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Whether it’s the Outlander effect or my desire to explore more wide-open spaces in the world, I confess to a long-standing yearning to visit Scotland. Home to the world’s first Scotland UNESCO Trail and blessed with an abundance of history, attractions, and jaw-dropping natural beauty, I was delighted to spend time exploring the country’s northern Orkney Islands this past fall. I had additional time left to travel south to meander the medieval and elegant streets of the Scottish capital, Edinburgh. I admit that my 48 hours in Edinburgh was not nearly enough time to see everything, but somehow, I managed to experience many of the paid and free things to do in Edinburgh, a city that captured my heart, and will likely charm yours as well.

edinburgh castle in fall

15 Things to do in Edinburgh, Scotland

While many of these Edinburgh attractions are ticketed, an equal number are free activities in Edinburgh for the budget conscious. However you choose to explore Scotland’s incredible capital, Slàinte Mhath! Cheers!

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle is the dominating landscape feature in the Scottish capital. And one of the most exciting historic sites in Western Europe. You can see it from nearly every vantage point in town. This iconic castle sits atop a hill overlooking the city and offers spectacular 360-degree views. At the appointed hour, listen for the sound of the One O’Clock Gun.  

The Castle is home to several historical attractions, including the Honours of Scotland (the oldest crown jewels in the UK), castle dungeons and the Stone of Destiny, an ancient symbol of the Scottish monarchy. 

You can do a self-guided tour of the Castle or pay for an informative guided tour that offers more in-depth background of both the Castle and the city of Edinburgh.

Looking for the best place to take a photo of Edinbugh Castle? Stop by The Vennel Viewpoint on your way to the Royal Mile. This steep sandstone stairway runs between picturesque tenement buildings, offering fabulous Castle views and perfect posing spots for selfies or set photographs.

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The Royal Mile

The Royal Mile is a series of streets that runs from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace. It runs through the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town, connecting Edinburgh Castle, perched high on a base of volcanic rock, with the beautiful Palace of Holyroodhouse, resting in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat. 

The Mile is overlooked by impressive, towering tenement buildings, between which cobbled closes and narrow stairways interlock to create a maze of shops, museums and secret spaces.

Visiting the Royal Mile is one of the most budget-friendly free things to do in Edinburgh. And among its most entertaining. The Mile is always busy with people and activity. During my experience in Edinburgh, I enjoyed people-watching and lively musical entertainment featuring busking bagpipers and violinists. 

edinburgh royal mile on a sunny day

Princes Street Gardens

Edinburgh’s green heart is the Princes Street Gardens. This is one of the city’s most important urban parks and separates Old Town from New Town. The gardens are over 37 acres and are as the perfect place for a stroll.

Situated between the Old and New Towns and in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, Princes Street Gardens are a peaceful expanse of green space and floral beds, as well as a diverse and fascinating collection of public monuments and memorials.

At Christmas, the gardens are transformed into Edinburgh’s Christmas Market.

The St James Quarter

If you love shopping, a visit to St James Quarter is a must. Located across from Edinburgh’s Waverley Station, the shopping mecca brings together brands from the global to the local, luxury and high street, to meet your retail therapy needs. 

The Quarter is also home to Edinburgh’s first luxury food hall, Bonnie and Wild Scottish Marketplace. The iconic ribbon-style building will open as Scotland’s first W Hotel in late 2022.

Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Even if you only have 2 days in Edinburgh, a visit to the 72 stunning acres of the Royal Botanic Garden should be on your to do list of what to do in Edinburgh. The Garden offers peace and serenity in the heart of the lively area of Stockbridge, just outside the city center. Enjoy the serenity of the Chinese Hillside, explore the famous Rock Garden or stroll among magnificent Giant Redwood trees in the Woodland Garden.

The Garden is open all year and is free to visit. Note: a small fee is required if you choose to visit the greenhouses.

Grassmarket

Once a medieval marketplace and site for public executions, the Grassmarket is now a vibrant area just below the Castle. Grassmarket practically vibrates with lively drinking spots and eclectic shops. Its detailed medieval architecture, stunning castle views and dynamic atmosphere make it one of the city’s most-loved areas.

There’s a bustling weekend food and artistan market during summer and fall, and pubs in the Grassmarket offer live music and acoustic performances on most nights. There’s also a great vintage shop near the square, worthy of a poke-through.

grassmarket with ladies walking

The Real Mary King’s Close

Step deep underground to experience over 400 years of history and discover the stories of your character guide at the Real Mary King’s Close. Located underneath the Royal Mile in the city centre, the guided tour weaves a myriad of tales – from myths and legends to the deadly plague epidemic. If you’re visiting Edinburgh with tweens and teens, they’ll love this tour.

Camera Obscura

Camera Obscura is one of the top attractions in Edinburgh, and fun for the whole family. Venture through five floors jam-packed with over 100 illusions and discover the best rooftop views of the city. Book timed tickets to explore five floors of interactive curiosities and illusions at this 169-year-old attraction. Lose yourself in the mirror maze or try to keep your balance in the exhilarating Vortex Tunnel.

The Scotch Whisky Experience

Enjoy a wee dram (or a flight) at the Scotch Whisky Experience at the top of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. The fascinating and immersive tour experience has been inspiring visitors to Edinburgh about the joys of Scotch whisky for over 30 years. 

I loved learning about the art and science of whisky distillation, including the difference between single malts and blended whiskies. I also learned about the differences and influences in Scotland’s whisky regions. Even if you don’t drink scotch, this experience is interesting and educational. Its shop is great for some take-home consumable gifts, including locally made artisanal chocolate and whisky-infused teas.

whisky bottles at scotch whisky experience edinburgh

Johnnie Walker Princes Street

Yes, you can make time for another spirts-related visit on a two day itinerary in Edinburgh. Scotch whisky is the drink of choice at Johnnie Walker Princes Street. Opened in September 2021, the flagship 8-story shrine to distillation brings to life the story of the brand and its makers.

Book the Journey of Flavour Tour to enjoy a unique sensory experience and uncover the many different flavours of whisky. Enjoy swish cocktails and incredible views of the Edinburgh skyline at the 1820 rooftop bar.

Dean Village

You don’t have to walk 500 miles to get to the picturesque and Insta-famous Dean Village. It’s just five minutes’ walk from Princes Street. A former milling site for water mills, Dean Village is a beautiful oasis found by the Water of Leith. Throughout the village, you can find a variety of mill stones and stone plaques decorated with granary-related motifs (bread, pie).

I loved wandering along the Water of Leith trail and admiring the lovely tenement houses while looking for suitable photo spots. It was quite peaceful during my visit to Dean Village, but keep in mind that it is very popular, especially in high summer. My advice is to go early or late in the day to avoid the worst of the crowds, especially in high season. The light may be better too. 

dean village and water of leith in fall sunshine

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Climb Arthur’s Seat and stroll through Holyrood Park

Would you climb a extinct volcano for amazing views? Of course, you would. One of the most iconic places to go in Edinburgh is Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood Park. This ancient volcano sits 251m above sea level and offers 360-degree views of Edinburgh and the Lothians (Scottish Lowlands). 

You can see the medieval remains of St Anthony’s Chapel or feed the ducks and swans on Duddingston Loch. Set out for a scenic walk along the array of paths and trails, including the trail to St Margaret’s Loch. This trail is both wheelchair and buggy accessible. Pack a picnic and enjoy it from the best ‘seat’ in Edinburgh.

Edinburgh Festivals

Edinburgh is home to several incredible festivals throughout the year. Including the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Edinburgh International Festival, and the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. These festivals offer a wide variety of entertainment, from live music and theater performances to street performances and fireworks displays. 

If your plans coincide with certain festival dates, be sure to book accommodation and tickets early. You don’t want to miss the festival fun!

Take a city tour

There are many different tours available in Edinburgh, including walking tours, bus tours, and ghost tours. These tours can help you learn more about the city’s history and culture and provide a great way to see the city’s many attractions.

You can also take a self-guided tours available in Edinburgh, including walking tours and ghost tours. These tours provide an opportunity to learn more about the city’s history and culture and are often free or available at a low cost.

I did a self-guided tour of the Greyfriars Kirkyard graveyard, home to Greyfriars Bobby, possibly the most loyal Skye Terrier dog in the UK. And the gravesite of Thomas Riddle, a 19th-century man whose name inspired Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. Is it the most haunted graveyard in the world? You’ll have to find out for yourself!

Scottish National Gallery

The Scottish National Gallery is in the heart of Edinburgh, close to Princes Street. The art museum is home to a wide range of paintings – including the iconic Monarch of the Glen – sculptures, and other works of art from around the world. There are more than 20,000 unique artefacts to see, a perfect way to spend a rainy day in Edinburgh. Admission is free, although some special exhibitions may have an admission fee. Tip: head to the rooftop terrace for amazing city views.

More Museums in Edinburgh

Edinburgh is a city of culture and home to many excellent museums with something for everyone. Here are a few museums that you might want to consider visiting while you’re in the city:

National Museum of Scotland: This museum is one of the most popular in Edinburgh. The museum’s diverse collections take you on a journey of discovery through the history of Scotland – the wonders of nature, art and design, science and technology.

Royal Museum of Edinburgh: Located on Chambers Street, this museum is home to several interesting exhibits, including the 8th century Monymusk Reliquary and the Lewis Chessmen.

National Gallery of Scotland: This art museum is home to a wide range of paintings, sculptures, and other works of art from around the world. It’s a great place to spend an afternoon if you’re interested in art.

Surgeons’ Hall Museums: Located on Nicolson Street, this museum is home to a number of medical exhibits, including the Phrenological Cabinet and the Medical History of Edinburgh.

The People’s Story Museum: Located in the Royal Mile, this museum tells the story of everyday life in Edinburgh from the 18th century to the present day. It’s a great place to learn about the city’s history and culture.

The Museum of Childhood: This museum is located on Royal Mile and is home to a collection of toys and other objects related to childhood. It’s a great place to visit if you’re traveling with children.

writers museum in edinburgh

And one of my favorites!

The Edinburgh Writers’ Museum is a museum dedicated to the impressive literary heritage of Edinburgh. It’s located in a historic building on the Royal Mile and is home to several exhibits and displays related to the city’s literary history.

The museum is dedicated to the memory of three of Edinburgh’s most famous writers: Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns. It features exhibits on these writers and their works, as well as displays on other notable Edinburgh writers, such as Muriel Spark and J.K. Rowling.

The museum also hosts event and programs throughout the year, including talks, workshops, and literary festivals. It’s a great place to visit if you’re interested in literature or the history of Edinburgh. Admission is free or by donation.

How to get to Edinburgh

There are many ways to get to Edinburgh, depending on your location and your preferred mode of transportation.

By plane: Edinburgh has its own airport (EDI), which is located just outside the city center. There are direct flights to Edinburgh from many major cities around the world, and the airport is very well-connected to the city by public transportation.

By train: Edinburgh is well-connected to the rest of the UK by rail. There are regular trains to Edinburgh from many cities around the country, including London, Glasgow, and Manchester.

By car: If you’re driving to Edinburgh, the city is easily accessible from the M1 motorway. It’s about a four-hour drive from London and a two-hour drive from Glasgow.

By bus: There are regular and affordable bus services to Edinburgh from many cities around the UK, including London, Glasgow, Inverness and Manchester.

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