Edinburgh, Scotland is a city with a mood — gloomy and gray, and honestly I absolutely love it. There is a fantastical magic to the city, and when the sun comes out it feels like a treat. In such a glorious city, it may be hard to decide where you should start your trip. So here are the 7 top things to do in Edinburgh (and some of them are free!).
COVID-19 Note: Not all attractions are open or some may be limited. Be sure to check local health guidelines and attraction hours before planning a trip.
Top Things To Do in Edinburgh
Tour Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle is, of course, the most well-known landmark in Edinburgh. It sits on top of a hill and you can see it from almost anywhere in the city. It is definitely one of the top things to do in Edinburgh, if not the single most popular attraction, and it’s definitely worth a visit. You can tour the castle, which is more of a fortress, for £17.50.
Highlights at Edinburgh Castle include the Crown Jewels and the Stone of Destiny, the Royal Palace (where Mary Queen of Scots lived), the Great Hall, and the Prisoner’s of War Museum. Also don’t miss Mons Megs, an infamous and impressive canon.
Edinburgh Castle is notable for its views, too, so be sure to take some time to look out over the city.
Walk the Royal Mile
The street out of the Edinburgh Castle that leads down to Holyrood Palace is known as the Royal Mile. This is the main thoroughfare in Old Town Edinburgh, and has plenty to do and see, from shopping to restaurants.
You’ll find lots of attractions made for tourists on this stretch of road, but you’ll also find some genuinely fun entertainment and historic sights. For instance, don’t miss the small alleyways along the streets, known as closes, which are leftover from medieval Scotland. They feel like fun secret passageways.
Visit St. Giles Cathedral
Along the Royal Mile, you’ll find St. Giles Cathedral, once a central church in the Scottish Reformation and a church where John Knox was once minister. This medieval church is still in operation today but is also open to visitors. It’s free to visit, although entrance donations are accepted.
BONUS STORY (and learn from our lesson!): When we were traveling in the UK I thought I had double and triple checked the Royal schedule. But apparently I missed the fact that the Queen and Prince William would be at St. Giles for the Order of the Thistle. SO while we were hanging out at Edinburgh Castle, we could have been seeing the Queen.
I was devastated. But we got some lunch and walked on down to Holyrood Palace, where there was a small crowd outside the gate. We waited to see what was up and eventually we did see Prince William come out from a distance and get into his car and drive away, which somewhat made up for the morning blunder. But GUYS double and triple check royal schedules!
Tour Holyrood Palace
Holyrood Palace is the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. And since she is only there a handful of days during the year, it is a fairly easy royal residence to visit. (When the Queen is at home, public tours are not offered.)
Here you can tour the rooms of Holyrood Palace, including the throne room and historic royal apartments, visit the ruins of the Holyrood Abbey, and enjoy the gardens.
Book tickets for Holyrood Palace ahead of time for £16.50, and there are complimentary audio guides available.
Climb Arthur’s Seat
Climbing Arthur’s Seat is definitely one of the top things to do in Edinburgh. It’s an extinct volcano, and from the top you can get some of the best views of Edinburgh. There are many routes to take to get to the top of Arthur’s Seat, but the most popular ones start from Holyrood Park behind Holyrood Palace.
Be sure to give yourself plenty of time for the your walk, and wear comfortable and sturdy shoes.
Visit the National Museum of Scotland
The National Museum of Scotland is a free museum, making it a perfect place to pop into when you have a bit of extra time. Or, if you choose, you could spend most of a day there. There are plenty of displays and exhibitions from Scotland and around the world.
Highlights of the National Museum of Scotland include Art, Design, and Fashion galleries; Natural World galleries; Science and Technology galleries; and Scottish History galleries.
Also, don’t miss the views of Edinburgh castle from the rooftop terrace!
Climb Calton Hill
Calton Hill is not quite as popular as Arthur’s Seat, but still worth the climb if you’re looking for even more great view of Edinburgh (plus it usually takes less time than Arthur’s Seat!). You can climb Calton Hill using a staircase at Regent Road or climbing from Royal Terrace.
In addition to the great views, you’ll also find an acropolis at the top of the hill, which is an unfinished monument, as well as two observatories.
Some Tips for Visiting Edinburgh
- Edinburgh is a rainy city, so always have your rain jacket with you. It can also be pretty chilly, even in the summer, so dress in layers.
- Edinburgh is also a hilly city, so don’t be afraid to take a taxi or bus somewhere, and know your route before you start out. (The day we climbed Calton Hill we had already done so much more walking than I had expected and I really wished we had planned our transportation better.)
We hope this top things to do in Edinburgh list helps you narrow down on the great things to do in this city! And don’t forget to take time to just explore and stroll through the streets — you might find your own favorite thing!
Planning a trip to the UK? Check out our Perfect 3 Day London Itinerary!