65 Best Sights in Edinburgh and the Lothians, Scotland

Culross Palace

Fodor's choice

Don't let the name fool you: this 16th-century merchant's house was never a royal residence, and lacks the ostentatious grandeur of a palace. It is, however, a fascinating slice of social history—the owner was a pioneer in local coal mining and salt production—and its interiors of Baltic pine, Durch floor tiles, and Staffordshire pottery was pretty flashy for its time. It was also visited by King James VI in 1617. Today it retains its period charms, including a garden that grows herbs and vegetables typical of the period.

Dean Village

Fodor's choice

Founded as a milling community in the 12th century, this pretty residential area offers a pleasant respite from the noise and crowds of the city. Head down cobbled Bells Brae Street and you'll be met by a charming assortment of old mill buildings, stone bridges, and lush greenery, all lining the Water of Leith. Walk two minutes east for a dramatic view of an imposing, 19th-century viaduct (Dean Bridge) or a little farther west to visit the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

Dunfermline Abbey and Palace

Fodor's choice

This impressive complex, the literal and metaphorical centerpiece of Dunfermline, was founded in the 11th century as a Benedictine abbey by Queen Margaret, the English wife of Scottish king Malcolm III. The present church is a mishmash of medieval and Norman work, and a decorative brass tomb here is the final resting place of Robert the Bruce (1274–1329). A palace was also part of the complex here, and was the birthplace of Charles I (1600–49); its ruins lie beside the abbey. Dunfermline was the seat of the royal court of Scotland until the end of the 11th century, and its central role in Scottish affairs is explored by means of display panels dotted around the drafty but hallowed buildings.

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Edinburgh Castle

Fodor's choice

The crowning glory of the Scottish capital, Edinburgh Castle is popular not only for its pivotal role in Scottish history, but also because of the spectacular views from its battlements: on a clear day the vistas stretch all the way to Fife. You'll need at least three hours to see everything it has to offer (even longer if you're a military history buff), though if you're in a rush, its main highlights can just about be squeezed into an hour and a half.

You enter across the Esplanade, the huge forecourt built in the 18th century as a parade ground. The area comes alive with color and music each August when it's used for the Military Tattoo, a festival of magnificently outfitted marching bands and regiments. Head over the drawbridge and through the gatehouse, past the guards, and you'll find the rough stone walls of the Half-Moon Battery, where the one-o'clock gun is fired every day in an impressively anachronistic ceremony; these curving ramparts give Edinburgh Castle its distinctive silhouette. Climb up through a second gateway and you come to the oldest surviving building in the complex, the tiny 11th-century St. Margaret's Chapel, named in honor of Saxon queen Margaret (circa 1045–93), who persuaded her husband, King Malcolm III (circa 1031–93), to move his court from Dunfermline to Edinburgh. The story goes that Edinburgh's environs—the Lothians—were occupied by Anglian settlers with whom the queen felt more at home, as opposed to the Celts who surrounded Dunfermline. The Crown Room, a must-see, contains the "Honours of Scotland"—the crown, scepter, and sword that once graced the Scottish monarch—as well as the Stone of Scone, upon which Scottish monarchs once sat to be crowned (it's still a feature of British coronation ceremonies today). In the section now called Queen Mary's Apartments, Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to James VI of Scotland. The Great Hall, which held Scottish Parliament meetings until 1840, displays arms and armor under an impressive vaulted, beamed ceiling.

Military features of interest include the Scottish National War Memorial, the Scottish United Services Museum, and the famous 15th-century Belgian-made cannon Mons Meg. This enormous piece of artillery has been silent since 1682, when it exploded while firing a salute for the Duke of York; it now stands in an ancient hall behind the Half-Moon Battery. Contrary to what you may hear from locals, it's not Mons Meg but the battery's gun that goes off with a bang every weekday at 1 pm, frightening visitors and reminding Edinburghers to check their watches. Avoid the queues and save some money by buying tickets in advance online. When you arrive, you can pick up your ticket from one of the automated collection points at the entrance.

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Edinburgh Gin Distillery

Fodor's choice

Whisky may be Scotland's most famous spirit, but gin also has a long and storied history here. Edinburgh Gin is a small distillery and visitor center just off Princes Street, offering tours and tastings that give a fascinating insight into craft gin production. You'll see two copper stills, Flora and Caledonia, which helped kick-start the now award-winning operation, and are still used to make some of their experimental, small-batch gins. (Note that the main range, including the navy-strength Cannonball Gin and the coastal botanical-infused Seaside Gin, are now produced at a larger facility in Leith). Choose between the Distillery Tasting Experience (£25) and the Gin Making Experience (£100), then head into the Heads & Tales bar to sample some Scottish gin cocktails.

Greyfriars Kirkyard

Fodor's choice

This sprawling, hillside graveyard, surely one of the most evocative in Europe (particularly at twilight), is a giddy mess of old, tottering tombstones that mark the graves of some of Scotland's most respected heroes and despised villains. Many of these inspired character names in the Harry Potter book series; fans can seek out Potters, McGonagalls, and Moodies, to name a few. Among the larger tombs arranged in avenues and the seemingly random assortment of grave markers, lie two rare surviving mortsafes: iron cages erected around graves in the early 1800s to prevent the theft of corpses for sale to medical schools.

At the southern end of the graveyard stands Greyfriars Kirk, the 400-year-old church where the National Covenant—a document declaring the Presbyterian Church in Scotland independent of the monarchy, and so plunging Scotland into decades of civil war—was signed in 1638. Nearby, at the corner of George IV Bridge and Candlemaker Row, stands one of Scotland's most photographed sites: the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye terrier who supposedly spent 14 years guarding the grave of his departed owner.

Holyrood Distillery

Fodor's choice

Despite Edinburgh's long history of whisky production, there hadn't been a single malt distillery in the city for almost a century until this place opened in 2019. Today, Holyrood Distillery's state-of-the-art visitor center, set within an old railway station in the shadow of Salisbury Crags, plays host to entertaining and informative (if pricey) one-hour tours, including tastings of their Height of Arrows gin and new make spirit (the whisky is still busy maturing in barrels). Just a short walk from the Old Town, Holyrood attracts a younger and hipper crowd than most Scottish distilleries.

Isle of May

Fodor's choice

This small island in the middle of the Firth of Forth is home to many interesting sights, from the ruins of a medieval priory to a Gothic lighthouse to a wartime signal station. But it's the seabirds that really bring in the visitors. The Isle of May is the largest puffin colony on the east coast of Britain and is home to a quarter of a million birds nesting on the cliffs during late spring and early summer, as well as seals basking on the shore. To visit the island, you'll need to take a 12-seat RIB (rigid inflatable boat) across choppy waters, including a sail by Bass Rock—the world's largest colony of gannets. Tours start from the Scottish Seabird Centre and last four hours, including at least 2½ hours on the island. Book in advance online to avoid disappointment.

Johnnie Walker Princes Street

New Town Fodor's choice

Opened in late 2021, this state-of-the-art, interactive whisky experience is a dizzying sensory experience. The regular 90-minute Journey of Whisky tour uses impressive animation, immersive light and sound effects, and even live actors to tell the tale of Johnnie Walker whisky, from its humble grocer's shop origins to its current status as the world's best-selling Scotch. Visitors will enjoy a whisky highball—matched to their own flavor preferences after a quick quiz—at the start of the tour, as well as two more drams or cocktails at the end. The three drinks alone are worth the £25 admission. Real whisky connoisseurs can also visit the Whisky Makers' Cellar (£95) to taste drams straight from the cast. Not interested in a tour? Head straight up to the 1820 Rooftop Bar for a drink with a view.

Jupiter Artland

Fodor's choice

The beautiful grounds of a Jacobean manor house have been transformed by an art-loving couple, Robert and Nicky Wilson, into an impressive sculpture park. With the aid of a map you can explore the magical landscapes and encounter works by renowned artists including Anish Kapoor, Anya Gallaccio, Nathan Coley, Tania Kovats, and Ian Hamilton Finlay, among many others. A highlight is walking around Charles Jencks's Cells of Life, a series of shapely, grass-covered mounds.

National Museum of Scotland

Fodor's choice

This museum traces the country's fascinating story from the oldest fossils to the most recent popular culture, making it a must-see for first-time visitors to Scotland. Two of the most famous treasures are the Lewis Chessmen, a set of intricately carved 12th-century ivory chess pieces found on one of Scotland's Western Isles, and Dolly the sheep, the world's first cloned mammal and biggest ovine celebrity. A dramatic, cryptlike entrance gives way to the light-filled, birdcage wonders of the Victorian grand hall and the upper galleries. Other exhibition highlights include the hanging hippo and sea creatures of the Wildlife Panorama, beautiful Viking brooches, Pictish stones, and Queen Mary's clarsach (harp). Take the elevator to the lovely rooftop terrace for spectacular views of Edinburgh Castle and the city below.

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Palace of Holyroodhouse

Fodor's choice

The one-time haunt of Mary, Queen of Scots, the Palace of Holyroodhouse has a long history of gruesome murders, destructive fires, and power-hungry personalities. Today, it's King Charles III's official residence in Scotland. A doughty, impressive palace standing at the foot of the Royal Mile, it's built around a graceful, lawned central court at the end of Canongate. And when royals are not in residence, you can take a tour. There's plenty to see here, so make sure you have at least two hours to tour the palace, gardens, and ruins of the 12th-century abbey; pick up the free audio guide for the full experience.

Many monarchs, including Charles II, Queen Victoria, and George V, have left their mark on the rooms here, but it's Mary, Queen of Scots whose spirit looms largest. Perhaps the most memorable room is the chamber in which David Rizzio (1533–66), secretary to Mary, was stabbed more than 50 times by the henchmen of her second husband, Lord Darnley. Darnley himself was murdered the next year, clearing the way for the queen's marriage to her lover, the Earl of Bothwell.

The King James Tower is the oldest surviving section of the palace, containing Mary's rooms on the second floor, and Lord Darnley's rooms below. Though much has been altered, there are fine fireplaces, paneling, tapestries, and 18th- and 19th-century furnishings throughout. At the south end of the palace front, you'll find the Royal Dining Room, and along the south side is the Throne Room, now used for social and ceremonial occasions.

At the back of the palace is the King's Bedchamber. The 150-foot-long Great Picture Gallery, on the north side, displays the portraits of 110 Scottish monarchs. These were commissioned by Charles II, who was eager to demonstrate his Scottish ancestry—but most of the people depicted are entirely fictional, and the likenesses of several others were invented and simply given the names of real people.

Holyroodhouse has its origins in an Augustinian monastery founded by David I (1084–1153) in 1128. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Scottish royalty, preferring the comforts of the abbey to drafty Edinburgh Castle, settled into Holyroodhouse, expanding the buildings until the palace eclipsed the monastery. Nevertheless, you can still walk around some evocative abbey ruins.

After the Union of the Crowns in 1603, when the Scottish royal court packed its bags and decamped to England, the building began to fall into disrepair. It was Charles II (1630–85) who rebuilt Holyrood in the architectural style of Louis XIV (1638–1715), and this is the style you see today. Queen Victoria (1819–1901) and her grandson King George V (1865–1936) renewed interest in the palace, and the buildings were refurbished and again made suitable for royal residence.

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Canongate, Edinburgh, EH8 8DX, Scotland
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Rate Includes: £18, Closed Tues. and Wed. Oct.–June, Advance booking required

Rosslyn Chapel

Fodor's choice

This chapel has always beckoned curious visitors intrigued by the various legends surrounding its magnificent carvings, but today it pulses with tourists as never before. Much of this can be attributed to Dan Brown's best-selling 2003 mystery novel The Da Vinci Code, which featured the chapel heavily, claiming it has a secret sign that can lead you to the Holy Grail. Whether you're a fan of the book or not, this Episcopal chapel (services continue to be held here) remains an imperative stop on any traveler's itinerary. Originally conceived by Sir William Sinclair (circa 1404–80) and dedicated to St. Matthew in 1446, the chapel is outstanding for the quality and variety of the carving inside. Covering almost every square inch of stonework are human figures, animals, and plants. The meaning of these remains subject to many theories; some depict symbols from the medieval order of the Knights Templar and from Freemasonry. The chapel's design called for a cruciform structure, but only the choir and parts of the east transept walls were fully completed. Free talks about the building's history are held daily.

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Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Fodor's choice

Explore Britain's largest rhododendron and azalea gardens at this beautiful 70-acre botanical garden. Founded in 1670 as a physic garden, it now has a range of natural highlights such as soaring palms in the glass-domed Temperate House and the steamy Tropical Palm House, an extensive Chinese garden, and a pretty rock garden and stream. There's a visitor center with exhibits on biodiversity, a fabulous gift shop selling plants, books, and gifts, and two cafeterias. The handsome 18th-century Inverleith House hosts art exhibitions.

It's free to roam the gardens, but it costs extra for greenhouse admission (which is currently closed for renovation) or you can splash out even more for guided garden walks and private tours. It takes 20 minutes to walk to the garden from Princes Street, or you can take a bus.

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Scottish National Gallery

Fodor's choice

Opened to the public in 1859, the Scottish National Gallery presents a wide selection of paintings from the Renaissance to the Postimpressionist period within a grand neoclassical building. Most famous are the Old Master paintings bequeathed by the Duke of Sutherland, including Titian's Three Ages of Man. Works by Velázquez, El Greco, Rembrandt, Goya, Poussin, Turner, Degas, Monet, and van Gogh, among others, complement a fine collection of Scottish art, including Sir Henry Raeburn's Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch and other works by Ramsay, Raeburn, and Wilkie. The gallery also has an information center, a quirky gift shop, and the excellent Scottish Cafe and Restaurant.

You can also hop on a shuttle bus (£1 donation requested) from here to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, which has paintings and sculptures by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, and André Derain, among others.

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Scottish Storytelling Centre and John Knox House

Fodor's choice

The stripped-down, low-fi, traditional art of storytelling has had something of a resurgence in Britain since the turn of the century, and there are few places better than this to experience a master storyteller in full flow. Housed in a modern building that manages to blend seamlessly with the historic structures on either side, the center hosts a year-round program of storytelling, theater, music, and literary events. A great little café serves lunch, tea, and home-baked cakes.

The center's storytellers also hold tours of John Knox House next door. It isn't certain that the religious reformer ever lived here, but there's evidence he died here in 1572. Mementos of his life are on view inside, and the distinctive dwelling gives you a glimpse of what Old Town life was like in the 16th century—projecting upper floors were once commonplace along the Royal Mile.

Tantallon Castle

Fodor's choice

Travel east along the flat fields from North Berwick, and the imposing silhouette of Tantallon Castle, a substantial, semiruined medieval fortress, comes dramatically into view. Standing on a headland with the sea on three sides, the red-sandstone walls are being chipped away by time and sea spray, with the earliest surviving stonework dating from the late 14th century. The fortress was besieged in 1529 by the cannons of King James V and again (more damagingly) during the civil war of 1651. Despite significant damage, much of the curtain wall of this former Douglas stronghold survives and is now cared for by Historic Scotland. From the grounds you can see Bass Rock out to sea, which looks gray during winter but bright white in summer. Look through the telescope here and you'll see why.

The Meadows

Fodor's choice

Edinburgh's most popular green space, the Meadows is the first port of call for nearby workers, students, and families when the sun is out (or even when it isn't). You'll find people making the most of the grass here: picnicking, barbecuing, playing soccer, throwing frisbees, and flying kites. More formal sports facilities include tennis courts, a small golf putting course, and the biggest kids' play area in Edinburgh. Come during one of the city's many cultural festivals and there's likely to be a show on, too.

Water of Leith Walkway

Leith Fodor's choice

The Water of Leith, Edinburgh's main river, rises in the Pentland Hills, skirts the edges of the city center, then heads out to the port at Leith, where it flows into the Firth of Forth. For a scenic stroll from the West End out to Leith, you can join this waterside walkway at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, follow it through pretty Dean Village and Stockbridge, and continue past the Royal Botanic Garden, before emerging at The Shore. It takes about 90 minutes at a leisurely pace—and with all the tree-lined paths, pretty stone bridges, colorful wildflowers, and stunning birdlife (including herons, kingfishers, and buzzards) to see, we do suggest taking your time. Keep an eye out, too, for Antony Gormley's "6 Times" artwork, a series of life-sized human sculptures dotted along the river.

Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum

Scottish-American industrialist and noted philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was born here in 1835. Don't be misled by the simple exterior of this 18th-century weaver's cottage—inside it opens into a larger hall, where documents, photographs, and artifacts relate his fascinating life story, from humble beginnings to the world's richest man. There are also displays on the genus of Jurassic dinosaur named after Carnegie: Diplodocus carnegii.

Arthur's Seat

The high point of 640-acre Holyrood Park is this famously spectacular viewpoint. You'll have seen it before—countless photos have been snapped from this very spot. The "seat" in question is actually the 822-foot-high plateau of a small mountain. A ruined church—the 15th-century Chapel of St. Anthony—adds to its impossible picturesqueness. There are various starting points for the walk, but one of the most pleasant begins at the Scottish Parliament building. Cross the road from Parliament, skirt around the parking lot, cross a second road, and join the gently rising path to the left (rather than the steeper fork to the right, which is currently closed). At a moderate pace, this climb takes around 45 minutes up and 30 minutes down, and is easy so long as you're reasonably fit. Even if you aren't, there are plenty of places to stop for a rest and to admire the views along the way. A faster—though less beautiful—way to reach the summit is to drive to the small parking area at Dunsapie Loch, on Queen's Road, then follow the footpath up the hill; this walk takes about 20 minutes.

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Blackness Castle

Standing like a grounded ship on the very edge of the Forth, this curious 15th-century structure has had a varied career as a strategic fortress, state prison, powder magazine, and youth hostel. The countryside is gently green and cultivated, and open views extend across the blue Forth to the distant ramparts of the Ochil Hills.

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Calton Hill

Robert Louis Stevenson's favorite view of his beloved city was from the top of this hill, and it's easy to see why. Located in the heart of the city, Calton Hill offers stunning vistas of the Old and New Towns and out to the Firth of Forth, making it a popular setting for picnicking and watching festival fireworks. Great views aside, the hill is also home to a number of impressive monuments. The most notable is the so-called National Monument, also known as "Scotland's Disgrace," which was commissioned in 1822 and intended to mimic Athens's Parthenon. But after just 12 columns had been built, the money ran out, leaving the facade as a monument to high aspirations and poor fundraising. Nearby, the 100-foot-high Nelson Monument, completed in 1815 in honor of Britain's greatest naval hero, is topped with a "time ball" that is dropped at 1 pm every day. Other hillside monuments honor notable Scots ranging from mathematician John Playfair to philosopher Dugald Stewart.

The hill is also home to the City Observatory, which hosts regular contemporary art exhibitions, as well as upscale restaurant The Lookout by Gardener's Cottage. It also plays host to the Beltane Fire Festival every April 30.

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Bounded by Leith St. to the west and Regent Rd. to the south, Edinburgh, EH7 5AA, Scotland
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Rate Includes: Free; Nelson Monument £6

Camera Obscura and World of Illusions

View Edinburgh like a Victorian at the city's 19th-century camera obscura. Head up Outlook Tower for the headline attraction—an optical instrument that affords live bird's-eye views of the city, illuminated onto a concave table. It's been wowing visitors since 1853, and yet it retains a magical quality that can captivate even the most cynical smartphone-toting teen. After you've seen the camera obscura and enjoyed the rooftop views, head down to explore five more floors of interactive optical illusions. They are guaranteed to keep the kids entertained and educated for an hour or two.

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Old Town

This section of the Royal Mile takes its name from the canons who once ran the abbey at Holyrood. Canongate—in Scots, gate means "street"—was originally an independent town, or burgh, another Scottish term used to refer to a community with trading rights granted by the monarch. In this area you'll find Canongate Kirk and its graveyard, Canongate Tolbooth, as well as the Museum of Edinburgh.

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Royal Mile, between High St. and Abbey Strand, Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland

Canongate Kirk

Old Town

This unadorned Church of Scotland building, built in 1688, is best known for its graveyard. It is the final resting place of several notable Scots, including economist Adam Smith (1723–90), author of The Wealth of Nations (1776); Dugald Stewart (1753–1828), the leading European philosopher of his time; and the undervalued Scottish poet Robert Fergusson (1750–74). The fact that Fergusson's grave is even distinguishable is due to the far more famous Robert Burns (1759–96), who commissioned a marker to be made. Incidentally, Robert Burns's literary lover Agnes Maclehose (the "Clarinda" to his "Sylvander" as noted in a series of passionate letters) also has a memorial stone here.

Canongate Tolbooth and People's Story Museum

Nearly every city and town in Scotland once had a tolbooth. Originally a customhouse, where tolls were gathered, it soon came to mean town hall and later prison, as there were detention cells in the cellar. The building where Canongate's town council once met now has a museum, the People's Story Museum, which focuses on the lives of everyday folk from the 18th century to today. Exhibits describe how Canongate once bustled with the activities of the tradespeople needed to supply life's essentials. There are also displays on the politics, health care, and leisure time (such as it was) in days of yore. Other exhibits leap forward in time to show, for example, a typical 1940s kitchen.


Old Town

This street, the upper portion of the Royal Mile, was where alleged witches were brought in the 16th century to be burned at the stake. The cannonball embedded in the west gable of Castlehill's Cannonball Restaurant was, according to legend, fired from the castle during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, led by Bonnie Prince Charlie (1720–88)—though the truth is probably that it was installed there deliberately in 1681 as a height marker for Edinburgh's first piped water-supply system. Atop the Gothic Tolbooth Kirk, built in 1844 for the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, stands the tallest spire in the city, at 240 feet. The church now houses the cheery Edinburgh Festival offices and a pleasant café known as the Hub.

East of Esplanade and west of Lawnmarket, Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland

Craigmillar Castle

South Side

This handsome medieval ruin, just 3 miles south of the city center, is the archetypal Scottish fortress: forbidding, powerful, and laden with atmosphere. It is best known for its association with Mary, Queen of Scots: during a stay here in 1563, her courtiers hatched the successful plot to murder her troublesome husband, Henry Stuart (possibly with Mary's approval). Today Craigmillar is one of the most impressive ruined castles in Scotland. Stroll its beautiful courtyard, enter the well-preserved great hall, or climb the 15th-century tower for a superb view across the city. Look out for the unusually ornate defensive arrow slits, shaped like inverted keyholes.

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Crichton Castle

Standing amid rolling hills that are interrupted here and there by patches of woodland, Crichton was a Bothwell family castle. Mary, Queen of Scots, attended the wedding here of Bothwell's sister, Lady Janet Hepburn, to Mary's brother, Lord John Stewart. The curious arcaded range reveals diamond rustication on the courtyard stonework; this particular geometric pattern is unique in Scotland and is thought to have been inspired by the Renaissance styles in Europe, particularly Italy. The oldest part of the structure is the 14th-century keep (square tower). Note that there are no toilets at the castle.