Edinburgh is the cultural heart of Scotland and a crowd favourite among places to visit in the UK. Edinburgh offers a much different experience to fellow Scottish cities, such as Glasgow and Aberdeen. It’s full of amazing history, beautiful architecture, and great food.
I visited Edinburgh for the first time this past December—the perfect time to visit in my opinion! The city is magical at Christmastime with several Christmas markets and a festive atmosphere throughout all of Edinburgh. But no matter when you visit, Edinburgh is incredible. It’s a fairly small city, which makes it the perfect place to explore on foot. A weekend is a great amount of time to experience the city, but if you want to stay longer, there are plenty of things to keep you entertained!
Keep on reading for some of my top tips on what to see and do during your visit to Edinburgh.
Edinburgh Castle is the crown and jewel of the city! It sits on a hill at one end of the Royal Mile and can be seen from many spots around Edinburgh. I don’t go into the castles in every place I visit, but Edinburgh Castle is one you need to see from the inside! The castle is pretty big and takes a couple of hours to fully enjoy. Edinburgh Castle has quite a complex history, and its construction began in the 1100s under the reign of King David I. There are all different parts of the castle to see, the highlights of which include the views of the city from the battlements, the royal apartments, the 1pm gun show, a Prisons of War exhibition, and seeing the crown jewels.
Tickets to Edinburgh Castle are £18.30 at the castle and £17 online.
Old Town and the Royal Mile
Edinburgh’s Old Town is packed full of things to see and do! The main highlight of the Old Town is the Royal Mile—a long street that stretches from Edinburgh Castle on one side to Holyrood Palace on the other. Holyrood is the queen’s official residence in Scotland, although she prefers to spend her time at Balmoral Castle in the Highlands. The street is lined with lots of great shops and street performers, including men in kilts playing the bagpipes. St. Giles Cathedral is a nice church worth checking out, and Mary King’s Close is a cool underground street. It was sealed off from the rest of the Royal Mile a few hundred years ago, and you can take a tour to learn about the street’s creepy history.
Just off the Royal Mile is Victoria Street—a curved street with some colourful shops. As you may know, J.K. Rowling moved to Edinburgh while writing the first Harry Potter book, and many spots around the city influenced her writing. Victoria Street is said to have been the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the books and movies.
Watch Sunset at Calton Hill
For one of the best views over Edinburgh (and one of the best sunset spots), hike to the top of Calton Hill. The walk is quite steep in spots, but not difficult. Once you’re at the top, enjoy the view and check out the National Monument and Old Observatory House. This is the perfect spot to bring a picnic or bottle of wine to enjoy while looking at the view.
Take a Walk Along the Water Leith
There are so many visitors who come to Edinburgh but only stick to the super central areas. They don’t realise that just a short walk north of the city centre is this beautiful area to explore! The Water Leith is the small river that runs through Edinburgh. There is a path along it that you can walk for some great views. The area by the Water Leith is quiet and not too busy, which makes for a nice relaxing walk. By far the most scenic spot along the river walk is Dean Village. Although you are right in the heart of Edinburgh, this little village will make you feel like you’re in the countryside!
This is widely known as the prettiest street in all of Scotland, and I have to agree it’s the prettiest street I’ve seen! It’s a curved cobblestone street with beautiful stone houses lining it on either side. Many of the houses have ivy and colourful flowers growing up their sides. Towering over the street, you can also see St. Stephen’s Church. The street is by far one of the most photogenic I’ve seen, and the whole area surrounding Circus Lane is beautiful as well.
Hike Arthur’s Seat
For a great hike and awesome view over Edinburgh, hike to the top of Arthur’s Seat. I wasn’t able to climb this big hill because of a recent snowfall. But you better believe I’ll be hiking it on my next warm-weather trip to Edinburgh! Just outside the city centre, there is a series of hills, and Arthur’s Seat is the tallest peak in those hills. Depending which side of the hill you start the hike from, there are all different levels of difficulty. Starting from the east (as you would do coming from Edinburgh Castle and the city centre) is the easiest route. If you’re advanced, there are also rock climbing spots that require a free permit. You can see this hill towering over the city from many points around the centre, and the view from the top looks pretty fantastic!
Being the historic city it is, it’s no surprise Edinburgh is home to some great museums. At the Museum of Edinburgh, you can learn all about the city’s history and local legends. At the National Museum of Scotland, you can learn about the country’s history, as well as see some interesting exhibits on science, natural history, and foreign cultures. The rooftop restaurant is also a popular spot to get a drink and see the city skyline. Some other interesting museums to look into include the Museum of Childhood, the Writers’ Museum, and the People’s Story Museum. Entry is free to all the museums, so there’s no reason not to pop in for a visit!
Indulge in the Local Delicacies
You can’t come to Scotland and not taste some of the local food and drink! The most popular food to try while in Scotland is haggis—ground up sheep organs often encased in the lining of a sheep stomach. But don’t let the sound of it scare you off! It’s actually really delicious! The most traditional way to eat haggis is with “neeps and tatties” (Scottish for turnips and potatoes). But there are lots of modern takes on this classic Scottish dish. I had haggis mac and cheese that was by far my culinary highlight in Edinburgh! I would happily go back to Edinburgh for haggis mac and cheese alone!
Scotch whisky is another local favourite. There are whisky tours you can take, or you can order up some local Scotch whisky at the pub. Drink it with your haggis, neeps, and tatties if you want to be super Scottish! Some other Scottish favourites are black pudding, Full Scottish breakfasts, Scottish shortbread, Irn Bru (a Scottish soft drink), and of course local Scottish beers.
Local tip: The best night to indulge in some Scottish haggis and whisky is on Burns Night, which falls on January 25 this upcoming winter. This Scottish holiday celebrates poet Robert Burns, and tradition includes eating lots of Scottish food, drinking Scotch whisky, and reading the works of Robert Burns. Bonus points for wearing a kilt!
For a quiet afternoon away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre, head over to the Shore. This area has lots of great shops, bars, and restaurants, particularly seafood. The views along the Shore are beautiful, particularly in spring and summer when it’s sunny. At the Shore, you can see the HMY Brittania—a royal yacht that formerly belonged to the queen. And if you’re visiting in summer and fancy some sand and sea, head to Portobello Beach. To get to The Shore, take the 22 bus from the city centre, which takes about 20 minutes.
The Scott Monument was built to honour Scottish author Sir Walter Scott. It happens to be the tallest monument to a writer in the world! It was built in gothic architecture and has a slightly eerie look to it. Climb the narrow winding staircase to see a great view from the top of the monument, and visit the monument’s small museum to learn more about Sir Walter Scott.
Tickets to access both the museum and the view from the top are £8 for adults and £6 for students.
Bonus: Christmas Markets
If you happen to be visiting Edinburgh in late November or December, you can’t miss the city’s Christmas markets and festivities! They have a couple of big markets, the best one being at the East Princes Street Gardens near the train station. The park is lined with hundreds of market stalls selling food, drinks, souvenirs, and Christmas gifts. Get a Bailey’s hot chocolate to enjoy while you walk around checking out the different stalls. For food, I had some amazing haggis mac and cheese one night and a classic German sausage the next. I don’t think you can go wrong with any of the food, though! The market also has a kids’ area as well as some big rides for older kids and adults. Another great market in the city is located on George Street. They have market stalls as well as ice skating and a ceiling made of LED lights.
Few places I’ve been do Christmas quite as well as Edinburgh, so it’s the perfect time to experience the city, especially as a first-time visitor!
Edinburgh is one of my favourite cities I have visited in Europe. If you haven’t been yet, make sure you plan a visit there for yourself! I am dying to get back to explore more of the city in warmer weather as well as the rest of Scotland. Edinburgh has such a unique feel to it and such a draw that will leave you wanting more!
What are your favourite things to do in Edinburgh? And what should my next Scottish destination be? Let me know in a comment!
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Hi I’m Christie, a 26 year old girl originally from Boston who has spent time living in New York City, North Carolina, France, Australia, and New Zealand. I love moving to new places and exploring them as a local, and I can’t see my nomadic expat life stopping any time soon! I have no bigger passion than travel, and when I’m not exploring I spend my free time reminiscing on past trips and daydreaming about future travel.