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The 25 best things to do in Edinburgh – your complete guide
As someone who lives in Edinburgh I guess I’m a bit biased when it comes to talking about its tourist attractions, mainly because my chosen home city is so chock-a-block full of them.
There’s a huge number of things to do in Edinburgh which offer locals and visitors alike a great time, whether it’s climbing to the top of an extinct volcano, wandering down the atmospheric medieval streets that join the Royal Mile or exploring the grandest castle in Europe, all in a compact city that’s easy to navigate and oozes culture and history from every nook and cranny.
In fact, Edinburgh has so many attractions it can get a bit overwhelming trying to decide which ones to visit – a task that’s made a thousand times more difficult for visitors who only have a day or two to explore this utterly unique Scottish metropolis.
It’s not so bad if you live in the area because you can always come back another day, but how do you decide on the best way to spend your precious time if you’re a visiting tourist?
It’s a question I get frequently asked and in this article I hope to give potential visitors to Edinburgh the definitive guide for suggestions on where to go and what to do while they’re here.
The majority of the attractions in the list below are historic in nature – something that’s unavoidable when coming to a city with over a thousand years of history – but I’ve also included some modern attractions as well as a few in the great outdoors to balance things out a little bit.
Read on to find out more.
Reasons to visit Edinburgh
Scotland’s capital city is frequently voted as one of the best places to go in Europe, with readers of a wide range of media outlets putting it at the top of their ‘must-see’ destinations.
The Telegraph newspaper has voted Edinburgh the number 1 city in the UK while research company Arcadis has voted it the most liveable city in the world, and I have to admit I completely agree with them.
There are so many unique places to visit and things to do in Edinburgh that it kind of makes your head spin.
As well as hosting 12 major cultural events each year (including The Fringe, the world’s biggest arts festival), Edinburgh was the first ever city to be granted the title of UNESCO City of Literature, and it’s one of the few cities on the planet to have its city centre elevated to UNESCO world heritage status.
‘But’, you might be asking, ‘what’s so special about this small collection of medieval and Georgian buildings nestled on the south-east edge of Scotland?’.
Well, that’s a difficult question to answer, but I think it’s down to several factors.
First off, the people are exceptionally friendly and I’m always amazed at how the locals never seem to get tired of being asked by wide-eyed tourists how to get to the castle (which is inevitably straight in front of them) or where the nearest MacDonald’s is (why bother? – our pubs offer much nicer locally-sourced food).
The second great thing about Edinburgh is the fact that it has a huge – HUGE – amount of history in a compact area and it really does have a special atmosphere about it.
For me, this is most evident at Christmas when the city hosts its annual Edinburgh’s Christmas extravaganza and the city comes alive with spectacular displays at the castle and across the Old Town.
And thirdly, Edinburgh is a city that just has it all. There are fascinating old buildings to explore, open parkland crying out for summer barbeques, world-class shopping areas, fantastic festivals, a royal palace, and a majestic castle.
But you’ll also find award-winning restaurants, family-friendly attractions, loads of romantic walks, amazing museums, interesting art galleries, and a world-leading zoo. Phew!
The best ways to get to Edinburgh
You’ve got a couple of options for getting to the city depending on where you’re travelling from.
If you’re coming here from overseas then by far your best bet is to fly to Edinburgh Airport which lies 5 miles to the west of the city centre and has regular public transport links across the city and the surrounding areas.
Travel to the airport from inside Edinburgh is easy and visitors can use bus, tram, car and taxi services, and depending on the time of day the average journey takes only 30 to 40 minutes.
A regular airport bus is operated by Lothian Buses (the Airlink 100 service) which runs every 10 minutes, 24 hours a day from Waverley Bridge (the central train station in Edinburgh city centre).
Tickets can be bought at the airport information desk, at the bus stop, from the driver, or online, and full airport bus details are available to view at the Edinburgh Airport website bus and coaches page.
Further information for travellers arriving and departing from Edinburgh Airport can be found at The Edinburgh Airport Guide.
If you’re already in the UK then you can either travel here by coach (Megabus are one of the cheapest options) or you can do what I prefer to do and take the train.
Taking the train to Edinburgh is a doddle if you’re coming from London and the new high-speed rail link will get you from Kings Cross in London to Waverley Station in Edinburgh in just over four hours.
There are several operators that run these services so your best bet is to check out The Trainline and book your tickets in advance – they’re much cheaper than buying your ticket at the station – but for your return journey head to the ScotRail website.
How to get around Edinburgh
Edinburgh has a world-leading bus and tram network thanks to the services provided by Lothian buses, with cheap public transport available on clean, well-maintained vehicles. The bus network extends right through Edinburgh and out to the surrounding areas, while the trams provide a fast mode of transport over 14km from the airport to the city centre.
Visit Transport For Edinburgh for more information on Edinburgh’s Trams and buses or download the Transport for Edinburgh App. To help you find your way around the bus network more quickly you can get real-time information on the web and on your smartphone. To find out when your bus is due go to:
There are plenty of taxis to find throughout the city (try ComCabs – they’re one of the best firms in my opinion) but to be honest because the city is so compact you’ll rarely have a need to use any form of transport during the day other than your own two feet.
One thing I would recommend is making sure you’ve got Google Maps installed on your phone and download the city centre map to your device. That way if you ever lose your signal (which you shouldn’t as Edinburgh has excellent phone coverage) you’ll still be able to navigate.
If you’re planning to explore a little further afield then I recommend you buy a Central Scotland Rover travel pass which lets you take unlimited journeys between Glasgow, Edinburgh, and the surrounding area for just £49 (as of Jan 2019).
The pass lasts for three days and is valid for standard class journeys on ScotRail trains, but unfortunately you can’t use it on the new Borders railway line.
If you want to take a tour bus around Edinburgh you’ll get an exceptional service with City Sightseeing.
What’s the best time of year to visit Edinburgh?
Although Scotland’s warmest and driest months are between May and September the weather can be extraordinarily fickle so I don’t actually think there is a ‘best’ time to visit.
The fact is you’ll find things to do in Edinburgh at any time of the year – something I’ve explained in great detail in my articles The Best Things to do In Edinburgh on a Rainy Day and The 10 Best Places to Go in Scotland in January.
The only real differences between the seasons are the weather and the number of daylight hours – but winter can be just as fun as summer if you visit the right attractions. That being said, there are some months when certain events are held which can make a visit to the city a little bit extra-special.
If you’re intending to come here in winter you might as well book your trip during December when Edinburgh’s Christmas is in full swing. This annual festive experience runs throughout the month and into the early new year and features a crazily-large number of things to see and do.
There’s a brilliant Christmas market in Princes Street Gardens where you’ll find loads of Christmas gifts and yummy sugary treats, a fun-fair that’s sprawled over several locations in the city, and a whole load of Christmas-themed events including the ever-popular Kings Theatre panto and the famous Spiegeltent circus. Read my Edinburgh’s Christmas guide for further info.
So that’s Christmas wrapped up, but what about summer? Well, the height of Edinburgh’s tourist season is also the time you’ll find the city playing host to The Fringe Festival – the biggest arts festival in the world.
This unbelievably popular event regularly draws in half a million visitors over the three weeks that it runs in August and has to be the highlight of the entire Scottish events calendar.
Art in all its forms can be found at the festival including theatre, comedy, dance, circus, cabaret, music, and opera performed by a variety of artists from complete amateurs to world-famous professionals, and it’s an absolute riot of sound and colour.
I can’t think of another festival in the UK that offers such a fun mix of art forms in such a safe and friendly environment, and you can read more about it with my Edinburgh Fringe Festival guide.
Save money on attractions in Edinburgh
Scotland’s tourist attractions are often quite pricey, especially the big venues like Edinburgh Castle which will set you back a whopping £18.50 per adult (as of Jan 2019), but there are ways to save a little money if you’re a cost-conscious type like me.
The first piece of advice I’ll give you is to buy your tickets online in advance as it’s usually possible to save a few quid compared to buying the ticket on the gate, with the aforementioned castle saving £1.50 for pre-purchased tickets. Not a huge saving but if you’re planning on seeing lots of attractions the money soon mounts up.
If you’re intending to spend your entire holiday in Scotland then I definitely recommend the Historic Environment Scotland Explorer Pass which allows entry to over 70 of Scotland’s top historic attractions over 5 or 14 consecutive days with as many repeat visits as you like.
In Edinburgh, the pass is valid for the castle, Holyrood Palace and Craigmillar Castle – all great attractions – with the castle having the added bonus of allowing repeat visits to the cafe and its amazing city-wide views.
Another tip is to keep hold of your Lothian Bus ticket as there’s often a 2-for-1 deal for one of Edinburgh’s top attractions printed on the back, but if you want an all-in-one discount head on over to the official Edinburgh City Pass website where you can buy an adult two-day pass for £55 (as of 2019) which allows entry into 15 of the city’s top attractions including; Dynamic Earth, John Knox House, The Edinburgh Dungeon, The Georgian House and many more.
And finally, if you really want to save money you can’t get much better than free, and thankfully Edinburgh is home to loads of free places to visit, and in fact I’d go so far as to say the majority of the best attractions don’t cost a single penny to enter.
I’ve compiled a few of my favourites in my Best Free Attractions in Scotland Guide, so if you’re after a fun time that won’t cost anything it could become your new best friend.
A map of the best attractions in Edinburgh
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Planning a trip to Scotland?
- Find hotels in Scotland and book your rental car.
- Explore the country with Rabbies small group coach tours and get cheap advance tickets for attractions.
- Learn about Scotland with a range of Amazon books and prepare for hikes with
Ordnance Survey maps.
- Before you explore the great outdoors get your rain gear in place and don’t forget to buy Smidge anti-midge repellent!