Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh is steeped in history and plays host to a variety of vibrant festivals throughout the year. With so much going on there is no shortage of things to do in Edinburgh.
Whatever the weather, here are some of our favourite things to do in Edinburgh.
1. Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle is the city’s big tourist attraction. Built on top of an extinct volcano, its elevated position means this historic fortress dominates the skyline of the city. Take a guided tour or hire an audio guide to help get your bearings. There are a lot of grand spaces and exhibitions to explore. Be sure to see the Scottish Crown Jewels and The Stone of Destiny. Also, leave time to check out the incredible panoramic views of the city from the Argyle Battery.
After your tour, pay a visit to the castle’s traditional tea room. Here, you can sit back and relax with some traditional homemade scones smothered with jam and clotted cream.
Tip: Plan your visit to coincide with one of the castle’s many actor-led historical events. The old stone walls really come to life when Mary, Queen of Scots shows you around. She’ll also tell you what life is like at her court here in Edinburgh Castle.
2. Ramble the Royal Mile
Without a doubt, one of the best ways to explore Edinburgh is on foot. The city is compact, so you can explore plenty by just walking around. One of the most popular areas is The Royal Mile. This 1.81km collection of historic streets in the Old Town runs from the Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
The Royal Mile offers a leisurely and fascinating stroll through history, souvenir shops, and street performers. You’ll also take in the Scottish Parliament Building, Canongate Kirk, and St. Giles’ Cathedral. There’s also some of the best eating and drinking spots in the city.
Tip: Treat yourself to swanky afternoon tea in Colonnades, which is situated in the Signet Library, beside St Giles’ Cathedral. The glamorous tearoom is a sensational setting to dine on seasonal sandwiches, savouries, sweets and a variety of flavours of tea served on silver stands.
Need more inspiration? Watch our 24-hour video guide to Edinburgh.
3. Edinburgh pub crawl
Whet your whistle in one of Edinburgh’s many pubs. You can join a walking tour or pub tour or just do your own. The Royal Mile is packed full of pubs and you can just start at one end and work your way along. Edinburgh is famous for its whisky and there are plenty of malts on offer no matter what watering hole you choose. On cold days, order a hot toddy (hot whisky), which is perfect for thawing you out. Just remember to drink responsibly.
However, Edinburgh’s pubs are not just about the booze. Even if you don’t drink alcohol you can still enjoy the history and quirkiness of the city’s bars. The some of the more interesting pubs in Edinburgh include The “Oxford” Bar, which is a favourite of Ian Rankin’s fictional Detective Inspector John Rebus.
The Sheep Heid Inn, established in 1360, is Scotland’s oldest public house and has seen numerous visits from Scottish and British monarchs through the centuries. The pub is also home to a Victorian skittle alley built in 1882. If you want to play a game of skittles be sure to book early as this place is quite popular.
4. Real Mary King’s Close
A ten-minute walk from Edinburgh Castle, across from the magnificent St Giles Cathedral is one of Edinburgh’s more quirky attractions. A visit to the Real Mary King’s Close is a journey back in time. It is a tour around Edinburgh’s only preserved 17th-century street, which is actually underground. Mary King’s Close used to be streets where people lived, but have since been completely built over, leaving them intact – just as they were hundreds of years ago.
This one-hour tour follows in the footsteps of former residents as you explore the rooms, streets and spaces underneath the famous Royal Mile – a unique glimpse into the city’s past. The tour guide stays in character throughout and you learn about Edinburgh’s rich and varied history and the devastation wreaked by the Black Death, which, in 1645, left tens of thousands of people dead.
5. Edinburgh Fringe Festival
Every August this festival comes to Edinburgh, bringing with it the world’s best performers: whether they be musicians, comedians, dancers, gymnasts, poets, you name it. All the arts are respected, and the most difficult part is choosing which shows to see first. The EdFringe website is kept up to date with all shows and times.
Opening times: Every August 1st – 31st
Location: Locations throughout the city
Price: Shows start from free admission, but vary depending on the act.
6. Scottish National Gallery
First founded in 1819, this gallery has some of the best artwork in Scotland. It’s where you can find the Scottish national collection of fine art, as well as contemporary exhibits by Louise Hopkins, Tessa Lynch and Pete Horobin. Shows change regularly to include both Scottish and international artists.
Opening times: Fri – Wed 9am – 5pm, Thu 9am – 7pm Location: The Mound, Edinburgh EH2 2EL Price: €12 for adults, €10 for children.
7. Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh
One too many fish & chip suppers or whisky distilleries might have you feeling rounder in Scotland, but this short hike up Arthur’s Seat is rewarding in more ways than one. After the 2 hour ascent, you’ll have a view of the city from the summit. Just wrap up warm and make a beeline for hot chocolates after!
8. Royal Botanical Gardens
Admittedly Edinburgh has as many sunny days as Ireland, but when summer does arrive there’s no better place to be than under a tree in the Botanical Gardens. Punters take to the grass with picnics, beach towels and speakers, and if it does turn rainy, the greenhouse and Terrace Cafe make mighty shelters.
Opening times: Mon 1pm – 8pm, Tues to Sun 9am – 4pm Location: Arboretum Pl, Edinburgh EH3 5NZ Price: €6.50 for adults, €5.50 for children. RBGE Members admitted free of charge.
9. St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh
You don’t even need to enter to appreciate the Gothic architecture of this twelfth century cathedral. In the 900 years of it’s use, Mary Queen of Scots has popped in, it’s been used as a collegiate church, used by both Roman Catholics and Protestants, and presbyterian services are still held in the church today – check the website for more information.
Opening times: Mon to Sat 9am-5pm, Sun 1pm – 5pm Location: High St, Edinburgh EH1 1RE Price: Free
10. Pet Greyfriars Bobby
Greyfriars Bobby is a very good dog in Edinburgh who, for 14 years, guarded his masters grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard. The loyal dog died himself in 1872 and he too is now buried in Kirkyard. You can take a tour of the graveyard and learn more about this heart-warming tale. You can also visit the statue of Greyfriars Bobby which is outside “Bobby’s Bar”.
Tip: Some people rub his nose for good luck, but it is now requested that you do so gently, as it has had to be restored twice.
11. Holyrood Palace & Park
Holyrood Palace is the official residence of the Queen in Scotland. However, as she’s not here all the time, you can still squeeze in a tour around the royal rooms and state apartments. You can also tour the twelfth century abbey and palatial park next to the palace. Plan for an entire day out here, it’s just outside of the city but open top bus tours and trains stop nearby.
Opening times: 9.30am – 6pm Location: Canongate, Edinburgh EH8 8DX Price: €12.50 for adults, €7.50 for children.
12. Camera Obscura and World of Illusions
Seeing is not believing. Get your camera ready for a round of puzzling poses in mirror mazes, optical illusions and a moving panorama of Edinburgh’s rooftops. This is also an excellent thing to do in Edinburgh in winter, as it’s all-weather!
Opening times: 9am – 10pm during summer, 9am – 6pm during winter. Location: 549 Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2ND. Price: €15 for adults, €11 for children.
13. New Year’s in Edinburgh
Edinburgh is one of the best places in the world to celebrate the New Year. Hogmanay is the Scottish word for the last day of the year or New Year’s Eve. Edinburgh’s Hogmanay takes place throughout the city centre where thousands of people take to the city’s streets, parks and pubs to celebrate. The official Hogmanay festivities usually begin around 30th December and continue until New Year’s Day. The main event itself is New Year’s Eve where plenty of organised events take place and fireworks light up the night sky.
Tip: Hogmanay gatherings often end with a rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” – a poem by Robert Burns set to folk music. Make sure you learn the words beforehand, so you can sing along with the crowds.
14. Ceilidh under the Castle
If you want to experience the more traditional side of Edinburgh, get yourself a ticket to the Hogmanay Ceilidh under the Castle. Here you can jig, fling or be flung around the dance floor in the historical setting of Edinburgh Castle. A full ceilidh band will be in action and you’ll get to sample plenty of local food and drink. Kilts are optional, but there will be plenty of people wearing them.
Tip: You should book ticketed Hogmanay events well in advance. However, you can still enjoy some Hogmanay events without tickets. You can also watch the firework displays for free from a number of places within the city.
Climate in Edinburgh
Edinburgh has a temperate maritime climate, with mild summers and cold but humid winters. In the summer, temperatures average 15° and in the winter temperatures average around 6° with plenty of rain. The cold temperatures can last into March, but April brings in milder weather. You have a chance to experience all four seasons in one day in Edinburgh, so pack a raincoat and umbrella.
When to go to Edinburgh
In terms of weather, the best time to visit Edinburgh is June through August. However, this is also the Edinburgh’s busiest time for tourism, especially in August when festivals fill up the calendar. This means accommodation is more expensive too.
To avoid spending a small fortune, the best time to visit is in the winter months (November to March). The exception to this is during Edinburgh’s Hogmanay New Year’s celebrations. Spring and early autumn are the sweet spots with relatively mild weather, fewer crowds and cheaper accommodation options.
Tip: If you are visiting Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival or Hogmanay you should book your flights and accommodation well in advance.
Flying to Edinburgh
You can fly direct to Edinburgh from Cork, Dublin, Knock and Shannon airports. Edinburgh Airport is just 30 minutes away from the centre by public transport. There are buses and taxis available 24 hours a day. To fly to Edinburgh from Donegal or Kerry, you can get connecting flights from Ireland or the UK.