What to do
on a visit to Edinburgh
Steeped in centuries of history, and home to some of the United Kingdom’s most breathtaking sights and attractions, the city of Edinburgh is a unique and enthralling destination. Whether you’re planning a weekend break, or a holiday for the whole family, Edinburgh brims with possibilities for everyone - from parents and couples, to teenagers and toddlers.
With so much choice, deciding what to do in Edinburgh can be daunting. Fortunately, the city’s calendar of events is packed throughout the year, but to help you plan your trip, take a moment to explore our guide and create your own unforgettable experience in Scotland’s capital city...
From towering monuments, to twisting wynds, Edinburgh’s dramatic past stretches back thousands of years. Named as a World Heritage Site in 1995, the city of Edinburgh’s Old Town dates back many hundreds of years, whereas the different but equally beautiful New Town was conceived and constructed in the late 18th century. Looming above the skyline, on a plateau of volcanic rock, Edinburgh Castle stands as the most prominent of these historic attractions at the top of the Royal Mile. The castle has been an important military installation since the 12th century, and today that heritage endures: visitors can walk the ramparts overlooking the city, hear the blast of the ‘One O’Clock Gun’, or tour one of the many exhibitions, which include the 500 year-old Scottish Crown Jewels.
Built in urbanised layers over the centuries, the rest of Edinburgh is a treasure trove of historic experiences. Leading up to the famous castle, the Royal Mile remains a popular thoroughfare, and represents a gateway to the city’s ‘Old Town’. Site of the 14th century, St Giles Cathedral, the Mile is also home to The Scotch Whisky Experience and to attractions like Camera Obscura and Mary King’s Close, and hosts a variety of historic walking tours, many of which cover the more gory aspects of Edinburgh's history. Companies such as Sandeman's start their walking tours from the centre of the Royal Mile, making them easy to find. Keep heading down the Mile, and you’ll eventually reach the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh situated only a short distance from the distinctive Scottish Parliament.
Discover Natural Beauty
It doesn’t take long for the size and shape of Edinburgh to make an impression. While the castle’s volcanic plateau stands in the centre of the city, Arthur’s Seat, another natural landmark, joins it in defining the Edinburgh skyline. Over 300 million years old, and 250 metres high, some believe that Arthur’s Seat takes its name from Britain’s legendary king, and is an unmissable landmark in every sense. Arthur’s Seat offers breathtaking views of the city and beyond, and provides hours of hiking opportunities, with the stunning Salisbury Crags, and the charming Duddingston Loch nearby.
Just outside Edinburgh, the Firth of Forth is a change of pace, and evokes the beauty of the city’s rural surroundings. A sweeping, 55-mile long estuary, the Forth very much part of Edinburgh’s identity - providing historic fishing opportunities, trade, and travel routes to the rest of the world. The Forth is spanned by three spectacular bridges: a rail bridge, and two road bridges which pedestrians may cross for amazing views of the water. For those with sea legs, it’s possible to charter a boat for sightseeing or fishing trips out onto the Forth - so long as the unpredictable coastal weather cooperates.
Experience the Festivals
The spring and summer months are ‘festival season’ in Edinburgh and bring a spectrum of colour, culture and characters to the city. Perhaps the most famous of these is the eclectic Edinburgh Festival Fringe which transforms the city every August with a dazzling celebration of comedy, theatre, dance and much more. Fringe events take place in venues stretching from the Old Town to the New Town - with literally thousands of shows to choose from, the festival promises delights for audiences of every age.
Of course, Edinburgh’s festival schedule goes beyond the Fringe, and thousands of people arrive throughout the year for a range of world famous events including the International Festival, the Film Festival, the Book Festival, the Science Festival, and more. One of the city’s most prestigious festival experiences is the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo: held on the castle’s scenic esplanade through August, audiences experience a bombastic showcase of music and military heritage from across the globe, complete with fireworks, and a climactic flyover by the RAF.
Celebrate the Seasons
Edinburgh’s seasonal calendar is full of parties, celebrations and special events. At the end of October, as the nights draw in, the festival of Samhuinn takes place on Calton Hill: traditionally a pagan celebration marking the arrival of winter, Samhuinn involves fire-eaters, dancers, and a torchlight parade through the Old Town. Days later, in November, it’s Bonfire Night: watch out for organised bonfires across the city, and a variety of colourful firework displays.
Edinburgh’s festive celebrations see sparkling colour fill the winter skies. On Princes Street, a traditional Christmas Market serves mulled wine and hot chocolate, while the city’s myriad decorations and lights are often accompanied by festive choirs and performers. Families may want to explore the Christmas fairground in Princes Street Gardens - complete with carousel, big wheel, ice rink, and, of course, Santa’s Grotto. As Christmas draws to a close, Edinburgh prepares for one of its showpiece parties: the Hogmanay celebration, which sees thousands of visitors descend on Princes Street to enjoy lively street-concerts, and usher in the New Year with an incredible fireworks display launched from the castle.
Sample the Cuisine
Edinburgh is a vibrant melting pot of Scottish, British, and international culture - and that part of its distinctive identity is showcased in its cuisine. Leith has everything from fish and chips to gourmet Michelin-starred restaurants such as The Kitchin, and the city centre has seen a recent explosion of new dining choices. The food and drink of Edinburgh is known across the world - and, of course, is readily available in the many pubs, bars, and restaurants. St Andrew’s Day, held every November 30th, is another chance to eat and drink mouthwatering Scottish delights, and even take part in a ceilidh: Scotland’s traditional Gaelic dance. Don’t worry if you miss out: for fans of Scotland’s historic fare, Burns Night, every January 25th, marks the birth of famous poet Rabbie Burns, and is celebrated with a traditional supper of haggis, neeps, and tatties - and by all means a nip of your favourite Scotch.
Absorb the Culture
Scotland’s inimitable culture is a beacon to the world, and in Edinburgh visitors explore both its current incarnations and its historic legacy. Prestigious museums and galleries, holding distinguished works and exhibits from Scotland and beyond, are situated in every part of the city. Particularly famous attractions include the National Museum of Scotland in the Old Town, the National Galleries at the foot of the Mound, the Writer’s Museum on the Royal Mile, and the National Gallery of Modern Art in the New Town.
Music and theatre lovers should also expect to be spoiled by Edinburgh’s variety: the city’s performance venues include the Lyceum, the Festival Theatre, the Playhouse, the Kings Theatre, the Queen’s Hall and the Usher Hall, which welcome a variety of internationally-renowned artists, musicians and performers throughout the year. For a more immersive experience, the city also hosts a number of dedicated music festivals and events, including the Jazz and Blues Festival in July, the Scottish Fiddle Festival in November, and the Castle Concerts which take place throughout the summer.
Enjoy the Sport
Sporting tradition has long been important to Edinburgh: the city is home to two historic football teams, a rugby team, and hosts several golf courses. Murrayfield Stadium is a showpiece attraction, and every year hosts several matches of the Six Nations rugby tournament, which involves the Italian, French, Welsh, Irish, Scottish and English national teams, and draws thousands of rugby fans to the city. For golf enthusiasts looking beyond the city, Edinburgh is only a short distance from St Andrews, ‘the home of golf’, where the Old Course provides the dramatic setting for numerous famous golf tournaments.
It goes without saying, if you don’t have tickets to any of the competitions, don’t despair: the city’s pubs and bars welcome sports fans from across the world to enjoy the atmosphere, and a pint, during every major sporting event.
Like any capital city, Edinburgh boasts its fair share of retail therapy opportunities, with thousands of shops and boutique stores in which to wile away an hour or an afternoon. Whether you’re looking for gifts, whisky, tartan, or souvenirs in the Old Town’s many curiosity and tourist shops, or jewellery, electronics, and the latest fashions in the New Town, your shopping options in Edinburgh are eclectic and numerous.
If you’re planning a more relaxing trip, Edinburgh has no shortage of opportunities for self-indulgence - all within walking distance of the city’s Waverley train station. Whether you’re arriving as a group, or just coming for a brief romantic getaway, your time in the city can be as busy, or as tranquil as you desire: book a luxury spa session, take afternoon tea, enjoy a guided whisky tasting, or dine at one of the city’s many restaurants.
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