Things to do on a city break to Edinburgh this Autumn
As Edinburgh-based author, Alexander McCall Smith once said, Edinburgh “is a city of shifting light, of changing skies, of sudden vistas. A city so beautiful it breaks the heart again and again.” The Scottish capital, set on seven volcanic hills, certainly captures the hearts of creatives and culture enthusiasts during the summer months. During these months, the eccentric Fringe Festival, and glorious musical displays from the Military Tattoo grace the city’s cobblestoned streets.
But many of Edinburgh’s remarkable medieval to Gothic architecture, world-class tours and innately Scottish attractions are better enjoyed during the autumn months. With fewer crowds, stormier skies adding a dramatic flair to the already beautiful city, and autumnal leaves framing its every corner, Auld Reekie transforms into an autumnal wonderland that feels worlds away from the rest of the UK. With so much on offer, we’ve compiled a detailed itinerary of the best things to do in Edinburgh, so that you can experience its splendour at ease.
Book your tickets to some of Edinburgh's most popular attractions here! Want to learn more? Read on to find out the best ways to explore Edinburgh this autumn
Free things to do in Edinburgh
A city break can typically be quite expensive, but Edinburgh has a plethora of ancient walkways and historical hotspots that don’t cost a thing. Here’s our top selection of places to visit for a free day out in Edinburgh.
St Giles Cathedral
Situated in the middle of the Royal Mile, St Giles Cathedral is unmissable and unforgettable. Its austere, tiered, and symmetrical façade, which includes a lofty crown steeple, makes the cathedral one of the top tourist attractions in Edinburgh. Entry is free, although a donation is suggested, and within are exquisite stained-glass windows, opulent stone carvings, vaulted ceilings, and uniformed archways.
The building has been a religious focal point for nearly 1,000 years and has links with prominent Scottish figures like John Knox during the Reformation. The renowned Thistle Chapel was home to the Knights of the Order of the Thistle, while the enormous Rieger organ was fitted in 1992. Visitors are welcome to join the weekly service or attend one of the cathedral’s many music events.
The Royal Mile
It’s not just St Giles Cathedral that adorns the Royal Mile, but a whole host of shops, attractions, classy restaurants, palaces, and castles line its streets. It is without a doubt the beating heart of Scotland’s capital and is named ‘Royal Mile’ after the road that runs from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. It’s almost exactly one mile long, and along its path is a variety of remarkable architecture – a must-see for photographers.
The Royal Mile is one of the best places to visit in Edinburgh for those on a budget, as you’ll find free entertainment in the bagpipe players, cobblestone closes (alleyways), the Scottish Parliament building, the Writer’s Museum, Gladstone’s Land – one of the oldest buildings in Edinburgh - and, of course, St Giles Cathedral. The easiest way to explore this area is by hopping on one of Edinburgh’s guided tours, like the Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle Walking Tour.
Even before travellers enter Scotland, they know Victoria Street is one of the best places to visit in Edinburgh. Its vibrant and colourful shops follow the streets’ curving formation which is one of the most photographed spots in the city. The street was built between 1829-32 and today it’s called ‘Edinburgh’s own Diagon Alley’. There’s even a Harry Potter shop full of memorabilia as the city, and this street, are known to have inspired J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book series.
Princes Street Garden
Established in 1820, the Princes Street Gardens is considered the most beautiful garden in Edinburgh and excellent for a free day out. Its two adjacent public parks unite the old town with the new. Casting an unwavering shadow across its 37 acres is Edinburgh Castle – a sure sign you’ve landed in the heart of the city. The gardens are beautiful all year round, but the autumnal colours add an element of splendour to Ross Fountain – the park’s most significant monument – the Scott Monument, The Mound, and the Gardener’s Cottage. The Royal Scots Monument is also worth seeing as it’s considered Edinburgh’s ‘modern henge’.
If you’re feeling adventurous, embark on a hike up to Arthur’s Seat. This is an extinct volcano sitting 251m above sea level. Here you get the most exquisite panoramic views of the city, and it’s your chance to change from a city break into a country escape. Arthur’s Seat is located within Holyrood Park and the Duddingston Loch is a great place for feeding the swans and ducks. There are many trails suitable for all, but I’d recommend following the path to St Margaret’s Loch!
If you don’t mind spending a wee penny, opt for the guided Historic Edinburgh Walking Tour. It’s one of the best tours in Edinburgh as it takes you to Arthur’s Seat, as well as, underground to discover the city’s ancient streets.
If it’s scenic views you’re after, other than those from Arthur’s Seat, then Calton Hill is the place for you. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the best places to visit in Edinburgh as it’s home to several Greek-style monuments, including the National Monument. This was inspired by Athens’s Parthenon, and there’s also the City Observatory, and the Nelson Monument to explore. From the top, you’ll see the Parliament building, Holyrood Palace, the Royal Mile, and Arthur’s Seat.
One of the best things to do in Edinburgh is to visit the quirky buildings of Dean Village and the quiet oasis that’s created from its Water of Leith. It’s only a short walk from Princes Street, but this makes Dean Village feel like a rural residential area. The hamlet’s records suggest it dates to King David I in the early 1100s and the vibrant colours and mixture of ancient architectural styles hint at its early days.
For a long time, there were 11 mills in Dean Village, but these no longer exist. However, you can find their remains throughout the village, including carved stone plaques and the miller’s stones. The Well Court makes for the most impressive building to photograph, and it was originally used to house mill workers.
Any fans of the hit TV show Outlander will know that several scenes from its series were filmed in Edinburgh. No one can forget the iconic scene where, after a twenty-year separation, Claire visits Jamie’s print shop in Carfax Close. The Outlander team used Bakehouse Close for this scene, and it’s completely free to visit, as is the Museum of Edinburgh, which is right next door. Bakehouse Close is one of the best-preserved historic closes on the Royal Mile. Close is a Scottish term for an alleyway and these were traditionally named after famous occupants. Bakehouse Close was named after its bakers.
As soon as you walk through the 16th-century tunnel, you’ll find an intense cluster of 18th-century architecture. To the east is Huntly House – now the museum – and there are stone tablets that tell off the locals for resisting its construction. The bakers lived on the west side which was also inhabited by the Archeson Family who were staff to King James VI and Charles I.
Another Outlander site is Tweeddale Court. This has Tweeddale House at the far end of the close and the famous World’s End pub opposite. Both the house and court are named after the Marquess of Tweeddale who was a senior adviser to King Charles II. Within the close, there is a wall marking the 15th century city boundary and a lamp post, which was one of the first to be gas-powered in the whole of Scotland. Bakehouse Close also has a stone shed which is thought to be the smallest listed building in the city. This shed is a rare example of a sedan chair house. Sedan chairs were used to travel around the city in the Georgian period.
Its weathered cobblestone and stone buildings are very evocative, hinting at the infamous and unsolved murders that took place here. For example, on the 13th of November 1806, a young girl found the body of William Begbie, a bank messenger. He had a knife stuck in his chest and was lying in a pool of blood, but no one knows who attacked him!
Things to do in Edinburgh for History
Since 1437, Edinburgh has been the capital of Scotland. The English, the Anglo-Saxons, and the Danes all controlled the metropolis, Mary Queen of Scots was under house arrest here, and the bubonic plague wiped out half of its population. Here’s our list of the best historic sites to visit during your city break.
The Scott Monument
One of the most unusual things to do in Edinburgh for history and culture is to visit the Scott Monument. It was built in 1832 to honour the life and death of Scotland’s beloved writer, Sir Walter Scott, and its grand architecture has beautifully carved characters from his novels. More recently, the author Bill Bryson described this 200-feet-high spire as ‘a Gothic rocket ship’, and for good reason.
The monument has 287 steps which visitors can climb, and at the top, they’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of the city. There’s a Museum Room here with an exhibition of Sir Walter Scott’s life and work. The monument is open between 10 am - 7 pm (April to September) or 10 am - 4 pm (October to March) and costs £8 for adults. However, it is free to view from The Mound and Princes Street Garden.
Commanding Castle Rock – an extinct volcano - is Edinburgh Castle, a mighty fortress that’s been dominating the landscape for centuries. It is one of the oldest fortified buildings in Europe and the most besieged place in Britain. Edinburgh Castle has served as a military garrison, a war prison, and as a royal residence. Here, you can follow in the footsteps of Scotland’s greatest kings and queens as well as soldiers and pirates.
There are many tours of Edinburgh Castle or audio guides that’ll give you an in-depth overview of the castle’s history. These aids will make sure you see some of the castle’s most important artefacts like the Honours of Scotland. The Honours are the oldest crown jewels in the UK, and you’ll also find The Stone of Destiny – the symbol of the Scottish monarchy. Listen out for the One o’ Clock Gun from the grounds, which can be heard every day except Sunday. This is a tradition that dates to the 19th century, and it was this gun’s salute that the ships in the Firth of Forth would set their maritime clocks by.
The Palace of Holyroodhouse
At the opposite end of the Royal Mile is the Palace of Holyroodhouse which is the Monarch’s official residence in Scotland and has been so for over 500 years. It is one of the top tourist attractions in Edinburgh for discovering what royal life was/is like in the city. The palace’s monastery was founded in 1128 by David I, and in 1501, James IV built a palace for himself. Later monarchs added to and/or extended the property.
It was here that Mary Queen of Scots spent most of her tumultuous life. Mary was married here twice, and her private secretary, David Rizzio, was also murdered in her private apartments. Visitors can see these apartments today, as well as a skeletal outline of the monastery. The Palace likewise holds the Queen’s Gallery which displays artwork from the Royal Collection.
John Knox House
Situated on the Royal Mile, the John Knox House is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Edinburgh. John Knox was a Protestant reformer during the 16th century and the founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. There are disputes as to whether John Knox ever actually lived here. Regardless, there is a story that suggests Knox used to lean out of a small window on the first floor to preach to the people in the street.
The John Knox House is one of the oldest buildings in the city with parts dating to 1470. The exterior is atmospheric with timber galleries and forestairs that give access to the upper rooms from the street. The ground and first floor have been turned into a museum, detailing Knox’s life, the growth of Scotland’s Protestant faith and Knox’s conflict with Mary Queen of Scots. You’ll also find remains of the medieval ‘luckenbooths’, which are also known as locked booths. These booths were rented out as shops, and you’ll also see a painted ceiling and wood panelling dating to the 17th century.
Tours in Edinburgh
Any autumnal city break in Edinburgh needs to involve a guided tour, especially if you’re looking for a spooky jaunt down Edinburgh’s haunted vaults or want to go underground to its historic alleyways.
Ghost Tours in Edinburgh
If you’re visiting Edinburgh in autumn, especially near Halloween, then make sure to experience the Edinburgh Haunted Vaults Tour. This tour takes guests to the city’s underbelly, discovering several 18th-century vaults under the South Bridge which featured in the Most Haunted Live TV series. These vaults were home to the city’s poorest inhabitants and criminals. The tour goes into depth about the Burke and Hare murders and gives insight into the witch trials and hellfire club. There’s even a Torture Exhibition!
The Dark History Tour is another expedition into places and real-life tales of grave robbing, burning of witches, serial killers, decapitations, cannibalism, hangings and the Plague. This tour highlights how Edinburgh is ‘The Jekyll & Hyde City’, as it is respectable during the day and wild and shady at night. By the end of the tour, you won’t be looking at Edinburgh in the same way.
Underground tours of Edinburgh
Lying quietly beneath the City Chambers building on the Royal Mile is a secret labyrinth of historic streets. These are alleyways where people lived, worked, and died in medieval times. The best preserved of these streets is Mary King’s Close, named after a successful businesswoman and a merchant burgess, who not only had a seat on the Edinburgh Council but was allowed voting rights.
The tour of The Real Mary King’s Close takes you underground to the historic street level. Guests are shown around these streets by a costumed guide who is meant to be a former resident of the close. As you head further back in time to the 16th through 19th centuries, you’ll meet the families and doctors affected by the Plague, discover which royal queen stayed here, learn how the different social classes lived on top of each other, and more.
Walking Tours in Edinburgh
One of the most unique things to do in Edinburgh is to go on a Harry Potter Guided Tour and discover the origins of J. K. Rowling’s magical wizarding world. Along the way, guests will discover the streets and places that inspired Tom Riddle’s graveyard, the entrance to Hogwarts and Diagon Alley. There will also be a chance to spot some filming locations and JK Rowling’s handprints outside the City Chambers building.