Things to do in Edinburgh, Lothian
Edinburgh, the proud capital city of Scotland, is in the Eastern Lowlands, just south of the Firth of Forth. Built on the remains of an extinct volcano, the castle is the main landmark along with the nearby hill known as Arthur's Seat.
Edinburgh is the second most popular tourist destination in the UK and was voted European Destination of the Year at the 2012 World Travel Awards.
Easy to reach by train, car or plane, Edinburgh makes a great destination of culture for a long weekend break.
The historic city is packed with fabulous attractions, from its 900-year-old castle to the National Museum of Scotland. Great theatres and sports centres host many international festivals and events, including the world-famous Edinburgh Festival.
The city attracts many international visitors with its historic streets, excellent shopping and lively events. Get a taste of Scottish culture by listening to the local accent, see the clan tartans, visit the whisky distilleries and listen to bagpipe playing on the streets.
Although part of the United Kingdom, Scotland has its own Parliament and even has its own banknotes!
Areas to Explore
Edinburgh's Old Town includes the castle, Royal Mile and the mediaeval heart of the city. Highlights are the Palace of Holyroodhouse, St Giles Cathedral with its crown spire, the underground city at Mary King's Close, Greyfriar's Kirkyard and the newly built Scottish Parliament Building. Along with the New Town, it is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The lower New Town has Georgian architecture, as well as the main shopping district along Princes Street. Main attractions include the Scott Monument, National Gallery of Scotland and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
Things to Do
Edinburgh Castle has been guarding the city for over 900 years. Explore the Royal Palace and see the Stone of Destiny which is still used for the crowning of English kings and queens. Admire the Great Hall, Regimental Museums, Half Moon Battery, Portcullis Gate and Scottish National War Museum, and listen out for the One o'clock Gun.
To get the most from your visit to Edinburgh, join a guided walking tour of the city to learn about the history of the buildings and former inhabitants of this colourful city.
If you can't attend the Edinburgh Festival, enjoy a performance at the Festival Theatre and imagine the city during August when it puts on 2,500 different events from comedy and drama to music and mime.
Art lovers will enjoy a tour of the Abbey and Palace of Holyroodhouse where a collection of art from the Royal Collection is on display in the beautiful Queen's Gallery.
Climb up inside the 200-foot high Scott Monument in Princes Street Gardens for a unique experience and great views of the New Town.
There's nothing to match a tour beneath the streets of Royal Mile, exploring the excavated dwellings and passageways of mediaeval Edinburgh at Mary King's Close.
Step aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia in Leith, tour the royal apartments and see the display of gifts given to the royal family by visiting dignitaries.
Sample real Scotch whisky and learn how it is made at the Scotch Whisky Experience on Castle Hill with tours throughout the day. They have the world's largest collection of Scotch whiskies and tastings are part of your tour.
If you're feeling energetic, there are lots of sporting opportunities in Edinburgh - there's the famous Commonwealth Swimming Pool, a Dry Ski Slope, Kart Racing, sailing (and boat trips) on the Firth of Forth, fishing and many golf courses to choose from!
Edinburgh On a Budget
An interesting climb in the city centre is up Calton Hill where some of Edinburgh's most iconic monuments can be found.
Look for the Parthenon-like National Monument and the Dugald Stewart Monument; a Greek circular temple with nine Corinthian columns surrounding an urn, and the Nelson Monument - you can climb the 143 steps to the top and get an even loftier view of the city! Tip: visit Calton Hill at dusk and see the stunning sight of the city lit up far below.
Free historic walking tours of Edinburgh take place daily at 11am and 1pm and start from the Tron Kirk. The professional guides are excellent and make their living from tips, so they work hard to give excellent tours.
In summer, the Royal Botanic Gardens are a wonderful sight with many interesting plants. Founded in 1670, admission to the 72-acre gardens is free but there is a charge to visit the glasshouses.
The National Museum of Scotland and Royal Museum on Chambers Street has many fascinating exhibits in the airy Victorian building, which has an atrium topped with the Millennium Clock.
The National Gallery of Scotland also has free admission, with some of Scotland's finest artworks on display.
The new Scottish Parliament Building is worth admiring for its Catalan-style architecture. British residents can apply for free tickets to attend a parliamentary session and see inside this £414 million building.
Visiting with Kids
How about a hike up an extinct volcano? Arthur's Seat is a great place for children to burn off some energy. It is a fairly easy hike to the top and the views of Edinburgh city, the castle and the Firth of Forth are worth the climb.
Visit the birthplace of Harry Potter – the Elephant House Café - or take a free guided tour along the Potter Trail which starts from the Greyfriars Bobby's Bar at 5pm on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Turn up early as the tour size is capped at 50 wizards and witches.
Kids will be fascinated by the Camera Obscura, which is packed with exciting optical illusions and tricks. At the top of the building is the 150-year old camera obscura itself, which works by light shining through the top of the tower into a darkened room showing panoramic live views of Edinburgh. The rest of the building (all five floors of it!) is devoted to interactive exhibits and ingenious tricks of the eye (including a whole gallery of 3D holograms) which are guaranteed to raise the question "How do they do that?".
Edinburgh Zoo is open year round and is one of the world's leading zoos. See the famous penguin parade and enjoy identifying some of the 1000 animals.
Children with a steady nerve will enjoy a visit to Edinburgh Dungeon, where they can learn about the most blood-curdling bits of the city's history.
You can find out all about the ancient history of Scotland at the excellent Our Dynamic Earth Science Centre, which is a fascinating, interactive trip into the past for adults and children alike.
Just to the north of Edinburgh, under the Forth Rail Bridge, you'll find Deep Sea World, which is famous for its sharks and extra long underwater tunnel, and is a great day out for kids of all ages.
History of Edinburgh
The volcanic rock on which Edinburgh Castle stands has no doubt witnessed the arrival and departure of many settlers since prehistoric times. Traces of human settlement dating back to the Bronze Age have been found on Arthur's Seat and even the Romans were driven back behind Hadrian's Wall in AD79.
By the 11th century, King Malcolm III and Queen Margaret had a castle and chapel in Edinburgh and their son David I built the abbey at Holyrood. Between the two royal complexes, the Royal Mile was formed and eventually a flourishing royal burgh developed.
Edinburgh became the capital of Scotland in 1437. In the turbulent years after, a wall was built around the city and the plains at the foot of the castle were flooded as defence against the English. James V set up the Court of Session in 1532 giving the town an important administrative role in the Stuart dynasty.
When the political union between Scotland and England was signed in 1707, politicians had to travel to London to continue their role. After 292 years, the Scottish Parliament was reinstated in Edinburgh in 1999, celebrated with the building of the new Scottish Parliament Building.
Edinburgh's population and its wealth increased in the 18th century as it traded wool and leather with other European ports. Those who could afford to do so moved out of the Old Town with its squalid conditions. By 1795 plans were underway to build a New Town under a young architect, James Craig.
The later epidemics of typhoid and cholera in the Old Town led to drastic modernization of the historic city under Sir Patrick Geddes. The improvements began to attract academics and professionals and the university was revived.
During the 19th century, Edinburgh evolved as a financial centre and attracted many prominent figures who left their mark: Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and economist Adam Smith, to name just three.
The decline of the port of Leith was reflected in the city, but in 1947 the first Edinburgh Festival was held and the city never looked back.
It is now a vibrant city of culture, history and the arts with an interesting royal heritage. It continues to attract millions of visitors to walk its historic streets, enjoy shopping and dining in top locations and enjoy the distinctive Scottish heritage which Edinburgh showcases.
- Edinburgh is nicknamed Auld Reekie, or Old Smoky, dating back to when the homes and buildings burnt coal and wood and the city was covered in smoke and soot
- The rock beneath Edinburgh Castle is the plug of an extinct volcano!
- The Royal Mile is exactly one mile long and runs between two royal residences: Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood House
- J.K.Rowling wrote her first Harry Potter novel at the Elephant House Café on George IV Bridge.
- Edinburgh is said to be one of the most haunted places in Europe. The Mackenzie Poltergeist which haunts Greyfriars Kirkyard has many friends!
- Grave robbers and serial killers Burke and Hare murdered 15 people in the 19th century and sold their bodies to the medical college
- The Greyfriars Bobby monument on the corner of Candlemaker Row and George IV Bridge commemorates a devoted Skye Terrier who guarded his master's grave for 14 years
- The National Monument on Calton Hill is known as Edinburgh's Folly. Modelled on the Parthenon of Athens, the project ran out of funds and remains incomplete
- Grassmarket was the site of public executions as well as a livestock market from 1477
Popular Events and Festivals
Few places celebrate the New Year, or Hogmanay as it is known in Scotland, with more gusto than Edinburgh. The streets are filled with revellers for this two-day holiday,which is followed by Burns Day, celebrating the life of poet Robert Burns on his birthday, January 25th.
The spring festivals follow thick and fast with the Edinburgh International Science Festival and the Beltane Fire Festival in April, the Independent Radical Book Fair in May and the Edinburgh Royal Highland Show and Pride Scotland in June, so there's always something to join in.
The main Edinburgh Festival which includes the Edinburgh Fringe, Television Festival, Book Festival and International Festival, takes place over three weeks in August. At the same time, crowds arrive for the Military Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle.
Join the multicultural Edinburgh Mela in September or watch the Braemar Gathering which takes place in locations all over Scotland including Edinburgh.
Edinburgh is divided between the Old Town, around the Castle, and the New Town at the bottom of the hill. Most of the Old Town and Royal Mile is pedestrianised and is ideal to explore on foot. You may want to catch a bus or taxi to the New Town, a distance of about half a mile down a very steep hill.
The city is well covered by FirstBus or Lothian Buses which are inexpensive and also serve the surrounding area. Most buses depart from St Andrew Square bus station on Clyde Street.
A recent addition to the city's transport network is the tram system, which will take you all the way from St Andrew's Square, in the city centre, along Princes St, right out to the Airport.
From the Scottish Kilt Shop on the Royal Mile to world-class shopping along Princes Street, Edinburgh is a delightful city for shoppers. Chain stores, bargain outlets and smaller specialist independents all have their place.
Browse the antique shops along West Bow and Grassmarket or enjoy the department stores such as Jenners (House of Fraser) in the grand Georgian buildings in Edinburgh New Town.
Delightful independent shops along Royal Mile include the Fudge Kitchen, Royal Mile Whiskies and Ness Clothing. The Edinburgh Farmer's Market is held on Castle Terrace.
Fort Kinnaird Retail Shopping Park in south Edinburgh boasts many fashion outlets and major High Street brands, as does the Hermiston Gait Shopping Centre to the West.
Just 20 minutes away by car or bus is the Ocean Terminal Shopping Centre in nearby Leith.
Entertainment and Nightlife
By day, the Bongo Club is a café and exhibition space; after dark it becomes a venue for live music, theatre and clubbing.
The underground caverns on Cowgate are where the aptly named Caves offer nightclubs and arts events in the vaults of the Edinburgh Town Hall.
For 80s music try the long-established Citrus Club or enjoy Jazz and Blues at the purpose-designed Jazz Bar on Chambers Street.
Theatres abound in this "Fringe theatre" city, the most famous being the Royal Lyceum Rep Theatre, the Festival Theatre, the Edinburgh Playhouse and the family–friendly Scottish Storytelling Centre.
Top cinemas include Vue Omni on Princes Street, the Cineworld complex, also known as the UGC, or the film buff's favourite – Edinburgh Filmhouse.
Where to Eat
Edinburgh surpasses itself with great dining opportunities from Michelin star restaurants to hearty pub grub. The street café culture is thriving, especially around the Festival Theatre and Greyfriars Kirkyard.
Top billing goes to The Witchery, tucked away in one of the oldest parts of Edinburgh on Castlehill. Alternatively, book a table at the Tower Restaurant for spectacular views to match James Thomson's outstanding cuisine.
Superior Scottish cuisine is served at the North Bridge, a charming brasserie with wood panelled walls and a charming ambience, while vegetarians are well catered for at Henderson's on Hanover Street.
For cheaper fare, several historic pubs on the Grassmarket such as the Black Bull and the Beehive Inn have outdoor tables in summer.
Where to Stay
If you're pushing the boat out, the landmark five star Balmoral Hotel on Princes Street is described as "outstanding". Topped by a grand clock tower, the hotel boasts marble bathrooms and a Health Spa and Palm Court, where afternoon tea is served.
The Crowne Plaza Roxburghe is centrally located with views of Edinburgh Castle and Charlotte Square Gardens. Luxurious furnished guest rooms are complemented by an indoor pool and health spa.
Ascot Garden B&B has prices that any canny Scot would approve. Although it is a short walk or bus ride from Edinburgh city centre, it offers comfortable rooms, free Wi-Fi and a delicious Scottish breakfast.
Fraser Suites are one of very few places to stay in Edinburgh's Old Town, just off the Royal Mile. Spacious suites have kitchenettes with refrigerators, iPod docking station, garden or city views and even offer a pillow menu.
Edinburgh is a wonderful city to visit for a short break, either as a couple, a family or for singles attending one of the festivals. Easy to reach, it is truly an international destination, yet right on our doorstep.
If you are visiting with your loved one, there are many romantic things to do in Edinburgh, such as admiring the view from the Castle ramparts, treating yourselves to a night out at The Playhouse, or visiting the Zoo to see the pandas in their very own love story.
If you're visiting Edinburgh with adults, our Fun Things to do in Edinburgh for Adults page will give you lots of ideas for great things to do.
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Edinburgh Airport is just 8 miles outside the city with good connections from all over the UK and Europe with budget airlines. Glasgow International Airport serves international flights and is 55 miles from Edinburgh.
Edinburgh is easy to reach by car along the M8. However, the city is a maze of one-way streets and much of the city centre is only open to buses and taxis, so Park and Ride can be an option.
National Express coaches and Scottish Citylink Buses all serve the city.
There are trains to Edinburgh daily from all parts of Britain, Aberdeen, Inverness, York and Newcastle are all approximately two hours by train. Glasgow is only 45 minutes away, with services every 15 minutes.
Waverley Station is in the New Town area. There is a convenient shuttle service run by Scotrail every 15 minutes from Glasgow. Alternatively, Haymarket Station is on the main line to Glasgow.
Short-term parking is available all around the city, but attendants are keen to issue tickets, so make sure you put enough money in the meter! Main city centre car parks are at Greenside Row, Morrison Street and Castle Terrace.
Edinburgh's Park and Ride offers free parking (except Newcraighall) and all 7 locations are served by Lothian Buses and/or Stagecoach with services to the city centre every 10 minutes during the day.
There are Park and Ride locations at:
• Ingliston (1085 spaces) on Eastfield Road
• Hermiston (450 spaces) on Riccarton Main Road, Currie
• Newcraighall (565 spaces) has bus and rail links to Edinburgh City Centre
• Straiton Road (600 spaces)
• Sheriffhall (561 spaces) on Old Dalkeith Road with 10 buses per hour at peak times
• Wallyford (300 spaces) on A199 Haddington Road
• Ferrytoll (1040 spaces) on the A90 at Inverkeithing