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20 great things to do in Edinburgh

Edinburgh may be home to the world's largest arts festival every August, but it's packed with great things to do for the remaining 11 months as well. Here are our top 20

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe can dominate some people's thoughts about Scotland's capital city, and not without reason - it is the world's largest arts festival, after all. However, that's not to say Edinburgh isn't bursting with great things to do throughout the rest of the year too. Whether it's dining at its legendary restaurants, sipping on a wee dram at one of its best whisky bars, hitting the theatre or checking out the Old Town, there's plenty to keep you very busy indeed. Whether you're just visiting or have lived here for years, here are the 20 essential things you have to do for a true Edinburgh experience.

Edinburgh things to do

Arthur's Seat, Holyrood Park, Attractions, Things to do, Edinburgh
Attractions, Parks and gardens

Wash your face in the dew of Arthur's Seat

icon-location-pin Holyrood

There aren't a lot of cities that can boast about a local 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 then pop on your hiking boots, because at just over 250 metres makes for a (relatively) easy hike, and at the highest point you'll discover unmatched 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.

Restaurants, French

Eat a swanky dinner at Restaurant Martin Wishart

icon-location-pin Leith

Set down in Leith, Martin Wishart opened his flagship venue in 1999 and was well ahead of the curve when he gained his Michelin star just two years later. Back then the now gentrified Shore area was just finding its feet, and while the area has continued to boom, Wishart 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 blow the budget in one of the city’s finest restaurants. This is elegant, decadent dining at its best, with Scottish ingredients laying the foundation for both traditional and modern French cuisine.

Time Out says
Edinburgh Castle
Attractions, Historic buildings and sites

Enjoy the view from Edinburgh Castle

icon-location-pin City centre

It's one of the UK’s 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 it’s Robert the Bruce’s commander showing you around. Plus, if you get peckish there's a totally traditional tea room where you can munch on homemade scones with strawberry jam and a satisfying dollop of clotted cream. Winner.


Taste some whisky

Edinburgh is famous for a few things and whisky is most certainly one of them. It comes as no surprise then, that there are several ways to get your whisky whistle whet in Edinburgh and beyond (try saying that five times fast). If you're into 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 and out to the Isle of Islay. Trust us - you’ll know your mashing from your malting in no time. 

Oink, Restaurants, Cheap, Edinburgh

Go on a shopping spree on Victoria Street

icon-location-pin Old Town

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 homewares in The Red Door Gallery and Context; vintage and collectable hardbacks in The Old Town Bookshop and some rather impressive party tricks in the Aha Ha Ha joke shop. That's not to mention the range of foodie delights on offer, from the distinctive whiff of cheesemonger IJ Mellis, the hog roast of Oink and the array of flasks and bottles in the windows of Demijohn and The Whiskey Shop. 

Camera Obscura, exhibitions
Tony Marsh
Things to do

Boggle your mind at Camera Obscura

icon-location-pin Royal Mile

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 on earth 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 – an enormous Victorian domed structure, inside which the whole capital cityscape is projected (without a single bar of WiFi needed) on to a broad viewing table. It’s a unique, exciting way to view the skyline – and the views from the surrounding terrace ain’t half bad either.

Sneaky Pete's, Music venues, Nightlife, Edinburgh
Music, Music venues

Dance yrself clean at Sneaky Pete's

icon-location-pin Old Town

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 guests including Erol Alkan, The Juan Maclean and a residency by taste-making Glasgow label LuckyMe, it’s probably the finest club in town.

Museums, History

Gawp at an architectural masterpiece

icon-location-pin New Town

This Robert Adam masterpiece is now run by the National Trust for Scotland and is an excellent reconstruction of how wealthier Edinburgh residents lived their lives in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. There is period furniture, porcelain, silver, glass, art, chandeliers and more. Fact fans will note that the building next door at number six is the official residence of Scotland's first minister.

Edinburgh Meadows
Attractions, Parks and gardens

Take a stroll through the Meadows

icon-location-pin Tollcross

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.

Image: © Einszwodrei

Festival Theatre

See a show

icon-location-pin Old Town

Sure, you can catch fresher and more thought-provoking performances at places like the Traverse but if you want to catch any big-hitting touring shows, this historic old theatrical space is where to go. Opened as the Festival 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 and Hardy, Judy Garland, Morecambe and Wise and David Bowie over the decades. It also came complete with its own theatrical ghost story, with renowned illusionist The Great Lafayette having burned to death there during a performance in 1911. It’s also the Edinburgh home of Scottish Opera and Scottish Ballet.

Restaurants, Tea rooms

Go for afternoon tea at Colonnades

icon-location-pin Old Town

Situated in the ever-so-swanky Signet Library, around the side of St Giles’ Cathedral on the Royal Mile, Colonnades is a tastefully glamorous tearoom and lunch venue that every local and visitor alike should try at least once. The afternoon tea is the main attraction, with seasonal sandwiches, savouries, sweets and a variety of flavours of Britain’s favourite warm beverage served on silver stands by diligent waiting staff. If that’s not to your taste though, there’s also a sumptuous two- or three-course lunch menu and cocktails to sample amid the opulent neoclassical surroundings.

Edinburgh Stand
© Edinburgh Blog
Comedy, Comedy clubs

Have a chuckle at The Stand

icon-location-pin New Town

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 Frankie Boyle and Stewart Lee practising new material as it is new talent treading the comedic boards for the first time. Keep an eye out for its Monday night Red Raw sessions for a helping of both.

Image: © Edinburgh Blog

Café St Honore, Edinburgh
Restaurants, French

Eat slow....

icon-location-pin New Town

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 be follow a French bent, but that got sidelined long ago in favour of locally sourced Scottish produce, cooked expertly, slavishly following the principles of Slow Food. If there’s a sublime, but criminally overlooked variety of rhubarb, they’ll track it down and bake it in an almond tart. If there’s a rumour of a place in Peebles making the best hand-squashed apple juice, they’ll put in a phone call. Despite the earnest attention to detail, the foodie swottiness doesn’t feel overbearing – it just makes for some outstandingly fresh ingredients, cooked in rich, warming sauces. 

Time Out says
Scott Monument, Attractions, Things to do, Edinburgh
© Stephen Robinson
Things to do

Scale the Scott Monument

icon-location-pin New Town

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. For more historical information about the tower and Scott, be sure to cast your eye over the Museum room - and check out the magnificent (and almost magical) stained glass windows while you're at it.

Queen's Hall, Edinburgh

Experience a gig at the Queen's Hall

icon-location-pin Old Town

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, pop chanteuse Sophie Ellis-Bextor and grunge survivor Mark Lanegan during its tenure. 

Edinburgh Cameo
Angus McDiarmid
Cinemas, Independent

Catch a film at the Cameo

icon-location-pin Tollcross

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 reclining 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.

Image: © Angus McDiarmid

The Balmoral Hotel, Hotels, Edinburgh
© Adrian Houston

Sleep in the lap of luxury at the Balmoral

icon-location-pin Tollcross

If you arrive in Edinburgh via the Waverley train station, the first sight you’re likely to see as you exit 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 on time, 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.

National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh
Art, Galleries

Take in some art at the Scottish National Galleries

icon-location-pin City centre

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.

Bramble, restaurant
Bars and pubs, Cocktail bars

Sip a cocktail at Bramble

icon-location-pin New Town

A regular on worldwide best bar lists, 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. Based in Edinburgh's New Town, the nouveau concoctions are just as cool as the venue. Unabashedly creative, innovative and delicious, we recommending punting for the Mint 500 if you're not sure what to try first - 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.

Summerhall, theatre
Art, Arts centres

Do almost anything at Summerhall

icon-location-pin Newington

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.

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