I’m back after a long summer break in the UK – five weeks of travelling around Scotland and England! Scotland was cold and grey with a few bouts of welcome sunshine, while England was in the middle of that elusive English summer. We spent a fair bit of time in Edinburgh, staying both in the city centre and in suburban Leith. There’s plenty to see and do in Edinburgh, one of the most attractive cities in Scotland.
The Scottish capital is steeped in history and is home to some stunning architectural and cultural attractions. Between its medieval Old Town and Georgian New Town, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Here’s my pick of things to do in Edinburgh, Scotland.
There’s no missing the Edinburgh Castle. Perched high up on the volcanic outcrop of Castle Rock, this historic fortress dominates the city’s skyline. There’s been a castle on this location since the Iron Age, but the current construction dates to the medieval times.
The castle houses a museum where the major draw is the display of the Honours of Scotland or the Scottish Crown Jewels. This includes the crown, sceptre, and sword used in the coronation of Scottish monarchs since 1543.
You can get superb views of the city from the many viewpoints of the castle.
Another royal attraction worth visiting is the Royal Yacht Brittania, which used to be the royal yacht of Queen Elizabeth II and was in commission from 1954 to 1997. After ‘retirement’, it’s permanently docked in Edinburgh. Wander its five decks with a complimentary audio guide. This gives you lots of information and trivia on how the royal family lived and travelled aboard the yacht.
See the state apartments, royal bedrooms, sun lounge, sickbay, and more.
Do partake of a cream tea in the lovely Royal Deck Tea Room.
Explore the Royal Mile
Edinburgh’s Royal Mile runs through the heart of the Old Town. It is choc-a-bloc with shops, cafes, pubs, not to mention stunning buildings, churches, and museums that flank it. It starts all the way from Edinburgh Castle and slopes down to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Did you know that the Royal Mile is actually 1 mile and 107 yards long? Or that a millennia-old volcanic eruption created a solid ridge on which the ‘mile’ runs? Find out more such interesting facts and historical anecdotes on a ‘Secrets of the Royal Mile’ walking tour with Mercat Tours.
Another fascinating attraction is Real Mary Kings Close, a historic close that housed tenements in the 17th century. Today, most of this is underground located under administrative buildings on the Royal Mile.
Go on a guided social history tour that takes you through the narrow alleys still flanked by tenement houses that stretch up to 8 storeys high. Learn how people lived cheek by jowl in these tiny houses, how the Black Death (plague epidemic) affected the population in Edinburgh, and also visit a haunted part of the close.
Visit the Museums
Visiting a museum is the best thing to do in Edinburgh, especially when it’s raining.
I recommend a visit to the Scottish National Gallery, which has a fabulous collection of fine art from various periods and includes masterpieces by Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Monet, etc.
At the National Museum of Scotland, take a trip through the history of Scotland through nature, art, design, science etc. There are several interactive displays that the kids will love. Both museums are free to enter, though special exhibitions may have an admission charge.
If you’re travelling with kids, drop in at Camera Obscura, a zany world of optical illusions and mind-bending trickery. The rooftop gives sweeping views of the city, and the camera obscura show gives you a unique perspective on the city – it’s a Victorian-era virtual reality show.
Go on a Harry Potter Trail
Harry Potter creator JK Rowling is arguably Edinburgh’s biggest selling point. Although English by birth, she did spend a large part of her time creating the Potter universe here. The city also served as her muse. The 390-year-old George Heriot’s School, Scotland’s most distinguished private school was the inspiration for Hogwarts.
And the curving Victoria Street with its many-coloured shop facades sparked the idea for Diagon Alley.
In the Greyfriars Kirkyard is the grave of a Thomas Riddle, a name which Potter fans will recognise as that of the infamous Lord Voldemort! Discover these spots and more on The Potter Trail, a 90-minute walk around the city accompanied by a cloak-wearing guide who will keep you entertained with anecdotes and trivia. There’s also a side act of some wand-waving magic. The trail is free but do remember to leave a tip.
I absolutely loved the trail, not just because I’m a Potterhead but my guide bore an uncanny resemblance to Daniel Radcliffe! I wrote in detail about my experience on this trail for National Geographic Traveller India, read it here.
And that’s not all; you can also eat and drink like Rowling.
The Elephant House Café claims to be the birthplace of Harry Potter. Actually, Rowling wrote books 2 to 4 in the back-room of the café.
Drop in for a coffee and cake, but be warned that you’d likely have to queue up for a seat. The actual birthplace or the café where Rowling wrote the first book is sadly no longer around. It is replaced by Spoon, a lovely, airy café that does a mean brunch that I highly recommend.
Say Sláinte with Scotch
Another fun thing to do in Edinburgh is the Scotch Whisky Experience. It is located right next to the entrance to Edinburgh Castle.
Begin with a barrel ride that takes you on the journey of how scotch whisky is made, followed by an interactive session on understanding the notes and flavour profile of malts from different regions of Scotland, and ending with a tasting.
Hope this guide to Edinburgh inspires you to plan your trip. August is a great time to visit as the city transforms into a festival zone.
- The foremost festival is Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which goes on through most of the month. Spread over some 300 venues across the city, there are over 50,000 events to attend, ranging from theatre, music, dance, stand-up comedy, circus acts, and more.
- Then there’s the Edinburgh International Festival, which runs along with the Fringe. Expect to see high-quality international performing acts like classical concerts and orchestra, opera, theatre etc.
- For bibliophiles, the Edinburgh International Book Festival is a must-attend.
- There’s also the Edinburgh Art Festival that features contemporary art exhibitions, pop-up events, and art walks.
- And finally, don’t miss the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the coolest thing to do in Edinburgh in August. With the Edinburgh Castle as a backdrop, there’s a parade of military bands, air force jets flying by, and spectacular fireworks.
Have you been to Scotland? What were your favourite things to do in Edinburgh? Leave us a comment below.
This article was commissioned by Jet Wings and a version of it appeared in their August 2018 issue. Read it here.