Things to do in Edinburgh
Edinburgh is a lively, vibrant city, with lots to do. Fortunately, it’s also a compact place that’s easy to get around on foot, and there’s excellent public transport and plenty of parking.
It’s difficult to narrow down the pleasures of this beautiful city, so below, we’re going to tell you our favourite things to do. We’re sure you’ll discover your own highlights too! All of these tie in perfectly with a Haven stay at Seton Sands.
No trip to Edinburgh would be complete without a tour of the castle. Visible on its scenic rocky hillside from all over the city, the best exterior view is probably from Prince’s Street Garden. Walk from the gardens up to the top of the Royal Mile, and you’ll find the Castle Esplanade, a wide area which hosts the Military Tattoo every year during the Edinburgh International Festival.
You can tour the castle interior, parts of which date back to the 11th century, and there’s lots to see. Highlights include St Margaret’s Chapel, the vaulted Great Hall, and the Stone of Destiny upon which Scottish (and British) Kings and Queens were crowned. Watch out for the One o'clock Gun, a cannon blast which marks the hour of 1pm each day!
Spooky tour of the Old Town
For more old Edinburgh history, a ghost tour is a must. Several operators run spooky walks among Edinburgh’s scariest places, including the Blair Street underground vaults and Mary King’s Close, a buried medieval street in the Old Town. You’ll hear tales of murder, grave robbing, plagues, hauntings, hangings, and witch hunts.
If you want to construct your own tour, seek out the closes and lanes which lead off the Royal Mile. From Milnes Court to Fleshmarket Close, there are plenty of picturesque, cobbled alleyways to explore. Stop off for a hot toddy in the Jolly Judge (James Court) or pop into the Writer’s Museum on Lady Stair’s Close, where you can learn about Scottish luminaries like Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.
At the opposite end of The Royal Mile from the Castle, you’ll find another legendary royal home, Holyrood Palace. This is the King’s official residence when in Edinburgh and contains an impressive collection of artworks and artefacts including works by Rubens, Rembrandt, Holbein, and others.
What you’re probably visiting for, of course, is the opportunity to gawp at the opulent interiors of the royal chambers, including a beautiful suite created in the 16th century for Mary, Queen of Scots. As well as public access, you can book a private tour, walk the ornate grounds, and check out the remains of the 12th century Holyrood Abbey.
Just off Prince’s Street, at The Mound, you’ll find two large, classically styled galleries. The northernmost is home to the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) and features contemporary art from some of Scotland’s most celebrated artists. Behind it is the National Gallery, which houses a large selection of old masters including Italian Renaissance legends and Scottish masterpieces.
The galleries are linked by a modern, glass-fronted under croft overlooking the gardens, which includes an excellent restaurant and shop. On the square adjacent to the galleries, you’ll often find a marketplace or, during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, street performers and entertainers.
If you still have an appetite for great art after visiting these two, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street is only 10 minutes away. It holds a varied collection of portraiture, both historic and contemporary and is housed in a stunning, neo-gothic building of red sandstone.
New Town Shopping
The Georgian “New Town” dates to the 18th century, where a grand town planning scheme laid out a grid of wide avenues and ornate circuses. It’s now where many of the big brands, boutiques and fashionable bars can be found. From art supplies to designer watches, there’s plenty to keep your magpie tendencies occupied.
Rose Street is a must-see, containing small restaurants, pubs, and specialist shops. There’s a relatively new enclave of designer brands east of St Andrews Square too, including whisky shops, fine art, and clothing. For art and antiques, Dundas Street is worth a wander (you’ll get great views over the Firth of Forth from this high vantage point too).
Dean Village and Stockbridge
One of the prettiest spots in the city can be found to the northeast of the New Town, by walking down Howe Street and either passing through Royal Circus or, better still, taking the tiny, steep, and picturesque Circus Lane. Turn right at its end and you’re in Stockbridge, a well-to-do area with cobbled streets, famous pubs (such as the Bailie Bar) and restaurants.
Continue your wander along the Water of Leith walkway past the Grecian-styled St Bernard’s Well, where Georgians and Victorians once took health-giving mineral waters. You’ll soon reach the Dean Bridge, and the surrounding streets comprising the Dean Village, once the sight of several mills and mill workers cottages.
The Grassmarket and Victoria Street
The Grassmarket is one of Edinburgh’s best-known landmarks. As well as famous pubs like The Last Drop, you’ll find cute second-hand bookshops, markets, boutiques, cafes, and Victoria Street, one of the city’s loveliest cobbled lanes.
The area has a sinister past too; The Last Drop’s name doesn’t just refer to alcohol – it’s adjacent to where the city’s scaffold for public hangings was once situated. The Grassmarket was a cattle, horse, and corn market as far back as the 14th century, and is still a hub of commerce, although retailers rule the roost now.
Famous local stores include Armstrong’s vintage clothes emporium and Mr Wood’s fossils, where you’ll find ammonites and prehistoric shark’s teeth.
Royal Botanic Gardens
Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens is free to visit, although there’s a small fee to enter the ornate, temperate and humidity-controlled glasshouses. Situated on 70 hilly acres north of Stockbridge, the gardens are exquisitely laid-out and offer a range of different environments and facilities including a woodland garden, Chinese hillside, arboretum, ornate pond, and streams.
There’s a gallery at Inverleith House which specialises in botanic-themed art and photography and a wonderful café and restaurant on Arboretum Place. Because it’s built on a hillside, the gardens, which date back over 350 years, offer fantastic vistas of the city, and a wide range of formal and more relaxed garden styles.
The Gardens do important and fascinating conservation work, and holds regular events, talks, and exhibits.
If you fancy getting out into the countryside to enjoy a stroll, Edinburgh boasts a gorgeous country park on its doorstep. The Pentland Hills can be reached from Flotterstone on the A702, or Bonaly Park, not far from Edinburgh’s bypass at Dreghorn.
Park up and explore beautiful trails, reservoirs, woodland, and hills, which can often contain more sheep than fellow hikers. You can even swim in some of the reservoirs here, and the hills are quite accessible and manageable for any reasonably able-bodied walker.
The Pentland Hills and Bonaly Country Park is a real hidden gem, known mostly to locals. Breathe fresh air and enjoy spectacular 360° views over the whole city.
Edinburgh’s annual Fringe Festival in August is the world’s largest arts festival, so it’s well worth a visit during a time when Edinburgh is buzzing with thousands of comedy, theatre, dance, music and arts events.
However, there isn’t just one summer festival in Edinburgh. In July, there’s a 10-day Jazz and Blues Festival. August also boasts the long-running Edinburgh Book Festival, one of the UK’s premiere literary events, which features hundreds of visiting authors and speakers.
The official Edinburgh Festival features “high art” events such as opera, classical music, and theatre from all over the globe and runs concurrently with the Fringe, which specialises in smaller shows and gigs in hundreds of pop-up venues ranging from church halls to double decker buses.
Finally, if you’re visiting at Christmas or New Year, you’ve chosen another great time to see Edinburgh. Fireworks, street parties, ceilidhs, torchlit processions and German markets make Edinburgh’s Yuletide and Hogmanay one of the most spectacular seasonal celebrations in the UK.