From the cobblestones of the Royal Mile to the quaint atmosphere of Dean Village, Edinburgh is a brilliant and culturally significant city, a hilly capital filled with ancient castles, bustling marketplaces, and grassy spaces. Use this guide to explore all that the capital city has to offer.
A short stroll from the famous Royal Mile, Arthur’s Seat is an ancient volcano situated 251 meters (823 feet) above sea level. The towering natural structure provides staggering views of the city and is host to one of four hill forts, each roughly two millennia old. Described by Robert Louis Stevenson as “a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design,” Arthur’s Seat is a prominent peak among Scotland’s undulating hills.
Set right in the heart of Edinburgh, you can’t miss Calton Hill with its Athenian-like structure perched at the top. The monument is actually unfinished, because the funds ran out shortly after construction began in 1822, but the hill is easily accessible and perfect for an afternoon jaunt. Lay on the grassy hills to take in the panoramic views of the city, or make your way up at night for some prime views of the night sky — there are even two observatories at the top to assist your stargazing.
This quaint village northwest of the city center feels like an idyllic oasis straight out of a fantasy novel — cobblestone walkways, bucolic gardens, whispering streams … Even if you’ve only got time for a quick stroll, make sure you add Dean Village to your itinerary.
If there’s one can’t-miss site in all of Edinburgh, this is it. The nation’s world-famous icon is not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but was also recently voted the top U.K. Heritage attraction at the British Travel Awards. The clifftop palace features towering stained-glass masterpieces and humbling views of the surrounding city skyline. This historic fortress, built in the 1100s, is an absolute must.
Edinburgh Writers’ Museum
You don’t have to be a bibliophile to visit this museum situated right off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. The Edinburgh Writers’ Museum celebrates the lives of three of the city’s most famous voices — Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Burns. From Stevenson’s riding boots to Scott’s rocking horse to Burns’ writing desk, the museum houses an eclectic mix of rare books and objects owned by the spectacular scribes. Take some time to explore this monument to three literary greats.
Whether you’re looking to procure some souvenirs, grab a pint or a quick bite, or just soak in the atmosphere of the city, Grassmarket is one of the most vibrant destinations in Edinburgh’s Old Town. This hotspot of independent merchants, artisans, and designers is bustling with locals and tourists alike. Don’t worry about making a plan — simply explore the bustling hub and let the cobblestoned streets lead you wherever they wish.
Greyfriar’s Bobby Memorial Statue
To the uninformed eye, all there is to see here is a statue of a dog and a pub. But take time to read the writing on the wall of the pub, and you’ll get to enjoy the story of this incredibly loyal pooch. The Skye Terrier, named Bobby, belonged to John Gray in the mid-19th century. When Gray died, he was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard, and Bobby spent the next 14 years by his owner’s grave. Though not the most artistically impressive statue in the city, Bobby deserves a visit simply for his outstanding story.
Part parish church, part concert venue, part world class heritage site, Greyfriar’s Kirk has served as an important Scottish landmark and place of worship for over 400 years. The surrounding kirkyard (or churchyard) holds the graves of many prominent citizens, including James Hutton, Henry Mackenzie, and Mary Erskine. The Gothic cathedral and wiry trees of the kirkyard give the venue an eerie vibe, but don’t be frightened. Harry Potter fans, keep an eye out for familiar names on the headstones.
Palace of Holyroodhouse
The regal Palace of Holyroodhouse stands at one end of the Royal Mile, towering against the breathtaking backdrop of Arthur’s Seat. The official Scottish residence of Her Majesty the Queen has a spectacular interior that features elegant tapestries and plasterwork ceilings — the exterior is just as magnificent. The stone castle rises stoically out of the courtyard, its tower spires resembling the magical architecture of “Harry Potter.”
Princes Street Gardens
In the shadow of Edinburgh Castle lies Princes Street Gardens, a floral utopia perfect for weddings, picnics, or even just a leisurely stroll. This is the height of Scottish tranquility — it features long winding trails and grassy hillsides that are ideal for afternoon breaks, in addition to cozy brick cabins, and an exquisitely carved fountain. Take a seat on the lawn or on one of the many park benches surrounding the flower beds, and enjoy the crisp Scottish air.
The Royal Mile
In the historic heart of Edinburgh lies the Royal Mile, a beautiful city street connecting Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Along the way, you’ll find a vast array of attractions, from beautiful cathedrals to quaint pubs and restaurants, to an eclectic mix of local shops. While the Mile offers a well-trodden route, don’t be afraid to get off the beaten path and explore a little — for instance, a detour down Dunbar’s Close will lead you to a peaceful garden in which you can grab a breath of fresh air.
Scottish Parliament Building
In front of Holyroodhouse, at the foot of the Royal Mile, sits the Scottish Parliament Building, a steel, oak, and granite feat of architecture. The building’s ornate design takes inspiration from the surrounding countryside, as it seems to rise directly from the grassy landscape. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Edinburgh’s Old Town, the Parliament Building has welcomed over three million visitors since its opening in 2004.
St. Giles Cathedral
Nearing its 900th birthday, this stellar cathedral in the heart of Edinburgh is often referred to as the “Cradle of Presbyterianism” due to its central role during the Reformation. It’s situated roughly halfway between Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, towering above the famed Royal Mile. Grab some photos of the intricate Gothic exterior, but make sure to save time to enjoy the stained glass windows inside as well.
Header photo by Iain Muirhead