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The best things to do in Edinburgh

Because of Edinburgh’s compact nature, it’s easy to get to, from and around the different areas of the city on foot, making it possible to see many of the sights in a reasonably short time frame. That’s particularly handy given that there is so much to see and do here.

Famous historic buildings

If you only do one thing during your stay in Edinburgh, it has to be a trip to Edinburgh Castle. Wherever you are in the city, you can’t escape its looming presence. Built on the rocky outcrop of a long-dormant volcano, it dominates the skyline, peering down on the city and its people below. Communities are believed to have lived on the site since the ninth century, and there has been a Royal castle here since the time of David I in the 11th century. It has been the subject of many battles, sieges and sackings, despite the fact that its unique position supposedly afforded unparalleled protection.

Today, almost all of the medieval fortifications are long gone, but structures from the 15th century still stand, and the castle is not one but a conglomeration of buildings pieced together from its various incarnations. Nowadays, the spectacular Edinburgh Tattoo takes place there every August, and tourists can visit at any time of the year. It draws almost two million visitors annually, making it is Scotland’s most popular paid-for visitor attraction. There are a whole host of things to see and do at the castle, and you could easily spend most of the day there. However, do try to time your visit to coincide with the firing of the One O’ Clock Gun, Edinburgh’s famed time signal which can be heard all over the city.

For kids (and big kids alike), a trip to Our Dynamic Earth, in the immediate vicinity of the Royal Mile, is highly recommended. Our Dynamic Earth offers the chance to take an immersive journey through the planet’s past, present and future, through a series of amazing interactive exhibitions, including a 360-degree full-dome cinema. Explorers can come face-to-face with weird and wonderful beasts from the past, witness an erupting volcano or dive deep under the sea in a submarine. And if our own planet isn’t enough of a distraction, you can travel through time to search the cosmos, witness the Big Bang and learn more about the infinite wonders of outer space.

Holyrood, at the foot of the Royal Mile, is the site of the controversial Scottish Parliament building. Designed by famous Catalan architect, the late Enric Miralles, it was three years late (eventually opening in 2004) and massively over budget. The end result, however, was a striking structure unlike anything else in the country, acclaimed by many and the recipient of numerous awards. Although open to the public all year round, non-sitting days are probably the best time to explore the full extent of the edifice and attempt to gain an insight into the nation it serves.

Just a few hundred metres away, and in direct contrast to the high-tech Arts and Crafts-style of the Parliament building, sits the grand Palace of Holyroodhouse. The official Scottish home of the British Monarch, it has often played a part in Scotland’s turbulent history, from hosting the wedding of Mary Queen of Scots to acting as the headquarters of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. The palace, gardens and ruined abbey are open to visitors, except when the Queen is in residence (usually at the end of June).

There are a whole host of things to see and do at the castle, and you could easily spend most of the day there. However, do try to time your visit to coincide with the firing of the One O’ Clock Gun

Walk with the animals, talk with the animals

Home to Tian Tian and Yang Guang, the only giant pandas in UK, Edinburgh Zoo, in the west of the city at Corstorphine, is a huge draw for visitors. Established more than a century ago, the zoo also features everything from lions and tigers to hippos and bears, plus a whole host of species of primate. There’s even a celebrity penguin, Sir Nils Olav, which was knighted by the Norwegian King in 2008.

At the Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick, at various times of the year, you can see up to 500,000 seabirds in their natural habitat, including puffins, guillemots and gannets, via live camera feeds or by taking a guided boat trip out to the islands to see them in person.

Back along the coast is Deep Sea World at North Queensferry, where you can stare enthralled at magical seahorses, deadly red-bellied piranhas, or even dive in and come face-to-face with sharks and rays. There’s an underwater tunnel – the longest in the UK – where you can get up close and personal with all manner of sea life, while rescued seals have outdoor pools to sun themselves as they recover from injury.

Don't miss the daily penguin parade at Edinburgh Zoo

Don’t miss the daily penguin parade at Edinburgh Zoo

Here, you’ll also find one of Edinburgh’s two World Heritage Sites; the magnificent Forth Bridge. Designated by UNESCO in 2015, the iconic 130-year-old rail bridge is a marvel of modern engineering and was the first large-scale steel structure of its kind. With the Forth Road Bridge, and it’s long-term replacement – the Queensferry Crossing, which opened in 2017 – also situated just a few hundred metres further up river, the three bridges make for a breathtaking view, and a perfect photo opportunity, back along the Firth of Forth.

Edinburgh is notorious for its unsavoury past and there are plenty of ways to uncover more of the city’s dark secrets. Meet grave robbers Burke and Hare at the Edinburgh Dungeon and scare yourself silly in the labyrinth of lost souls or on one of their terrifying rides. A warren of underground closes where plague victims breathed their last (and who might or might not have been walled up and left to die), The Real Mary King’s Close is about as authentic as it gets. But beware – it’s not for the faint-hearted. And if all that’s doesn’t raise enough goosebumps, there are numerous late-night guided tours that delve into the city’s spookiest graveyards, medieval cellars and forgotten nooks and crannies.

Home to Tian Tian and Yang Guang, the only giant pandas in UK, Edinburgh Zoo, in the west of the city at Corstorphine, is a huge draw for visitors

Must-see attractions

Down at the waterfront in Leith, the Royal Yacht Britannia, aboard which the Prince and Princess of Wales honeymooned in 1981, is permanently docked at Ocean Terminal. The ultimate in ocean-bound luxury, the vessel was used for almost a thousand official engagements from its commission in 1954 until it was retired from service in 1997. Visitors can tour five decks, and take a look into the lavish state apartments and dining room, the engine room and the crew’s quarters, and you can even take a peek inside the Queen’s bedroom, something you can’t do at any of her other residences.

If this is your first stopover in Edinburgh, then jumping on one of the open-top bus tours that leave from outside Waverley station is a great way to get your bearings and gain a feel for your new surroundings. Alternatively, if you’re pressed for time, it’s also the ideal way to see the city quickly and easily.

Just a few miles outside the city lays the hauntingly beautiful Rosslyn Chapel. Thrust into the limelight after starring as one of the major locations in film of the best-selling Dan Brown book, The Da Vinci Code, crowds from all around the world flock to investigate the myths and legends that surround the 15th-century church for themselves. Whether true or not, for the elaborate carved stonework alone it should rank high on your list of sightseeing priorities.

There are many fabulous beaches along the East Lothian coast, ideal for summer picnics and paddling, or bracing walks in the colder months. North Berwick has two such stretches of sand, but if you’re looking for something quieter, head for one of the mass of hidden coves out that way; Seacliff is perhaps the finest. It also makes for a base to explore some local ruins in the area. Auldhame Castle and Tantallon Castle are nearby, as is Seacliff House, complete with one of the smallest and most remarkable harbours you’ll ever witness.

There are many fabulous beaches along the East Lothian coast, ideal for summer picnics and paddling, or bracing walks in the colder months

Take a walk

Linlithgow Palace, held by the English for years until the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, whereupon it served as a residence for Scottish kings for hundreds of years, is hugely significant in historical terms; Oliver Cromwell also stayed there from 1650-51, and it was last used during the time of the second Jacobite uprising in the mid-18th century. It may now be largely just a shell, but what a magnificent shell it is – easily one of the best medieval buildings still standing in Scotland.

For those keen to tackle wide open spaces, the views from Arthur’s Seat – the volcanic plug that looms over Edinburgh, eclipsing even the Castle Rock – certainly merit the effort it takes to get to the top, as does the scene that greets you after ascending the tougher Pentland Hills to the south of the city.

The hillside of Calton Hill and views to Arthur's Seat

The hillside of Calton Hill and views to Arthur’s Seat

If something a little more sedate is on the cards, try a walk through the Royal Botanic Gardens in Inverleith, home to some exotic species of plants and fauna. Established in 1670 as a physic garden near the Palace of Holyroodhouse, this year it celebrates its 350th anniversary. On a lovely day, it’s also a super place to relax and soak up the tranquillity and calm.

In fact, for such a condensed urban area, Edinburgh’s lucky in that it has so many green spaces. Although some are private gardens, like those at Queen Street or Charlotte Square, there are plenty that are open to the public, such as St Andrew Square or the unrivalled Princes Street Gardens.

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Image credits: ©Alexey Fedorenko/Richard Hague/Samott/Adobe Stock; RZSS Edinburgh Zoo;; VisitBritain/Simon Winnall

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