Places to Visit or What to Do in Edinburgh
Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland, the city of whisky, but Edinburgh is far more than that. It is the greenest major city in the UK, but also the place where J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter. This is a city where some of the great inventors were born, educated or worked, like for example Alexander Graham Bell who invented the telephone or John Boyd Dunlop, who invented the pneumatic tire.
These are just some of the details that make Edinburgh so special, attractive and above all interesting. Although he is not even a million city there is so much to see and experience, and I must admit Edinburgh has completely and truly delighted me.
It is the city with the most listed buildings in the world, and these are some of the places to visit in Edinburgh.
Museum of Edinburgh
As it is described at the entrance to the museum – Edinburgh is a city of contrast and pageantry, a city of power and commerce, and most importantly a city of stories, arts and ideas.
I can’t agree more with that and if you are planning to visit Edinburgh, this seems to me, the best place to start getting to know the city. The museum is located in the street called Royal Mile, which is actually a bit more than a mile long and ends on every side with the castle. On one side Royal Mile is Edinburgh Castle, and on the other side is the Palace of Holly Roodhouse. Actually, all that is a part of the so-called Old Town, the medieval fortified burgh from which later evolved today’s Edinburgh.
In the Edinburgh Museum, you can find many interesting details about the city, which will make your sightseeing and exploration much more meaningful. So, let’s start.
Down the Royal Mile from Museum of Edinburgh is the Scottish Parliament, a foundation of Scottish statehood, national pride and identity. Although the Parliament is an extremely important part of Scottish history and statehood, it was “reconvened” in 1999.
In fact, the Act of Unity of 1705, when Scotland united with England, Great Britain was formed, the Scottish Parliament ceased to work, and it was replaced by the Westminster Parliament in London.After the referendum in 1997, the Parliament was restored and now is located in a super-modern building opposite the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
It is possible to sightsee Parliament every day except Sunday, and it is possible even to watch MPs debate in the Debating Chamber. It’s interesting, and if you want more details on how to visit a parliament session you can find it here.
Palace of Holyroodhouse
On the other side of the road is the Palace of Holyroodhouse, a place from where the Scottish kings reigned. Now it is a Scottish residency of the British royal family.
Among other interesting things, Great gallery is probably most famous. It is the largest room in the palace where portraits of Scottish kings and queens are located. Here you can see the portraits of Macbeth, whom Shakespeare immortalized in his famous play, followed by Robert Bruce, better known from movies like Brave Hart and Outlaw King, and Mary Queen of Scots. She had her court in the palace, for the short while she was the Queen of Scotland until she was forced to abdicate and escape to England. There are her 16th-century Apartments, which can be seen.
The palace is surrounded by magnificent gardens stretching over 4 hectares or 10 acres, and they are part of the even greater Holyrood park.
Within the palace complex, there are remains of Abbey from the 12th century. The abbey also has great significance for the Scottish statehood, since it was a parish church until the 17th century, the place where Parliament met, and the kings were confirmed and buried there. With the emergence of the Reformation and founding of the Church of Scotland, and especially after the unification of the crown of Scotland and England, the Holyrood Abbey lost its relevance. In the meantime, it was restored, and the 1758-60 roof restoration proved to be fatal. The wooden roof was replaced by a stone one, but the walls are not able to withstand, and the roof collapsed. Since then abbey is in such a state.
The Holyrood palace complex is the lowest point of the Royal Mile, and from here we headed uphill to the Edinburgh Castle, but there are so many interesting things to see on that journey that it is amazing.
John Knox House
One of the sights worth seeing is also John Knox House. He was the founder of the Church of Scotland and most responsible for the overthrowing Roman Catholicism and church reformation in Scotland, but also for the departure from Anglicanism and the foundations of Presbyterianism. He is considered one of the historically most deserving and the most important Scot.
Its home is the oldest medieval preserved home there, and today is one of the places where the Scottish Storytelling Centre is located. Every year in October there is the Scottish International Storytelling Festival there.
Museum of Childhood
Not far from John Knox House is the Museum of Childhood. This is a small, but the highly imaginative museum, which will return you to memories of childhood. Here, you can see how it looked like children’s education200, 100 or 50 years ago. An excellent reminder of how the world and consciousness have evolved over the past 200 years. On several floors, there are toys exhibitions where you can see their evolution to this day. I must admit that the railroad model 100 years old looks much better than in today’s time of mass production.
St Gile’s Cathedral
Not far from here, up to the hill, halfway between Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse is St Gile’s cathedral, the centre of Church of Scotland devoted to St. Giles, the saint protector of lepers and cripples, but also the protector of Edinburgh. Also, it is called the High Kirk of Edinburgh or the “Mother Church of Presbyterianism”. It is considered King David founded this church in 1124, and it is interesting that he founded the Abbey of Holyrood as well, which at first had a much greater religious and sacred significance. With the emergence of Protestantism, St Giles became the focal point of reformation. When John Knox was appointed Minister of St Giles in 1559, it officially ceased being a Catholic church and received the status of “Mother Church of Presbyterianism”.
Although Church of Scotland’s independence was one of the main prerequisites for unification in a common monarchy with England, the legend says that after unification bells were ringing melody of the song Why should I be so on my wedding day, which actually represented the attitude of people around unification.
There are numerous stained-glass windows in the church, but the latest one dedicated to Robert Burns was set up in 1985 and is considered to be the most beautiful and most important. It shows the motifs of Burns works – love, humanity and nature. In the church, you can find the monument of Robert Louis Stevenson, author of immortal pieces such as Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
When we continue climbing uphill the Royal Mile, some 100 meters from St Giles’s is Edinburgh Castle – a historic fort built on a volcanic rock 130 meters above the city. Edinburgh Castle is probably the most famous landmark and symbol of Edinburgh, but also a place of great historical, cultural and recently tourist significance. In 2018 over 2.1 million tourists visited the castle.
At the end of the Royal Mile, there is a large plateau called the Esplanade which is the starting point where you enter the castle. Since it is situated on a rock 130 meters above the sea, the castle provides a breath-taking view of the city.
The volcanic rock was inhabited in prehistoric times, it was mentioned in the 1st century AD during the Roman conquest of Britain, but the first written mention of the castle dates to the 11th century and from the 12th century was the seat of the Scottish Kings. At the end of the 15th and early 16th century when Holyrood Palace was built, the castle gradually lost its importance.
In its 1000-year history, according to historical records, the castle was besieged 26 times making it one of the most attacked places in the world.
After the unification of England and Scotland, there was a military garrison in the castle, and during the American War of Independence, the Napoleonic Wars and even World War II, the castle was used as a military prison. Today, you can see an excellent museum exhibition of prison conditions over the centuries.
Here you can see the One o’Clock Gun, which fires daily except Sundays and Mons Meg, a huge siege cannon who is here since the Middle Ages.
The central location of the castle is Crown Square where the Royal Palace is placed. King James VI, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, was born here, who will become King of Scotland, and after the death of Elizabeth he will become the English King James I. Today Royal Palace preserves Honors of Scotland or Scottish crown jewels, one of the oldest royal insignia in Europe.
Next to the Royal Palace is Great Hall, where the King received audiences. Today presentations for tourists are held here and you can see a collection of weapons from that time. Opposite the Great Hall on the other side of the square is the Scottish National War Memorial, a place dedicated to Scottish soldiers who died in the First and Second World War, as well as in recent conflicts.
Within the castle, you can see the National War Museum, as well as St Margaret’s chapel, the oldest object preserved inside the castle but also in Edinburgh.
Royal Botanic Garden
Just one mile from downtown is the truly amazing Royal Botanic Garden. It is the second oldest botanical garden in the UK founded in 1670, only the one in Oxford was founded earlier. To be more precise here you can find 4% of all known plant species on Earth. If you are interested in plants, you can find Catalog of the living collection here.
When founded it was located at Holyrood Palace, not far from the Abbey and the Palace, but in the meantime, it was moved 3 times and in present location is ever since 1820.
The Botanic Garden spans across 70 acres or 28 hectares of amazing landscapes. More than 273,000 plants or over 13,000 plant species grow here, divided into several collections. It is difficult to single out the most interesting, but let’s mention Chinese Hillside with waterfalls, paths and ponds that lead you to China, recently renovated Rock Garden with more than 5,000 plants that grow on the rocks and the Scottish Heath Garden, which depicts Highlands fields full of splendour.
There are also glasshouses, visually impressive from the outside and even more interesting due to plants located inside. Within 10 glasshouses you can find different climatic zones and types of landscapes, such as Australian forests, Arabian deserts and Amazon rainforests. Here you can see a giant water lily pond with leaves that are larger than 3 m in diameter, as well as a 200-year old palm tree.
In the centre of the park is the Inverleith House, which was the seat of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and after moving it to new spaces, this is the exhibition space of the Royal Botanic Garden, where you can find botanical and contemporary art exhibitions.
Today, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is a significant part of the international network of biodiversity conservation institutions specialized in Scottish Biodiversity, Plants & Climate Change and Conservation.
Here you can find a variety of events and exhibitions, and we visited the gardens when the Food Forever exhibition was set.
National Museum of Scotland
The National Museum of Scotland is really an exciting place which definitely justifies its vision – Inspiring people, connecting Scotland to the world and the world to Scotland.
In fact, this museum was created in 2006 by merging the older Royal Museum and the newer Museum of Scotland, which are located next to each other.
The National Museum of Scotland is a place where you can spend all day long. Across the 5 floors, there are numerous exhibitions, which are very well-designed, presented and explained. The Grand Gallery, located in the old part of the museum, is presented as a window to the world. Here you can see a lot – from the sarcophagus of the old Egyptian priest, via a whale skull bones, to the first television.
In this museum, you can see art, design and fashion galleries, dedicated to fashion and style. Here you can see pieces from Vivienne Westwood, Pablo Picasso and other artists and designers. Natural World Galleries the next part that you absolutely must see, because there is exhibited hundreds of animal species in its natural size, from all over the world. The basic idea of this exhibition is to evoke the diversity of life on Earth, and we can say that they have more than succeeded with the plan. This part reminds me of a kind of zoo where time has stopped forever.
The next part is the Science and Technology galleries which I personally find the most interesting. In addition to other super interesting exhibits, Dolly the sheep the first cloned living being from an adult cell is exhibited here. It is a result of Scottish scientific achievements. Alongside with the multitude of exposed technology achievements, a very humorous display is completely dedicated to communication, ie telephones. Here you can see some of the mobile phones that have literally been used up until yesterday. An excellent reminder of the world of fast technological change and progress.
There are also World Cultures galleries with exhibitions devoted to cultural diversity. Finally, in the new part of the museum or the one that was previously Museum of Scotland, there are Scottish History and Archaeology galleries. Here you can go through the entire history of Scotland from prehistory to today and get to know more about the legends and the historical truth of some of the most famous Scots like William Wallace, Robert the Bruce or Mary, Queen of Scots. Also, you can see and set about the emergence of whiskey and tartans and how they became symbols of Scotland.
In addition, this museum is Interactive so you can release balloons filled with hot air, sit in the real Formula 1 car, try out the historical clothes, design your unique fashion robes. And at the top of the building, there is a restaurant offering a breath-taking view of Edinburgh.
The Scottish National Gallery
The Scottish National Gallery is the place to visit. Mandatory!!! Whether you are or not a lover of art, this place is art as such. Here you can see and experience works of the world’s greatest painters like Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Goya, El Greco etc. This is not the right place to write about the history of art, but as a huge fan of Impressionism, I was, of course, impressed by Impressionists’ galleries where there are works of van Gogh, Cezanne, Monet, Gaugin, Degas. Experience all these masterpieces, from the Renaissance, baroque, romanticism, impressionism all in one place, is cathartic.
The Elephant House Café
Edinburgh is the place where Harry Potter was created. Not far from the National Museum of Scotland is Café The Elephant House, one of the places where J.K. Rowling wrote some of his novels about a young wizard. Although this is certainly the most popular place, it is not the only one, as it is so often presented. In Edinburgh, there are still some other places where J.K. Rowling wrote, but for several reasons, they are not so much popular among the fans of Harry Potter. Since she was writing in Edinburgh, some of the places in Edinburgh have served her as an inspiration for locations in the book. The most famous is Greyfriars Kirkyard, the graveyard surrounding Greyfriars Kirk, Victoria Street, which served as an inspiration for Diagonal Alley, as well as George Heriot’s School, a former hospital built in the very vivid style of Scottish Renaissance which was an inspiration for Hogwarts.
If you are a Harry Potter fan, the good news is – there are tours of the most famous places in the novel. They are organized every day and from April to August even twice a day. These tours are free, but it is advisable to leave a small fee for excellent and dedicated guides.
Also, in Edinburgh, you can find a lot of shops where you can buy memorabilia from the wondrous world of Harry Potter.
If one thing is inevitably tied to Edinburgh and Scotland, that is Water of Life, or according to the Gaelic language Uisce Beatha – in the world much more famous as whisky.
Here you can book a tour of the world of Scotch Whiskey. The options are very broad, depending on how much you are interested in whisky, and how resistant you are.
Here you will learn, and you can also try the difference between Single Malt, Blended Malt, Grain Malt and Blended Whiskey. If you are not a good whiskey connoisseur, as I am not, you will be surprised how wide the palate of flavours is, from the heavier and tender tastes to the very sweet and light.
Even Robert Burns, the so-popular Scottish poet, celebrated whiskey, in his song “Scotch Drink”, where he stated:
O thou, my Muse
Guide auld Scotch drink
Places, where you can taste and buy the original whiskey, are at every corner and the choice is usually excellent.
If you have a bit more time and appetite for physical activity, it’s certainly worth visiting Arthur’s Seat. It’s actually an extinct volcano, and it is even possible to see the remains of the crater.
It is located on the eastern strain of the city above Holyrood Palace, from where it is the easiest to climb on. There are several different paths, whose complexity depends on how hard and long you want to climb or in what kind of physical form you are. Depending on the track climbs last from 30 minutes to two hours, but the simplest way is to bring the car and park it at Dunsapie Loch and from there go by foot.
In any case, you will be rewarded with a fantastic, breath-taking view of the city. Arthur’s Seat is part of several legends, and certainly the best-known that this was a place where was the legendary castle of King Arthur – Camelot, after which this place is named.
Camera Obscura & World of Illusions is the world of optical illusions. When you walk into this building, literally have the feeling you have stepped into the world of magic. You can walk through the Mirror Maze or pass the Vorteks tunnel, look into the mirrors that reduce or increase you, walk through Edinburgh at this very moment. Here you can literally light up the room or see the Frankenstein hologram, and in Bewilderworld you are actually part of incredible illusions.
I really can’t describe everything waiting for you there, because there are over 100 different and incredible illusions on 5 floors, which will surely impress you.
At the top of the building is The Rooftop Terrace, from where you can enjoy a magnificent view of Edinburgh, and you can also use the telescope or pair of binoculars for free to see the city even better.
Camera Obscura is located right after leaving Edinburgh Castle at the beginning of the Royal Mile and is actually the first attraction of the city, opened in 1953. Namely, Camera Obscura is a Latin word that literally translates as a dark room and refers to the term tied behind the optical illusion of a distorted image.