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Last updated on April 21st, 2021
Edinburgh is the capital city of Scotland and it features many of the country’s top tourist attractions, including Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace. Discover everything you need to know about visiting Edinburgh – from where to go, what to do and how to get around – in this complete, practical guide for tourists.
Is Edinburgh worth visiting?
Edinburgh. City of cobbled streets, winding alleyways and Gothic architecture. Royal palaces, dramatic castles and an extinct volcano. This is the second most-visited city in Britain after London and having lived in it for the past decade I can totally see why.
But, you might be asking, why is it such a tourist hotspot?
Well for starters there’s more history down the ‘burghs medieval streets than you’ll find in most other cities worldwide but it also buzzes with a vibrant cultural scene thanks to it’s welcoming pubs, trendy music venues and exciting art shows.
And while Glasgow gets all the attention for its nightlife, Edinburgh takes the prize for having the best tourist attractions due to the numerous galleries and museums (almost all of which are completely free) as well as one of the biggest Christmas and New Year celebrations in Europe and the biggest multi-arts festival in the world.
Suffice to say, if you visit Edinburgh you’re not going to get bored.
But that doesn’t mean everything is amazing in this city and there are plenty of downsides that most visitors won’t be aware of.
Like the near-constant crowds that become body-squashingly huge in the summer, or the impenetrable dreary fog that rolls in when the rest of the country is bathed in sunshine, or the wallet-destroying prices of pretty much everything on The Royal Mile.
But when the clouds lift and the tourists disperse the city blossoms into one of the best cities on earth.
It’s a city that has more green spaces than any other in the UK, where spectacular whisky and food can be found on every street and where the best historic attractions – bar none – can all be found within an easy walk of the city centre.
And that’s not to mention the world-class shopping, the friendly locals and the fact that due to its location it makes a great base to explore the rest of Scotland.
I could quite easily fill this entire article with all the things I like about Edinburgh but what I’ll do instead is let you in on a few secrets and interesting facts that will make your visit here just that wee bit more enjoyable, and maybe it’ll inspire you to book a return visit if you’ve already been here.
Let’s start with getting around the place.
Transport in Edinburgh
For such a small city the public transport systems are surprisingly good to the point where many residents don’t even bother with owning a car at all. That might seem like a strange concept to some people but having lived just a mile from Waverley train station I can confirm it’s totally possible to rely entirely on Edinburgh’s buses, trams, trains and taxi services.
Lothian buses, in particular, are excellent with regular ultra-efficient vehicles that routinely swing past the stops on Princes Street with impressive regularity. The network stretches to every single corner of the city and beyond and you can get an all-day ticket to explore the top attractions for just a few pounds.
The best way to buy tickets is to either get them on the bus (they’ve just introduced contactless payments) or buy a book of tickets from one of the Lothian Bus travel shops (there’s one at the corner of Waverley Bridge near the train station).
Taxis are another travel option and you’ll find them all over the city but whenever I’ve been on a night out I always head to Market Street (again, near the train station) as there’s usually a queue of taxis waiting for a job.
While there are plenty of minicabs in Edinburgh you might feel safer taking a black cab as their drivers have to pass a police check and there’s virtually no chance you’ll be stung by dodgy drivers adding a few quid onto the fare because they’ve got a wide-eyed tourist in the back.
But with all that in mind, if the weather’s nice why not just walk?
Edinburgh is a compact city and it’s so easy to use the power of your own feet to transport yourself to all the major attractions – and there’s an added bonus in that not only will you help to free up the congested streets but you’ll also get to see all the hidden medieval alleyways that you’d miss if you were on public transport.
Accommodation in Edinburgh
Whenever I’m asked where is the best place to get accomodation in Edinburgh I always say don’t bother with the city centre unless it’s well out of the summer peak season.
Hoteliers in Edinburgh like to ramp up their rates to eye-watering levels in the middle of summer and you’ll find even the most basic rooms double in price once demand hits from the start of June to the start of September.
Take a look at the table below for a comparison and you’ll see the upper-tier hotels increase by around 60% but the budget ones increase by over 300%. And I haven’t cherry-picked those prices – they’re the average prices I found on Booking.com.
|Edinburgh city hotel (2 adults sharing per night) in August||Rating||Cost|
|The Scotsman Hotel||Luxury||£337|
|Ibis Edinburgh Park||Budget||£125|
|Edinburgh city hotel (2 adults sharing per night) in January|
|The Scotsman Hotel||Luxury||£200|
|Ibis Edinburgh Park||Budget||£44|
If you don’t mind a short journey then you might consider getting a hotel outside of the city and travelling in if you’re intending to visit Edinburgh in the summer months.
Train lines run through Midlothian and the Scottish Borders and both counties have lots of train stations dotted across their towns and villages so you can save a bundle on hotel rooms just by adding 30 minutes onto your travel time.
Here’s a couple of out-of-town hotel prices in August as a comparison. Prices are from Booking.com.
|Out of town hotel (2 adults sharing per night) in August||Rating||Cost|
|Best Western Kings Manor||Upper Mid Range||£164|
|Mercure Livingston Hotel||Mid Range||£115|
|Navaar House Hotel Penicuik||Budget||£68|
When to visit Edinburgh
There isn’t really a ‘best’ time to visit Edinburgh as it totally depends on what sort of holiday you want to have. Virtually all the best attractions are open every day of the year and there’s no slow-down in the city’s pubs, bar and restaurants whether it’s the depths of winter or the heights of summer.
Are you visiting for a weekend break? Well, pretty much any time of the year will be a good choice as there are so many attractions in the city that you’ll find something to do no matter the weather.
Want to experience the Edinburgh Fringe Festival? August is your only option.
Hoping to swing by on a day trip before exploring the Highlands? April and May might be your best bet as the temperature is warming up and it’s one of the driest times of the year.
Looking to enjoy Edinburgh’s amazing Christmas festival? Then December is your best option, although the festivities actually start the last week of November.
Take a look at the next section if you want to plan your visit to Edinburgh based on the average weather conditions.
The weather in Edinburgh
Generally, the summers are mildly warm and the winters are very cold, but there’s are certain times of the year that make the city a bit more agreeable than others.
The depths of winter can be one of the loveliest times of the year when it’s crisp and bright but expect temperatures to hover around 1 °C between the start of December and the end of January.
From February the temperatures slowly rise so you’ll see an average low of 2 °C and highs of 14 °C until May. These months might be cooler than summer but they’re also drier with an average rainfall of 45 mm per month compared to July and August which see a rather sodden 60 mm.
By the way, I’ve written a Guide to the Best Things to do in Edinburgh on a Rainy Day that will help you when the inevitable drizzle sets in.
Once summer hits the temperatures are quite pleasant with highs that range between 17 and 19 °C although there will inevitably the odd weird weather spike that’ll either see temperatures soar or plummet – such as July 2019 that saw record temperatures of 30 °C.
Autumn (September to November) enjoys warmer temperatures than the spring with a range falling between 9 and 15 °C, but it’s also the wettest season with a fairly miserable average of 60 to 65 mm of rain per month.
Bear in mind that means although it’ll be mild the skies are almost always grey and overcast, but what’ll really chill your bones no matter the time of year is the haar.
A haar is a thick sea fog which rolls in off the Firth of Forth usually in the morning and occasionally in the evening. This thick blanket of mist blocks out the sun and causes temperatures to drop rapidly, though for whatever reason we seem to get it worse on the southern side of the Forth than across the water in Fife.
Daylight hours meanwhile see a low of 7 hours in the middle of winter rising to 12 hours in spring and highs of 17 hours in mid-summer due to Edinburgh’s high latitude. You’ll often see live TV broadcasts in London where it’s dark outside and then look out the window in Edinburgh to see it’s still light.
Take a look at the table below for an overview of Edinburgh’s average annual weather conditions. Data is from the NOAA.
|Month||Temp High in c||Temp Low in c||Rainfall in mm||Daylight Hours|
What to wear in Edinburgh
Unless you’re coming from a very hot country there’s no need to wrap yourself up in ten layers of thermals as despite what you might have heard Edinburgh’s actually not too bad on the weather front.
Sure, we get a lot of grey, rainy days but Scotland’s (and I guess Britain’s) weather is becoming increasingly temperate and the days of sub-zero temperatures every winter seem to be long behind us.
In winter you won’t go far wrong with jeans, T-shirt, jumper and a thick jacket, but don’t forget to always pack a hat, gloves and scarf as the cold wind can pick up and whip in from the Firth of Forth in an instant which makes temperatures drop significantly.
Prepare for an average temperature of 0-5 °C in winter and you’ll be fine, though there are a couple of things to bear in mind.
First, the roads get filthy after a snowfall so make sure you’re wearing semi-waterproof shoes.
Second, Edinburgh is one of the greenest cities in Europe so there’s a good chance you’ll end up romping through a park (most likely Holyrood Park) which can get really muddy, so I’d advise you to take walking boots with you – which will come into their own if you decide to climb Arthur’s Seat.
Third, you’re going to get caught in a lot of rain showers which is just a fact of life in Scotland. If you don’t like wearing bulky jackets consider chucking a pac-a-mac (this and the following are Amazon links to products I recommend) in your bag as it’ll save you sitting in wet clothes for the remainder of the day, and they look a million times better than those cheap plastic ponchos you get in the tourist tat shops.
In summer Edinburgh really brightens up and you’ll frequently find blue skies for days on end – although there will be just as many overcast days alongside them. With that in mind you might consider taking a backpack and throwing a thin top or two in it along with the pac-a-mac I already mentioned.
With regards to fashion we’re a pretty relaxed bunch in Edinburgh and you won’t see many eyebrows raised no matter what you wear (this if the home of the Fringe after all) but if you’re eating in public places be considerate and wear a shirt indoors.
Likewise it’s considered polite to cover your feet in restaurants and take your hat off. But other than that, wear what you like!
Shopping in Edinburgh
Edinburgh isn’t the main place to go shopping in Scotland – that title goes to Glasgow – but it has a few shopping malls and streets that are definitely worth checking out whether you’re looking for the latest designer handbags or a cheap souvenir of your visit.
Starting in Princes Street in the heart of the city you’ll find a combination of fast-food restaurants, mobile phone dealers, clothing chains and department stores just like anywhere else in the country.
That being said the highlight of the street is Jenners which is an enormous department store set in a Victorian building not far from Waverley Station that was founded all the way back in 1838.
It’s mostly notable for the upmarket selection of British goods they sell (think along the lines of a Scottish Harrods) and it’s a popular place to grab a bite to eat. There’s a couple of decent cafés inside but my advice is to go to the restaurant which serves an exceptionally tasty selection of local dishes.
At the opposite end of Princes Street you’ll find Debenhams which in any other town is a bog-standard department chain store but the one in Edinburgh has a café with amazing views of Edinburgh Castle. Likewise, Costa Coffe (just down the street from Jenners) has huge plate glass windows that offer superb views across the national galleries and The Mound.
Elsewhere, a brand-new shopping centre is currently being built that looks like it’ll somersault Edinburgh into the top spot for shopping in Scotland, but it’s not due to open until late 2021 so keep an eye on the Edinburgh St. James website for updates.
If you head to St. Andrew Square (follow St. Andrew Street opposite the Waverley shopping mall) you’ll find Multrees Walk which is home to several luxury brands like Louis Vuitton while smaller boutique clothes shops can be found across the square along George Street.
Finally, if you’re looking for a memento of your visit whether it’s a bottle of whisky, tartan slippers or a novelty haggis you won’t go far wrong with taking a walk along The Royal Mile.
There are loads of ‘tartan-tat’ shops all the way from Holyrood Palace at the bottom to the castle at the top and you’re bound to find a gift you like – but be aware you’ll probably find exactly the same gift for half the price outside the city centre.
Crowds in Edinburgh
Crowds are an unavoidable nuicance in any big tourist destination and unfortunately Edinburgh buckles under the weight of visitor numbers in the peak season.
The city is already the second most populous in Scotland after Glasgow and sits in 7th place in the United Kingdom with around half a million permanent residents, but this number explodes with an additional 3-million tourists each year.
These numbers aren’t really helped by the fact that Edinburgh is quite a small city with the majority of its attractions contained within a square mile of the city centre so don’t be surprised to find yourself squashed between coachloads of camera-wielding crowds as soon as you arrive.
So is there anywhere you can go to avoid those crowds?
There are thankfully, and you’ll be pleased know Edinburgh has loads of places to visit that are far enough off the standard tracks that you might find you’re the only person there.
I’ll list a couple of suggestions in the sections below but first let’s talk about where you’ll find the biggest crowds in Edinburgh (and this is coming from personal experience)
First off, although it’s a fantastic attraction I’d seriously consider giving Edinburgh Castle a miss if you don’t like big crowds. Scotland’s biggest tourist attraction draws more than two million people through its entrance gate each year and the queues in summer are absolutely horrific.
Definitely don’t visit it at the weekend if you’re people-averse but take a look mid-week from September to April and you’ll find it’s actually not that bad.
The ticket queues in summer are horrendous but one tip I have for you is to get a pre-paid pass which will let you skip ahead of the queues. You can purchase passes from Viator so click this link and search for Edinburgh Castle: Roam the world.
Another big tourist destination is The Royal Mile which is always teeming with people during the daytime but gets major congestion when the Fringe is on in August. There are street performers at all times of the year but you’ll find massive crowds watching them at Fringe time so if you don’t like being constantly shoulder-barged I’d consider staying away.
The third-worst place for crowds is the eastern end of Princes Street from Waverley Station up to the national galleries.
This kind of makes sense as there will always be big groups of people arriving and departing on the train and there are lots of bus stops in that area so weary locals will be patiently hanging around trying to catch the next bus, plus the majority of the big shops line the northern side of the Street.
The streets further north – Rose Street, George Street and Queen Street – are much quieter.
If you take the number 41, 32 or 36 buses you’ll be able to escape the maddeningly busy city centre and visit the picturesque Firth of Forth at Cramond Island, a tidal island located a few miles outside of Edinburgh.
It can be found at the end of a 3/4 mile walkway that leads away from the village of Cramond to almost the middle of the estuary. Although it gets a bit busy with locals at the weekend you’ll hardly ever find visiting tourists walking around it mid-week – especially in the off-peak season – so it makes a great place to escape to.
There’s a lot of history on the island and it’s known to have been occupied as far back as Roman times although the only signs of human use you’ll see nowadays are the occasional WWII bunker and the massive anti-tank blockade that forms the walkway that’s used to get onto it.
There are a couple of small beaches that are perfect for a picnic spot as well as lots of grassy hollows to hide in and on a summer day it’s all too easy to completely forget you’re close to Scotland’s capital city.
The only downside is that as it’s tidal you could find yourself stranded if you stay there too long so check the tide times at the causeway entrance before walking across.
The Water of Leith
Tree-lined paths follow the river for the majority of its journey and because there are so many entrance points you won’t have to walk far to get onto them. In fact, the biggest obstacle visitors face is knowing that it actually exists.
In years gone by the river was an integral part of Edinburgh’s rise to prominence as one of Scotland’s industrial powerhouses when it powered mills along its entire length, but as the milling industries moved away from using water power the Water of Leith reverted to its natural state as a peaceful river setting.
Popular entry points are Dean Village where you can see the remains of those long-forgotten mills and Stockbridge which is a great district to visit if you like cosy bistros and boutique shopping.
You can follow 12 miles of the river along paths that are wide enough in most places to accommodate both cyclists and walkers but I personally think it’s best enjoyed on foot as quite a few sections require climbing steep flights of steps.
To get an idea of exactly where the river winds its way through the city you should check out the Water of Leith Visitor Centre on Lanark Road but if you just want to enjoy a nice walk I recommend starting in Stockbridge and heading north to Leith which will take around an hour on foot.
Leith is a district of Edinburgh that you’ll find three miles to the north of Waverley Station. Once a busy fishing harbour it’s now best known as the trendy place to go if you want to experience the best restaurants and bars outside of the city centre.
There’s a couple of reasons why Edinburgh’s locals choose Leith for a meal out instead of Princes Street. First off, because it’s not a tourist haunt the prices are actually quite reasonable. Second, there’s a great hipster atmosphere about the area thanks to the efforts of Edinburgh council who completely revamped it after it became a bit of a slum in the 1980s.
Two recommendations for places to eat are The Kitchin which is a Michelin-starred restaurant that’s frequently cited as one of the best in Scotland. They serve a blend of Scottish and French cuisine that absolutely delicious along with one of the best whisky menus I’ve ever seen in a restaurant.
A Room in Leith is situated close to The Kitchen but it’s a bit cosier and serves equally tasty dishes. Primarily concentrating on game and seafood they only serve local produce along with locally crafted drinks and they’ve even got a little waterfront pontoon which makes a great space to relax in summer.
Leaving food and drink behind if you walk a half-mile west you’ll find Ocean Terminal which is notable as a good place to do a spot of shopping as well as visit the Royal Yacht Britannia which is one of the highest-rated tourist attractions in Scotland.
The former royal yacht is permanently moored there and is a genuinely fascinating place to visit – and the restaurant on the upper deck serves the best cream teas ever!
Festivals in Edinburgh
Edinburgh has a jam-packed festival schedule throughout the year so no matter when you visit you’re bound to find something happening somewhere in the city.
The two biggies are of course the Fringe and Christmas festivals but there are plenty of others that have something to offer if you’re not keen on those more famous (and more commercialized) events.
The Royal Military Tatoo, for example, is an iconic 3-week spectacular set against the majestic backdrop of Edinburgh Castle where highly-skilled military bands from across the globe showcase their talents in a series of daredevil displays and intricate marching formations.
The Scottish pipers are probably the highlight and they always get a massive cheer but you’ll see impressive displays from every corner of the globe including motorbikes and acrobatics. One word of advice though – make sure you book your ticket months in advance as they sell out fast.
At the end of the year you can enjoy Edinburgh’s Christmas and Hogmanay celebrations which take over pretty much the entirety of the city centre.
At Edinburgh’s Christmas you’ll find a collection of theatre shows, ice-skating rinks, market stalls, kids fun parks and themed rides, while Hogmanay features an amazing night-time torchlight procession through the city, the world’s biggest street party, and big-name music concerts.
As much as I love the Christmas shows and markets I have to admit they’re a wee bit overpriced so prepare to spend a packet unless you live in an applicable Edinburgh or Fife postcode in which case you’ll get a 20% discount.
If you want to know more about Edinburgh’s busy festival schedule take a look at the official This is Edinburgh website.
I’ve also listed the main festivals in the table below if you want to book your trip to Edinburgh around a particular event.
|Edinburgh International Science Festival||4th to 19th April|
|Edinburgh International Children’s Festival||20th to 31st May|
|Edinburgh International Film Festival||17th to 28th June|
|Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival||17th to 26th July|
|Edinburgh Art Festival||30th July to 30th August|
|Edinburgh Festival Fringe||7th August to 31st August|
|Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo||7th August to 29th August|
|Edinburgh International Festival||7th to 31st August|
|Edinburgh International Book Festival||15th to 31st August|
|Scottish International Storytelling Festival||16th October to 31st October|
|Edinburgh’s Christmas||Late November to Early January|
|Edinburgh’s Hogmanay||30th December to 1st January|
The Edinburgh Fringe
The Edinburgh Fringe Arts Festival is a multi-arts extravaganza that runs throughout August each year across venues all over the city.
Known simply as ‘The Fringe’ it has grown in size every year since its creation in 1947 and it’s now one of the biggest events in Britain.
There’s a huge amount to see and do during the Fringe from watching circus acts to listening to up-and-coming bands (and every other art form in-between) so trying to get to grips with it all on your first visit will probably make your head spin.
To put it into perspective, over the 25-ish days that the event runs there are around 50,000 performances of over 3,500 different shows held in more than 300 venues attended by over half a million visitors.
To say the city gets busy in August is an understatement.
So what’s the best way to tackle it? Well, you should probably start with your accommodation which will be impossible to find unless you book it months in advance, preferably before the preceding Christmas.
Most hotels start ramping up their prices around June so by the time the Fringe comes around you’ll often see city centre rooms that have tripled in price from what you’d expect to pay in winter.
If you haven’t got nearby friends and family to stay with you might be lucky and find a rental home nearby so take a look at the AirBnB website before you go splurging on an overpriced hotel.
As far as watching the shows goes bear in mind some of them are a bit pricey (£25+) so if you’re intending to spend a few days in the city expect to spend a couple of hundred pounds or more just on tickets.
Options for buying tickets are to head to the ticket booths outside the major venues or search for bargains at the Half-Price Hut located near the national galleries off Princes Street.
You can take a chance and just see whatever bizarrely-named show takes your fancy or you can grab a copy of the Fringe catalogue from outside the Half-Price Hut or download the much more environmentally friendly mobile phone app.
You’ve got plenty of options for food and drink as there are stalls set up in all the main venues but everything is priced just that wee bit more than you’ll find in the city’s standard bars and food outlets.
I always grab a bite to eat and have a drink in Rose Street before heading out to the next show, although I have to admit there’s more of an atmosphere in the festival beer gardens (the one in George Square Gardens near Edinburgh University is fab).
Facts about Edinburgh
- Edinburgh is split into two halves – the medieval Old Town and the newer, erm… New Town. Everything south of the castle along the Royal Mile and down to the palace is considered the Old Town. Everything north of the castle on the other side of Princes Street Garden is considered the New Town. You can find out more about Edinburgh’s fascinating history by downloading my free Guide to Edinburgh.
- Prepare for a bit of a pong when you get here – but not the type of smell that lingered 300 years ago when the city got its nickname ‘Auld Reekie’. Back then the city streets used to be ankle-deep in human poop as households in the tenement blocks would simply chuck their buckets of human waste onto the streets below. Luckily those days are long gone and today you’ll smell the fragrant aromas of flowers (Edinburgh is officially the greenest city in Britain, beer (there are several breweries close to the city centre) and food (Edinburgh has become the Scottish mecca for artisan street food).
- If you stand outside St. Giles Cathedral on The Royal Mile you’ll notice the city’s residents clearing their throats and spitting at a particular spot on the ground. This isn’t because the people all have colds, it’s because they’re showing their disdain for the Old Tolbooth, a building that was used to punish Edinburgh’s poorest who couldn’t repay their debts. Today the site is marked with a (rather snotty) motif on the ground known as the Heart of Midlothian.
- The humble Scottish boozer is at the very heart of Edinburgh culture and you’ll find over 700 pubs spread across the city. Nearly all the old working-mans pubs have transformed into trendy bars and craft ale houses in the city centre but there are still plenty of spit-and-sawdust pubs on the outskirts. Take my advice and get your beer in the city centre.
- Fish and chips is almost as iconic as haggis in Scotland but in Edinburgh they put a unique spin on it by drizzling everything in ‘sauce’, which is a combination of vinegar and spicy brown sauce. The only thing I wouldn’t suggest you put it on is Edinburgh’s other culinary delight, the deep-fried Mars bar.
- Edinburgh has a dark and grisly history that most visitors don’t know about but you can discover a few horror stories by reading my article about Murders and Executions in Edinburgh.
- There are two main football clubs in Edinburgh which have quite a rivalry going on, Hearts of Midlothian (locally known as simply ‘Hearts’) and Hibernian Football Club (known as ‘Hibs’). Hibs colours are white and green while Hearts wear maroon and light blue and both sets of supporters are very proud of their teams. Get ready for a bit of rowdiness on a Saturday night if one of the teams has lost a game earlier in the day…
Frequently Asked Questions
Edinburgh is a compact city and the majority of the top tourist attractions are within walking distance of each other. There are lots of taxis and minicabs in the city centre (taxi ranks are commonly found outside Waverley Train Station) but locals prefer to use Lothian Buses which serve the entire city for a fixed price ticket.
There are hotels throughout the city centre as well as lots of B&B’s in the surrounding area. City centre hotels are generally luxury e.g The Balmoral Hotel, or budget e.g. easyHotel Edinburgh. Expect city centre room prices to double in summer, especially in August when the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is on.
December for the Christmas markets and Edinburgh’s Hogmanay New Year celebrations. August for the Edinburgh Fringe arts festival. April and May for cheaper accomodation and moderate temperatures. September for moderate temperatures and smaller crowds of people.
Annual averages are: January 62mm, February 46mm, March 48mm, April 39mm, May 46mm, June 59mm, July 65mm, August 61mm, September 57mm, October 68mm, November 60mm, December 63mm.
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