There is no shortage of things to do in Edinburgh, a bustling and vibrant city in East Lothian, steeped in history and playing host to a variety of colourful festivals throughout the year including the Royal Military Tattoo, the Fringe Festival and the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF). Arguably the most exciting and culturally varied city in Scotland, its largest competitor for the accolade of biggest and best is Glasgow, a short drive to the west. It is possible to spend time in both cities on your break.
Landmark highlights at the heart of the city are the Royal Mile, Edinburgh Castle - which has been home to royal family for generations - and the Palace of the Holyroodhouse and Abbey ruins. It’s home to some of the most eye-catching and unique architectural wonders north of the border. With the imposing Arthur’s Seat dominating the skyline, the elegant walled ancient city with its narrow alleyways and staircases is a true spectacle emboldened by its people. The city is filled with street entertainers, boutiques, cafes, and quality restaurants. It’s a lush city too, encircled with green peaks and grassy parks dotted within the city’s neighbourhoods that run out along the Forth of Firth and down to the ports at Leith. The city is also packed with restaurants, museums, outdoor places of interest, amazing shopping options, nightspots and live entertainment venues.
Read on to discover what this fantastic city has to offer, no matter what type of weather has been conjured up.
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Top things to do in Edinburgh
Top of most people’s list will be a visit to Edinburgh Castle. There is a helpful section on the website to help you plan an itinerary to make sure that you see all the best bits in accordance with the length of your visit. The castle is one of the best known and most identifiable buildings in Scotland thanks to its architecture and dynamic location at the summit of a dormant volcano. Ensconced at the heart of the city, if you book ahead you can enter the castle at a specified time to avoid the holiday queues. Besides the elevated views over the city centre parks and beyond, you can see the fascinating exhibition, ‘Fight for the Castle’ and wander around former staterooms like The Great Hall, the National War Museum, the Half Moon Battery, the fabled Stone of Destiny, Mons Meg (a cannon) and witness the one o’clock gun deployment from the castle ramparts.
Occupying pride of place, the Palace of Holyroodhouse, sits at one end of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. The Palace has enjoyed and endured some close associations with some very colourful historic figures of note, including Mary Queen of Scots and the equally infamous Bonnie Prince Charlie. Open throughout the year to visitors, historians will be agog at the splendour on display in throughout the State Apartments, the Throne Room and the Great Gallery. Also, be sure to take some time to wander around the peaceful Palace Gardens and the ruins of Holyrood Abbey. Entry to the Abbey grounds is included in the entry price to the palace.
Edinburgh Zoo houses the largest collection of exotic animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures in Scotland. A guaranteed day of fun education and wonder for all the family awaits. There is an ongoing programme of live events and keeper experiences to get involved with at the zoo, so check their website for updates. Animal lovers will adore this place, making it an unmissable attraction for families on holiday in the city.
Art lovers can revel in painting and sculptures ranging from the classical to the modernist. Take in portraits, landscapes, and abstractions from the nation’s best. To spice things up, there is also a constant stream of visiting exhibitions and events from significant artists on the world stage. There are also some classes and lectures in the gallery’s programme for you to check out too. There are many smaller galleries in Edinburgh, where you can purchase prints and originals so consult The List for current information on what’s happening in the local art world.
Walled up, the mysterious, abandoned 17th-century wonder of Mary King’s Close is now a museum. Thought to have been locked up and forgotten during the plague, a veritable labyrinth of preserved passageways and buildings remain tucked into the shadows. Learn about the people that lived there and discover aspects of Edinburgh’s dark history on a very interesting guided tour.
Shopping in Edinburgh
Edinburgh is one of the UK’s very best shopping locations. Able to support independent businesses alongside flagship brand leaders, you are in for a wondrous shopping experience. Stockbridge Market, Victoria Street, Waverley Mall, Ocean Terminal and Fort Kinnaird are a few names to seek out if you fancy a bout of retail therapy during your holiday to Edinburgh. Visit this helpful guide to discover some of the most interesting shops in Edinburgh.
Outdoor places to visit in Edinburgh
Arthur’s Seat is a gorgeous hilltop lookout that dominates the skyline views to the east of the city. The hill is part of the Holyrood Country Park. The mount’s base lies a mile from the centre of the city and although it's 250 metres high, there are paths to the summit that make it a relatively easy ascent. The panoramas are worth the climb alone, all year round you have photo opportunities galore. You can see the Forth Bridge and the Firth of Forth to the east and the city below to the city all-about; it’s a must-visit for those that love a good walk!
Take a stroll or a cycle ride across the Firth of Forth via the Forth Road Bridge. The views are spectacular across the huge divide. The bridges are flanked by the Lothians to the south and Fife to the north. You can get a train to South Queensferry from the centre of Edinburgh to reach the bridge. There is no footbridge on the train bridge which has is a separate span all together, but the road bridge walkways are a reasonably short walk away. There are plans to build a viewing platform and to introduce guided walks in the near future – so keep an eye on the Forth Bridges website for updates.
Boat trip on the Firth of Clyde
A unique way to enjoy Edinburgh is from the water. Head to South Queensferry and join a tour boat – many of which take visitors to marvel at the engineering beauty of the previously mentioned Forth Bridges. You can also go further along the Firth of Forth to get a true flavour of being aboard a sea vessel in Scotland. Providers include Maid of the Forth, Forth Boat Tours and Edinburgh Boat Charters.
Evenings out and events in Edinburgh
A night in Edinburgh can be full of adventure and there’s certainly no shortage of nightspots across the city. Regardless of what you are looking for, there’s something for individuals, couples, families and more. But where to start?
For all the up-to-the-minute inner-city action, consult The List. It’s a crucial round-up (in the spirit of London’s Time Out) that includes information on gigs, comedy nights, club nights, theatre, gallery openings, film events and everything in between.
For Edinburgh’s best events, it is nigh on crucial to book accommodation and tickets way in advance to avoid disappointment. Here’s a rundown of the biggest and best in the city.
Edinburgh’s Hogmanay is perhaps the world’s fiercest and high-profile New Year’s Eve celebration (with a regional twist!). On the 30th of December there is a torchlight procession through the city – which is a very civilised way to lay the path for the oncoming street party 24 hours later. There are usually live performances by some pop stars to make the night even better. The Hogmanay is a ticket-only event so be sure to book ahead once you have arranged your accommodation.
Edinburgh Fringe Festival is a huge showcase of comedy and theatre ranging from the more experimental and abstract corners of the performance arts. Holding Edinburgh in its thrall each August, the city is transformed into a gigantic swirl of colourful, avant-garde creativity and action. The venues are far and wide across the whole metropolitan area from pub cellars to treetops and street corners, derelict bingo halls, kebab vans, and trendy bookshops – if people can fit inside or nearby it’s a fringe venue. No two festivals are the same, and no two events are the same – it’s an unforgettable social whirl of experimentation and misbehaviour. If you are a square, go elsewhere. Anything goes!
If you are impressed by maximum order with a side-salad of pomp and circumstance, then the Edinburgh Tattoo is the place to be. For fans of massed pipes and drums, the sheer number of military bands that descends on Edinburgh from around the world to compete against one another at Edinburgh Castle and along the Royal Mile is impressive. Army barmy visitors will be in heaven watching the marching bands strut their stuff. It’s an extreme audio-visual assault on the senses made up of bagpipes and tartan. A very serious occasion, and it’s not to be missed! Book seats in advance!
With its reputation established as one of the world’s leading film festivals, the EIFF is great for bagging tickets to an international premiere and a few Q+A’s with actors and directors. If cinema’s your thing, the EIFF has one of the best line-ups of brand-new films and PAs at several venues across the city centre. As of 2021, it will have been running for 75 years!
Places to eat in Edinburgh
Waking up in Edinburgh on a fresh morning will inspire you to look for something nice and warm to eat. Get Café Marlayne to make your breakfast. This romantic, intimate bistro serves up a delicious breakfast with a French influence. The best place for elevenses, after a morning of shopping, is The Dome, a lovely eatery in a building designed by architect James Craig back in 1775. It centres around a luxurious Georgian tearoom complete with eye-catching décor and crystal chandeliers. For a fine dining situation, you cannot go wrong at the Michelin-starred restaurant on Leith’s waterfront, The Kitchin – book ahead or go hungry. For another smart evening meal, sniff out Harvey Nichols Forth Floor Brasserie, with its indulgent menu and high standards across the board.
Did you know Edinburgh is home to Scotland's oldest pub? The Sheep Heid Inn in Duddingston is said to be the oldest dating back to the 1300's! Discover more in our guide to the oldest pubs of Scotland.
Famous people from Edinburgh
The city has many famous sons and daughters that number engineers, authors, scientists, politicians, actors, and warriors.
These include: Ian Rankin (author), Irvine Welsh (author), Muriel Spark (author), Iain Banks (author), Tony Blair (former British prime minister), Sean Connery (actor), Iain Glen (actor), Alexander Graham Bell (inventor of the telephone), KT Tunstall (singer), RL Stevenson (author), Walter Scott (author), David Hume (philosopher), Marie Stopes (women’s rights activist), Michael Gove (MP), Arthur Conan Doyle (author) and many more.
Take a look at our collection of cosy holiday escapes for families, boltholes for couples, and large stylish houses for big groups, and find your perfect holiday cottage in Edinburgh.
Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing,
please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.