Imagine a beautiful city spread across seven hills. Add a fascinating history and an unparalleled cultural offering – as well as a diverse, creative population. The result is Edinburgh, Scotland’s bustling, picturesque capital.
The “Athens of the North”, as the city has been nicknamed, has enthralled visitors for generations. And whether you’re coming for a Scottish multi-day break, a Highland road trip, or maybe a tour of Scotland and Ireland, prepare to fall for this charming city yourself.
Read on for inspiration on the top things to do in Edinburgh, Scotland, and see why it’s time to plan your trip.
1. Explore Edinburgh Castle, home of Scotland’s monarchs
When you arrive in the capital, the first thing you’ll notice will likely be the magnificent castle. Sat on the peak of an extinct volcano, the imposing Edinburgh Castle dominates the city’s skyline.
This mighty fortress has dominated Edinburgh’s complex, bloody history too. On a site dating back to the Iron Age, Scotland’s kings and queens called Castle Hill home since at least the 12th century. A thousand years later, it now boasts the title of the “most besieged place” in the UK.
On a visit you’ll explore the halls, chapels, and garrisons where Scotland’s ancient monarchs once lived. For example, the castle is where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to her son James VI.
These days, the castle is both an important symbol of Edinburgh and a regular live music venue too. During August, it’s where you’ll see the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, one of the highlights of the Edinburgh Festival.
- Visit regal residences on a Scottish castles and royalty tour
2. Take a walking tour of the Old Town’s Royal Mile
Edinburgh’s Old Town is centred around the Royal Mile, one of the city’s most attractive historic streets. From the castle down to Holyrood Palace (the British monarch’s official Scottish residence), it’s a mile of boutiques, museums, and places to eat and drink.
One of the best ways to see this vibrant, pedestrianised street is on a walking tour. Led by a local guide, you’ll witness the historic and cultural sites that best characterise Edinburgh’s city centre.
For instance, visit the ornate St Giles Cathedral or the exclusive Signet Library, where you can enjoy an afternoon tea. Or enjoy the “world of illusions” in the Camera Obscura, one of Edinburgh’s most famous attractions.
Whatever you do, don’t forget to stretch out down to Victoria Street and the Grassmarket to experience historic Edinburgh further.
3. Celebrate Hogmanay in Edinburgh
With warm trips to cosy pubs and a dusting of snow on the surrounding hills, winter in Edinburgh is a delightful time. But there’s no date in the winter calendar quite like Hogmanay, the celebrations for the Scottish new year.
Come to Edinburgh on the 31 December and you’ll find a city defying the cold and dark to put on one of the biggest shows of the season. In fact, many people say that Hogmanay is one of the best New Year parties in the world.
Expect fireworks, a torchlight procession, and 3 days of live music and street parties. On 1 January, don’t miss the Loony Dook. It sees hundreds of people take a dip in the Firth of Forth, where the River Forth meets the North Sea.
Good to know: On a New Year’s tour package with Nordic Visitor, you could celebrate NYE in Scottish style. Included is a private 3-course dinner with wine, and VIP tickets to the Hogmanay Snow Ball in Edinburgh.
4. Discover Scottish history at the National Museum
The National Museum of Scotland is the largest museum in the UK outside of London. And your visit to Edinburgh wouldn’t be complete without a look at the art and design, science and technology, and history and culture that the varied collection contains.
For example, witness the Lewis chessmen, the mysterious statues found on the islands of the Outer Hebrides (that inspired a scene in Harry Potter). Or meet the skeleton of the extinct giant deer, discovered in a Scottish bog in the 19th century.
From Scotland’s National Museum you can tour the world – with exhibits revealing items from ancient Egypt, the Pacific Islands, and more.
While you’re here, take the chance to sit and relax in the Grand Gallery, one of Edinburgh’s most majestic indoor spaces. When exploring the Old Town, the café here is a great place for a quiet break from the bustling city.
5. Savour the flavours of Scotland on a whisky or gin tasting experience
The whole of Scotland is famous for its whisky. No doubt one of the best things to do in Edinburgh is to sample some of the flavours of the “water of life” (or “uisge beatha” in Gaelic) from across the country.
One popular spot to try a dram is at the Scotch Whisky Experience, at the top of the Royal Mile. Taste the diverse notes of Scotland’s best-known product – from the smoky to the sweet – while exploring how it’s made.
Alternatively, why not try a gin experience? While not so well known, Scotland is one of the world’s largest gin producers. You can discover the history and variety of the spirit across the city, for example at the Edinburgh Gin Distillery.
Of course, the beautiful thing is that you can enjoy Scotland’s favourite tipples wherever you go around town. Any pub in the capital will be very happy to serve you (if you are over 18!).
- Try the country’s favourite drink on a whisky tour of Scotland
6. Climb one of Edinburgh’s seven hills for the best views
Just like the ancient city of Rome, Scotland’s capital is built across seven hills. While you’re here, you should definitely take the opportunity to see Edinburgh from above.
On a sunny day, you’ll find hundreds of people on Arthur’s Seat, the rugged hill in Holyrood Park that overlooks the city and sea. Or a popular alternative is Blackford Hill, where all of Edinburgh spreads out beneath you.
However, one special place combines a spectacular view of Edinburgh with monuments to the city’s captivating cultural history. That’s Calton Hill.
Up here you’ll find the National Monument, Edinburgh’s unfinished replica of the Parthenon in Athens (and a memorial for Scots who died in the Napoleonic Wars). Just next door, discover the history of astronomy at the City Observatory or enjoy contemporary art at the Collective gallery.
It’s a peaceful, historic spot enjoyed by locals and visitors alike.
7. Attend a world-famous Scottish festival
Edinburgh is incredibly proud of festivals, which bring artists and audiences from across the world. Throughout the year, the city comes alive with events, with shows, exhibits, and performances of music, literature, theatre, comedy, and much more.
The most famous one is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which takes place every August. Across the month, the city hosts literally thousands of shows, by hundreds of different performing groups. The festival takes the city by storm, with something special to see on every street corner.
Starting life as a celebration of European culture after the world wars, the Edinburgh Festival remains the biggest date in the UK’s cultural calendar. And you won’t want to miss it.
8. See masterpieces at Edinburgh’s diverse art galleries
Alongside its thriving festival culture, Edinburgh boasts an array of fascinating permanent art galleries too. Across the city any art fan will find enough to keep them occupied for days.
The Scottish National Gallery, nestled in Princes Street Gardens beneath the castle, is usually where visitors start. Here, you’ll find a selection of masterpieces from Scottish and international art.
Alternatively, a distinctive red brick building in New Town hosts the National Portrait Gallery, home to charming paintings of important characters from Scottish history. Or if contemporary art is more your thing, head to the National Gallery of Modern Art or the Fruitmarket Gallery, for challenging and surprising collections.
9. Visit the city’s Outlander and Harry Potter filming locations
When visiting Edinburgh, you may feel like you’ve seen some of it before. That’s because the streets and landmarks of the city have inspired much literature and films over the years, including Harry Potter, Outlander, and the Eurovision movie.
The city has also featured in the hit Netflix series, The Crown. If you're a fan you'll recognise the Royal Yacht Britannia, found in district of Leith, and the Palace of Holyrood House. Discover The Crown filming locations across the UK.
Meanwhile, Outlander fans can visit Craigmillar Castle, which stand in as Ardsmuir Prison in the series. When touring the Royal Mile, note the picturesque streets of Tweeddale Court and Bakehouse Close, which both appear too. Or head out of town to Hopetoun House, the residence of the show’s Duke of Sandringham.
JK Rowling, the creative mind behind Harry Potter, remains one of Edinburgh’s most famous residents. Across the city, you can discover places like The Elephant House café, where she wrote many of the books, and the Greyfriars Kirkyard, which inspired many of her characters’ names.
10. Explore Edinburgh’s elegant New Town
Away from the city’s ancient heart, Edinburgh’s other central districts are dynamic and modern. Whether you fancy a bit of shopping or just a stroll, there’s no better place to while away an afternoon than New Town.
Start from the lively Princes Street, with its distinctive landmark, the Scott Monument, dedicated to the novelist Sir Walter Scott. From here, you can visit the many elegant streets that stretch down to the sea.
Fully planned and built in the 18th century, the New Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Expect grand Georgian crescents, pristine gardens, and picturesque cobbled streets. You’ll find fancy boutiques, charming cafés, and private art galleries too.
If you have a spring in your step, why not head down to Stockbridge, one of the most delightful of Edinburgh’s neighbourhoods? On a Sunday, you can enjoy the farmers market that takes place there.
11. Discover arts and crafts at Edinburgh’s Christmas markets
Another seasonal surprise in Edinburgh is its wide selection of Christmas markets. They light up the city throughout the darkest month of the year and entertain visitors with stalls selling food, gifts, arts and crafts, and more.
No doubt the biggest is in Princes Street Gardens, the park that stretches the length of Edinburgh’s main shopping hub, Princes Street. Its traditional gifts and festive atmosphere will surely get you in the mood for Christmas.
However, it’s far from the only festival market in town. At Summerhall – one of the UK’s largest art centres – you’ll find a Christmas market by local artisans. Meanwhile, throughout December, regular markets in Stockbridge, Leith, and the Grassmarket turn up the festive atmosphere.
- Experience Edinburgh's festive magic on a Scotland trip in November or December
- Related: How to celebrate Christmas in Scotland
12. Venture into Leith, one of Edinburgh’s trendiest neighbourhoods
Once upon a time, the city of Edinburgh sat up high on its hills, overlooking the port town of Leith far below. Now, the 2 once separate cities are joined by the long sweeping boulevard, Elm Row.
Yet, as you’ll notice, the second city of Leith retains its fiercely independent identity. Traditionally recognised for industry and maritime work, Leith is today known for its hipster bars and cafés, diverse food scene, and welcoming community spirit.
If you’re curious, head to the area around the Shore, the focal point of Leith’s dining culture. From there, a walk up the Water of Leith – Edinburgh’s trickling river – is a delight. Or board the Royal Yacht Britannia, one of the most visited attractions in Scotland.
- Explore Edinburgh and beyond on a Scottish self-drive trip
13. Lose yourself in the abundant Royal Botanic Gardens
In New Town, discover Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden. On a site that’s more than 350 years old, the gardens are a centre for conservation, horticulture, and education on the value of nature. They’re also one of the most beautiful and tranquil spots in the city.
Exploring the garden makes for a fantastic afternoon out in the sun. Stroll around the different areas in the park and marvel at the wealth of the natural world, including the world’s largest collection of rhododendrons.
In the middle of the garden, don’t miss Inverleith House, one of the most innovative exhibition spaces in the city.
14. Dine in some of the country’s best restaurants
Undoubtedly one of your top highlights in Edinburgh is bound to be dining out.
The Scottish capital is well-known for its dizzying number of places to eat and drink, so you’ll be spoilt for choice. Whether you visit a family-run eatery or Michelin-starred restaurant, you can savour mouth-watering Scottish cuisine and taste flavours from around the world.
It’s not only lunch and dinner that will treat your senses. Just as exciting are the many cafés, tea rooms, and brunch and afternoon tea haunts. Then, of course, you have Edinburgh’s bar and pub scene, where you can sip your favourite tipples and try new ones too.
Good to know: If you’re taking a trip to Scotland with Nordic Visitor, you’ll find the best places to eat and drink in Edinburgh in your restaurant guide. This is put together for you by our Edinburgh-based travel experts, who have the inside scoop on where to go.
- Travel with a guide on a private tour of Scotland
15. Enjoy a day trip out of town
Finally, one of the top things to do when visiting Edinburgh is to explore the city’s delightful surroundings. That’s easy on a multi-day tour, where you can leave Edinburgh on day trips then return to the capital in the evenings.
Discover some of these popular options:
Visit Fife and St Andrews
Journey into Highland Perthshire
Get a taste of the Highlands only a short distance from Edinburgh. The villages of Dunkeld and Pitlochry, and the iconic mountain Schiehallion, can all be explored in a day.
Venture south to the Scottish Borders
Scotland’s southern region features windswept beaches, stately homes, and ruined castles.
Take a trip to the Trossachs
- Venture further into the Scottish Highlands on a guided small group tour of Scotland
Visit Edinburgh with Nordic Visitor
There’s so much more to see and do in Edinburgh. Come and experience this exciting city for yourself.
Book a multi-day tour in Scotland with Nordic Visitor and we’ll make everything easy. Our Edinburgh-based team will handle your accommodation, day trips, and any activities. And you can trust their personal suggestions of what to do in Edinburgh too.
Visit Edinburgh and experience its charms for yourself. Contact our Scotland travel experts to start your trip.