Edinburgh is one of my favourite cities in the UK, and was an obvious addition to my perfect two week itinerary of the UK. Until now though, I’ve not put together a detailed overview of my favourite pastimes in Edinburgh.
Today I’m going to address that, sharing tips and ideas for what to get up to during your time in this absolutely gorgeous city. I’ll also be sharing some of my favourite photos of the city, captured across various visits at different times of year.
Things to Do in Edinburgh
1. Go Whisky Tasting
Scotland and Whisky are intractably linked. Don’t make the mistake of referring to the Scottish version as “Whiskey” though, that’s from the folks across the Irish Sea.
Scottish whisky is my favourite spirit, and whenever I’m in Edinburgh I’ll always find time for a drop. You can do this of course just by popping into pretty much any pub in the city, but if you want to learn about the process of making whisky, as well as the various regions of Scotland and the flavours available, then the Scotch Whisky Experience is where you need to head.
Here you’ll journey through the Whisky creation process, as well as learn about why Whisky from different parts of Scotland tastes different. Finally, you’ll be given the opportunity to taste one of four whisky flavours, before taking a look at the largest Scotch Whisky collection in the world.
2. Explore Edinburgh Castle
Once you’ve loaded up on whisky, you could take the opportunity to head a little further up the road to Edinburgh’s Castle, which perches fantastically above the city, and offers a wonderful panoramic view of the city and surrounds.
The castle is home to a variety of exhibitions and artefacts from Scottish history, including the Scottish crown jewels. The castle is also where the 1pm gun is fired every day, so if you do have a chance to be there for this then do, as it’s quite an experience. Get your tickets for Edinburgh Castle in advance here to skip the line, and see the end of the post for tips on how to save on access to some of Edinburgh's Royal attractions.
3. Be Mystified at Edinburgh's Camera Obscura
Almost opposite the Scotch Whisky experience is Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura, also home to the World of Illusions attraction. Being a photographer I was particularly interested in the Camera Obscura at the top of the building, but I have to admit to finding the World of Illusions a lot of fun.
These take up the first four floors of the building, and are a series of interactive exhibits which focus on optical illusions. There are holograms, a mirror maze, a vertigo inducing tunnel, and all sorts of other optical illusions to entertain and amuse. We spent a lot longer in here that I thought we would!
The Camera Obscura right at the top of the building is also interesting, although as it was a cloudy day when we visited, the effect was not as pronounced – you need a sunny day with lots of light to get the most out of the experience. Still, it was an interesting look into how light and prisms work, and the view from the top of the Castle and the Royal Mile is excellent.
4. Drop in at St. Giles’ Cathedral
Also on the Royal Mile, about a third of the way down from the castle, is St Giles’ Cathedral. Both the interior and exterior of the cathedral are stunning, but the highlight in my mind is the little Thistle Chapel, home to the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle.
These were essentially a group of sixteen Knights and Ladies, plus the British Royal Family, set up by James II of England in 1687, who was the Sovereign of the Order.
The Order still exists today, and is overseen by the current British Queen, Elizabeth II.
All that aside, the Thistle Chapel is just gorgeous, stuffed full of lovely wooden panelling, and very much worth taking a little bit of time to see, as is the rest of the Cathedral.
5. Walk Edinburgh's Royal Mile
All the recommendations so far have been along the Royal Mile, the lovely stretch of interconnecting streets which run from Edinburgh Castle down to Holyrood Palace. It’s not exactly a mile long, but it’s near enough, and is filled with a variety of attractions, from the above mentioned, through to souvenir shops, restaurants and pubs.
There are also a number of gorgeous buildings, churches and monuments along the length of the street, all of which contribute to making this a worthy way to spend half an hour or so of your day.
6. Visit Holyrood Palace
At the opposite end of the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle is Holyrood Palace, the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland. The Queen herself only spends a week a year here – most of her time in Scotland is spent up at Balmoral.
When the Queen isn’t here, the Palace is used for visiting dignitaries, other members of the royal family, and of course, as a tourist attraction, being open daily. It’s worth checking however that there isn’t someone of importance staying, as the palace closes to visitors when fulfilling its main role as an official residence. Check the official website for information.
7. Hike Arthur’s Seat
One of my favourite things about Edinburgh, other than how magnificently walk-able the city centre is, is that just a stone’s throw from Holyrood Palace is the ancient volcano of Arthur’s Seat, part of the 640-acre Holyrood Park.
This 251 metre high peak offers spectacular views of the city and surrounds, as well as nice hiking, sunset and sunrise views, and the walk is easily manageable right from the city centre.
8. Climb Calton HIll
Another wonderful spot for a view of the city is Calton Hill, at the east end of Princes Street. This hill is home to a series of monuments, including the National Monument of Scotland, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Parthenon in Greece. Which makes sense, because that’s what it was modelled on.
Up on the hill you will also find Nelson’s Monument and the Royal Observatory, amongst other things, but the highlight for me, really, is the view up here at sunset. From here you can watch the sun set across the city, with the mountains in the background, which is ample reward for the effort required to climb up.
9. Feel Royal on HMY Britannia
The Royal Yacht Britannia (ranked #1 visitor attraction in the UK on Tripadvisor in 2014) was, for over forty years and a million miles of sailing, the floating residence of the Royal Family. She shuttled them to formal events, retreats and even honeymoons in luxurious style over many years of service, and was the only ship in the world to demand no less than an Admiral as her Captain.
After all that service, she was retired, and never replaced, ending the line of six Royal yachts to bear the name Britannia.
The good news is that she is now a permanent visitor attraction, and you can visit and tour every part of her, from the sumptuous royal quarters through to the Admiral’s cabin, and the rather less upholstered bunks of the crew. It’s a fascinating insight into life as a Royal, and if you have even the slightest interest in boats or the British monarchy, is worth a visit.
Money saving tip: If you plan on visiting the Royal Yacht and the other Royal sights in Edinburgh, including the Castle and Holyrood Palace, you can save money by picking up a Royal Edinburgh ticket, which gets you into all the aforementioned attractions and also includes a Hop on Hop off bus ticket.
Take in a festival
Edinburgh is an incredible city for festivals, with the most famous likely being the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Held for three weeks in August, this is the world’s largest performing arts festivals, with a firm focus on comedy. Over the three week period the festival runs there are thousands of acts and performances, ranging from unknowns looking for their big breakthrough through to international comedy stars.
At the other end of the festival season, Edinburgh plays host to one of the world’s most celebrated New Year’s Eve parties – Hogmanay. I attended this for the end of 2014, and can honestly say it was the best New Year’s Eve festival I’ve ever attended, with everything from Viking Processions through to international singers and incredible fireworks. Definitely one to add to your list. Read more about some of Edinburgh's fantastic festivals and how to plan your visit in this comprehensive guide to the Edinburgh Festivals.
Get out to the highlands
It’s a bit of a drive, but if you have some time to spare and want to experience some of Scotland’s most spectacular landscapes, a trip out to Glencoe is a must. Around a three hour drive from Edinburgh, this steep valley offers some of the UK’s most dramatic scenery. Very much worth the visit.
When to Visit Edinburgh
Like much of the UK, Edinburgh has variable weather, so you need to be prepared for everything from rain to sunshine. Layered clothing is the key to a successful trip. Be aware that being fairly northerly, Edinburgh has generally cooler weather than the southern cities in England, although it does rain less than Glasgow.
There’s not really a bad time to visit Edinburgh as there is so much going on throughout the year, but if you prefer better weather and longer days to explore by daylight, then visiting in the summer months is preferable. Of course, visiting outside of these months will mean it’s quieter, and if you’re not interested in the fringe festival, avoid August as accommodation can be harder to get and more pricey.
Getting to and from Edinburgh
Edinburgh is very easy to get to. Flights operate to Edinburgh airport, both nationally and internationally, and the airport itself is around six miles outside the city centre, and easily reached by airport bus or with a taxi service like Uber ($20 off your first ride with this link!).
The train station in Edinburgh has fast rail services to London (around four and a half hours), and is magnificently located directly underneath the castle. Emerging from the rail station and being confronted by the beauty of Edinburgh for the first time is something you’ll never forget.
You can also drive to Edinburgh, which is how you’d get here if you are following my suggested UK itinerary. Parking is possible in the city centre, and a car will let you get to attractions outside of the city, but isn’t generally needed for day to day sight seeing as Edinburgh is very compact.
Save Money On Edinburgh Attractions
Whilst Edinburgh unfortunately doesn't have a comprehensive attraction pass like the London Pass, there is still a way to save on some of the attractions in this post. These are:
- The Royal Edinburgh Ticket. This gets you into the key Royal attractions in Edinburgh - Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Yacht Brittania. It also includes a Hop-on Hop-off bus pass, which is perfect for getting around all the sights in this post. This pass will save you up to 25% on admission fees, so is definitely worth getting if you plan on visiting at least two of these attractions. Jess wrote a full post about the Royal Edinburgh Ticket here. You can get yours in advance here.
- The Historic Scotland Explorer Pass. This pass is a good investment, but only if you're planning on exploring Scotland beyond Edinburgh. It gives access to 77 attractions across Scotland, including Edinburgh Castle. However, if you're only going to be in Edinburgh, the Royal Edinburgh Ticket is going to be more useful.
Further Reading for your Edinburgh Trip
As you'd expect, we've written a lot of content about visiting Edinburgh and the UK in general, plus we have other resources we think you'll find helpful. Here they are:
- Want to see more of Edinburgh? Check out my guide to getting off the beaten path in Edinburgh
- If you're a Harry Potter fan, you've got to check out Jess's Guide to the Best Edinburgh Harry Potter locations
- Coming to Edinburgh for the festivals? Check out our guide to visiting Edinburgh for the August Festivals
- If you were thinking of taking a trip around the UK and want to include Edinburgh as part of that itinerary, we have both a one week itinerary of the UK and a two week itinerary of the UK for you.
- Heading out of the capital? How about a trip to the Scottish Borders or a tour of some Whisky distilleries?
- And finally, if you want a guidebook to bring along with you, check out the Lonely Planet Pocket Edinburgh Guide or the Rick Steves Snapshot Edinburgh Guide.
Disclaimer: this post is built on various trips to Edinburgh, including a trip in May 2015 where we were guests of Visit Britain. They covered part of our accommodation (two out of three nights) and entry to a number of the above attractions. All opinions remain our own.