Edinburgh is a popular weekend destination or a stopover on an adventure to the highlands of Scotland. If you’re just popping into Edinburgh for 2 days, the compact layout of the main sights in Edinburgh means you can see a lot in a short space of time.
If it’s your first visit and you want to know what you must see in Edinburgh, then this list is the perfect place to start. If this isn’t enough for you, check out all the fun things to do in Edinburgh, free and not free!
1. Edinburgh Castle
A visit to Edinburgh isn’t complete without going to the castle. You don’t necessarily need to go inside Edinburgh Castle, although I think it’s worth the visit at least once! The most impressive views of Edinburgh Castle are from the outside and the streets surrounding the castle, but be sure to go up to the forecourt of Edinburgh Castle. There are great views over Edinburgh and you can see the castle up close. However, from June until September a huge grandstand is erected here for the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.
2. The Royal Mile
The Royal Mile is the High Street of Edinburgh, running downhill from Edinburgh Castle at the top to Holyrood Palace at the foot. The group of streets that form the mile are now lined with restaurants, pubs, hotels and shops. The top half is the busiest and has a lot of souvenir shops with goods ranging from cheap and kitsch to high quality mementos.
Near the top you can find the Scottish Whisky Experience, as well as St Giles Cathedral and Mary Kings Close. Mary Kings Close is a a glimpse into Edinburgh’s past where you get to venture into one of the old alleys off the Royal Mile that has now been built over.
Head to the bottom half of the Royal Mile for a bit more peace and cheaper pubs and cafes. My favourite being Clarinda’s Tea Room, which it’s quaint decor and traditional food. It’s a perfect spot for breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea!
3. Holyrood Palace
Nestled at the end of the Royal Mile is Holyrood Palace, the official residence of the Kings and Queens of Scotland since the 1600s. This is where the Queen stays when she comes to Edinburgh. I found the audio guide tour through the apartment of Mary Queen of Scots intriguing, and I do think it’s worth the visit.
4. Arthur’s Seat
Near Holyrood Palace, watching over all of Edinburgh is Arthur’s Seat. The first time someone mentioned Arthur’s Seat I had no idea what it was. Arthur’s Seat is the highest point of a group of hills formed by a volcano. No one quite knows why it’s named that, but it’s height provides stunning views of the whole of Edinburgh. There are well laid paths to climb, although it can essentially be climbed from any direction. I wouldn’t advise going ip Arthur’s Seat on windy days, but it’s not too strenuous and the views of Edinburgh can’t be beaten.
5. Salisbury Crags
Right next to Arthur’s Seat are the Salisbury Crags, a series of cliffs which also give stunning views over Edinburgh. They’re a less arduous climb than Arthur’s Seat. I love wandering along here on a nice day, and if it’s been wet there are some decent paths to follow.
The Salisbury Crags used to be a great climbing spot, but erosion means they’re not too stable and climbing can now only be done with a permit. At Hogmanay (New Year) many people climb up both here and Arthur’s Seat to ring in the New Year and view the fireworks over the city.
6. National Museum of Scotland
Admission to the National Museum of Scotland of free and it makes for the perfect rainy day activity in Edinburgh. There’s a wealth of history within its walls, as well as art, culture and science exhibitions.
The National Museum of Scotland consists of two buildings, one of which is a large open gallery. It’s also the spot of one of Edinburgh’s hidden gems, the rooftop terrace with beautiful views across Edinburgh.
7. Greyfriars Kirkyard
Greyfriars Kirkyard is the graveyard of Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh. It might sound morbid to visit a graveyard on holiday, but Edinburgh wouldn’t be the first to have such a gloomy tourist attraction (think Pierre Lachaise in Paris). Greyfriars has always been well known as the burial site of Greyfriars Bobby, a Scottish dog who guarded his masters grave for 13 years after his death.
In more recent times Greyfriars has become popular with Harry Potter fans wanting to trace J K Rowlings footsteps. She famously began writing Harry Potter in the nearby Elephant Cafe, and would take breaks in the Kirkyard. The grave of William McGonagall is said to be the inspiration for the name of Professor McGonagall. Nearby is the grave of a Thomas Riddell, which has not been explicitly stated as the inspiration for the name of he who shall not be named, would be a strange coincidence if it wasn’t!
8. The Meadows
If it’s a sunny day in Edinburgh then the meadows is one of the top places to go. Grab a portable barbeque and some drinks and join the countless others spread across the grass soaking up the sunshine. Just across from the Meadows on Bruntsfield Links you can partake in the traditional Scottish game of golf. Visit the Gold Tavern to hire your clubs and balls.
In spring the paths of the Meadows are lined with beautiful blossom trees so even if you’re only on a short trip to Edinburgh, it’s a beautiful spot to check out.
9. The Grassmarket
Situated below Edinburgh Castle, the Grassmarket was the location of the historic market place of Edinburgh. It was also the site of public executions.
Like in the past, you can still find a range of pubs here, including Scotland’s oldest pub, The White Hart Inn, Scotland’s smaller pub, The Wee Pub. There’s also a pub named after Maggie Dickson, said to have survived her public hanging and therefore been allowed to go free. The Beehive Inn is another favourite, and it has a multi-level beer garden that’s one of the best in Edinburgh.
Just next to the Grassmarket is Victoria Street, often named one of the prettiest streets in Edinburgh. I’d recommend a stroll through this area in the evening since there are plenty of places to grab a bite to eat and a drink.
Read more: 19 Best Beer Gardens in Edinburgh
10. Princes Street Gardens
Once a polluted loch in the shadows of Edinburgh Castle, this green space in the centre of Edinburgh is now a favourite workers lunch spot, when the suns shining that is. Changing with the seasons, the gardens make a wonderful spot to view Edinburgh Castle and the buildings of the Old Town on one side, and Princes Street and the New Town on the other.
11. Scottish National Gallery
Home of the Scottish fine art collection, from the Renaissance to today, the Scottish National Gallery is another perfect place to escape a rainy day in Edinburgh. The building itself stretches from Princes Street down to basement galleries, and also contains a cafe and shop.
12. Scott Monument
The Scott Monument is that spaceship looking tower you can see along Princes Street. This Victorian Gothic construction is dedicated to the Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott, and it’s largest monument dedicated to a writer in the world. You can climb the tower for a small fee and take in the surrounding sights of Edinburgh from all different platform levels. If you climb right to the top it’s 287 steps.
13. Calton Hill
Views both of and from Calton Hill are often used in showcasing Edinburgh. The distinct design of the Dugald Stewart monument with a view of the sunset over Edinburgh Castle in the background is a beautiful one. The sun sets in different spots in the sky throughout the year, and the best time to see the sun silhouetting Edinburgh Castle is in winter. Climbing Calton Hill is much less demanding than Arthur’s Seat or the Crags, and it’s a perfect spot to take beautiful pictures of Edinburgh.
14. The New Town
Princes Street, Rose Street and George Street all run parallel in the New Town of Edinburgh. Head to Princes Street for shopping and views across the Princes Street gardens towards Edinburgh Castle. The pedestrian Rose Street has more traditional pubs, some with live music, and George Street has more up market shops and bars.
If you’ve managed to see the rest of this list in a weekend or quick visit to Edinburgh then you can wander down to Stockbridge, just north of New Town. It has the atmosphere of a village despite being so close to the city centre. It’s home to many cafes, pubs, charity shops and boutiques and has bohemian vibe about it. The Stockbridge Market on Sundays is a great place to grab a tasty bite to eat or browse the stalls of homemade crafts and artisan food.
16. Dean Village
Dean Village, situated near Stockbridge and only 5 minutes from Princes Street, is a former grain milling village. You can still see some of the grain mills and carved stone plaques here, and it’s a picturesque area along the Water of Leith.
Where to stay in Edinburgh
Staying in central Edinburgh on a quick visit would help with the ease of seeing everything. Of course, accommodation can be more expensive in the centre, but there are generally deals going on Booking.com.
If you’re on a budget then there are backpackers dotted around the central city from the Grassmarket to Princes Street and near Haymarket Train Station. You don’t need to go to a backpackers to be cheap though, with a range of accommodation just outside the central part of Edinburgh.
There are countless B&B’s within walking distance of the city centre, and the buses in Edinburgh are plentiful and run on a regular schedule. I’d recommend to the west for somewhere between the city and the airport.
Have you been to Edinburgh? Did I miss any major sites?
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