Best Things to Do in Edinburgh Scotland (Especially for First-Timers)

Planning a trip to Edinburgh, Scotland and looking for fun things to do? This charming medieval city has plenty to offer! In this Edinburgh guide, you will learn about some of the best things to do in Edinburgh – especially for first-timers. I’ve also included some hidden gems for those of you who like to get off the beaten path!

Moreover, I’ve included travel tips and links to other helpful Edinburgh guides for planning a great trip!

Upper Bow looking over Victoria Street best things to do in Edinburgh

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25 Best Things to See and Do in Edinburgh

Edinburgh Castle – Most Popular Attraction

Easily one of the best things to do in Edinburgh is visit the Edinburgh Castle – especially if this is your first time visiting! This historic castle is especially cool because it is perched atop an extinct volcano that was thought to have erupted 350 million years ago!

Oh, and this castle also looks like Hogwarts, but that’s beside the point! There is a ton of history to be learned here, from seeing crown jewels, the National War Museum, Mons Meg, the Royal Palace, and more! In fact, there are 26 points of interest within the castle walls to explore, so plan to spend at least 2 hours here.

One of the most popular times to visit is for the One o’ Clock Gun, where they sound the cannon (except Sundays). I personally felt this was a little over-rated and would suggest visiting early in the morning or closer to sunset instead.

Because this is easily Edinburgh’s top attraction, I recommend getting tickets in advance. We also splurged on the audio guide for an additional £3.50, and I believe it was definitely worth it.

Admission: £18 for adults (16 – 64); £14.50 for seniors /concession (65+); £11 for Children (5-15). This can be purchased directly on their website.

Hours: 9:30 AM – 6 PM April – September; 10 AM – 4 PM October – March

Address: Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2NG, United Kingdom

Edinburgh Castle from Grassmarket
The one o' clock gun from the Edinburgh Castle
The one o’ clock gun from the Edinburgh Castle

The Royal Mile

The Royal Mile is another top attraction to enjoy when visiting Edinburgh, Scotland. It is, in fact, a little longer than a mile (Scott’s Mile), and it starts from Edinburgh Castle and ends at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

Because we couldn’t find much clear information on how to walk the Royal Mile, I wrote a whole guide on the best things to do on the Royal Mile, but I will share some of the details with you here!

There are tons of incredible stops along the way, including St Giles’ Cathedral, Advocates Close, Bakehouse Close (for Outlander fans), and the Tolbooth Tavern. It takes about an hour to walk, so just make sure you’re wearing your comfortable shoes!

Tolbooth Tavern

Princes Street Garden

One of the best places to mix some greenery with surrounded by landmarks is at the Princes Street Garden. This green space is incredibly scenic, with views of the Edinburgh Castle beyond the trees, the Ross Fountain, and many more monuments and sculptures as you walk through.

Personally, I loved checking out St Cuthbert’s Kirkyard, which is on the west end of the park. If you like graveyards, this is definitely a little hidden gem. On a nice day, I suggest joining in with the locals by enjoying a picnic or just taking in the sun. This garden is also completely free to visit and has public toilets.

Princes Garden is another must see place
things to do on the Royal Mile

Scott Monument

One of the most unique architectural gems you will want to include in your Edinburgh itinerary is the Scott Monument! Unlike most grand monuments that are for war heroes or Kings/Queens, this Victorian memorial commemorates the writer Sir Walter Scott – which is pretty neat if you ask me! In fact, it is one of the largest monuments dedicated to a writer in the entire world.

Its unique design has landed it as one of the most Instagrammable places in Edinburgh, and if you have it in you, I suggest taking the 287 steps to the top for a fantastic view of the city. The last I’ve seen, the tickets are £8 pounds, and you can purchase them at the kiosk at the monument.

Hours: 10 AM – 4:30 PM Daily

Address: E. Princes St Gardens, Edinburgh EH2 2EJ, United Kingdom

The Scott Monument
The Scott Monument

Palace of Holyroodhouse

Located at the end of the Royal Mile, you will see the stunning Palace of Holyroodhouse. This is an official Royal Residence, and you have the opportunity to tour some of it! During a tour, you will walk the halls of historic figures, including the Bonnie Prince Charlie and Mary, Queen of Scotts.

When the King is visiting the area, he will also stay here and carry out official arrangements. While I technically did not get to explore inside because it was closed, I have heard from many that this was one of their favorite things to do in Edinburgh – especially seeing the Holyrood Abbey.

Holyrood Palace is a must with 2 days in Edinburgh

Waverly Market

I don’t often see Waverley Market mentioned as a place to visit in Edinburgh, and I am not quite sure why. This bustling market space is perfect if you love shopping, eating, and drinking. They always have something going on, whether that be live music or Cask Smugglers fun Instagrammable domes.

Arthur’s Seat

Did you know this ancient hill was formerly an old volcano? With stunning views overlooking Edinburgh, it is also one of the best things to do if you don’t mind a bit of a hike.

There are multiple trails that lead from Holyrood Park to Arthur’s Seat, the hill’s highest point. At about 823 feet high, the summit provides breathtaking panoramic vistas. On a nice day, the hike there and back is especially enjoyable, taking about two hours total. If the weather is unfavorable, I would consider skipping this hike however, as you won’t be able to see anything.

Arthurs Seat is a top Instagrammable place on a sunny day in Edinburgh
Credit: bloodua/depositphotos

Calton Hill – Perfect for Sunset

In addition to being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Calton Hill offers some of the greatest views of the city below, making it one of the best places to visit in Edinburgh, Scotland. Aside from the stunning views, Calton Hill has a unique feature. Enjoy a “little Acropolis” atop the hill!

There is no denying that the Parthenon in Athens served as the model for the National Monument. On a clear day, this is also one of the best places to enjoy the sunset, and it is free to visit.

Address: Edinburgh EH7 5AA, United Kingdom

Calton Hill is a top photo spot in Edinburgh Scotland
Credit: Shaiith79/depositphotos

Craigmillar Castle – A Hidden Gem

A true hidden gem located just outside the city center is the Craigmiller Castle. Outlander fans may recognize this as Ardsmuir Prison for the Jacobites, however, historians will know that this was a place Mary Queen of Scotts had stayed back in 1556.

Unlike Edinburgh Castle, which was built to be a war fortress, this castle actually feels like a place you could live your small fairytale dreams. This is because the castle was first built as a tower house in the late 1300s and gradually continued to be built into the castle we see today.

While here, you can explore the different rooms of the castle. Don’t forget to make your way to the roof and take in the views of the city in the distance. Right outside the castle, you will also find walking trails to enjoy at your leisure. We saw a handful of locals walking their pups.

Admission: Adult (16-64yrs) £7; Age 65+ £5.50; Child (5-15yrs); £4. Tickets can be purchased here.

Hours: April – September Daily 10 AM to 5 PM (last entry 4:15 PM); October – March Daily 10 AM – 4 PM (last entry 3:15 PM)

Address: Craigmillar Castle Rd, Edinburgh EH16 4SY, United Kingdom

Craigmillar Castle tower

Dean Village – The Most Magical Place in Edinburgh

A visit to Edinburgh would not be complete without visiting the charming Dean Village. This village looks like it is right out of a storybook and has a completely different ambiance compared to the Gothic style of Edinburgh. Give yourself at least 30 minutes to an hour to walk around Dean Village.

Dean Village is one of the best things to do in Edinburgh Scotland
Dean Village in Edinburgh

The Royal Yacht Britannia

With over 390,000 visitors a year, Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia, AKA the Royal Yacht Britannia, is a great place to visit if you love all things royal family. This Yacht served the Royal family for over 40 years.

Now, you can explore the staterooms of the Queen and the rest of the Royal Family when you climb aboard. The tour of the ship includes five decks with an audio tour. Tickets are recommended in advance during the busy season.

Hours: November – March: 10 AM – 5 PM; April – August: 9:30 AM – 6 PM; October: 10 AM – 5:30 PM

Admission: Adults: £18.50; Children: £9.25; Under 5 is free

Address: Address: Ocean Dr, Leith, Edinburgh EH6 6JJ, United Kingdom

National Museum of Scotland

Edinburgh has many great museums, but the National Museum of Scotland is my favorite. What makes this museum unique is that you can see a wide variety of different things, from art and fashion to science and Scottish history. You can easily spend hours exploring the galleries, but if you’re pressed for time, I would suggest spending at least 1 hour. Like other Scottish museums, it is also free to visit.

Opening Hours: Daily 10 AM – 5 PM

Address: Chambers St, Edinburgh EH1 1JF, United Kingdom

National Museum of Scotland glass dome room

Grass Market and Old Town

Another incredible area you should visit in Edinburgh is Grassmarket, which is located in the Old Town. This lively area offers incredible views of Edinburgh Castle from the Vennel Viewpoint and has tons of shops and restaurants to enjoy.

I try pizza everywhere I travel and was pretty impressed with Mamma’s American Pizza. It’s also a great place to enjoy drinks. If you get excited about seeing red phone booths like me, there is one right in the center!

Oh, and don’t forget to walk up Victoria Street, which is not only picturesque but also has been said to have inspired Diagon Alley.

Edinburgh travel tip: Halfway up the street, take the stairs to Upper Bow, and see the street from above!

Grassmarket in Edinburgh
Red telephone booth in Edinburgh Instagrammable places

Scotch Whisky Experience

When in Scotland, it only makes sense to experience Scottish Whiskey, and one of the best places to do that is right in Edinburgh. So, if you love whisky, taking part in the Scotch Whiskey Experience should be added to your list.

The basic ticket starts at £21 and includes a guided tour plus a tasting. The more elaborate tours include multiple tastings and experiences and go up to £90 per person. You can learn more about the Scotch Whisky Experience here!

Greyfriars Kirkyard

Would you have guessed visiting a cemetery is one of the best things to do in Edinburgh, Scotland? Me neither until I learned about how this very cemetery inspired J.K Rowling. Can you tell I have a thing for Harry Potter?

Greyfriars Kirkyard has always been a popular place in Edinburgh, but after it was revealed that some of the Character names could be found in the graveyard, that popularity grew. They even have tours here. Character names you can see include Thomas Riddle, Moodie Graves, and Sirius Black.

On any given day, you can find people reading, picnicking, and meeting up here. It is treated more like a park to hang out in rather than a place of mourning, which is pretty unique.

Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh Scotland is one of the best things to do

The Writers’ Museum

The Writers’ Museum is often skipped, but I think it is one of the best things to do if you have a couple of days in Edinburgh. This museum is free to visit and located in the picture-worthy Makars’ Court, just off the Royal Mile.

On top of that, it is free to visit and situated inside a 17th-century home. If you have an interest in literature, you will likely have this museum high on your list. Inside this unique home, you will find the personal belongings of 3 famous Scottish writers: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

The Writers Museum in Edinburgh Sign
Makar's Court in Edinburgh

The Real Mary King’s Close

Want to explore the alleys under the city? Located under the Royal Mile, explore the Real Mark King’s Close, which has over 400 years of history! This is also a fun thing to do with older kids since the tour includes characters you will meet that bring you through the history.

Throughout the year, they also put on special tours, including true crime, lantern lead tours, and the close of Christmas past.

Admission: Tickets range from £21 – £25 and tickets are best to get online.

Address: 2 Warriston’s Close High Street Edinburgh EH1 1PG

Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

One of the best gardens to visit in Edinburgh can be experienced at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. With over 70 acres to be explored, you can enjoy a wide variety of plants and beautiful landscapes just outside the city center.

The Royal Botanic Garden acts as a nice escape from the busy city, and it’s free to enjoy! The gardens are open throughout the year as they always have something going on. For something a little unique, you can take afternoon tea tours and guided walks.

Harry Potter Tour

So, I have mentioned Harry Potter multiple times, therefore, you should know there is no way I wasn’t including an actual tour. Truth be told, there are so many cool Harry Potter-inspired spots in Edinburgh since J.K. Rowling spent time in Edinburgh.

In fact, the Harry Potter tours are one of the most popular things to do when visiting, so consider getting your wizard on!

Harry Potter Museum Store
Victoria Street in Edinburgh
Victoria Street

St. Giles’ Cathedral

Located on the Royal Mile, St. Giles’ Cathedral deserves its own spot on the top things to do in Edinburgh for its historical significance and beauty. To this day, the cathedral is still used for worship while also being the most popular cathedral to visit in Edinburgh.

The history of this iconic cathedral began in 1124 when it was founded by Dauíd mac Maíl Choluim (King David I). Other important figures with ties to the church include John Knox and Bonnie Price Charles. The church survived many raids and was converted to worship type several times. If you’re interested in Scottish and English history, this is the place you want to be; not to mention the stained glass is incredible.

St. Giles Cathedral

Canongate Kirkyard

For a less crowded but equally cool graveyard as Greyfriars Kirkyard, head over to Canongate Kirkyard. It is located right on the Royal Mile and has some famous people buried here as well!

In fact, Charles Dickens paid a visit to the graveyard, and it was here he came up with the character Ebenezer Scrooge. The grave was of Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie. The story goes that Dickens misread “meal man” as “mean man,” and the name was born 2 years later.

His grave marker was moved during construction, so you can no longer see it, but it is still pretty cool to know. Other notable people include Adam Smith (economist) and Robert Fergusson (Poet).

Address: 153 Canongate, Edinburgh EH8 8BN, United Kingdom

Royal Scottish Academy

If you want to experience Scottish Art, the Royal Scottish Academy is one of the best places to do just this in Edinburgh. Founded in 1826, they are dedicated to supporting art and architecture in Scotland.

Their vast collection includes over 9,000 pieces of Scottish art with over 200 years of history. This is an independent art museum designed for those who truly love art. If this sounds like you, make sure to add the Royal Scottish Academy to your Edinburgh bucket list.

Read: Detailed 2 Days in Edinburgh Itinerary

Address: The Mound, Edinburgh EH2 2EL, United Kingdom

Climb Blackford Hill (Off the Beaten Path)

For a more off-the-beaten-path experience, consider heading over to the Hermitage of Braid and Blackford Hill Local Nature Reserve. Here, you can climb Blackford Hill and even visit the Royal Observatory. You will undoubtedly feel more like a local as you escape the hustle and bustle of the city.

Address: Hermitage of Braid, Edinburgh EH9 3HJ, United Kingdom

Camera Obscura and World of Illusions – With Kids

Looking for something fun to do in Edinburgh with kids? Then, I would recommend checking out Camera Obscura and World of Illusions. You can enjoy tons of immersive and interactive exhibits that are geared toward kids, and they also have a great lookout.

This attraction is wildly popular, with almost 13k reviews on Google, but I feel like it is more of a tourist trap. Not visiting with kids? Then, I would probably skip this as there are better things to do during your visit!

Address: 549 Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2ND, United Kingdom

Try Seeing The Cows at the Swanston Golf Club

This is a wee bit outside of Edinburgh city center, but if you are dreaming of seeing the famous Highland Cows, you have the opportunity to do so here. The golf club has a few Coo at the top of the hill you can look for.

If I am being honest, I went and made it halfway up the hill with no Coo sightings, but my friend went and saw them. My mom also didn’t want to continue climbing up what she considered a “mountain.” The area and views were still nice even though we saw no cows.

Address: 111 Swanston Rd, Edinburgh EH10 7DS, United Kingdom

Swanston Farm hill
Half way up the Swanston Farm hill

Getting Around Edinburgh Scotland

Wondering how to explore all these awesome Edinburgh attractions? Edinburgh is a pretty small city compared to, say, London. Therefore, getting around Edinburgh is best by walking. However, if you’re not the walking type, they have a great public transportation system, and Uber works well here, too.

Edinburgh Castle

Best Things to Do in Edinburgh Wrap-up

Now you are ready to experience the best things Edinburgh, Scotland has to offer! I hope you have the best time exploring this historic yet whimsical city!

Do you have any questions about these Edinburgh attractions, or think I’ve missed an activity that should be added? Let me know in the comments below, or by direct message!

Did you find this guide on the Best Things to Do in Edinburgh helpful? I’d appreciate it if you could share it below!

Things to do in Edinburgh Scotland
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Samantha Oppenheimer

Samantha Oppenheimer (Sam Opp) quit her corporate marketing job in 2018 to travel the world and become a travel writer, blogger and content creator. She loves experiencing authentic travel experiences, photography, and nature. Sam shares helpful travel itineraries, travel tips, budget tips, and travel advice from her personal experiences. You can also find Sam's words featured in large publications including Mirror, Thrillist, and Well + Good.

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