There are many, many things to do in Edinburgh, Scotland… So many that I felt a bit overwhelmed at first.
It’s fun to discover a city that’s so vibrant and culturally rich, and the Scottish capital doesn’t disappoint.
Talking to locals, I found that even they haven’t seen all that Edinburgh has to offer…
The best time to visit Edinburgh is in summer. I was lucky to have quite a few sunny days when I visited in July. It was during a European heat wave, but in Edinburgh that just meant nice weather.
In July and August the city is full of tourists. The world famous Edinburgh festivals takes place throughout the year, but mostly during the summer.
The top things to see in Edinburgh, apart from the festivals, include many museums (mostly free!), fascinating guided tours and the stunning architecture of both the Old Town and the New Town.
When you plan your Edinburgh itinerary, if you’re going there for more than a quick city break, do make sure you include both the Old Town and the New Town.
They are quite close to each other, but are very different in style.
This Edinburgh guide covers a nice mix of the top tourist attractions in Edinburgh and some more unique places and hidden gems.
If you’re looking for a place to stay in Edinburgh, scroll down to the end of this post for recommendations.
Camera Obscura and World of Illusions
This brilliant museum is one of the top attractions in Edinburgh and a favourite of mine. I went there on my first day in the city and it was a brilliant experience.
This is an endless collection of illusions and tricks spread over 6 floors. There’s something to fill you with bewilderment literally everywhere you look!
Many of the illusions will appeal to kids, but some are more sophisticated and adults will enjoy them more.
There are magic tricks, illusions, holograms, humorous paintings and many original items I haven’t seen in any other museum of illusions before.
With some it’s easy to see how they work,with others it remains a mystery
Some of the illusions I loved best were the vortex and the mirror maze.
The vortex makes you feel like the little bridge you’re walking on is tilting.
If you look straight ahead, you’ll see your reflection and you’ll know you’re not actually moving sideways, but the room will definitely make you feel that way.
It was so much fun I just had to do it several times, but had to stop when I was feeling dizzy.
The mirror maze is also good fun, you’re surrounded by mirrors with multiple reflections and have to find your way out somehow (I got so confused I ended up exiting through the entrance… but I’m sure that happens to everyone!)
The camera obscura that the museum is named after is in fact a tube that passes through the roof, with a series of mirrors and lenses that daylight goes through.
Go to the top floor and enter the show (there’s one every 15 minutes) to see and hear how the camera obscura works.
You will be sitting on the 6th floor looking at a table and seeing the streets of Edinburgh live in front of you.
Maria Theresa Short, an optician, installed the camera obscura back in 1853 and it’s just as entertaining today.
After the show, go out to the rooftop terrace to see the city from above. Don’t miss the views through the binoculars.
You’ll also find some cameras that let you zoom in on the streets of Edinburgh on the 3rd floor (Eye Spy).
The museum had amazingly friendly staff who will happily chat with you about the illusions.
There’s so much to see at this museum I suggest you give it at least two hours or more.
Luckily, it’s one of the few attractions in Edinburgh that’s open late, so you can really take your time.
The museum has 6 floors and no lift, but there are illusions on the stairs to keep you entertained.
Exit through the gift shop for some more cool magical stuff 🙂
Find out more about Camera Obscura and World of Illusions
Right in the centre of Princes Street, the main shopping street there’s an odd looking tower.
It’s tall, gothic, dark (from pollution) and has a statute of a man in the middle of it.
The man is Sir Walter Scott and this tower is one of the largest monuments dedicated to an author in the world.
You can climb up the monument to see Edinburgh from above and the view is really wonderful.
Climbing up is only possible as part of a guided tour. It’s a popular Edinburgh attraction, so you want to book your place and wait for your group’s turn to go up.
The guided tour takes about 30 minutes, during which you will climb 221 steps up a spiral staircase.
It sometimes gets narrow, low and a bit dark, but the scenery is well worth the effort.
On the first level the guide told us about Sir Walter Scott and the monument.
Then we climbed up another set of stairs. We had a few minutes to take some photos before climbing up again.
The views from the top are really fantastic. It’s the best viewing point I’ve been to in Edinburgh.
You can see both the old and the new town, Edinburgh castle, Princes Street Gardens and lots more.
If your camera / phone has a wide angle lens I recommend you use it (otherwise just shoot a panoramic picture with your phone).
We had enough time to take pictures and film some videos from the top and then went down the stairs again to make room for the next group.
Old Town Walking Tour
Seeing the Old Town is a must when you visit Edinburgh. Seeing it with a local guide is the best way to go.
There are several different Edinburgh walking tours you can choose from.
I took the Sandemans walking tour which takes place several times a day.
We met on the Royal Mile to start the tour and after a quick introduction we took off to see some Edinburgh attractions.
There’s not a lot of walking in this walking tour. It’s more about moving from one point to the next, which are all very close to each other.
We made long stops at each point and heard some historical and cultural stories, myths and anecdotes.
Our guide also introduced us to Scots language; if it’s your first time in Scotland this is very interesting bit of the tour.
The Georgian House
This was definitely one of my favourite places to visit in Edinburgh.
If you fancy a bit of time travel, don’t miss it 😉
It’s the elegant restored house of a wealthy family and servants who used to live there in Georgian times.
You start your visit with a film about how people lived back then, which gives the background knowledge and context for the rest of the visit.
The family used to splurge on entertaining guests and showing off their wealth was simply part of their day to day life.
After the film, move on to see all the rooms of the house.
The drawing room and dining room are especially beautiful, designed to make an impression on guests.
Don’t miss the kitchen, it’s fascinating to learn how they used to prepare food in those days.
In each room there’s a guide who’ll tell you about the furniture, the interior design and various objects in the room.
You can even try on some Georgian costumes and wear them as you walk around the house.
Find out more about The Georgian House
This is a very unique Edinburgh experience.
I was going to skip it at first, because it seemed a bit too gory, but I’m glad I didn’t. It was fascinating.
I took the historic underground tour with Mercat Tours. We went to see the Blair Street Underground Vaults underneath South Bridge.
I’d already passed on South Bridge quite a few times before taking this tour, never guessing there was an entire city beneath it.
The tour starts overground, and then you pass through a secret door and go downstairs…
It’s pretty amazing to learn how people lived and worked in the vaults underground, with no ventilation or water.
We heard stories of how the underground spaces were used for rather ordinary things like bars, storage rooms or workshops.
We also learnt how convenient they were for body snatches to run their business in…
This tour really takes you into a very different world.
At the end of the tour we went upstairs to an exhibition room with a display of artefacts found during the excavation work, such as shoes, bottles and even a kettle.
This is a very popular Edinburgh attraction as you might expect, so you do want to book ahead.
Harry Potter Tour
One of the more popular tours in Edinburgh.
Though J. K. Rowling isn’t Scottish, she used to live in Edinburgh and you can find the influence of the city in her books.
The Harry Potter Tour starts in the Royal Mile, where we saw the Edinburgh version of the Walk of Fame, with gold hand prints in honour of Rowling and other authors.
The tour is mostly about the author, so even if you’re only superficially familiar with the Harry Potter series, you will still find it interesting.
If you have read the books or seen the movies, you’ll enjoy it even more of course.
We heard stories about how she wrote the Harry Potter books, including the Edinburgh hotel where she completed the seventh book and the cafe which is the alleged birthplace of the book series.
We also saw Victoria Street, one of the streets that is claimed to be Diagon Alley (apparently there are several different streets in the UK that might be the inspiration for it).
Fans should head to Victoria street for some Harry Potter souvenir shops.
The Palace of Holyrood
The Royal palace in Edinburgh is a popular and very enjoyable attraction.
When you enter, get the excellent audio visual guide. It is very detailed and includes some interviews and even interactive games that make everything you see more interesting.
The rooms are as beautiful as you might expect, with lavish tapestries, furniture, carpets and artwork.
No photography is allowed unfortunately, but check out the website to see what it looks like.
Hop On Hop Off Bus Tour
Edinburgh can be a bit overwhelming at first, there’s so much to do and see in the city.
I recommend you take a bus tour on your first day to get a good overview of some of Edinburgh’s attractions.
It will let you see a lot in less time. It’s not a substitute for a walking tour, but walking tours are limited to certain parts of the city, whereas the bus can go father.
There are a few hop on hop off bus tours in Edinburgh to choose from.
I took the one called simply Edinburgh Bus Tour, departing from Waverley Bridge. It has 4 different types of tours:
– The Green Line Edinburgh tour with a live commentator
– The Majestic Tour
– City Sightseeing Tour with an audio guide in 9 languages
– The 3 Bridges Tour
I went for the green line with a live guide.
If you find the Scottish accent a bit difficult to understand, you may prefer the bus with the audio guide instead, but I just love the accent and enjoyed listening to the guide.
The bus goes to many of the best attractions in Edinburgh, including Holyrood Palace, The National Museum of Scotland, Dynamic Earth, The Royal Mile and quite a few more.
Royal Yacht Britannia
This is one of the top attractions in Edinburgh and it’s a pretty unique experience.
Visiting the now retired Royal yacht, you can see many different parts of the ship.
The entrance to the yacht is via a short exhibition, accompanied by dramatic music, about the history of the ship, the Royal family and the ship crew.
Next, you want to collect the audio guide (included in your ticket) and board the ship.
The tour of Royal Yacht Britannia takes about 1.5 hours. There are clear signs to guide you along the way.
I enjoyed seeing the wooden decks, the admiral’s rooms, the sun lounge, the royal bedrooms and the state dining room.
There’s much more to see, and you can also have something to eat and drink at the tea rooms with great views of the water.
This is a very popular attraction in Edinburgh, so it’s best if you book your tickets in advance.
Close to Edinburgh Castle, Victoria Street is one of the most famous streets in Edinburgh.
Its cute colourful houses make it one of the most Instagrammable streets and you’ll find lots of people snapping photos of it at any given moment.
Said to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley in Harry Potter, it has a few Harry Potter themed shops.
The Museum of Childhood
One of Edinburgh’s unique museums, the Museum of Childhood is well worth a visit.
As you enter through the gift shop, which is a toy shop, you may think this is a museum for kids. It’s for adults too though.
The first exhibition looks at how children’s lives have changed over time, through old photos, old games and toys, children’s fashion and more.
The other rooms have a fascinating display of historical toys and games.
Climb up to the top floor for a display of life size dolls in different costumes.
Like many of the museums in Edinburgh, entrance is free.
Edinburgh New Town Tour
Most visitors to Edinburgh will spend a lot of time in the charming Old Town.
There’s plenty to see and do there and you can easily spend an entire city break just exploring the Old Town.
However, if you have a bit more time in Edinburgh, it’s a very good idea to get to know the New Town as well.
It’s quite different from the Old Town in its design and architecture and has an interesting history.
To discover the New Town, I took a guided tour.
Starting in the Royal Mile, we first climbed up to a viewing point overlooking the New Town and then went down again to pass through the beautiful Princes Street Gardens on our way to the New Town.
We heard stories and anecdotes about the history of the city and learnt about the architecture of the New Town with its Greek references.
Unlike the Old Town walking tour, which is mostly standing and less walking, this tour is the exact opposite.
The New Town has wide streets and more space. There’s a lot of fast paced walking on this tour.
St Cecilia’s Hall – Musical Instruments Museum
Another unique museum in Edinburgh, this is part of the University of Edinburgh and features an impressive collection of musical instruments.
The visit to the museum starts upstairs with a range of different types of pianos.
It’s interesting to see how pianos were decorated with paintings reflecting the fashion of the time. Collectors treated these pianos like works of art.
The label next to each piano gives you some context about how they were used. You can picture them in a fancy 18th century living room.
The visit continues downstairs with a surprising variety of instruments. Some of them are very familiar, like guitars or clarinets, but the exhibition shows historical or unusual versions of them.
There are also traditional instruments from different countries and cultures.
Entrance is free.
National Museum of Scotland
The first thing I noticed about this museum is that it’s simply huge.
You can easily spend half a day or more and you still may not get to see everything.
Get a map of the museum when you enter, you’re going to need it 😉
It’s the perfect place to go if it rains outside and you are pretty much guaranteed to have at least one rainy day when you visit Edinburgh…
Entrance is free (some temporary exhibitions may be paid)
the exhibitions are all very impressive and cover a large range of themes, from natural history through design and fashion to modern technology.
You’ll learn a lot about Scotland, but other cultures of the world also have their own gallery.
One of the highlights of the museum is Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal.
Apart from the exhibitions, you can go up to the rooftop on level 7 to see Edinburgh from above.
Where to Stay in Edinburgh
Hotels in The Old Town (The Royal Mile and Grassmarket)
To make the of most your time in Edinburgh, stay in the heart of the Old Town. You’ll be close to all the main attractions, including Edinburgh Castle, many museums and tour meeting points.
Ibis Edinburgh Centre Royal Mile – Comfortable rooms very close to the Royal Mile and to Waverley Station (the main train station in Edinburgh).
Apex Grassmarket Hotel – Spacious rooms at a perfect location that allows you to walk everywhere. Some rooms have an Edinburgh Castle view from the window.
Old Town Chambers – Luxury serviced apartments for the design conscious, at an excellent location just off the Royal Mile.
Hotels in the New Town in Edinburgh
Kimpton Charlotte Square – Stay in elegant Georgian townhouses in a great location in the New Town.
Hotel Indigo – A boutique hotel in a historic building at a very central location.
House Sitting in Edinburgh – The Budget Friendly Option
Edinburgh can be pricey, especially in peak season. If you travel on a budget, consider house sitting as a great way to live in a local home rent-free.
Take care of somebody’s pets or plants while they’re away in exchange for staying in their home.
This method takes a bit of planning ahead, as you need to find locals who are looking for house sitters in advance.
I suggest you go to TrustedHousesitters, one of the main places to find homes to sit.
Do a search on the map to get an idea of the availability and dates. As it’s a big city, you’re more likely to find a place to stay.
If the house you find is far from the city centre, I recommend getting a bus pass.
Visit the Lothian Buses Travelshop on Waverley Bridge and ask them about passes, depending on how long you’re staying in the city.
More Things To Do in Edinburgh
– Check out this mega list of 100 free things to do in Edinburgh by local blogger Sarah Mackenzie.
– For more unique activities, look at Airbnb experiences in Edinburgh (special tours, workshops, entertainment, nightlife and more).
– Find top selling tours, excursions and tickets to attractions in Edinburgh with reviews on Viator.