Contrary to popular belief, Scotland is so much more than just whiskey, kilts, bagpipes, and haggis. With over 6,000 miles of coastline and more green space than one can comprehend, Scotland’s scenery speaks to the soul, astonishing travelers from around the world.
Edinburgh, in particular, flies just under the radar compared to other popular UK destinations such as London and Dublin. If you’re looking for a more authentic experience that paints a true picture of British culture, ditch the big name cities and head to Edinburgh.
Here are 8 things to see and do while you’re there.
1. Edinburgh Castle
Sitting atop Castle Rock, Edinburgh Castle remains the city’s most iconic tourist attraction. Archaeologists date human occupation of the site to the Iron Age — the 2nd century A.D.
Travelers can wander through this enchanted castle and gaze upon the Great Hall, the Stone of Destiny, and the crown jewels of Scotland.
If you’re wondering when to visit Edinburgh, you should consider the New Year’s holiday. Each year, Scotland hosts one of the largest and best New Year’s celebrations in the world known as Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, where a breathtaking fireworks display is set off from Edinburgh Castle.
This historic fortress overlooks the skyline of the city and invites travelers to take a tour during the spring and summer from 9:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and during fall and winter from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Tickets are discounted if purchased online and can be found here.
2. Old Town & New Town
In 1995, Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns were collectively inducted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A bustling area of narrow alleyways, centuries-old buildings, and architecture, Edinburgh’s Old Town is teeming with international tourists who come to see views of Edinburgh Castle, the Scottish Parliament, and Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s Scottish residence. Old Town features the Royal Mile, a steep street with traditional Scottish pubs, delectable eateries, souvenir shops, and museums.
Situated just a 10-minute walk north of Old Town lies the city’s New Town, an elegant area lined with Georgian townhouses and plazas. Edinburgh’s New Town houses the famous Princes Street, a popular shopping district with chain stores and upscale boutiques. George Street is home to chic hotel bars and atmospheric cocktail lounges. When strolling through New Town, travelers should be sure to check out Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
3. Holyrood Palace
The Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh and the home of Scottish royal history, Holyrood Palace — also referred to as Palace of Holyrood House — is situated at the end of the city’s Royal Mile.
Holyrood Palace invites visitors to learn about its association with some of Scotland’s most renowned historical figures, including Mary, Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie. A visit to the palace also educates visitors on how the palace is used by the Queen to carry out official engagements in Scotland.
The Queen’s Gallery features changing exhibitions from the Royal Collection, including old master paintings, rare furniture, decorative arts, and images from a vast photograph collection.
The palace is open for visits Oct. 1 through Mar. 31 from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Apr. 1 through Oct. 31 from 9:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. A combined entry ticket to the palace and gallery for adults costs £19.10. Click here to purchase tickets online.
4. Calton Hill
Situated in Central Edinburgh just east of the city’s New Town, Calton Hill is yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It’s best to visit Calton Hill at sunrise for some of the most stunning views overlooking Edinburgh. The area is home to several prominent Scottish landmarks, such as the National Monument, Dugald Stewart Monument, Nelson Monument, the Old Royal High School, Burns Monument, Political Martyrs’ Monument, and the City Observatory.
Inspired by the Parthenon in Athens, the National Monument was built to commemorate the Scottish servicemen who died during the Napoleonic Wars. Shaped like a telescope turned upside down, Nelson Monument was established in 1816 to pay homage to the death of Admiral Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
5. Scotch Whisky Experience
A trip to Scotland wouldn’t be complete without trying some fine Scotch whisky. Edinburgh’s Scotch Whisky Experience invites visitors to partake in a variety of tours to discover the national beverage.
The Silver Tour is ideal for families and first-timers and includes a whisky barrel ride through the production process, an introduction to understanding its aromas, a dram of Scotch whisky, and a viewing of the world’s largest collection of Scotch. This tour lasts 1.5 hours and costs £15.50 for adults. Tickets for the Silver Tour can be purchased here.
The Platinum Tour is for whisky aficionados and features a guided nosing and tasting of five contrasting single malt whiskys, followed by an extended viewing of the world’s largest collection of Scotch whisky. The Platinum Tour lasts 1.5 hours and costs £38. Click here to purchase tickets for this tour.
6. Arthur’s Seat
If you’ve ever wanted to walk upon an ancient volcano overlooking a centuries-old European city, Edinburgh offers that opportunity at Arthur’s Seat.
Arthur’s Seat has some interesting historical and literary significance. It is allegedly often mentioned as one of the possible locations of Camelot, the legendary castle and court of King Arthur. Famed Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson also described Arthur’s Seat as “a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design.”
This rocky summit is the main peak of the group of hills in Edinburgh that form Holyrood Park and is popular for hillwalking, with stunning views in all directions. Due to its diverse range of flora and geology, it is consistently a site of special scientific interest.
7. St. Giles’ Cathedral
St. Giles’ Cathedral was founded in 1124 and became the focal point of Scottish Reformation in the 16th century. Welcoming visitors from all corners of the globe, St. Giles’ Cathedral is regarded as the Mother Church of World Presbyterianism.
Travelers can explore the building, take a guided tour, see the Thistle Chapel, climb the cathedral’s tower, or attend a service.
St. Giles’ Cathedral is open May through Sept. on Monday to Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., Saturdays from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sundays from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. From Oct. to Apr., the cathedral is open Monday to Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sundays from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Click here to book a guided walking tour online.
8. Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
As previously mentioned, Edinburgh is home to such a vast range of flora that certain sites are considered areas of specific scientific interest, such as Arthur’s Seat.
To get a better illustration of Edinburgh and Scotland’s diverse flora, head to Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Dedicated to the exploration, conservation, and explanation of the world of plants, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh features 70 acres of beautiful landscape to explore, with glasshouses that are home to 3,000 exotic plants from around the world.
Bonus: Take A Harry Potter Tour
The world of Harry Potter will always be closely associated with Edinburgh, the city where J.K. Rowling wrote much of the iconic series. Nowadays, the city’s walkability combines with its role in inspiring those famous books to offer a truly magical experience.
“Taking a walking tour helped us see quite a bit, but I wished I had had at least one more full day before we needed to leave,” says Cynthia Graham of Blue Bag Nomads. “And if you are a Harry Potter fan, you can take a tour of the places JK Rowling got some of her inspiration.”
There are number of Harry Potter themed walking tours to choose from, but the original is The Potter Trail.