From crown jewels to extinct volcanoes and giant pandas, the Scottish capital is packed with things to see and do
Walk the length of the Royal Mile
Edinburgh’s famed mediaeval street is so named because it links two Royal residences: Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Start your tour at the former – within this massive citadel, which sits atop an extinct volcano, you can admire Scotland’s crown jewels, learn about the country’s royal history and take a peek inside the City’s oldest building, St Margaret’s Chapel. On leaving the Castle, follow the Royal Mile down the hill – stopping in at St Giles’ Cathedral (join a rooftop tour for splendid views of the Old Town) and the Museum of Childhood along the way.
At the bottom, have a look around the astonishing Scottish Parliament building before heading to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s official Scottish residence. Here you can admire the state apartments and visit the rooms of Mary, Queen of Scots. The ruined Holyrood Abbey adjoins the palace and has been the site of Royal births, marriages and coronations. If you’re still feeling energetic after all those Edinburgh tourist attractions, finish your day with a hike to the rtop of Arthur’s Seat, the City’s other extinct volcano, which overlooks Holyrood Palace – the 251m peak offers spectacular views across the City and out to the Firth of Forth.
Discover the city’s many splendid sights
Nature, fashion, science, technology and history are all on display at the National Museum of Scotland, one of the best free things to do in Edinburgh. This enormous museum, which recently added 10 new galleries, features exhibitions dedicated to Scottish history, world cultures, the natural world and more. Highlights include the charming and delightful Lewis chessmen. Across the road from the museum, don’t miss the statue of ever-loyal Greyfriars Bobby.
For a fascinating glimpse at some of the Scottish men and women who’ve helped shape our world, head to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Among the famous faces whose portraits are on display are Bonnie Prince Charlie, Robert Burns and Flora MacDonald. The Gallery also boasts a great café on the ground floor – its soups and cakes, in particular, are excellent.
Tian Tian and Yang Guang are two of Edinburgh’s brightest stars – the RZSS Edinburgh Zoo residents are the only giant pandas in the UK and are, therefore, hugely popular with visitors (indeed, viewing spaces are limited – so book your tickets in advance). The Zoo is also home to armadillos, penguins, baboons and zebras, as well as the UK’s only koalas.
Don’t forget to look underground for some of Edinburgh’s best history too. The Real Mary King’s Close is a warren of old, buried streets found underneath the city’s Royal Mile. The same as they were back in the 17th Century, the lanes are as fascinating as they are dark and decrepit.
Browse Edinburgh’s quirky independent shops
You’ll find all the usual high-street stores around Edinburgh’s celebrated Princes Street, including H&M and M&S, as well as department stores Harvey Nichols and Edinburgh institution Jenners (marvel at its magnificent architecture, both inside and out). But take time, too, to explore the lanes and streets running behind this bustling shopping thoroughfare, for more unusual shops such as The Brotique, which sells a carefully curated collection of items for gents.
The City’s real shopping gems, though, are to be found in the Grassmarket area. Here, you’ll discover some of the UK’s most eclectic specialist shops, selling everything from fossils and minerals to vintage clothing and hats. Victoria Street, which snakes from the George IV Bridge down to Grassmarket, is home to cheesemonger IJ Mellis, tweed specialist Walker Slater and the Old Town Bookshop, among others.
Tuck into a gastronomic feast
Edinburgh is a foodie’s paradise, with great cafés and restaurants seemingly on every corner – so you’ll be spoilt for choice, morning, noon and night. For dinner, it’s hard to beat The Scran & Scallie. The food at this gastropub, co-owned by chef Tom Kitchin, is simply superb… think fish pie followed by sticky toffee pudding. Booking in advance is highly recommended and, if possible, time your visit for a Sunday night when Scottish folk musicians play in the bar. Other notable restaurants include seafood specialist Ondine, veggie institution Henderson’s and French bistro Chez Jules.
If you’re just after a quick cup of coffee, try the tiny Wellington Coffee in the New Town, which serves fabulously rejuvenating java, enormous scones and hot chocolate with a big, pillowy chunk of marshmallow on the side. Alternatively, Brew Lab near the National Museum is a specialist coffee bar popular with tourists and locals alike.
Take a day trip to a nearby treasure
The transport links in and around Edinburgh are excellent, so it’s easy to venture outside the City and experience some of the riches that the surrounding area has to offer, too. Rosslyn Chapel’s claim to fame is a starring role in The Da Vinci Code, but its intricate stone carvings and fascinating history make it well worth a visit. The Chapel can get very busy, especially at the weekend, so go as early as possible to avoid the crowds and, if you can, join a talk to find out more about the many symbols featured in the architecture.
Linlithgow Palace, just 20 minutes by train from Edinburgh Waverley, was the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots, and is today a beautiful, haunting ruin full of hidden nooks and crannies. Alternatively, if you love a ride on the briny, take the train from Waverley to Dalmeny and join a boat trip along the Firth of Forth – where you can admire the iconic Forth bridges, stop off at Inchcolm Island to explore the ruined abbey and indulge in a spot of seal- and puffin-watching.
If you like the sound of what Scotland’s capital has to offer, why not take a look at our hotels in Edinburgh.