Updated: Mar 27, 2021
I decided to give you my top 20 places to visit when I'm in Edinburgh. Initially, I was going to only do a top 10 list, but there are just too many gems to discover in this small city. This tiny-town packs a major punch for things to do. And if you are a Harry Potter or Outlander fan, there are some pretty cool sights to check out here, too.
You can spend as little as 1-2 days in Edinburgh or stay as long as you want. The city has a wide variety of places to visit to satisfy all interests, budgets and itineraries. From single travelers to large groups, there are many great experiences awaiting its visitors.
My suggested best ways to get around for tourists...
Pros: Relatively affordable, gets you close to almost every attraction in Edinburgh, delightful staff and guides, a few variety of experiences and packages to choose from, and many times will sell you tickets to attractions at a discounted price or without having to wait in long queues at the venues.
Cons: strict timetables with reduced hours (before night fall), rate is pay-per-24hrs which can get spendy for families or groups.
Pros: it's a small town and easy to get around. Almost every major highlight of Edinburgh is reachable by foot for most abilities and activity levels. I am a heavy set woman with bad knees and still found it relatively easy! Just be careful where you step and take it slow.
Cons: there are several steep/hilly areas especially in Old Town with narrow closes (alleys) and wonky cobbled streets or sidewalks. Makes it difficult or not accessible for some with mobility issues.
Uber or cabs:
Pros: convenient for spur-of-the-moment needs, gets you door-to-door
Cons: can get costly quickly, can be a delay if you're in an area where they are not coming by as frequent.
Pros: Very affordable, major form of transportation for locals and residents, generally very clean and friendly drivers
Cons: takes a bit of research and asking around to make sure you understand the neighborhoods, bus stops, time tables, etc.
Check out my other related posts:
Top 20 Quick List (* = do not miss):
*National Museum of Scotland
*Palace of Holyrood, Holyrood Park & Arthur's Seat
*St. Gile's Cathedral
*Victoria Street & Grassmarket
Royal Botanical Gardens
The People's Story & Edinburgh Museum
John Knox House
The Georgian House
*Princes Street Gardens & Sir Walter Scott Monument
Circus Lane (Stock Bridge)
The Writer's Museum
Hanging Out in Charlotte Square
*National Museum of Scotland
Any country you go to where there is a national museum, make it a priority to visit it. Most of the time, the national museums are free of charge and offer a perfect introduction to the country's story covering various aspects from natural history and archaeology to cultural and social history and from ancient to modern times. For more information about my visit here, read my 6 Edinburgh Attraction Must-Do's post.
My favorite place to stay in Edinburgh is in the Grassmarket as it is not only the oldest part of town, but it also sits just under the castle. Waking up to the sights of this towering fortress against the hillside is powerful and beautiful. The castle is perched at the top of a Castle Rock with phenomenal views of the entire city. For more information about my visit here, read my 6 Edinburgh Attraction Must-Do's post.
*Palace of Holyrood
This historic and stunning palace is one to visit and not miss. Plan for at least 1.5-2 hours to get good use of your dollar. Plus, there is just so much to see and learn from this site. For more information about my visit here, read my 6 Edinburgh Attraction Must-Do's post.
*St Gile's Cathedral
At the center of the Royal Mile is St. Gile's Cathedral. The loud hustle and buzz of the tourists and street entertainers outside are instantly hushed once inside this grand cathedral. Founded in 1124, it has gone through many transformations over its 900 years of history. Today there is a tower you can climb up (for a fee), otherwise the main area of the church is open for free or a suggested donation. For more information about my visit here, read my 6 Edinburgh Attraction Must-Do's post.
One of my favorite routes to walk in Edinburgh is from Grassmarket cutting through Greyfriar's and then heading past the National Museum of Scotland, hooking over to the Royal Mile. For more information about my visit here, read my 6 Edinburgh Attraction Must-Do's post.
*Victoria Street & Grassmarket
One of the most iconic and prettiest streets in Edinburgh is Victoria Street which joins Grassmarket to Cowgate and Lawnmarket. It is packed with attractions and activities to enjoy. Victoria Street has been used as a filming location for a variety of movies and shows, and is known to have inspired J.K. Rowling in the creation of Diagon Alley. For more information about my visit here, read my 6 Edinburgh Attraction Must-Do's post.
Royal Botanical Garden
I suggest getting to the Royal Botanical Garden via the HopOn/HopOff City Sightseeing bus. Enjoy a nice tour around the city with some storytelling & facts given by either a recorded narration or by a live tour bus member.
I spent about half a day at the garden. With over 350 years of history, 10 glass houses and over 70 acres to explore, you can truly spend several hours here. At minimum, I would plan on spending 1.5-2 hours at this site. Walking through the series of glasshouses was an absolute delight. I honestly felt like I should have been dressed to the nines in a scene from the Great Gatsby. Visit their website for details on visiting.
This was by far one of the coolest museums I visited. Although I experienced a few moments of a fluttering tummy, the curation of this museum was incredibly impressive and educational. It is home to three museums - Wohl Pathology Museum, the History of Surgery Museum and the Dental Collection.
From their site...
"The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh was founded in 1505, with the Museums' collections growing significantly from 1699 after 'natural and artificial curiosities' were publicly sought. In the 1800s, the original museum expanded to include the remarkable collections of surgeon and anatomists, Sir Charles Bell and John Barclay.
Originally developed as a teaching museum for students of medicine, SHM's fascinating collections, including bone and tissue specimens, artefacts and works of art, have been open to the public since 1832, making SHM among Scotland's oldest museums."
This museum was worth the time and admission (very reasonable 8 GBP). Photos are not allowed inside the museum, but here are just a couple shots from outside.
John Knox House
Of course, as a Mary Queen of Scots fan, visiting John Knox's house felt a bit like being a traitor. However, the home is perfectly situated on the Royal Mile just a few short blocks away from Holyrood Palace. It is one of a few locations in Edinburgh that still has in tact most of its original medieval architectural features, so the sight of history before you is one to truly take in. In terms of John himself, the museum has well curated who he was and what vital role he played in the demise of Mary. Visit here for more information.
The Georgian House
This ended up being one of my absolute favorite places to visit in the city. This isn't as much of a well-known attraction, however I must boast about it. The staff and docent volunteers added to the entire experience and sense of warmth and welcoming. They truly are passionate and knowledgable about all aspects of the home and of the overall Georgian construction of Charlotte Square. If you have the time, definitely make a stop at this attraction. There are plenty of interactive aspects for the family to enjoy as well. Plan about 1-1.5 hours for your stay.
Calton Hill & Graveyard
If you were at all impressed with Greyfriar's Kirk and graveyard in Grassmarket, you will be doubly impressed with the graveyard alongside Calton Hill. At the top of Calton Hill is the iconic columned dome and some of the best views of the city (without having to hike up Arthur's Seat). This is a prime location for sunset golden views.
Princes Street Gardens & Sir Walter Scott Monument
Next to Waverley Station on route to New Town, you will find yourself at the center of the city at Princes Street Gardens and the Sir Walter Scott Monument. The bridge and station are a major hub for travelers and commuters, so it is quite busy in that area. However, if you take a few steps down into the park of Princes Street Gardens, especially on a sunny day, you will find people lounging on the grass, taking photos, reading on cute benches, or having a delicious picnic while watching others take the trek up the many stairs of the Sir Walter Scott Monument. On most days, you will find a bagpiper at the corner of the monument filling the air of this bustling side of town with music. This area makes for some pretty amazing photos, too!
Circus Lane (Stockbridge)
This idyllic little road nestled in the adorable neighborhood of Stockbridge is somewhat a hidden gem in Edinburgh. I walked through this lane in early spring just before everything started to bloom, so apologies for the slightly muted appearance. But believe me, this is a prime spot for planned or impromptu photo shoots!
The most visited attraction in Leith (which is the neighborhood by the water) is the Royal Yacht Britannia which is the Queen's property and permanently stationed here in Edinburgh. I have not visited the yacht yet, however the area of Leith is quite a nice break from the packed town and offers a completely different set of views. There are waterfront shops and eateries lined with cobbled streets, and in contrast rows of brand new construction shopping centers and condos. The City SightSeeing Bus does a stop or two in Leith for the yacht, so I suggest making the trip out there (not walkable from downtown Edinburgh) and just enjoy the crisp ocean breeze and change of pace. I did pop in and have the most scrumptious seafood lunch at The Light House overlooking the water.
The People's Story & Museum of Edinburgh
Under the iconic tollbooth clock on the Royal Mile just steps away from Holyrood, is The People's Story - a museum dedicated to the people of Edinburgh throughout time and their history, stories, artifacts and more. These are stories of the real, every day, hard working people of Edinburgh and how they shaped what the city is today. The museum curators and orators were the kindest, funniest, friendliest and generous people I met on the trip. We spent over an hour just chatting about the city, Scottish culture, and much more to mention. Directly across the street in a yellow building is a tiny little place called the Museum of Edinburgh - I suggest visiting both to get a full understanding of the city.
Now, on the outskirts of Edinburgh is another castle ruin to visit if you have time to stop at another place on route out of town. I was particularly taken by the large tree growing in the center of the interior entrance of the castle - it felt eerie and so magical and majestic.
The Writer's Museum - hidden down an alley next to Edinburgh Castle. I haven't been in the museum yet due to timing, but it is high on my list to visit. However, I have spent several minutes just relaxing and looking at the building just off from the bustling crowd of the castle. It's a perfect hidden escape! It is a free admission with a suggested donation. Visit here for details.
Dean Village is super underrated, but has some of the most iconic views of Edinburgh! I cannot for the life of me find the images I took! So, here is a shot from one of my favorite content creators Ian G Black. Visit his IG post here.
Hanging out in Charlotte Square (where the Georgian House is in New Town - perfectly acquainted and meticulously planned Georgian architecture and avenues lined with delicious places to eat or drink and posh places to shop). Read more about Charlotte Square and the New Town area here.
Gladstone's Land - This historic building is one of the oldest surviving dwellings in Old Town. And, it is one that I kept on missing in terms of catching it at the right time to get reservations to visit. Due to the historic and fragile nature of this building, they limit the number of people and amount of time slots. As of January 2020 through about now, Gladstone's is going through a massive renovation and transformation - turning it into a new visitor center, authentic ice cream parlor, coffee shop and four apartments. I'm excited to check it out on my next visit!