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Top things to do in Edinburgh

Only got a couple of days to get to know a new city? Our Big Five City Guides can help. We break each destination down into culture, history, dining, shopping and relaxation must-sees and dos. Barry Johnson checks in from historic Edinburgh...

When Edinburgh-born Alexander Graham Bell first phoned a friend in the 18th century, the whole world took the call.

The Scottish capital has been speaking to visitors ever since and captivating them with one of the world’s most historic urban centres.

Jubilation after the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow drove the Scots to stretch for independence from British bonds. While the bid narrowly failed, Scottish culture and identity remain powerful in their own right, and nowhere is that more on display than in the capital. Brexit may yet open a new chapter for this extraordinary city.

Here’s a city guide to the top things to do in Edinburgh.

Things to do in Edinburgh
Things to do in Edinburgh: Step back in time in the Old Town. Image: Photodune


There is quite literally no end to the historical things to do in Edinburgh, so prepare yourself for a busy holiday!

Since the Bronze Age, Scots have surveyed their kingdom from Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood Park, a hilltop fort boldly set atop a dormant volcano. It’s a 1.5-hour hike to the top to marvel at the 1000-year-old chapel or spy on pedestrians in the city beneath your feet.

Things to do in Edinburgh
Visit Holyrood Palace. Image: Bigstock

Next, pay a visit to Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official home away from home when in Scotland (it’s open daily), or take a regal stroll up the Royal Mile crowned by Edinburgh Castle, the medieval military fortress still standing strong (the oldest section dates back to the 1100s). Explore ancient relics inside, including a royal pet cemetery, a witches’ well and the Stone of Destiny, restored to Scotland 20 years ago.

Things to do in Edinburgh
Image: Bigstock

Dozens of ‘closes’ (alleyways) line the mile, each bound to the tale of a famous Scot. Brodie’s Close was the 18th century home of Deacon William Brodie, gentleman by day; cunning crook by night.

Put faces to the names of Scotland’s greatest at the National Portrait Gallery, where Mary Queen of Scots keeps an eye on the historical novelist, Sir Walter Scott and Tom Derry — jester to Queen Anne of Denmark.

Leave enough time to try to solve the riddle of Gilmerton Cove — a passageway buried beneath Edinburgh’s southern suburban streets. Archaeologists still argue over its original use, with theories labelling it everything from an aristocratic den of iniquity to a smugglers’ secret tunnel.

Things to do in Edinburgh
Things to do in Edinburgh: Edinburgh Castle


Begin your cultural itinerary of things to do In Edinburgh with one of the world’s greatest military spectacles, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which is performed throughout August in front of Edinburgh Castle. The choreographed mix of stirring music, precise marching formations, dance and contemporary special effects draws on the talents of the Commonwealth’s finest military and cultural performers for sell-out shows.

Things to do in Edinburgh
Things to do in Edinburgh: Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

While the military elite march in step at the Tattoo, civvies turn out in droves for the Festival Fringe, also in August. Former performers at the festival, now world-famous after their Fringe gigs, include Rowan Atkinson/Mr. Bean/Blackadder, Craig Ferguson and Jo Brand.

There are actually no less than six festivals running concurrently in Edinburgh in August, including the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Book your accommodation well in advance!

Things to do in Edinburgh
Things to do in Edinburgh: Enjoy the madness of the Fringe Festival. Image: Bigstock

The fun continues all year at The Edinburgh Dungeon. Enjoy classic Scottish storytelling by crooked judges and erstwhile doctors, witches and explorers, thieves and priests, as they transport you back through the centuries.


For a beverage to carry the name of a nation, it must be special. Scotch whisky certainly qualifies. Take a tour of the process involved in creating the drink that has become a cultural icon at the Scotch Whisky Experience.

While you’re there, adjourn for lunch at the Amber Restaurant and Whisky Bar for a tasting menu of seasonal local products, including haggis bon bons and raspberry cranachan, washed down with a dram of Scotch whisky.

Things to do in Edinburgh
Things to do in Edinburgh. Image courtesy of Amber Restaurant and Whisky Bar

Edinburgh’s Food Safari will introduce you to a number of other local delicacies. You’ll sample Shetland oysters, haggis at the Conan Doyle Pub and the ultimate gooey fusion of sweet and, well, sweet — the deep-fried Mars Bar.

Share a romantic meal at tiny Dubh Prais under the Royal Mile, where Aberdeen Angus beef, butterscotch terrine and a traditional Atholl Brose dessert (homemade ice cream with Drambuie and toasted oats) are all on the menu.

Things to do in Edinburgh
Image courtesy of Tower Restaurant

Or drink in the historic horizon from atop the National Museum at the Tower Restaurant. It offers chic, contemporary dining with an emphasis on fresh local produce.


Time for a spot of ye olde retail therapy in historic Grassmarket, the liveliest street in the medieval Old Town. Saturday brings a chaotic cornucopia of market stalls, street food, farmers’ produce, live music and magic shows.

London has Harrods; Edinburgh has Cranachan & Crowdie, stocked with unique Scottish wares for the canny souvenir hunter, including thistle-shaped shortbread, tweed tablet covers and highland woollen tea cosies.

Things to do in Edinburgh
Things to do in Edinburgh. Image courtesy of Cranachan & Crowdie

Scottish authors created Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Long John Silver and Robin Hood and the annual book festival reflects the city’s love of literature. There are many fabulous bookshops to indulge in around town, but the Old Town Bookshop in Grassmarket is not to be missed.


For relaxing things to do in Edinburgh, enjoy a memorable meander at Jupiter Artland, an outdoor art gallery with intriguing exhibits lining the landscape. Dozens of artists have contributed to the sculpture park, which is set amongst ancient willow, oak and juniper trees surrounding the former Jacobean manor house.

Things to do in Edinburgh
Image courtesy of Jupiter Artland. Image: Allan Morris

And finally, add a dash of adrenalin to the mix with Mad Max Adventures. Chart a course across rural terrain by quad bike or 4WD, compete in highland games, practise with a medieval bow and arrow or decipher the map on a Wildgoose treasure hunt!

Things to do in Edinburgh
Things to do in Edinburgh. Image courtesy of Mad Max Adventures

If you master caber tossing, contact the Guinness Book of Records. The current record (set by a Canadian!) is a warrior-worthy 14 tosses in three minutes.

Do you have any tips for top things to do in Edinburgh? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.

Additional images: Bigstock


Barry Johnson

About the writer

Barry Johnson is a freelance writer living in Sydney, but with a trail of Aussie souvenirs scattered throughout previous homes in Europe, America, Asia and the Middle East. Barry believes travelling is an adventure where the highlights push you on to the next trip and the lowlights can be laughed at with hindsight. Without a passport, he’d have missed getting lost in the Californian forest a week after the Blair Witch Project went viral, building a giant Buddha on a Cambodian mountain, camel racing in an Egyptian desert and teaching English to Peruvian children as they taught him Quechuan — the language of the Incas.


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