The Essential Guide to Edinburgh

Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh is history incarnate. The Old Town features well-preserved medieval architecture and design, while across a deep valley, the New Town—misleadingly named considering it dates to the 19th century—is a marvel of Georgian buildings and public squares. Other city highlights include Edinburgh Castle, the National Galleries of Scotland, and the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

Canongate, Edinburgh EH8 8DX, UK
The Palace of Holyroodhouse remains the official residence of Queen Elizabeth when she visits Scotland, and guided tours here include her public reception rooms in the main part of the pile. History buffs, however, will want to see the palace’s oldest section, where the personal assistant to Mary Queen of Scots was assassinated—a bit of skulduggery orchestrated by Mary’s husband, Lord Darnley. In adjacent rooms are exhibitions linking Mary to Queen Elizabeth I, while the grounds feature beautiful gardens and ruins of the original abbey.
Edinburgh EH99 1SP, UK
It’s hard to imagine that the Scottish Parliament building—an innovative mix of steel, oak, and granite across the road from the Palace of Holyroodhouse—was once the site of a brewery. In 1999, famed Catalan architect Enric Miralles transformed the structure to look as if it was “growing out of the land,” drawing inspiration from the surrounding nature, flower paintings by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and upturned boats along the seashore. Today, the building is open to the public six days a week, from Monday to Saturday. Visit to view the impressive art collection, take a guided tour, or watch Parliament in action during debates and committee meetings.
Edinburgh EH3 5JY, UK
A distant relative of London’s more famous Kew Gardens, Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Gardens—founded in 1670 to grow medicinal flora—is no less impressive, with everything from an arboretum and rock garden to a Chinese hillside, biodiversity area, and collection of glasshouses filled with tropical plants. Here, visitors will find more than 13,500 species across 70 acres, from high alpine trees and rhododendrons to dwarf daffodils, snowdrops, and crocuses. Wander the fragrant grounds, then head to the Demonstration Garden, where you can learn about growing your own food.
477B Lawnmarket, Edinburgh EH1 2NT, UK
One of the oldest buildings on the Royal Mile, Gladstone’s Land stands as a tribute to tenement life in Edinburgh’s Old Town. It was once owned by merchant Thomas Gladstone, who extended and remodeled it to include opulently decorated apartments, attracting wealthy tenants like Lord Crichton and the minister of St Giles’ Cathedral. By the mid-1800s, however, only the city’s poorest residents remained in the Old Town, and the building fell into disrepair. It was rescued from demolition in 1934 by the National Trust for Scotland and today serves as a tourist attraction where visitors can learn about the fascinating—and sometimes scandalous—lives of the people who lived on property. Guests can also view rare, hand-painted Renaissance interiors dating from the 1620s; seek shelter under Edinburgh’s only surviving 17th-century arched store frontage (designed to protect shoppers from the weather); and admire the gilded bird of prey that hangs outside the house.
78 Commercial St, Edinburgh EH6 6LX, UK
While The Kitchin is among Edinburgh’s best restaurants—it was awarded a Michelin star in 2007—it’s far from stuffy or pretentious. Housed in a renovated warehouse on the Port of Leith, it revolves around chef Tom Kitchin’s passion for Scotland’s natural larder, offering modern British cuisine made with fresh, seasonal ingredients. Menus range from à la carte to surprise tasting options, and include such creative dishes as a rockpool of local seafood with sea vegetables, ginger, and shellfish consommé, and roasted deer loin with carrot, fresh apple, and red wine sauce.
34 Thistle St N W Ln, Edinburgh EH2 1EA, UK
An accomplished food journalist in print and on the radio, chef Neil Forbes has also been associated with some of Edinburgh’s best cooking for the past 20 years. At Cafe St Honoré, he works with local, seasonal ingredients from Edinburgh’s famous farmers’ market, serving up French-inspired dishes like fennel tarte tatin, braised pork belly, and monkfish with chorizo, purple-sprouting broccoli, and roast garlic mayonnaise. For an exceptional value, go for the weekday “Express Lunch,” when three courses costs under $25.
Chambers St, Edinburgh EH1 1JF, UK
History buffs shouldn’t miss this sprawling museum housed in adjacent modern sandstone and classic Victorian buildings—the latter of which features a magnificent atrium with soaring pillars and high windows. The diverse collections here take visitors through the history of Scotland and around the world, covering everything from nature, science, and technology to art, design, and fashion.

Start in the Grand Gallery, where you’ll find a giant deer skeleton, a massive whale skull, and machinery used to smash atoms, then watch the Millennium Clock chime the hour. Also worth exploring are the Celtic, Roman, and Viking artifacts, including the famous Lewis chess pieces; Mary Queen of Scots’ exquisite jewelry collection; Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal ever; twists on classic tartan by top designers like Jean Paul Gaultier; and the miniature Arthur’s Seat coffins.
267 Canongate, Royal Mile, Edinburgh EH8 8BQ, UK
With this Old Town restaurant, Paul and Lisa Wedgwood aimed to create their “Perfect Night Out.” Here, guests can enjoy fine dining without the pretention, lingering at tables as long as they wish. The menu is inspired by Paul’s regular travels around the world, with favorite dishes ranging from panko-and-black-sesame-crusted mullet to diver-caught scallops wrapped in caul fat. Many plates feature wild herbs and lettuces foraged by Paul himself, and there’s a regularly changing wine list with bottles tailored to the seasons.
Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2NG, UK
Perched on a great rock above Edinburgh’s New Town, this impressive castle dominates the city. Iron Age warriors understood the site’s military potential and built a fort here in the late first century C.E. It changed hands several times during the Wars of Independence, but was retaken from the English in 1314 and served for many years as the home of royalty, from Queen Margaret to Mary Queen of Scots. From the 1600s onward, the castle functioned as a military base with a large garrison and later held prisoners of war. Today, it’s a world-famous attraction, home to the Stone of Destiny on which kings were enthroned for centuries.

Guests can tour the Great Hall and the Royal Palace, admire the Scottish crown jewels, and visit Edinburgh’s oldest building, St. Margaret’s Chapel. Also on-site is the National War Museum, which details 400 years of Scotland at war, and the Scottish National War Memorial, honoring those who gave their lives for the nation. For even more military history, check out the cavernous stone vaults beneath the Great Hall that once held war prisoners, or head to the Regimental Museum, which cover everything from the Covenanters to Napoléon and Waterloo. Visit in the early afternoon and you’ll witness the firing of the One O’Clock Gun—a beloved Edinburgh tradition.
More from AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
AFAR Journeys
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: United States
Journeys: Sports + Adventure