Discover some of the best things to do in Edinburgh. The city centre is compact, if a little hilly in some places, but definitely small enough to be explored on foot. There are beautiful open spaces, historic castles and palaces. There are orderly New Town streets and higgledy-piggledy Old Town closes and wynds just waiting to be explored.
Things to do in Edinburgh
For a millennium, Edinburgh and its Old Town developed around the castle and spread east to west along the Royal Mile.
Located on this historic thoroughfare, in essence a series of streets – Castlehill, Lawnmarket, High Street, Canongate and the Abbey Strand – are some of the top things to do in Edinburgh city centre.
Starting at the top of the hill, the most popular attractions include: Edinburgh Castle, Camera Obscura, Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre, Gladstone’s Land, St Giles’ Cathedral, John Knox’s House, Canongate Kirk, Holyrood Abbey, and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, home to the royal family when visiting Edinburgh.
In 1723, writer Daniel Defoe described the Royal Mile as “the largest, longest and finest street for Buildings and Number of Inhabitants, not only in Britain, but in the World…”
However, with the Old Town becoming increasingly cramped and insanitary, many people would definitely not have recognised Defoe’s extravagant description.
For those who could afford it, the nobility and merchant classes, the John Adam and James Craig inspired Georgian New Town, where building began in the 1760s, offered open space and fresh clean air.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Old and New Towns of Edinburgh were inscribed (together) by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1995. Designated in 2004, Edinburgh is the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature.
When to visit Edinburgh
There are events, festivals and much more besides happening in Edinburgh all year round but should you want to avoid the busiest times, the quietest months are February to April and September to November.
Where to stay in Edinburgh
Edinburgh is packed with hotels, guesthouses and bed and breakfasts but they do tend to be very busy during the summer festival months, particularly those in the city centre.
Instead of the city centre, why not stay in one of ‘Edinburgh’s villages’. With independent high streets full of small cafes and cosy restaurants, there’re easily accessible by bus, tram or on foot.
Edinburgh’s West End Village – with great cafes and coffee shops, cocktail bars, designer shopping and some of the city’s grandest Georgian New Town streets, Edinburgh’s West End Village is just a few minutes’ walk from the buzz of Princes Street.
Stockbridge is another of Edinburgh’s popular villages. Located on the northern part of the New Town, just over a mile from Waverley railway station, it has its own distinct identity, with a definite bohemian vibe.
Stockbridge is a lovely place to stay or just spend a few hours exploring. There’s a weekly market, lots of delis, tea and coffee houses, intimate restaurants, cafes, pubs and a surprising number of charity shops which are great fun to rummage through. It’s also close to the Royal Botanic Gardens and the peaceful, pretty Dean Village.
A youthful vibe in an ancient city
Along with the many thousands of visitors from countries across the world, another of the reasons that Edinburgh has such a distinctive ambiance is the large student population who not only contribute to the local economy, also add a youthful vitality to proceedings.
The students are spread across a number of leading educational institutions including the University of Edinburgh, founded in 1583 and the sixth oldest university in the English-speaking world.
Edinburgh Theatre Scene
The city has a flourishing theatre scene including the Edinburgh Playhouse Theatre, Traverse Theatre, Royal Lyceum Theatre, King’s Theatre, Festival Theatre and the Usher Hall. Add to this the myriad of small theatres, music venues and other creative spaces and you have a world-leading cultural experience.