Edinburgh Must Sees - the culture-fest of Scotland's capital
A first-time visitor with a couple of days for Edinburgh? Here are some must sees. What else you do depends how much history you can take! And check out our views about whether or not you should visit both Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse. (Hint: we wouldn't make the Palace compulsory!)
Must Sees in Edinburgh
Visiting Scotland’s capital for a couple of days? Here are some must sees in Edinburgh to guide you. Best bit of all, it really doesn’t matter what time of year you visit – Edinburgh makes its impact at any time.
But I must have written that a thousand times in my writing career. Along with all that stuff about Edinburgh being pure theatre with its castle, crags, neo-classical columns and so on. But that doesn’t make it any the less true.
In a single sentence: Edinburgh makes you go ‘wow’ in a way that no other city in Scotland does. (Sorry, Glasgow – I’m talking first impressions here – not legendary friendliness.)
Just a thought before you start...and I want you to mull this one over...CNN Travel in July 2019 announced that Edinburgh was high on its list of places suffering from ‘over-tourism’. That puts it in the same league as, say, Amsterdam, Venice, Barcelona, the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu and the Portsoy Ice Cream shop. (Well, maybe not so much the last one.)
They define over-tourism as ‘places that can no longer cope with their own popularity’. Edinburgh is just starting to look at how tourism, as a driver of economic growth, can be implemented to make less of an impact on, say, the lives of residents, and on everyone’s overall enjoyment of the city.
By the way remember that Scotland - overall - isn’t a crowded place, but suffers from having some areas over-promoted - mostly because they are easy targets for tourism marketeers. This includes not only Edinburgh; I’m thinking here - for example - of the Isle of Skye, Loch Ness and that mis-represented route round the top known as ‘North Coast 500’. (Oh goodness, do it anti-clockwise, if you must.)
I mean, in other parts of Scotland, you can still find a beach to yourself, an unfrequented hiking trail or a quiet pub. You just have to to a bit of research on places that are a little way off the beaten track in Scotland.
So, having sounded that little note of caution...and I’m sure you’ve already made up your mind to visit Scotland’s capital - let’s go look at what you must see in Edinburgh.
For first time visitors it certainly should include the iconic Edinburgh Castle. It’s at the heart of Scotland’s story. The rampart views are just the start.
We like the walk-through tableaux on the early monarchs and the story of the finding of the Honours of Scotland. Also the remarkable hammer-beam roof in the Great Hall, the poignancy of the Lorimer War Memorial, and the atmosphere of the dungeons.
Oh, and the cakes in the Redcoat Café are really good (says Johanna). Overall, it is a great visit.
The Royal Mile when the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is in full swing will be on a list of essential Edinburgh experiences mainly because it's hard to avoid! Just walk down the hill from the Castle and let it overwhelm you.
The Camera Obscura qualifies as a must see in Edinburgh if you have children in the party. The National Museum of Scotland, another must see, is about five minutes’ walk away, off the Royal Mile. We like the way that, off the main hall, it draws you in to explore – it’s slightly labyrinthine, but in a good way.
And, if you end up near the National Museum of Scotland, you’ll be moments away from the wee statue of Greyfriars Bobby. Though it’s well-known, it isn’t a ‘must see’ as such - it’s just a sentimental story of a dog - possibly of more than one dog, if you read our story of Greyfriars Bobby here.
Some more museums?
Retrace your steps to the Royal Mile – as just strolling along it is a must see in Edinburgh. You might take in St Giles, or John Knox House or the Museum of Childhood. Or you might just take in the ambience of the bustling street.
Carrying on downhill, The People’s Story – a local history exhibition on everyday life – is in the old Canongate Tolbooth, once an integral part of the old Scottish burgh. The Museum of Edinburgh is opposite.
Oh, and by the way… book your Edinburgh accommodation early! Below area few accommodation ideas - places we know and like.
Where to Stay in Edinburgh
Old Town Chambers - serviced apartments, very centrally located in the Old Town.
The Bonham - quiet location at the West End of the city centre. Boutique style hotel.
The Caledonian Hotel (Waldorf Astoria) - at the west end of Princes Street. 5 star with an Edwardian heritage.
Hotel du Vin & Bistro - set in an 18th century building in the Old Town. Luxury boutique.
Must sees in Edinburgh – or miss ’em out?
As you will be gathering, Edinburgh is big on museums. Whether or not these informative places qualify as must sees in Edinburgh depends entirely on your level of interest and the time you have in the city.
Same goes for the Palace of Holyroodhouse, at the foot of the Royal Mile. It’s very popular, for sure, and, imagine, you can see the exact place where Mary Queen of Scots’ favourite secretary, David Riccio, was stabbed by the plotters.
Incidentally, as Edinburgh is such a popular place, there is a huge choice of Edinburgh guidebooks (follow that Amazon link for more information).
Some are a bit wacky, but you'd be safe with any of the big-name travel publishers. Also, Edinburgh has jumped on the local gin market with enthusiasm and you'll find a choice of Edinburgh gins if you're thinking about, uhmm, liquid souvenirs of your visit.
Palace of Holyroodhouse - Not really on our list
Unless you are a real history enthusiast, the official residence of the British queen when in Scotland carries the faded air of somewhere that is just putting on a show for the visitors to make a bit of money for the royal coffers.
Crudely, then, it’s a lot of gloomy rooms with sharp-eyed custodians, while the Queen’s Gallery is quite small, but for which they charge extra. (Especially money-grabbing, may I suggest, as Edinburgh has a good number of free art galleries, see below.)
Two observations: firstly, this is not going to put me on the medal list for services to tourism and I also think I’m off Mrs Windsor’s garden party invitations; secondly; you should consider diverting the entrance fees to the Palace of Holyroodhouse towards a themed walking tour of the Royal Mile or a day tour of Edinburgh on a small coach with an entertaining guide.
OK, I’m NOT going to put the Palace of Holyroodhouse on the list of must sees in Edinburgh. (But, hey, it’s only fair to point out that we once took a top lawyer from Austin, Texas, to the palace - and, as a history buff, he thought it unmissable!)
However, if you are interested in the world of privilege and pointlessness that is ‘our’ royal family, then head down to Leith to tour the Royal Yacht Britannia. You might love it. It brands itself, far from modestly, as Scotland’s best attraction. It’s not, of course. It’s just an exercise in toe-curling sycophancy. But it’s very popular.
Must sees – Galleries and Gardens
Yes, let’s put the National Gallery of Scotland on the list. Hours of absorbing gazing, right at the foot of the Mound. Nice Scottish-themed café on site as well with a fine view of the Scott Monument. (Just to clarify: the National Galleries of Scotland is the collective name for a number of galleries, three of which are in Edinburgh.)
Let’s head down to the Royal Botanic Gardens, also making it to the must sees in Edinburgh, not just for its extensive collections (especially strong in temperate plants from the Far East) but also as a green haven and place to pause.
And, on the way, we can further bolster the must see in Edinburgh list by suggesting that the New Town of Edinburgh is also a must see. (There’s a useful guide for a mini-walking tour of the city-centre on that link.)
Now, that New Town experience could take the form of a visit to the Georgian House in Charlotte Square, part of the north side of the Square that is sometimes described as one of the finest pieces of 18th-century civic architectures in Europe.
Or you could simply take a stroll north of Queen Street (itself north of Princes Street) around the grid of streets, gardens and fine facades behind which Edinburgh’s residents’ life has gone on for more than two centuries, in parts.
Rabbies Tours offer a great small group Edinburgh city tour - if you want something more organised.
Time in Edinburgh
And one final Edinburgh suggestion. Take in the view from the top of Calton Hill. Actually, a view from any of Edinburgh’s hills would make it to this list – for example, a stroll along Salisbury Crags, or all the way to the top of Arthur’s Seat.
Because, remember that Edinburgh is all about first impressions and spectacular panoramas – those vistas that hint at the rest of Scotland that lies beyond.
And one more thing. You sometimes hear Edinburgh is ‘The Athens of the North’. Well, if you are looking for somewhere different, and very northern, take a look at the Egypt of the North – Rousay, one of the islands of Orkney.
And if you’re curious to see how Edinburgh compares with cities south of the border in England, then Sainsbury’s Bank has put together some interesting figures – a comparative costing of city breaks. Edinburgh seems quite good value, though taxis and eating out can be on the expensive side…
MORE TO EXPLORE
What about a bonus 'must see' that's outside the city
Oh, all right. Let's see...If you’re a Da Vinci Code fan, then Rosslyn Chapel has to be on your list.
Even before Dan Brown’s block-buster, this little church on a green and wooded slope, built by William Sinclair, Baron of Roslin, in the mid 15th century as a collegiate church, had attracted some wacky theories.
Nevertheless the chapel is still an extraordinary conception and the finest example of stone carving work from medieval Scotland.
Even if you consider Dan Brown’s story pure hokum - and that's a pretty reasonable point of view - then you should still visit. The stone carving is extraordinary, however you want to interpret it.
I’m thinking here of, for example, the decorative representations of plant-life that look like ears of corn or maize. Yet that New World food plant was not discovered till much later. Maybe it is an allusion to the earlier Sinclair, the Earl of Orkney, who may have sailed to the Americas long before Columbus. Yeah, right.
But who knows? The visitor centre is very interesting (oh, and the cafe does an great hot chocolate!)
Similarly, the chances of the Holy Grail being found beneath the chapel are about the same as the Scottish Bigfoot being found in the attractive woodlands below the chapel.
(Actually, what you do find in these woodlands – on the far side of the steep little valley - is a cave said to be used by ‘Braveheart’ William Wallace – but that’s another story!)
Anyway, from Rosslyn Chapel you could add on a visit to the charming little town of Peebles and it’s altogether a very interesting day out.
Peebles is an old Scottish burgh - a word (pronounced burr-a) that you’ll often hear in connection with historic Scottish towns.
A burgh was simply a town with trading and administrative rights, these usually being granted by the king. Peebles became a royal burgh in 1152, under the ultra-progressive King David I.
Obviously, it’s changed a bit since then, but stroll around and you’ll still see the shape of the main street – the High Street – and the old ‘closes’ or lanes that run off at right angles. More to the point, it’s a really good shopping town, with proper local businesses, a long way from the depressing anonymity of the typical British High Street.
Sometimes you hear it described as a ‘Top Independent Retailing Town in Scotland'. Basically, it’s an interesting place to go just to see a real Scottish town getting on with its life. Nice riverside walks as well.