Edinburgh has a lot to offer.
I should know—I went to uni there for a year abroad to study geology!
It’s one of my favorite cities on the planet for a plethora of reasons. The pubs, the history, and the rocks are just a few Edinburgh highlights that come to mind.
For this post, we’ll focus on the rocks… on which you can find Edinburgh’s top tourist attractions. Yep, the three most famous attractions in Edinburgh are as interesting to geologists as they are to tourists.
Seeing as I’ve been both at various points in my life, forgive me for freaking out with glee at various points in this guide.
This Edinburgh guide will tell you how best to go about experiencing Arthur’s Seat, Calton Hill, and Castle Rock (AKA Edinburgh Castle).
Trust me, whether you’re a geologist, photographer, or hike-happy tourist, these Edinburgh highlights are some craggy urban hills worth nerding out over*.
*Okay, so they aren’t technically volcanoes, but the rocky outcrops that form the iconic Arthur’s Seat, Calton Hill, and Castle Rock are part of the same extinct volcano system! Edinburgh is also the birthplace of James Hutton, AKA the Father of Modern Geology, AKA a very big deal. So the fact that three of its most famous attractions share an igneous origin is very appropriate. If I remembered more from my geology minor I would elaborate on Carboniferous strata or plate tectonics, but that’s all I got.
See? I’m starting already. I CAN’T HELP IT.
Moral of the story: volcanoes are cool. Even the extinct ones. Now let’s get into it.
If you’re looking for an extinct volcano you can casually ascend (who isn’t, am I right?), look no further than Edinburgh, Scotland. Arthur’s Seat is arguably the most famous, and regularly at the tippy-top of Edinburgh must-see lists. It has a mysterious history with King Arthur, and the best views of Edinburgh, period.
I love Arthur’s Seat. A trip to Edinburgh simply is not complete without a trek (or two) to the top. Don’t forget your hiking boots, or at least a decent pair of trainers.
When it’s wet and windy–and spoiler alert: Scotland tends to get a little wet and windy–the last thing you want to be stressing about is footwear. It would be a shame for anything to distract from the downright stunning views on your climb.
I know I said “casually ascend”, but I should add a caveat… this hike is somewhat strenuous. I was far from the best shape of my life when I would hike it, but it is tiring to climb straight uphill for the better part of an hour.
It’s definitely still a fun hike for kids or older folks or people not in great shape, it’ll just take a bit longer.
And I promise you, it is absolutely worth it! I would set aside a few hours one morning or afternoon and just enjoy this green part of Edinburgh. The fresh sea air, the views of a UNESCO city, the mystique of a King Arthur-related past… it’s all wonderful.
To get to the hike is super easy; just head to Holyrood Park. There are all kinds of trails around the massive green space, with most of them eventually winding up to the summit of Arthur’s Seat. For more in-depth information I love Walking Highlands site, and their Arthur’s Seat guide.
It’s a little under-the-radar compared to the omnipresent shadow of Arthur’s Seat, or the iconic castle-y castle-ness of Edinburgh Castle on Castle Rock.
Then again, I probably saw hundreds of pictures of Calton Hill on hundreds of postcards, calendars, or Edinburgh tourist brochures before I actually knew where (just East of Prince’s Street) or what (Scottish government headquarters!) it actually was.
And I lived a pretty short walk away for almost a year.
But it’s awesome, and you should definitely go. Walking around the monuments of Calton Hill feels like a fun park of sick views and medieval-looking structures that are actually important historical monuments. The walk is far less strenuous than Arthur’s Seat, but more so than that to Castle Rock (which is not a hike at all).
Since it isn’t much of a hike, it can be a great place to get your city views at sunrise! Indeed, it is my favorite place to watch the sunrise in Edinburgh.
Besides the views of the city, Calton Hill boasts Edinburgh’s National Monument. If it looks like the Parthenon, that’s because it’s directly modeled after the Parthenon.
As I said above, Calton Hill is just East of the famous Edinburgh shopping street, Prince’s Street. If you’re visiting another Edinburgh highlight, Prince’s Street Gardens, it’ll be a convenient stop. Best of all? Calton Hill, like Arthur’s Seat, is completely free!
Castle Rock is famous because there’s a freakin’ castle sitting on it. Specifically, Edinburgh Castle. Royalty hasn’t actually lived there since the 1600s (thanks, Wikipedia) and it’s one of modern Edinburgh’s most popular tourist destinations!
I’m gonna be honest: in a year living there, and in my visits since, I have never gone inside Edinburgh Castle. I have heard entering the castle isn’t worth the price, but that’s your call. If you think you’re interested in heading into the castle, check out their website, which in this respect is far more useful than I am!
Either way, the walk up to the castle, particularly the view from the entrance atop Castle Rock, is great.
Walk up High Street, to Lawnmarket, to the Royal Mile, finally to Castle Hill–all an easy straight line of Scottish shops and restaurants.
It’s pretty touristy, but Edinburgh’s streets are so damn gorgeous it’s almost impossible for this city to feel inauthentic.
The Scotch Whisky Experience is a particularly popular stop on the Royal Mile, and The Witchery by the Castle restaurant was my favorite in Edinburgh for a unique experience and spendy meal.
Pro-tip: for an awesome paranoramic view of Edinburgh Castle, head to the top of the National Museum of Scotland. For an awesome ground floor view, try the Elephant House cafe (it’s the famous J.K. Rowling one).
What are YOUR favorite Edinburgh Highlights?
Obviously, despite their super-underrated geologic tales, these attractions are anything but underrated. Translation: there will be tourists lurking about.
And while I stand by the opinion that you must visit Arthur’s Seat, Calton Hill, and Castle Rock (if not Edinburgh Castle itself), I also think you must get off the beaten tourist path to really enjoy a city. Edinburgh’s essence, it’s vibe, is something truly special.
You will get that vibe bopping around these historically significant highlights, to be sure, but you will get it most just wandering around the streets.
Get a little lost on your walk from Arthur’s Seat to Edinburgh Castle. Take a side street between hitting up Calton Hill and The Elephant House. Edinburgh is a safe, hauntingly beautiful Medieval city. The best way to do it justice is explore it, as thoroughly as you can!