Edinburgh: 10 top unique things to see and do
Edinburgh has been the capital of Scotland since the 15th century, is home to the Scottish parliament and is the seat of the monarchy in Scotland, so it is no surprise that it is positively bursting with history and things to do.
Built on the site of an extinct volcano, there are 7 surrounding hills to climb for some fantastic views of this compact but bustling city. Arthur’s Seat and Calton Hill are the most popular, but if you fancy something less strenous the city centre is mostly flat and easy to navigate.
There are two distinct areas, the medieval Old Town and the 18th century New Town which are divided by a narrow valley containing the railway tracks and Waverley train station.
With the hilltop castle at one end and Holyrood Palace at the other, the Royal Mile is the main cobbled street of the old town, filled with cafes, restaurants and shops selling everything from kilts to cashmere, shortbread to celtic jewellery, and of course the obligatory dressed bears!
North Bridge and Waverley Bridge cross over the train tracks to the New Town, a Georgian development which is jam packed with monoliths of architecture, huge sandstone neoclassical buildings which house everything from schools to shops to museums.
Princes Street Gardens are built on the banks of the valley and offer a respite from the bustle, and a good view of the old town. The only trouble was that I kept expecting there to be a nice river or loch under the bridges instead of the glass zig zag roof of the station. I overcame this by just pretending there was one, and ignoring the trains!
There is a plethora of things to see and do in Edinburgh and I have picked experiences that are unique to the area, well presented and accessible.
So whether you like soaking up history, getting scared silly or cooing over koalas there is something for everyone.
1 – Edinburgh Castle
This medieval castle was home to Scottish royalty for centuries and fending off English attacks seemed to be a regular pastime. Mary, Queen of Scots moved to Holyrood Palace in 1561 and since then the castle has been used as a military base.
There is plenty to see including the Scottish crown jewels, the Stone of Destiny and the Royal Palace. The Royal Scots museum, Royal Dragoon Guards museum and National War Museum are all worth a look as is the impressive War Memorial.
The Prisons of War exhibition takes you back to the Napoleonic era. At one point over 700 captives were kept here, mostly French sailors. Their graffiti can be seen on the doors.
There are good views of the city from the battlements and on weekdays the one o clock gun ceremony is a popular attraction. Be warned, however prepared you think you are for the bang, you will still jump!
2 – National Museum of Scotland
Packed with goodies this museum is the perfect mix of old and new. Highlights include neck craning exhibits of dinosaur skeletons and stuffed animals and a complete introduction to Scottish history.
The fascinating science and technology section is very popular, you can interact with robots, see Dolly the cloned sheep and run on a giant hamster wheel!
There are also galleries showcasing art, design and fashion through the ages and the Discoveries exhibit where you can meet just some of the famous Scots who have pioneered inventions and exploration throughout the globe.
3 – Edinburgh Zoo
Not just any old city zoo, this has the unique distinction of having not only the only koalas in the UK but also the only giant pandas. A rare treat to see them both in one morning!
The pandas are such a draw that only small groups are admitted for about 20 minutes. Plenty of time to get loads of photos and a keeper gives a talk and answers any questions.
I also loved watching the penguins swimming from a special viewing gallery and the magnificent Sumatran tigers, a species that is critically endangered with only 400 animals left in the wild.
I couldn’t find the chimps, they were probably holed up planning how to take over the planet after we humans have finished destroying it!
4 – Palace of Holyrood House
This is the official Scottish residence of the Queen and one of the highlights of the palace is visiting her State Apartments. A free audio tour is available and guides are on hand to answer any questions you may have.
For a more historic viewpoint the chambers of Mary, Queen of Scots include artwork, embroidery and you can see the room where her secretary David Rizzio was murdered by her husband Lord Darnley.
Included in the entrance price is a tour of the nearby ruins of Holyrood Abbey and for an extra fee you can visit the Queen’s Gallery containing some of the Royal art collection.
5 – Scottish National Gallery
This is a proper old school art gallery with dark red walls, a library type murmur and people walking about nodding with their hands on their chins. From Renaissance to Impressionism there is a good selection of art to peruse and I found it an ideal oasis away from the city bustle.
It has an added bonus of an excellent restaurant and cafe on the ground floor, the latter serves the best pain au chocolat I have tasted in a long while!
If you like your art with a more recent viewpoint then check out the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art or for a visual who’s who of famous Scots, the Scottish National Portrait gallery is well worth a visit.
6 – Royal Yacht Britannia
For over 40 years this was the floating home of the Royal family and after travelling over a million miles around the world it is now permanently berthed at the Ocean Terminal at Leith, a short drive from the city centre.
For a fascinating insight into life aboard one of the most iconic craft of our times it is hard to beat. You can see the state apartments and Queen’s bedroom, the only bedroom of a ruling monarch that can be viewed, pop up to the bridge and get a taste of life below decks with the crew’s quarters and huge engine room.
7 – City Of The Dead tours
If you are going to visit what is believed to be the most haunted city in the UK then have you got what it takes to find out for yourself how scary it can be?
There are 3 tours to choose from, the Underground City Of The Dead, the Haunted Graveyard tour and the Double Dead walking tour.
Led by local guides with a sense of humour thrown in with the spine chilling stories, this is a great way to learn about the spooky side of the city!
Note – Tours are not suitable for young children and over 12’s must be accompanied.
Walking ghost tours are not really suitable for the less mobile due to uneven terrain and steep steps, but you can still get a scare from a ghost bus tour (say it quickly to get the joke!) which takes you on a supernatural sightseeing tour to the dark side of town, and tells tales of body snatchers and witch hunts. Be advised that not all passengers are of this world…
8 – Royal Botanic Garden
Whether you are a serious gardener, a lover of nature or just fancy a relaxing day out strolling through 70 acres of gardens this is the place to be.
Highlights include the biggest collection of chinese plants outside China ( handy if the local pandas ever escape ), the Rock Garden with 5,000 alpine plants and 10 historic glasshouses showcasing over 3,000 exotic species.
9 – Scott Monument
Not only should you not miss this, you cannot fail to miss it. Standing 200ft tall in the middle of Princes Street Gardens, I agree with Charles Dickens’s quote that ” It is like the spire of a gothic church taken off and stuck in the ground. ”
It is the largest monument to a writer in the world and celebrates the life and works of Edinburgh born Sir Walter Scott. Completed in 1846 it is a busy piece of architecture adorned with 64 statues of characters from Scott’s works and encasing a marble statue of the man himself.
Inside there are spiral staircases leading to viewing platforms, the highest of which is reached by 287 steps. Not for anyone with vertigo or claustrophobia but if you can get to the top without having a panic attack the views are incredible.
10 – Surgeons’ Hall Museums
A quirky one to finish with, this is one of those museums that draw you in and demand attention. Not for all tastes but for those of us with a strong stomach and a macabre interest in seeing medical specimens and instruments then this is a perfect place to while away an hour or two. A fascinating insight into medicine through the ages.
Comprising the Wohl Pathology Museum, the Dental Collection and the History of Surgery Museum it certainly makes you glad we live in the age of anaesthetics and the NHS!
Most buildings look in need of a serious powerwash and it loses a point for not having a loch or river, but Edinburgh is sturdy, solid and has such a diversity of things to see and do that I barely scratched the surface.
Also, there is rarely a time when Edinburgh is not celebrating something, from the Fringe to the Military Tattoo to a series of festivals covering music, science, the arts, books, film, storytelling, walking and cycling.
All in all, the perfect city to learn about Scottish history and culture, and with a piper on every other street corner, you explore it’s sights to the constant sound of the bagpipes. Welcome to a slice of Scotland!
Note – The valley between the old and new towns DID used to contain a loch, but it was used as a sewage tip and was drained when the New Town was being built. There was a plan for an ornamental lake but nothing came of it, but I suppose at least the train station is convenient if not exactly pretty!
British Airways, easyJet, Flybe and Ryanair all offer domestic flights to Edinburgh from a variety of locations. I flew from Gatwick with easyJet and the journey took just over an hour.
Getting into the city from the airport is very easy, the big blue Airlink buses leave every 10 minutes for the half hour journey to Waverley Bridge.
Where To Stay
I stayed at the Adagio Aparthotel Edinburgh, situated on the Royal Mile. The location was a fantastic base from which to explore, a 5 minute walk into the city centre.
Opened in 2016, the Adagio has 146 serviced studios and apartments all with fully equipped kitchens, and with their funky modern vibe are a real home from home.