Edinburgh is a strange town. Today’s thriving Scottish capital grew around the central Edinburgh Castle. But before the city became a modern metropolis, Edinburgh’s odd history included several generations of residents locked into a four-mile radius, witch trials and torture, and endless ghost stories. This ancient city is so unusual that it even inspired JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. Edinburgh is a city of contrast. In Edinburgh, you’ll find narrow alleyways called “close” where hundreds of thousands lived below sustenance levels. But here too you’ll discover avenues lined with luxurious townhomes. There is no doubt that the most famous Edinburgh attraction is the castle, which still rests upon a rock in the middle of the town. However, for this article, I wanted to focus on other activities that truly reflect the history and spirit of the city – the weirdest, off the beaten path and most unusual things to do in Edinburgh. For even more about traveling to Scotland (and exploring the highlands) check out Incredible Things to Do on the Isle of Skye.
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- 1. Travel Back in Time in Dynamic Earth Science Center
- 2. Loose (and Find) Yourself at Camera Obscura – Unusual Things To Do in Edinburgh
- 3. Explore Fascinating History in National Mining Museum of Scotland
- 4. Join a Spooky Walking Tour- Unique Things To do in Edinburgh
- 5. Say Goodbye to the Day at Calton Hill – Unusual Things to Do in Edinburgh
- 6. Get a Fantastic Picture of the Castle at Vennel Viewpoint
- 7. Unusual Things to do in Edinburgh – Stroll the Fairy Tale-Like Circus Lane
- 8. Enjoy Nature in the City Center at the Water of Leith
- 9. Unearth Ancient Scottish Folklore at The Story Telling Center
- 10. Sail Away on Yacht Britannia
- 11. Reminisce at The Museum of Childhood
- 12. Explore the Off the Beaten Path Leith Neighborhood
- 13. Get a Glimpse of the Past at the Georgian House
- 14. Clog Up Your Arteries (Just This Once) at Bread Meats Bread
- 15. Get Out of Town On a 3-Day Tour to Skye
- 16. Dean Village of Edinburgh
- 17. Delight in the Warmth at Edinburgh Butterfly and Insect World
- 18. Enjoy the Views from Prince Street Starbucks
- 19. Discover the Great Beyond at Arthur Conan Doyle Center
Please note: This blog post may contain some affiliate links. More info.
Disclaimer: During my time in Scotland, I had the support of VisitScotland.com. Many paid attractions I describe in this article were gifted experiences in partnership with VisitScotland. The opinions are, as always, my own.
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Where to Stay in Edinburgh
Edinburgh is an old city that is home to several gorgeous and historic hotels. The best three hotels in Edinburgh are:
- Castle Terrace Apartments
- The Balmoral Hotel
- The Caledonian
- Kimpton Charlotte Square Hotel
- The Edinburgh Grand
1. Travel Back in Time in Dynamic Earth Science Center
The extraordinary Dynamic Earth Center is located at the very bottom of the Royal Mile but is hidden from view – which is why few visitors to Edinburgh make it out here. That’s a real shame because the museum is a brilliant, adventure-filled ride through time. The high tech exhibits use all five senses to transport you from the present day to the first few seconds of the big bang. Here you, discover the origins of the universe, the beginning of life, the age of the dinosaurs and the rise of the humans. As you walk through the adjoining rooms, each room like IMAX on steroids, you travel closer to the present day.
I would love to have visited here as a kid, but even as an adult I enjoyed the Dynamic Earth Museum immensely. The museum’s brilliant combination of fun and science, low crowds and easy accessibility earn it the number one spot on my list of the most unusual things to do in Edinburgh.
Edinburgh Travel Tip:
Most museums in Edinburgh close at 4 or 4.30 pm. The Dynamic Earth is open until 5.30, which makes it an ideal late afternoon thing to do in Edinburgh.
2. Loose (and Find) Yourself at Camera Obscura – Unusual Things To Do in Edinburgh
Edinburgh’s oldest visitors attraction, located on the Royal Mile isn’t what I would normally include on a list of the most unusual things to do in Edinburgh. However, my experience was so freaky that I decided it was list – worthy. Based on my experience, if you are looking for unique, Camera Obscura fits the bill – and earns the number two spot on my weirdest things to do in Edinburgh list.
A Camera Obscura is a Victorian-era darkened box that uses basic telescope technology to project live images onto a screen. Basically, like CCTV for the Victorian age. Many Victorian visitors found the sight so terrifying they fainted or vomited as soon as they saw the projected images. The Camera Obscura in Edinburgh was at one point considered to be all the rage in cutting edge technology – today it is a fun artifact. However, the Camera obscura only occupies the 6th floor of the tower. Its what’s on the other floors that got me so intrigued.
For even more great travel ideas in Europe, check out The Perfect 2 Days in Paris.
Camera Obscura – Bewilderworld
Among other, more tame attractions, in Camera Obscura museum you can visit the so-called “Bewilderworld.” Basically – a series of rooms designed to mess with your head. I usually think of myself as a pretty grounded person, one not easily fooled by the illusion. But only a few minutes after I entered the Hall of Mirrors, I found myself suddenly terrified. Here I was alone, no way out. Irrational thoughts began to seep into my mind. What if I never get out? Would I be stuck here forever? The need to leave right away, a rising panic, and claustrophobia – it all felt so real, and terrifying.
In truth, of course, I was only in a room with a few mirrors, and perfectly safe. But the few moments of fear were genuine. So if you are up for a good adrenaline rush, show up to the Hall of Mirrors early in the morning (they open at 9:30) and hang on to your hat.
3. Explore Fascinating History in National Mining Museum of Scotland
Rarely visited by foreign tourists, the National Mining Museum of Scotland is a treasure trove of Scottish History and off the beaten path exploration. Located just outside of town, you can get here via Lothian Bus on the same line as the Butterfly and Insect Garden (#17). Upon entry, you’ll discover a former mine, converted into a museum. A tribute to technology, and the people who worked and died here a the Mining Museum is a must for any history buff.
Upon your arrival, join the factory tour conducted by one of the former mine workers. My guide, John, started here at 15. His first job was sorting coal as it came up from the depths of the earth, but he worked his way up and eventually held one of the most important jobs – safety supervisor. When the mine closed in the 1980’s John became a guide at the new National Museum. I asked him what happened to his co-workers. “Some retired,” he said. “Some took on a job in another mine. And many, he said, died of mining-related illnesses.” I asked him if anyone got retrained for another job. “Not many,” he said. “Nobody wanted to retrain. Coal was our life. But that was a long time ago. Eventually, we all moved on.”
Edinburgh Travel Tip:
Buses are a great way to get around (and out of) Edinburgh. There are several bus systems in Edinburgh but I primarily used the Lothian Bus system. With a day pass, you can use the bus as often as you like, all day. The day passes cost just 4 pounds and you can purchase it on board (use exact change). In addition to being convenient, the double-decker bus offers great views and is much cheaper than the sightseeing bus option. Use google maps to check your route and bus arrival time.
4. Join a Spooky Walking Tour- Unique Things To do in Edinburgh
There is no better (and more fun) way to learn about Edinburgh’s unusual legends than to join a walking tour of Edinburgh. While in town you’ll find many tour options (check Viator for some favorites). From Harry Potter inspired, to ghost focused, to an architecture tour – wherever your interests lay, there is a tour for you. For the most creepy tours, join the ones that start after dark. An after-dark walking tour, perhaps one that takes you into the cemetery, is a great activity to add to the list of things of weird things to do in Edinburgh.
Most of the walking tours are conducted by actors – not historians. So while the tours are entertaining, they are often more reflective of Scotland’s rich folklore tradition than historical accuracy. After all, Scotland’s national animal is the unicorn. A way to quickly find a tour while you are in town is to stroll the royal mile around 154 High Street. Tours often start at 10 am, 12 pm, 7:30 pm, and 9:30 pm. Look for guides with large umbrellas, approach them and ask to join the tour. Although its ideal to book in advance, you can still find many good options even if you did not.
Edinburgh Travel Tip:
If you are visiting Edinburgh in the summer remember that sunset is very late and sunrise is very early. An after-dark walking tour would start at 9.30 pm.
5. Say Goodbye to the Day at Calton Hill – Unusual Things to Do in Edinburgh
Calton Hill viewpoint may look pretty today – but it has a spooky history reflective of its central location in Edinburgh. In the middle ages, when a person was declared to be a witch, they were often brought to this hill and tortured before being put to a bloody death. In addition, Calton Hill was the site of the Leper’s hospital. A patient who tried to escape would quickly put to death. Later, this became the site of the Calton Jail – a notorious complex that held debtors and accused murderers, who, you guessed it, would also often be executed. If there was such a thing as ghosts, Calton Hill would be full of them. But I didn’t see any.
Today’s Calton Hill seems entirely unbothered with ghosts and is a local and tourist favorite. Arguably, the best place to view the sunset in Edinburgh, with sweeping views of the city and a cafe at the top, this strange but beautiful attraction earns the 5th spot on my unusual things to do in Edinburgh list. Here, enjoy a glass of wine overlooking the city – but don’t look too closely behind you. Just in case.
Edinburgh Travel Tip:
After the sun sets, the temperature can drop quickly. Always carry a light rain jacket with you to help protect in case of inclement weather or if the cold sets in.
6. Get a Fantastic Picture of the Castle at Vennel Viewpoint
Edinburgh’s Castle is the city’s most famous attraction, but it can be surprisingly difficult to get a great picture of the structure. The castle is located on a rocky hill and at a higher elevation than the land around it. No big surprise here, the castle was built for protection, the further you could see from its towers, the better the protection.
However, for the modern tourist the location can be a bit of a head scratcher – how do you get a great picture of something that is huge and rises above you? Most people just stand beneath the walls to take a picture – but fail to capture the scale and drama. A much better location only a couple of minutes away is the Vennel Viewpoint. Surprisingly, almost nobody comes here – but you should. Walk onto the staircase and as you rise, look back – the castle dramatically stands on eye level, a perfect photograph for your Edinburgh vacation post.
Edinburgh Travel Tip:
Getting To Edinburgh from London is very straight forward. The ride is about 5 hours and made enjoyable with views of large green hills dotted with livestock. The trains are smooth and feature a dining car. Be sure to book your tickets in advance, and if you are a Harry Potter Fan consider leaving from King’s Cross.
7. Unusual Things to do in Edinburgh – Stroll the Fairy Tale-Like Circus Lane
Located 20 minutes walk from the center, few tourists ever visit Circus Lane – but their loss is your gain. This beautiful street looks like something out of a medieval fairy tale. Quaint row homes decorated with blooming plants line a cobblestone street, and a pretty tower rises in the background. An ideal location for social media friendly pics, circus lane is worth the few minutes walk for anyone looking for unusual things to do in Edinburgh.
8. Enjoy Nature in the City Center at the Water of Leith
Located close to Dean Village, Water of Leith runs along a peaceful walking path and an ideal respite from the hustle of bustle of the city. Stroll on the quaint dirt road as birds chirp in the trees and water bubbles in the stream. While here, you will eventually come upon St. Bernard’s well – an old structure with an interesting history.
At the time, people believed that the water at St. Bernard’s well had healing properties, including as a potential cure for everything from arthritis to blindness. Wealthy lords and ladies from London and beyond would visit the “healing” well and partake in drinking the water. As medical science became more established, the popularity of the well declined. Today, the well is only open a few days a year, but the views are outstanding all year round. A great time to visit is after heavy rain. Today St. Bernard’s well is a quirky reminder of days gone by and a fun stop on a list of weird things to do in Edinburgh.
Edinburgh Travel Tip:
You’ll often find yourself walking great distances in Edinburgh, and often over cobblestone streets. A great pair of comfy sneakers can be a lifesaver.
9. Unearth Ancient Scottish Folklore at The Story Telling Center
It would be virtually impossible to understand a country whose national animal is the unicorn without learning more about its folklore. Luckily, the Scottish Storytelling Center offers events such as “The Mythology Sessions,” designed to help explore Scotland’s myths and legends. Stop by the small building situated across the street from the Toy Museum while you stroll the royal mile. The helpful clerks will provide you a list of the schedule. Most events take place in the evening, long after the other museums have closed.
I was only in town for a few days, and I attended an event that explored stories by modern Edinburgh residents. This too was a fascinating perspective on Scottish culture and helped me to understand my host country. Originally, I had planned to stay for half an hour to get a “feel” of the place, but I ended up staying for over two. This immersive experience in Scottish culture was so unique, I made my number nine on the list of unusual things to do in Edinburgh.
Downloadable Edinburgh Attractions Map:
10. Sail Away on Yacht Britannia
OK, so you don’t actually get to sail on the yacht. Still, this fascinating look at a modern British vessel is a worthy stop on my list of unique things to do in Edinburgh. Decommissioned in 1997, the ship was part pleasure yacht, and part a sailing diplomatic mission. Designed for the queen and her family members, Yacht Britannica participated in historical events – from the hand over of Hong Kong to the evacuations of 1000 refugees from Aiden.
As you walk over the Yacht Britannia’s 7 decks, slowly descend into the bowels of the ship and get an unusual behind the scenes look of this vessel. Whether you are interested in the lifestyles of the royalty, engineering or history – the yacht is a great stop. The yacht opens before most museums, at 9.30, and I was one of the first people on board. The experience was made more surreal because I got to stroll its lower decks in almost complete solitude.
Scotland Travel Tip:
Prefer to travel in a group and meet new people? Check out G-Adventures tours of Scotland.
11. Reminisce at The Museum of Childhood
The free to enter Museum of Childhood is located in the heart of the Royal Mile. Although few would consider this stop “off the beaten path” I decided to include it in the list of the most unusual things to do in Edinburgh for its unique subject matter. Here, you discover four floors of toys, old and new, and perhaps some you may recognize from your own childhood. Galleries are separated into soft toys, hobbies and children’s clothes. The museum is both fascinating and also a little creepy.
Alone, on the third floor filled with life-size dolls, I found myself half expecting one to come life… I found myself watching for a head to turn just slightly, or an eye to blink. This is after all how horror movies start. Perhaps I’ve watched too many movies. The dolls, perfectly harmless stared back at me with their unblinking eyes.
12. Explore the Off the Beaten Path Leith Neighborhood
Edinburgh’s historic port town has is in the middle of a transformation to a hip area packed with restaurants, bars, and unique shops. You’ll find many Michelin starred restaurants on Leith’s quiet streets and some of the best seafood in Scotland. A bit outside the center, an easy way to get here is by bus. Close to the location of Yacht Britannica, most tourists bypass Leith for better-known neighborhoods. The area feels authentic, and personal – which makes it a must visit on my list of unusual things to do in Edinburgh.
13. Get a Glimpse of the Past at the Georgian House
A typical home of the Georgian period, the Georgian House Museum is located in a ritzy residential area, about 20-minute walk from the Royal Mile. The home was built by landowner John Lamont with the express goal of marrying off his 3 daughters. Apparently, the temptations of the big city proved too much for John as he nearly went bankrupt entertaining and gambling. Eventually, he did manage to “marry off” his children and moved back to the countryside.
The townhouse is lovingly restored to reflect the furniture and conditions of the era. Today, the Georgian House is a worthy addition to my list of unusual things to do in Edinburgh.
14. Clog Up Your Arteries (Just This Once) at Bread Meats Bread
Scottish people love burgers and you’ll find a great burger on virtually any corner in Edinburgh. But I’ve never had a burger quite like this strange creation at Bread Meats Bread – The Donut Burger. Yes, you read that right – a donut burger. Imagine an actual donut and two large patties in between. Sounds appetizing? Well, it depends on your definition of appetizing, but I must admit, it wasn’t bad. The sweet and spicy taste has a great zing to it and I really enjoyed the meal. If you are looking for weird and unusual things to do in Edinburgh the donut burger definitely makes the cut. The restaurant does have plenty of more traditional options – in case you or someone in your party aren’t feeling so brave.
15. Get Out of Town On a 3-Day Tour to Skye
Many tourists come to Edinburgh to explore ancient Scottish culture. But it is difficult to understand the country of Scotland if you only stay in Edinburgh. Scotland is divided into two general areas: the highlands and the lowlands. Created by a collision of two tectonic plates millions of years ago, the two areas are different geographically and culturally. Edinburgh is part of the lowlands. To truly explore Scotland, combine a stay in Edinburgh with a trip to the highlands.
I went on a 3-day tour of Scotland with the Heart of Scotland tours. The trip I took culminated on the famous island of Skye. On our way, we explored ancient castles, mountains, and Loch Ness. Although you could technically get to Loch Ness in a day, it takes 12 hours round trip, and you miss most of the cultural and natural treasures we got to see. You can also drive yourself – but Skye roads are one lane, and often wash out. Between problematic roads and driving on the left side, a tour is a better choice for many people.
16. Dean Village of Edinburgh
The picturesque Dean Village of Edinburgh is located in an area about 20 minutes away from the center. To get here, stroll along Water of Leith (number 8). This peaceful area is a great place to explore in the evening hours when many other attractions are closed for the day. Here, you can discover quaint old homes and views along the water. While here, look for the famous four arched Dean Bridge build in the 19th century. At the time the bridge was an important structure that allowed this area to connect with the rest of Edinburgh and opened it up for development.
17. Delight in the Warmth at Edinburgh Butterfly and Insect World
Just a short ride outside of Edinburgh, the kid-oriented Edinburgh Butterfly and Insect World is an ideal stop if you are visiting Scotland with a family. The small indoor garden features reptiles, plenty of greenery and of course butterflies. This is an ideal stop if the weather is inclement and you need to entertain little kids. Most people who come here are locals, but you can easily access the garden via Lothian bus. This stop can be combined with the National Mining Museum of Scotland as it is located on the same bus route.
18. Enjoy the Views from Prince Street Starbucks
I am not normally in the habit of including a giant coffee shop chain on my lists of unique things to do. However, the views of the castle here are so stunning, I am making an exception for the Prince Street Starbucks. Walk up to the second floor, grab yourself a cup of java and a seat on the comfy couch. Most museums in Edinburgh close at 4 pm when there are many extra hours of daylight left. Starbucks is a great thing to do in the late afternoon if you have a few hours to waste.
19. Discover the Great Beyond at Arthur Conan Doyle Center
If you are interested in spirituality and the supernatural, there is no better place for you to explore than the Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle Center in Edinburgh. Although this topic is not my cup of tea, I grew up reading Conan Doyle books and so was curious about the center. Started by Doyle’s best friend, the center’s mission emphasizes the exploration of the supernatural and contact with the deceased. They offer a range of events, many conducted by spiritualists and mediums. You can even schedule your own session to facilitate contact with the dead. The center is located in a Georgian area townhome and you can tour the space for free. The Arthur Conan Doyle center’s unique offerings earn it the 19th spot on my list of weirdest things to do in Edinburgh.
I hope you have enjoyed this article on the best things to do in Edinburgh. If you have read this far, I would be so grateful if you could leave a comment below. Your comments let the search engines know that this post is valuable and help it to rank higher. Thank you again, and see you on the road!
Viktoria aka Traveltipster