Edinburgh is one of my favorite cities on the planet and one I have been fortunate enough to call home. From soaring, ancient castles to windswept, stony shores — there’s something for everyone in Edinburgh Scotland. But what if you don’t want just the tourist experience? Then this is the city guide for you.
Touristy Things to Do
There’s honestly about a million great places to go in Edinburgh. But, if you’re on a time-limit, then here are the top spots to make sure you visit in / around this incredible city of history and stone. From hiking to history — it’s all there.
An actual residence of HRM Elizabeth I, this palatial estate in the heart of Edinburgh is a must-see. Once the home of iconic figures like Mary Queen of Scots this royal residence features roving history exhibits and some of the most beautiful interiors outside of Buckingham Palace. Before planning a visit, make sure to check opening times and ticket prices. These can often change — especially if the queen or royal family are in residence!
This stunning volcanic mount is something you can hardly miss when visiting Edinburgh. One of two such mounts in the city, this hike offers sweeping views over the city and the beautiful Firth of Forth. If you love to hike, you’ll love the varying trails, including Radical Road (which offers views over The Crags). If you’re not a hiker, then don’t worry. There’s a driving trail that winds its way nearly to the top of this ancient hill. Best part? IT’S FREE!
Right up the Royal Mile at the top of another craggy volcanic mount stands the jaw-dropping Edinburgh Castle. Seriously. I lived in this city for years and never got over the sight of it, looming imperiously over the city on its rocky black-and-grey cliffs. Edinburgh castle is great for the history buffs and general sight-seers alike. There’s even a bit of American history contained there…if you know where to look. The castle also features in a number of festivals and fireworks displays each year. (Which is impressive, as you can imagine.)
Tickets and schedules change frequently, due to the high volume of festivals and events in Edinburgh, so make sure to check times and prices regularly if planning a visit.
The National Gallery
This is another free stop in the touristy Edinburgh list. This gallery features an array of Scottish artists as well as a monumental collection of other classical art and sculpture. Spread out over floors and floors, its easy to spend hours roaming the spacious galleries, ogling at the mastership of the classic artists. Located smack dab in the middle of the city on Prince’s Street, it’s also incredibly accessible.
Like most other Edinburgh institutions, opening and closing times can change frequently, so be sure to plan ahead.
The National Museum of Scotland
Still loving the free thing? Yeah, me too. That’s only one reason why this museum has made the list. Free to visit and one of the best museums I’ve ever visited, this is a great day out of children and adults alike. Take the family or wander on your own. Spend the day or spend just a few hours browsing the massive collection of textiles, natural history, industrial history and more. Did I mention it’s free?
This is a touristy thing to do, but it’s a bit out of the way and can be a bit pricey, depending on your budget. However, touring this yacht gives you rare insight into the lives of the royal family, who used the yacht exclusively until the early / mid 90’s. Full of the same charm and character as the royal family, it’s an enjoyable day out. Get the ticket times and prices here.
Non-Touristy Things to Do
There’s a lot going on in Edinburgh for tourists and non-tourists alike. If you are one of those (like me) who hates the cheesy classic tourism experience, then set out on your own to some of these great sites and tours.
The Royal Botanic Garden — Edinburgh
Okay, so this one can get a bit touristy, but generally this is a place where you’ll find locals-only. The majority of the gardens are free and feature displays and interactive gardening experiences from around the world. The gem of the gardens, however, are the Victorian greenhouses. The greenhouses are free if you’re a member, but only cost £5 if you’re not. They are well worth it, however, and are sure to give you at least an hour or two of entertainment.
That’s cheaper than going to see a movie.
In Edinburgh, you don’t necessarily have to spend a lot to find something to do. Often, finding something to do in Edinburgh is as easy as taking a stroll and enjoying the sights.
Dean Village is one such sight and is a great place to break out the camera and take a stroll. This storybook looking village is a bit out-of-the-way for the average tourist, and is a residential neighborhood, so this one is definitely a locals-only kind of place. If visiting, make sure to be quiet and respectful (real people live here!).
Explore the Old Town
Okay, okay, so if you do this you will run into countless tourists. But a visit to Edinburgh’s old town can hardly be denied as a must-do. If you’re not into the tourist mess, then just allow yourself to get lost and freely wander through this ancient part of the city. Explore the little closes and alleyways that are all chocked full of history and some of the most beautiful buildings you will ever see.
Filled with restaurants, bookstores, boutique shops and more this is a great way to waste the day and mingle with the locals of Edinburgh. (Again…real people actually live in this city!)
Catch A Live Act
Edinburgh is absolutely crawling with incredibly talented musicians and creatives. That means that you can find live music, art exhibitions and open mic nights on almost any night of the week all over the city. Support local art while enjoying a pint. From traditional Scottish music to the newest electronic DJ’s, there’s a gig for everyone in this magical city.
Where to Eat & Drink
If you’ve come for grub and good pints — you’re in the right city! Edinburgh is filled with restaurants, bars and pubs that cater to every kind of flavor. From 5* sit down-restaurants, to ancient crooked pubs with room for only a handful of guests, eating and drinking your way through Edinburgh is a great way to experience this great city!
The Banshee’s Labyrinth
This cool and creepy alternative pub is known as one of the most haunted in Scotland. Located in the heart of the city, this pub features 3 bars, multiple levels, a live-gig room (with karaoke), a pool room and an actual theatre that shows an array of films.
Yeah. Where was the last place you went that offered a cool atmosphere, a movie theatre and a great pint? There’s always a lot going on at the Banshee as well, including open mic’s, live gigs, karaoke and comedy shows. There’s also jukeboxes and seating galore. Always a great time. Find out what’s on at the Banshee and plan your visit.
The Witchery is definitely an upscale restaurant, so dress accordingly. Rated as one of the best restaurants in Edinburgh (maybe Scotland) this 5* restaurant offers a changing seasonal menu and all local ingredients. Beautiful inside and out, parts of this restaurant reside in a building dating all the way back to the 16th century. Plan your visit to this stunning piece of living history.
If you’re looking for a traditional pub dining experience and classic Scottish food — this is the place for you.
The Doric is a great, traditional style pub, that offers all the traditional pub fare (fish-and-chips, shepherd’s pie, etc.) They also know how to pull a great pint and feature traditional Scottish music on select nights. As you can imagine, this place stays busy, so make sure to call ahead.
The Vincent Bar
This pub is located a bit more out of the way, but it’s great and one I really recommend for people who just want a nice relaxed atmosphere to enjoy a good pint in. There’s definitely a chill, almost Nashvillian atmosphere here, and they also feature food and great live music acts.
The Voodoo Rooms
What is not great about The Voodoo Rooms? This place is crawling with incredible atmosphere and offers traditional pints as well as cutting-edge cocktails. Ultra modern and hip, this place features a beautiful dining area, a live music / event space and a gorgeous main bar (with molding ceilings and a truly impressive bar selection). This is also a great place to spot the occasional celebrity…
The Whiski Rooms
Not to be confused with The Voodoo Rooms, The Whiski Rooms is a must-do for the whisky lover. Featuring hundreds of whiskies from across Scotland (as well as other whiskies from around the world) if you’re looking for a specific whisky…they have it.
Where to Meet and Mingle
If you’re looking for a truly authentic experience and want to get-down and rub elbows with true Scots, then get out there and meet and mingle. There’s a number of ways to do this: drinking in the pub, going to a club. It really doesn’t matter. The opportunities are endless!
Got to a Rugby Game
What better way to really get a taste of the Scottish life than enjoying some rugby? BT Murrayfield is located in the west side of Edinburgh and is home to not only the Scottish national team, but the Edinburgh professional club team as well. Come here for one of the Edinburgh or Scotland matches to enjoy an electric atmosphere and rub elbows with the locals!
Visit George Street At Night
While this isn’t really my scene, George Street is a great place to go if you’re looking for a night out with the locals. Bustling with nightclubs and pulsing with the newest music, this is one of the places to see and be seen in Edinburgh.
Bonus: Ghosts and Ghoulies
Many people don’t know this, but Edinburgh is considered one of the most haunted cities in the world (for those that believe in that, of course). A city steeped in more than 600 years of history, it’s not hard to imagine specters and phantoms roaming the cobbled streets of this ancient city. To discover their stories, take a stroll through the underground vaults of Edinburgh’s old town, or learn of the violent murders and stories that once called Edinburgh’s closes home.
The Edinburgh Dungeon
This is a cheesy and fun ghost tour that is still full of history and is great for the whole family to enjoy. Featuring live actors and special effects galore, this is a great way to learn about Edinburgh’s most gory history.
The Real Mary King’s Close
This is one I have done and wouldn’t personally put at the top of my list, but it’s a great bit of history nonetheless and features some great ghost stories. You’ll roam through the ancient underground streets that once made up Mary King’s Close and the neighborhoods around it. There, you’ll see how people lived almost 500 years ago, and hear tales of some of the most macabre murders in Edinburgh’s history. Watch out for the little girl that’s said to roam these streets, however. And the murderous landlord who likes to breathe down the back of your neck.
City of the Dead Tours
City of the Dead offer three spine-chilling tours. The Underground City of the Dead Ghost Tour takes you into the depths of Edinburgh’s legendary underground city. Here you will walk through the dark tunnels, often referred to as Damnation Alley, that are stalked by a malevolent presence known as the South Bridge Entity. Back in the day, this now underground city was a place where many lived in times of hardness and poverty. Additionally, it was ripe with the plague making it a fairly miserable place to live.
The City of the Dead Haunted Graveyard Tour gives you access to Edinburgh’s Covenanter’s Prison and the Black Mausoleum, which is haunted by the famous Mackenzie Poltergeist. Hundreds of people actually claim they have encountered a meeting the poltergeist on this tour! This tour is a phenomenon and according to their website it combines “the weirdest history with the wildest stories and wickedest humour around”.
The third hair-raising tour, the Double Dead Walk, takes you to South Bridge Vaults and Covenanter’s Prison in Greyfriars Kirkyard, two of the most haunted places around. All the tours are written and researched by the historical and award winning novelist J. A. Henderson. Tours are taken by costumed guides whose ability to tell stories in a theatrical way through improvisation and entertainment make each one special and unique.
The Ghost Bus Tours
This one is just pure goodhearted fun that you don’t even have to leave your seat for. Even better? It’s endorsed by Johnny Depp himself!
You take a macabre theatrical journey around the city and experience the darker side of Edinburgh with Ghost Bus Tours. The classic 1960 Routemaster Bus will take you on a journey to all the famous sites like Edinburgh Castle, the New Town, Grassmarket, Greyfriar’s Kirk, Old Town, Holyrood Palace and the Royal Mile. You will be in for a dramatic and supernatural evening.
The stories are humorously told by a creepy conductor and provides a quirky and sinister insight into the murders, madness and executions that have taken place throughout the history in the Scottish capital. The city’s hair-raising past will certainly give you a surreal experience when you hear about the city’s frightful history, from Burke and Hare, to the Great Scottish Witch Hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries. Watch out for a few dark passengers though, as the bus was previously used for funerals.
That rounds off my list of the must-do things in Edinburgh. Remember, this is not at all a complete list, as Edinburgh is full of fantastic festivals and events that cover every genre of entertainment and hobby you could possibly imagine. So do yourself a favor and start planning your trip today!
Which item from this list would you love to do? Let me know in the replies below!