3 Days in Edinburgh: The Perfect Edinburgh Itinerary for Your First Visit

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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.

Edinburgh Royal Mile
The Royal Mile
Edinburgh Castle from New Town
Edinburgh Castle, as seen from the New Town

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.

Bagpiper in Edinburgh
Bagpiper in Edinburgh

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.)

RELATED: Did You Know? 13 Fun Facts About Scotland

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

Royal Mile in Edinburgh
Royal Mile scenes

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

St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland
Outside St. Giles Cathedral
Inside St. Giles Cathedral
Inside St. Giles

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

Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh
A wee dram of Scotch

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

Edinburgh Writers' Museum
Edinburgh Writers' Museum
Camera Obscura in Edinburgh
Inside the World of Illusions

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

Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh 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 at night
Edinburgh Castle at night

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.

Holyrood House Palace
Outside Holyroodhouse

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.

Holyrood Abbey ruins
Holyrood Abbey ruins

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.

Advocate's Close in Edinburgh
Advocate's Close in Old Town

Here are some spooky Edinburgh tours to check out:

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

Amanda in Princes Street Gardens, with Edinburgh Castle in the background
Castle views from Princes Street Gardens
Bee on a blooming purple thistle
Blooming thistle!

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.)

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

View of Edinburgh and Arthurs Seat from the Scott Monument
View of Edinburgh and Arthurs Seat from 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

Dean Village in Edinburgh
The charming 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!

Amanda in Dean Village
Amanda in Dean Village

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.

Amanda at Calton Hill in Edinburgh
Me atop Calton Hill

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.

RELATED: 25+ Awesome Things to Do in Edinburgh, Scotland

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

Inside the National Museum of Scotland
Inside the 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

Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh
Greyfriars Kirkyard

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

Grassmarket in Edinburgh, Scotland

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.

Victoria Street in Edinburgh
Victoria Street, my favorite street in Edinburgh!

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.

(Or, how about a Harry Potter walking tour of the city? Edinburgh has lots of fun Harry Potter-related sites.)

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)

Edinburgh, Scotland
This was my view from my Destiny Scotland apartment!

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 hotel in the Old Town: Radisson Blu Edinburgh – If you want to stay right ON the Royal Mile, check out the Radisson Blue with its contemporary rooms. (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.

Elephant House Cafe in Edinburgh
Elephant House Cafe


Planning a trip to Scotland and Edinburgh? Here are some more posts you might like:

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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3 days in Edinburgh, Scotland | Edinburgh itinerary for 3 days
3 days in Edinburgh, Scotland | Edinburgh itinerary for 3 days

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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65 Comments on “3 Days in Edinburgh: The Perfect Edinburgh Itinerary for Your First Visit

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  1. Great suggestions but I’d like to add one. Tell us how to get from one to the other (in the order you wrote about them). Thanks

      In most cases, you can walk! Edinburgh is a fairly compact city, and the best way to get around is often on foot. If you’re staying a bit further out, you can also use Uber or public buses to get into the city, but most of the attractions themselves are walkable.

    I love this post! It really helped me out with my trip to Edinburgh.It is such an incredible city x

      Glad to hear this post was helpful!

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