Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, is renowned for its old cobblestone streets, annual arts festival (the Festival Fringe) and fancy restaurants which sell our national dish (haggis) and tipple, whisky. But from a local’s point of view there are so many more things to do in Edinburgh which the guidebooks fail to share!
Edinburgh – Get Your Bearings
Edinburgh is a city of two halves; the vintage, medieval Old Town versus the shiny and at times grotty New Town!
Edinburgh’s Old Town is best discovered by foot. Find your way to the Royal Mile, which is, unsurprisingly, an (Old Scottish) mile long. At the top of the Royal Mile is Edinburgh Castle, which sits on an extinct volcano and at the bottom of Holyrood you’ll find the Queen’s mansion as well as our Scottish Parliament (a loved/hated building in Edinburgh!) There are many intriguing stops along the way.
Recommendation: Another great way to get around as a tourist is on the hop-on hop-off bus that circles the city. Simply buy a 24-hour ticket and hop-on and off at any of the stops along the route.
Best Things to Do in Edinburgh’s Old Town
Unsurprisingly, Edinburgh Castle is the most visited castle in Scotland. At 1 pm every day a cannon goes off to warn the ships of the past in the Firth of Forth (sea). Don’t miss the Stone of Destiny, which was rightfully taken back from England by a group of Scottish students on Christmas Day in 1950.
Avoid standing in long lines and buy your entrance ticket to the Edinburgh Castle in advance here.
Heart of Midlothian
A bizarre action, but you might see locals and tourists walk past this stone-patterned heart on the ground outside of St Giles‘ Cathedral and spit on it! This spot is where the locals used to pay their taxes, and is clearly not a happy spot.
Mary King’s Close
Edinburgh’s underground life is an important, yet spooky part of Edinburgh’s history. Visitors can take a tour of Mary King’s Close while everyone else gets on with their normal lives above them. If you like stories of ghosts and ghouls, check out one of Edinburgh’s many ghost tours.
One of my favourite things to do in Edinburgh is to climb Arthur’s Seat on a windy day and take in the views of the city and afar. Give me a wave over in Fife!
Visitors can take tours of our modern Scottish Parliament and visit the chamber where 129 MSPs debate and vote on devolved matters such as education and health. The building is either loved or hated by those who visit and also by those who see it from above!
This is where old Queen Lizzy comes to stay when she graces us with her presence in Scotland every June. It’s well worth taking a look inside. You can buy your entrance ticket in advance here.
Best Things to Do in Edinburgh Off the Royal Mile
Veering off the Royal Mile close to the Castle, walk past the colorful shops on Victoria Street and you’ll find Edinburgh’s Grassmarket. A cobbled stretch of street with bars, restaurants and trinket style shops (but classy ones, no painted seashells!) Insider Tip: Go all the way to the end of the bars for a nice upshot of the Castle.
George VI Bridge
A nice lunch/dinner stop which leads the way to the statue of Greyfriars Bobby and the National Museum of Scotland.
This bridge takes you to the New Town of Edinburgh, over the train tracks and onto Princes Street where you would turn left to access Calton Hill.
Alternatively, you can (and should!) walk down Cockburn (pronounced Co-burn) Street past the cafes and shops then down Fleshmarket Close stairs; unfit travelers should not attempt to walk up them! This will bring you out at Waverley Train Station then past Princes Gardens on to Princes Street.
A third, and the nicest route, is to walk along North Bank Street from the Royal Mile and down the Mound with the Castle to your left. Or just get lost in the many winding streets that lead down to the New Town!
Best Things to Do in Edinburgh’s New Town
Princes Street Gardens
Princes Street Gardens is a lovely spot in the summer to take your sandwiches to. During the festive period, this is one of the ever-expanding Winter Festival spots. On Hogmanay (31st December) visitors listen to bands and watch the fireworks at 12 am, bringing in the bells.
This is our main shopping drag. You’ll find everything from chain fashion shops to tacky Scotland souvenir stops.
The larger street to the back of Rose Street is George Street. This is the upmarket dining and dancing area of Edinburgh, not to my taste as I prefer an old man’s pub (check out my favorite pubs in Edinburgh), but I do highly recommend The Dome at Christmas time, it’s the closest thing we’ve got to New York in winter!
Rose Street is understated and often used by locals, but is a mere street behind the busy Princes Street. There are many bars, restaurants and some shops on Rose Street.
Head back to Princes Street (the opposite end from the Castle) and you won’t see Calton Hill! With a few navigational skills and a very short walk up a hill, you’ll see some of the best views of the city, as well as the National Monument of Scotland and Nelson Monument. Take your camera; you’ll want to snap this!
Scotland really is the land of enchantment, and Edinburgh is the perfect fairy tale with two faces! I’ve only scratched the surface of the must-see activities in Edinburgh. Want more? Check out my guide to the 70 unmissable things to check out in Edinburgh, as well as where to go when you want to get out!
Great list! I kind of love the Heart Of Midlothian! haa. But I’m Scottish so maybe it’s just in my blood!
Rhonda Albom says
Edinburgh was a city that really took us by surprise. We had planned for it to be our only stop in Scotland, but we loved the city and stayed in the country for a week afterwards. One thing we enjoyed that’s only mentioned here was the Edinburgh National Museum. There we saw dolly, the first cloned sheep. Also, we missed quite a bit, like the heart on the ground.
Ah yes Dolly! I was talking about her with students a few months ago when we were discussing genetics. Lots of inventors are from Scotland actually!