I love traveling. In Europe, I enjoy historic cities and nature walks. I've visited Scotland, Ireland, and France, among other countries.
Edinburgh is an impressive city with a rich history and with lots to see and do. No matter how long you’re visiting for, you won’t run out of things to do there—from medieval castles to exhilarating hikes, there’s plenty to fill your itinerary with. But there are a few things that no visitor to Edinburgh should miss out on. Make sure that you don’t miss the following sites and activities.
Great Things to Do and Places to Visit in Edinburgh
- The Royal Mile
- Edinburgh Castle
- Holyrood Palace and Holyrood Park
- Arthur’s Seat
- St Giles’ Cathedral Edinburgh
- Scott Monument
- Scottish National Gallery
- Enjoy Art in Edinburgh
1. The Royal Mile
If you’re looking for a place to start, the Royal Mile is it. It runs between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace, meaning you can easily meander along it in between seeing those two places. The Mile is made up of a few different streets, all distinguished by beautiful buildings, shops, and restaurants. If you want to do some shopping while you’re in Edinburgh, this the place to do it.
If you’re looking for a wide selection for lunch or dinner, you’ll find many excellent pubs and restaurants along the Royal Mile. It’s also a great place to walk along and take in the atmosphere. The Mile is centuries old and includes a number of Edinburgh’s historic sites, including St Giles’ Cathedral, Mary King’s Close, and Canongate Kirk. You can very happily spend an afternoon wandering this historic stretch.
2. Edinburgh Castle
If you’re visiting Edinburgh, don’t miss the castle. Sitting atop a hill in the city’s Old Town, you’ll catch glimpses of it from all around the city. The castle is Edinburgh’s premier tourist site, and there is a lot to see. At £17.50 (adult online prices), it’s one of the city’s more expensive attractions, but you’ll get plenty of value for the ticket price.
Edinburgh Castle is more accurately described as a fortress, containing a collection of buildings contained within a stone wall. Occupation of the castle site dates back to the 2nd century, and there has been a royal castle there since at least the 12th century.
Most of the current buildings date to the 16th century or after, with a few exceptions, such as St Margaret’s Chapel, which dates all the way back to the 12th century. If you visit, you can spend hours touring the exhibits held in the castle’s different buildings. Sites include the castle’s great hall, regimental museums, royal palace (housing the crown jewels), battery, and the national war museum.
If you can, plan to be there at 1:00 pm so you can see the castle guards shoot a historic gun. And of course, leave some time to enjoy the view; from the castle walls, you can look out over all of Edinburgh.
3. Holyrood Palace and Holyrood Park
If after visiting the castle you haven’t had enough of the impressive historic building, walk down the Royal Mile to Holyrood Palace. This palace is the official Scottish residence of the British monarch. The site of the palace dates back to a 12th-century abbey. In the early 16th century, the royal family constructed a palace connected to the abbey.
In the 1560s, Mary, Queen of Scots, occupied the palace. Today, you can tour her apartments and the other State Apartments in the palace. If you’d prefer not to pay for admittance (tickets are £11.60), you can still enjoy the view of the beautiful palace exterior. Then spend some time in the surrounding Holyrood Park.
4. Arthur’s Seat
The highlight of Holyrood Park is Arthur’s Seat, the highest point in Edinburgh. If you’re lucky enough to get some nice weather during your visit, a hike up to the top of Arthur’s Seat is one of the best activities the city has to offer. Getting to the top is a relatively easy hike.
If you walk up from the east, by Dunsapie Loch, you can follow a gradual grassy slope up to the top. If you’re feeling more adventurous, you can talk Piper’s Walk, which is a steeper and quicker climb. Either way, at the top you’ll be 251 meters above the city. Arthur’s Seat provides fantastic views over all of Edinburgh.
5. St Giles’ Cathedral Edinburgh
If you appreciate historic architecture and beautiful religious buildings, make sure to add St Giles’ Cathedral to your itinerary. Dating all the way back to the late 14th century, the cathedral is an impressive Gothic building. It’s located right on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, so you won’t miss its distinctive spire as you enjoy sightseeing in the city.
History of St Giles' Cathedral
St Giles’ Cathedral is the seat of worship of the Church of Scotland within Edinburgh, and its history connects with religious worship all the way back to the 9th century. A modest parish church was established in Edinburgh around 850.
Then, in the 12th century, the Scottish royal family had a Norman Catholic church built. The current building dates back to 1385, after a fire destroyed the 12th-century church. The new church was built in the early Gothic style and underwent many additions over the following centuries. Throughout the Middle Ages, there were added numerous chapels, the lantern tower, and a clerestory.
St Giles' played a prominent role in the Scottish Reformation, the movement of Scottish churches from Catholicism to Protestantism. John Knox, the famous Protestant leader became the minister of Edinburgh at St Giles' in 1559. From the cathedral, Knox led Scotland’s religious reformation.
Today, there is a stained glass window and statue within the cathedral depicting Knox (though it wasn’t until the 17th century that St Giles' became a cathedral). In 1635, King Charles I appointed a bishop of Edinburgh, with St Giles' as the bishopric’s cathedral.
By the early 19th century, the cathedral was in poor repair. Two rounds of restoration created the cathedral that we know today, with a single open interior space, bright stained glass windows, and an impressive exterior.
St Giles' is an active place of Presbyterian worship as the High Kirk of Edinburgh. Services are open to visitors if you would like to worship while traveling. The cathedral hosts daily services every weekday at noon and five services every Sunday. There are also frequent musical performances at the church.
Every Sunday, there is a musical performance at 6:00 pm with a wide range of musical groups. St Giles' also regularly hosts concerts at lunchtime. The church is an absolutely beautiful setting in which to listen to music.
What You’ll See
St Giles' is open to visitors all year round. It is free to visit, although the church suggests a donation of £3.00 and asks for £2.00 for a photography permit if you’d like to take pictures. If you decide to visit, you’ll enjoy beautiful gothic architecture. One of the most popular parts of the cathedral is the Thistle Chapel, a chapel built in 1911 for the Order of the Thistle, Scotland’s order of chivalry.
The chapel features exquisite sculptures and carved fittings. You’ll also be able to see many bright stained glass windows that were installed beginning in the 19th century. There are many small chapels to explore, and you can spend a while taking in the serenity and beautiful architecture of the building.
6. Scott Monument
The Scott Monument is one of the most striking features of Edinburgh’s skyline, second only to the Edinburgh Castle. The monument is located in Princes Street Gardens, making it easy to visit from popular Princes Street. The Scott Monument is a Victorian Gothic structure stretching over 61 meters high. The monument was built to honor Sir Walter Scott, the famous Scottish author, and there is a statue of him at the bottom of the monument.
Rising above the author is a sandstone tower ornately decorated with figures from Scott’s novels and a series of delicate arches. The monument was built in the 1840s and is a distinct reminder of the past in comparison with the manicured grass and Princes Street Gardens and the modern shops on Princes Street.
You can simply enjoy the view of the monument from below, or for £5.00, you can climb a series of spiral staircases to the top.
7. Scottish National Gallery
If you’re at all interested in art, the Scottish National Gallery is a must-see. Set in a 19th-century neoclassical building on Edinburgh’s scenic Mound, the gallery itself is impressive to behold. The gallery also boasts a remarkable collection with 5 exhibitions and 15 additional displays. If you visit, you’ll be able to see both Scottish and international art dating from between the Renaissance and the early 20th century.
The gallery’s collection includes artwork by van Dyck, Bernini, Botticelli, Degas, El Greco, Goya, Monet, Raphael, Rembrandt, Blake, van Gogh and Velázquez, among many others. This item and the next on our list are for those who think of themselves as art lovers.
8. Enjoy Art in Edinburgh
If you’re an art lover, Edinburgh is a great city to visit. No matter what kind of art you like—be it contemporary, historic or any other kind—you’ll find a wide range of museums and galleries to visit. If you really want to take in all the art the city has to offer, you can visit Edinburgh in August, when the Edinburgh Art Festival offers over 40 different exhibits. No matter when you visit though, you’ll be impressed by Edinburgh’s artistic offerings.
Edinburgh Art Museums and Exhibitions
The best place to start for Edinburgh’s large art galleries and museums is the National Galleries of Scotland. There are three different galleries to suit different artistic tastes. The Scottish National Gallery talked about in the previous item contains two more museums.
The second museum within the National Galleries is the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. This impressive collection sits in a neo-gothic red sandstone palace and consists of 17 displays dedicated to the history of Scotland and its famous figures.
If contemporary art is more to your liking, you’ll want to visit the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. This museum encompasses two neoclassical buildings set in a beautiful park. They have a permanent collection of modern and contemporary art, including artwork from Picasso, Freud, and Matisse. There’s also a regularly rotating series of changing exhibits and a very impressive sculpture garden.
If you’re looking for more Edinburgh art museums, The Royal Scottish Academy is another excellent choice. This museum is located on the Mound, conveniently close to the National Gallery. The academy focuses on artwork by living Scottish artists and features a frequently updated rotation of exhibits.
Small Art Galleries
If you enjoy visiting art galleries, you’ll find many to tempt you in Edinburgh. Most of these galleries focus on contemporary art, and there’s an interesting mixture of paintings, sculpture, prints, performance art, and more. One of the most popular art galleries in Edinburgh is the Fruitmarket Gallery, located right next to the Waverly train station.
The gallery’s name comes from the space’s origin; it used to be a fruit and vegetable market and was bought by the Scottish Arts Council in 1974. Now it hosts engaging exhibitions from both Scottish and international contemporary artists. Another eminent gallery is Collective, located in Edinburgh Old Town on Cockburn Street.
Collective is known for showcasing the work of new artists, and they often feature experimental art. If you’re looking for something a bit more commercial, you might be interested in Arusha Gallery. This is a relatively new gallery that displays a diverse collection of contemporary art, including photography, paintings, sculptures, and more.
If you’re particularly interested in photography, Stills is Edinburgh’s gallery dedicated to photos. All in all, there are dozens of art galleries in Edinburgh, and you can likely find one that’s perfectly suited to your artistic tastes. Take some time to explore, and you never know what kind of art you might find.
Edinburgh Art Festival
If you’re set on seeing a lot of art, you should try to visit during the Edinburgh Art Festival. For the month of August every year, the entire city turns out all of the art it can. The festival organizes exhibits spread across dozens of Edinburgh’s galleries and museums. It also commissions a few brand new public art pieces every year.
The festival includes a wide range of art, so no matter what you enjoy most, you’ll likely be able to see it. There are always exhibits that focus on the work of historic masters. There’s also a wide selection of modern and contemporary art from both Scottish and international artists.
The festival organizers make an effort to include artwork from emerging artists, so it’s a great opportunity to discover a new, up-and-coming artist whose work you love. In addition to the many exhibits, the festival organizes a large number of events, including performance pieces, films, plays, dance, artist talks, and guided tours.
There’s a lot to do and a lot to see, and there’s also a massive number of artists and art fans visiting the city. This means that if you’re an art lover, it’s a great time to be in Edinburgh.
© 2019 Sam Shepards
Sam Shepards (author) from Europe on August 11, 2019:
Thank you for the comments, nice to see most people who comment here have been there.
Enjoy your Sunday!
Lorna Lamon on August 11, 2019:
Great article. I always enjoy visiting Edinburgh and was lucky to call this beautiful city home for four years when I studied at Edinburgh Uni.
Liz Westwood from UK on August 10, 2019:
I wish I had read this before my last visit to Edinburgh. It would have helped organise our family visit there.I recall as a child being taken down the Royal Mile and spending an evening at the Tattoo.
Poppy from Enoshima, Japan on August 10, 2019:
Edinburgh is a beautiful city. I really enjoyed the National Gallery when I went last August.
Maxwell Kamlongera on August 10, 2019:
Great article, I have a friend that lived in Edinburgh for two years and he loved it. I, personally, would love to visit the the castle and it's nice to see it's a spot you would recommend.