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Edinburgh Do List
Photograph: Shutterstock

The 20 best things to do in Edinburgh right now

Missed the Fringe? Panic not – our pick of the best things to do in Edinburgh brims with year-round delights.

By Kirstyn Smith and Huw Oliver
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March 2021: It’s been devastating to see Edinburgh quiet and shuttered for the last year. Soon, however, it should be kicking back into life.  In late-April Scotland will prepare to move back into its tiered level system, with non-essential retail, hospitality and cultural destinations all gradually opening up again from late spring as areas move down the numbered levels. Further details on how exactly this unlocking will happen are due to be announced this month. So, fingers crossed it won’t be long until Edinburgh is once again the thriving, buzzing city we know and love. We’re feeling optimistic now that provisional dates have been given for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. 

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.

Done something on this list and loved it? Share it with the hashtag #TimeOutDoList and tag @TimeOutEverywhere. You can also find out more about how Time Out selects the very best things to do all over the world.

Best things to do in Edinburgh

22 arthur's seat crags sunrise
Photograph: Sarah White, Edinburgh and Beyond

1. Climb Arthur’s Seat

Attractions Parks and gardens

What is it? An extinct volcano with a peak that sits 251m above sea level giving some sweet views of the city.

Why go? 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. 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.

Don’t miss: Arthur’s Seat can be tackled from various directions, the easiest is the grassy slope on the east side rising from Dunsapie Loch on Queen’s Drive.

Edinburgh Meadows
Einszwodrei

2. Stroll through The Meadows

Attractions Parks and gardens

What is it? A grassy, wide-open space for joggers, sports teams and sunbathers in the centre of town. 

Why go? 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.

Don’t miss: The community-focused Meadows Festival transforms the area into a large-scale market and entertainment jamboree every June. 

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princes street gardens autumn scott monument
Photo: alljengi, via Flickr flickr.com/photos/27718315@N02/6322036429

3. See stunning views from the Scott Monument

Things to do

What is it? Dominating the Edinburgh skyline with its gothic design, the Scott Monument is one of the city’s most striking attractions. 

Why go? Its sooty spire is 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.

Don’t miss: Squeeze your way up its narrow spiral staircase for a breathtaking view. 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.

Edinburgh Castle
Photograph: Historic Scotland

4. Have a royally good time at Edinburgh Castle

Attractions Historic buildings and sites

What is it? This centuries-old structure has become one of the most enduring icons of the Scottish capital. 

Why go? 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.

Don’t miss: 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.

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A waterside view in Leith in Edinburgh
Photograph: Restaurant Martin Wishart

5. Pay a trip to Leith

What is it? 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. T

Why go? The historic Leith Theatre has been saved from disrepair and is now a haven for music and theatre lovers, particularly during the Fringe. Trendy bars and must-visit restaurants also abound. 

Don’t miss: Try the Lioness of Leith for burgers and cocktails, or Fishers for lip-smackingly fresh seafood.

A view of Victoria Street in Edinburgh
Photograph: John Loach / Flickr

6. Fill up your bags on Victoria Street

Restaurants

What is it? 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.

Why go? 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.

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Edinburgh vaults lit by candlelight
Photograph: fw42 / Flickr

7. Get spooked on a Haunted Edinburgh tour

What is it? An eerie dive into Edinburgh’s famously dark and bloody past.

Why go? 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.

Whisky glas
Joshua Rappeneker flickr.com/photos/joshua/

8. Sink a wee dram of whiskey

What is it? Wet your whistle with Scotland’s famous spirit. 

Why go? 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. You’ll know your mashing from your malting in no time.

Don’t miss: For a more in-depth look at boozy creation processes, grab a ticket for a distillery tour around the Southern Highlands.

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Balmoral Bar, edinburgh
Photograph: Balmoral

9. Experience The Balmoral

Hotels

What is it? More than a hotel – one of the city's more celebrated inhabitants in its own right. 

Why go? 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.
Don’t miss: Its Michelin-starred restaurant Number One – led by head chef Mark Donald – seals the deal. 
A meal at the Michelin-starred Restaurant Martin Wishart
Photograph: Alan Donaldson

10. Eat a Michelin-starred meal at Restaurant Martin Wishart

Restaurants French

What is it? A Michelin-starred marvel in Leith.

Why go? 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.

Don’t miss: The lunch, à la carte and various tasting menus are always available. The matched wine package is a necessary, if costly delight.

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11. Go masterpiece spotting at Scottish National Galleries

Art Galleries

What is it? The home of Edinburgh’s grandest collections of both classical and contemporary art. 

Why go? 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.

Don’t miss: The gallery’s annual summer show is one of the highlights of the city’s cultural calendar. 

12. Fill up on Scottish ‘slow food’ at Café St Honoré

Restaurants French

What is it? An enduring bistro that hasn’t lost its charm and is a rigid observer of the SlowFood movement. 

Why go? 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.

Don’t miss: If you don’t want to splash the cash, opt for the reasonably pitched Café Classics menu. 

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Camera Obscura, exhibitions
Photograph: Tony Marsh

13. Take in a unique view of the city skyline at Camera Obscura

Things to do

What is it? A neat collection of interactive exhibits themed around optical illusions. 

Why go? 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. 

Don’t miss: The view of the city from the turret atop the building is also worth taking in.

Summerhall, theatre
Photograph: Peter Dibdin

14. Get cultured at Summerhall

Art Arts centres

What is it? The current king of the city’s arts scene, hosting performances of all shapes and sizes. 

Why go? 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.

Don’t miss: The place 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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15. See a big-hitting show at Festival Theatre

Theatre

What is it? One of the city’s most historic performance spaces.

Why go? 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. The theatre seats 2,000 and regularly hosts comedy, ballet, opera and live music as well as plays.

Don’t miss: This is the Edinburgh home of Scottish Opera and Scottish Ballet, so try and catch a show from the companies here.

The stand comedy club edinburgh
Photograph: Trudy Stade

16. Laugh yourself silly at The Stand

Comedy

What is it? Pioneering comedy venue that also serves up local lager. 

Why go? 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).

Don’t miss: Keep an eye out for its Monday night Red Raw sessions for a cheap and cheerful night of up-and-comers.

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A cocktail is served at Bramble in Edinburgh
Photograph: Bramble

17. Sink a drink at Bramble

Bars and pubs Cocktail bars

What is it? Hip New Town basement serving classic and complex cocktails. 

Why go? 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. 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.

Don’t miss: 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. 

Edinburgh Cameo
Angus McDiarmid

18. Catch a film at Cameo

Cinemas Independent

What is it? A century-old cinema playing a solid mix of independent and foreign releases alongside selected mainstream blockbusters and special events.

Why go? 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).

Don’t miss: 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.

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19. Treat your ears to a concert at Queen’s Hall

Cinemas

What is it? A converted church that’s home to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and also hosts intimate gigs with travelling indie and folk acts. 

Why go? 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: it provides a permanent home for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and has also welcomed Canadian pianist Chilly Gonzales, alt-country pioneer Jeff Tweedy and grunge survivor Mark Lanegan during its tenure. 

Don’t miss: This place comes into its own as a venue during the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival and the Edinburgh International Festival.   

Sneaky Pete's, Music venues, Nightlife, Edinburgh
Photograph: Sneaky Pete’s

20. Go to a gig at Sneaky Pete’s

Music Music venues

What is it? Late-night live music bar and club. 

Why go? 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.

Tastebuds tingling? Here’s where to head next...

A dish at Fhior in Edinburgh
Photograph: Fhior

The 21 best restaurants in Edinburgh

Restaurants

From the Old Town’s humble cheap eats to the hard-to-bag-a-seat spots around Leith Harbour, Edinburgh does dining both accessible and highfalutin. And the results are always ace. We’re not kidding when we say you should come here just for the food – so here’s your itinerary.

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