Last updated on March 27th, 2020
The 25 best things to do in Edinburgh: Details and descriptions
There are so many great tourists attractions in Edinburgh I could fill ten articles with lists of recommendations, but I’m guessing not too many people will want to sift through all that information.
So instead I’ve detailed what I think are the best places to visit based on the fact that I live in Edinburgh and have visited all of them. I hope you have a great time exploring this beautiful city.
25. The Water of Leith
Address: Visitor Centre – 24 Lanark Rd, Edinburgh, EH14 1TQ
Website: The Water of Leith
The Water of Leith winds over 22 miles from the Colzium Springs in the Pentland Hills, and over the course of its journey it passes many famous Edinburgh landmarks.
Visitors to the city might not be aware of the river, but if you have a few days to explore Edinburgh you’ll be well-rewarded by a walk on the miles of quiet pathways that run alongside it.
One of the most popular entry points is at Stockbridge, well-known amongst Edinburgh locals for its cute gift shops and delicious bistros, and there’s a myriad of well-signposted paths that lead onto the riverside.
The Water of Leith walkway extends for 12 miles so if you want to do the entire route you might consider hiring a bike, although walking on foot is probably the best way to enjoy it.
Other popular entry points are Dean village where you can see the remains of Edinburgh’s watermills, and Bonnington which is another interesting site for the city’s old industrial heritage.
Top-tip: A good idea to plan your journey is to pick up a Water of Leith route map from any of the information centres in the city centre, but the visitor centre at the Slateford Aqueduct in south-west Edinburgh is preferred because it allows you to get a map and a coffee before heading directly onto the river pathway.
24. The Scottish Parliament Building
Address: Edinburgh, EH99 1SP
Website: The Scottish Parliament Building
The Scottish parliament building in Edinburgh is the home of the Scottish government and is a world-class example of modern architecture. Situated at the bottom of the Royal Mile on 4 acres of land the building is an unexpected tourist attraction but it’s well worth taking a look around inside, especially as it’s free to get in.
The building is in use daily with more than 1000 permanent staff assisting 129 MSPs in their duties, and frequent debates are held in its central chamber where viewing galleries allow 300 members of the public to watch important discussions about the state of the country.
The location where the Parliament building is located seems to perfectly sum up Scotland, with the natural wonders of Holyrood Park to one side, the majestic Holyrood Palace on another, and the historic Royal Mile running past it and up towards the centre of the capital city.
The building has won several international awards for its architecture and visitors are welcome to explore it year-round. On non-sitting days (usually Mondays, Friday, and weekends) visitors can view the Main Hall and can access the public galleries of the debating chamber and the main committee rooms.
Guided tours are also available on non-sitting days which allow visitors to access the Garden Lobby and committee rooms, but visitors must be in the company of an official guide as they explore the building.
23. John Knox House
Address: 43-45 High Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1SR
Website: John Knox House
John Knox’s house in the middle of the Royal Mile is a historic building that was reputedly lived in by the Protestant reformer in the 16th-century. Although Knox only lived in the house for a short time it’s his association with the building that prevented it from being demolished in 1840 when many other derelict buildings were being torn down.
The house was built around 1470 which makes both it and the adjoining Moubray House the only surviving medieval buildings on the Royal Mile.
Today the house is highly regarded for the museum inside it which includes time capsules from the 1840s that describe how the house was saved from destruction, and which also tell the story of the Scottish Reformation and the part that John Knox played in it.
Inside the house you can see many features that were popular amongst the wealthy residents of Edinburgh in the 15th-century, with a beautiful wooden gallery and ornate hand-painted ceilings.
These decorations were probably installed by the 16th-century goldsmith James Mossman who lived there but was executed for creating counterfeit coins in 1573. After his death, the house was handed over to James VI of Scotland and was lived in by several wealthy residents until it gradually fell into disrepair before being fully restored in the 20th-century.
These days the house is most famous for the tours that will take you around it’s perfectly preserved rooms while telling you all about the history of one of the most critical times in Scotland’s history.
22. Gladstone’s Land
Address: 477B Lawnmarket, Royal Mile, Edinburgh, EH1 2NT
Website: Gladstones Land
If you want to experience how the residents of Edinburgh lived in the 17th-century then a visit to Gladstones Land on the Royal Mile is a great way to get transported back in time.
The ‘Land’ is actually an old townhouse situated near the castle that’s owned and managed by the National Trust who have taken painstaking measures to renovate the interior so that it recreates the building just as it would have looked in the early 1600s.
While the Georgian House in Edinburgh’s New Town provides a glimpse into the life of the wealthy in the 1700s, Gladstones Land transports you back in time even further to when both the rich and poor shared apartments in the ramshackle tenement buildings of the Old Town.
The building rises six storeys above what would have been the foul-smelling streets of 17th-century Edinburgh and in the cramped conditions of those times there would have been entire families crowded into each room.
By the time the 20th-century came along Gladstones Land had been condemned along with many other buildings and was listed for demolition. However, the National Trust recognised the historical importance of the building and eventually restored to its former glory.
As a tourist attraction, Gladstones Land has become one of the most popular in the city for anyone with an interest in history, and for a small entrance fee you’ll be guided through the house to explore everything from the flagstone floors in the kitchen to the elaborately painted ceilings in the bedroom.
21. The Georgian House
Address: 7 Charlotte Square, Edinburgh, EH2 4DR
Website: The Georgian House
To the west end of George Street you’ll find Charlotte Square, a large area of private gardens that mirror St. Andrews Square to the east, and it’s within the area of buildings that surround the square where you’ll find the Georgian House at building number 7.
This 18th-century townhouse was built to accommodate the wealthy Edinburgh residents who could afford to escape the dilapidated Old Town and over the course of 170 years a total of 5 families called 7 Charlotte Square their home.
Today, the house is privately owned and managed by the National Trust for Scotland who have restored the interior so that it’s similar to the layout of how it would have looked during its earliest days.
Well over 40,000 visitors come to visit the house each year and thankfully there are plenty of tour guides on each floor to answer any questions you might have, and in fact the NTS has over 200 local volunteers who devote their time to the building.
The house is laid out over five levels from the basement to the third floor and you’re free to head in any direction you like, but it makes sense to start at the bottom and work your way up through each floor.
The décor and furniture on each level are just as they would have been back in the early 19th-century and it really does give you a sensation of walking back in time as you wander through each room, and interactive touchscreen displays really help to bring the stories of the inhabitants of 7 Charlotte Square back to life.
20. The Grassmarket
Address: Old Town, Edinburgh, EH1 2HS
Website: The Grassmarket
The Grassmarket in Edinburgh is a bustling collection of pubs and restaurants which sit around a large open square at the southern edge of Edinburgh Castle. Because the district is so centrally located within the city you can easily find it by either walking west from the Cowgate or walking south from the Castle Esplanade.
The Grassmarket is full of Scottish architecture from the 17th-century and many of the high-rise tenement buildings that Edinburgh became famous for are still in use as private homes.
It really is a very pretty part of the city, especially nearby Victoria Street which is famous for the colourful shop fronts which slope gently upwards towards the George IV Bridge.
Heading back down to the Grassmarket you might be surprised to see that the area is so spacious, especially considering the rest of the Old Town is so compact and built-up.
The reason for this lies in the original purpose for which the area was used, namely as a place to sell horses and cattle – hence the name Grassmarket, deriving from the time when grass was kept there in large quantities to feed the animals.
This area in Edinburgh has been popular with tourists for a number of years due to the assortment of pubs that line the streets and it’s still enjoyed today thanks to the outside seating areas that are perfect for enjoying a drink while people-watching across the square.
19. Dean Village
Address: Dean Path, Edinburgh, EH4 3AY
Website: Dean Village
Once the location of a major grain milling industry for over 800 years, Dean Village is now perhaps best known for its beautiful architecture which features in so many iconic photos of Edinburgh.
Dean Village developed its numerous mills thanks to the Water of Leith which was used to power the milling stones that refined the wheat crops brought in from around the Lothians, and in its heyday there were eleven working mills in this one small area of Edinburgh along with buildings to house the hundreds of mill workers.
The mills went into a slow decline in the 19th-century until a program of regeneration began in the 1970s, and today Dean Village is one of the most sought-after residential areas in Edinburgh.
Many locals come here to enjoy walking along the pathways that run alongside the river and the village has become popular as a hidden oasis away from Edinburgh’s crowds of tourists – although it’s actually only one mile from the city centre.
A good route to follow when walking through the village is to admire the stunning architecture of Wells Court and then continue down under Thomas Telford’s imposing Dean Bridge. From there you can either follow the path onwards to Stockbridge with its vibrant cafes and bars or you can take a short walk up to the Modern Art Galleries.
Address: Leith, Edinburgh, EH6
Website: Leith, Edinburgh
The main shipping port at Leith has been instrumental in the development of Scotland as an important trading partner with Europe and this fascinating area of Edinburgh is definitely worth visiting today.
Although the industrialised areas of the port are still in use – with the extensive dockyard still receiving ships from all over the world – Leith is nowadays recognised for its trendy pubs, bars and restaurants.
After a long period of neglect Leith was extensively redeveloped in the 1970s and is now regarded as one of the premier hipster hotspots in the UK, thanks to a significant program of regeneration over the last twenty years.
Further inland is the Leith Farmers Market which is held every Saturday near the Water of Leith river, and this bustling market has become a foodie mecca with sumptuous homemade produce tempting tourists wherever they turn.
Other attractions include Leith Late, an annual multi-arts festival held in June where some of the country’s best up-and-coming artists get to showcase their works to the general public, and Michelin starred restaurants like The Kitchin, and Restaurant Martin Wishart which serve top-class food in impressive 17th-century buildings.
17. The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
Address: 75 Belford Road, Edinburgh, EH4 3DR
Website: The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
The primary purpose of this gallery is to showcase the Scottish national collection of contemporary art dating from the early 20th-century to the present day, and the vast collection covers all forms of media across 6000 pieces, from paintings and video to sculpture.
The galleries are divided into two separate buildings – the Modern One and the Modern Two.
Modern One is famous for its ever-changing exhibits, while the permanent collection includes dramatic pieces from renowned artists like Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Tracey Emin and Andy Warhol.
Across the road Modern Two houses selections from the permanent collection as well as a continually updated catalogue of exhibits, and interested members of the public can view the history of modern art media in the comprehensive library and archive.
Externally, a sculpture park created by the landscape designer Charles Jencks dominates the lawn of Modern One where a huge serpentine mound surrounds a crescent-shaped pool of water along with lots of other sculptures and works of art.
The gallery provides a bus service to transport visitors from the Scottish National Gallery in the city centre out to the Modern Art Gallery and back again, while cafes can be found both in Modern One and Modern Two, along with souvenir shops, an art library and the book archive.
16. Greyfriars Kirk
Address: 1 Greyfriars, Edinburgh, EH1 2QQ
Website: Greyfriars Kirk
Greyfriars Kirk sits in a prime location opposite the tower entrance of the National Museum of Scotland and just a few yards up from Candlemaker Row – the downward winding street that leads onto the Grassmarket.
The kirk is still very much in use today as a parish church as well as being a tourist hot-spot for visitors keen to visit the wee Highland Terrier, Bobby. The story of Greyfriars extends back through many centuries and the old kirk is full of history as it’s one of the oldest surviving buildings outside of Edinburgh’s Old Town.
There’s a small museum on the site which tells the story of the religious history of Greyfriars from the time of the Franciscan monks to the present day, and it includes one of only a handful of the original copies of the National Covenant which was signed in the Kirk in 1638.
Visitors are free to walk around the outside of the kirk at any time and can explore the inside at times when there aren’t any services or events going on.
The kirkyard that surrounds the church is managed by a separate trust and walking through the site you can’t fail to be impressed by the number of tombstones, monuments and vaults that are crowded into such a small area.
15. The Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Address: 1 Queen Street, Edinburgh, EH2 1JD
Website: The Scottish National Portrait Gallery
The Scottish National Portrait Gallery contains the national collection of portraits, as well as the national photography collection, all of which are studies of famous Scots from various periods of history.
In total, the collection boasts over 3,000 paintings and sculptures, plus 25,000 prints and drawings and an incredible 38,000 photographs. The paintings cover an extraordinary duration of Scotland’s history with the earliest portrait of James IV dated at 1507 while the oldest photograph date back to 1868.
The building stretches out symmetrically on either side of the main hall and the artworks are displayed over an expansive three floors. Many Victorian features are still intact with elegant stone facades adorning many rooms while the west side of the gallery features beautiful cove ceilings on the upper floors.
Amongst the collection are several prominent figures from Scotland’s history that will be immediately recognisable including Mary Queen of Scots, Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora MacDonald – the Jacobite heroine who helped the Bonnie Prince escape to France after his rebellion was crushed in 1745.
The gallery publicly displays an impressive 850 works at any one time, and facilities for visitors now include an education centre, shops, café and disabled access.
14. Real Mary King’s Close
Address: High Street, 2 Warriston’s Close, Edinburgh EH1 1PG
Website: Real Mary King’s Close
Mary King was born in Edinburgh in the late 1600s and began her life as a merchant by sewing together beautiful garments for sale at her shop situated on the Royal Mile.
In 1616 she married fellow merchant and businessman Thomas Nimmo who was a representative of the borough of Edinburgh, otherwise known as a burgess, and following her husband’s death in 1629 Mary and her four children moved into an area of tenement buildings that had the name Alexander Kings Close.
As Mary’s merchant business expanded she eventually rose to prominence as a burgess herself, and upon her death Alexander King Close was renamed Mary King Close in her honour.
As the years passed the dilapidated close was used as the foundations for new buildings and Mary King’s business empire was lost until being uncovered and restored in the 20th-century.
Today, Mary Kings Close is a popular tourist attraction that has hundreds of visitors exploring it every day. When you enter the exhibit you’re be guided on a tour beneath the streets of the old thoroughfare where you can experience for yourself what it must have been like to live during those plague-infested and disease-ridden times.
13. The Scotch Whisky Experience
Address: 354 Castlehill, Edinburgh, EH1 2NE
Website: The Scotch Whisky Experience
If you’re on a visit to Edinburgh your trip won’t be complete without a visit to the Scotch Whisky Experience, located just a short walk from Edinburgh Castle Esplanade on The Royal Mile.
The attraction features tours and whisky tasting sessions along with a very enjoyable journey through the history of one of Scotland’s most famous exports, brought to you by several resident ghostly tour guides!
At the beginning of the tour you sit inside a whisky barrel which transports you back in time and takes you on a journey through a replica distillery. The story of the distilling process is told by the ghosts of the old distillery and at the end you get to have a whisky tasting session with one of the (alive) tour guides.
Each tour is led by a knowledgeable whisky expert who’ll teach you the history of whisky production from its earliest days to the multi-billion pound industry that it’s become today.
The high point of any of the tours has to be the whisky collection which has the record of being the worlds largest, housing an incredible 3,384 bottles. The collection took over 35 years to build and you’ll find it hard to believe that so many different types of whisky were ever created.
If you love whisky I recommend joining the Scotch Malt Whisky Society: Become a member for exclusive access to the world’s biggest selection of single cask whisky
12. Camera Obscura and World of Illusions
Address: Castlehill, Royal Mile, Edinburgh EH1 2ND
Website: Camera Obscura Edinburgh
The Camera Obscura is one of the oldest purpose-built attractions in the United Kingdom, and tens of thousands of visitors pour through its doors each year.
Camera Obscura and World of Illusions is located in a prime location on the Royal Mile, not far from Edinburgh Castle and more or less opposite The Scotch Whisky Experience.
Visitors can experience six floors of interactive exhibitions that are designed to confound, confuse, and amuse in equal measure, with exhibits showcasing various aspects of optical illusions using light and colour.
There’s a section dedicated to holograms, another featuring a mirror maze, and yet another with a swirling vortex tunnel. Each area is designed to push your senses to the limit with some extremely high-tech trickery powering the shows.
The attraction began life in the early 18th-century when an Edinburgh telescope maker named Thomas Short built a display for his work on Calton Hill, with his largest telescope eventually passing to his daughter Maria in 1827.
After her death the attraction was rebuilt and the attraction’s premier exhibit, the camera obscura, was placed at the top – where it has remained for the last one hundred years. This attraction is really good fun and it’s definitely one that justifies its place in this list of the best things to do in Edinburgh.
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