By Craig Neil
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Table of Contents
- Map of places to visit in Edinburgh
- Best Places to Visit in Edinburgh
- Frequently Asked Questions
- More sightseeing ideas articles
As well as being the capital of Scotland, Edinburgh is one of the most-visited cities in the world thanks to its incredible collection of historic buildings, ancient castles, atmospheric medieval streets and family-friendly tourist attractions.
Discover a collection of the best places to visit in Edinburgh with this guide which features virtual tours that allow you to explore each attraction through a series of high-definition 360° photos.
Map of places to visit in Edinburgh
Best Places to Visit in Edinburgh
Edinburgh is well known for the number of historic buildings and monuments that are spread across the city. One of the best locations to see them is on top of Calton Hill – a natural landmark that’s easily walked from the city centre.
The hill lies to the east of Princes Street, sandwiched between the ever-popular Omni Centre and the Scottish Government building on Waterloo Place.
There’s an incredible amount of history to discover on Calton Hill and it’s one of the best places in Edinburgh to stand and look at the stunning cityscape, with the twinkling waters of the Firth of Forth to the north, the mighty peaks of Holyrood Park to the south, and the hubbub of Princes Street to the west.
Highlights include the National Monument of Scotland with its unfinished stone columns that were built to mimic the Parthenon in Athens, and the Nelson Monument which is a tower with a lookout platform that commemorates Admiral Lord Nelson.
Calton Hill has been further developed in recent years and the city observatory that sits in the middle is now an art gallery, a museum, and a restaurant.
Camera Obscura & World of Illusions
Scotland’s oldest purpose-built tourist attraction is located on The Royal Mile just a couple of minutes’ walk from the city’s iconic castle and more-or-less opposite the Scotch Whisky Experience.
Camera Obscura and World of Illusions began life as a collection of telescopes created by renowned telescope maker Thomas Short in the early 19th century. The collection’s original home was sited on the top of Calton Hill, but it moved to its present location on Castlehill in 1851.
Since that time the main attraction – the Camera Obscura – has wowed countless tourists who are amazed by the 200-year-old camera which projects an image of the city onto a giant display panel. Maybe it’s not quite so impressive in these days of high-tech gadgets, but it’s a fascinating thing to see nonetheless.
The remainder of the Camera Obscura is dedicated to optical illusions and you’ll find an array of holograms, mirror mazes and light and sound displays across six floors, with the upper-level opening up to a panoramic viewing terrace that offers superb views of Edinburgh Castle and the Old Town.
No introduction needs to be given to Edinburgh Zoo. Not only is it one of the largest and most respected zoos in Britain, but it’s also one of the most-visited tourist attractions in Scotland.
The zoo is set across 82 acres of parkland on Corstorphine Hill and it’s absolutely chock-a-block full of animals, from favourites such as lions, tigers and giraffes, to beautiful tropical songbirds, fascinating creepy-crawly insects and mesmerizing creatures of the world’s oceans.
Edinburgh zoo even has a few claims to fame, most notably the fact that it’s the only zoo in Britain that houses pandas. The pandas are part of an ongoing breeding programme that hopes to see Edinburgh with some furry black and white babies in the future, though sadly (as of 2021) none have made an appearance.
In addition to the pandas there’s also Penguin Rock, which is one of the largest and oldest penguin enclosures in the world. Edinburgh Zoo has the proud accolade of being the first in the world to breed penguins and the daily ‘penguin parade’ is now the zoo’s most-watched event.
No visit to Edinburgh is complete with visiting Holyrood Park. This enormous green space is one of the largest public spaces of any city in the world and it sprawls across an impressive 650 acres in the middle of the city.
You’ll have no problem making your way to Holyrood Park as you simply need to point yourself in the direction of its highest point – Arthur’s Seat – which is an 800-foot rock pinnacle that dominates the city skyline.
Pretty much every visitor to Edinburgh makes a beeline to this remnant of an ancient volcanic plug as it offers stunning 360° views from the top – as you’ll see from the virtual tour below.
Other highlights of Holyrood Park are the ruins of St. Anthony’s Chapel which is the oldest surviving building in the city, Salisbury Crags where the science of geology began, and the Radical Road which is a historic path that runs through the park.
There are also a couple of scenic lochs (best to check Google Maps to find them) and lots of grassy areas where you can hide away from the busy city amongst the heady vanilla-smelling scent of gorse bushes. Holyrood Park is basically the perfect spot for a summer picnic.
John Knox House
John Knox House on The Royal Mile is one of the few surviving medieval buildings in the city. Unlike much of the Old Town that was demolished by the Victorians, this historic house has remained unchanged since the time it was built in 1470, thanks to its most famous occupant, John Knox.
Knox was one of the most influential men of his era and his battles against Mary Queen of Scots are almost as infamous as the exploits of the house’s other famous resident, the royal goldsmith James Mossman.
You’ll discover the stories of both of these men when you visit John Knox House as well as artefacts from the time of Knox and information panels that explain the history of Edinburgh before it became the centre of the Scottish Enlightenment.
This 550-year-old building isn’t the biggest attraction in the city but it’s certainly one of the most interesting, so if you’ve ever wondered how Edinburgh became the city it is today, John Knox House definitely deserves a place on your sightseeing itinerary.
Mary King’s Close
This attraction is located a few hundred yards up The Royal Mile from John Knox House, almost opposite St. Giles Cathedral.
It’s another historic attraction, but this one aims to offer light-hearted entertainment more than act as a museum so it’s perhaps the best alternative to take the kids if you really want to experience ‘Auld Reekie’.
The attraction centres around Mary King, a real-life merchant who owned a successful shop on The Royal Mile in the 17th century.
However, as with most of Edinburgh at that time, the alley where her shop was located fell into squalor and it eventually became infected with the plague, a devastating disease which decimated the population of Scotland.
Today, visitors can explore the story of Mary King and Auld Reekie with costumed guides who will take you beneath the modern city streets into the dark enclosed alleyways that were covered over for hundreds of years but are now fully restored to how they would have looked during the time Mary King was alive.
You’ll walk through underground vaults and tiny rooms where entire families lived their lives, as well as hear the tales of the plague doctors that worked down there, and you might even feel the chill of one of the close’s resident ghosts!
St. Giles Cathedral
This is another historic attraction located on The Royal Mile, but unlike Mary King’s Close and John Knox House, St. Giles Cathedral is completely free to enter (although you can give a voluntary donation at the entrance).
The cathedral has been the focal point of religion in Edinburgh for more than 900 years but the building that we see today is a ‘new’ construction which dates back to the 14th century after the original was destroyed by fire.
It’s a truly stunning building, perhaps not quite as impressive as Glasgow Cathedral but certainly more decorative with its Gothic spires, distinctive steeple and enormous stained-glass windows.
The fact that it’s slap-bang in the middle of The Royal Mile also means it’s one of the city’s most-visited attractions.
Inside, you can marvel at the medieval stone carvings dotted around the nave as well as the extraordinarily ornate Thistle Chapel. Perhaps the best feature though is the stained-glass windows which flood the inside of St. Giles Cathedral with dazzling displays of multi-coloured lights.
If you can, I recommend joining one of the free guided tours that allow you to view the cathedral’s rooftop where you’ll get a highly memorable view across Edinburgh.
If the rooftop tour isn’t running you can return later in the day to join the free guided walking tours that explain the history of the cathedral and the role it played in Edinburgh’s past.
The Scotch Whisky Experience
This attraction is located opposite the Camera Obscura and almost next door to the Edinburgh Castle esplanade, so as you can imagine it’s a rather popular place for tourists to visit.
The Scotch Whisky Experience will take you on a voyage of discovery into Scotland’s best-loved export with a series of exhibitions and guided talks that delve into the history of whisky, how it’s made, and why each region of Scotland is able to create such subtle variations of single malt.
The tour begins with a whisky barrel ride that shows you how a distillery operates before bringing you to a tasting room where experts will give you an overview of each of Scotland’s whisky regions while serving you a sample from each one.
There’s also a whisky collection to view (the world’s largest), an excellent café and restaurant to enjoy traditional Scottish dishes, and a very well-stocked shop where you can pick up a bottle or two of your favourite whiskies.
Discover more places to visit in Edinburgh with: The Best Places to Visit in Edinburgh – Ultimate Visitor Guide.
Frequently Asked Questions
Where is Edinburgh located?
Edinburgh is located in Southeast Scotland, south of the Firth of Forth estuary, east of the North Sea coastline, and north of the county of West Lothian.
Edinburgh is Scotland’s capital city and it is one of 32 council areas in the country. It is Scotland’s second-most-populous city and the seventh most populous city in the United Kingdom.
Why is Edinburgh famous?
Edinburgh is best known for its fabulous tourist attractions that can be found throughout the city centre. The most famous of these is Edinburgh Castle which is Scotland’s most-visited attraction, regularly drawing over 2 million visitors each year.
When did Edinburgh become a city?
Edinburgh has existed for over 1,000 years and it was originally a settlement centred around Castle Rock that was occupied by the powerful Votadini tribe.
Because the fort on Castle Rock was so easily defended it eventually became a royal palace, and Edinburgh was given full city status by royal decree in 1633.
Why is Edinburgh called ‘Edinburgh’?
The name Edinburgh is thought to originate from the occupation of Castle Rock by King Edwin of Northumbria in the 7th century.
In Old English, burgh means fort, and it is believed the name given to the castle – ‘Edwin’s burgh’ – transitioned over time into ‘Edinburgh’.
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