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Edinburgh: Must-See Places

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Edinburgh, the enchanting capital city of Scotland, offers as much interest for history buffs as it does for festival seekers and foodies. With stunning architecture, cobbled lanes, and plenty of high vantage points in this city of seven hills, it’s also a photographer’s dream! Despite its small size, the diversity of attractions and points of interest in Edinburgh can overwhelm a first-time visitor, so take heed of these carefully curated insider tips to make your visit to Edinburgh idyllic.

Edinburgh Castle. Photo by joerga from Unsplash.

Edinburgh Castle

Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2NG, UK

It is impossible to visit Edinburgh without admiring its eponymous castle. Resting at 430 feet (130 meters) above sea level atop Castle Rock — a craggy extinct volcano smack dab in the center of the city — Edinburgh Castle inspires awe and bewilderment. To think this seemingly impenetrable fortress fell quite regularly to attackers is mind-boggling, yet true. Hear all the stories and see for yourself what happened over the many centuries behind those walls with a tour. (Pro tip: Book a ticket in advance for first thing in the morning to avoid long queues.)

Should you be in or near the castle at midday, don’t be afraid of the sudden booming cannon. That’s the One O’Clock Gun fired daily (except Sundays, Good Friday, and Christmas Day); it’s merely fired for timekeeping rather than signaling any sort of current-day castle siege.

Looking for the best views and photo ops of Edinburgh Castle? Start below in Princes Street Gardens , especially by the beautiful Ross Fountain. Walking along Princes Street offers multiple perfect spots to capture a wider view, as does Castle Street, which runs perpendicular to Princes Street.

The view from the Grassmarket is also a stunner. While you’re there, stop into Cold Town House right in front of you to admire the repurposed church. The first floor is a bar, the second floor is pizza and prosecco (with fabulous interiors, including the pulpit now serving as a DJ booth), and the next floor up brings you to the small rooftop beer garden. You can enjoy a cold pint and admire the Castle yet again.

Finally, once you leave, cross the rest of that cobbled area and walk up the steps directly across, called The Vennel . It’s worth the effort to climb the stairs until you reach the Flodden Wall, which marks one of the original exterior city walls. Turn around again for one of the most popular Instagram shots of the Castle.

The Royal Mile. Photo by Kim Traynor licensed under CC BY 3.0.

The Royal Mile

109 The Royal Mile, Royal Mile, Edinburgh EH1 1SG, UK

Back up at Edinburgh Castle, the The Royal Mile is the primary road extending downhill all the way from the Castle to Holyrood Palace. Formally known as Holyroodhouse Palace, this is the Queen’s official Scottish residence. Across from Holyrood Palace is the much more modern Scottish Parliament Building , and then next to that is Dynamic Earth — a fantastic attraction for kids.

All along the Royal Mile, you’ll find shops, restaurants, hotels, bars, tourist attractions, and plenty of closes. A close is like a tiny alleyway, wide enough only for pedestrians and serving as excellent paths between wider streets. Don’t fear these narrow alleyways or dark staircases. Edinburgh is a city of many levels — think of these like playing Chutes and Ladders.

Closes are used by everyone and you’ll find some absolute gems if you wander through. For a serene secluded garden, look for Dunbar's Close ; for an iconic photo op and a fabulous cocktail bar, seek out Advocate's Close ; for Outlander fans looking for filming locations, wander into Bakehouse Close to find the print shop.

Arthur's Seat. Photo by Evy Prentice from Unsplash.

Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags

Edinburgh, Scotland

As long as you’re wearing comfortable shoes (which is highly recommended for every day you spend in Edinburgh), challenge yourself a bit more with a hike to the top of Arthur’s Seat. This volcanic plug sits opposite Castle Rock, with the Royal Mile and much of the Old Town of Edinburgh in between. From atop Arthur’s Seat , you’ll enjoy a stunning view of all of Edinburgh.

The hike usually takes about 2 hours roundtrip, more if you stop for endless photos. It’s very breezy at the top at all times of the year, so do wear layers. If you haven’t got the stamina or time for the Seat, stick to the shorter Salisbury Crags walk instead. From the parking lot beside Holyrood Palace, the walk to Arthur’s Seat heads toward the left while Salisbury Crags is to the right. You’ll still enjoy beautiful views from there.

If you do Arthur’s Seat, walk down the backside instead of returning the way you came. You’ll reach the historic village of Duddingston , where you can enjoy the absolutely lovely Dr. Neil's Garden and then grab a well-deserved cold pint at one of Scotland’s oldest public houses, The Sheep Heid Inn . It’s been the site of a public house since the 13th century!

Water of Leith. Photo by Bayo Adegunloye from Unsplash.

Water of Leith

Scotland

The Water of Leith is a stream that runs over 20 miles from the Pentland Hills out to the docks of Leith. Walking along part of the path is a favorite pastime in Edinburgh, offering several lovely places to stop along the way. Start your walk in beautiful Dean Village , just a few minutes’ walk from the end of Princes Street as it turns toward the West End. The colorful buildings were once a run-down mill area, but Dean Village is now one of the more famously photographed spots in Edinburgh.

Join the Water of Leith path in Dean Village and from there, you’ll feel a world away from the bustling city center, strolling amidst wooded paths behind the expensive townhouses of New Town.

After just a few minutes, you’ll reach the neighborhood of Stockbridge . On Sundays, a popular market pops up here; on all days, Stockbridge offers traditional pubs, exceptional cafes, and a lovely traditional vibe blended with modern conveniences.

A longer walk along the Water of Leith will take you to the beautiful Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh , which is free to explore with the exception of the greenhouses.

Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Photo by Festival Fringe Society licensed under CC BY 3.0.

Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Edinburgh is known as the Festival City, and for good reason. With 11 official festivals happening annually, plus countless smaller festivals and pop-up events throughout the year, Edinburgh knows how to put on a show.

The biggest festivals happen in August. August in Edinburgh is electric — and incredibly busy. (Pro tip: Book months in advance if you intend to come this time of year.) The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the world’s largest arts festival and happens all month long, with endless free performances, street performances, and hundreds of venues all around the city offering ticketed events. Artists from around the world flock to the city to perform night after night; it’s an epic celebration of creativity.

Beyond the Fringe, August also boasts four other major festivals, so you’re sure to find something to suit your tastes!

Another major festival in Edinburgh is Hogmanay (Scotland’s New Year’s Eve), which is one of the biggest such celebrations in the entire world. Brave the Scottish winter weather and celebrate over three days of merriment and tradition.

National Museum of Scotland. Photo by Mathias P.R. Reding from Unsplash.

National Museum of Scotland

Chambers St, Edinburgh, Scotland EH1 1JF

Located on Chambers Street in the heart of Old Town, this museum covers everything and can be a conveniently located reprieve when the weather very suddenly turns (as it often does). There are exhibits for everyone here and the building itself is an architectural treat. On a clear day, head to the roof deck for views of the city.

There are so many fantastic (and free or reasonably priced) museums that give you great insight into Scottish history and art, that we also wanted to include a few more we love:

The Royal Scottish Academy and Scottish National Gallery : Located next to each other on Princes Street, these two art galleries offer something for all types of art lovers. They separate the two sections of the Princes Street Gardens, so you can pop in and out during your stroll through the landscaped beauty.

Museum of Edinburgh : Located right on the Royal Mile, the Museum of Edinburgh offers an incredible look at the history of the city. In fact, this is an excellent starting point for your vacation so you have a better understanding as you explore more of Edinburgh.