Image: Visit Scotland / Kenny Lam
Edinburgh is truly a world city with a huge range of attractions to appeal to any discerning holidaymaker. Among many other accolades, its old town and new town together are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its location is no less worthy of attention, situated on the shore of the Firth of Forth against the impressive backdrop of the Pentland Hills.
Edinburgh is the seat of the Scottish parliament and the official residence of the monarch, but it's not just the centre of political power - it's a centre of education, finance, history and culture of global significance. It's no surprise that Edinburgh attracts around 5 million visitors a year, and there are many reasons they choose to keep on coming, and why people have chosen to settle there since the Stone Age.
There are enough attractions in Ediburgh to keep you busy for a lifetime, so we can't possibly purport to cover them in a single blog. Here are some of our favourite things to do in Edinburgh to get you started. We very much hope you'll discover more when you visit (we'd love to hear your recommendations and experiences) and that you'll be enticed to keep on coming back!
Culture & History
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Where do we start?
Edinburgh's cultural and historical attractions are numerous and world class. From the famous to the hidden gems, there's something for everyone.
Our main advice is to pace yourself...you can always come back!
Edinburgh Castle will catch your attention whether you or not you choose to visit it (and we certainly recommend you do!). Sitting atop Castle Hill with incredible views across the city, it's easy to see why the site appealed to the builders of the original hill fort here. The walk to the castle will get your blood pumping and help you orient yourself among the mix of old and new that is Edinburgh's skyline. The castle itself dates back to the Iron Age, making it one of the oldest fortified places in Europe, and it has been awash with excitement ever since. For best prices and guaranteed entry, book your tickets online.
The National Museum of Scotland has galleries and exhibitions covering Scottish history & archaeology, nature, science & technology, world cultures, fashion, art and design, so there's more than enough to keep you busy for hours. Check their website to find out which exhibitions are happening while you are there. If you have time, make sure you take in the view from their amazing rooftop terrace during your visit.
To discover Edinburgh's hidden history, visit Real Mary King's Close, Edinburgh's only preserved 17th century street, and let this immersive experience take you on a journey back in time. This should whet your appetite nicely to explore more of Edinburgh's old town, which has plenty of beautiful buildings, traditional pubs and eateries and weird and wonderful shops.
The spectacular Palace of Holyrood House can be found at the end of the famous Royal Mile. Follow in the footsteps of Mary, Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie to explore the extensive collection of artworks, artefacts and stories that make this place special.
If it's art you enjoy, the Scottish National Gallery should be next on your list. Housing one of the best collections in the world from the beginning of the Renaissance to the early 20th century, it's right in the heart of Edinburgh. Best of all, it's completely free to visit.
Founded in 1124, St Giles' Cathedral, the High Kirk of Edinburgh, can be visited and admired for its peaceful atmosphere and awe-inspiring architecture. Complement and contrast this with a wander around the ruins of Holyrood Abbey, built in 1128.
For a special and informative family activity, we recommend the delightful Museum of Childhood, featuring some of the toys, games, books, and dolls that have delighted children from the 1800s until the present day. The five galleries offer a trip down memory lane and fun for all ages.
Places to Eat & Drink
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Edinburgh is full of incredible eateries! You'll want to stay a few days just to have a chance to sample as many of them as possible. You will no doubt discover your own favourites on your trip - that's part of the fun! If you'd like a couple of pointers to get you started, here are our recommendations.
There are FOUR Michelin-starred restaurants in the city - The Kitchin, Martin Wishart, 21212 and Number One at the Balmoral. All of these are wonderful places to spend the evening, with food to suit the most special of occasions.
Elsewhere in Edinburgh, the standard and variety of restaurants is really impressive, especially given the city's size. We're particular fans of Aizle, where there's a six-course tasting menu using seasonal ingredients. Situated in a stunning warehouse right near the castle, Timberyard has a sustainable ethos and also uses seasonal produce. Another seasonal favourite is trendy Fhior, focused on storytelling and Scottish produce. The exquisitely-decorated and atmospheric restaurant at the Witchery never fails to raise a smile, and the food is equally special.
For those looking for something a little more casual, or perhaps a quick lunchtime stop, try the incredible cheeseboards and sharing platters at Pickles, pick up an excellent and reasonably-priced pizza at Origano in Leith, or sample the Vietnamese delights on offer at Saboteur. Small but perfectly-formed bistro The Little Chartroom is another family-run gem.
If you're in the mood for excellent cakes, pop into Lovecrumbs lifestyle store and cafe, or if you'd like an experience with your sweet treat take a tour and pick up some sustenance at the Chocolatarium.
Afternoon tea in Edinburgh is a wonderful experience - there are loads of places to choose from! We particularly love Colonnades at the Signet Library, Mimi's Bakehouse (branches in Corstophine and Leith - excellent for dietaries including vegan and gluten free), and for that extra special occasion, try Palm Court at the Balmoral.
Nature & Green Spaces
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Edinburgh's stunning architecture is a huge draw for the millions of visitors each year, but the city also has plenty of green space to relax and connect with nature. The nearby Pentland Hills, around 45 minutes' drive away, make for an excellent day trip if you want to feel further from the hustle and bustle.
The Royal Botanic Gardens is home to a spectacular 350-year-old collection and includes 10 glasshouses, making it a wonderful place to visit whatever the Scottish weather decides to throw at you!
There are a number of lovely, sociable green spaces in the heart of the city where you can sit and watch the world go by or enjoy reading a book - a temporary escape from the busy shopping streets and city traffic. Our favourites include St Andrew Square Garden, the exquisitely-landscaped Prince's Street Garden and the very special Johnston Terrace Garden, which is accessible by prior arrangement and during the Edinburgh Fringe.
Edinburgh Zoo is a great place to visit in the heart of the city. There are indoor and outdoor areas and the array of animals will keep guests of all ages entertained and engaged. Check out their live pandacam (or penguincam if you prefer!), to get to know the residents before you visit.
Portobello Beach, just a few miles from the city centre, is a wonderful place to take a stroll if the weather is nice. Various bars and cafes line the seafront, and the two miles of sand with a backdrop of attractive Georgian and Victorian buildings make this a very pleasant location.
If you'd like to get out on the water, we recommend Forth Tours for Queensferry sightseeing cruises.
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The shopaholics among you won't be disappointed with Edinburgh - from high street to independent boutique to top-end luxury, the full range of options is available within easy reach. There are many comprehensive guides to shopping in Edinburgh available online already, such as this one and this one, so we don't wish to duplicate, but here are a few of our favourite shopping destinations that you might like to try.
No article about Edinburgh is complete without reference to the famous Royal Mile, which connects the old town with the castle and runs through the heart of the city. A mix of attractions, historical sights and eateries enhances the appeal of this area. The lively Grassmarket is close by, full of independent merchants and perhaps as lively now as it was back when it was a medieval horse and cattle market, but with a very different vibe!
One of the most photographed (and instagrammed!) places in Edinburgh, Victoria Street is a beautiful place to take a walk. Designed by Thomas Hamilton, the Old Flemish style buildings are now colourfully painted and full of shops and places to dine and drink.
Edinburgh's independent bookshops are easy places to while away hours (or days!) and discover hidden gems. There are too many to list and the top spot is hotly-contested, but a few of our favourites are Golden Hare, the Portobello Bookshop, Lighthouse Books, Typewronger Books and Toppings.
In the new town, Prince's Street draws in shoppers with its diverse mix of department stores (including Harvey Nichols and Jenners) and international high street brands.
Image: Unsplash / Evy Prentice
Strolling along Edinburgh's bustling streets is great, but for a bird's eye view of the city there are a few special places you can go.
The most famous viewpoint in Edinburgh is undoubtedly Arthur's Seat. Situated in Holyrood Park, this ancient volcano towers 251m above the city and offers excellent views in (almost) all weathers. Climbing from the city centre all the way to the top and back will take around 2 hours and it's quite steep and rocky in places, but there are easier low-level options if you'd prefer to take a less strenuous route while still enjoying the views.
Another excellent place for panoramic views of Edinburgh is Calton Hill, which has the added bonus of some Greek-style monuments to explore whilst you're up there.
Edinburgh Castle needs to be visited for various reasons, but one of these is definitely the views from the ramparts.
The quirky Camera Obscura offers 360-degree views from its rooftop terrace, and you can get a closer look using the telescopes (free of charge). This is well worth a visit in any case, as there are over 100 interactive exhibits spread over five floors, including light shows and optical illusions.
A rooftop tour of St Giles' Cathedral also offers unrivalled views across Edinburgh's old town, as well as giving you a change to look at the impressive interior of the clock tower. Check their website to find out tour times and dates they are running.
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At the Tartan Road, we love Scotland whatever the season, and we love encouraging people to visit outside the traditional 'peak' season of the summer months. For this article, therefore, we've focused on the things that make Edinburgh incredible whatever date and time of year you visit. But it would be remiss of us to finish an article on Scotland's capital without mentioning the world-famous special events that take place in the city each year.
For visits to Edinburgh during these periods, you'll need to plan well in advance and accommodation will be considerably more expensive than normal due to increased demand - it's perfectly doable, it just requires some foresight. Let us know if you'd like some help arranging a holiday in Scotland to coincide with one of Edinburgh's special events.
The highlight of the calendar is the Edinburgh International Festival, a celebration of the performing arts - dance, opera, music and theatre - drawing performers and audiences from all over the world. This takes place during the month of August. Affectionately known as theFringe, a parallel spectacle offers an array of live comedy, theatre and musical performances. From humble beginnings with just eight acts, the Fringe is now a world-famous focal point for the expression of creative freedom.
Christmas markets also take place in Edinburgh from November to January to get everyone in the festive mood. Situated between Princes Street and Market Street, the array of stalls and attractions brings some much-needed warmth and light to the chilly streets at this time of year.
The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo takes place during August on the Esplanade at Edinburgh Castle, with spectacular events celebrating Scottish military traditions.
Edinburgh is well known for its unique celebrations to make the start of each new year. The city's Hogmanay & fireworks display takes place from 30 December to 1 January.
Getting to Edinburgh
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Many of our guests begin or end their self-drive tour of Scotland in Edinburgh. Its international aiport serves a wide range of destinations and it is a well-connected city by road and public transport.
Parking in the city centre is possible but many prefer to avoid driving right into the city, which can be busy and challenging at times. There are six reasonably-priced park and ride options at various points around the city of Edinburgh, including Hermiston and Ingliston, which we recommend if you are going to be spending a couple of days in the city.
Edinburgh is well-served by local and long-distance trains and its extensive tram network is an excellent and environmentally-friendly way to get around.
For self-drive guests who prefer to collect their car after their time in Edinburgh (or those who drop off their car before visiting), airport transfers into the city are easy to arrange and reasonably-priced - just let us know what would suit you best and we'll arrange it for you. The Airlink 24/7 shuttle bus is another quick and cost-effective way to get from the airport into the city.