After Northern Ireland, we made our way to Scotland, setting up base in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital. For our third season of round-the-world travel, we are making an effort to slow down, which is why we decided to spend 7 days exploring Edinburgh’s attractions and surroundings before hopping in a rental car to devote a week to a road trip around Scotland.
Edinburg is so stunning it looks like a movie set. And it has plenty of activities that kept us busy the entire week. We were thrilled to learn one of our favorite pastime activities, golfing, is a Scottish invention. So, we couldn’t leave Scotland without checking out their golfing culture. But if you are not a fan of the sport, this Edinburgh itinerary will offer you plenty of top tourist attractions to plan your stay around. From castle exploring to whisky tasting, museum hopping, and ghost stories. Pick what you like, and leave what you don’t from this list of things to do in Edinburgh. Or if you are a slow traveler, just recreate this 7-day Edinburgh itinerary of ours.
Unique Things to Do in Edinburgh
Pro Tip: Edinburgh’s attractions are accessible regardless of the time of the year you visit, but the weather may be a big deal breaker for some. We visited in August, the peak of summer, and the busiest time to visit Edinburgh for the numerous festivals and crowds they attract. If you love that, though, check out the Edinburgh Festival Fringe program before you come.
Day 1: Getting to Know Edinburgh
It’s impossible to start your Edinburgh itinerary with anything other than this iconic castle that dates back to the 12th century. Sitting perched above the city on a dormant volcano (which spreads over three major peaks), the castle is spectacular, unmissable, and the first thing that beckons to be explored.
Apart from its captivating beauty, the complex is home to important artifacts and landmarks like the Honors of Scotland, Scottish crown jewels, and St Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest building in Edinburgh. Grab an audio guide or join a tour and stroll around the magnificent structures, imagining the affluent events that took place among its walls. Stick around until 1pm for the ancient tradition of firing the cannon, which happens daily except for Sundays. As with most top attractions, Edinburgh’s Castle gets many visitors, and queues form quickly. We recommend buying your tickets in advance to avoid wasting time in line.
Pro Tip: photography aficionados must head to the Princess Street Gardens – the park that offers unique angles and frames like the one of the Ross Fountain with the castle in the background.
The cobbled stretch connecting Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace, called the Royal Mile, is the busiest street in the Old Town. Back in the day, the route was used by Edinburgh’s royalty, which is how the name came about, and today it is lined with charming venues, and souvenir shops, and its laneways are home to popular tourist attractions in Edinburgh. Trace the nooks and crannies of the Royal Mile and tick off the most important places to visit in Edinburgh, like the St. Giles’ Cathedral and Real Mary King’s Close.
St. Giles’ Cathedral
The St Giles’ Cathedral is unmissable for the imposing beauty of its façade, topped with spires that resemble the Crown of Scotland. With its 900 years of age, it has witnessed Edinburgh’s history shape around it, which you get to learn about inside as you admire the stained-glass windows and the jaw-dropping Thistle Chapel.
The Real Mary King’s Close
Across from the Cathedral, hidden under the streets of the Royal Mile, sits the Real Mary King’s Close, frozen in time. Step into the 17th-century labyrinthine alleys and picture the living conditions back in the day. We recommend taking a tour to hear the legends, ghost stories, and history of the plague. There is a plethora of tours on offer in Edinburgh, and many have guides that dress up in character, which makes the experience extra eerie and engaging. Here is a tour we loved.
To capture that iconic photo of Edinburgh that circulates the internet, climb up to Calton Hill, which takes less than 20 minutes. To get the city lit up in hues of purple and pink, make sure to go at sunrise or sunset. From the top, you can enjoy sweeping 360-degree views and admire the stunning monuments, thanks to which Calton Hill earned UNESCO World Heritage status. The most famous of the monuments is the National Monument, inspired by the Parthenon in Athens.
Day 2: History Deep Dive
Scotland’s National Museum
Edinburgh is home to many museums, but if you have time for just one, let it be Scotland’s National Museum. Highly rated and considered the most popular museum outside of London, it is a treasure trove of artifacts – over 20,000 of them to be a bit more precise. Dedicate enough time for your visit because the exhibits are vast and varied, covering Scottish history, wonders of nature, and beyond.
Holyrood Palace and Holyrood Abbey
The Holyrood Palace, which dates back to the 17th century, is the official residence of the Monarchy in Scotland. The historic abbey, once Scotland’s stateliest, sits connected to the palace, its ruins preserved. The Holyrood complex is at the end of the Royal Mile, surrounded by a park that feels secluded despite being in the middle of Edinburgh. If you are a history buff, the Holyrood Palace and Abbey are a must-see during your stay.
Day 3: Literary-Themed Day
The Writers’ Museum
Edinburgh is proud of its literary history. It’s a city where not only will you find the largest monument to a writer in the world (Scott Monument reaching 200 feet), but also a writers’ museum and a literary pub crawl. More on the latter later. The writers’ museum celebrates the lives of three Scottish literature giants – Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Stevenson. It houses a rich collection of rare artifacts and is a fantastic place to visit in Edinburgh for lovers of history, literature, or anyone into writing. We hope you leave inspired!
Harry Potter Tour
Are you a Harry Potter fan? Since Edinburgh served as a huge inspiration for many scenes and characters in the books and J.K. Rowling did most of the writing in Edinburgh, visiting some locations is a must-do. So much so that many travelers come to Edinburgh for that purpose alone. If you want to do this activity, here is our link.
On your tour, expect to visit the colorful Victoria Street that inspired Diagon Alley, Lord Voldemort’s resting place, the original Hogwarts School, the Balmoral Hotel, J.K. Rowling’s handprints at Edinburgh City Chambers, and so much more. Finish the tour at Elephant House Café, where she wrote and sought inspiration from the backroom that overlooks Edinburgh Castle. Contemplate the magic that permeates Edinburgh, and perhaps take a moment to note down your own creative thoughts.
Literary Pub Crawl
Conclude your day with this quintessential pub crawl led by two real actors. Visit unique paths, courtyards, and pubs and be entertained by professionals, who will fill the evening with stories of famous Scottish writers told in hilarious and engaging dialogue. Whether you are a fan of Scottish classics, Harry Potter, or neither, this award-winning tour is the most unique thing to do in Edinburgh.
Day 4: More Food for Inspiration
Scottish National Gallery
Start your day with a visit to this beautiful columned building, especially if you are a fan of the arts because it holds one of the world’s finest art collections. If not, it’s the best place to spend your time broadening your horizons and escaping bad weather. There is something for everybody at the National Gallery, from Scottish art to international masterpieces. Bev was thrilled to to see this painting, as she’s trying to see all the paintings by Johannes Vermeer.
With all the food for inspiration collected over the last two days, grab a picnic and your favorite creative outlet (camera or pen and paper) and head to Arthur’s Seat. It’s one of the most iconic outdoor activities Edinburgh has to offer. Located at the top of the same dormant volcano on the grounds of Holyrood Park, it is the highest point in the city (823 feet). The peak, named after the legends of King Arthur offers stunning 360-degree views and takes only 45 minutes to hike. Once at the top, get comfortable and wait for sunset!
Day 5: Eat Your Way Through Edinburgh
Start your day at one of Edinburgh’s many markets. They all offer a range of street food, local produce, souvenirs, and crafts, but each has a unique location. Grassmarket, open every Saturday from 10am to 5pm, is located on a lively historic square at the base of Edinburgh Castle. Leith Market, open Saturdays from 10am to 4pm, takes place at the picturesque Dock Place near the shore. And Stockbridge Market runs on Sundays from 10am to 4pm in New Town and comes highly rated for street food. Lookout for scotch eggs and deep-fried Mars bars.
Scotch Whiskey Tasting
No visit to Edinburgh is complete without a Scotch Whiskey tasting. It’s offered at many bars or directly at distilleries such as Holyrood, Johnnie Walker, or Glenkinchie Distillery, where you can enjoy an immersive experience. Alternatively, surrender into the hands of an expert guide and take part in a whisky and folklore evening along the Royal Mile with this tour. Thanks for clicking on our link!
Day 6: Edinburgh’s Port
Previously a separate burgh and one people avoided, Leith is now the trendiest neighborhood of Edinburgh. Steeped in history, the waterfront neighborhood features beautiful promenades, art murals, boutique shops, and Michelin-starred restaurants, which must be added to your Edinburgh itinerary. Wander along the Water of Leith Walkway and pay a visit to the Royal Yacht Britannia, Leith’s most popular attraction. It’s the Royal family’s ship of over 44 years that serves as a museum that you can tour today.
Finish your day with a delectable dinner at one of the Michelin-starred restaurants along the shore. We ate at Martin Wishart, run by the eponymous Edinburgh-born chef, who blends French techniques and Scottish ingredients to create a spectacular European menu.
Day 7: Day Trips from Edinburgh
Start your morning with a day trip from Edinburgh to Blackness Castle, an impressive medieval fortress from the 15th century. Located only 35 minutes from Edinburgh, it’s easy to get to, but we recommend visiting in the first half of the day to avoid the crowds. Climb to the top of the towers and enjoy magnificent views.
St. Andrews Town
St. Andrews is a quaint town located 1.5 hours from Edinburgh, known for its medieval ruins, old pubs, beach, and as the home of golf! If you are a fan of the sport like us, then visiting its birthplace is a must. St. Andrews Links is the oldest golf course in the world, and that’s a bucket list activity in our books! There is also an award-winning Golf Museum for die-hard fans. We may be biased, but golfing aside, St. Andrews is the best day trip from Edinburgh and even deserves an entire weekend.
As you can probably tell, a week wasn’t enough for us. If you are wondering how many days to spend in Edinburgh, we can confidently suggest dedicating at least 4 days. And don’t miss out on exploring the Scottish Highlands, which you can read about in our Scotland Road Trip post.