Edinburgh is teeming with history, culture and entertainment, so this travel guide will direct you toward the 10 essential sights you absolutely must-see when you visit the city! I recommend spending at least three days in Edinburgh to take in everything that’s on offer.
This post may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive a commission, at no extra cost to you, if you make a purchase through a link. Please see my full disclosure for further information.
Here are the 10 essential sights that will help you see the most of Edinburgh.
1. Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle is one of Scotland’s most celebrated historical attractions which cannot be missed, even if you only have one day in Edinburgh. It is located at the top of Castle Rock, an aptly named rock mass formed from an extinct volcano.
This historic fortress is believed to date back to the twelfth century and has been home to some of Scotland’s great monarch’s, including King David II and Mary Queen of Scots. Many of the kings and queens who reigned in the castle added to its defences or design, most notably this includes the magnificent Great Hall which was commissioned by King James IV.
Edinburgh Castle is one of the very best castles in Scotland and is open for visitors every day of the year, bar Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Additionally, a wide variety of exhibits and activities are showcased on the grounds, including the Edinburgh Military Tattoo in August.
This is undoubtedly Edinburgh’s busiest attraction so it is best to pre-book online to guarantee your ticket.
2. The Royal Mile
Edinburgh’s Royal Mile is the centre of the city’s Old Town and is bursting with shops, restaurants, pubs and historical sights.
The term ‘Royal Mile’ was coined in 1901 by travel writer W. M. Gilbert to mark the succession of four streets, beginning at Edinburgh Castle and ending at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. However, it is measured as a ‘Scots Mile’ and the Royal Mile actually equates to 1.8km in length.
Popular attractions along the Royal Mile include John Knox’s historic house where the Protestant reformist lived for a brief period during 1572.
Three floors of the house are open to the public and focus on showcasing the history of the house. Additionally, it displays artefacts about the Mossman family who originally owned it in the late 1400s.
Also sitting on the Royal Mile is St. Giles Cathedral which was founded in 1124. As the High Kirk of Scotland, it was a focal point for the reformation and was converted to Protestantism by John Knox when he became its minister in 1559. Although it is a working church you can take a free guided tour at 10.30am or 2.30pm. There is no need to book, just turn up five or ten minutes before the tour begins!
Finally, don’t miss Mimi’s Little Bakehouse. This celebrated café and bakery have a delicious breakfast and lunch menu, and also serves their famous scones and a variety of cakes throughout the day.
3. The Palace of Holyroodhouse
This Palace is one of Queen Elizabeth II’s official residences. It is located directly opposite Edinburgh Castle with the Royal Mile between them. The Palace has an extensive history and many monarchs have added to its design over the centuries. The largest room in the Palace is the Great Gallery where portraits of real and legendary kings of Scotland hang. These include Macbeth, Robert the Bruce and members of the Stewart dynasty.
You can buy your ticket online or at the Palace, and if you ask for your purchase to be treated as a charitable donation (at no extra cost to you) then you receive a year of complimentary access. This is ideal for multiple visits or to see the Palace Gardens, which are only open during the summer months. You can also visit what remains of Holyrood Abbey by using this ticket and entering through the Palace. It is a Romanesque-style Abbey that was built by King David I in 1128 and used as a parish until the 17th century.
4. The Scottish Parliament Building (Holyrood)
Opposite the Palace is the Scottish Parliament building. Its striking design was a creation of the Spanish architect, Enric Miralles. The formal opening of the new building by Queen Elizabeth II took place on 9 October 2004. It is still hailed as one of the most innovatively designed buildings in Britain today.
Free guided tours of the Holyrood Parliament building are available Monday to Saturday.
5. Arthur’s Seat
Arthur’s Seat is the second extinct volcano in Edinburgh. The hill is a popular walk for tourists and locals alike, favoured because of its panoramic views of the city and its relatively easy incline that caters to different abilities.
6. The National Monument of Scotland
In addition to Arthur’s Seat, or as an alternative, you can take a short walk up Calton Hill to the National Monument of Scotland. The monument is dedicated to the Scottish soldiers and sailors who died during the Napoleonic Wars.
Construction of the monument began in 1826 but was later halted in 1829 due to a lack of funds. Its design was inspired by the Parthenon of Ancient Greece, and though it remains unfinished, these Greek architectural influences can clearly be seen in the twelve completed columns that stand atop Calton Hill.
7. Usher Hall
In the early 1900s, Scottish whisky distiller Andrew Usher gifted £100,000 to the City of Edinburgh because he envisioned a concert hall that would be Edinburgh’s centre attraction for musical artists and performers. The concert hall opened in 1914 with three shows featuring music from Handel, Bach, MacCunn, Wagner and Beethoven. However, Usher sadly died before he could see his dream come to life.
Usher Hall is a beautiful Edwardian style building and is regarded as one of the best concert halls in Europe.
8. Princes Street & Princes Street Gardens
Princes Street is Edinburgh’s main commercial street which has a multitude of shops, restaurants and cafes, along with the iconic Waverly Train Station. Below Princes Street are the Princes Street Gardens. The gardens have east and west sections which make up Edinburgh’s most popular public park. They are used for a variety of city events such as Edinburgh’s famous Hogmanay celebrations.
Inside the East, Garden is the Scot Monument which was built in 1844 to honour the Scottish writer and poet, Sir Walter Scot.
9. The National Museum of Scotland
The National Museum of Scotland is Edinburgh’s very own historical treasure trove, first opening its doors as the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1780. Subsequently, the museum has grown rapidly and now curates a multitude of galleries that celebrate history, art, culture and science from around the world.
Particularly popular are the Lewis Chess Men, which can be found in the Scottish History and Archaeology gallery. These giant medieval chess pieces were the inspiration for the wizard chess set in Harry Potter and the Philosopher Stone. The museum is completely free to enter.
10. Edinburgh Zoo
As a favourite attraction for all ages, Edinburgh Zoo is praised as being one of the best U.K. zoos by the Zoo Federation.
Edinburgh Zoo is an 82-acre wildlife park that hosts world-class animal attractions, from giant pandas to endangered bears. There are daily talks, shows and feedings at multiple animal enclosures, and the famous penguin parade is particularly impressive!
The Zoo is located on Corstorphine Road and has onsite parking.
Now you know what to see, don’t miss these 10 essential sights when you visit Edinburgh!
Trying to work out how you’ll fit it all in? Take a look at this one day Edinburgh Itinerary by Highlands2Hammocks.