Just Get to the Point! What Are the Most Important Things to Do in Edinburgh?
If you leave Edinburgh saying to yourself, ‘I feel I’ve missed out on something, there are so many things to do in Edinburgh,’ you will not be the first person to say this.
There are so many fascinating buildings, museums, streets, statues, monuments, galleries, pubs and this sentence is getting too long…to visit on a week-long trip never mind a short break.
But fear not! I know many people from Edinburgh who haven’t been to half of the attractions I’m going to tell you about – so maybe they will also learn something!
Perhaps you will disagree with the top ten highlights I have chosen…each to his own, I say!
I stand by my original proclamation that Edinburgh is best appreciated by simply wandering around, leisurely taking in the attractions that present themselves on practically every street corner.
The majority of what are considered to be Edinburgh’s top tourist attractions are within walking distance of each other and are generally situated on a natural walking route.
A visit to Edinburgh Castle will naturally lead to a wander down the Royal Mile (High Street) towards the Scottish Parliament, Holyrood Palace and Arthur’s Seat.
The excellent ghost tours also take place in and around the Royal Mile so six of the top ten tourist attractions we will look at are within half an hour’s walking distance of each other.
From the Royal Mile, the National Museum of Scotland is only a two minute walk down George IV Bridge. Calton Hill with its knock-out views of the city centre and infamous National Monument is a two minute walk from Princes Street and about as central as you can get!
So it’s true, there are so many things to do in Edinburgh, but you can get to most of them very quickly and easily.
The Royal Yacht Britannia and Edinburgh Zoo are but a ten minute bus ride from the city centre. Before you ask, yes, I will tell you what bus to catch!
It as simple as this…no time spent in Edinburgh is complete without a trip to Edinburgh Castle.
It’s Edinburgh’s and Scotland’s number one tourist attraction and yes, it is all that.
Not only does the Castle dominate the Edinburgh skyline, it dominates the history of the city. A royal castle since at least the 12th century, this towering edifice, which sits atop volcanic rock, has been besieged, ruined and rebuilt on several occasions. Edinburgh Castle was a fortification of strategic importance through the Scottish Wars of Independence and the Jacobite Uprising and has played therefore as important a role in Scottish history as any man or woman.
Something that will surprise most people, there is a lot more to do at Edinburgh Castle than just wander around the grounds feeling royal. The Castle houses the crown jewels of Scotland, a medieval cannon of enormous size and range named Mons Meg, the oldest building in Edinburgh St Margaret’s Chapel, the National War Museum and the Stone of Destiny, the coronation seat of ancient Scottish kings.
Edinburgh Castle is open all year round except December 25th and 26th. From April 1st to September 30th the castle is open from 9.30am to 6pm and from October 1st to March 31st the opening hours are 9.30am to 5pm. In order to see the highlights of Edinburgh Castle at a leisurely pace, I would expect to spend between two and three hours there.
I would like to give you two tips regarding Edinburgh Castle. Firstly, due to its intense popularity, I recommend booking your tickets in advance on the official website. Once you have booked your tickets you can collect them from the ticket machines in front of the castle. Then you can grin smugly at the queues of people as you walk past!
I would also recommend visiting the castle late in the afternoon. Although I can’t guarantee this, Edinburgh Castle is often at its quietest later in the day. If you are keen on photography you will find that the sun will be behind you later in the day enabling you to take back-lit photos of the city centre and Arthur’s Seat.
The Royal Mile
Edinburgh’s most famous street, The Royal Mile or High Street, starts at the entrance to Edinburgh Castle and ends at Holyrood Palace. This street, which is effectively the spine of the old town, slopes downhill from the Castle and is about a mile long, as the name would suggest.
Although there are numerous attractions on the Royal Mile, in my opinion, the almost tangible buzz hanging in the air is what makes this street so special. Let’s put it this way….on the Royal Mile you are left in no doubt whatsoever as to what country you are in!
Souvenir shops, kilt-hire stores, whisky specialists, traditional pubs and cafes, hostels and hotels are everywhere you turn yet somehow manage to avoid appearing kitsch. It’s the perfect place to exercise your neck muscles and rest your vocal chords as you simply gaze around and wander to sound of traditional Scottish music emanating from almost every house number you pass.
St. Giles cathedral is roughly 100 metres from the castle on your right side as you walk downhill. Its unmistakable crown-like spire is at once impressive and fitting. In front of St. Giles cathedral is the ‘Heart of Midlothian’, a heart-shaped stone mosaic in the ground which marks the very centre of the Midlothian region in which Edinburgh is located.
Further down the mile on the left side is the John Knox house. It is often claimed that John Knox, a Scottish clergyman and leader of the protestant reformation, owned and lived in this house. In reality, Mr Knox lived in Warriston Close and probably never even visited the house in question.
While this is amusing in itself, the real reason for visiting the house should be the fine wooden gallery and hand-painted ceiling. The building itself juts out from the houses in front and with its mix of dark stone and white plaster it is very eye-catching.
As you approach the end of the Royal Mile, the street becomes noticeably narrow and less crowded. On your right you will be struck by the appearance of the distinctively modern Scottish Parliament building and the grandeur of Holyrood Palace in front of you.
Depending on how many sights you decide to take in on your way down the mile, the walk could take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. It is a walk to be savoured at a leisurely pace, soaking up the sights, sounds and atmosphere of the crown jewel of Edinburgh’s Old Town.
Holyrood Palace or the Palace of Holyroodhouse as it is often referred to is the monarch’s official residence in Scotland. This grand building stands at the foot of the Royal Mile opposite the Scottish Parliament building.
Like many of Scotland’s castles and royal residences, the palace is closely associated with Scotland’s tumultuous past. The palace has been home to numerous monarchs since the 15th century including Mary, Queen of Scots who lived at Holyrood from 1561 to 1567 and to Bonnie Prince Charlie who made the palace his headquarters during the 1745 Jacobite uprising.
Holyrood Palace is known for its impressive plasterwork ceiling, fine furnishings and Brussels tapestries. Having been home to a great number of monarchs, the palace is shaped by the varying preferences of Scotland kings and queens. Jacob de Wet’s portraits of the kings of Scotland in the Great Gallery is one of the highlights of a visit to Holyrood Palace.
The palace is open to the public whenever Queen Elizabeth II is not in residence. From November 1st to March 31st the palace is open from 9.30am to 4.30pm. In the summer from April 1st to October 31st it is open from 9.30am to 6pm and finally on August 9th the palace opens from 9.30am to 2pm.
This year the palace will be closed on the following dates for various occasions such as the Queen’s summer vacation at Holyrood and subsequent garden parties, other royal visits and of course Christmas – May 15th -June 4th, July 6th-17th, September 13th-16th, December 25th-26th.
The Scottish Parliament Building
Officially the most controversial building in Edinburgh and Scotland, the Scottish Parliament building opened its doors for the parliament’s first session on September 7th 2004.
Construction of the elaborately designed parliament began in June 1999 with a budget of around 55 million. Five challenging, costly and bitter years later the building was completed at a cost of around 414 million.
Chief architect Enric Moralles wanted the parliament to be an embodiment of the Scottish way of life incorporating elements of Scottish culture, works of art and the landscape. Scottish rock such as granite was used in the floors and walls and wood such as oak and sycamore in the furniture.
One of the key design concepts was to use the shape of upturned boats and leaves in the roof to represent the land and national identity. The building which now stands at the bottom of the Royal Mile certainly divides the nation with many labelling the parliament an abstract mess and a waste of money.
This is one of the main reasons why a visit to the Scottish Parliament is so interesting. If you are in any way interested in architecture, you will be engrossed by Enric Moralles’ concepts and execution even if you do think that the building sticks out like a sore thumb instead of being at one with its surroundings.
The hugely impressive debating chamber of the Scottish Parliament building is arranged in the form of a horseshoe to encourage consensus between members of parliament. The chamber’s most striking feature is the ceiling which is composed of laminated oak beams reaching down to create a ‘V-shape’ overhead.
Entry into the Scottish Parliament building is free and tours are also available at no cost. Opening times vary throughout the week depending on when the parliament is in session so I recommend consulting the Parliament’s official website. It is also possible to observe a parliamentary session to see our members of parliament in action!
In my opinion the most breathtaking aspect of Edinburgh’s character is the views from various points of the city. One such point is the top of Arthur’s Seat, our unavoidable extinct volcano which dominates the Edinburgh skyline no matter where you are.
If you come to Edinburgh and decide against climbing Arthur’s Seat you will be left wondering what you missed out on. It is one of the best things to do in Edinburgh.
Getting to the top will most likely involve some exertion, panting, perhaps even sweating but when you see the views and hear the multitude of accents and foreign languages around you, you’ll soon appreciate the importance of your achievement.
Arthur’s Seat looks down over the city from a height of 251 metres and can be climbed from almost every direction. However, an ideal place to start is at the Scottish Parliament next to Holyrood Palace. A path works its way up from Holyrood on to the top of the Salisbury Crags, a bank of formidable-looking cliffs that drop 46 metres straight down.
From the plateau on top of the Salisbury Crags the path slopes upwards towards the conical summit of Arthur’s Seat. The hike to the top will take close to an hour depending on your fitness levels. If you decide to conquer Arthur’s Seat during the morning, the sun should be behind you when you are looking over the city from the summit making it easier to take good photos!
The National Museum Of Scotland
The National Museum of Scotland is situated on Chambers Street, roughly a two minute walk down George IV Bridge from the Royal Mile. The National Museum is made up of two adjacent museums, the Victorian Royal Museum and the modern Museum of Scotland.
Remember – the weather isn’t always as good as it is in the photo, so the Museum of Scotland is one of the best things to do in Edinburgh on a rainy day!
Although the two museums are independent, visitors can walk freely between the museums from the inside. The Royal Museum focusses on the fields of art, technology, geology, archaeology, natural history and science whereas the National Museum, which opened in 1998, focusses exclusively on Scotland, its history, people and culture.
Those of you who like sheep and genetics will be ab le to see the stuffed body of Dolly, the first genetically engineered mammal. If you’re more into larger mammals there is an incredible whale skeleton hanging from the roof of one wing of the museum.
The Royal Museum also boasts numerous ancient Egyptian artefacts. The Royal Museum is currently undergoing a major face-lift and certain parts of the museum will be closed until 2011.
The construction of the adjacent Museum of Scotland was not quite as controversial as that of the Scottish Parliament but it was certainly a cause for discussion. Prince Charles resigned as patron of the museum due to a lack of consultation over the design of the building.
The Museum of Scotland will be of interest to Scots and foreigners alike due to its insight into the history and culture of Scotland. The museum houses a number of fascinating artefacts including flags raised at the Battle of Culloden, prehistoric jewelry and paintings and sculptures by local artists.
And the nice little bonus…..admission to the museums is free!
It’s interesting that this former place of execution should provide the best views of the immediate city centre. At least the crooks had something nice to look at in their final minutes!
At the east end of Princes Street, Calton Hill appears to rise out of nothing, providing a mysterious backdrop to the immediate city centre. A two minute walk up some steps will take you to the grassy ‘summit’ of the hill.
I have always found Calton Hill to be a fascinating place. Looking over the city centre while being surrounded by it, is quite spectacular. Couple that with a handful of interesting monuments and you have a great place for a picnic.
The first thing that strikes you as you reach the top of the steps (apart from the small cannon pointing towards you!) is what appears to be a replica of the Parthenon in Athens. The problem is, it doesn’t appear to be complete. That’s because it isn’t! The National Monument was supposed to be a replica of the Parthenon to honour Scottish soldiers who died in the Napoleonic Wars.
Construction of the National Monument was halted early due to a lack of funds and the monument is often referred to as ‘Edinburgh’s Disgrace’. Although you cannot deny the monument’s individuality in its current state!
Scottish architect William Henry Playfair was responsible for the construction of the National Monument and also the Dugald Stewart monument commemorating the Scottish philosopher Dugald Stewart which looks out from the west side of Calton Hill down Princes Street. The imposing tower situated at the highest point on Calton Hill was designed by Alexander Nasmyth and is referred to as Nelson’s Monument to honour Admiral Horatio Nelson.
A casual wander around the summit of Calton Hill will show you the many different sides of Edinburgh. Gaze out across the suburb of Leith towards the Forth estuary (remember the front cover of the Proclaimers’ album Sunshine On Leith?). Enjoy stunning views of the Scottish Parliament, Holyrood Palace and Arthur’s Seat. Observe the hustle and bustle of Princes Street from afar…
With over 600,000 visitors every year, Edinburgh Zoo is Scotland’s second most popular visitor attraction. It is also one of Scotland’s oldest visitor attractions having opened its doors in 1913.
The Zoo is situated three miles to the west of the city centre on the Lothian Buses routes 12, 26, 31 and 48 (see above) which will take you from Princes Street to the front door of Edinburgh Zoo in around 10 minutes.
Edinburgh Zoo is set on Corstorphine Hill, another one of Edinburgh’s many hills, providing very natural, attractive environment for both the animals and visitors.
Boasting over 1,000 rare and endangered animals, Edinburgh Zoo is amongst Europe’s principle conservation and research centres.
Not only does Edinburgh Zoo have an impressive collection of animals including Rhinoceros, Hippopotamus, Tigers and Lions, they also run a free hilltop safari, which is great for the kids and a number of educational shows including the Penguin Parade (that’s my favourite!).
Edinburgh Zoo is open from 9am every day of the year. From April to September the Zoo is closes at 6pm, in October and March they close an hour earlier at 5pm and then from November to February closing time is 4.30pm.
The Royal Yacht Britannia
Edinburgh was fortunate enough to be chosen as the final resting place of The Royal Yacht Britannia. Although there are few links between the Royal Yacht and Edinburgh (the Yacht was built in Clydebank near Glasgow), our city was chosen as a state-of-the-art terminal was being constructed at the same time.
The Royal Yacht transported The Queen and The Royal Family around the globe from 1953 to 1997 in order to meet foreign dignitaries and strengthen international relations. Such was the importance of the Yacht to the international reputation of The Royal Family and to the British economy, Britannia was always considered a Royal Residence alongside The Royal Family’s numerous other residences.
The Queen was always very fond of Britannia and stated that it was the only residence where she could truly relax. As she disembarked for the very last time she was seen to shed a tear in sadness.
The Lothian Buses routes 11, 22, 34, 35, and 36 (see above) will all take you from the city centre of Edinburgh to Ocean Terminal where the Royal Yacht is berthed. The tour of the Yacht gives you access to 5 decks where you can spend time in the State Apartments, the crew’s area and the engine room. You will be given a headset for the duration of the tour so you can learn about the history of Britannia, facts and figures of the Yacht and the many influential people who were entertained on board by The Royal Family.
One of the most successful racing yachts, the Bloodhound has been moored beside the Royal Yacht Britannia. As of July 2010 you will be given the opportunity to view the Royal Family’s classic racing yacht during your visit to the Royal Yacht.
Britannia is open all year round apart from Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. In April, May, June and October the first admission is at 10am and the last admission is at 4pm. In the busy months of July, August and September the Yacht is open from 9.30am and closes at 4.30pm. From November to March the opening times are 10am to 3.30pm.
Edinburgh Ghost Tours
Do you have the bottle? The nerves? The stomach for it? An Edinburgh ghost tour is a seriously eerie experience! It is also one of the most popular things to do in Edinburgh.
Reputedly one of the most haunted cities on the planet, Edinburgh has a turbulent, torturous and terrifying past. You wouldn’t think it when you look at the cheery, innocent (!) faces of the present-day locals, but Edinburgh was once a city of murderers, cannibals, grave-robbers and slave-drivers.
Below the Old Town is a series of vaults which housed cobblers and other tradesmen. Crime in the dark, damp vaults was apparently rife. It is rumoured that the famous murderers Burke and Hare caught many of their victims in the vaults and sold their bodies to organisations for medical experiments.
Mary King’s Close is a particularly famous alley below the old town which was sealed indefinitely during the Edinburgh plague. Apparently 300 residents who were infected with the plague were entombed in the close in an attempt to control the spread of the disease.
As you might imagine, with such tales of pain and suffering, tours of the vaults and Mary King’s Close are not for the faint-hearted. These places have featured on television shows covering paranormal activity. Nevertheless, if you have a thick skin, the tours are not only highly entertaining, they are also extremely interesting and very popular with the locals who wish to see a completely different, hidden side to their city.
There are a number of tours you could take. Mercat Tours are extremely popular and offer a number of different tours. They have also been awarded 5 stars by the Scottish Tourist Board for the quality of their tours. Auld Reekie is another very successful tour company. Mary King’s Close tours concentrate on that one particular alleyway which in itself has an incredible story to tell.
The tours start at various locations on the Royal Mile. It is possible to book your tour in advance by speaking to the on-street representative. As these tours are extremely popular with both locals and tourists, I highly recommend booking in advance in person or on the website.
Finding the tour representative is not difficult as they often find you! When you are walking down the Royal Mile it is impossible to miss the advertising boards and the creepy looking reps trying to attract your attention.
And don’t panic folks…as long as you stay away from the rats you won’t catch the bubonic plague!