20 things you must do in Edinburgh

Over 18 years I grew up in Edinburgh and can call it my home city. In the 10 years since, I’ve returned every few months to visit friends and family and to continue to explore this incredible (even if I say it myself!) city. Edinburgh is one of the best cities in the UK for a weekend break with so much to see and do with plenty of great bars, restaurants and cafes as well. Stroll along cobble stoned streets amongst impressive gothic buildings, relax in one of the lush green gardens and immersive yourself in Scottish art and history at one of Edinburgh’s galleries or castles. Make sure you read on for 20 things you must do in Edinburg and subscribe for all the updates!

1. Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle Esplanade

Edinburgh Castle perches high above the city on a rocky volcanic plug known as Castle Rock. She is foreboding and often shrouded in bleak grey cloud that adds to her mystery. Home to fortifications for almost two thousand years, she now welcomes around 2 million visitors a year. With so much history to explore, visiting Edinburgh Castle gives a great insight into how the city grew and changed over time as well as a look at Scotland’s colourful history!

A ticket is expensive but it is a total must for a first time visit to Edinburgh (if you’ve been before you probably don’t need to do it again!). Listen out for the 1 o’clock gun that is fired every day and still makes me jump even though I should know by now… Get your fast track ticket here.

2. Victoria Street

A quiet sunday morning on Victoria Street

Curving down from George IV Bridge down to the Grassmarket, Victoria Street has to be high on your agenda in Edinburgh! Probably one of Edinburgh’s most well known streets, the brightly coloured shops & cafes pop brightly in contrast to the gothic grey architecture of the city’s Old Town.

Victoria Street gets busier during the day!

If you’re a Harry Potter fan then you may already know that Victoria Street is said to be one of the inspiration’s for Diagon Alley in JK Rowling’s novels. There’s even a Harry Potter shop on the street for all of your wizarding gifts. Just round the corner on George IV Bridge is the Elephant House Cafe where the author is said to have penned some of her novels about the boy wizard. If you’re a Harry Potter fan then you can take a specific HP guided walking tour!

The terrace overlooking Victoria Street

Half way along Victoria Street there are steep stairs that lead up to the Victoria Terrace that overlooks it. This gives an alternative perspective to the street and you can also see across to the back of George Heriot’s School which almost looks like Hogwarts…! From here, you can see in more detail the wonderful stepped gable buildings at the end of Victoria Street which have an almost Flemish feel.

Smoothie bowl from Hula Juice Bar

Top Tip: If you’re up in time for brunch or even breakfast then make a stop at Hula Juice Bar at the bottom of Victoria Street to taste one of their deeeelicious smoothie bowls 😍

3. St Giles’ Cathedral

Interior of St Giles’ Cathedral

The magnificent St Giles’ Cathedral stands out along the Royal Mile with its grand design and unusual exterior that is a result of many transformations as well as the addition of many chapels to the original cathedral over many years. It’s free to enter the cathedral to admire the interior and stained glass windows but you must pay for a permit to take photos.

It’s even a secret to a lot of locals but you can actually take a tour to the roof of the cathedral. My dad has lived in Edinburgh his whole life and we took the tour as a surprise for his birthday a few years ago! Tickets are Β£6 and it’s best to go in on the day as bad weather (not uncommon for Scotland!) can close the roof off. You will learn about the cathedral before heading up with your guide.

You won’t go all the way to the very top of the Cathedral but from the roof there are spectacular views down the Royal Mile towards Arthur’s Seat and the Firth of Forth. Look the other way for a view up towards the Castle – can you spy the top of Camera Obscura? For a couple of hours of fun and science then the Camera Obscura is somewhere you should visit afterwards.

4. The Royal Mile

The John Knox house on The Royal Mile

The Royal Mile is the stretch of cobbled road that runs all the way from Edinburgh Castle at one end to the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the other and actually lasts longer than a mile because a Scottish mile was longer than an English mile!

The Writer’s Museum

The Royal Mile is an excellent way to stretch your legs and explore some of the most historic buildings in Edinburgh as you make your way between the two royal buildings at either end. There are lots of closes leading off The Royal Mile which used to be rampant with disease during Edinburgh’s medieval and Victorian history as inhabitants were crammed into tiny spaces.

White Horse Close

Now there are stunning buildings that are homes and museums down the closes – in particular look out for Lady Stair’s Close where the Writers’ museum is and White Horse Close which is a striking spot. There are also lots of tourist shops if you’re after a souvenir and my fave place on The Royal Mile – the Fudge Kitchen which does I sweeeear the best fudge there is 🀀

5. Arthur’s Seat

Sunset over Edinburgh & Salisbury Crags from Arthur’s Seat

If you’re after a much more vigorous walk and some stellar views of Edinburgh’s skyline then you have to climb up Arthur’s Seat! It’s a pretty unusual hill for a city because Arthur’s Seat was in fact once a volcano that erupted many (many many) years ago.

View over Edinburgh from Salisbury Crags

The views across the city are really beautiful and you can even see across the Firth of Forth over to Fife on a clear day. Please make sure you wear appropriate footwear because it is more strenuous than a lot of people think and take care on some of the rocky sections (especially at Salisbury Crags) in particular!

6. National Museum of Scotland

The Grand Gallery in the National Museum of Scotland

Let’s be honest – unless you’re very lucky you’re going to get some rain during a break in Edinburgh and one of the best places to shelter from the dreich weather and learn about Scottish history, science & technology, art & design and the natural world to name just a few through interactive exhibits and galleries! We used to love coming here and getting lost through the various rooms… Can you spot Dolly the Sheep? Or find the Lewis chess pieces?

The Museum also has a (not so secret) secret roof terrace which has excellent views across South Edinburgh and towards Edinburgh Castle and Arthur’s Seat. In dry weather it’s a great place to come and spend some time resting and enjoying the city view. Even better that it’s free πŸ˜‰

7. Greyfriar’s Bobby & Kirkyard

Greyfriar’s Bobby

Opposite the National Museum of Scotland on George IV Bridge is a bronze statue of the legendary Skye Terrier, Bobby. He famously stayed by his master’s grave (in Greyfriar’s Kiryard which sits behind the statue) for 14 years in the 19th century. His story has inspired novels and films and it has been customary to visit the statue and rub Bobby’s nose for luck…this has led to its replacement on more than one occasion!

The kirkyard might be well known for the lovely story of Greyfriars Bobby but it is also the backdrop to stories of violent ghosts, body snatchers and the inspiration for Harry Potter’s infamous nemesis Voldemort. Harry Potter fans will want to seek out the gravestones that inspired some of the series most prominent characters and specifically the Tom Riddell gravestone…

8. Princes Street Gardens

Princes Street Gardens are a great spot to chill out not only if the weather’s nice but also to explore even in the rain with a raincoat pulled up around you! Some spots to look out for include The Scott Monument (which you can pay to climb up for views of the North of the city), cute Great Aunt Lizzie’s cottage, the Elephant Memorial Sculpture and the Ross Fountain.

St Cuthbert’s Churchyard

At the far end of Princes St and just at the edge of the Gardens is St Cuthbert’s Churchyard which has an amazing view to the castle and also holds the final resting places of a number of famous Scots including the artist Henry Raeburn.

9. Dean Village

In the heart of Edinburgh’s New Town is a tranquil spot to disappear from the crowds compared to the Old Town & Princes Street. This is the Dean Village which once upon a time really was a village outside the city of Edinburgh but has since been swallowed up. It’s a charming spot to spend some time discovering the unusual buildings and enjoying the peace and quiet.

To reach the Dean Village walk along Lynedoch Place from Princes Street’s west end until you reach the steep top of Bell’s Brae just before the Dean Bridge. Cross the Dean Bridge to look down to the Village over the Water of Leith and to see the imposing Rhema Christian Church Centre as well as to look back at the impressive Kirkbrae House. From the centre of town, as you approach the bridge, the building looks like a sweet little cottage but when you turn round across the bridge you’ll see the impressive turreted structure!

Top Tip: Edinburgh’s prettiest street, Circus Lane is very close to the Dean Village and worth a little detour to discover. It’s an unexpected dreamy little find with greenery everywhere and gorgeous blooms brightening up the street in Spring and Summer. Plus elegant St Stephen’s Church is located perfectly to look down on Circus Lane in the background.

10. Leith & The Shore

The Shore

In recent years Edinburgh’s once gritty port area of Leith (think Trainspotting) has been rejuvenated and gentrified nearly beyond recognition with some of the city’s top restaurants including The Kitchin and Restaurant Martin Wishart, Walk along the banks of The Shore to stroll through history and walk in the footsteps of kings and queens that have landed at the docks of Edinburgh (including Mary Queen of Scots!) in 1561. More recently, in the 1960s, there were 85 wine and whisky warehouses…! If you fancy a cake & coffee or Afternoon Tea then make a stop at Mimi’s bakehouse for delicious sweet treats 😍

11. Eat like a local

You can’t visit Scotland without trying a local delicacy and there are plenty to choose from! If you’re feeling adventurous then make sure haggis is on your plate. Traditionally it’s served with neeps (suedes) and tatties (potatoes) but you may want to try a smaller portion of ‘haggis bonbons’ to start or even in a soup! If dessert is more your thing than taste cranachan – a rich, creamy dessert made with fresh zingy raspberries, sweet honey and a hot kick of whisky! If you’d rather something less unusual then opt for Thai tapas at Caravan, Indian street food at Dishoom or pizza from Civerinos.

12. Calton Hill

Edinburgh skyline view from Calton Hill

Edinburgh is a city of many hills and one that is very central (and also just a short walk to the top) is Calton Hill at the east end of Princes St. You get a fantastic view across central Edinburgh towards the Castle and along Princes St. with its myriad of iconic structures. Up on Calton Hill you can get a closer glimpse of the National Monument and Nelson’s Column plus if you come at sunset an epic sky to enjoy as well!

13. Visit an Art Gallery

The National Gallery from Hanover Street

As a city full of history and culture, Edinburgh has a good number of art galleries to escape into from the busy city streets. In the heart of the city you’ll find the Scottish National Gallery and the Royal Scottish Academy with artwork from Scottish painters such as Raeburn and Ramsey to some of the greats – Titian, Ruben and Degas to name a few. Follow the Water of Leith from the Dean Village out to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art set in lush landscaped gardens if more contemporary artwork is to your liking. On Queen Street you can find the National Portrait Gallery. Other art galleries that might interest you include the Edinburgh Art Centre, The Fruitmarket Gallery, The Talbot Rice Gallery in the University of Edinburgh or the Collective on top of Calton Hill.

14. Drink like a local

An evening in Edinburgh is well spent in a pub or a bar rubbing shoulders with other visitors or with the locals havering about this and that. Luckily Edinburgh has so much choice and you’re sure to find somewhere to suit your type of evening. If you’re keen to try a wee dram of whisky then The Scotch Whisky Experience is the place for you. For a quirky bar then visit Panda & Sons which is a speakeasy that looks like a barbers shop from the outside or Hoot the Redeemer which has an imposing front door and you can choose your cocktail ingredients with a grab machine! Cold Town House in the Grassmarket has a popular roof terrace right beneath the castle.

There are also plenty of pubs to choose from all across the city from ancient historic pubs like The Sheep Heid Inn in Duddingston which has had an inn at this site since 1360 to the Tolbooth Tavern on the Royal Mile which is located in a 16th century building said to be haunted. The Pear Tree is a popular student pub with a charming beer garden – perfect during the summer whilst Sandy Bell’s is one of the best pubs for live folk music. Whatever your tipple – there’s a bar of pub for you in Edinburgh!

15. Find a new book

Inside Armchair Books

Edinburgh is a literary city and is home to many authors (inc Ian Rankin, JK Rowling and Alexander McCall Smith), an annual Book Festival and plenty of beautiful bookshops. The city has also inspired plenty of novels and featured in a number of films as well which you can find out more about in my post 11 famous film locations in Edinburgh.

There are plenty of lovely bookshops to wile away an hour or so choosing your newest read. A favourite second hand bookshop is Armchair Books in the Grassmarket whilst the charming Topping & Co. is full of new copies of the bestsellers. For a bookshop where you can curl up in the cafe with a fantastic view – head to Waterstones on Princes St. and start your tale whilst being inspired by Edinburgh Castle before you.

16. Palace of Holyroodhouse

Palace of Holyrood House

The Royal Mile is so called because at one of the 1.8km ‘Scots mile’ you have Edinburgh Castle and at the other is Holyrood Palace. It would have been a main processional route for monarchs. Today, the Palace of Holyrood House (more commonly known as Holyrood Palace) is the King’s official residence in the city and sometimes means the palace is closed if the King is in residence. Book in advance and get your ticket here 🎟

It’s a beautiful place to visit with a fabulous backdrop of Arthur’s Seat to enjoy as you explore the palace grounds and learn about Scotland’s history through the rooms and audio guide. Find out more about some of Scotland’s most famous historical figures such as Mary Queen of Scots & Bonnie Prince Charlie and find out how the palace is used today. Interesting story – whilst attending my Gold Duke of Edinburgh award ceremony here, I made Prince Edward laugh when he went round the different school groups πŸ˜†

17. Wake up with a coffee

I am a very big coffee fan so if you’re like me and you need to start your day with a steaming mug of liquid gold then don’t worry – Edinburgh has plenty of great coffee shops! A firm favourite just now is The Milkman on Cockburn Street. There are actually two cafes on the street so you can choose which location you prefer or if you want to take it to go. I recommend sitting in at the one at the bottom of Cockburn Street as it’s very cosy. They do great cinnamon buns as well! Around central Edinburgh, Union Brew Lab, Black Medicine Coffee and SΓΆderberg all do excellent coffees.

The Milkman has become a firm Edinburgh favourite

In Leith I liked Rock Salt cafe’s coffee recently and Mimi’s Bakehouse does DELICIOUS cakes alongside their coffee. Artisan Roast is always a solid choice and now has a few different cafes around the city.

18. Explore the Botanic Gardens

The Gardener’s Cottage in Edinburgh

If you ever get fed up of the cobbled stones of Edinburgh’s Old & New Towns then it’s time to head to the Royal Botanic Gardens. It’s free to visit and you can spend as much time as you need strolling through the lush lawns, alpine houses and wonderful flower beds when they’re in full bloom. Take a coffee break at one of the three refreshments spots in the gardens.

19. South Queensferry

Take a trip to South Queensferry on the north side of Edinburgh to get a breath of fresh sea air. Buses in Edinburgh are really great way to get about the city if the streets have taken their toll on your feet! The 43 runs from Edinburgh city centre out to South Queensferry. Here there is a lovely high street with colourful cottages to admire which gives you the feeling of being in a seaside village! Plus from the seaside here you can see the impressive structures of all three of the bridges that span the Firth of Forth spanning three centuries and three architectural structures.

20. Take a day trip

North Berwick is a 45 minute train ride away from Edinburgh

Edinburgh is great place to explore more of Scotland, whether you do it by yourself or join a tour. From the city centre, you can hop on a train to the lovely town of North Berwick which is right by the seaside for a beach walk. If you’re an Outlander fan then hire a car and drive over to Fife and explore the villages of Culross and Falkland.

Perhaps you want to travel further up north, in which case you might want to join a day coach tour like this one which will take you to Glance and Loch Ness to search for Nessie…

So what are you waiting for? It’s time to book that trip to Edinburgh!

For more Edinburgh inspiration check out my other posts!

Cat x


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