No matter what your interests, I can pretty much guarantee Edinburgh will have something to keep you entertained. For a fairly small city, there’s a lot going on – museums, attractions, theatres, shops (a separate guide coming soon!), and plenty of free sights to see too. Remember to have a read of my City Guides label for previous posts on other Edinburgh topics.
There are plenty of different museums in Edinburgh, but by far the biggest and best is the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street. The old part of the building has recently completed a huge refurbishment so is looking all shiny and lovely, with lots of different galleries and displays about natural history, science, world cultures, inventions, art and design and lots more, and the best part is it’s all completely free. There are interactive exhibits and even a Museum Explorer App if you fancy getting a bit hands on. My favourite part of the museum (perhaps I’m a little biased as a Scottish History graduate) is the more modern part which houses the Scottish collections, taking you all the way from “Early People” on the bottom floor to Scotland in the 20th century right at the very top. The section about Victorian mourning and death customs is my favourite, with a huge horse-drawn hearse and the teeny tiny Arthur’s Seat coffins, but there are plenty of other less morbid things to look at too! Make sure to go out onto the roof terrace too for great views of the city. Sticking with the slightly gory theme, the Surgeon’s Hall Museum is just round the corner and definitely worth a visit if you’re interested in surgery, anatomy and medicine, of which Edinburgh’s historical reputation is second to none. There are lots of skulls and bones and things floating in jars; very gruesome but also very interesting!
If you’re after something a little more refined, I’d suggest heading over to Charlotte Square in the New Town and visiting the Georgian House. Owned by the National Trust for Scotland, the house is furnished and decorated exactly as a house from the 18th century would have been, with lots of original period pieces from around Scotland. I might be a little bit biased again as I used to work there as a volunteer guide, but it genuinely is a lovely property to have a look round and a great way to learn about the history of Edinburgh’s New Town. I can only dream of one day owning such a beautiful Georgian town house! If you’ve got time, check out Gladstone’s Land in the Old Town for a complete contrast. It’s a traditional cramped 17th century tenement and feels a world away from the spacious Georgian houses of the New Town. A little bit further down the Royal Mile is Mary King’s Close which will take you even further back in history, to a time when Edinburgh was made up of a warren of tiny streets and closes. Having now been built over, Mary King’s Close remains perfectly preserved underground and the tour gives you a slightly spooky account of what life was like then. It’s fairly historical, but if you’re after something a little more theatrical try one of the ghost tours (there are many, most of them meet on the Royal Mile between St Giles and the Tron Kirk). They are varying levels of scary, informative and ridiculous, but getting an after-dark tour of the underground vaults is pretty interesting even if you don’t believe in all the Most Haunted stuff!
For something a bit more fun and child-friendly (who am I kidding, SO adult-friendly too), try the Camera Obscura up near the Castle. The Camera Obscura contains several floors of optical illusions – not tricks, obvs – and interactive exhibits to keep you entertained, think magic mirrors, plasma globes, giant holograms and the like. My favourite bit is the Vortex Tunnel; the floor stays still but the walls of the tunnel spin round, tricking your brain into thinking you’re moving and it’s pretty much impossible to stand up. You’ll have to cling to the hand rails for what feels like dear life, even though you’re actually standing perfectly still! The main attraction of the Camera Obscura is, obviously, the camera obscura itself, and your entry ticket also gets you in to a show with a brief history of Edinburgh explained using the magical wonders of the original camera obscura equipment, plus you get some great views of the city. Another one for big kids is Our Dynamic Earth down beside Holyrood, which uses lots of interactive exhibits and fancy technology to take you through the past, present and future of the planet’s natural history. It’s been quite a few years since I was last here, but I remember being very enamoured with the rainforest section.
If you’re here for a wee while, you might want to venture out to North Queensferry on the train to go to Deep Sea World. It’s pretty self explanitary, a big aquarium with all kinds of sea life from baby seahorses to half the cast of Finding Nemo to some super cute seals. There are also various reptiles and amphibians, I’m a big fan of the teeeeny little poison arrow frogs! Make sure you take a trip round the “Underwater Safari”, which is a moving walkway underneath a huge tank through which you can see loads of different kinds of fish and sea life, including some sharks. Alternatively, you could get the bus from Edinburgh city centre out in the opposite direction to Butterfly and Insect World. There’s a giant greenhouse contraption which you can have a stroll through, and it houses lots of different species of butterflies, along with lots of pretty plants and a nice wee pond with some terrapins. It’s surprisingly terrifying being dive-bombed by millions (only a slight exaggeration) of butterflies! As you leave the greenhouse, there’s also a room at the back with various reptiles and creepy crawlies. Once you’ve had enough of that, stop by the Dobbies next door as they have a lovely big food hall with farm-shop type produce and lots of homemade breads and cakes and that sort of thing. There is also, of course, the Edinburgh Zoo which is worth a visit if you’ve got a day to spare. I’m sure it needs no explanation, other than: PANDAS.
One of the things Edinburgh is most famous for is its beautiful views, and the best part is you can enjoy these for free. If you’re feeling adventurous you could try climbing Arthur’s Seat or the Crags (they’re part of an extinct volcano but not too high and easily manageable without walking boots and such), but I’d suggest going to Calton Hill instead. It’s just a little bit along from the end of Princes Street, and is much less of a climb but you still end up nice and high and with great views. After all, as Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “you can’t see the Castle or Arthur’s Seat from the Castle or Arthur’s Seat”. Not only do you get a great view of the iconic landmarks, but there are several monuments to explore on Calton Hill itself. Here you’ll find the “Athens of the North”‘s unfinished version of the Parthenon, the National Monument of Scotland, plus the likes of the Nelson Monument and the old observatory. After all that touristing, get yourself along to the Cameo Cinema in Tollcross for a big bucket of popcorn and a good film in a gorgeous old fashioned cinema. They show a carefully curated selection of new releases, as well as some foreign and independent films, and on Sunday afternoons there are often double bills of classic favourties.
What are your favourite attractions in Edinburgh?