After living in Edinburgh for 4 years, I can safely say (without a shadow of a doubt) that the city is amazing! It’s one of those places that has so much going on, so many places to see, a huge swash of history, epic bars and some incredible things to do in Edinburgh. It really is a great place to visit – or live for that matter.
I still remember my first day arriving in the city. It was one of those feelings of excitement and a few nerves if I’m honest (after all, this was my first big move from my parent’s house).
Thankfully, the nerves were unfounded and almost immediately I felt at home. Plus, truth be told, I had little time to ponder all the things to do in Edinburgh. I swear, for the first month whilst living in the city I almost went out every day exploring new parts…
Though, I’m ashamed to say I’ve still never tried the infamous fried Mars bar (yeah, that’s real Scottish food, BTW).
Anyway, I’m rambling as per usual but I wanted to share some of the very best things to do in Edinburgh on your first visit. I’m almost certain you’ll love the city and all its history.
Take a look at some of the best things to do in Edinburgh.
1.) Hike up Arthur’s Seat
Arthur’s Seat was (and still is) one of the best places for views over Edinburgh and its surrounding areas.
Something that surprised me was that Arthur’s Seat forms the largest part of the massive (extinct) volcano that once stood in Edinburgh (with the other parts being Castle Rock and Calton Hill).
Thankfully, the Volcano has long gone but the impressive mound still exists.
The hike up will take around 30 minutes (or less) and is relatively easy. Just make sure to take a coat on windy days, it can get quite blustery.
Alternatively, if you fancy seeing more of Scotland, book this incredible Scottish Highlands tour from Edinburgh. It’s a mind-blowing trip that takes in the beauty of Orkney, the Isle of Skye and the very fringes of the Northern Highlands. Plus, you’ll get to visit the Neolithic village of Skara Brae that’s so impressive to see.
It’s a multi-day tour that you can book and it’s honestly a trip of a lifetime, especially if you haven’t been to Scotland before.
2.) Find Blackness Castle
Blackness Castle is perched on the Firth of Forth and dates way back to the 15th Century (when Edinburgh was a very different place).
The castle itself is about 35 minutes from the centre of the city, so make sure you plan your day ahead and try to miss those rush-hour times (about 4-6 pm).
Once you’re here, make sure you climb the towers for some pretty impressive views across the region.
Tickets cost around £7-10 and it’s open every day from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm.
Afterwards, book yourself a table at Timberyard. It’s a gorgeous restaurant that serves up seasonal cuisine; with the menu changing each week. The food is always good and their tasting menu is a whole treat.
3.) Stroll through the Old Town
The Old Town of Edinburgh is exactly as it sounds. The old part of town!
Quite different from the New Town (around George Street) you can expect lots of cobbled streets, historic houses and picturesque little squares.
Make sure to stroll down Victoria Street (from the Royal Mile down to Grass Market) and visit some of the local boutiques and tasty restaurants.
My favourite is still the Witchery (just on the Royal Mile) which creates some of the best meals from local Scottish ingredients.
Oh, also, don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for the statue of Greyfriars Bobby (that sits on the corner of Candlemaker’s Row and George IV Bridge) that lived in the 19th Century.
It’s said that the little terrier guarded the grave of his owner for 14 years. It is one of the best things to do in Edinburgh if you want to explore some local history. The whole old town looks like something from Harry Potter and just can’t be missed.
Talking of Harry Potter, book this epic Harry Potter tour that will take you to the real grave of Tom Riddle and the spots that inspired JK Rowling in Edinburgh.
If you love Harry Potter, you need to book this tour. It’s magical.
Also, hankering for a bite to eat? Reserve a table at White Horse Oyster and Seafood on the Royal Mile. We’ve eaten here many times over the years and it’s always been incredible. The food is so delicious and the fish is always fresh.
4.) Explore Edinburgh Castle
The castle is easily one of the best things to do in Edinburgh and possibly one of the most famous castles in Scotland.
Sitting on top of that extinct volcano (I mentioned with Arthur’s Seat), Edinburgh Castle is an impressive sight to see at any time of the year.
Just be sure to book this fast-track and guided Edinburgh Castle tickets before you arrive in the city. This way, you’ll get a full explanation of the centuries of history inside the castle and see the Great Hall.
Oh, and don’t forget to listen out for the one o’clock cannon that is fired every day (except Sunday) from Edinburgh Castle itself.
It’s a tradition that goes way back to the 19th Century whereby maritime captains would set their clocks to navigate the oceans.
5.) See the views from Calton Hill
If you don’t fancy walking up to Arthur’s Seat, pop up Calton Hill that’s pretty close to the Balmoral Hotel. It’s one of the best spots for a view across the city, especially at sunset.
It is a lovely place to just sit back and enjoy the views.
Afterwards, head back into the New Town area of Edinburgh and grab a seat at Panda & Sons. This is a great little cocktail spot that’s got a speakeasy vibe and is so lovely.
6.) Explore the Georgian House Museum
The Georgian House Museum is a reconstruction of how Edinburgh’s wealthy lived during the 18th and early 19th centuries in the new part of town.
Housing collections of furniture from that period; you can see porcelain, silver, art and do not forget to look above at the chandeliers which will give you a glimpse of how affluent residents of Edinburgh once lived.
Oh yeah… and just next door at Number 6, Charlotte Square is the official residence of the First Minister for Scotland.
7.) Have a picnic in the Meadows
Having a picnic (usually on a lazy sunny Sunday) in the Meadows is possibly one of the nicest things to do in Edinburgh if you want to chill out and relax a little.
Pretty close to the University buildings, you’ll find lots of groups just chilling. It’s also a handy shortcut as it connects the city centre to the Southside suburbs, too.
8.) See the Palace of Holyrood
Holyrood Palace is the official home to the Queen whilst in Scotland and her palace of choice when visiting Edinburgh.
Perched just across from the Scottish Parliament, it’s a great place to explore and see a little slice of royal life whilst in the city.
Just be sure to book these Holyrood Palace tickets before arriving at the Royal Mile. This way, you won’t be clambering for, or stressed about getting, tickets once you arrive.
After getting inside, make sure to visit the chambers of Mary Queen of Scots, too. She once lived in the palace between the years of 1561-1567.
9.) See the famous Scottish Ballet
The Edinburgh Festival Theatre is located right in the heart of Edinburgh. The original building was opened way back in the 19th Century and is now the home to the Scottish Ballet and Scottish Opera.
Apparently, the theatre itself is haunted, by the popular illusionist The Great Lafayette perished during a fire within the building.
Though, I can’t say I’ve ever seen any ghoulish antics!
10.) Climb the Scott Monument
The Scott Monument is one of the most impressive monuments and one of the best things to do in Edinburgh for a unique perspective overlooking the castle.
Just remember, the staircase is pretty narrow, so you might wanna give this a miss if you get claustrophobic.
11.) Explore the Scottish National Gallery
The Scottish National Gallery is a Greek-columned complex in the city centre on Princes Street and one of the best things to do in Edinburgh if you’re an art lover.
Make sure to pop in the Artist Rooms, and see the Scottish Art and the surrealist collection they have inside.
Plus, It’s the perfect spot to visit if the weather takes a turn for the worse.
12.) Stay at some of the coolest hotels
Located in the heart of Edinburgh, the Balmoral Hotel is possibly one of the city’s most famous hotels. With its impressive clock in its entrance that runs (five minutes early to assist commuters in catching their train).
It’s a great spot to stay if you’re looking for a bit of luxury. Oh, and they have a gorgeous spa, too.
If you’re looking for some other gorgeous places to stay whilst exploring all the things to do in Edinburgh, make sure to check out some of the city’s cool hotels and spots, too.
Places like; the Principal Edinburgh on Charlotte Square (in the New Town), the Old Town Chambers (in the Old Town) or The Glasshouse (that’s a 5-minute walk from the Balmoral) are all incredible places to rest your head.
13.) Walk the Royal Mile
So, one of my favourite pastimes to do in Edinburgh is to walk the length of the Royal Mile. Stretching all the way from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace, the walk itself will take around 15 minutes (depending on your pace).
It’s a great way to see some of the oldest buildings in Edinburgh, but also to get a sense of how historic this city is.
Also, if you’re visiting in Summer, make sure to plan it around the Edinburgh Fringe Festival which literally swells the number of people in the city by 3 times!
It’s such a great time to visit, with hundreds of shows, and exhibitions dotted all across Edinburgh.
14.) Explore Leith
in the late 80s and 90s, Leith wasn’t really a neighbourhood in Edinburgh you’d want to explore.
Thankfully, this has all changed, with its waterfront setting a great place to spend a Friday evening of drinks and supper.
Best yet, the Queen’s boat, The Royal Yacht Britannia is moored in Leith (at Ocean Terminal) and you can hop on board and have a good nosey around.
You can even stop off for tea on the Royal Deck!
15.) Discover a hidden world under the streets
The Real Mary King’s Close is one of the most surreal things to do in Edinburgh, especially as it’s all hidden under the streets off the Royal Mile.
Based in the Old Town, the Real Mary King’s hidden system of streets and spaces that were built hundreds of years ago.
Over the last 15 years, these have now been opened to the public and you can now buy these Real Mary King’s Close tickets to head down to these hidden streets.
Once you grab these tickets, you’ll venture down into the streets with a designated guide. It is quite eerie but cool.
16.) See the views from the Camera Obscura
For me, one of the things that makes the Edinburgh Camera Obscura so special is the unparalleled views it offers down the Royal Mile.
It’s one of the best things to do in Edinburgh if you’re planning on visiting with younger children. Particularly, as there are lots to keep them entertained with optical illusions and mirrors that can keep spirits high.
17.) Stroll around the National Museum
The National Museum is probably one of my favourite things to do in Edinburgh. I can literally visit time and time again!
Once you’re here, make sure to explore the natural history section (with loads of dinosaurs and meteorites), see the iconic Grand Gallery and explore the World Cultures Gallery.
You’ll love it.