Heading to Edinburgh for the first time? Or maybe even a second visit, and not sure what to do? Here’s a list of our favorite things to do in Edinburgh and recommendations of the best things to do in Edinburgh for a first-time visitor.
The list includes some great free tours in Edinburgh, some of our favorite coffee shops, restaurants and bars, opportunities to learn about the history and culture, Scottish whisky and some wonderful things to do if the weather is nice in Edinburgh. In short all the best things to do in Edinburgh to help you make the most of your time.
Some of Our Favorite Places to Eat and Drink in Edinburgh
While not an exhaustive list, here are a few of our favorite places in Edinburgh.
Best Coffee Shops and Cafes in Edinburgh
First things first, coffee to start the day! Edinburgh has some fantastic, independent coffee shops. The local newspaper, The Scottish Independent even publish a handy guide The Coffee Guide to Scotland. Many of the listings are in Edinburgh. We found a copy in several of the coffee shops we were in, and used it to find some other good coffee shops.
A few to try:
- Thomas J. Walls– great breakfasts as well.
- The Milkman– (7 Cockburn St) – also has homemade milkshakes.
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Best Places to Eat and Drink in Edinburgh
- Asti Restaurant in New Town, a small, authentic Italian restaurant, good wine selection, great menu and very affordable. You won’t leave hungry. Reservations are suggested.
- The Bow Bar, a down to earth whisky bar, nothing fancy, but the staff are friendly, the whisky selection is extensive and the “Whisky of the Moment,” a choice of several whisky specials changes frequently so you always try something new. One of our favorite places to try a new whisky. (And there are oh so many to try in Scotland!)
- Oink– The original location is right across the street from The Bow Bar, which is handy. Oink is a very casual spot to get the best roast pulled pork sandwich you will ever have anywhere! I know it’s a big claim, but try it- I think you will agree! They roast a whole hog daily, and are open until 6 pm or until they run out!
Sometimes there is quite the line during the day, if you can, go in the non-peak. There is very limited seating. Select from three sizes of sandwich S, M and L, your choice of sage and onion stuffing or haggis and sauce- BBQ or apple. If you are gluten-free or paleo choose the box option, (so no bun.) Simply delicious- highly recommend to all!!
There are three locations in Edinburgh. Check the website or just look for the bright pink pig!
- Jamie’s Italian- If you are a Jamie Oliver fan, one of his Italian restaurants is in the former supper halls of the Assembly Rooms on George Street. It has a great atmosphere with an open kitchen, high-ceilings, beautiful chandeliers and a stunning red interior complete with red velvet chairs. Good for a casual meal or a special occasion.
- Amber Restaurant and Bar- At the Scottish Whisky Experience on the Royal Mile. You can visit either of these venues with or without taking a tour. A great selection of whisky in both the bar and restaurant. The Amber Restaurant features traditional Scottish fare and a whisky sommelier to help you find a whisky you will enjoy.
Best Things to Do in Edinburgh if you Have Nice Weather
It does rain a lot in Edinburgh, but there are some days with nice weather, especially in Summer and if you get one take advantage of it! Here are some of the best things to do in Edinburgh if the weather is nice.
Explore Holyrood Park & Arthur’s Seat
Just past the end of the Royal Mile, near the stunning Scottish Parliament Building and Holyrood Palace, is a 640-acre park.
A short hike takes you to Arthur’s Seat, an ancient volcano. The top, and the hike itself, provides some stunning views of Edinburgh and surrounds. It is also the site of a large and well-preserved fort.
It is highly recommended on a clear day- the views are worth it!
The Quarter Mile and the Meadows
The Meadow is a large park to the south of Edinburgh’s city center. It is near the University of Edinburgh’s George Square campus and the Thomas J. Walls coffee shop noted above.
On a nice day, this is the place all of Edinburgh heads for a BBQ in the park. Areas are designated for BBQ use. Most people are using a disposable BBQ you can buy in any local grocery store.
It’s a beautiful place to enjoy the sun and relax for a bit.
The Quartermile, the redevelopment of the old Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, borders the park to the North. Lots of hip eateries and cafes are in this development if you prefer not to join in on the BBQing.
Stroll thru Princess Street Gardens in the Center of Edinburgh
In the center of town, Princes Street Gardens separate the Old Town from the New Town. Mind you New Town is a relative term, as the beginning of development in New Town dates to the 1760’s.
Edinburgh is an old city, full of history and in the New Town, development focused on wide streets and more open spaces than in the Old Town. Both the Old Town and New Town were designated UNESCO World Heritage Areas in 1995, although in recent years there has been come controversy as to if this designation should remain.
Once the site of Nor Loch, and heavily polluted, the loch was drained to make the Princes Street Gardens. Today they provide some fantastic views of the city, especially of the Edinburgh Castle from below.
Best things to Do in Edinburgh’s Old Town
Highlights of the Edinburgh’s Old Town include a stroll down the Royal Mile and a visit to Edinburgh Castle.
Visiting Edinburgh Castle
If you time your visit to be at Edinburgh Castle at 1 p.m. you will be there for the one o’clock gun – which has occurred daily since 1861! The Edinburgh Castle is the venue for the Annual Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo every year in August.
The Royal Mile
Slightly longer than a mile, this lovely street is worth a stroll. Mainly shops, cafes and restaurants these days, but the historic buildings are intact. At times, the street can be quite crowded and sections of the street are often blocked for pedestrians only.
In the 18th century during the Enlightenment, Edinburgh was known as the “Athens of the North” with many prominent architects, philosophers and authors living in Edinburgh during this time. Much of this architecture is still in evidence today.
Several FREE Edinburgh Walking Tours leave from the Royal Mile. Join one and learn a bit more about the history of Edinburgh.
Literature, Harry Potter and Edinburgh
Edinburgh is the 1st Europe Literary capital and a UNESCO City of Literature. A lot of famous authors are Scottish, but perhaps the best-known author of the moment is J.K Rowling. And yes, she is from Edinburgh and much of the inspiration for the Harry Potter series can be found in and around Edinburgh.
And who isn’t a Harry Potter fan? What better place to take a Harry Potter tour than Edinburgh. This is a free tour and it is extremely popular. As we arrived about 2:55 there were at least 100 people there for the tour starting at 3 p.m. Luckily there were two guides, and they split the crowd into two groups and off we went!
Curious about where the names of the characters came from, or what provided the inspiration for some of the sets, including Hogwarts and Diagon Alley? You will find out this and more on the tour.
J.K. Rowling lived in Edinburgh while writing the Harry Potter series often writing in coffee shops. The last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was finished in a room at the Balmoral Hotel, one of Edinburgh’s finest 5-star luxury hotels. Today you can stay in the very room where the book was completed. The J.K Rowling Suite is available for rent and has recently had a renovation!
Wands at the ready, spells were taught, and fun was had by all! A fantastic tour highly recommended for Harry Potter fans of all ages. And it’s FREE!
Learn About Scottish Whisky at the Scottish Whisky Experience on the Royal Mile
Seriously it would be hard to underestimate the importance of Scottish whisky to the culture and economy of Scotland,
There are over 100 distilleries in Scotland and the industry contributes over £5 Billion (close to 6.5 Billion in USD) to the United Kingdom’s economy each year. It is a Scottish success story and with much of the production exported, whisky is one of the most well-known products from Scotland.
Yet with all those distilleries, there are none in Edinburgh. But luckily for you, there is the next best thing, the Scottish Whisky Experience. Located close to Edinburgh Castle on the Royal Mile, the Scottish Whisky Experience is a fantastic opportunity to learn more about the industry and have a whisky tasting.
You can learn more about Scottish whisky and read our full review of the Scottish Whisky Experience in our longer article.
Take a Ghost Tour of Edinburgh
Edinburgh has a reputation as a haunted city. As we learned on our Harry Potter walking tour, parts of Greyfriars cemetery are actually closed to the public due to “poltergeist” activities.
Curious to learn more we joined Mercat tours at 9 pm (figuring it might be scarier in the dark) for the Ghost and Ghouls tour. If you want to know the stories of Edinburgh’s past this is the place. Several people recommended Mercat tours to us as the best ghost tour in Edinburgh and it didn’t disappoint!
Our guides Edgar and Stephanie were dressed for the part in the black capes. Edgar’s long, flowing, black hair, and wolf-man beard, were perfect for the part of guide for a ghost tour, you could not have had better casting in a feature film. Witches, witch trials, hangings, body snatchers, mass murderers and haunted vaults beneath the streets of Edinburgh- it’s all there. And as you walk around Edinburgh by day, you’d never know.
On our way to the tour we crossed from the New Town to Old Town with a leisurely stroll through the beautiful Princess Gardens. Turns out the gardens were once the site of the town’s loch (lake) and as we learned that evening on the tour, the site of the witch trials.
Like in Savannah, some present-day buildings and parking lots sit atop old graveyards. Several very deadly plagues swept through Edinburgh so throughout history the streets of Edinburgh witnessed lots of death and unpleasantness.
Underneath Edinburgh, not visible to a passerby, sit the Blair Street Underground Vaults. Today, Mercat Tours office sit above their entrance. I am not sure this is an office I would like to work in! Too many coworkers that never go home!
After touring the vaults, you enter a candlelit cellar where the stories continue. With a wee dram of Scottish whisky, Edgar and Stephanie told us other stories of Edinburgh’s “dark past.” The tour reminds me of a slumber party or campfire – telling stories to scare each other and ensure you can’t sleep for the night!
When the tour ends, it’s dark outside and as you make your way back to your lodgings for the night you may never look at Edinburgh the same again!
Fantastic storytelling and learning the dark secrets of Edinburgh’s history make Mercat’s Ghost and Ghouls tour a fun filled night. Tours last 2 hours and run at 7, 8 and 9 pm in the summer, so you can fit it in somewhere. You need to book in advance- you can do so online or at the Mercat Cross on the Royal Mile near Giles Cathedral. Wear comfortable shoes as there is a bit of walking.
And Lastly- Get out of Town
Visit Rosslyn Chapel
If you’ve seen the Da Vinci Code movie or read the Dan Brown novel, you will know Rosslyn Chapel. This beautiful chapel, was built in 1446 and took 40 years to build. When you see the carvings, you will know why it took so long to build- carvings cover every surface inside and out. Some of the carving highlights include the Chapel’s Angels, the Green Men, and the Apprentice Pillar. There is a free 20-minute tour inside to show you these carvings.
And yes, you can see and stand on the meridian line running through the chapel. No photos are allowed inside the chapel. The gift shop and bookshop are extensive and well worth a look.
Only 7 Miles south of Edinburgh it is easy to get there by taxi, bus or train. If you drive, there is free parking.
Take a Day Trip to the Scottish Highlands
Or visit a distillery, or something! Take a day, yes even if it is your first visit, and get out of town. While Edinburgh is amazing, so is the rest of Scotland! And I think a day trip is enough to give you a feel for what else Scotland offers and it will make you want to come back!
If you want to do it the easy way, with no rental car hassles, no driving and no planning involved, find a good day tour. You could visit Saint Andrews, the home of Scottish golf, or some of the local towns, visit a distillery or take a day trip to the Scottish Highlands and Loch Ness. Yep you can visit any of those places in a day!
We enjoyed a day trip to the Scottish Highlands and Loch Ness with Highland Explorer Tours. You can read the full review of our trip to Loch Ness on the link above or check their website for other tour options. And we are full of ideas for our next trip to Scotland!
If you go to Edinburgh- Planning Your Trip
Edinburgh is easy to reach by air or train within the United Kingdom or internationally from many places.
An easy easy city to walk around, if you pick a hotel in a main area near the Old Town or New Town Edinburgh you can walk to any of the activities listed here.
If you stay slightly further out, public transport in Edinburgh is excellent and the bus is easy to use.
You can check hotel prices and availability here.
When is the Best Time to Visit Edinburgh?
When is the best time to visit Edinburgh? Edinburgh is a year-round destination. However, there are a few things to keep in mind when planning your visit. Edinburgh is pretty far north and in the winter days are short. Conversely, summer days are quite long.
June to August is the peak season for tourists. August is extremely busy as it is when the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival are held. Hotel prices are higher. If you want to visit in August plan ahead!
New Year’s Eve is another large festival period, when the Sottish celebrate Hogmanay. Edinburgh has a three day long New Year’s Eve celebration. Again, plan if you want to visit for Hogmanay.