Capital and cultural center of Scotland, Edinburgh is an extraordinary city for tourism. Its gothic aura, with tall medieval building surrounding the central streets, permeates every corner of the town. The castle dominates its skyline, giving protection and reassurance to its inhabitants since the 12th century.
There’s plenty of things to do in the city, from visiting the castle to hiking to Arthur’s Seat, and it’s easy to forget about the surrounding. That’s why we wanted to create a ranking of our must-see places in the city and around it.
How to get here
Edinburgh is the second largest city in the UK (after London), and it has every facility you would expect (well, apart from a metro line, a heated issue among its inhabitants!). The airport offers its primary connection to London and continental Europe, while the train is a valid alternative. The city center has few parking spots available; if you are renting a car, you may prefer to find a B&B with private parking and get a bus from there!
Where to sleep
We always suggest a B&B in Scotland, and Edinburgh is no exception. The availability of B&Bs is high, as well as Airbnb offers. Be careful when visiting the city in August, as The Fringe, the biggest art festival in the world, takes place during that period. Expect high prices and low availability for the whole month!
Top Things to do in Edinburgh
So take a look at our top seven things to see and do in and around Edinburgh, and plan accordingly!
Does this name ring any bell? It should in case you read the novel “The Da Vinci Code” or watched the film adaption. The Rosslyn Chapel, a 15th-century building 20 minutes far from Edinburgh, features prominently in Dan Brown’s work. Of course, speculative theories concerning a connection between this place and Freemasonry, the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail have long been debunked, but the weird architecture and the fantastic interior decoration of the chapel are real.
The church is wholly covered with carvings. From the famous Apprentice and Master pillars to the flowered ceilings, every inch of the building is covered with elaborate decorations and figures. It’s amazing. We could spend hours looking for the most exciting bits. Several free guided tours are available throughout the day, and we recommend doing one of them to get a better understanding of the place and the rational explanation of the sculptures.
Wherever you are in Edinburgh, you can’t really miss the castle, on top of the rocky hill dominating the city center. An impressive location. Unfortunately, a visit to the place does not cope with the expectations we had.
The castle is one of the widest in Scotland, with at least two sets of walls and seven set of gates. No need to say, it’s never been conquered by a frontal attack, and we could easily see why! The current buildings are from the 16th century, except the 12th-century chapel, the oldest construction in the city. Since the reunification, the importance of the castle declined, as it was mainly used as a garrison. Currently, it hosts three museums about different military groups and several army memorials
That’s the main issue we had with this spot. It’s always been used over the centuries, and it still is nowadays. This cause this place to lose its aura of mystery, of magic that other castles have. Also, the amount of tourists here is much higher than in any other place we visited, as the castle is a primary destination for anybody visiting the city.
If you go to Edinburgh, you will inevitably end up here, but after the visit, consider one of the other castles nearby, much better and less crowded!
Looking for the best view of Edinburgh? Arthur’s Seat is the place to go. With no connection with King Arthur (whose legend is English, not Scottish!), this extinct volcano is a beautiful spot for a morning walk, with a splendid view of the city and the sea from its top.
We suggest to reach the Seat summit from the southern track and descending from the northern side. In this way, you’ll be able to admire the Holyrood Palace Gardens from a privileged point of view. Furthermore, you can visit the Palace straight after. There is nothing like a pleasant morning walk to start the day!
The most famous of Edinburgh’s distilleries, Glenkinchie, is half an hour by car from city center. The place is surrounded by smooth green hills, making it one of the most relaxing and beautiful natural spots in the lowlands.
Glenkinchie distillery is an enjoyable visit and a delicious introduction to the universe of Whiskys in Scotland. They organize regular tours, usually one per hour, where passionate guides describe the various steps necessary for the production of this unique product. Also, the bar at the end of the tour is well furnished with several kinds of scotches from everywhere in Scotland, making it a perfect learning center.
Delicious tip: You can visit the distillery even if you need to drive afterward: just ask for a plastic cup, so that you can enjoy your drink after reaching the hotel!
The official residence of the British Crown in Scotland, Holyrood Palace is mainly used for ceremonies and gala events when the queen travels to Edinburgh. In particular, the annual reunion and ceremony of confirmation of the Order of the Thistle, the most important chivalry order in Scotland, takes place here in June.
The palace sits at the end of the Royal Mile, on the opposite side of Edinburgh Castle. It’s in the shape of a quadrangle, where the central and the western sides are open to visitors, composed of the 17th-century private apartments of the King and the State rooms. The building, originally built in 1505 by King James IV, has been the residency of the Scottish Crown until the Reunification in 1603. The most notable resident of the castle has been Mary Queen of Scots, who stayed here from his return to Scotland, in 1561, until her forced abdication in 1567. It’s here where she assisted to the violent murder of his private secretary, David Rizzio, killed by her first husband and his followers.
It’s an enjoyable historical visit. Of course, the palace has not been much used since the 17th century, and it can’t really be compared to any other monarchy residence in Europe, but it does have its amusing bits, especially considering the dramatic and often violent events that took place among these four walls. The grounds surrounding the building are occupied by some delightful gardens and the evocative ruins of Holyrood Abbey. This 12th-century church has its origin lost in the myth when King David I founded it after being saved by a miracle while he was hunting in the forest. The Scottish parliament met here several times before the annexed palace was built in 1501. The abbey was destroyed in 1688, during the events of the Glorious Revolution, when the royal tombs that were once present in the building were destroyed.
You can directly reach the palace on the road back from Arthur’s seat, making it a suitable follow-up visit. This is a relaxing, interesting spot that taught us a bit of history of Scotland without being tiring or boring. A recommended tour.
St. Giles Cathedral
The main worship building in Edinburgh, St Giles cathedral was the epicenter of some of the most notable events of the city and the State. In particular, John Knox, the founder of Presbyterianism, was a minister of this place for more than ten years, working up his audience and starting the Scottish Reformation movement.
The “cathedral” is not, of course, a proper cathedral in the Catholic sense, as the church is not the seat of a bishop. Inside, the building keeps the traditional characteristics of a Reformation place of worship, with a general minimalistic style (compared to Catholic churches of the same period!). A notable exception is represented by the Thistle Chapel, the chapel of the Order of the Thistle, the most important chivalry order in Scotland.
We passed several times past this place, conveniently located in the city center, and chances are you will do the same. This is also one of the few buildings in the city that stay open after 5 PM, so keep this visit as the last thing to do on a busy day!
What are the only buildings that can be compared with ruined castles in terms of suggestiveness? Ruins of abbeys of course! And Scotland has an extensive choice of them, from St. Andrews to Holyrood Abbey. One of the most famous and evocative ones is Melrose Abbey. One hour drive from Edinburgh, Melrose is a beautiful little village on Scotland’s south border. The most impressive building is the ruins of a medieval monastery, founded by Cistercian monks in 1136. It was the first monastery of this order in Scotland at that time.
The ruins of the abbey are among the most impressive we could find in Scotland. Many of the walls still show some of the decorations that characterized the building, as well as the windows. It’s a pure representation of High Gothic style, with the typical pointed arches and the buttresses. On top of that, a suggestive cemetery surrounds the church, offering endless possibilities to take beautiful pictures.
This is one of the most impressive buildings we visited in this region. It’s a bit far away from the city of Edinburgh (it’s far from anything else actually!), but it’s well worth the detour!
Delicious tip: Do not miss the opportunity to have a walk in Melrose, a typical countryside village of the Lowlands! 10 minutes from the abbey by car we stopped to take a couple of pictures at the Leaderfoot Viaduct, a delightful bridge enclosed in a beautiful valley.
Edinburgh is a lovely city, it’s a mandatory stop in any tour of Scotland, but it may also be a perfect spot for a weekend break from anywhere in the UK. The medieval aura that permeates the town adds that touch of mystery to a place with so much history.