Edinburgh has a fairytale quality that strikes you the first moment you see the Old Town sitting aloft its volcanic throne. There’s a delightful air about the cobblestone streets, historic architecture and exceptional viewpoints form its rocky crags. It’s a sure contrast from the days when the city got its nickname “Auld Reekie”, because of its terrible smoke pollution. Enjoy getting acquainted with Scotland’s capital, with these things to do in Edinburgh.
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10 Things to do in Edinburgh
Explore Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle sits high on its regal perch, a volcanic plug that resisted glacial erosion that scoured the plains around it. Now known as Castle Rock, the easily defensible hilltop was first a Roman settlement and fortress, becoming “Edinburgh” after a 638 AD invasion by the Angles. During the Middle Ages, it became Scotland’s primary royal castle. Some highlights of the Castle include Scotland’s oldest crown jewels, panoramic city views and Edinburgh’s oldest building, St Margaret’s Chapel, constructed circa 1130.
Rove the Royal Mile
“The Royal Mile” refers to the main thoroughfares of Edinburgh’s Old Town – Castlehill, Lawnmarket, High Street, Canongate and Abbey Strand – so dubbed in the 19th century. These streets lead from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace with dozens of interesting sites, charming architecture, historic pubs and cozy coffee shops along the way. Look for St Giles’ Cathedral, Scottish Parliament, the Heart of Midlothian and narrow closes providing plenty of mysterious diversions.
Hot foot it to Holyrood Palace
The Palace of Holyroodhouse (aka Holyrood Palace) is the official residence of the British Monarch in Scotland, currently Queen Elizabeth II, and has historically been home to many kings and queens of Scotland. The largely 16th-century Palace is accompanied by 10-acres of gardens and the ruins of Holyrood Abbey. Tour the Palace at your own pace with a multimedia guide included in your ticket.
Roam the storied Greyfriars Kirkyard
The graveyard around Greyfriars Kirk (kirk meaning church), has been a burial site since the late 16th century. Greyfriars takes its name from the grey habits of the Franciscan friars that lived on the site up to 1560. Many well known Scots are buried in the graveyard, none more famous than Greyfriars Bobby. The legendary Skye Terrier’s headstone is the first you’ll see inside the main entrance, opposite where his statue stands outside the gate. Greyfriar’s Kirkyard also has many elaborate grave stones and muraled monuments, a section of the Flodden Wall c1560, all backed by views of Edinburgh Castle.
Ascend Arthur’s Seat
There’s no proof that Arthur’s Seat got its name from the legends of King Arthur, but it is befitting of Edinburgh’s dungeons-and-dragons atmosphere. The extinct volcano is encompassed in Holyrood Park, so you can walk all the way from Palace to peak if it pleases you. There is a briefer route (by driving to Dunsapie Loch and walking from there) if you’re short on time or uphill fitness. I can assure you though, that any exertion is worth it. Note that no matter the season, it can be extremely windy at the top!
Holyrood Park also includes the Salisbury Crags, St Anthony’s Chapel, lochs and a 2000-year-old fort. For those with more time, grab a self-guided walking map and go explore.
Scope out the sights on Calton Hill
Calton Hill is the place to go for amazing vistas of Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns, Leith and the Firth of Forth. The Hill is part of Edinburgh’s UNESCO World Heritage Site and is home to various monuments, the City Observatory and old Royal High School. You’ll recognize it by the Parthenon-inspired National Monument, an unfinished war memorial, visible from all over the city.
Trace Scottish history at the National Museum
Scotland’s National Museum is fascinating inside and out. The institution is a merging of the Museum of Scotland and Royal Scottish Museum. The earlier, housed in a contemporary building that was inspired by Le Corbusier and Scottish medieval castles, and the neighbouring later, a Victorian structure featuring a Venetian Renaissance façade and light-filled, cast iron Grand Gallery. If you only have an hour or two, spend them in the newer building working through the chronological exhibition of Scottish history.
See Scott Monument and Princes Streets Gardens
The 37 acres of gardens that divide Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns are home to various monuments, statues and the Scottish National Gallery. The most prominent of these monuments is the Scott Monument, a neo-gothic ode to Scottish literary legend Sir Walter Scott.
Get to know New Town
“New Town” is a pretty amusing term for an Australian whose country was only established as a colonial outpost in 1788. Edinburgh’s New Town was built from 1767-1850. It retains its grid plan along with much neo-classical and Georgian architecture. Aside from the aforementioned Princes Streets Gardens and Calton Hill, the New Town possesses the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the impressive Balmoral Hotel. The Hotel’s landmark clocktower is set 3 minutes early (except for new years eve) so people don’t miss their train at nearby Waverly Station, a tradition dating back to Edwardian times.
Seek out some Scottish fare
One of the joys of travel is trying new foods and beverages, and indulging in favourites where they were created. Scotland has many unique dishes to try including Haggis with neeps and tatties (colloquial terms for turnips and potatoes), Cullen Skink (a soup), Grouse (local game bird), Scotch pie (mutton pie, double crusted), shortbread, Cranachan (trifle-like dessert) and Scotch whisky. You’ll also find ocean-fresh seafood including stellar salmon, crabs, lobsters, muscles, oysters and scallops.