Things to Do in Edinburgh
Edinburgh Castle has loomed over Scotland’s capital city for more than 1,000 years. Steeped in history, the former royal residence is now a museum, featuring detailed exhibits and period artifacts that illuminate the castle’s storied past.
The atmospheric Royal Mile thoroughfare cuts through the historic core of Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh, extending for slightly more than a mile from Edinburgh Castle all the way to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Both sides of the partly pedestrianized street are bordered by historic granite buildings bearing shop display windows piled high with symbols of Scotland, from tartan to whisky to shortbread. In between the former tenements and taverns are darkened arm-width-wide alleyways, known locally as closes.
The historic heart of Edinburgh, UNESCO-listed Old Town, is home to the city’s most visited sights. Its central artery is the Royal Mile, which connects Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and is lined with top attractions including St. Giles Cathedral, Camera Obscura and World of Illusions, and the Scottish Parliament Building.
Founded in 1835, Camera Obscura and the World of Illusions is one of Edinburgh’s oldest tourist attractions. Located on the top floor, the Camera Obscura provides real-time views of the city, while the five floors below it are crammed with puzzles, optical illusions, and interactive exhibits that fool the eye and the mind.
Perched above the city of Stirling on a chunk of volcanic rock, this mighty Scottish fortress has seen it all, from attacks by Robert the Bruce to the coronation of the infant Mary Queen of Scots to the premiere of the movie “Braveheart” in 1993. In addition to the impeccably recreated Royal Palace interiors and the sheer amount of history held within its robust walls, the castle also offers superb views over Stirling and Scotland’s green hills and valleys.
The iconic Forth Bridge is a cantilever railway bridge that arches over the Firth of Forth in Scotland. Situated 14 kilometers from Edinburgh’s city center, this UNESCO World Heritage Site was designed by English engineers, John Fowler and Benjamin Baker. The bridge and its associated railway infrastructure is owned by Network Rail.
The distinctive red bridge, which links the villages of South Queensferry and North Queensferry, was opened by the Prince of Wales in March 1890, although was only classified as a UNESCO site on its 125th anniversary in 2015. The bridge spans a total length of almost 2500 meters and is an iconic symbol of Scotland’s engineering and architectural prowess and ingenuity. It also transports approximately 200 local and intercity trains across the Forth every single day.
Set amid splendid gardens at the foot of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, the Palace of Holyroodhouse is the official Scottish residence of the British royals, who first decamped here from nearby Edinburgh Castle back in the 15th century. The complex grew from a 12th-century abbey, whose ruins can still be seen on the grounds, into a full-fledged Baroque palace complete with elaborate plasterwork, sumptuous furnishings, and a number of tapestries. The palace is perhaps most famous for having hosted to the rather unfortunate Mary, Queen of Scots, whose beloved secretary was slaughtered here by her jealous second husband.
The official church of the Church of Scotland, St. Giles Cathedral and its famous crown spire tower over the Royal Mile in Edinburgh’s Old Town. With a history stretching back over 900 years, St. Giles is renowned for its beautiful stained glass windows, ornate Thistle Chapel, and busy concert calendar.
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.
Nowadays, the old market area is surrounded by pubs, clubs, shops, and two large hotels. Most buildings in the area are Victorian, with several modern buildings on the area’s south side.
Looming over Edinburgh’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Town, Calton Hill is one of the seven hills that the Scottish capital is built on. Come here for 360-degree views that encompass Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace, and, on a clear day, the Firth of Forth.
More Things to Do in Edinburgh
So expansive are the collections of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One) that they need not one but two enormous buildings to house them: Modern One and Modern Two. Modern One, occupying a 19th-century building, features a collection of 20th-century works, including pieces from Tracey Emin, Matisse, Picasso, and Lichtenstein.
One of several peaks in the long-extinct volcanic ridge that towers behind Edinburgh, Arthur’s Seat offers hill walking in the heart of the city. Set within the 640-acre (260-hectare) Holyrood Park, it’s also the site of a 2,000-year-old hill fort. On a clear day, the summit promises spectacular views of the cityscape.
The Scottish Parliament complex, opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 2004, sits across from Arthur’s Seat at the end of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Known for having one of the most innovative and controversial designs in Britain, Parliament is a must-see on any Edinburgh itinerary; various tours are available for those who want to explore the building.
The medieval John Knox House is one of the oldest buildings on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Knox, a prominent Reformation leader, is thought to have lived here in the 16th century, and the building now hosts tours chronicling the life of Knox and the houses’ other famous resident, James Mossman, goldsmith to Mary, Queen of Scots.
The Canongate forms the eastern end of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh’s Old Town. One of the oldest and most historic streets in the city, The Canongate is home to a number of top attractions and historic buildings, including Canongate Kirk, Moray House, Canongate Tolbooth (now People’s Story Museum), and the modern Scottish Parliament.
Straddling both the Scottish Highlands and the Lowlands, this island-studded loch boasts the largest surface area of any of Scotland’s lakes. It’s also one of its most famous, thanks in no small part to a well-known Scottish folk song that speaks of its “bonnie banks.” The lake’s mirror-clear waters reflect the crags and peaks that rear up around it, most notably the 3,195-foot (974-meter) Ben Lomond on its eastern shore, whose summit offers views of both Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.
Set across two buildings—one Victorian and one modern—and featuring a collection of more than 20,000 artifacts, the National Museum of Scotland is one of Edinburgh’s top visitor attractions. The diverse exhibits cover anything and everything to do with Scotland, including natural history, art, fashion, science, and archaeology.
Originally built as a Norman defense in the 11th century, imposing Alnwick Castle has been expanded piecemeal over the years, and encompasses medieval, Gothic, and neoclassical elements. The castle—about 85 miles (137 kilometers) from Edinburgh—has caught the eye of location scouts, who picked it to serve as Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films and Brancaster Castle inDownton Abbey.
One of Edinburgh’s most recognizable landmarks, the Scott Monument is a tribute to celebrated Scottish author and Edinburgh native son Sir Walter Scott. This imposing gothic tower stands 200 feet (61 meters) tall and dominates the skyline of New Town. Climb the 287 steps to the top for splendid views over the city.
Together with the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art One, the Modern Two houses Scotland’s national collection of contemporary art. Originally named the Dean Gallery, the 19th-century building hosts a permanent collection of dada and surrealist works, as well as a re-creation of the studio of Scottish sculptor Sir Eduardo Paolozzi.
Many of the Stuart royals, among them James I and Mary, Queen of Scots, did stints in this loch-side 15th-century pleasure palace. Gutted by fire in the 18th century, Linlithgow lies in ruin, though evidence of its grandeur—from the great hall to the intricately carved King’s Fountain—is still plentiful.
Propelled into the limelight by Dan Brown’sThe Da Vinci Code, this 15th-century chapel is well worth a look, even for those with no interest in Knights Templar conspiracy theories. The Gothic exterior—with its flying buttresses, pinnacles, and pointed arches—hides an elaborate interior, full of stone carvings rich in symbolism.
Often referred to as the “ship that never sailed,” Blackness Castle is a 15th century fortress sitting on the south shore of the Firth of Forth, not far from Edinburgh. With a long, narrow shape resembling a ship, the castle has been used as a residence, prison, artillery fortification and fortress over the centuries. Technological innovations were made in the 16th century and a cast iron pier with a gate and drawbridge was added in 1868. When the castle was restored between 1926 and 1935, most of the 19th century additions were removed and the medieval era features of the castle were restored.
Though most of the buildings are empty today, the castle is open to the public as a historic monument. An exhibition provides insight into the history of the castle, including information about the powerful Crichton family, for whom it was built. Visitors can also climb the towers or the curtain wall of the castle for sweeping views of the Firth of Forth; the best views are from the central tower. The castle has also been featured in the “Outlander” television series and is a stop on many “Outlander” themed tours.
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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