There's no denying that Edinburgh is a tourist magnet, but that's not to say some of its leading attractions won't appeal to residents as well. From museums and art galleries to free things to do and the marvels of the Old Town, there's a serious number of attractions to enjoy. We've whittled them down to our top ten, 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 drank tea on the Royal Yacht Britannia, now's your chance.
Reopened after an extensive refurbishment in 2011, the National Museum has become an extremely popular destination with 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 feature a significant degree of interactivity.
Opened in 1913 on a large site occupying part of Corstorphine Hill in the west of the city, the zoo has long been established as a major Scottish visitor attraction – it's in the country's top ten. The glamour animals of late have certainly been a pair of 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. Otherwise there are impressive, scary animals like leopards or lions, cute ones like chimps, koalas and meerkats, and many others besides from armadillos to zebra.
Edinburgh Castle is the one of the most definitive landmarks in the United Kingdom and the most popular paid-for tourist attraction in Scotland. There has been a Royal palace on the site from the twelfth century until the 1603 Union of the Crowns with James IV of Scotland’s ascension to the English throne as James I (James’ 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.
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 a destination visit site 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, a feature of the new education centre at the west entrance – while Inverleith House is a very highly regarded contemporary art gallery, and the former site of the city’s Gallery of Modern Art.
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 in advance of the Scottish Parliament Building being built there around the same time. A distinctive looking 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 on the geological formation of the Earth.
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 significance and 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 at committee meetings, and for those who simply wish to visit the building and enjoy a free guided tour.
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. In addition to the device itself, 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 the earliest days of photography.
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 over 40 years, there’s heaps to enjoy here. The State apartments, the crew’s quarters, the honeymoon suite and the engine room prove to be 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 Royal Deck Tea Room on board, which considering its location, offers some lovely waterfront views, without breaking the bank.
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.
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 depending on your fitness levels, 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.