What to do in Edinburgh - the ultimate guide for first time visitors

Edinburgh Skyline from Princes street gardens

A view over Edinburgh skyline

Edinburgh is one of the best cities in the UK for a weekend break. There are so many great things to see and do in Edinburgh, you’ll be spoilt for choice for how to spend your time!

My husband and I spent 4 nights in Edinburgh for our ‘mini-honeymoon’ back in 2016 and loved it. We stayed at The Glasshouse hotel, which was so cosy and welcoming and in a great location, close to Waverley train station.

Edinburgh is particularly great for couples, it has a great food and drink scene, as well as great history and architecture.

Planning an itinerary for a weekend break can be overwhelming, there’s usually so much to see in a short space of time, so I’ve created this handy guide to some of the best things to see and do in Edinburgh, to help you create your perfect city break in Edinburgh.

Looking for another great city break in the UK? Check out my guides on the Best places to visit in the Cotswolds or how to spend A Weekend in Bath

What to do in Edinburgh - a weekend guide for first-timers

1. Which areas of Edinburgh are the best to visit?

There are so many great neighbourhoods and areas of Edinburgh to visit, but chances are if you are visiting Edinburgh for the first time and only have 2 - 4 days, here’s my must-visit areas of Edinburgh:

The Royal Mile - Edinburgh's most famous street

Connecting Edinburgh Castle, the Palace of Holyrood House and the Scottish parliament, the Royal Mile once held great importance as the ‘backbone’ of the Old Town. Now, is it a lively street, bustling with shops, cafes, eateries, and old buildings. As you make your way up the mile, towards the castle, you’ll be rewarded with great views of Old Edinburgh.

Edinburgh Castle - the most popular attraction in Edinburgh

Edinburgh Castle sits high above the city, perched on a rock that was formed by glacial erosion and is Edinburgh's most famous attraction. You can pay for a guided tour of Edinburgh Castle, or if you prefer to go it alone, the website has some self-guided tour itineraries you can follow, depending on how much time you have. The whole area around the castle is worth a visit, and even if you don’t want to pay to visit inside the castle, you should definitely make your way to the Esplanade to take photos in front of the main entrance of the castle. From here you’ll also get great views across the city. A nice route up to the castle is through Princes street gardens, taking the winding footpath up the hillside.

Grassmarket - Edinburgh's trendy independent shops and cafes

Sat in the shadow of the Castle, in the middle of Edinburgh’s Old Town is the cobbled streets of Grassmarket. A former livestock market, it is now abundant with shops, cafes and pubs, making it a perfect area to grab a drink after a day wandering around Edinburgh. It also has a wide range of eclectic shops, so if you're looking for something different, this is the place to visit!

Princes Street - Edinburgh's main shopping area

Running through the centre of the New Town is Princes Street, where you’ll find all the high street brand shops, chain restaurants and takeaways. Also here is Princes Gardens, which is a great spot for a stroll with a coffee, or a summer picnic. The gardens are overlooked by Edinburgh Castle, and you can wind your way through a path in the Gardens and up to castle rock.

Rose and George Street - the place for cosy pubs and lively bars

For bars, pubs and restaurants, head to Rose Street and George street, in Edinburghs’s New Town. Rose street is particularly lively and we enjoyed some mid-afternoon drinks in a cosy pub here to warm up! Rose street and George street are both parallel to Princes street, so are easy to find and this whole area is nice for a wander around.

Edinburgh's West End Village - Stylish boutiques and a bohemian feel

Tucked away behind Shandwick Place, West End village has a more bohemian feel to it and is less well known than other areas of the city, but is definitely worth a visit. At the centre of the village is William Street and Stafford Street. Here you will find stylish independent boutiques, trendy cafes and bars as well as beautiful Georgian Architecture.

The Esplanade in front of Edinburgh Castle

2. Enjoy Edinburgh's parks and green spaces

The further out of the city, the more green spaces you’ll find, however, if you’re short on time, there are plenty of walks in the city itself to add to your weekend itinerary, so get wrapped up and see what Edinburgh has to offer on foot!

Calton Hill

This is a great spot to get sweeping views over the city and across to Edinburgh Castle. It’s located at the end of Princes Street, near Waverley train station so it’s only a short walk from the city to the top to get those views! There are also a couple of historic monuments located on Calton Hill, one of which is the National Monument. Inspired by the Panenthon in Athens, the monument was built to commemorate Scottish servicemen who lost their lives in the Napoleonic war. Also on the hill is the Nelson Monument which was built to commemorate the death of Lord Admiral Nelson in the Battle of Hastings. Lastly, is the city observatory which takes architectural inspiration from a Greek temple.

Holyrood Park and Arthur’s Seat

Sitting in the centre of Holyrood park is the remnants of a 350 million year old volcano, otherwise known as Arthur’s Seat. Climb the 251m hill up to Arthur’s Seat and you’ll be rewarded with stunning 360-degree views of Edinburgh. There are several trails you can take through Holyrood Park and up to Arthur’s Seat, depending on where you start.

You’ll definitely feel miles away from the city here and you can see why it is one of the best things to do in Edinburgh.

Water of Leith Walkway

This 12-mile walkway follows the water of the Leith river. You can pick up the scenic path from Dean Gardens, not far from the end of Princes Street, and walk-in either direction for as long as you choose, before turning back round. .

Royal Botanic Gardens

With 70 acres of gardens and parkland, you could spend a good few hours at the Royal Botanical Gardens, enjoying some peace and quiet away from the city. It is also host to various events and exhibitions throughout the year. This is a great place to visit in the spring and summer months when the weather is warmer and the flowers are in full bloom.

Princes Street Gardens

This small inner-city park sits below Edinburgh castle mound and just off the main Princes street road. It’s a great place to take a break from shopping and sit with a coffee, or a picnic in the summer months.

Walking through Princes Street Gardens, sat at the base of Edinburgh Castle in Edinburgh

Walking through Princes Street Gardens, sat at the base of Edinburgh Castle

3. Things to do in Edinburgh on a rainy day

Let’s be honest, Edinburgh, like a lot of the UK is prone to a bit of rain, so to make the most of your time in Edinburgh, come prepared with an umbrella! However, if you are looking for something to do to escape the outdoors, then there are lots of options too.

Book onto a Gin / Whiskey tasting

This is one of the most popular activities in Edinburgh and there are several places you can book a gin or whiskey-tasting experience. We are more gin drinkers, so we opted for the Edinburgh Gin Distillery. We were taken on a tour of the distillery and given an overview of the history of gin and the process of making it. After the tour, we were taken to a tasting room, where we tried 5 different gins and liqueurs. If you’re a gin fan, I would definitely recommend this tour, the distillery itself is really nice and the tour was really informative and interesting, and you definitely got enough gin to finish the tour with!

Visit the National Museum of Scotland

The museum has a range of exhibits from around the world, including galleries on art and fashion, history, science and technology and the natural world. It is free to enter (though donations welcome), so is perfect for a rainy day!

The Edinburgh Camera Obscura world of illusions

This is quite a touristy pick from me, but actually, we had a lot of fun here and it’s a great indoor attraction when the weather is bad. There are 5 floors of puzzles, illusions and exhibitions to get your head around!

Shopping in Edinburgh

Edinburgh is a great place for some retail therapy. You’ll find most of the high street brands on and around Princes street, but for something different, head to the West End Village where you’ll find quirky boutiques, or Grassmarket and the Royal mile for cute cafes and independent stores.

The Edinburgh Gin experience was great and ended on a high!

4. Festivals and Events

Edinburgh is well-known for its festivals and events - including the world-famous Fringe comedy festival and the popular Christmas Market and Hogmanay New Years Eve celebrations. To see if there are any events taking palace during your visit to Edinburgh, check out the Edinburgh tourism site.

5. Check out Edinburgh's Food & Drink scene

Edinburgh has a really great food and drinks scene. There are far too many places to mention, and there are lots of guides on other blogs which are dedicated to the best places to eat in Edinburgh, so I’ll just share some of the places we visited whilst we were in Edinburgh which I would recommend...

Fine dining & great steak… Kyloe Restaurant & Grill

A cosy atmosphere and live music… Whighams Wine Cellar

A relaxed, traditional pub… The Rose & Crown and The Black Cat on Rose Street

A sugar rush… The Fudge Kitchen or The Fudge House on the Royal Mile

Foodie Heaven… the Farmers street market at Grassmarket, open every Saturday

For a caffeine hit...The Milkman Coffee shop on Cockburn Street in Old Town

I hope this guide to the best things to see and do in Edinburgh has helped to give you some inspiration to start planning your own Edinburgh itinerary.

Edinburgh really is a beautiful city with cute cobbled streets and old Georgian buildings. Edinburgh’s easy access to the outdoors, combined with an abundance of pubs, cafes, and shops makes it a perfect destination for a short break and is one of my favourite city break destinations in the UK (one of my favourite breaks outside of the UK is Paris - see why, here!)

When is the best time to visit Edinburgh?

Edinburgh is a great place to visit all year round. We visited in February and although it was cold, we wrapped up and we were fine. Just make sure to pack an umbrella and warm clothes, and if it does rain, there's lots of great places to hide indoors and get a drink.

Is Edinburgh expensive?

As we were on our mini honeymoon, we did splash out a little bit on this trip. We stayed at The Glasshouse hotel, which was a really lovely hotel, but perhaps not for the budget traveller, however there are plenty of budget options and hostels around the city. We also did visit a few pubs and bars whilst we were there, so we spent a bit more on food and drink as we were celebrating, but again, you could definitely spend less and there's some great lower cost options. The great things about Edinburgh is that there's so much to see just walking around the city and the green spaces - the is definitely the best thing to do for free in Edinburgh!

A room balcony at The Glasshouse Hotel in Edinburgh

Chilling out on our balcony at The Glasshouse Hotel in Edinburgh

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All links on this website are my own recommendations or sites I found useful when planning and are not affiliated. I do not receive any commission from including these links within this blog.

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