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Things to do in Edinburgh: 7 must-see attractions in the Scottish capital

25 Jun 2024 | |By Annie Lewis

As the city gears up to host its annual Fringe Festival, spotlighting some of the most exciting comedians and creatives in the UK, we round up the best things to do in Edinburgh this summer

Edinburgh is a cornucopia of culture and history, gastronomy and comedy, sophistication and grit. Steeped in history, the Scottish capital is hugged by ancient volcanic peaks on one side and the southern shore of the Firth of Forth – a branch of the North Sea that waves westward into the Scottish Lowlands – on the other. Historic areas such as the Royal Mile and the Grassmarket are strategically overlooked by the looming 11th-century Edinburgh Castle, once home to Mary Queen of Scots and now housing the Scottish Crown Jewels. Elsewhere, climbing Arthur’s Seat with a picnic in tow is a must (and not just because of its stunning feature in Netflix’s One Day), as is a pitstop at the Scottish National Gallery and dipping in and out of the world-famous Fringe Festival if you’re in town in August – and that’s your weekend itinerary sorted. Read on for the best things to do in Edinburgh. 

Climb Arthur’s Seat

arthur's seat edinburgh
Image: Shutterstock/George Baliasov

One Day fans will naturally have this scenic spot at the top of their itinerary, but for those unaware of the significance of this hill beyond David Nicholls’ beloved book, allow us to enlighten you. Arthur’s Seat is an extinct volcano and the largest peak of a clutch of craggy cliff tops in Holyrood Park. It can take roughly two hours to reach it – with many prime picnic spots along the way – and follows a steady, easy incline. Once at the top, you’ll be rewarded with views far and wide, spanning Edinburgh’s Old Town, the Pentland Hills, East Lothian and North Berwick. 

Visit Edinburgh Castle

edinburgh castle

Edinburgh’s most iconic building, its eponymous castle, dates back to the 11th century and was built atop another extinct volcano chosen for its easy strategic advantage and military potential. It’s part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of western Europe’s most celebrated historical sites, famous for being the home of Mary Queen of Scots in the 16th century. Visit today and you can go inside its oldest quarter, St Margaret’s Chapel, the Great Hall built by James IV around 1510 and the Scottish National War Memorial, constructed after the First World War. The castle also houses the Honours (Crown Jewels) of Scotland, the Stone of Destiny, the famous 15th-century gun Mons Meg, and the National War Museum of Scotland.

Visit edinburghcastle.scot

Take in the views at Calton Hill

calton hill edinburgh

Another one for the eagle-eyed, Calton Hill offers a great vantage point to spot Arthur’s Seat, Holyrood Palace, Parliament and the Royal Mile. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to a collection of historic monuments, most notably the National Monument which was inspired by the Parthenon in Athens, as well as the Nelson Monument and the City Observatory. Visit on New Year’s Eve for a true taste of Scottish Hogmanay or in April for the Celtic Beltane Fire Festival, which marks the beginning of summer in Celtic tradition with a vibrant procession kickstarted by a huge bonfire. 

Stroll down the Royal Mile

royal mile edinburgh
Image: Shutterstock/Jeff Whyte

The Royal Mile runs through the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town, connecting the city’s castle with the opulent Palace of Holyroodhouse that’s overlooked by Arthur's Seat. The Mile connects the old and new quarters via cobblestone streets and narrow stairways, peppered with historical attractions such as The Real Mary King’s Close – a time capsule of real streets and stories beneath Edinburgh – and the home of Scotland’s spoken word scene, the Scottish Storytelling Centre. Other must-see attractions include the gothic St Giles' Cathedral and the uber-modern Scottish Parliament building. There’s plenty of whisky bars, cafes and upmarket restaurants to whet your whistle, as well as street artists and caricaturists to keep you entertained. 

Shop at Grassmarket

grassmarket edinburgh
Image: Shutterstock/Jennifer Sophie

You’ve probably already spotted Grassmarket on Instagram and TikTok – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. Nestled in the heart of Edinburgh’s historic Old Town, in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, the Grassmarket is one of the most picturesque and lively areas of the city. Lined with colourful shops and cobbled streets, it's a one-stop shop for authentic Scottish goodies by independent designers and artisans, from high-quality knitwear from Hawico to tweed suits from Walker Slater. 

Shopping is hungry work but luckily there’s an array of bars, restaurants and cafes to satiate all appetites at Grassmarket. Head to La Barantine for a French-inspired breakfast, Howies Victoria for traditional Scottish dishes (neeps and tatties galore) and The Grassmarket Cafe for coffee or a light lunch, with proceeds going to local community projects. 

Spot masterpieces at the Scottish National Gallery

scottish national gallery
Image: Shutterstock/Jeff Whyte

Home to an impressive array of art, the Scottish National Gallery is the place to go to experience a bit of everything from every era. Spend an afternoon here and spot internationally renowned artists, such as Vermeer, Titian, Rembrandt, Velázquez and the Impressionists, before exploring the newly-opened Scottish galleries housing the country’s most famous art spanning 1300 to 1945. Housed in a neoclassical building on The Mound, discover the work of pioneering artists such as William McTaggart, Anne Redpath, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow Boys. 

Visit nationalgalleries.org

Have a laugh at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

edinburgh fringe festival
Image: Shutterstock/Dvlcom

There’s not one single venue that hosts the world’s largest performing arts festival, but more than 250 dotted across Edinburgh. Running from 2-26 August 2024, The Fringe is open to everyone and sees up-and-coming artists flock to the Scottish capital in search of their big break (Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, John Cleese and Rowan Atkinson all made their name here). It's gargantuan in size, and with its 400-page brochure, can seem a bit overwhelming, but sift through the programme to discover an array of theatre, comedy, dance, circus, cabaret, musicals and opera. There’s something for everyone, you just have to find it… 

Visit edfringe.com

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