Top 10 things to do in Edinburgh on your first visit
Updated: Nov 8, 2020
Edinburgh is one of those places that you will fall in love with straight away. It truly is a beautiful city. But it's of course tricky to know what to focus on when you're visiting a place for the very first time. My recommendation is firstly to always try and walk around a lot to really see the city and secondly to take it easy. Many people try to fully book their holiday schedules and then it often turns in to more of a stress than actual enjoyment. So I've included some accessible and fun things in this 'what to do in Edinburgh' guide that you can't miss when you're visiting this beautiful city.
Top 10 things to do in Edinburgh on your first visit
- an Edinburgh Guide
Bring a takeaway coffee and enjoy at Calton Hill
Calton Hill is one of my favourite spots in Edinburgh. It's located at the east end of Princes Street, the main street in town, and only a short walk will take you to one of the best views of the city. Since this is Scotland, there's always a high chance that it might be windy so bring your choice of hot drink and enjoy the 360 views. There's a monument on the top which was modelled on the Pantheon, but it was left unfinished in 1829. It is a great spot to climb up and take a seat, just be aware that it can be a bit tricky to get up if you are a shorter person like me. This also wouldn't be a proper Edinburgh guide if I didn't share my top tips, so it might be good to know that there's about three main ways up to the top. The main on is from the end of Princes Street, there's another one further along that road which is more a proper road and the last one can be found from the "back" towards London Road. On the main one you can either climb up the stairs on your right, or if stairs aren't your favourite you can also walk straight ahead and around the side in a circle.
Get lost amongst the many closes in Old Town
You can't miss wandering around Old Town when you visit Edinburgh. You'll immediately understand why it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the gothic architecture makes you feel like you're in an old film. J.K Rowling of course got a lot of inspiration from the city when she wrote Harry Potter and it's not difficult to see why! There's also lots of walking tours available like the Harry Potter Walking Tour, the 3 Hour Walking Tour or the Alternative Comedy Walking Tour if you would prefer to experience the city with a guide.
Don't miss: The Royal Mile, Victoria Street & Cockburn Street (pronounced co-burn 😉)!
Take a photo outside the castle
This wouldn't be a proper Edinburgh guide if I didn't mention the castle. It constantly amazes me that I live in a city that has a castle in the very centre. And not just any castle - a proper pinnacles and towers castle! If you are really fascinated by history (and if the queue to the ticket office isn't too long) then maybe consider going for a ticket, but if you're not so keen on museums and history then why not just go for a photo in front of the castle instead.
Who doesn't like a little holiday cocktail in the afternoon when the feet start getting tired - be it alcoholic or non-alcoholic. Edinburgh has some wonderful options for cocktails. Some of my favourites are Panda & Sons (if you like a bit of a quirkier experience - trust me, just go!), Tigerlily (one of the most instagrammable places and delicious cocktails) and Bramble which has been ranked one of the best cocktail bars in the UK. I'm already a planning an Edinburgh guide focusing on where to eat and drink so keep an eye open for that coming soon!
Hike up Arthur's Seat
If the weather is decent and you have a few hours to spare then why not go for a lovely walk to the top of the ancient (now silent) volcano Arthur's Seat. It's not a particularly long walk to the top, but I would recommend decent shoes as the last part gets a bit uneven and rocky. To find the main way up head down to Holyrood Palace and walk around the right hand side and you'll see the path. There's also a concrete road all around the hill if you don't want to walk to the top but still want a good and scenic walk, (approximately slightly over 1h)
Extra tip: If you're feeling hungry walk down on the opposite side (towards Musselburgh) to Duddingston and have lunch at the pub The Sheep Head. I would've never gone there if it wasn't for my boyfriend, Edinburgh born and raised, my very own Edinburgh Guide.
Have a dram at a whisky bar
I of course can't mention whisky without shamelessly pointing you in my own direction if you are looking for someone to guide your through a whisky tasting. If you would prefer to sip on your own instead, there's of course plenty of good whisky bars to check out. Amber Bar at The Scotch Whisky Experience are specialising on Scotch, Usquabae has everything from lots of different whiskies to food and cocktails and there's also The Whisky Rooms where you can find both whiskies and wonderful whisky cocktails.
Check out: My Edinburgh Guide to Where to go for a Whisky Tasting.
Haggis comes in a variety of different options and is a true Scottish Experience - from the classic Haggis, Neeps & Tatties, to haggis bonbons, haggis-flavoured crisps and haggis topped pizza. I refused to try it for several years and I have to admit that I was very wrong about it. It's absolutely delicious, especially when served with a nice whisky sauce!
Coming Soon: I'm currently trying and working my way through a "Where to try haggis in Edinburgh Guide" so keep an eye open for that!
Go treasure hunting at the many second hand shops in Stockbridge or around Grassmarket
Vintage clothes and things is a big passion of mine, and often I would say you can find the perfect gifts and souvenirs to bring back home for much less than on the high street. I've actually already written an Edinburgh guide focusing on the vintage theme as well as a Winter Edinburgh Guide if you are looking for more suggestions.
Check out: Armstrongs in Grassmarket, Raeburn Place in Stockbridge and Forrest Road.
Grab a bottle of water and perhaps a sandwich and get on one of the Hop on/Hop off buses for an easy way to see all the sights of the city. If the weather allows, take a seat under the open sky on the top floor and enjoy the fresh Scottish air. This is also a great way to rest your legs whilst listening to a guide who will tell you about the things you pass by.
A Tourist Attraction
I would pretty much recommend everyone who's reading this guide to stay away from the Edinburgh tourist traps along the Royal Mile, but there's are also some really good attractions that really add another experience to your visit. First I would recommend Real Mary Kings Close as it really gives you an insight to the world that existed in Edinburgh, located underneath the streets we walk on today. I'm quite a scared-y cat so I sat out on the 'ghost story' part but it's not a very scary tour at all, just interesting. Secondly check out The Scotch Whisky Experience even though you might not be a whisky enthusiast - you take a ride in a "whisky barrel" to learn about production and there's a stunning cinematic film to show you the whisky regions which for me personally is the best part. It's also an easy way to sample and learn how to drink whisky along with a guide (if you want a longer tasting and more of a one-to-one experience, I'm also happy to create a tasting for you and your party).
There's of course plenty more tours and attractions to check out but those are my top 2.
There's so many wonderful spots to experience when you are on a visit to Edinburgh. One of my top tips is always to just walk around and see where your feet takes you.
But if I could only pick three of the points in this Edinburgh Guide as a must do when your are visiting I would have to pick a walk up to see the view from Calton Hill, see The Castle and include a Tourist Attraction for an extra touch to your experience.
Edinburgh Guide: Extra tips for your trip
- Take the bus from the airport, instead of the tram. It's cheaper and pretty much faster as well.
- To get around town you can use the buses (they take contactless payment and they cap the price at max £4 for a day ticket) or there's also
- Check out House of Gods, The Scotsman or Tigerlily if your looking for a brilliant hotel stay.
- If you're curious about whisky, head in to one of the whisky shops, for example on Victoria Street, and they're usually happy to offer up a free whisky sample so you can try before you buy.
- If you want a bespoke whisky tasting then get in touch with me - I'm very happy to create affordable whisky and spirit tastings for beginners, enthusiasts in any way that suits you best!
- I know this is a "Top 10 things" Edinburgh Guide but I also wanted to mention that there's some brilliant tours for both whisky and gin enthusiasts. Check out the Gin Jolly Tour at Pickerings, the tour at Holyrood Distillery or the Edinburgh Gin tour!
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I hope you have enjoyed this Edinburgh Guide!
Did I miss something? Let me know what you're favourite things to do in Edinburgh are in the comments below and if there's anything you'd like me to write about or include in the future!