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The 10 best attractions in Edinburgh

Whether you’re local or visiting, there are certain attractions in Edinburgh you can’t miss. Start with these big-hitters

By Huw Oliver |
Edinburgh Castle
Photograph: Historic Scotland

From the palaces and gardens dotted around the centre to the castle looming over it, there’s no shortage of immediately recognisable attractions in Edinburgh. So much so, it can be difficult to know where to start if you’re new in town.

Whether it’s the museums and art galleries or parks and quaint cobbled alleys – hiya Old Town – there’s no denying Edinburgh’s a tourist magnet, but that’s not to say its leading attractions can’t appeal to residents as well. We’ve whittled them down to our top 10, so take a look and get stuck in. If you’ve lived here all your life and have never seen the view from Edinburgh Castle or drunk tea on the Royal Yacht Britannia, now’s your chance.

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Edinburgh

Best attractions in Edinburgh

Edinburgh Zoo
Photograph: Edinburgh Zoo
Attractions, Zoos and aquariums

Edinburgh Zoo

Opened in 1913 on a large site occupying part of Corstorphine Hill in the west of the city, Edinburgh Zoo has long been established as a major visitor attraction. Many come for the giant pandas who arrived from China in 2011, but the daily penguin parade – where the birds leave their enclosure and wander around – has been going on for more than half a century and still draws a crowd. Elsewhere there are impressive beasts like leopards and lions, cute ones like chimps, koalas and meerkats, and many more besides, from armadillos to zebras.

Edinburgh Castle
Photograph: Historic Scotland
Attractions, Historic buildings and sites

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle is the most popular paid-for tourist attraction in Scotland. There was a Royal palace here from the 12th century until the 1603 Union of the Crowns with James IV of Scotland’s ascension to the English throne as James I (James’s mother Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to him in the Castle’s Royal Palace in 1566). In subsequent centuries its use became more military in nature, while its current status as a tourist attraction looks back on both its Royal and military history.

National Museum of Scotland
Photograph: National Museum of Scotland

National Museum of Scotland

Reopened after an extensive refurbishment in 2011, the National Museum has become an extremely popular destination for tourists and locals alike, with children particularly well catered for. There’s a large, all-ages play area to the rear of the first floor and a more educational play space for older children on the top level, while many exhibits boast a significant degree of interactivity. 

Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh
Photograph: Royal Botanic Garden
Attractions, Parks and gardens

Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Founded in 1670 near Holyrood Park, the Botanic Garden has since moved to a site near the old Nor Loch, now the location of Waverley Station, and then again to its current home in 1820. A peaceful spot away from the hustle of the city, it’s become a destination for various reasons. There are two dining areas – the Terrace Café in the heart of the Garden, whose lawn has a good view of Edinburgh Castle in the distance, and the Gateway Restaurant, in the new education centre at the west entrance – while Inverleith House is a highly regarded contemporary art gallery and the former site of the city’s Gallery of Modern Art.

The Royal Yacht Britannia
Photograph: Marc Millar

Royal Yacht Britannia

Not for nothing is the Royal Yacht Britannia one of Edinburgh’s most popular attractions. Whether you’re a royalist or not, as the Queen’s former floating royal residence for more than 40 years, there’s heaps to enjoy here. The State apartments, the crew’s quarters, the honeymoon suite and the engine room prove genuine highlights. Should you fancy a pit stop, you can round things off in style with a pot of tea and scones or sandwiches at the decent-value Royal Deck Tea Room, which offers some lovely waterfront views.

The Scottish Parliament, Attractions, Things to do, Edinburgh
Photograph: The Scottish Parliament

The Scottish Parliament

The Scottish Parliament building was not built without controversy, arriving several years late and millions of pounds over budget. However, since its construction it’s proven to be both an efficient seat of government and a popular tourist attraction, noted by many for its architectural features. Outside of Parliamentary recess times the building is accessible to the public, both for those who wish to view the democratic process at work in the debating chamber and for those who simply fancy looking around the building. The guided tours are free. 

Camera Obscura, exhibitions
Photograph: Tony Marsh
Things to do

Camera Obscura and World of Illusions

A suitably gothic tourist attraction to mirror the feel of Edinburgh’s Old Town, the Camera Obscura attraction houses a visual live ‘tour’ of the city, using the famous camera obscura optical illusion to allow visitors to view a panorama of the surrounding area. The building is also home to a range of interactive optical tricks, including the World of Illusions, the Light Fantastic collection of holograms, a light corridor and a display of photographs of Edinburgh stretching back to photography’s earliest days. 

Our Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh
Photograph: Our Dynamic Earth

Our Dynamic Earth

Opened in 1999, Our Dynamic Earth is a Millennium Commission project and an element of the regeneration process that invigorated the Holyrood area of Edinburgh ahead of the Scottish Parliament Building being built there around the same time. A distinctive landmark in its own right, with a tented roof which mimics the sailmasts of a ship, it’s a science centre whose principal aim is to educate visitors about the geological formation of the Earth.

Palace of Holyroodhouse
Photograph: John Freeman
Attractions, Historic buildings and sites

Palace of Holyroodhouse

While the Castle is the more famous of the two landmarks that top and tail the Royal Mile, the Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Scotland, enjoys suitable kudos with the droves of visitors who flock here. It’s largely used in its official capacity these days for state ceremonies and official entertaining, including the annual Garden Party (aka Hat Watch for locals). Today, there’s plenty to see here, including 14 historic and State Apartments, as well as the ruins of Holyrood Abbey.

Scott Monument, Attractions, Things to do, Edinburgh
Photograph: Stephen Robinson
Things to do

Scott Monument

Built to commemorate ‘Ivanhoe’, ‘Waverley’ and ‘Rob Roy’ writer Sir Walter Scott, the Scott Monument is the world’s biggest monument to a writer and remains a rather touching reminder of how proud the city can be of its own. You can simply wonder at it from below or, for just a few pounds, visitors are invited to climb the 287 steps to the top. It’s a bit of a slog, but the sight of Edinburgh Castle, just across the Gardens, and the views over to the Forth of Fife make it more than worth the effort.

Mid-morning cravings? Here’s where to head...

The interior of the High Dive in Edinburgh
Photograph: Ross Fraser McLean

The 11 best breakfast and brunch spots in Edinburgh

Whether you’re up at the crack of dawn or opening your eyes as the clock strikes midday, Edinburgh’s full of places that can give you a hearty start to the day. You may be after a hair of the dog, but there’s an excellent array of do-good fruit and yoghurt-centric breakfast spots here too.

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