A long time ago, the city of Edinburgh was known as “Auld Reekie.” This was back in the days of peat fire smog, overpopulation, and a lack of modern plumbing. Add to this a stagnant Nor Loch (which was polluted with everything from waste to dead bodies), and you probably can figure out where the “Reekie” came from.
Thankfully, Edinburgh has come a long way since then.
I'll never forget my first trip to Edinburgh. It was at the tail end of my very first trip to Europe, and I arrived on the train from London right smack in the middle of the city's festival season in August. I hadn't done my research beforehand, and was totally surprised by this timing.
It was great, though – I explored the city AND enjoyed the Fringe Festival at the same time.
It was on that first trip that I totally fell in love with Edinburgh. The city is filled with history (both its Old and New towns are UNESCO World Heritage Sites), amazing architecture, plenty of Scottish culture, and not one but TWO castles/palaces!
If you've never been to “Auld Reekie” before, here are my suggestions for what to do with three days in the city. (And don't worry – they figured out those plumbing issues ages ago.)
3 Days in Edinburgh itinerary
I've personally been to Edinburgh half a dozen times now, and this suggested itinerary is what I would recommend for any first-time visitor!
Day 1: Iconic Edinburgh
On your first day in Edinburgh, I recommend focusing on its most famous sites. We'll dub this day “Iconic Edinburgh.” Start on the Royal Mile, visit a castle or two, and end the day with a spooky tour.
Morning: Royal Mile
Edinburgh's most famous attraction by far is the Royal Mile. Though “attraction” isn't really the right word, since the Royal Mile is so much more than just a singular thing to see.
Here you'll find everything from pubs to tartan shops, and the pedestrian-only section is usually filled with street performers. As you make your way up (or down) the Royal Mile, check out the following historic sites and attractions:
1. St. Giles Cathedral
You can't miss this 14th-century cathedral with is crown-shaped steeple on the Royal Mile. Not only is St. Giles beautiful on the outside, but the church is just as pretty on the inside, too. Pop in to see the stained glass windows, pretty blue ceiling, and intricate Thistle Chapel.
(Note that St. Giles is usually open every day, though sometimes is closed to visitors for private events like weddings. It's free to visit, though they do ask that you pay a small fee to take photos inside.)
2. Scotch Whisky Experience
Near the Edinburgh Castle, you'll come upon the Scotch Whisky Experience. Even if you don't love whisky, this is something worth doing.
You can take a variety of tours that promise to help you “become a ‘one-hour-whisky-expert,'” and also see a collection of more than 3,300 bottles of Scotch whisky. The tour comes complete with a scratch-and-sniff card to walk you through different types of whisky, as well as one tasting.
(Book a guided whisky tour here, which is great for first-timers.)
3. Writers' Museum OR Camera Obscura
The small Writers' Museum is just off the Royal Mile, and is worth a visit! It's dedicated to three of Scotland's most famous literary figures: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The free museum has things like portraits, rare books, and personal objects belonging and related to these famous Scottish writers.
Or, if you're in the mood for a more fun way to spend an hour or two, check out the Camera Obscura and World of Illusions right next to the entrance to Edinburgh Castle. This interactive museum is filled with optical illusions and fun puzzles, and is especially great if you're traveling to Scotland with kids.
You can see the camera obscura itself and learn how it works, and the tower atop the building also gives you some great views out over the city.
Afternoon: Visit a castle
You can't really visit Edinburgh without visiting a castle or palace (after all, remember that there are two of them here!).
1. Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle, sitting proudly at the top of the Royal Mile, is the castle that you'll see the most often since it's visible from many parts of the city. And while the ancient fortress is pretty cool, I find the entrance fee (currently £19.50 for adults) a bit steep for what you can actually see.
Edinburgh Castle has not been occupied for centuries, so what you'll find inside consists mostly of the crown jewels of Scotland and some military exhibits.
(If you do visit and want to get more out of your time there, pick up a skip-the-line ticket that includes a guided tour.)
2. Palace of Holyroodhouse
If you want my honest opinion, I think that visiting the Palace of Holyroodhouse is more worth it than visiting Edinburgh Castle if you only want to visit one of them. This palace at the bottom of the Royal Mile has a similar entrance fee (£19.50) to tour, but offers the added bonus of still being an official royal residence.
Holyroodhouse is the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland. The late Queen would come to stay (and throw a huge garden party) every summer, and it will now be used by the King.
You can view the State Apartments (which are still used), as well as the former chambers of Mary, Queen of Scots. When I visited, they also had a special display of some of the dresses Queen Elizabeth had worn throughout her reign.
Outside the palace, you'll find some beautiful grounds, as well as the ruins of the Holyrood Abbey.
This was all much more interesting for me than Edinburgh Castle – but of course you do you!
Evening: Get ghostly
Edinburgh has a very long history – and not all of it nice. There are various tours you can take to explore the darker side of the city, from nighttime ghost tours to after-dark historical tours.
You should also check out the Real Mary King's Close, which is a complex of narrow alleyways partially hidden beneath the Royal Exchange in the Old Town. The area has plenty of dark stories associated with it, so be prepared for some goosebumps.
Here are some spooky Edinburgh tours to check out:
- Ghostly Underground Vaults Tour
- Edinburgh Darkside Walking Tour: Mysteries, Murder and Legends
- Edinburgh Ghost Tour by Vintage Bus
- The Real Mary King's Close Guided Tour
Day 2: New Town
On your second day in Edinburgh, venture away from the Old Town into the newer parts of the city (which are still super beautiful and historic!).
Morning: Princes Street Gardens
Start your morning with a stroll through Princes Street Gardens, which are technically two adjacent gardens in the center of Edinburgh, just down the hill from the castle. The Gardens were created in the 1820s, after the Nor Loch was drained.
Today, they're a lovely place for a stroll, especially in the spring and summer when lots of things are in bloom! (If you're visiting between mid-June and early July, keep an eye out for the purple thistle blooms, as this is the only time of year you'll see them.)
Late morning: Scottish National Gallery
Next, you can head to the Scottish National Gallery, located on The Mound beneath Edinburgh Castle. The best part about this museum (other than the great artwork) is that it's free to visit.
Afternoon: Climb the Scott Monument
The Victorian Gothic monument dedicated to Scottish author Sir Walter Scott sits on the edge of Princes St Gardens, and is one of the largest monuments to a writer anywhere in the world.
It's not an easy climb (it's 287 steps up, and includes some extremely narrow passages), but climbing to the top of the Scott Monument will get you some of the very best views of Edinburgh.
Otherwise, you can perhaps do some shopping in the New Town along George Street.
Afternoon: Dean Village
Next up is a walk through the New Town on foot to visit one of my favorite spots in Edinburgh: Dean Village. This little neighborhood is characterized by colorful historical houses and the Water of Leith running through it.
It's a great place for a walk – but beware that you'll feel like you've stepped back in time here!
To find Dean Village, take Bell's Brae down beneath the Dean Bridge, only about a 10- or 15-minute walk from Princes Street.
Evening: Calton Hill
Located beyond the east end of Princes Street is Calton Hill, where you'll find various monuments (like the Nelson Monument and Robert Burns Monument) and some more incredible views out over Edinburgh.
If you don't fancy climbing the Scott Monument earlier in the day, definitely make sure you get to Calton Hill for the views.
It's a popular spot to watch the sunset in Edinburgh.
Day 3: Historic Edinburgh
I'm dubbing your third day in Edinburgh “History Day,” because that's what all my suggestions for today seem to focus around. (And yes, I know you've already seen history on the Royal Mile and inside the castles, but here's more!)
Morning: National Museum of Scotland
Start your day with another museum: the National Museum of Scotland. This museum is dedicated to the history of (you guessed it) Scotland, but has exhibits covering things like art, design, world cultures, and even dinosaurs, too. (Guys, they have the real Dolly the Sheep here!)
And, like with most museums in the UK, this one is also free. Definitely plan to spend a couple hours here.
Afternoon: Visit an old cemetery
This may sound a bit weird, but I really enjoy visiting old cemeteries when I travel. They can be hauntingly beautiful, and this is definitely true of Greyfriars Kirkyard, the graveyard surrounding Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh's Old Town.
Greyfriars is famous for a couple of things, including Greyfriars Bobby, a little dog that guarded its former master's grave in the graveyard for 14 years. It also is *supposedly* where author JK Rowling got a few ideas for names in the Harry Potter series.
(For more Harry Potter sites in Edinburgh, check out this post: A Harry Potter Lover’s Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland.)
Late afternoon: Grassmarket
Located below the Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle (on the opposite side as Princes Street Gardens) sits the Grassmarket. What once was a historic market place is now filled with pubs, restaurants, and more of the city's incredible architecture.
While you're there, be sure to head up West Bow street, which leads to one of my favorite streets in Edinburgh: Victoria Street.
Evening: Literary pub tour
Did you know that Scotland (and Edinburgh more specifically) has produced a great number of writers and poets? Find out for yourself by going on a unique literary pub tour, which will have you tracing the city's literary history by visiting places frequented by the likes of Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott.
If you have more time
Find yourself with an additional day or two in Edinburgh? Then the other must-do in the city is definitely hiking to the top of Arthur's Seat if the weather is good. This ancient volcano sits above Holyrood Park and offers the best views of Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth.
The hike generally takes a couple of hours to complete, but you could easily stretch it to a half-day activity if you bring a picnic lunch.
Where to stay in Edinburgh
Lastly, here are a few of my favorite places to stay in Edinburgh:
Mid-range hotel in the Old Town: Holiday Inn Express Edinburgh Royal Mile – I like this hotel on Cowgate because it's close to the Royal Mile, and yet not super noisy. The rooms are bright and clean, the free wifi is fast, and you usually get free breakfast with your booking. (Read reviews | Book here)
Apartment in the Old Town: No1 Apartments Edinburgh – George IV Bridge – On a previous solo visit to Edinburgh, I rented a one-bedroom apartment on George IV Bridge through No1 Apartments. The apartment was gorgeous, and I had a view of Edinburgh Castle from my kitchen window! (Read reviews | Book here)
Apartment-hotel in the New Town: Eden Locke – For studio and one-bedroom apartments on George Street, I like Eden Locke. It's perfectly situated near restaurants and cafes in the New Town, but still within walking distance to Princes' Street Gardens and the Old Town. (Read reviews | Book here)
Luxury close to the train station: Market Street Hotel – Right across the street from Edinburgh Waverley Station, this hotel is one of my favorites. It's understated luxury with lots of added special touches, including a welcome glass of champagne and a free mini bar in every room. (Read reviews | Book here)
Where to eat in Edinburgh
Now that you have an idea of what there is to do in Edinburgh, here are a few suggestions of where to grab a bite to eat in the city. (And, contrary to what you've heard about Scottish food, there's actually a lot of great things to try beyond haggis!)
For pies: The Piemaker – No, not fruit pies; we're talking meat pies here! The Piemaker on South Bridge serves up cheap and tasty pies that are perfect for a takeaway meal.
For soup: Union of Genius – This is Edinburgh's first soup cafe!
For upscale Scottish pub food: Devil's Advocate – Down Advocate's Close, this bar and eatery serves Scottish-inspired dishes.
For serious foodies: The Kitchin – This Michelin star restaurant has a “from nature to plate” philosophy, and serves up British/Scottish cuisine with French-influenced flair.
For dessert: The Elephant House – This cafe on George IV Bridge is famously known as being one of the places where JK Rowling would write her Harry Potter stories over cake and coffee (or maybe tea?). They do very tasty cakes and desserts.
For drinks: SCOTCH – This whisky bar at the swanky Balmoral Hotel is THE place to go if you're on the search for unique or interesting Scotch.
MORE SCOTLAND CONTENT
Planning a trip to Scotland and Edinburgh? Here are some more posts you might like:
- 25+ Awesome Things to Do in Edinburgh, Scotland
- Hogmanay: The Most Epic New Year's Celebration You've Never Heard Of
- The Perfect 10-Day Scotland Road Trip Itinerary for the Whisky Lover
- Traveling the Malt Whisky Trail in Scotland
- The Best Outlander Locations to Visit in Scotland
- Discovering Inverness: 3 Days in Scotland’s Highland Capital
Is anyone else as in love with Edinburgh as I am? What are some of your other favorite things to do there?
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Amanda Williams is the award-winning blogger behind A Dangerous Business Travel Blog. She has traveled to more than 60 countries on 6 continents from her home base in Ohio, specializing in experiential and thoughtful travel through the US, Europe, and rest of the world. Amanda only shares tips based on her personal experiences and places she's actually traveled!