo

Edinburgh Zoo is popular with families and animal lovers wanting to get up close to over 1,000 animals. Some of the most popular attractions are the penguin walks and getting to see the resident giant pandas (note that you usually get a set viewing time slot as they are so popular!). Other animals we enjoyed seeing were the tigers, lions, wallabies, chimps, red panda, and monkeys. Note that many visitors are disappointed at not seeing the pandas (or other animals) but they are often in parts of the enclosure where you can’t see them or sleeping; this is actually a very good thing that animals are not being forced to always be on view to the public. Check out the zoo’s website for the live camera feeds to watch the current activities of the Giant Pandas, penguins, and squirrel monkeys! There are also a number of educational talks, events, and activities offered at the zoo throughout the year.

things to do in Edinburgh Edinburgh Zoo panda

Scottish National Gallery

If you love art, you’ll want to save at least an hour or two to stroll the Scottish National Gallery, one of many excellent free museums in Edinburgh. Located on The Mound near Princes Street Gardens and the Scott Monument, Scotland’s National Art Gallery houses a large collection of paintings and other art from the Renaissance up to the start of the 20th century, with both Scottish and international artists represented. Laurence is drawn to the landscape paintings and I to the 18th century Italian and Impressionist paintings. In our two short visits we’ve never had enough time to see the full collection and there are always new temporary exhibits to view (great Impressionism exhibit over the summer!). The collection is housed in a neoclassical building designed by William Henry Playfair that dates from 1859. If you are more of a modern art lover, you might want to head to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art instead. 

top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland

Scottish National Portrait Gallery

If you like your art of the portrait variety, then the Scottish National Portrait Gallery has you covered. Situated in the first building in the world that was purpose-built as a portrait gallery (in 1889), the gallery exclusively houses portraits of Scottish people, although not all the artists are Scottish. Highlights include portraits of Stuart monarchs and family members, including portraits by Dutch painter Arnold Bronckorst. My favorites galleries contain the “Scots in Italy” collection. In addition to portrait paintings, the musem also includes a collection of prints, photographs, and statues. The building itself, in a Gothic style, is quite beautiful and the entrance hall is well worth spending some time in. As you enter, you’ll be greeted by a statue of Robert Burns, beautiful murals depicting notable Scots, stained glass windows, and several busts. We are not exactly portrait experts or lovers, but after spending several hours here over two days for a filming project, we came to really appreciate the collection and the beautiful building. 

top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland

Check out Harry Potter sites

Harry Potter fans love Edinburgh and we’ve even written an entire post devoted to Harry Potter sites in Edinburgh. It was here that J. K. Rowling was based when she wrote the Harry Potter book series, in particular frequenting two Edinburgh cafe’s to do so: Nicolson’s Café and  The Elephant House. Nicolson’s Café was a first floor restaurant on the corner of Nicolson and Drummond Street  and it was here that  J. K. Rowling as a poor newly single mother is said to have written a large part of her first Harry Potter novel. The location has since been turned into a Chinese buffet and now back into a cafe named Spoon. The Elephant House was where she penned later Potter novels and is probably the best known of the Harry Potter locations. If you want to see the inside of The Elephant House, you’ll need to order food or a drink or pay a small fee for photographs. If Harry Potter writing locations are of particular interest to you, and you are not traveling on a budget, then you might consider also staying at the popular and historical Balmoral Hotel in the J. K. Rowling suite. It was here in suite 552 that Rowling finished the last book in the Harry Potter series. In celebration of doing so, she autographed (graffitied?) a marble bust, which is still in the room today. 

Other Edinburgh locations which are believed to have served as inspiration for the books include Greyfriar’s Kirkyard (an old cemetery that contains graves that may have inspired the names of some Harry Potter characters such as Thomas Riddell’s Grave), George Heriot’s School which is Hogwarts-esque, and Victoria Street which is thought to have inspired Diagon Alley. You can put together your own self-guided tour or book a fun tour and join other Harry Potter fans on a guided tour through The Potter Trail (free tour, but tips for guides strongly recommended). Those visiting in August should also make time for the Edinburgh International Book Festival, it was one of the first venues that an unknown J. K. Rowling (listed as Joanne Rowling) gave a reading to a small group of children from her first Harry Potter book in 1997 and would return years later in 2004 to massive crowds. If you are really interested in visiting all the Harry Potter sites in Edinburgh, I’d check out this comprehensive Harry Potter Edinburgh guide.

The Elephant House cafe Harry Potter sites in Edinburgh Scotland J.K. Rowling

Balmoral Hotel top things to do in Edinburgh highlights

Balmoral Hotel

Attend a Festival in Edinburgh

Speaking of festivals, if you like festivals then Edinburgh is the place for you. To be honest, even if you don’t normally like festivals, chances are that Edinburgh is still going to have a festival tht you’d enjoy. Edinburgh is known as the World’s Festival City, and the city is host to 12 major festivals throughout the year, celebrating art, music, film, theater, storytelling, books, military tattoos, science, and even the arrival of the New Year. Four of the most well-known festivals are probably Hogmanay, the Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, although we have come to especially appreciate the lesser known festivals throughout the year. The festival atmosphere ranges from being fairly low-key (e.g., Science Festival, Film Festival, Storytelling Festival) to a heightened festival frenzy as loads of visitors pack into the city during the month of August. At the height of the festival season, mid August, you are likely to find over 1,000 performances taking place in over 100 locations each day! If you want to learn more about all the Edinburgh Festivals and figure out which one is right for you, take a look at our post going into detail on Edinburgh as a Festival City and our Planning Guide to the six August Edinburgh Festivals. The official Edinburgh Festival website which provides up-to-date details on all 12 of the major festivals. So far we have made it to events from 10 of the 12 festivals! There are also smaller festivals and local festival events happening throughout the year in Edinburgh (including the Edinburgh Food Festival) and you can find a full list here.

top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland

The Edinburgh Dungeon

The Edinburgh Dungeon, located a 2-minute walk from Waverley train station, is a 80-minute tour of Scotland’s history provided as visitors walk through 11 live actor-led shows and 2 short underground rides. It focuses on the darker and more gruesome aspects of Scotland’s history (e.g., plague, murder, cannibals, witches) and uses plenty of special effects and some scare tactics to give you some chills. The Edinburgh Dungeon is often voted and ranked as one of the top city attractions in Edinburgh and seems particularly popular with families with older children (recommended age is 8 years or older). We just recently visited to take a special nighttime tour where they introduced a new show (The Witch Hunt) and it was a lot of creepy fun. Our favorites were the the Witch Hunt, The Green Lady, and the drop ride.

Note that those who are easily scared or startled may not enjoy the tour, and that there is some adult material in the shows that may not be appropriate for young children (tours are generally not recommended for children under 8). Those with any sort of disabilities or health issues should check out this helpful FAQ page. Waiting times can be long during peak months (e.g., July and August and around the holidays) and you may want to pre-book tour times in advance online to avoid long waits. For those wanting to get the best prices, I would recommend comparing prices by checking their website for discounts, check the Visit Britain Shop Edinburgh Dungeon ticket prices, and consider checking out the discount vouchers that are sold in venues in Edinburgh (only good for walk-up tickets, not priority timed tickets). 

Edinburgh Dungeon top things to do in Edinburgh highlights

Pay a Visit to Greyfriars Bobby

One of Edinburgh’s most famous historical figures is a small dog, known to the world as Greyfriars Bobby. Legend has it that Bobby was a Skye Terrier who belonged to a night watchman in Edinburgh named John Gray. When John Gray passed away and was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard, it is said that loyal Bobby sat by his master’s grave for fourteen years, before being buried beside him. This story has been popularized in books and by the 1961 Disney film. The veracity of  the story has been challenged by several people, but it remains a popular enduring and heartwarming tale nonetheless and it is likely that the story is at least partially based on truth. You can visit the small statue of Bobby, which is located across the road from the National Museum of Scotland, and also see the graves of Bobby and his owner in the graveyard. The statue is a popular spot for a photo, and its is definitely worth a few moments of your time to learn the feel-good story behind this little dog. If you want to know more about Greyfriars Bobby, we’d also recommend a visit to the informative (and free) Museum of Edinburgh which has an exhibit dedicated to Greyfriars Bobby.

top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland

Climb Calton Hill

If the thought of Arthur’s Seat is a bit daunting, but you still want a good view of Edinburgh, there’s another excellent option for you: Calton Hill. You will probably notice this hill soon after your arrival to Edinburgh and visitors are often surprised to see a hill resembling the Acropolis of Athens. Calton Hill sits just past the east end of Princes Street and you can take the steep but relatively short stairs up to the top of the hill. Atop of the hill you are greeted by a visually interesting but architecturally odd collection of buildings and monuments. Many of the buildings, such as the National Monument and Dugald Stewart Monument, look like they would have been more at home in Athens, Greece. Calton Hill has been among other things, the site of prisons, residences, government buildings, and the city observatory. There are sometimes art exhibitions or other events on the hill, including the popular Beltane Fire Festival in April. Take time to explore the various monuments and enjoy the great views of the city skyline; these are probably our favorite views of Edinburgh!

To learn more about Calton Hill’s past and for a particularly excellent view of Edinburgh, consider visiting the small museum in the Nelson Monument and then climbing the 143 steps to the viewing platform on top (small fee) of the 105 foot (32 meter) high monument which offers wide vistas over Edinburgh. The small museum details the history of the monument, and the man for whom it was named, Admiral Horatio Nelson, who led the British navy to victory at the Battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars. The Nelson Monument contains a time ball which is still dropped at 1 o’clock daily (except Sundays), which coordinates with the firing of the guns at Edinburgh Castle once used to alert ships of the time.

top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland

top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland

top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland

Royal Botanic Garden

If you’re looking to stretch your legs a little, get away from the hustle and bustle of the Royal Mile and Princes Street, and take in a bit of botany whilst you’re at it, then you should head to the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. The gardens are located about a half hour walk from the city center or a short bus ride away (you can take a local public bus or a sightseeing hop-on hop-off bus). The garden has been in its current location since 1820 (although the garden was originally planted in 1670 in Holyrood Park). It is free to enter the garden and a beautiful place to spend a couple of hours in Edinburgh if the weather is good! With 70 acres of gardens featuring over 273,000 plants, you will definitely not run out of things to look at! Some free highlights included the Victorian Temperate Palm House, Rock Garden, Poppy Meadow, and Queen Mother’s Memorial Garden. Entry into the gardens is free, but we’d recommend spending the small entry fee for access to the glasshouses, where you can take in some of the more exotic items in the collection, which include a Victoria amazonica (a giant waterlily!) and Amorphophallus titanum (smells like rotten flesh when in bloom). Check out what is in bloom before you visit to best plan your time at the garden; spring and early summers are going to offer the most variety but you’ll find plants of interest here year round.

top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland

Royal Yacht Britannia

Consistently voted as Scotland’s Best Attraction by VisitScotland, the Royal Yacht Britannia, officially known as Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia, was home to Her Majesty The Queen and the Royal family for over 40 years. In service from 1954 to 1997, the yacht sailed over 1 million miles around the world on hundreds of state visits! It is now docked at the historic Port of Leith in Edinburgh, and can be toured by the public with an included self-guided audioguide. Visits include the Queen’s bedroom, the room Charles and Diana spent their honeymoon in 1981, the Bridge, the state dining room, drawing rooms, and the crew quarters and workspaces. We also saw the Royal Barge, a retired Rolls-Royce Phantom V state car, and a racing yacht owned by the royal family on display during our visit. You can also have afternoon tea or lunch at the Royal Deck Tea Room onboard the ship. The yacht is docked about 15 minutes from the city center, and you can get here by car (free parking), local public bus, hop-on hop-off bus, or taxi. There are also food and shopping opportunities (as well as a cinema) at the Ocean Terminal shopping mall, which is located directly in front of the Britannia. We would recommend taking some time to walk around Leith before heading back to the city center; head towards Shore Street which is a short 15-minute walk away. There are plenty of shops and dining opportunities in Leith and it is quite scenic on a sunny day.

top things to do in Edinburgh Scotland

top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland

MONEY SAVING TIP: If you plan to visit Edinburgh Castle, the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and the Royal Yacht Britannia (three of Edinburgh’s most popular attractions), consider buying the Royal Edinburgh Ticket. It will save you 25% if you visit all three of these attraction and provides free unlimited access to the Hop-on Hop-off bus for 48 hours.

There you have it, our top 21 things to do in Edinburgh. The above should give you a great list of places to consider if you are going to be in the city for one day or one week. Even if you are on a tight budget, a large number of our recommended things to do in Edinburgh are free (e.g., most of the city’s museums, Calton Hill and the Royal Botanic Garden) or low cost (e.g., a plate of haggis, many festival events, or a view from Nelson Monument). As you plan your trip, just remember that part of the allure of the city is just wandering around and soaking up the historical and lively charm so be sure to leave a bit of free time in your schedule. We discover new things to do each time we visit which is often! If you have visited before or are looking for some more offbeat suggestions, check our post with 25 additional lesser known things to do in Edinburgh!

top 21 things to do in Edinburgh Scotland

Have you visited Edinburgh Scotland? Do you have other attractions you’d add to our list of top things to do in Edinburgh? Which of the above spots are on your list of places to visit when you come to Edinburgh? As always, we love reading your comments and we’re happy to answer any questions about any of these things to do in Edinburgh (we’ve done all!) or any other questions related to visiting Edinburgh.

21 Things to Do in Edinburgh!

**Disclosure: Many of the above places are free to visit or we paid our own entry fees during numerous visits over the past year. For some attractions, we received complimentary entry through partnerships with Marketing Edinburgh, VisitScotland, and/or Visit Great Britain in order to review attractions and services as travel writers; however, this article contains only our own honest thoughts and opinions. We also received complimentary accommodation and meals during a recent 3-day visit in partnership with Marketing Edinburgh. You can read more in our Ethics Code about how we accept work.**