Last updated on February 12th, 2020
11. The Scott Monument
Address: East Princes St Gardens, Edinburgh, EH2 2EJ
Website: Scott Monument
In the centre of Princes Street gardens, not far from Waverley train station, stands one of the grandest man-made landmarks in the whole of Europe – the 200-foot tall Scott Monument.
This beautiful gothic inspired structure is famous for being the largest monument to a writer anywhere in the world, and it’s been an integral part of the Edinburgh city-scape since its completion in 1844.
Constructed from locally mined sandstone, the monument is dedicated the famous Edinburgh writer Sir Walter Scott. Scott was a Scottish historical novelist, playwright and poet, and over the course of his writing career he created many literary classics including Ivanhoe and Rob Roy.
The design of the monument is inspired by the intricate designs of Rosslyn Chapel and Melrose Abbey, and the attention to detail in the stonework can be clearly seen as you walk around the outside and gaze up towards the spires.
The Scott Monument is the perfect place to get an overview of the city and inside there are 287 steps leading up a spiral staircase which leads out onto a series of viewing platforms, each of which gives fantastic panoramic views across Edinburgh city centre.
It’s from here that you can really appreciate the architecture of Edinburgh, with Princes Street running east to west, the Old Town stretching out to the south, and the imposing Salisbury Crags of Holyrood Park to the south-east.
10. The Scottish National Gallery
Address: The Mound, Edinburgh, EH2 2EL
Website: The Scottish National Gallery
No visitor to the Edinburgh can fail to be impressed by the huge neo-classical Scottish National Gallery, or by the adjacent Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) building located behind it.
The galleries display some of the most significant art collections in the world including masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Constable, Turner, Monet, and Van Gogh, while the biggest part of the collection covers the entire history of Scottish painting including works by Ramsay, Raeburn, Wilkie and McTaggart.
The present Scottish National Gallery was designed by celebrated architect William Playfair to house the national art collection of the RSA, and it continued to house the collection until 1912 when the RSA moved into the building behind it.
After extensive remodelling the Scottish National Gallery re-opened with an emphasis on presenting a selection of the best Scottish and European art – a theme which remains to this day.
There’s an underground area that’s particularly popular with both tourists and locals as it houses an excellent restaurant and café, and a shop selling copies of some of the artworks that can be seen in both galleries.
The entrance is located at the same level as Princes Street gardens and it’s a great place to stop off at for a bite to eat after spending time enjoying the nation’s impressive collection of priceless artworks.
9. The Royal Mile
Address: Edinburgh, EH1 2PB
Website: The Royal Mile
There aren’t many streets in the world that are a tourist attraction in their own right but Edinburgh’s Royal Mile easily takes the title on account of its fascinating mix of architecture and history.
Threading its way through the heart of the Old Town, the Royal Mile is a one-mile cobbled and paved road that links Edinburgh Castle at its top and Holyrood Palace at its bottom.
Not only will you pass St. Giles Cathedral, Gladstones Land and John Knox House as you meander up the gently sloped street, you’ll also pass many locations that’ll give you a glimpse into Edinburgh hundreds of years ago.
Top-tip: Keep an eye open for Makars Court, a quiet courtyard set back from the hustle and bustle of the main thoroughfare that’s home to The Writers Museum. Here you’ll find exhibitions and works from some of Scotland’s most famous writers including Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson.
For the ultimate Royal Mile experience I’d suggest you sign up for a guided tour offered by one of the guides found hanging around the rear of St. Giles Cathedral near the Mercat Cross. These tours are reasonably priced and professional, with each guide being an expert in the history of the murder, plagues, and crimes that were part and parcel of the Old Town in years gone by.
The Royal Mile is also a tourist hub for its shops, pubs, and restaurants, all selling the best produce that Scotland has to offer. If you want to purchase genuine Harris Tweed goods, drink Scottish brewed beer or buy a bottle of premium Scotch whisky, the Royal Mile will have something to offer you.
8. Holyrood Park
Address: Queen’s Drive, Edinburgh, EH8 8HG
Website: Holyrood Park
Situated about a mile to the East of Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Park is an outstanding area of natural beauty that offers tourists and locals alike a haven of tranquillity in the midst of Scotland’s capital city. Although the park is centrally sited right inside Edinburgh it’s got a vast array of natural wonders to explore over its 650-acre wilderness.
Wild meadows, peaceful lochs, mountain-like ridges, and swathes of gorse take visitors on a cross-country journey all within a few minutes walk from the city centre. On a quiet day when there are few tourists around it’s easy to forget you’re in a busy city and instead imagine that you’re way up in the Scottish Highlands.
The most accessible route onto the paths that lead into the park is to walk down the Royal Mile towards the Scottish Parliament Building, and if you want a walking map of the inside of the park you can check out my guide to walking Holyrood Park.
You can walk around the perimeter of the park if you like, or you can follow the road that winds its way across it, but if you really want to experience the beauty of the place it’s a good idea to just follow the well-maintained pathway that runs through the centre.
If you’re feeling adventurous you can climb up to the 800-foot high summit of Arthur’s Seat, the highest point in Edinburgh, to take in breath-taking views of the city. Be aware that although the path to the top is well used it’s also a hard climb, so anyone with a medical complaint might want to consider giving it a miss.
7. Calton Hill
Address: City Observatory, 38 Calton Hill, Edinburgh, EH7 5AA
Calton Hill is a magnificent land mass just a few hundred yards away from the hustle and bustle of Princes Street where a collection of Edinburgh’s most famous landmarks are situated within a few hundred feet of each other.
The hill is included in the UNESCO world heritage status that’s been awarded to the city which is hardly surprising considering the amount of history that’s located on it.
If you walk east from the city centre you’ll be guided by tourist information signs that’ll direct you up the short walk to the top of the hill and from there you can take in breath-taking views of the city, from the rising faces of Salisbury Crags to the south to the dramatic views of the city centre to the west.
Once at the top you’ll find lots of interesting landmarks on Calton Hill including the National Monument, the Nelson Monument, and the City Observatory.
The National Monument is Scotland’s memorial to the Sottish soldiers and sailors who died during the Napoleonic wars and is the dominating feature of Calton Hill, while just a few yards away is the commemorative tower which honours Admiral Nelson.
Nearby to the tower is the Dugald Stewart Monument which offers a gorgeous view of Edinburgh, so much so that it’s become one of the most photographed landmarks in the city.
Calton Hill has recently been redeveloped as a top tourist attraction by Collective, a group that has installed a restaurant, an art gallery and a viewing platform on the site of the old city observatory, and I think you really owe it to yourself to visit the place while you’re in the city.
6. St. Giles Cathedral
Address: High St, Edinburgh, EH1 1RE
Website: St. Giles Cathedral
The distinctive 15th-century crown steeple of St. Giles Cathedral is one of the most-viewed features of any building in Edinburgh, and it takes a place alongside Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace as one of the most historically significant buildings in the city.
The church has been a focal point for religious activity in Edinburgh for over 900 years (although the building that we see today traces its roots back to the 14th-century), and due to its central location on the Royal Mile it’s become a popular tourist attraction.
The church is still an active place of worship so visiting it might not be possible during times of prayer but during the week tourists are free to enter and explore the internal space of the Cathedral as much as they like.
There are five services every Sunday and on average fourteen take place in St Giles every week, often with the St. Giles Cathedral Choir singing in full voice. The choir is world-renowned and have released several albums that can be bought from the gift shop, alongside other souvenirs to remind you of your time in Edinburgh.
The cathedral also has an excellent café with first-class home cooking, cakes and coffee, and it’s a great place to unwind with a hot drink after a busy day of sightseeing.
5. The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
Address: Arboretum Place, Edinburgh, EH3 5NZ
Website: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
One of the best botanic gardens in the UK is located in Edinburgh and a short bus ride from the city centre will allow you to explore over 13,000 different plant species in the most beautifully landscaped and manicured grounds you’re ever likely to see.
For tourists, the facilities available easily match those found at any other Edinburgh attraction with cafes, a restaurant, snack stations, a gift shop, and an information centre catering to the needs of visitors of all ages.
Due to their immense size the gardens can be entered via several different gatehouses so you’d be wise to pick up a map at the visitor centre to get your bearings at the start of your visit.
Although the gardens are free to enter it’s well worth paying the entrance fee to get into the premier attraction of the RBGE which is the incredible tropical jungle that lives inside the enormous glasshouses.
These glasshouses contain some of the oldest plants in the entire collection, as well as some of the largest, which makes for a fascinating walk as you appreciate the 3,000 exotic plants that have been sourced from all over the world.
Other highlights include a woodland garden, an enormous tree collection, a Rhododendron collection, alpine houses, and a botanic cottage (which is used for education and community sessions), while the visitor centre houses exhibitions that change on a regular basis.
4. The Royal Edinburgh Zoo
Address: 134 Corstorphine Rd, Edinburgh, EH12 6TS
Website: Edinburgh Zoo
Set over 82 acres of parkland on the south-facing slope of Corstorphine Hill, Edinburgh zoo is the second most popular tourist attraction in Scotland after Edinburgh Castle.
Edinburgh zoo has a huge amount of things to see and do, and with over a thousand animals to look at including lions, monkeys, penguins, tigers, and the only giant pandas in the UK, you’re definitely not going to get bored.
The enclosures that house these animals are really good, especially Penguins Rock which has Europe’s largest outdoor penguin pool and the Budongo Trail where you can watch chimpanzees in one of the world’s most innovative man-made habitats.
Other enclosures offer views of exotic birds, reptiles, insects and mammals from all over the world, with each habitat clearly signposted and marked so that you won’t ever find yourself getting lost.
Even so, as a top tip I’d recommend going to their maps and guides page which has an interactive map and a free downloadable pdf so you can get to grips with the layout before heading out.
Facilities available include a gift shop, two restaurants, and a coffee shop, and there are several smaller fast-food eateries dotted about as well.
3. The Royal Yacht Britannia
Address: Ocean Terminal, Leith, Edinburgh, EH6 6JJ
Website: The Royal Yacht Britannia
The Royal Yacht Britannia is the former yacht of the British Royal Family which now takes pride of place at the Ocean Terminal shopping centre at Leith in Edinburgh.
Over the course of her working life Britannia sailed over 1 million miles around the world and she’s now open year-round for visitors to follow in the footsteps of world leaders as they walk through her beautifully ornate rooms.
As you walk round Britannia’s five main decks you can listen to an interesting audio guide that explains what life was like onboard not only for the royal inhabitants but also for the Royal Navy crew that manned her during her voyages.
Starting at the bridge, you pass through the state apartments, the crew quarters, and the engine room before finally reaching the Royal Racing Yacht, Bloodhound.
There are some fascinating parts of the ship which all ages will enjoy visiting, like the huge state banquet room with its massive dining table and the gleaming Rolls Royce Phantom which used to travel on the ship along with the Royal Family.
If you fancy a little treat you can pick up some really good homemade fudge in the NAAFI sweet shop, and there’s a highly recommended restaurant in the Royal Deck Tea Room where you can sample some top-notch Scottish cuisine, as well as coffee and sandwiches if you just want a snack.
2. Holyrood Palace
Address: Canongate, The Royal Mile, Edinburgh, EH8 8DX
Website: Holyrood Palace
The palace of Holyrood House (as it’s officially known), is the main residence of the British monarchy in Scotland and is located at the opposite end of the Royal Mile from Edinburgh castle. The palace has a long history dating back to the 12th-century and it’s still used to host state occasions to this day.
The palace offers loads of activities to visitors, including viewing the official state rooms of Mary Queen of Scots and the Throne Room, as well as exploring the ruins of Holyrood Abbey and the beautiful palace gardens.
The route through the interior rooms will take you on a tour of the history of the building including the 17th-century king’s apartments, the Great Gallery, and the 16th-century apartments where Mary Queen of Scots took residence.
After visiting the inside of the palace the ruins of Holyrood Abbey are usually the last area to be explored, and although the roof has long gone the size of the building is still impressive. It’s also a brilliant photo opportunity.
Finally, no visit to an attraction like this would be complete without a visit to the cafe which is, of course, top-notch. The quality of the food on offer is amazing, and although it’s a little pricey it’s well worth the expense. But before you leave don’t forget to check out the shop which has some of the highest-quality souvenirs I’ve ever seen in a Scottish tourist attraction.
1. Edinburgh Castle
Address: Castlehill, Edinburgh, EH1 2NG
Website: Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh castle encapsulates everything that’s great about the best Scottish attractions. It’s massive, beautiful, ancient, fascinating, sited in a fantastic location and has more things to see and do than you might imagine.
There are ancient buildings to walk through, loads of interesting artefacts to look at, some really good museums to wander around, and more exhibitions, shops, and cafes than you’ll likely be able to fit into one day.
You can reach the castle entrance by following the Royal Mile to the very end of its northernmost point, and on arriving at the area you’ll be presented with a magnificent open courtyard.
This is where the world-famous Edinburgh Military Tattoo takes place every year where military bands and performers from all over the world come together to entertain a quarter-million tourists annually, watched by upwards of 100 million people on TV.
The Royal Palace is perhaps the most dramatic section of the entire castle complex as it houses not only the royal apartments where the legendary Mary Queen of Scots lived but also the great crown room which houses the Honours of Scotland.
These artefacts are the Scottish equivalent of the Crown Jewels held in the Tower of London and they’re no less magnificent, comprising a crown, sceptre, and the Sword of State.
The Stone of Scone – the ancient stone upon which Scottish monarchs were crowned – is also held within the vaults of the crown room and all the exhibits are presented with lots of background information which is great if you’ve got inquisitive kids with you.
Although tickets to the castle are a bit expensive in my opinion it really is an amazing place to visit, and it totally justifies its place at number one in this list of the best things to do in Edinburgh.
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Infographic about Edinburgh
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Well, that wraps it up for this list of the 25 best things to do in Edinburgh and I hope it’s given you some ideas for places to visit in the city to make the most of your time while you’re here.
The list isn’t exhaustive by any means and I’ve tried to include the attractions that I personally think are the best ones, but if you’ve got any opinions about them please leave a comment in the comments box below.
Thank you for reading the article, have a great time in Edinburgh, and safe travels.
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