Edinburgh has become synonymous with the annual Fringe Festival, which sees thousands of attendees flock to the city every August. But there are plenty of other amazing sights and attractions that pull in visitors all year round. From whisky tastings, to exploring Japanese gardens and 300-year-old underground passages, this is how you can get to know the Scottish capital.
Read on for all our expert tips, plus here’s what you can do for free in the Scottish capital. We can also help you plan a weekend in Edinburgh, alongside our dedicated guides covering the best hotels, restaurants, bars & pubs, nightlife and independent shops.
Immerse yourself in the world’s biggest arts festival
More than 60 years ago the International Festival’s founders set out to bring art, culture, colour and prosperity to a gritty and grey post-war Edinburgh. Now there are seven festivals in August, including the Fringe, Book and Comedy Festivals. Every year Edinburghers fall in love with it all over again as Auld Reekie becomes, quite literally, the city that never sleeps.
Insider’s tip: It’s worth planning well ahead as hotels and restaurants book up early and headline shows sell out, but if you haven’t, don’t despair; there’s somehow always a room, tent or even a sofa somewhere, and always another free show.
Visit the city’s goriest museum
You’ll need a strong stomach and a morbid sense of humour to enjoy the fascinating Surgeons’ Hall Museums. There are life-sized tableaux, tools of the surgical and dental trade that will make your toes curl (there’s probably a device for that), gruesome photographs, and pickled and preserved body parts. The unnervingly extensive collections include pathology and histories of surgery and dentistry.
Insider’s tip: One of the more disturbing objects on display is a notebook bound in the skin of William Burke – one of the well-known Edinburgh bodysnatchers. It’s possibly not the most family-friendly destination, unless your last name is Addams.
Take your taste buds for a stroll around town
An Eat, Walk Edinburgh tour will provide you with an excellent gourmet introduction to the city. Follow leader Alan Chalmers as he points out places of interest using a wireless audio system. You’ll try ‘starter-sized’ taster dishes and samples of whisky, wine and beer, but don’t expect all the food to be Scottish – this is about all the variety Edinburgh has to offer.
Insider’s tip: Plan this activity for day one, as you finish the tour with lots of useful information and a discount card for participating bars and restaurants. You’ll also benefit from a lovely glow from the exercise (and the nips of malt whisky along the way).
Explore the Queen’s Scottish home
A tour of the Palace of Holyroodhouse – Queen Elizabeth II’s official gaff in Scotland – will show you more tapestries, portraits, and plasterwork than you can shake a sceptre at. You’ll also be able to see Mary, Queen of Scots’ chambers, where her courtier Rizzio was stabbed 56 times and then thrown down the stairs by her jealous husband. There are free audio tours, a gift shop and a smart courtyard café.
Insider’s tip: In summer, take a guided tour of the hauntingly beautiful ruins of the nearby abbey, but keep in mind that the star attraction is the Queen’s Gallery with its fabulous exhibitions of the best art from the Royal Collections.
Explore the Queen’s Scottish home
The city’s most famous landmark broods over Edinburgh – an elephantine presence on its dramatic volcanic rock. Edinburgh Castle is home to the oldest crown jewels in Britain, the oldest building in the city, Mons Meg and the Stone of Destiny; it’s more than a monument, it’s part of every day life. In fact, locals have been setting their watches by the one o’clock gun since 1861.
Insider’s tip: There are complimentary guided tours to help you make sense of it all, or you can pay for an audio guide. Give the crowds a miss by purchasing tickets and downloading audio guides in advance online and visiting early in the day.
Take part in a literary-themed pub crawl
As the first Unesco City of Literature, Edinburgh has a long – and sometimes dishonourable – literary history. It’s cleverly brought to life on the Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour by two professional actors who focus on writers from the past. Tours start at 7.30pm in the Grassmarket and tickets can be bought online, at the meeting point, or from the Visit Scotland Information Centre in the Waverley Mall.
Insider’s tip: The tour makes stops in several pubs where you can have a drink while you enjoy the guides’ performance, or if you’re more of a misanthrope there’s a self-guided tour app on the website (but it’s more fun with the live guides).
Take a whisky masterclass
You may not be sure about the plastic barrel ride at the start, but there are worse ways to learn how whisky is made. The tour leaders at The Scotch Whisky Experience are brilliant and the Gold Tour upgrade is a revelation. Aficionados should opt for the Morning Masterclass, and gourmands should consider the Taste of Scotland Whisky and Food Tour, which includes a three-course meal in the Amber Restaurant.
Insider’s tip: After the tour, visit the bar to find 300 whiskies and great views. It also offers Scotland’s other national drink – Irn-Bru – for teetotallers. If you have a cold, ask for a restorative hot toddy.
Go ghost hunting
You can’t throw a haggis on the Royal Mile without hitting a ghost tour, but if you’re looking for one grounded in history, The Real Mary King’s Close is the tour for you. You’ll explore hidden 17th-century streets – long considered to be haunted by plague victims who were walled up alive. The odd murder and a healthy population of other ghosts adds further interest.
Insider’s tip: Bear in mind there are 58 steps down and 38 up to be negotiated, so it’s not suitable for pushchairs, wheelchairs, the claustrophobic, or those with limited mobility. Children under five will not be admitted at all.
Step into a world of optical illusions
Even in a high-tech world, a simple pin-hole camera that can project razor sharp moving images from distances that defeat modern cameras feels like magic. Children will love Camera Obscura and World of Illusions, and enjoy learning how to make do-it-yourself spyware using a cardboard box, tin foil and a blanket. There are optical illusions, games and a dizzying holographic exhibit that will delight visitors of all ages, too.
Insider’s tip: It’s a great way to spend time on a wet day or revive tired children, and the 360-degree view from the roof is one of the best perspectives on the city – no matter what kind of camera you use.
Experience life in 17th-century Edinburgh
Experience life in 17th-century Edinburgh. Should you find yourself wandering down the Royal Mile, wondering what it was like to live in a towering tenement 300 hundred years ago, you can find out on a visit to Gladstone’s Land. The National Trust has meticulously restored this wealthy Edinburgh merchant’s house to provide a fascinating recreation of the cramped conditions – even for the wealthy – in 17th-century Edinburgh. And there’s a good ice cream parlour, too. Try ‘The Butcher’ – vanilla ice cream, candied bacon and whisky sauce.
Insider’s tip: You’ll see the kitchen and a pretty panelled parlour, but don’t miss the Painted Chamber. This bedroom contains what is considered the best original wall and ceiling decoration in Scotland.
The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
No one can fail to be stirred by this anachronistic but irresistible spectacle. Perhaps it’s the vibrating beat of hundreds of drums accompanying perfectly drilled marching bands, or the skirl of pipes (or twirl of kilts)? Or the sheer scale of it, under the towering walls of Edinburgh Castle, bursting fireworks overhead making the pulse beat faster. It certainly takes a heart of stone not to feel the pathos of the lone piper’s lament calling from high on the ramparts. Every festival-goer should go at least once (there’s a different theme each year). Just remember to take a handkerchief.
Tour the city in an open-top bus
You’ll find several sightseeing tours operating under the Edinburgh Bus Tours banner, but The City Sightseeing Tour offers a useful overview of the major attractions, operates all year round and is particularly good for children – the choice of audio commentaries includes a ‘Horrible Histories’ version for young ones. There are various itineraries available, varying from one-hour tours to 24- or 48-hour tours.
Insider’s tip: Take the 3 Bridges Bus and Boat Tour to venture further afield. Get off at the pier in South Queensferry and cross the road to the Hawes Inn to find a cosy fire in winter and a beer garden for sunny weather. It’s also where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Kidnapped.
Dress up like 18th-century landed gentry
A visit to The Georgian House (a National Trust property) on the enduringly fashionable Charlotte Square is an absorbing way to get a sense of what life was like in a prosperous 18th-century household in the New Town – both for the family and those below stairs. The house was designed by Scottish neoclassical architect Robert Adam, and is a particularly fine example of Georgian architecture that’s been beautifully and accurately furnished.
Insider’s tip: Do talk to the guides in each room who like to show off their detailed knowledge and if your children aren’t inspired by antiques, they can dress up in the period costumes available in the activity room.
Learn to cook Scottish fare
Gourmands can get to grip with local ingredients on a full-day cookery course. The well-regarded Edinburgh New Town Cookery School runs small one-day courses that are both professional and fun. Use the best Scottish ingredients in the Fish and Shellfish Workshop, or learn how to cook with game in a masterclass of meat. Those with a sweet tooth will enjoy the indulgent creations in a Delicious Desserts class.
Insider’s tip: At the end of the experience, you’ll get to try your hard work with a glass or two of wine in an elegant dining room with views all the way to the Firth of Forth. Book early as courses fill up quickly.
Visit Edinburgh’s ‘other castle’
Locals like to take visitors to this charming alternative to Edinburgh Castle. Craigmillar Castle is one of best examples of the medieval variety in Scotland and much of the structure is in remarkably good order. Explore from the top of the tower house to the gloomy basement where a skeleton was found walled up in the early 19th century. Mary, Queen of Scots stayed here twice – the area is still called Petit France.
Insider’s tip: Wood from ancient yew trees in the inner courtyard is said to have been used for making bows, which is an interesting fact for inspiring children’s imaginations in a place where they are positively encouraged to run wild.
Tee up for outstanding city vistas
The Gentleman Golfers of Leith established the ‘rules of golfing’ on Leith Links in 1744, arguably making Edinburgh the home of golf. While you can no longer play in Leith, the 18-holes at the Edinburgh City Council-run Braid Hills Golf Course is a bargain. The layout itself is vertically challenging and is a Par 71 course. You can hire clubs and trolleys if you haven’t brought your own.
Insider’s tip: It’s worth a round even if you’re not a golfer, if only for the glorious views across the city to the Firth of Forth. Also be sure to look out for the gorse bushes – an unusually painful hazard.
Climb aboard a floating royal residence
The Royal Yacht Britannia was apparently frozen in time long before she was decommissioned. Look out for the various props found inside – there’s everything from well-used board games in the sun lounge to toothbrushes in tumblers in the crew quarters. Together, the items bring Britannia, and the Queen’s fascinating frugality, to chintz-upholstered, brass-polished life. The comprehensive tour proceeds at a leisurely pace set by handheld recorded information delivered in suitably plummy tones.
Insider’s tip: Do plan to pause in the Royal Deck Tea Room for remarkably good simple lunches or a slap-up tea. Don’t miss the gift shop either, which is amusingly filled with stuffed corgis.
Out of Town
Discover the city on two wheels
You can take a gentle three-hour guided ride around The Royal Mile, New Town, Holyrood Park and Portobello with Edinburgh Bike Tours, or hire by the day for your own tour on Edinburgh’s extensive system of cycle routes; tagalongs, trailers and bikes for children are available. You’ll need to be fit, but not Tour de France standard.
Insider’s tip: Catch the sea breeze on a full-day tour along the coast, which takes in historic Cramond, Queensferry and the Forth Bridges. You’ll escape the city traffic and see fascinating areas other tours don’t touch.
Explore underground coves
Many locals don’t know about Gilmerton Cove, and it is certainly one of the city’s more obscure attractions. Even archaeologists can’t explain the 300-year-old underground passages and rock-furnished rooms, hand carved from sandstone and hidden underneath the streets of this quiet suburb; but there are plenty of theories, as the enthusiastic guides will tell you. Maybe it was a meeting place for the Hellfire Club, a hiding place for Covenanters, or a drinkers’ den? Make up your own mind when you visit.
Insider’s tip: Tours must be pre-booked and are unsuitable for wheelchair users and children under five. Steep steps and rough (sometimes wet) floors require sturdy shoes. Remember to take a torch for solo exploring.
Amble through a Japanese garden
Lauriston Castle is a 16th-century tower house with Victorian extensions. The building overlooks the Firth and is surrounded by woodlands and a Japanese garden. Inside, it’s home to an impressive collection of fine furniture and ceramics, as well as the personal belongings of its wealthy owners. Look for the newspaper in the sitting room reporting the sinking of the Titanic.
Insider’s tip: Take a pleasing 15-minute stroll to the Boardwalk Beach Club café. It sits right on shores of the Firth and has a huge outdoor seating area with blankets, great views and yummy soups, sandwiches and scones. Children and dogs are looked after, too.
Price: £; the grounds are free