21 Things Edinburgh is Known and Famous For

One of Scotland‘s crowning jewels is undoubtedly its capital city, Edinburgh. A single glance at its striking architecture and dramatic cityscape, and you’d be hard-pressed not to fall in love right then and there.

The city is steeped in history and legend, but what exactly is it known for? What distinguishes Edinburgh from other big cultural hubs in the UK like London and Belfast? Keep reading to find out!

Edinburgh is known for being one of the most beautiful cities in the world, its historic attractions, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and rich history. Widely considered the world’s best festival city, it’s a powerhouse for the literary arts, comedy, culture, high education, and more.

1. Best art festivals in the world

A group of people attending a Silent Disco makes their way around Edinburgh during the annual Fringe Festival.
A group of people attending a Silent Disco makes their way around Edinburgh during the annual Fringe Festival. Editorial credit: Dan Smith Photography / Shutterstock.com

Edinburgh is often regarded as the world’s top festival city. Every year, it hosts a wide variety of festivals that pull talent and attendees from all over the globe. Whether it’s science, music, comedy, movies, or books, you’ll find a festival in Edinburgh for nearly every passion or interest.

The most popular festivals? Without a doubt, the Fringe Festival is at the top of the list.

Described as the “single greatest celebration of arts and culture on the planet,” it’s no surprise that people flock here every August to enjoy comedy, theater, and other performances.

Some other favorites are the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which celebrates the written word in all its forms, and the International Film Festival, which showcases everything from small indie flicks to big Hollywood blockbusters. You may even spot a celebrity or four!

2. Birthplace of the Harry Potter books

The Harry Potter books were 'born' in Edinburgh's, now famous, Elephant House Cafe.
The Harry Potter books were ‘born’ in Edinburgh’s now-famous Elephant House Cafe. Editorial credit: f11photo / Shutterstock.com

Edinburgh is famous for being where J. K. Rowling wrote most of the Harry Potter books.

In fact, the Elephant House, the very cafe where she sat and wrote the early books is still up and running today. According to the cafe, her favorite spot was in the back room where she had a cozy seat with a view of Edinburgh Castle.

Curious about the real-life inspiration for Diagon Alley? Check out the image for #4 on this list!

3. Being the ‘Athens of the North’

Edinburgh's Old Royal High School, also known as the New Parliament House, was modeled after the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens.
Edinburgh’s Old Royal High School, also known as the New Parliament House, was modeled after the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens.

In the 18th century, Edinburgh restyled itself as the Athens of the North.

While other cities were focused on industrial advancements, Edinburgh decided it would prefer to be known for its contributions to literature, medicine, philosophy, economics, and other intellectual pursuits instead.

In other words, it strove to have the same effect on the world as Athens did in ancient times.

To mark this cultural inspiration, architects designed a number of Greek-style features to brighten up the city. In Edinburgh’s New Town, you’ll see pillars and porticos that bring to mind the ornate designs of Ancient Greece.

4. The Royal Mile

The Royal Mile marks the heart of Edinburgh and connects two major landmarks in the city.
The Royal Mile marks the heart of Edinburgh and connects two major landmarks in the city.

Linking two significant locations in Edinburgh, the Royal Mile is a famous street that stretches across the heart of the Old Town. At one end is Edinburgh Castle and at the other, Holyrood Palace, the official residence of the Queen and her family whenever they visit Scotland.

For centuries, the Royal Mile was Edinburgh’s main street and it’s still quite central today. A smorgasbord of pubs, restaurants, and shops can be found alongside this (roughly) mile-long road. In the daytime, it’s bustling and lively, the perfect starting point for visitors.

5. A knighted penguin

After being bestowed with a knighthood, Sir Nils Olav inspects the Norwegian King's Guard at Edinburgh Zoo.
After being bestowed with a knighthood, Sir Nils Olav inspects the Norwegian King’s Guard at Edinburgh Zoo.

Yep, you read that correctly! At the Edinburgh Zoo, you’ll find the world’s only knighted penguin, Brigadier Sir Nils Olav III.

In 2008, the king penguin became a ‘sir’ in front of 130 guardsmen from the Norwegian Army. His knighthood was approved by the King of Norway at the time, Harald V, and in 2016, he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier.

Today, he remains the mascot and colonel-in-chief of the Norwegian King’s Guard.

6. Home of the encyclopedia

The oldest general encyclopedia in the English language was first published in Edinburgh in 1768.
The oldest general encyclopedia in the English language was first published in Edinburgh in 1768.

Centuries ago, the very first Encyclopedia Britannica was printed and published in Edinburgh. While no one bats an eyelid at an encyclopedia today, at the time of its first publication, it was revolutionary.

While dictionaries and thesauruses existed back then, the Encyclopedia had a much more ambitious goal: provide accurate descriptions and explanations for essentially everything in the world. In other words, an old-school Google!

7. The Old and New Town

Victoria Street in Edinburgh's Old Town i
Victoria Street in Edinburgh’s Old Town is one of the city’s most photographed areas, and also, the inspiration for Diagon Alley in Harry Potter.

Edinburgh is famous for its mesmerizing architecture, and there’s no better example of this than in the Old Town and New Town. In 1995, both areas were designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and it’s easy to see why!

The medieval architecture of the Old Town creates a beautiful contrast against the Georgian designs of the New Town. Like fictional towns torn from the pages of a storybook, they provide glimpses into different eras of Edinburgh’s history.

8. Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle is one of the UK’s most visited attractions and the most fought-over castle in the world.

The majestic castle that sits on Castle Rock is not just one of Edinburgh’s best attractions; it’s one of the most fascinating historical places in all of Western Europe.

Over the course of history, Edinburgh Castle has served as a prison during times of war, a military fortress, and a residence for the royal family.

It also currently holds the record for the most besieged castle in Europe. And considering how many castles there are throughout Europe, that’s quite a record! Edinburgh Castle has been attacked 23 times throughout history, and after each time, this ancient fortress had to be rebuilt.

Even before Edinburgh Castle existed, Castle Rock was occupied by humans for well over a thousand years. The area is steeped in history. Understandably, it’s the second-most visited paid attraction in the entire United Kingdom.

9. Arthur’s Seat

Surrounded by myth and legend, Arthur's Seat is a dormant volcano with a breathtaking view of the city.
Surrounded by myth and legend, Arthur’s Seat is a dormant volcano with a breathtaking view of the city.

One of the best views in Edinburgh can be seen from atop Arthur’s Seat, an ancient volcano that overlooks the city. Rest assured, however, that this volcano is no longer active!

Arthur’s Seat takes its name from the epic legends of King Arthur. It’s even thought to be where his legendary castle, Camelot, used to stand.

There are many routes to climb Arthur’s Seat, but for the best views? Walk from Holyrood Palace and allow yourself two hours.

10. Grave robbers

t. Cuthbert's Kirkyard was frequently targeted by body snatchers in the 18th century.
St. Cuthbert’s Kirkyard was frequently targeted by body snatchers in the 18th century.

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, grave robbing was prevalent throughout much of the United Kingdom. And yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like; corpses were stolen from their graves!

Why? The reason was simple: medical schools, including Edinburgh’s Royal College of Surgeons, paid large sums of money to suppliers of fresh cadavers. You see, anatomical research was advancing quickly during this era, but there weren’t enough bodies to conduct experiments on.

A mortsafe cage covering a grave in Greyfriars Cemetery in Edinburgh, on 11th March 2016. Mortsafes were used to prevent bodysnatchers from stealing corpses.
Mortsafe cages covering graves were used to prevent bodysnatchers from stealing corpses. Editorial credit: chrisdorney / Shutterstock.com

Edinburgh is known for being home to some of the most notorious grave robbers of all time, Burke and Hare. These two men took things a little too far and resorted to murder just for some fresh cadavers to sell.

Thankfully, these criminals were eventually caught! However, in an ironic twist of fate, Burke’s body was sold to the anatomy school. A pocketbook made of his skin can still be seen at Edinburgh’s Surgeons’ Hall Museum.

11. An underground city

A hidden network of rooms and passageways extends throughout central Edinburgh like an underground city.
A hidden network of rooms and passageways extends throughout central Edinburgh like an underground city.

You may think the Old Town is the oldest part of Edinburgh, but believe it or not, there’s another area that’s much more historic… and it’s underneath the city!

These vaults were originally meant to provide storage for merchants and tradespeople, but they were abandoned and used by the public when their faulty design led to wet supplies.

These underground halls and chambers were only rediscovered in the 80s, and it took another decade for them to be fully excavated.

Today, anyone can take a tour of the labyrinthine passages underneath the city. Be warned though, you may stumble across a ghost or two!

12. Greenest city in the United Kingdom

Edinburgh is full of lush greenery and clean air
Edinburgh is full of lush greenery and clean air, a far cry from the polluted city it used to be in olden times.

Many centuries ago, Edinburgh was known for being a highly polluted city with an awful stench, but now they can proudly say they’ve left the past behind.

Today, Edinburgh is known for being the greenest city in the entire United Kingdom with the best air quality and the greenest spaces per head.

13. Ghosts

edinburgh greyfriars kirkyard
Out of all Scotland’s cities, Edinburgh reports the most ghost sightings every year.

It goes without saying that a city so historic has its ghosts, but did you know Edinburgh is actually considered one of the most haunted cities in the world? There are so many haunted buildings in Edinburgh that it deserves their own list.

Unsurprisingly, Edinburgh Castle is supposedly haunted by its former prisoners. Even the Tolbooth Tavern has its own resident ghost, known to push drinks off tables and knock pictures off the wall.

However, it’s widely agreed that Greyfriars Kirkyard is Edinburgh’s most haunted place of all. Stop by if you dare! Hundreds of supernatural experiences have been reported at the mausoleum of evil George Mackenzie over the years.

14. Scotch whisky

Scotch whiskey
Scotch is a type of whisky that’s made in Scotland, renowned for its smokey flavor.

Scotland is famous for Scotch Whisky, also known simply as Scotch. It’s made from malted barley or grains, or a blend of the two, and it must be aged in an oak barrel for at least three years.

Another important rule? According to law, whisky cannot be called Scotch unless it’s made in Scotland.

Edinburgh offers one of the best Scotch Whisky experiences in the whole country. At the Scotch Whisky Experience, anyone can taste this delightful dark beverage or even take a class to learn more about its history.

15. One of the best universities in the world

University of Edinburgh
For centuries, the University of Edinburgh has ranked among the top universities in the world. Editorial credit: Edinburghcitymom / Shutterstock.com

The University of Edinburgh is often ranked in the world’s top 20 universities, and it’s been a major powerhouse in education ever since it first opened in 1583.

A number of history’s greatest thinkers and scientists had their start at this prestigious university. It’s often said that even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle found his inspiration for the iconic character Sherlock Holmes here.

Today, many of the university’s alumni have gone on to be Nobel Prize winners, prime ministers, and space explorers.

And here’s another fun fact… did you know you can study psychokinesis at this university? If you’re not sure what that is, think Eleven from Stranger Things!

16. Haggis

Scotland's national food, Haggis
Scotland’s national food contains a variety of sheep organs, but don’t worry, it’s far more delicious than it sounds.

Like anywhere in Scotland, Edinburgh is known for its Haggis.

This Scottish national food is made of sheep’s pluck, spices, onions, suet, and oatmeal. It’s best eaten with neeps and tatties (that’s turnips and potatoes to the Scots!), and a glass of Scotch Whisky.

For some of the best Haggis in Scotland, head down to Greyfriars Bobby’s Bar in Edinburgh.

17. Scotland’s most famous and loyal watchdog

A sculpture was erected in 1873 to honor Bobby, the faithful dog who guarded his master's grave every day for 14 years.
A sculpture was erected in 1873 to honor Bobby, the faithful dog who guarded his master’s grave every day for 14 years.

In the mid-19th century, the gardener John Gray and his little Skye Terrier, Bobby, were a frequent sight in Edinburgh. Through all the hardships of life, they were close companions.

Unfortunately, John Gray eventually died of tuberculosis. He was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard and ever-loyal Bobby refused to leave his master’s grave, even during harsh weather conditions. For 14 years, until the day of his own death, Bobby guarded John Gray’s grave.

This sweet Terrier was beloved by the whole city. To honor Bobby, there’s a sculpture of him just opposite his master’s resting place at Greyfriars Kirkyard.

18. World’s largest electric blanket

Edinburgh City and Castle, Scotland, captured from Calton Hill
An underground ‘electric blanket’ was installed under an important Edinburgh road to prevent it from freezing over.

There’s nothing fuzzy about this blanket, but it sure is useful. In the winter, it’s no secret that roads can get blocked with snow and ice. In the 50s, a steep hill called the Mound was especially busy.

To combat potential accidents and jams, they installed a large ‘electric blanket’ underneath the roadway to prevent it from getting frozen. A genius idea!

19. The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

The Edinburgh Military Tattoo
Edinburgh’s annual military tattoo is an iconic event that takes place in front of Edinburgh Castle.

The military tattoo is world-famous, and for those who don’t know, it doesn’t have anything to do with being tattooed! A military tattoo is a musical performance or theatrical display involving armed forces.

Edinburgh is famous for holding the grandest and most impressive military tattoo in the world. Every year, the tattoo is performed by the British Armed Forces as well as Commonwealth and International military bands.

You can catch this breathtaking display during Edinburgh’s festival season in August.

20. The Inspiration for Scrooge in A Christmas Carol

Dickens' A Christmas Carol
Dickens’ A Christmas Carol would not have its iconic character, Scrooge, if not for a funny event in Edinburgh. Editorial credit: KerrysWorld / Shutterstock.com

As if Edinburgh’s literary ties could get any more interesting! Charles Dickens was inspired to create the iconic grump, Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge, after stumbling across a bizarre gravestone in Edinburgh… or so he thought.

On a walk through Canongate Kirkyard, Dickens came across a gravestone for a man named Ebenezer Scroggie. Beneath his name, the words ‘meal man’ were engraved to indicate he was a corn merchant; however, Dickens misread this as ‘mean man’ and thought this was very amusing.

Who would’ve guessed such an unforgettable and classic character could be born out of a careless mistake?

21. Unicorns

 The Queen's Gallery
Scotland has always dared to be different, and this is evident in its chosen national animal, the unicorn. Editorial credit: Attila JANDI / Shutterstock.com

Don’t get your hopes up, I’m not talking about actual unicorns. Scotland chose a mythical creature as its national animal, and you guessed it, it’s a unicorn.

You’ll see unicorns everywhere in Edinburgh, from statues to engravings on the sides of buildings. Some visitors even enjoy walking down the Royal Mile and counting how many unicorns they can spot.

Edinburgh at sunrise

Easily one of the most beautiful and fascinating cities in the world, Edinburgh never disappoints. If you’ve ever visited, let us know what your experience was like in the comments below!

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