Known as one of the most picturesque cities in Great Britain – where history and architecture merge seamlessly with the modern – it’s no wonder that Edinburgh is the second most visited city in the UK after London.
With its cobble-strewn, deeply atmospheric old town, and the gracefully conceived ‘New Town’, Edinburgh has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe; with tourists coming from all over the world to experience the wonders of the beautiful Scottish city.
With there being so much to see during your visit to Edinburgh, we thought we’d pull together a little guide on some of the best things to do in the city.
When to visit Edinburgh
Edinburgh is a city that you can visit all year round – there’s always something going on so you’re spoilt for choice – but we can safely pick out three times when it’s worth popping over the border.
Edinburgh Festival Fringe, August – The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the single biggest celebration of arts and culture on the planet. Welcoming an explosion of creative energy from around the world – with over 50,000 performances across 300 venues, from big names in the world of entertainment to unknown artists looking to build their careers – the festival caters for everyone.
Christmas Markets, middle of November until the start of January – Christmas is always a spectacular occasion. But seeing it in the picturesque setting that is Edinburgh, it really becomes something quite special. Suited for the young and the old, the Christmas Markets bring the festive spirit to life with a wealth of stalls full of festive foods and goods to peruse, thrilling rides, and plenty of activities for everyone.
Hogmanay, 30th December – 1st January – We’ve all heard about London, New York and Sydney’s New Year’s celebrations, but Hogmanay might just be one of the most underrated of them all. This three-day celebration truly is something to shout about – with torchlight processions through the heart of Old Town, and an epic street party – just think carnival in Rio, but where it’s freezing cold and at night. This year they even have Mark Ronson on the decks to make sure it really is a New Year’s to remember.
Where to stay
Accommodation in Edinburgh isn’t cheap, especially if you’re there when there’s a big event on. Prices can actually double, if not triple, so if you’re not interested in attending one of their big festivals, avoid planning your visit for the same time and you’ll be sure to save a small penny.
If you’re looking to stay fairly central than the Royal Mile is the essential starting point for any visitor to the city. While hotels can be expensive there are plenty of Airbnb’s just off the mile, giving you the perfect location, just not the same price tag.
Fancy splurging? Look no further than The Balmoral. There’s no competition in terms of the best hotel in Edinburgh; with its award-winning spa, Michelin-starred restaurant and great whisky bars, it might come at a price, but if you have the cash, it’s an experience that’ll last a lifetime.
For something a bit different, try The Witchery by the castle. Located at the gates of the Castle, sits this intimate, Gothic hotel. The rooms are luxurious, romantic and eccentric – think candlelit, wood panelling and plenty of velvet – but they do come with a bit of a price tag.
What to do in the day
- Revisit history at Edinburgh Castle – You simply couldn’t travel to Edinburgh and not visit easily the most recognisable landmark in Edinburgh, sitting atop a volcanic peak and dominating the city skyline to create some stellar photos. The castle does get rather busy, so it’s best to head there first thing in the morning, and we’d also recommend pre-booking a ticket with fast-track entry so you can skip the ticket lines. You’ll also save a few quid from the walk-up entry prices.
- Quench your thirst at the Scotch Whisky Experience – Scotland and whisky go hand-in-hand, so this should be high on your agenda to get a real authentic feel for the city. Catering to the masses there are a variety of tour options, masterclasses, training sessions, or you can opt to enjoy some food and whisky at the restaurant.
- Climb Arthur’s Seat – One of the best things about Edinburgh is that there are loads of parks. Holyrood Park is home to the iconic Arthur’s Seat. If you fancy a short but hilly hike then the trek up to the towering remnants of an extinct volcano, which is believed to have formed part of the legendary tales of King Arthur, will give you some of the best views of the city and create some amazing photos for ‘The Gram’.
- Visit Edinburgh Zoo – If you fancy checking out Edinburgh’s residents of the non-human variety, then Edinburgh Zoo is a great shout. Ideal for families wanting to get up close to all the animals, including the super-rare giant pandas, penguins and tigers, the zoo has loads of great options to make a proper day out, and help you make the most for your money with heaps of educational talks, events and activities.
- Get spooked at the Edinburgh Dungeons – Often voted and ranked as one of the city’s top attractions, if you fancy something a little bit spooky then make sure to put a trip to the Edinburgh Dungeons on your itinerary. An immersive retelling of Scotland’s history, bypassing the joyous times and skipping straight into the dark and gruesome days of the plague, cannibals murder and witches. Probably not ideal for those that scare easily or children who are under 8, and make sure you book beforehand to avoid long queues.
What to do at night
- Join an Edinburgh ghosts and ghouls walking tour – Edinburgh is known for its dark and bloody past, so why not join a walking tour and descend through the haunted Blair Street underground vaults?
- Have a barrel of laughs at The Stand – Labelled as the leading light of the Scottish comedy scene, The Stand will always deliver an evening filled with side-splitting laughter. Known for hosting a variety of old hands such as Dylan Moran practising his new material, to the new kids on the block getting their first shot in the comedic world.
- Catch a show at one of Edinburgh’s many theatres – While it might not be the West End, you won’t be short on finding a show you’ll love. With theatre big hitters, The Lion King and Mamma Mia in town, Edinburgh has a great variety of shows being played throughout the year dotted around the city centre. You’ll be hard pushed not to find a show that doesn’t take your fancy.
- Head for a night on the town – With thousands of university students calling this city home and oodles of tourists visiting each year, it comes as no surprise that nightlife in Edinburgh is another reason to love the city. With its eclectic mix of hip-hop, techno, soul and jazz, Edinburgh hits the marks for all music lovers of all genres. Some of the best places to go for a night out are Cabaret Voltaire, Shanghai Club, and Why not; a night out at any of these is sure to get you on your feet and having a great time.
- Join the Old Town Bar Crawl – Whilst Edinburgh is just as busy by night as by day, you won’t see the crowds as they’ll be disappearing down the alleys discovering some of the best pubs in Edinburgh. It’s easy to get wrapped up and just stick to one pub, so we’d highly recommend joining the Old Town Bar Crawl. They’ll take you from live music venues to traditional pubs, an underground club and cocktail bars, promising a night you’ll never forget – and it’s super-cheap too.
Where to eat in Edinburgh
- Spoon – People often say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so you need to make sure you get a good meal to set you up for a day of exploring the city. And Spoon is just the place. Not only is the food amazing, but it’s actually one of the famous Edinburgh Harry Potter Cafés, with J.K Rowling penning much of The Philosopher’s stone whilst watching the city move by through the huge upstairs windows.
- Ondine – If you’re in Edinburgh for a special occasion and want to splash out, then Ondine – based in the heart of the historic city – is the perfect spot for you. Described by many as the seafood mecca, with its simple yet refined Scottish seafood experience, it really delivers a dining experience that’s impossible to forget.
- El Cartel – Plenty of flavour and amazing dishes. El Cartel brings authentic Mexican street food to life in an intimate and exciting environment. Though small, this little Mexicana cantina sure delivers a punch, with its flavoursome dishes, banging playlist and great service, all at a great price. El Cartel is a great stop for a quick but tasty bite to eat.
- The Fishmarket – This upmarket fish and chip shop overlooking Newhaven Harbour might be a 15 minute drive from the city centre, but is worth a visit. Not only is the fish straight from the sea, but the Fishmarket is a joint venture with chef-patron of one of Edinburgh’s famous restaurants, Ondine. And with a menu that focuses on sustainable, local fish at a fair price, we’d say the drive is definitely worth it.
- The Voyage of Buck – Edinburgh is famous for its pubs and The Voyage of Buck, a stylishly converted pub, not only serves up some of the best cocktails in all of Scotland, but the food menu is the kind that you go there just wanting one course but end up having three because it just all sounds so good!
So, there you have it…all the best things to do in Edinburgh in one place! We hope you’ll have a fun-filled stay whilst you’re visiting.
If you’re planning a road trip to Edinburgh and are on a tight budget, have a look at our guide to planning a road trip on a budget. You never know, it might give you a few tips on how you can save a bit of cash to spend when you arrive.