Things to Do in Edinburgh
Looming over the Royal Mile and Princes Street, Calton Hill is one of Edinburgh’s famous seven hills and part of the capital’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Town. While locals know it as a picnic spot and recreation area, for visitors the main draw to Calton Hill are the spectacular views – look out over the city from the summit and you’ll enjoy a panoramic view spanning Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace, all the way out to Leith and the Firth of Forth.
Calton Hill is also home to a number of prominent Edinburgh landmarks, including the Nelson Monument, the Dugald Stewart Monument, the City Observatory and the National Monument of Scotland, an unfinished tribute to Scottish servicemen inspired by the Parthenon in Athens. The hill is also the center of festivities for the annual Beltane Fire Festival in April, and hosts a number of summer festivals and events.
An imposing gothic tower dedicated to celebrated Scottish poet Sir Walter Scott, the awe-inspiring Scott Monument dominates the skyline of Edinburgh’s New Town. Designed by George Meikle Kemp, who triumphed in a national architectural competition, the monument was constructed between 1840 and 1844, and towers 200 feet above the principal shopping district of Princes Street.
Beneath the central arch of the monument, a raised platform holds a statue of Sir Walter Scott, sitting with his faithful dog, Maida, and reading a book. Carved from a solid block of Carrara marble, the sculpture is the masterwork of Sir John Steell and became so iconic that a bronze replica has since been erected in Central Park, New York. The dramatic tower also doubles up as a popular observation point, with a 287-step spiral staircase leading to the tip of its spire.
The Palace of Holyrood House, most often called Holyrood Palace, faces Edinburgh Castle along the length of the Royal Mile. Like its majestic companion, it's riddled with some of Scotland's most potent history.
The Abbey in the grounds was founded in 1128, and the palace itself is baroque. These days Holyrood Palace is the Scottish residence of Queen Elizabeth II, but it's probably best known for its association with another royal figure, Mary Queen of Scots. She was married here, lived here and saw her secretary murdered here.
As you'd expect, the apartments are lavishly decorated and the collection of tapestries and paintings top-notch. Drift around the gardens and make believe you're a monarch.
Along with Calton Hill and Castle Rock, Arthur's Seat forms part of the ridge of cold volcanoes that give such drama to the Edinburgh skyline. The mountain sits in Holyrood Park, 650 acres (260 hectares) of wild parkland just a short walk from the Royal Mile. So you can be shopping for Argyle socks one moment and roaming around lochs and moorland the next! From some angles, the mini-mountain resembles a sleeping lion. It’s perhaps seen at its best in the mellow light of sunset.
Arthur's Seat is no Everest, and if you want to climb it there are several easy ascents. If you're reasonably fit and keep striding you could make it in half an hour, but even if you're less fit or want to gaze at the scenery, an hour should take you to the top. Be careful on rainy days when the rocks are slippery.
The historic heart of Edinburgh and home to many of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, the atmospheric Old Town became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. Watched over by the striking Edinburgh Castle, the Old Town is most famous for the central boulevard which runs between the hilltop castle and the Royal Palace of Holyrood, four sequential streets known as the Royal Mile. The main starting point for walking tours of the city, the Royal Mile is teeming with landmark buildings and iconic sights. The 12th century St Giles Cathedral, the National Museum of Scotland, the John Knox house and the underground streets of Mary King's Close are all popular visitor attractions, dotted between the throngs of souvenir shops, historic pubs and cafés. The final section of the Royal Mile, Canongate, is the most architecturally varied, with the 16th century Canongate Tollbooth and Canongate Kirk, the modern Scottish Parliament complex and the wacky Our Dynamic Earth building.
With its famous crown spire towering over the Royal Mile in Edinburgh’s Old Town and a history stretching over 1,000 years, St Giles Cathedral is one of the city’s most acclaimed religious buildings. Founded in the 1120s, the Cathedral has a long and illustrious history at the center of Scottish Catholic worship. From being ransacked and burned by English troops under King Richard II to hosting John Knox’s famous Reformation sermon in 1559 (a statue in Knox’s honor now stands in the nave), St Giles has seen it all.
Today, most of the cathedral’s Gothic structure dates back to the 19th century with highlights including the exquisite stained glass windows, some of the finest in Scotland and the legendary Thistle Chapel, once home to the Knights of the Order of the Thistle. As well as holding regular services, St Giles’ Cathedral is also renowned for its choral and organ recitals held on its grand Rieger organ, with many free musical events throughout the year.
Located at the end of Edinburgh’s famous Royal Mile, the striking Scottish Parliament building stands its ground among some of the Old Town’s most dynamic architecture, with the grand Holyrood Palace, the elegant Queen’s Gallery and the fantastical Dynamic Earth all in close proximity.
The complex of innovative buildings opened in 2004, with the original design inspired by the surrounding countryside and Spanish architect Enric Miralles describing his vision as creating a structure that ‘appears to grow out of the land’. Most impressive is the unique façade of the Members' office, with its iconic shaped windows designed to evoke Raeburn’s famous painting of Reverend Robert Walker skating on ice, and the Canongate Wall, designed by Sora Smithson and inscribed with 26 quotations from prominent Scottish writers.
More Things to Do in Edinburgh
Reputedly the last residence of Scottish clergyman and author John Knox, the 15th-century John Knox House is one of Edinburgh’s oldest preserved buildings, now housing a museum devoted to its namesake. Despite its name, the house actually belonged to James Mossman, loyal goldsmith to Mary, Queen of Scots, who was eventually beheaded for counterfeiting once Edinburgh Castle surrendered in 1573.
The dramatic histories of Mossman, Mary Queen of Scots and Knox, famed for his significant role in the protestant reformation of the 16th-century, are the subject of the house’s permanent exhibition, which brings to life one of the most colorful eras of Scottish history. Today, the John Knox House Museum is part of the Scottish Storytelling Centre and is celebrated for its original architecture, including the 17th century Netherbow bell, now installed in the Storytelling Centre’s bell tower; the wood-paneled Oak Room and a series of early 17th-century ceiling paintings.
Steeped in history, the Grassmarket is located directly below Edinburgh Castle and is just a minute’s walk from the famous Royal Mile and the National Museum of Scotland. A vibrant and historic area, here visitors can soak up the medieval atmosphere while marvelling at one of the most iconic views in the city, the mighty Edinburgh Castle. A stroll over the George IV Bridge leads to the Greyfriars Bobby statue and through some of Edinburgh’s oldest and most famous streets, including Candlemaker Row, Victoria Street, and West Port. The Grassmarket was traditionally a meeting point for market traders and cattle drovers, with temporary lodgings and taverns all around. It was also once a place of public execution, and a memorial near the site once occupied by the gibbet was created in 1937 to commemorate more than 100 people who died on the gallows in a period known as The Killing Time.
After undergoing an extensive makeover in 2011, the National Museum of Scotland now boasts 16 additional galleries and thousands of never-seen-before artifacts. Formerly two separate museums – the Royal Museum, built in 1861, and the modern Museum of Scotland - the National Museum was inaugurated in 2008 and is now one of the most popular attractions of Edinburgh’s Old Town.
The museum’s extensive collection features over 20,000 exhibits spread over 36 galleries, bringing to life the colorful history of Scotland and educating visitors on art, science, natural history and outer space, through a series of innovative, themed galleries and uniquely designed installations. Highlights include the Natural World Gallery, where the dramatic centerpiece is an enormous Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton; the Victorian Grand Gallery, renowned for its spectacular architecture; and the stuffed body of Dolly the Sheep, famously the first successful mammal cloned from an adult cell.
The historic street of Canongate makes up the eastern section of the Royal Mile, leading up to the grounds of Holywood Palace and is home to many of the key attractions of Edinburgh’s Old Town. Taking its name from the canons of the neighboring Holyrood Abbey, modern-day Canongate is one of the most architectural diverse sections of the Old Town, with the strikingly modern Scottish Parliament building standing in contrast to the grand Holyrood Palace and the futuristic, tent-like structure housing the Our Dynamic Earth exhibition.
Canongate is also home to a number of significant 16th and 17th century buildings including the painstakingly preserved Canongate Tolbooth, dating back to 1591 and 17th century townhouses like Russel House and Queensbury house.
Opened for worship on Christmas Day 1620, Greyfriars Kirk is best-known as the home of Greyfriars Bobby, the loyal dog who became famous in 19th-century Edinburgh for maintaining a vigil at his master’s grave until he also died fourteen years later. The story was made into a Disney movie in the 1960s, and ever since, the memorial statue of the faithful Skye terrier, just outside the churchyard, has been a popular spot for a selfie.
Some of Edinburgh’s most famous figures are buried in Greyfriars kirkyard, including poet Allan Ramsay, philanthropist Mary Erskine, and architect William Adam. There’s also a popular onsite museum which tells the story of church. Greyfriars Kirk also continues to play an important role in the local community, with regular services in English and Gaelic as well as free organ recitals.
The building of the National Gallery of Scotland is imposing enough – a neoclassical behemoth sprawling on the Mound – but what's inside is the real treat. This is Scotland's most impressive art collection, and while it's not the equal in size of a Met or a Tate, there are plenty of gems up those stain-glass-lit stairs.
The collection ranges from the Renaissance to the 19th century, and there's a host of big-hitter names. You'll see work from Titian and Raphael, Rembrandt and Velasquez. In the 19th century section, feast your eyes on pieces by Van Gogh, Cezanne, Monet, Degas and Gaugin.
The Royal Yacht Britannia hit the seas in 1953, and took the British royal family around the world from then until 1997, when she was decommissioned. She's the 83rd royal yacht – the first belonged to Charles II in the 1600s.
Few yachts can boast such an illustrious career as the Royal Yacht Britannia, having sailed over a million miles and transported the British Royal Family on hundreds of official visits. Since retiring from service, the luxurious vessel has been permanently docked in Edinburgh’s historic Leith port, beside the Ocean Terminal shopping center, and serves as a museum of royal life at sea, as well as hosting elite events in its grand dining hall.
Exploring the regal yacht offers a unique insight into the life and travels of the Royal Family and you’ll be in good company if you choose to step on board – Sir Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Rajiv Gandhi are among the many iconic figures that have been welcomed below deck.
Gracious Princes Street, with its epic length, gardens, stellar shopping, and knockout views, is the central vein of Edinburgh and one of Europe's great thoroughfares. It’s also at the center of the city’s world-famous Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) celebrations, which revolve around a massive street party. If you’re newly arrived in Edinburgh, a stroll along it is one of the finest ways to orient yourself.
Why Princes Street? Because it’s named after two of them – the sons of King George III. The street was hewn out as part of the building of the New Town in the 18th century. The Nor Loch, once a defence for the Castle was drained to make the gardens.
It may not be the most spellbinding museum in town, but sentimentalists will love the Museum of Edinburgh, or Huntly House, just because it houses the collar and bowl of Greyfriars Bobby, that terrier symbol of devotion famous for sitting steadfastly on his master's grave.
Once you've paid your tribute to these relics, make your way through a series of restored 16th and 17th-century townhouses to trace the history of Edinburgh from its earliest days as a prehistoric settlement, to its Roman occupation and medieval crafts. If you're into the decorative arts - glass, ceramics, clocks and the like - you're in for a treat.
One of its most treasured artefacts is the National Covenant, a petition for religious freedom dating back to the 17th century; the museum also houses the original plans for the Georgian New Town, and the exhibitions run through to contemporary times.
The Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh is one of the most stunning - and one of the oldest - botanic gardens on earth. It was originally planted as a medicinal garden near Holyrood Palace in 1670 (only Oxford's gardens predate it in the British Isles). It fetched up in its present location, about a mile out of the city, in the 19th century.
Today the Royal Botanic Garden spreads over 70 acres with splendid views of the city. It has the largest collection of wild-origin Chinese plants outside of China. You’ll also find a Scottish heath garden planted with highlands specimens, a rock garden bursting with over 500 Alpine plants and a herbaceous border backed by a 100-year-old beech hedge.
Tucked away between the many attractions of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, the looming tenement building known as Gladstone’s Land is easily overlooked, but behind its unassuming façade is one of the capital’s most fascinating historic gems.
The six-story complex was developed by wealthy local merchant Thomas Gledstanes in 1617 and was renowned as one of the first ‘high-rise’ buildings of its time. Now preserved as a National Trust property, Gladstone’s Land has been restored to its former glory, offering visitors the chance to step back in time to 17th-century Edinburgh. Along with the original painted ceilings and beams, and an impressive collection of antique furniture, highlights include a traditional ‘luckenbooth’ shop-front, a 16th-century kitchen, a spinet and a selection of old maps and photographs of Edinburgh.
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