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We’re spoilt for choice in Edinburgh. With World Heritage sites, incredible historic buildings, superb museums and galleries, seriously fun attractions, a wealth of beautiful green spaces and even beaches, it’s hard to know where to start! And we haven’t even mentioned the restaurants, festivals and music scene. So just what are our top things to see and do in Edinburgh that make this one of the best city break destinations in the world?
1. The Royal Mile (Edinburgh Old Town)
You can split Edinburgh City centre into 2 halves – the Old and the ‘New’ by which we mean 18th Century Georgian!). The Old Town describes the broadly speaking ‘Medieval’ Royal Mile connecting the 2 icons of Edinburgh Castle on the mound (extinct volcano) at one end, to Holyroodhouse Palace (one of the Queen’s official residences) at the other. Between them is (roughly) a mile of beautiful historic buildings including St Giles’ Cathedral, fascinating wynds (little alleyways) and even secret gardens. The Royal Mile itself is worthy of its own blog post and you’d need more than a day just to visit some of the many visitor experiences along it’s length (from Camera Obscura, to the Scotch Whisky Experience, the Real Mary King’s Close to the Writer’s Museum, St. Giles Catherdral to John Knox House to name just a few.
There are also masses of souvenir shops and places to grab a bit to eat or drink, so you can refuel as you go. But perhaps the very best way to experience the Old Town is to take a guided walking tour. Our world class Edinburgh guides will show you the little nooks and crannies that you’d miss on your own, while sharing fabulous stories of the characters and buildings that have occupied this part of the city over the centuries. We’re happy to recommend guides to you, just drop us a line via our ‘Tailored Services’ page.
2. The Georgian New Town
Skip through the lovely green space of Princes Street Gardens that divide the city running from East to West and you’ll find yourself in the beautifully regimented layout of Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town. This area of the city was a town planning truimph for the wealthy merchants of Edinburgh in the late 1700s. Beautiful town houses with communal formal gardens make for a pleasant stroll. Many (though certainly not all) of these are now divided into apartments and many have lovely basement gardens to look down into. The Georgian House in Charlotte Square (next door to Scotland’s First Minister’s official residence) helps to bring this period of Edinburgh’s history to life and is well worth a visit.
Again, while there are plenty of local guide books with walking routes, an official Edinburgh guide is a great investment to make sure you get the most out of your visit. Just drop us a line and we can point you in the right direction.
3. Edinburgh Castle
A visit to Edinburgh really isn’t complete without a visit to the Castle. It dominates the city skyline and is host to the Military Tattoo each summer. You can book a guided tour, or you can purchase one of their audio guides. We would highly recommend either of these. Be there for 1pm and you’ll be able to witness the firing of the one o’clock gun. The complex includes a number of fascinating highlights, from the armoury, to the crown jewels, not to mention the Stone of Destiny. The Castle is a superb visit for all ages. It’s also the home of the Military Tattoo every August which is a must if you’re in the City during that time, but make sure you plan ahead early to get tickets.
4. The Royal Yacht Britannia
This might be one of the bigger surprises of your visit to Edinburgh. The Royal Yacht Britannia was the Queen’s former floating palace and gives a unique insight into the more informal side of the life of our Royal Family. This attraction has won the best visitor attraction awards for 12 years running and remains one of the highest rated visits on Trip Advisor. Everything they do is 5*, keeping up the traditions of the yacht herself. Definitely include this in your itinerary.
5. Arthur’s Seat
How many cities have an extinct volcano hovering over them? Arthur’s Seat and Holyrood Park, in which it sits, is the Scottish Highlands in miniature – from gorse-covered hills, to high moors and grasslands, cliffs and even lochs. If you never get further North than Edinburgh, then Holyrood Park and the peak that is Arthur’s Seat will give you a great taste of what it’s like. We highly recommend an hour or more spent wandering on Arthur’s Seat. For most, a scamble to the top is a must for the glorious views right over the City, across the Forth into Fife and out to sea. But you don’t need to reach the summit to get the views or to stretch your legs in the natural beauty of the park. It’s the best possible antidote to the hustle and bustle of the city and it’s just an easy stroll from the end of the Royal Mile and Holyrood Palace.
6. National Museum of Scotland
With galleries across 2 adjoining buildings we defy you not to find something to fascinate you here at the National Museum of Scotland. The Science and Technology gallery is wonderfully interactive (and look out for the infamous Dolly The Sheep), the Natural World gallery is simply breathtaking. There are more traditional galleries that study world cultures as well as, of course, Scottish history and archaeology. The Museum also has a fanastic programme of events including specialised talks and tours. This museum is world class (and the kids will adore it too).
7. Royal Botanical Gardens
Towards the North of the city (and an easy stroll downhill from the city centre, or a 10 minute bus journey) you’ll discover Edinburgh’s Royal Botanical Gardens. This green oasis with superb visitor centre, eateries and enormous Victorian glass houses is a must for any plant lovers (squirrel lovers!) or those just looking for a calm break from the buzz of the city. We love to tie this in with a visit to the Stockbridge Market on a Sunday morning, followed by a stroll along the Water of Leith to the Modern Art Galleries. A perfect day!
8. Camera Obscura & World of Illusions
With five floors of interactive hands-on optical illusions, tricks and fun things to do including vortex tunnel, mirror maze and shrinking room, you’ll need a good 2 hours set aside for this visit. Described as ‘trippy and inspiring’, the Camera Obscura and World of Illusions is Edinburgh’s oldest purpose-built visitor attraction, created back in 1835. Perhaps the star of the show is the camera obscura itself which, using pinhole technology, gives you an extraordinary view of the city. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is just for the kids … every age group will have a fun and fascinating time here.
9. The Real Mary King’s Close
No trip down the Royal Mile is complete without learning more about the extraordinary hidden history of this part of the city in the 17th Century. There are plenty of tours (mostly ghost tours, which are fun if that’s your thing!) that will take you under the Royal Mile, but we think The Real Mary King’s Close is the best. You will be regailed with tales of plague, pestilence, murder and intrigue and go home forever grateful that you live in the 21st Century! This visit is great fun for all ages.
10. The Scotch Whisky Experience
Can you visit Scotland without tasting a wee dram? Surely not! If you haven’t got time to head out of the city to visit a distillery, then the Scotch Whisky Experience is for you. Take an interactive tour (in a barrel!) to learn more about the origins and makings of whisky, before getting the opportunity to experience for yourself our regional whiskies and whether you like fruity, sweet or smoky flavours. The experts will help you select your perfect dram during the nosing and tasting session.
But if gin is more your thing, then a visit to Pickering’s Gin is a fantastic detour and highly recommended too.
With so much to see and do in Edinburgh, you are spoilt for choice. Our top 10 has included some of the best visitor attractions, scenery, history and more. We haven’t even mentioned the beaches, the boat trips (or tidal walkways) out to secretive islands, the fabulous world class restaurants, bars and eateries, or any of the multitude of summer festivals. We haven’t mentioned the wealth of smaller museums and galleries, or Edinburgh zoo, or Dynamic Earth and so so much more. Just come – come and choose the sights and sounds and smells and tastes that appeal to you most. Edinburgh really does offer the very best of City Breaks.