Castles, ghosts, Scotch whisky and bagpipes provide Edinburgh with its Celtic charm. This delightful Scottish city is full of hidden corners and is a fun city to explore whether you’re visiting alone or travelling with the family. There are plenty of fun things to do in Edinburgh to keep everyone happy.
Here are our top Edinburgh attractions but you never know what you might find as you wander the cobblestone streets of old Edinburgh.
- 11 Classic Things To Do In Edinburgh
- 1- Visit Edinburgh Castle
- 2- Explore Calton Hill
- 3- Go to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo
- 4- Taste craft beer in Edinburgh’s Breweries
- 5- Wander the Royal Mile
- 6- Visit the National Gallery of Scotland
- 7- Tour the Scottish Parliament
- 8- Ride the Hop-on-hop-off bus
- 9- Discover the Royal Yacht Britannia
- 10- Go on a spooky ghost tour
- 11- Do a Da Vinci Code tour
- Things To Do In Edinburgh With Kids
- 11 Classic Things To Do In Edinburgh
11 Classic Things To Do In Edinburgh
1- Visit Edinburgh Castle
The most famous landmark in Scotland majestically overlooks the city from its perch on an extinct volcano.
Aside from sweeping views of Edinburgh and the surrounding area, including the Firth of Forth and the estuary of the Forth River, there’s a lot to see within the castle itself.
Head to the Crown Room where the Honours of Scotland exhibition displays Scotland’s crown jewels. The crown, sceptre and sword of state are the oldest royal regalia in the United Kingdom.
There’s the Stone of Destiny – the coronation seat of ancient Scottish kings – which was captured and taken to England by Edward I. After 700 years, it was returned to Edinburgh Castle in 1996.
Other places of interest within the castle are the Great Hall, St Margaret’s Chapel and the Royal Apartments where James VI, son of Mary, Queen of Scots was born.
The One O’clock Gun is fired every afternoon (except Sundays), upholding a tradition from the days when it was a time signal for ships in the port of Leith.
Besides the Scottish National War Memorial, which commemorates soldiers that gave their lives to defend Scotland, there are two other military museums in the castle.
2- Explore Calton Hill
Calton Hill, which is an easy uphill walk from Waterloo Place, offers panoramic views of Edinburgh. It’s a great place to stretch the legs and the kids will love exploring.
On top of the hill is the National Monument, which is an unfinished replica of the Athens Parthenon built in memory to those who gave their lives in the Napoleonic Wars.
There are two observatories – the Old Observatory and the City Observatory; the latter is open to the public for exhibitions and viewings of the night sky.
Climb 143 steps along a narrow winding staircase to the top of Nelson’s Monument.
The monument, which was built in 1805 to commemorate Admiral Lord Nelson’s naval victory in Trafalgar, has a stunning 360-degree view from the top of the tower. It’s well worth the climb.
3- Go to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo
The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is a military extravaganza second to none.
While Scottish regimental bands feature prominently, it’s not all bagpipes and drums.
Each year, there’s a programme of international performances by groups from Chile, Uganda, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and around the world.
Although the show is held live each August, it’s also broadcast around the world on New Year’s Day each year.
4- Taste craft beer in Edinburgh’s Breweries
With a rich legacy of beer brewing and home to two of Scotland’s most well-known historic breweries, Edinburgh is one of the best places to taste craft beer today.
The Abbey and Holyrood Breweries were established in Edinburgh 1749 while the Fountain Brewery started making beer in 1856.
Fans of craft beer are in for a treat as there are several excellent craft beer breweries in downtown Edinburgh and beyond.
If you can, try to plan your trip around the Edinburgh Craft Beer Festival in May or the Craft Beer Experience in November, when the best Edinburgh breweries hold tastings and workshops.
5- Wander the Royal Mile
Wander along the cobblestone streets of the Royal Mile and even if you’re not a big fan of Scottish paraphernalia, you’ll be tempted to fill your shopping bag with souvenirs, kilts, bagpipes and tartan scarves.
Head to the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre and join a tour that will take you on a journey through Scotland’s whisky-producing regions.
The Royal Mile is the traditional route from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the home of the British royal family when they visit Edinburgh.
Mary, Queen of Scots, lived at Holyroodhouse between 1561 and 1567.
The gaps between the tall buildings are known as closes and have intriguing names like Old Stamp Office Close and Trunk’s Close.
Stay at the Balmoral Hotel which is located nearby on Princes Street (tel: +44 131 556 2414).
6- Visit the National Gallery of Scotland
It’s no surprise that the National Gallery of Scotland has the largest collection of Scottish paintings in the world.
The gallery proudly displays works from the nation’s major artists such as Ramsay, Raeburn, Wilkie and McTaggart.
Two key works on display are Raeburn’s Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch and Ramsay’s portrait of his second wife, Margaret Lindsay.
Besides Scottish art, the National Gallery also has Scotland’s best collection of European paintings and sculpture which span from the Renaissance to Post-Impressionism periods.
There are masterpieces by Jacopo Bassano, Van Dyck and Tiepolo.
7- Tour the Scottish Parliament
The contemporary award-winning design of the Scottish Parliament stands out like a beacon against Edinburgh’s historic skyline.
Although the building won eight international architecture awards since its completion in 2004, the jury is still out about this highly controversial project.
The design by Spanish architect Enric Miralles is a work of art to some yet an eyesore to others.
Guided tours include a visit to the Debating Chamber, Committee Rooms and historic Queensberry House.
8- Ride the Hop-on-hop-off bus
There’s no better way to get your bearings than to tour the city on one of the four different hop-on-hop-off bus tours.
The green Edinburgh Tour has the most knowledgeable guides who provide live commentary in delightfully broad Scottish accents, complete with hilarious jokes.
The red City Sightseeing bus has multilingual commentary while MacTours offers travel around Edinburgh in a vintage bus.
The Majestic tour heads to the historic port of Leith where the Royal Yacht Britannia is berthed.
You can purchase a 24-hour ticket that is valid for all buses from the kiosk at Waverley Bridge, where all the tours commence.
9- Discover the Royal Yacht Britannia
Between 1953 and 1997, the Royal Yacht Britannia carried the Queen and the royal family around the world on a total of 968 voyages.
The historic ship played host to some of the world’s most famous people including Sir Winston Churchill, Boris Yeltsin, Rajiv Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
Wander through the yacht on a self-guided tour of the bridge, the yacht’s five decks, crew’s quarters, engine room and the royal quarters which include formal staterooms as well as apartments.
Most of the items on display are original pieces that are on loan from the Royal Collection.
10- Go on a spooky ghost tour
With its medieval buildings and spooky alleyways, ghost tours in Edinburgh have become part of the city’s experience.
Mary King’s Close is believed to be haunted and the tour presents a dramatic view of life in 17th century Edinburgh with a hint of the supernatural.
Blackhart Storytellers’ City of the Dead Tour provides an encounter with the Bloody MacKenzie poltergeist that lurks at the Black Mausoleum tomb in Greyfriars Cemetery and haunts the Covenanters Prison.
11- Do a Da Vinci Code tour
Since Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code hit the best-sellers list, Da Vinci Code tours have been all the rage in Edinburgh.
Featured in the novel is the 15th century Rosslyn Chapel which is located about 12 kilometres from Edinburgh.
The novel suggests that hidden at Rosslyn Chapel are religious relics from the time of Christ, which are protected by a society similar to the Knights Templar.
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Things To Do In Edinburgh With Kids
12- LOVE Gorgie Farm
If you’re looking after a break from the hustle and bustle of city life, a day out at Gorgie Farm is the perfect place to visit.
This slice of countryside in the heart of Edinburgh serves as a working farm that provides tours and workshops, making it the perfect place for kids to embrace nature.
Kids can learn about typical farm animals such as chickens and pigs and the more unusual such as bearded dragons and tortoises.
The farm also features educational gardens and sensory trails, which are perfect for exploring.
LOVE Gorgie Farm is at 51 Gorgie Road, EH11 2LA.
13- Dynamic Earth
Dynamic Earth offers an experience like no other; the chance to experience the forces of nature at their most powerful as they helped to shape our planet.
A ‘Deep Time Machine’ transports families back in time to witness the big bang, polar ice caps are within touching distance, and volcanoes hurl ash and gasses into the skies.
This fully interactive experience even lets you feel the chill in the air as you gaze upon the Aurora Borealis.
A visit here will not only provide kids with an educational experience but one they will never forget.
Dynamic Earth is at Holyrood Road, EH8 8AS.
14- The Potter Trail
A must for Harry Potter fans, the Potter Trail is an award-winning tour around Edinburgh that allows families to discover the Edinburgh that inspired JK Rowling’s magical series.
Stops on the tour include where Lord Voldemort is buried, a visit to Diagon Alley, and allows potential Hogwarts students to be sorted into houses right outside the school that inspired the most important school in the Wizarding World.
Tour guides even hands out wands to kids to get the full Harry Potter experience.
The Potter Trail begins at Greyfriars Bobby’s statue, at the junction go George IV Bridge and Candlemaker Row.
15- Camera Obscura and World of Illusions
A spectacular spot with 360 views over Edinburgh, Camera Obscura and World of Illusions is perfect for curious little ones and big kids wanting to have fun.
The museum features five floors of interactive exhibitions, including the famous Camera Obscura that allows visitors to view Edinburgh in a whole new light.
The Camera, a Victorian spectacle of technology and showmanship, offers visitors the chance to see Edinburgh’s streets from inside a dark room, with no cinematic cameras used except for a series of carefully placed lenses.
This will no doubt mesmerise both little kids and big kids.
Camera Obscura and World of Illusions is at Castlehill, Royal Mile, EH1 2ND.
16- Edinburgh Zoo
The Zoological Society of Scotland’s zoo in Edinburgh is a must-visit when in the city with kids.
The zoo spans over 82 acres with over 1000 animals to see, many of which are rare or endangered.
The zoo aims to educate kids and adults alike on the animals that call Edinburgh their home and teach them about our planet, sustainability, and our responsibility to ensure we are caring for our world.
The zoo provides interactive tours and quizzes and regular talks, and feeding opportunities with the animals.
You can even book private zookeeper days where kids can step into the shoes of zookeepers and care for some of the animals.
No visit to Edinburgh Zoo would be complete without stopping to say hello to Tian Tian and Yang Guang, Edinburgh’s famous giant panda pair.
Edinburgh Zoo is at Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, 134 Corstorphine Road, Corstorphine, EH12 6TS.
Things to do for free
17- Portobello Beach
Not far from Edinburgh’s city centre is Portobello Beach, a perfect escape for combining a city break with a beach retreat.
The beach has a stretch of golden sand and the sea is an inviting place to take a dip.
The beach itself has won many awards, making it easy to see why locals flock here in the summer months.
The local high street is packed with restaurants, cafes and independent shops. Pack a bucket and space, sit back and enjoy the sunshine.
Portobello Beach is at 1 Promenade, Portobello, EH15 2DX.
18- Edinburgh Fringe Festival
The Edinburgh Fringe is one of the famous festivals in Great Briton.
The Fringe turned 70 in 2020.
There are plenty of performances for families and kids to enjoy.
The Fringe offers daily shows, theatre performances, magic acts and dance performances to entertain.
There is lots do and see for all the family, making the Fringe a perfect festival for part of a family vacation.
While the Fringe offers some shows suited to an adult audience, there are also adaptations of children’s literature and famous faces from children’s TV to keep the little ones occupied.
Edinburgh Fringe Festival is held at various locations across Edinburgh City during August.
19- Climb Arthurs Seat
Arthur’s Seat is the highest point in Holyrood Park.
At 251m (823ft) above sea level, this ancient volcano is perfect for an afternoon stroll or scramble to the peak to gain beautiful views over the city.
Arthur’s Seat is also the site of a well-preserved fort that kids will love playing in.
On sunny days, this is the perfect place for a picnic and family games in the park.
Arthur’s Seat is at EH8 8AZ.
20- Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh has long been at the forefront of plant science and conservation worldwide.
Their mission is to ‘explore, conserve, and explain plants’ world for a better future.
The gardens certainly live up to the mission. A key landmark in Edinburgh for more than 350 years, the botanic gardens covers 70 acres of beautifully cared for gardens, glasshouses and orangeries.
The gardens feature a memorial garden to the Queen Mother, a Chinese Hillside with one of the largest Chinese plants collections outside China, and a rock garden.
Head into the iconic Victorian Glasshouse to see the 200-year-old palm tree, plants from deep inside the rainforest, and Jurassic ferns and fossils.
Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is at Arboretum Place, EH3 5NZ.
21- Cramond Island
For those seeking a break from Edinburgh’s busy cobbled streets, Cramond Island offers a welcome respite.
Cramond Island is a tidal island where visitors can only access a long walkway, formerly a World War II anti-tank barricade.
The island is a hidden gem as mostly locals flock to its grassy mounds.
A few short walks can be taken across the island’s 1/3 of a mile (0.54km) width, with the coastal stroll being one of the most popular.
Whilst on Cramond, head to the cafe or pub for a relaxing drink in the sun after a walk or look for the local ice cream van to cool off.
Cramond Island is at Cramond, EH4 6NU.
Items 12 to 21 by Sarah Holmes