The medieval Old Town and the Georgian New Town of Scotland’s capital are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Edinburgh is the world’s leading festival city and a popular destination all year round. Surrounded by hills, there are some dramatic landscapes to enjoy as well as excellent attractions.
Situated at the top of the Royal Mile, Edinburgh Castle is the number one visitor attraction in Scotland. Perched high on top of an extinct volcano, rising above the western end of Princes Street, it offers excellent views of the city.
A guided tour is included in the ticket price or you can explore independently with an audio tour. Don’t miss the famous One O’Clock Gun. Dating back to 1861, it was fired to set maritime clocks but it is now fired just for the spectacle.
There are lots of buildings to see at the Castle including the tiny St Margaret’s Chapel which is the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh. There’s also The Scottish National War Memorial and Crown Square where you will find the Great Hall built for James IV as a ceremonial hall and used as a meeting place for the Scottish parliament until 1639.
Within the Royal Palace is the Crown Room displaying the oldest crown jewels in the British Isles. And this is where Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to her son James VI, who was to unite the crowns of Scotland and England in 1603.
Near the Castle is Camera Obscura, the oldest visitor attraction in Edinburgh. Open since 1835, the 15 minute camera obscura show on the top floor is well worth seeing – especially for the chance to ‘lift up’ people on the ground level outside!
But this attraction has so much more. The historic tower has five floors of interactive, optical illusion fun. You can serve your head on a platter or enter a room where you can be big or small. Or how about trying the mirror maze or the Vortex Tunnel?
It really is very clever the way they have so many optical illusions for visitors to enjoy that keep a Victorian attraction relevant for today’s audience. There’s also a well-priced gift shop. Do be aware there is no lift/elevator so you need to be able to climb the stairs.
If you’re looking for a lunch or dinner recommendation, The Witchery restaurant is opposite and has excellent food, plus it is said to be haunted.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF SCOTLAND
The National Museum of Scotland is truly fantastic. While the Entrance Hall is basic the real joy comes from standing in the Grand Gallery on Level 1. Surrounded by balconies you can look up to see hints of the amazing collections above on the higher levels.
The museum covers the history of Scotland but also wonders of the world from nature, art and design, fashion, social history, science and technology. It’s a huge variety and includes interactive displays and games to keep learning entertaining.
Ten more galleries were opened in 2016 and the museum is still free to visit. Do look out for Dolly the sheep – the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell.
GREYFRIAR’S BOBBY AND HARRY POTTER
Opposite the museum, at the corner of Candlemaker’s Row and St George’s Bridge, is the bronze statue of Greyfriar’s Bobby. This is a memorial to the loyalty of a Skye Terrier who spent 14 years guarding the grave of his owner, John Gray, when he died in 1853. Not all believe the story but the dog has inspired Hollywood movies, TV programmes and books.
From here you can stroll through one of the most haunted graveyards. Greyfriar’s Kirkyard has been a burial ground since 1562. While it is a tranquil location for a daytime stroll most visitors are now Harry Potter fans looking for the graves with names that inspired J.K. Rowling.
Once you’ve seen the gravestones for Thomas Riddell and William McGonagall, you will want to stop for a coffee at The Elephant House cafe. Grab a window seat at the back as this is where the famous author wrote much of her first Harry Potter book, overlooking George Heriot’s, an uncannily Hogwarts-esque school. You may queue to enter but it is worth it as the tea, coffee and cafes are very good quality.
PALACE OF HOLYROODHOUSE
The Royal Mile links Edinburgh Castle and The Palace of Holyroodhouse. It’s an old Scot’s mile long so that’s a mile plus another 107 yards.
This is The Queen’s official residence in Scotland. Every year, around the end of June, The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh stay here and participate in official engagements in the city and beyond.
Best known as the home of Mary, Queen of Scots, visitors can explore 14 rooms in the State Apartments, plus the romantic ruins of the 12th-century Holyrood Abbey and the royal gardens. An audio tour is included with the ticket price.
Do stay longer for the delightful and well-priced afternoon tea at the Café at the Palace (bookings taken 1-4pm daily and no Palace ticket required).
Next to the Palace is Holyrood Park and the highest point is Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano. A manageable 45 minute hike, at 251 metres above sea level it offers excellent views of the city.
Opposite the Palace, in the heart of the Old Town World Heritage Site, is the modern Scottish Parliament building that was opened in 2005. From Monday to Saturday, it is free to visit and one hour guided tours are free too. You can choose a general tour or one with a focus on the art collection, the contemporary architecture, the history of the Scottish Parliament or literary connections.
The Main Hall has a low, triple-arched polished concrete ceiling and there’s is usually an exhibition on display here. You can also request free tickets for Parliament Debates and Committee Meetings. Do note, Parliament does not normally sit on Monday and Friday.
The building was designed by Catalan architect Enric Miralles (1955–2000), and the ground plan of the parliament complex is said to represent a ‘flower of democracy rooted in Scottish soil’ (best seen looking down from Salisbury Crags).
There’s a shop for souvenirs and a cafe open to all. And while as an attraction a visit here is family-friendly, there is also a free public creche available for under 5s.
SCOTTISH NATIONAL GALLERY
Situated on The Mound in the heart of Edinburgh, The Scottish National Gallery houses Scotland’s national collection of fine art. Considered to be one of the best collections in the world it encompasses the full range of Western art and sculpture from the Renaissance to the present day, with particularly impressive collections of Old Masters.
On display are masterpieces from Raphael, Velázquez, Monet, Cézanne and Van Gogh. The most comprehensive part of the collection covers the history of Scottish painting. All the major names, including Ramsay, Raeburn, Wilkie and McTaggart, are represented in depth.
The neoclassical building, designed by William Henry Playfair, was first opened to the public in 1859 and is free to visit. The Scottish National Gallery comprises both the National Gallery Building and the Royal Scottish Academy Building. Although originally built as separate structures, their histories have long been intertwined, and since 2004 they have been physically connected by the underground Gardens Level.
ROYAL YACHT BRITANNIA
Permanently moored near Ocean Terminal in Leith, The Royal Yacht Britannia offers an intriguing insight into the life of the Royal family. This was the British royal family’s floating holiday home during their foreign travels from the time of her launch in 1953 until her decommissioning in 1997.
Photography is encouraged (and is hard to resist!) and your ticket can become an annual pass at no extra cost. There’s a complimentary audio tour included with the ticket price.
Used for over 1 million sailing miles, we can admire the 1950s decor and marvel at tales of the entourage required for the Queen’s travels (45 members of the royal household, five tons of luggage and a Rolls-Royce that was loaded into a specially-built garage on the deck).
The 1930s racing yacht Bloodhound, which was owned by the Queen in the 1960s, is usually moored alongside Britannia (except in July and August, when she is away cruising).
THE SCOTTISH WHISKY EXPERIENCE
At the top of the Royal Mile, close to Edinburgh Castle and Camera Obscura (see above), The Scottish Whisky Experience has been inspiring visitors to Edinburgh about the joys of Scotch whisky for over 25 years.
This isn’t a working distillery although it smells just as good. Here you can learn about Scotland’s national drink with tours and whisky tutoring sessions. And those tours include a 5 minute whisky barrel ride through a virtual distillery.
Visitors are also given a crystal whisky tasting glass to use for tastings during your visit and to keep. Do admire The Diageo Claive Vidiz Whisky Collection as there are over 3,000 bottles of Scotch Whiskies in the cabinets.
THE REAL MARY KING’S CLOSE
Hidden beneath The Royal Mile in the Old Town area, The Real Mary King’s Close is the chance to visit 17th century alleyways below the city.
Back in the 1600s, Mary King’s Close and neighbouring Closes were at the heart of Edinburgh’s busiest and most vibrant streets. They were open to the skies and bustling with traders selling their wares to the Old Town’s residents yet now it is all completely underground.
To visit you need to join a tour with a costumed guide who tells the real stories of the people who lived, worked and died on these now concealed Closes. As you would expect there are grisly tales and stories of hauntings included.
Fraser Suites Edinburgh is well-appointed as the Edinburgh Castle hotel or Holyrood hotel due to its proximity to the many celebrated attractions that are easily accessible within minutes. Sitting along St Giles street, the city’s rich cultural heritage remains thick in the air amidst the abundance of trendy restaurants, boutiques and cafes around. Your sight-seeing tour starts from the doorstep of the residence where views stretch across Princes Street Gardens to the Firth of Forth and beyond.