Things to do in Edinburgh

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by Hertz AU - 06 September 2018

Set in a stunning and ancient location in central Scotland, the proud capital of Edinburgh is packed with exciting discoveries around every corner of its fabled cobbled streets. From the gripping stories etched into every building of the Old Town to the lively restaurants and bars of its trendsetting quarters, this is a city where old and new exist in perfect harmony.

Edinburgh can lay claim to being home to the world’s biggest arts festival in the shape of the Edinburgh Fringe, which sees millions flock here every summer to watch comedy, theatre, music and dance shows in theatres and on the streets themselves. But there’s plenty to entertain and interest visitors throughout the year in this beautiful and fascinating city. 

Edinburgh’s central location makes it a fantastic base from which to explore the rest of Scotland. Drive into the Cairngorms to experience the mountainous wonder of the Highlands as you meander through mile after mile of winding roads, or experience the soothing calmness of the famous Loch Lomond. But make sure you don’t hit the road until you’ve enjoyed the huge array of history and culture on offer in the capital. We’ve taken a look at some of the best things to see and do in Edinburgh, as well as the surrounding area, so you can make the most of your trip.

History and architecture

Edinburgh has a long and proud history as Scotland’s capital, and there’s no better place to start your journey of discovery than with a trip to the status symbol that has dominated the city’s skyline for centuries – Edinburgh Castle.

A strategic stronghold nestled high on a 700 million-year-old extinct volcano known as Castle Rock, the iconic castle overlooks the whole of Edinburgh, the Lothians and across the River Forth to Fife.

As you approach along the famous Royal Mile and through the castle gates, it’s hard not to be blown away by the feat of architecture before you. Wander through its many rooms and exhibits to step back through the centuries and learn about Edinburgh Castle’s many uses through the years. Since the 11th century, it has served as a military stronghold, army base and royal residence.

Head to the Great Hall and admire the impressive wooden roof and extensive collection of armour and weapons that line the walls. Next door you’ll find Royal Palace, a resplendent setting that was formerly the official residence of the kings and queens of Scotland. It houses the Honours or Crown Jewels of Scotland – a crown, sword and sceptre that date back to the 15th and 16th centuries, making them some of the oldest surviving crown jewels in Europe. Learn the story of how the jewels were protected, hidden and recovered during a turbulent time in Scotland’s history.

Another symbol of the historic tussles between Scotland and England rests alongside the jewels, in the shape of the Stone of Destiny. A sacred symbol of the country’s past, this was used in the coronation of generations of Scottish royals, before being seized by Edward I and built into his own throne in the 13th century. Amazingly, the stone didn’t cross the border again until it was returned to Scotland in 1996, since when it has been on display as a proud marker of the nation’s past.

Delve into slightly more recent history with a visit to the National War Museum of Scotland, where you can find fascinating displays about the military history of the country and an array of artistic treasures, including Robert Gibb’s famous 1881 painting The Thin Red Line.

Edinburgh Castle lies at one end of the city’s Royal Mile, which runs through the Old Town to Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Scotland. The building in its current form dates back to the late 17th century, when it was built for Charles II.

You can book tickets to enter the palace, where you can view the State Apartments and the bed chamber of Mary, Queen of Scots, once described as ‘the most famous room in Scotland’. Tickets also include a visit to the 12th-century Holyrood Abbey and the beautiful Palace Gardens, bedecked in a colourful blanket of flowers. 

What to do in Edinburgh

Edinburgh boasts some amazing historical buildings, but it’s not just a case of looking to days gone by. Rubbing shoulders with the past is an array of outstanding modern architecture, including the Scottish Parliament Building at Holyrood. First opened in 2004, this distinctive structure was designed by the Catalan architect Enric Miralles, who was inspired by the natural world, as well as the flower paintings of the famous Scottish artist and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh. To get an aerial view of the building’s unique exterior, head to Holyrood Park, where there’s an excellent vantage point at Salisbury Crags.

The Holyrood building is open to visitors six days a week and it’s also possible to book a free tour, which includes a visit to the Debating Chamber. If Parliament is in session during your visit, you may be able to watch proceedings from the public gallery. 

Less than a mile away from the Parliament building, and a stone’s throw from Edinburgh Castle, you’ll find St Giles’ Cathedral, also known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh. The current structure was built in the 14th century, although some parts date back as far as the 12th century.

The building underwent extensive restoration work in the 1800s, and today it’s open to visitors seven days a week. Entry is free but it’s possible to take a guided walking tour which includes the small but fascinating Thistle Chapel, featuring intricate carvings of angels around the ceiling. Look out for one of them playing the bagpipes for a bit of signature Scottish style. 

You can also book a guided rooftop tour, where you can climb up to the cathedral’s north roof and enjoy panoramic views of the city.

If you’re looking for a fun family day out, head to the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street, which has exhibitions ranging from prehistoric times to the modern day. Its Natural World gallery features a life-sized skeleton cast of a T-Rex, while the Art, Design and Fashion galleries showcase some of the ideas that have shaped design over hundreds of years. Admission to the museum is free and it’s open seven days a week.

Another popular option for families is the Royal Yacht Britannia, which can be found just outside the city centre in Leith. Serving as the royal yacht of Queen Elizabeth II for more than 40 years, it has sailed over a million miles around the world and is now permanently moored at the stunning Ocean Terminal, which also features a number of shops, cafes and restaurants to explore.

The entry price includes an audio guide with information about all the main decks, from the State Apartments to the Crew’s Quarters and Engine Room, giving a fantastic insight into the history and running of the regal ship.

For those who’d like to sample some shopping during their stay, Edinburgh is packed with big name brands and department stores, sitting side by side with a stunning range of independent boutiques. The main shopping area is Princes Street, which has all its stores on one side, so you can enjoy uninterrupted views of the castle and colourful gardens as you make your way from shop to shop. Also well worth a visit is the West End, where you’ll find cobbled streets filled with designer boutiques, gift shops and local organic food retailers. 

It’s also well worth heading to the Grassmarket and Victoria Street, home to independent shops, vintage fashions and craft stores – as well as plenty of stylish cafés where you can stop for a break in attractive al fresco surroundings.

Edinburgh events

If your visit to Edinburgh falls over the Christmas period, it’s well worth staying a few extra days to experience the magic of the city’s New Year celebrations. Known as Hogmanay, no expense is spared for the event, which attracts revellers from all over the world who come to enjoy street parties, candlelit concerts and of course the spectacular fireworks display that lights up the night sky as the clock strikes midnight.

On New Year’s Day, those who are feeling brave can welcome in the new year by taking part in one of Scotland’s most bizarre events. Known as the Loony Dook – the tradition sees people dive into the freezing waters of the River Forth at South Queensferry. Many head straight back for the shore, but some brave souls manage to stay in the water for up to half an hour, no mean feat in Scotland during winter.

Aside from Hogmanay, Edinburgh hosts a number of other exciting events all year round. Probably the biggest date in its calendar is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest arts festival in the world. It sees the capital burst into life every August as comedians, actors and musicians pack theatres and line streets to showcase their talent. From established household names to stars of the future, thousands of shows across the whole spectrum of entertainment give Edinburgh an artistic buzz.

Meanwhile, the Edinburgh International Festival, which runs at the same time as the Fringe, showcases some of the world’s finest performers across music, theatre, opera and dance. 

Where to stay and eat in Edinburgh 

Edinburgh hotels

As you’d expect from a capital city, Edinburgh has a range of hotels to suit any budget, from the cosy and cutting edge to the grand and great. We’ve taken a look at a few options to help you begin your search.

If you’re planning to indulge, book a stay at The Principal Edinburgh Charlotte Square. Formerly known as The Roxburghe, it’s made up of seven interconnecting Georgian townhouses in the heart of the New Town area of the city.

Guests can enjoy use of the spa between set hours or pay a small charge for full access. The hotel boasts an indoor courtyard, where light bites such as sandwiches and salads are served throughout the day, with vegetarian and vegan options available. In the evening, the bar serves cocktails inspired by traditional Scottish drinks.  

For a stay that comes with excellent views of Edinburgh Castle, take a look at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Princes Street. Boasting two French restaurants and a spa complete with pool, sauna and steam room, it’s a luxurious option right in the heart of the city. It’s also a great base for exploring the restaurants and bars of George Street, just a five-minute walk away.

Another option is 24 Royal Terrace, a former Georgian townhouse ideally placed for catching an enthralling theatre performance at the Edinburgh Playhouse or exploring the Royal Playhouse Gardens.

Snapped up by an art collector as a home for his extensive collection, this boutique venue is as much gallery as it is hotel. You’ll enjoy spending time gazing at the ever changing contemporary art that lines the walls as you settle into this stylish and colourful setting. 

Best Edinburgh restaurants

As well as having plenty of accommodation options, you’ll also be spoilt for choice when it comes to dining out in Edinburgh. From buzzy cafés to gourmet dining, you’re sure to find something to suit.Here are a few ideas.

For locally sourced Scottish cuisine, try Forage & Chatter in the city’s West End. Offering up traditional dishes such as mackerel and North Sea cod, it’s a great place to stop off for lunch or an evening meal after a busy day’s sightseeing.

Bells Diner, on St Stephen Street, has been open since 1972 and remains a big hit with locals and visitors alike. The highlights here are the burgers, which come in three sizes with a variety of different toppings. Wash it down with one of the moreish milkshakes. 

Head just outside the city centre to Leith and you’ll find Restaurant Martin Wishart, a venue that claimed the city’s first Michelin star. There’s a tasting menu available with a range of vegetarian options, while the main courses include Scottish dishes with a French twist such as Orkney Lobster and Langoustine Ravioli. You can also choose a selection of matching wines to accompany your meal.

Hikes and walks in Edinburgh

If Edinburgh Castle offers an impressive view of the city then the one from Arthur’s Seat has arguably even more wow factor. Accessed from Holyrood Park, Arthur’s Seat is actually another extinct volcano, rising high above the city below.

There are a couple of routes you can take, including a more strenuous climb that will bring you to the rocky summit. Either way, you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of the Firth of Forth and Ben Lomond – and all less than two kilometres from the city centre.

Another of the city’s key vantage points is Calton Hill, which lies just east of the centre between the New Town and Old Town. Its cluster of historic buildings and monuments makes for a fascinating visit.

One of them is the incomplete National Monument. Intended as a memorial to the Scottish soldiers and sailors who died in the Napoleonic Wars, it was meant to resemble the iconic Parthenon of Athens. But when the public lost interest, the money dried up – and all that stands are a dozen pillars, earning it the unofficial title ‘Scotland’s Shame’ 

Take a shot of the city from the top of the hill and be sure to include the impressive Dulgald Stewart Monument. A circular temple inspired by Ancient Greek designs, it forms one of Edinburgh’s most iconic images when set against the backdrop of the city as it spreads out beneath you.

As well as all the attractions in the city centre, Edinburgh is also the perfect place for exploring the beautiful Scottish countryside. Just a couple of hours’ drive north-west of the city lies the famous Loch Lomond, the largest freshwater loch in Scotland, surrounded by the stunning scenery of the Trossachs National Park.

There are a variety of walking routes on offer around the park, taking in hills, forests, mountains and glens. As you wander, you’ll have a variety of perfect vantage points from which to gaze over the calm waters below. Keep an eye out for ripples on the surface and see if you can catch a glimpse of the area’s legendary inhabitant – the Loch Ness Monster.

If you’re looking for a more leisurely day, you can admire the scenery as part of a relaxing cruise on the water or head to Loch Lomond Shores, where you’ll find several cafés and restaurants.   

Away from the loch there are plenty more sights and activities to discover. Head to the Cowal Peninsula, on the western side of the National Park, where you’ll find botanical gardens, a fairy glen and the historic village of Kilmun. Or you could head out towards the coast, where you can spot marine wildlife including porpoises and seals. 

With all this natural beauty within easy reach, there’s no wonder why Edinburgh remains one of the UK’s top visitor destinations. Car hire in Edinburgh helps you make the most of your time in this fascinating city as well as enjoying the incredible attractions in the surrounding area.