Today I wanted to share some of my favorite photos from Edinburgh and a list of fun activities and things to do in the city. Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland, located on the Firth of Forth near the North Sea. The city has a rich history dating back to the 12th century and has both a medieval Old Town, complete with narrow alleys and a castle that is home to Scotland’s crown jewels, and a New Town, with neoclassical architecture and spacious gardens. I visited Edinburgh a handful of times while studying abroad in Glasgow, as the cities are just a short hour-long train ride apart. I learned quickly that there is a great debate among the Scottish regarding which of the two cities is better… While I prefer Glasgow myself, I understand the allure of Edinburgh—its charm and beauty certainly go unmatched!
Visit the National Museum of Scotland
The National Museum of Scotland was one of my favorite museums I visited while abroad (and I toured several museums, so that’s saying a lot). Not only was it a beautiful building, but the museum included incredible exhibits on science and technology, the natural world, and even fashion, just to name a few. There were also lots of hands-on activities, especially in the science and technology section, that allowed you to engage and understand more deeply the artifacts in front of you.
Like lots of museums, you could spend days at the National Museum and still leave without having read every placard. The best part is that (aside from a few special exhibits) the museum is free, so you could do a deep-dive into one specific gallery and then come back another day to explore a different one, instead of trying to cram the entire museum into one visit. Museums can be so exhausting and overwhelming, so I love that they make it easy to return time and time again.
Explore the Old Town and Wander Its Closes
What Edinburgh has that Glasgow does not are clean, picturesque streets at every corner. It really is a beautiful city, and it’s worth wandering Old Town even if you have nowhere to go. ‘Close’ is a term used to describe the alleyways between buildings, particularly tall, very old tenement buildings. It was so fun and mysterious to wander these alleys and discover cute little shops and cafes, or to consider the types of people who lived there centuries before. Edinburgh is a very hilly city, though, so I recommend wearing good walking shoes. There are lots of steep staircases throughout town, and several of the closes change elevation as well. You really feel the burn when wandering around this capital, ha!
Amble Down the Royal Mile
The Royal Mile is a street that cuts right through the heart of Old Town, with Edinburgh Castle on one end and the Scottish Parliament building and the Palace of Holyroodhouse on the other (the palace is the official residence of the British monarch while in Scotland). The street is mostly filled with generic tartan gift shops and busking bagpipe players—beware, they might ask for money if you take a picture of them! While I don’t love the Royal Mile because it’s very touristy, it is still worth an amble to see the architecture. Not to mention, it’s very close to lots of the other locations in today’s blog post, so you’ll probably walk along the street anyways.
Stroll Through St. Giles Cathedral
I’ve always loved touring old churches and cathedrals—they’re such incredible pieces of architecture and often have lots of fascinating history. St. Giles Cathedral is no exception. It doesn’t cost any money to enter and is on the smaller side, so it really only takes a few minutes to walk around the interior and take in the beautiful stained-glass windows. The Queen’s casket was recently on display in this cathedral before it was taken to Westminster.
Take The Real Mary King’s Close Tour
This was a fascinating tour of Edinburgh’s underground city. In 1760, the Royal Exchange building on the Royal Mile was built over a historic close from the 17th century, preserving an underground labyrinth of alleyways and buildings. Now the close is open for tours, named after the successful merchant and resident Mary King. In this tour, actors play the role of real residents of the close and tell some of the stories of Edinburgh’s dirty and plague-ridden past. As the city became overcrowded, tenement buildings were built upwards—some as high as eight stories—with the richest residents at the top and the poorest residents on the ground floor, among the animals and sewage. Because of this, they say that Edinburgh is home to the world’s first skyscrapers! It was particularly eerie to learn about the plague and all of its similarities to today’s pandemic.
The tour lasts an hour and costs £19.50. I thought the price was a little high, and there were parts of the tour that were clearly geared towards a younger audience (not to mention, the mannequins they use are very creepy and unrealistic). Even though there were aspects about the tour that I didn’t like, I still think I would recommend it because the history is just so fascinating—I learned so much about Edinburgh that I would not have otherwise. (They don’t allow photos on the tour, so this is just a pic I took along the Royal Mile.)
Hike Arthur’s Seat
If you have the time and are interested in a little exercise, hiking to the top of Arthur’s Seat is a great option with incredibly rewarding views. Arthur’s Seat is a dormant volcano at the end of the Royal Mile, near the Palace of Holyroodhouse. It took us a little over an hour to summit but is a relatively easy hike, with a clear pathway. The only part that might be more difficult for older or more timid crowds is at the very top, where the trail turns to large, uneven rocks. However, even if you stop just before the peak, the views are still worthwhile—you can see all of Edinburgh, the beautiful rolling hills, and much of the Firth of Forth, the waterway that leads to the North Sea. Absolutely stunning!! Just be weary of hiking in or after a hard rain, as the pathway becomes very muddy and slippery. You can see another view from the top in the first pic of today’s blog post.
See the Real Tom Riddle Grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard
If you’re a Harry Potter fan, Edinburgh is famous for being home to lots of J.K. Rowling’s inspirations. There’s even a café in town where she supposedly wrote much of the first book! (Side note: I tried to go to the café when I was there, but it had recently suffered a fire and was temporarily closed.) In the Greyfriars Kirkyard, which is apparently one of Europe’s most haunted cemeteries, there are tombstones with a Moodie surname and a McGonagall surname, and even a tombstone for Tom Riddel. The story goes that J.K. Rowling used to write in the cemetery and looked up to see Tom Riddel’s grave, ultimately deciding that a slight change in spelling to the name (Riddle instead of Riddel) would be perfect for her famous villain. Creepy that she just wrote in a cemetery, right?
I will say, while you can plot Tom Riddel’s grave in Google Maps, it takes you to a wall of tombstones with no Tom Riddel to be found… It took me several minutes to figure out the wall had a backside, with an entrance to a separate section of the cemetery a little ways down. Just keep that in mind as you’re trying to find it!
Wander Down Victoria Street, AKA Diagon Alley
Victoria Street is a very cute, curvy, colorful street not far from the Royal Mile and Greyfriars Kirkyard. It has two stories of shops and restaurants, including a yummy French café and a really cool, three-story Harry Potter gift shop (it has some awesome mementos!). This street is said to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter stories—I remember entering the street from one direction, not thinking much of it, and then turning around at the other end to realize it did, indeed, look very much like Diagon Alley. Magical!
Visit the Statue of Greyfriars Bobby
It wouldn’t be a trip to Edinburgh without learning the history of the city’s most famous dog. Greyfriars Bobby was a terrier who lived in the city in the 1800s. When his owner John Gray died and was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Bobby spent 14 years guarding his master’s grave until he died himself in 1872. Is that not the sweetest story?? There are a few commemorative statues for Bobby throughout the city, but the main fountain is located at Edinburgh EH1 2QQ, just a short walk outside of the Kirkyard (which also has a Bobby statue). There are a handful of restaurants in the area with plaques describing how the storeowners would feed and take care of the pup!
Enjoy a Free Ghost Tour
One of the highlights of my time in Edinburgh was the free ghost tour around Old Town that I took with my parents. Even though it was pouring rain and cold, we learned so much about the city’s history and had such a fun time hearing some of Edinburgh’s spookiest stories. I’m sure it depends on which tour guide you get, but our guy was awesome and had so many personal stories to tell in addition to the historical ones. He even told one (true) story about some teenage boys in Greyfriars Kirkyard who dug up a body and cut off the head of a corpse! It was creepy and fun, whether you believe in ghosts or not. While the tour is advertised as free, I still recommend tipping for the tour guide’s time.
Tour Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle is an incredible structure that can’t be missed as you wander the city—it is located at the top of Castle Rock, at the end of the Royal Mile, so it can be seen from what feels like anywhere in town. I wish I had more poetic words to describe it, but its forcible presence literally took my breath away the first time I saw it in passing from a bus window (I never got a good pic of it from the other side, which is the view I so distinctly remember). By the time I finally toured inside, I had already been to a handful of castles in the UK… and many of them shared similar structures (I had no idea that the term “castle” is kind of misleading—it’s really a whole village inside nearly-impenetrable walls!).
What stands out in my memory of this castle is that it had a pet cemetery overlooking the side of the hill (creepy) and a beautiful little chapel. If you have already toured several castles, I might say you can skip out on this one, especially because tickets are £18.00 and things can add up quickly. But if you’re just on a short vacation and haven’t seen many fortresses, I recommend it for its fascinating architecture and history! I think my parents and I were just a little museumed- and castled-out by the time we did this one.
There are lots more activities to do in Edinburgh—such as touring the Palace of Holyroodhouse and wandering the Scottish National Galleries—that I never got around to while visiting. However, I had such a fun time checking out all these spots, whether with friends or my parents, and I can’t recommend the city enough if you are vacationing in Scotland. Edinburgh is actually home to the nation’s largest airport, so chances are you’ll pass through the city anyway!
I hope you enjoyed this post, and let me know if you’ve ever been to Edinburgh or anywhere in Scotland in the comments down below.
Miles of smiles,