Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh is full of culture and history – not to mention magnificent views –, and if you are planning to visit this ancient city, there are a ton of places to put on your must-see list. From Royal castles to volcanoes to ancient streets, the city lives and breathes history, and it gives visitors multiple opportunities to uncover its secrets.
About 500,000 people live in Edinburgh, but nearly 4 million tourists visit each year. It is a city waiting to be discovered, and it has so many secret nooks and alleyways, the temptation to keep exploring is never-ending.
Draped across rocky hills and overlooking the sea, Edinburgh is one of Europe’s most beautiful cities filled with pubs, restaurants, shops, museums, and monuments. There is so much to see and do, it is a city you will want to visit again and again, with each time being a different experience.
But no matter if it’s your first visit or a return trip, there are 20 places in Edinburgh that you can’t miss. And, remember, if you stop and listen to one of the bagpipers dispersed throughout Old and New Town, make sure you tip them. Oh, and don’t mention Braveheart to the locals.
20 20. Edinburgh Castle
One of the top tourist attractions in the city, Edinburgh Castle is a massive stone fortress that sits on top of Castle Rock – an extinct volcano. It is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks, as well as one of the most-visited, that was the home of various Royals throughout history.
Some of the attractions at the historic site are the crown jewels of Scotland, the medieval European gun known as Mons Meg, and St. Margaret’s Chapel – the city’s oldest building.
Even if you aren’t a big history buff, the location provides amazing views of the city, which makes it a must-see stop on any Edinburgh tour.
19 18. The Cameo
One of the oldest cinemas in Scotland, the Cameo cinema has operated under various names for over a century, and it recently underwent a renovation that included the addition of some of the most comfortable reclining seats in the city, but it’s original architecture remains.
If you love movies, this is a great place to catch a big event – like an All-Night Horror Madness marathon – or a traditional art house film.
This is the location of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and many celebrities have visited during different festival seasons, including Quentin Tarantino, who has called it one of his favorite picture houses.
18 17. Holyrood Palace
Not far from Edinburgh Castle is Holyrood Palace, the Scottish residence of the British monarchy. Built in 1678, it has been the home of numerous kings and queens – including King George V and Mary Queen of Scots. Visitors can explore her chambers in the palace that includes the room where her secretary died when her husband murdered her in 1566.
Most of the palace is preserved as a museum to showcase 17th-century Royal life, but there is also the State Apartments that include the Great Gallery which houses portraits of all of the Kings of Scotland.
To make the history come alive, you can use an audio guide or take a guided tour.
17 16. Mary King’s Close
Part of Edinburgh’s Old Town, Mary King’s Close is a labyrinth of narrow underground, winding streets called “closes” that partially collapsed hundreds of years ago. You can book a tour to learn the history of this once popular Edinburgh street, as well as the rumored hauntings and murders that may have taken place since the close collapsed.
The tour guides wear costumes as they teach you about life in old Edinburgh. And, the close is essentially frozen in time, being so well-preserved you can literally see the history.
Because of the steep inclines and uneven surfaces, make sure to wear sturdy shoes.
16 15. Arthur’s Seat
Located at the highest point in Holyrood Park – at 800 feet above sea level – legend has it that Arthur’s Seat was the site for Camelot. It is a former volcano that you have to hike uphill to get to, but once you get to the top, you get 360-degree views of Edinburgh.
Be sure to bring water and wearing hiking shoes, and you can access trails near Holyrood Palace.
There is also the belief that the hill’s morning dew will make you beautiful. So, it is a May Day tradition for young women to wash their face with it.
15 14. Gladstone’s Land
Part of Edinburgh’s Old Town, Gladstone’s Land is a 17th-century six-story tenement house that towers above the street. The restored and well-preserved building gives visitors a glimpse into life during the 1600s with its historical rooms and narrow staircases.
An ideal way to learn about Scottish culture, visiting Gladstone’s Land is an immersive experience that showcases different lifestyles during the period, from the life of the wealthy to the conditions of the poor.
The National Trust of Scotland rescued the property in 1934 after it was condemned and scheduled for demolition. Architect Frank Mears restored the property, and during the process, he uncovered painted renaissance ceilings.
14 13. The Royal Mile
The Royal Mile is a collection of iconic streets in the heart of Old Town. Starting at Holyrood Palace and heading west, you will pass the Scottish Parliament Building, St. Giles Cathedral, and Canongate Kirk. The cobbled street ends at Edinburgh Castle and also features numerous shops, pubs, and restaurants.
Is it a tourist trap? Yes. So be ready to buy some souvenirs. But, considering all there is to see and do, it’s a must-see stop while visiting Edinburgh. It is truly the center of the city, so there are crowds at literally all hours of the day and night.
13 12. Prince’s Street
One of Edinburgh’s most popular retail hotspots, Prince’s Street is a historic thoroughfare that has been part of the city since 1770. In addition to shopping, you can also get another dose of history via a number of landmarks, which makes it a good place to take pictures.
Because there are no buildings on the south side of the street, you get great views of Scott Monument and Edinburgh Castle. And, you can picnic at the Princes Street Gardens, which features a war memorial and a floral clock.
This is also the street where detectives chase Mark Renton in the opening scene of the 1996 movie Trainspotting.
12 11. Craigmillar Castle
Another beautiful and well-preserved castle on the list, Craigmillar is a must-visit because of its stone architecture and grand halls. Built in the 15th century, Mary Queen of Scots used this castle as a safe haven, and it was during her second stay that conspirators agreed to the “Craigmillar Bond,” which was a plot to kill her husband, Lord Darnley.
The entrance features a pair of yew trees that have stood there for hundreds of years, and because it is not a main tourist attraction, you are free to explore the property without tons of people around. And, if you are a fan of the show Outlander, you will recognize it as Ardsmuir Prison.
11 10. Camera Obscura
If Edinburgh is the destination for your family vacation, a great place to take the kids is Camera Obscura and World of Illusions. You will find it at the top of the Royal Mile, and its colorful games, puzzles, and optical illusions will entertain the kids for hours.
It opened in 1835, making it the city’s oldest attraction. It features a mirror maze, a shrinking Ames room, a vortex tunnel, and a hands-on Magic Gallery. And even though it is definitely an attraction for kids, visitors of all ages will find fun things to see and do while experiencing unique sensations.
10 9. Edinburgh Vaults
If you are interested in experiencing the city’s dark underbelly, the Edinburgh Vaults are a spooky option. Formed by the arches of the South Bridge (built in 1788), they were originally used to house workshops for tradesmen, as well as taverns. Later, they were a hotspot for criminal activity.
They became popular after being excavated in the 1990s, and the rumor is that the vaults are haunted since murderers and torturers once used them. The TV show Ghost Adventures claimed to have encountered numerous spirits in the vaults when they investigated them in 2008.
If you take the nighttime candlelit tour, you will get the chance to follow the footsteps of Burke & Hare – 18th-century body snatchers.
9 8. The Royal Yacht Britannia
This floating Royal residence has been the host to some of the most famous people in the world, but for forty years, it was the home of the British Royal Family. You can explore the Yacht’s five main decks with an audio handset tour (available in 30 languages) that will take you through the Royal Apartments, the crew’s quarters, and the engine room.
Enjoy homemade scones, soups, sandwiches, and specialty teas in the Royal Deck Tea Room after learning how the Royal family and crew lived and worked on board.
In 1981, Charles and Diana, the Prince and Princess of Wales, took the Britannia for their honeymoon cruise.
8 7. Scottish National Gallery
This must-see art gallery opened in 1859, and the building – with its neoclassical architecture – contains works from Monet, Van Gogh, da Vinci, and Rembrandt. Some of the most notable pieces include Vision après les Sermon by Gauguin and Holy Family with a Palm Tree by Raphael. There is also a collection of pieces from Scottish artists like Sir David Willkie and Peter Graham featuring portraits, landscapes, and scenes from everyday life.
Comprised of both the Royal Scottish Academy Building and the National Gallery Building which were originally separate, they built the underground Gardens Level in 2004 to physically connect them.
7 6. Scott Monument
Built as a monument to Scottish literary figure Walter Scott, you have to climb 288 steps on a spiral staircase to get to the top of what author Bill Bryson called a “Gothic rocket ship.” Featured in the 2012 movie Cloud Atlas, this popular landmark features 68 statues of people like Lord Byron and Mary Queen of Scots.
Built from Binny sandstone, the tower stands 200 feet high and has multiple viewing platforms that give panoramic views of the city.
At the base of the monument is a Carrara marble statue of Scott and his dog Maida. The sculptor fashioned it from a 30-ton piece of marble, and it took six years to finish.
6 5. Heart of Midlothian
A unique piece of Scottish history, the Heart of Midlothian is located in the city center and is in the pavement on the Royal Mile. Constructed from granite blocks forming the shape of a heart and cross, it marks the “heart” of the town in the 15th century – the Old Tollbooth.
It no longer exists, but leaders once used the building to run the city, plus it acted as a prison and execution site. This led to the local custom of spitting on the heart to show contempt for the site where the prison once stood. Now, the belief is that spitting on the heart will bring good luck.
5 4. Calton Hill
Calton Hill was one of Scotland’s first public parks, and it is another spot to get great pics because of its spectacular views. It is the home of several iconic monuments and buildings – the Burns Monument, the Nelson Monument, and the National Monument –, earning Edinburgh the title “The Athens of the North.”
A Greek temple inspired the design of the Old City Observatory, which was where astronomer Thomas Henderson discovered how to measure the distance between stars.
It’s an easy hike to the top, and according to visitors, sunrise or sunset is the best time to go.
4 3. Bramble Bar
This hard-to-find cocktail bar is on Queen Street and hides below a boarded-up shop, but this speakeasy has made many “best bar” lists. Just like its counterparts in the American Prohibition era, Bramble only serves cocktails because they are easy to pour out during a raid.
Only about 100 people can fit into the place comfortably, which means there could be quite the squeeze on weekend nights. But if you like expertly-curated cocktails, hip-hop music, and candlelight, then this place is worth a visit.
A hidden gem with a tiny sign, if you aren’t actively looking for it, you will miss it.
3 2. National Museum of Scotland
If you need more history during your visit to Edinburgh, the National Museum of Scotland should quench your thirst. Housing 20,000 historical artifacts, this museum has a diverse collection, and you will find exhibits ranging from a giant T-Rex skeleton to a Dolly the Sheep display (the first cloned mammal). There are also exhibits dedicated to archeology, art and design, and history.
Admission is free, and the place is huge, so if you have only a limited amount of time, make sure to map out what you want to see before you go. People of all ages enjoy the National Museum, making it ideal for a family outing.
2 1. Museum of Childhood
The first of its kind in the world, the Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh showcases games and toys from the 18th century all the way up to today. It gives visitors a look at childhood throughout the different generations and the differences in toy trends over the years. It also has a room featuring the creepiest dolls on Earth!
Basically, you are exploring the “history of fun,” and it isn’t just for kids. Grown-ups will love the nostalgia, so it’s a good thing there is retro merchandise available in the gift shop.
The museum is free, but they do ask for donations.
1 19. Scotch Whiskey Experience
It should come as no surprise that there are many opportunities in Edinburgh to enjoy the famous Scotch whiskey, and the Scotch Whiskey Experience features tours at varying prices that can be fun for anyone from the casual drinker to the whiskey connoisseur.
The Silver Tour will take you through the whiskey production, introduce you to different aromas, and give you the chance to see the largest scotch whiskey collection that features over 3,300 bottles. You can also opt for the Gold or Platinum tour that includes extras like single malt tastings.
Or, you can just skip the tours altogether and go straight to Amber Restaurant to taste the experience.