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

The 20 best things to do in Edinburgh right now

Looking for the ultimate fill of culture? From world-famous festivals to incredible bars and restaurants, here are our picks of the best things to do in Edinburgh year-round

Written by
Paula Akpan
,
Kirstyn Smith
&
Arusa Qureshi
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Home to the Fringe, the world's largest arts festival, Edinburgh becomes one big bustling creative hive every August. The fun, feverish, slightly chaotic atmosphere makes this quite easily the best time to visit, but even beyond August, Edinburgh is a must-visit destination. There are so many culturally enriching experiences on offer all year, from the Edinburgh International Film Festival to Hogmanay. On top of this, 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. 

Surrounded by hills and glorious scenery, Edinburgh is a dream for photographers, as well as keen explorers and ramblers looking for idyllic walks away from any hustle and bustle. And just outside the city centre, you'll find even more gems, from Turkish baths and the city's seaside to a breathtaking sculpture park brimming with art.

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.

Best things to do in Edinburgh

  • 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? How many cities can boast that they have an extinct volcano? Well, Edinburgh is one of them. 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 or grab yourself a bike. It makes for a (relatively) easy voyage 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 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.

  • 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. Try out the excellent 27 Elliott's café, plant-based doughnut delights from Considerit Chocolate, ethical grocery shopping via The Refillery and one of Edinburgh's oldest second-hand bookshops Tills.

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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  • Things to do
  • Festivals

What is it? Enjoy panoramic views over the Edinburgh skyline from Calton Hill, home to a collection of striking Greek-style historic monuments, as well as the Collective contemporary art gallery.

Why go? Take a short stroll up Calton Hill and you'll be rewarded with views across some of the city's major sites including Arthur's Seat, Holyrood Palace, the Parliament and the Royal Mile. You can also spend time exploring the Acropolis, with the Parthenon-inspired National Monument, the Nelson Monument and the City Observatory all taking up residence on the hill. 

Don’t miss: Head up Calton Hill for the annual Beltane Fire Festival in April, which marks the beginning of summer in Celtic tradition. The colourful procession is led by the May Queen and the Green Man, kicking off with pounding drums and a huge bonfire at the National Monument. 

  • Attractions
  • Historic buildings and sites

What is it? One of the Scottish capital's most iconic buildings, boasting centuries of history.

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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Pay a trip to Leith
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.

Why go? The historic Leith Theatre has been saved from disrepair and is now a haven for music and theatre lovers throughout the year. Trendy bars and must-visit restaurants also abound, along with regular events like LeithLate and the Edinburgh Mela. 

Don’t miss: Try The Pitt, Leith's popular independent weekend market, where you'll find an ever-changing array of street food, craft beer and live music.

  • Art
  • Galleries

What is it? A contemporary sculpture park and art gallery set amid 120 acres of stunning woodland just outside Edinburgh.

Why go? Jupiter Artland, on the grounds of nineteenth-century Bonnington House, is a truly magical place. As you walk in, you’ll be greeted by Charles Jencks’s impressive landscape work ‘Cells of Life’: eight landforms surrounded by four lakes. Elsewhere, there are permanant pieces by Jim Lambie, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Anish Kapoor and others, as well as temporary exhibitions always full of surprises. There’s art to be discovered in every nook and cranny.

Don’t miss: Jupiter Artland has a busy events calendar with regular tours, workshops and fairs on the schedule. One big highlight is the two-night campout festival Jupiter Rising, in August, with its programme of experimental live music, sound art and performance.

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  • 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 The Whisky Shop.

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. Get Your Guide will lead you through the vaults under Old Town, regaling you with tales of the persecution of witches and the local Burke and Hare murders. Put on your bravest face.

Don't miss: Go back in time to 17th century Edinburgh with a trip to The Real Mary King's Close. Learn all about the myths and mysteries surrounding the people that lived, worked and died on the street which sits under the city's historic Royal Mile. 

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What is it? Wet your whistle with a healthy helping of 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 whiskey venues for a belter of a tasting laced with folklore and Scottish storyteling. 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.

  • 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 Mathew Sherry – seals the deal. 

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  • Restaurants
  • French
  • price 3 of 4

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.

  • Cinemas

What is it? Meat-free restaurant, bar and community space with its own on-site record store. 

Why go? Paradise Palms is the perfect place to start a night out, thanks to its always-bustling bar, eclectic cocktail menu and quirky interior decor. It’s more than just a fun place to drink though; it’s also a welcoming LGBTQ+ friendly venue that regularly plays host to DJs, drag queens, poets and musicians. If you’re hungry, try the American diner-inspired veggie and vegan food by Lucky Pig – the buffalo cauliflower and dirty fries come highly recommended.

Don’t miss: There are so many drinks worth ordering on the Paradise Palms menu, but for something properly different, try the Buckfast Daiquiri, which is exactly what it sounds like: Havana Club 3yo Rum, Buckfast, fresh lime and sugar. Delish.

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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. 

What is it? A coastal spot just a couple miles out from the city centre with plenty to do.

Why go? Sun, sea and sand are the ultimate trifecta when it comes to organising a fun day out - thankfully Portobello luckily has all of those things. Chill out on the sandy beach with your pals, head into the amusement arcade or stroll along the promenade, stopping by one of the many glorious foodie spots including The Little Chartroom on the Prom or Civerinos Prom Slice. Portobello’s bustling high street is also well worth checking out for its various independent shops and eateries. Try Bross Bagels, Twelve Triangles bakery or quirky bottle shop Beer Zoo.

Don’t miss: The Portobello Swim Centre is home to the beautiful Turkish Baths – highly recommended if you're looking to escape the city and unwind in luxurious fashion.

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  • 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.

  • 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. Or take a tour of Summerhall Distillery, where the delicious Pickering's Gin is made.

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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.

  • 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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  • 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.

  • 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.

Don't miss: Sneaky Pete's is the place to be for the best local talent around, especially during Independent Venue Week. Previous line-ups have included King Creosote, Withered Hand and Carla J. Easton.

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

  • 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.

WTTDEdinburgh

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