You probably know Edinburgh as home to the Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival. For three weeks every August, this citywide mega-jamboree involves thousands of plays, stand-up, live music and literary events cropping up all over town. The fun, feverish, slightly chaotic atmosphere makes this quite easily the best time to visit, but we must say the bustling Edinburgh restaurant scene and its vast array of hard-to-beat pubs make it an excellent, exhilarating year-round destination, too – especially if you’re into your food and drink.
And boy, that scenery. The Scottish capital isn’t known as ‘the Athens of the North’ for nothing. The rugged surrounding landscape and particularly Arthur’s Seat – a volcano, fortunately extinct – make it a prime spot for urban exploration, with winding alleys, hill-top landmarks and all that surrounding woodland creating picture-postcard views everywhere you turn. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say Edinburgh’s a photographer’s dream, and quite possibly the most beautiful city in the UK.
So, planning a holiday here and need some inspiration? Here’s what you should get up to next time you’re in town: 20 things to do in Edinburgh you simply have to tick off. Just don’t forget to take some pics.
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Best things to do in Edinburgh
There aren’t many cities that boast an extinct volcano, but Edinburgh manages to squeeze a couple of them into two miles. Arthur’s Seat is visible from much of the centre since it rises out of the wide grasslands of Holyrood Park. If you want to visit, pop on your hiking boots. At just over 250 metres, it makes for a (relatively) easy hike and at the highest point you’ll discover matchless views of the city skyline. On May Day it’s traditional for young women to wash their face with the hill’s morning dew to (supposedly) make them beautiful – although we’d argue that’s a pretty bracing start to the day at any time of year, regardless of your gender.
It’s one of the UK’s most iconic tourist attractions and Edinburgh Castle is worthy of the attention. Sitting boldly atop the city’s other extinct volcano, it’s a grandiose and constantly visible reminder of the settlement’s historic roots. Plan your visit to coincide with one of the castle’s many actor-led historical events – those old stone walls really come to life when they’re hosting an audience with Mary, Queen of Scots. Plus, if you get peckish there’s a traditional tea room where you can munch on homemade scones with strawberry jam and a satisfying dollop of clotted cream. Winner.
Edinburgh is famous for a few things and whisky is most certainly one of them. It comes as no surprise that there are several ways to wet your whisky whistle in Edinburgh and beyond (try saying that after a few drams). If you’re after a tipple, head out on one of the city’s guided walks where you’ll visit Edinburgh’s best bars or, for a more in-depth look at boozy creation processes, grab a ticket for a distillery tour around the Southern Highlands. Trust us – you’ll know your mashing from your malting in no time.
The ever-evolving Leith area of Edinburgh – known as the Shore – is fast building a reputation as a cosmopolitan, culturally significant district in its own right. The historic Leith Theatre has been saved from disrepair and is now a haven for music and theatre lovers, particularly during the Fringe. And trendy bars and must-visit restaurants also abound – try the Lioness of Leith for burgers and cocktails, or Fishers for lip-smackingly fresh seafood.
Apparently one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite picture houses, the Cameo cinema has been operating under one name or another for more than 100 years. Recently refurbished with some of the comfiest cinema seats in town, it’s the ideal place to catch a well-curated season (usually focused on a specific director’s work) or special cinematic event (such as its legendary All Night Horror Madness marathon sessions). Even if you don’t fancy watching a film, the venue’s bar is an easygoing place to sip a pint and eavesdrop on some serious cinephile chatter.
Art exhibitions, theatre performances, gigs, clubs, films, talks, workshops – there’s very little you can’t do at Summerhall, the multi-arts venue housed in a former veterinary school just off the Meadows. It even has its own microbrewery, churning out the tasty and refreshing Barney’s Beer, which you can sip while enjoying a meal in the wood-panelled bar out back.
The LCD Soundsystem-inspired murals that cover the rear walls of Sneaky Pete’s should clue you in that this is a club with impeccable taste. It’s open every night to capacity crowds of 100, but don’t let the small size fool you – with past guests including Leon Vynehall and Auntie Flo, as well as regular takeovers by taste-makers Heaters & Rinse FM, it’s probably the finest club in town.
Martin Wishart opened his flagship venue in Leith back in 1999 and was still well ahead of the curve when he gained his Michelin star just two years later. Back then, the Shore area was finding its feet and just as the area has continued to boom, Wishart’s restaurant has lost none of its appeal. On a weekday, you might catch some local business folk chewing the fat, but this is largely the domain of locals and visitors to the city keen to splash the cash in one of its finest restaurants. This is elegant, decadent dining at its best, with Scottish ingredients laying the foundation for both traditional and modern French cuisine.
Whatever your artistic preference, there’s a Scottish National Gallery to suit you. The Greek-columned National Galleries complex is located right in the heart of the city, at the foot of the Mound on Princes Street; the red sandstone Portrait Gallery is nestled five minutes away in the New Town; and both Modern Art One and Two occupy the grassy area above the picturesque Dean Village to the west. Set aside an afternoon to absorb some resident masterpieces and visiting exhibitions.
A regular on worldwide best bar lists, New Town haunt Bramble makes a lot from a little: its packed basement premises can probably fit fewer than 100 people comfortably, but the expertly curated cocktail menu ensures you’ll be rubbing elbows with the hippest of Edinburgh’s drinking set. And the unabashedly out-there concoctions are just as cool as the clientele. We recommend punting for the Mint 500 if you’re not sure what to try – or ask the bar staff who are great at giving recommendations. But be warned, liquor-lovers: as with any highly reputable bar, expect a squeeze on Friday and Saturday nights. Don’t let that stop you, though.
If you want to catch any big-hitting touring shows, this historic theatrical space is where to go. Opened as the Festival Theatre in 1994, it was constructed from the remains of the old Empire Palace Theatre, a hall that had been around since 1892, and which was known to locals as a variety and concert hall that had welcomed acts including Laurel & Hardy, Judy Garland, Morecambe and Wise and David Bowie over the decades. It comes complete with its own theatrical ghost story – renowned illusionist the Great Lafayette perished in a fire there during a performance in 1911. The theatre seats 2,000 and regularly hosts comedy, ballet, opera and live music as well as plays.
Rightly considered the leading light of the Scottish comedy scene, The Stand (which also has branches in Glasgow and Newcastle) is just as likely to feature old hands like Dylan Moran practising new material as it is new talent treading the comedic boards for the first time. It’s a hugely popular venue during the Fringe, with a lot of shows selling out their run (take note – it’s Daniel Kitson’s Edinburgh venue of choice). Keep an eye out for its Monday night Red Raw sessions for a cheap and cheerful night of up-and-comers.
Edinburgh is famous for its dark and bloody past. With well-known grave robbers, underground vaults and half-dead hanging victims in its fabled history, it’s no surprise there’s a whole host of Edinburgh tour companies aiming to let you in on the city’s shadiest secrets. Mercat Tours will guide you through graveyards and into dank cellars (before offering a complimentary whisky to cool off), while City of the Dead promise to introduce visitors to Damnation Alley and a ‘hidden metropolis’ below the city streets. Put on your bravest face.
The large, leafy expanse of the Meadows lies in the shadow of Edinburgh University’s central campus, so it’s not surprising to see the place swamped with sunbathing students during the summer. A relaxing, airy alternative to the rushing traffic and labyrinthine wynds of the Old Town, the Meadows also connects the city centre with the calmer suburbs of the Southside, home to many a deli, café and boutique.
Despite suffering a series of venue closures over the past decade or so, Edinburgh still has a vibrant live music scene – you just have to know where to look. The high-ceilinged Queen’s Hall is probably the venue with the broadest scope: as well as hosting gigs as part of the annual Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival and providing a permanent home for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, it’s also welcomed Canadian pianist Chilly Gonzales, alt-country pioneer Jeff Tweedy and grunge survivor Mark Lanegan during its tenure.
Café St Honoré has been around for donkeys, but still, quite rightly, comes up in conversation as one of the nicest spots for a smart bistro meal in the centre of Edinburgh. It used to follow a French bent, but that got sidelined long ago in favour of locally sourced Scottish produce, cooked expertly following ‘slow food’ principles. ‘Good, honest ingredients cooked simply’ is chief director Neil Forbe’s motto, and each day begins with a batch of sourdough bread. Despite the earnest attention to detail, this foodie swottiness doesn’t feel overbearing – it just makes for some outstandingly fresh meals, cooked in rich, warming sauces.
Its sooty spire a throwback to Auld Reekie’s polluted past, the Scott Monument (dedicated to the memory of Sir Walter Scott and not, as is often believed, to the people of Scotland) is a Gothic marvel puncturing the well-manicured greenery of Princes Street Gardens. Squeeze your way up its narrow spiral staircase for a breathtaking view that was immortalised in 2012 sci-fi flick ‘Cloud Atlas’. You do have to pay, but tickets are reasonably priced and it’s totally worth it. After all, this is one of the tallest monuments dedicated to a writer in the world.
The winding Victoria Street swoops from George IV Bridge down to the historic Grassmarket, and is home to Edinburgh’s finest selection of independent boutiques. If you’re ready to drop some pennies, you can discover contemporary fashion items in Swish and more formal, tweed-based couture in Walker Slater; designer homeware in The Red Door Gallery and Harry Potter paraphernalia at Museum Context. Not to mention the extensive range of foodie delights on offer, from the distinctive scent of cheesemonger I.J. Mellis, the hog roast of Oink and the array of flasks and bottles in the windows of Demijohn and The Whisky Shop.
This museum of visual illusions seems like an odd fit for the Old Town – we love a wonky fairground mirror as much as the next person, but why is it cheek-by-jowl with historic attractions such as Edinburgh Castle? Everything becomes clear when you reach the top floor. There you find the camera obscura itself – a Victorian structure inside which the whole capital cityscape is projected (without a single bar of wi-fi needed) onto a broad viewing table. It’s a unique, exciting way to see the skyline – and the views from the surrounding terrace aren’t half bad either.
If you arrive in Edinburgh via the Waverley train station, the first sight you’re likely to see is the imposing bulk of the Balmoral hotel. Topped with a clock that allegedly runs a few minutes early to help commuters catch their trains, it’s an old-school hotel that follows in the grandest of traditions – after you’ve stayed there once, you won’t want to fall asleep (or wake up) anywhere else. Its Michelin-starred restaurant Number One – led by head chef Mark Donald – seals the deal.