Getting around to seeing everything there is to see in Edinburgh in a day can be quite the tall order. Although compact, this hilly capital of Scotland has more museums, sights, and attractions packed in a square mile than almost any other city in the world. The iconic Edinburgh Castle, dominating the skyline of Edinburgh, watches over the city’s elegant gardens, medieval buildings, and numerous memorials and monuments. No matter the length of your stay, spending at least one day in Edinburgh tops every single list of things to do in Scotland.
What’s the best time to visit Edinburgh?
As it often happens with many other cities, the best time to visit Edinburgh is also its busiest period. During the summer months, i.e. from June to August, you can enjoy temperatures that typically hover around a balmy 65°F (18°C). In August it gets really exciting, with festivals of every kind taking place every day. The summer days are also very long due to the city’s high latitude. If you would like to visit Edinburgh during its busiest period, make sure to book your hotel several months in advance and prepare for crowds everywhere you go. In case that’s not really your cup of tea, don’t worry: early fall and spring are much better and tend to hit the sweet spot with mild weather and manageable crowds.
A few facts about Edinburgh
Edinburgh, the second most populous city in Scotland (after Glasgow), has held the title of the capital of Scotland as early as the 15th century. As the administrative center of Scotland, Edinburgh houses all of the three branches of government, in addition to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, a 16th-century palace of the Stuarts and the de-facto official seat of the monarch in Scotland. The city trails London both as the second largest financial center and as the second most popular destination for tourists in the United Kingdom.
When it comes to lesser-known facts about Edinburgh, fans of Harry Potter will be interested to learn that J.K. Rowling wrote a large portion of Harry Potter in The Elephant House, a local café. In total, Edinburgh has 112 parks, with more trees per capita than any other city in the U.K. Its rich architectural heritage also means that Edinburgh has more listed buildings than any other place in the world, with both the government and UNESCO working to preserve its weathered streets that carry memories of their proud inhabitants from different eras. 24 hours in Edinburgh may seem little, but if you follow this Edinburgh itinerary, you will get a feel for the city and a longing to come back and do it all again.
One day in Edinburgh itinerary
Follow this guide and make the best of your trip even if you’re short on time. These are the top sights and things to do on your one day in Edinburgh.
Start Your Day in Holyrood Park
Even if you are an early bird, seeing the sunrise in Edinburgh is tricky business. In June and July, the sun rises around 4:30 in the morning, which means that most people will miss it. In winter months, however, if the day is clear and dry, you can go for a short hike through Holyrood Park and enjoy the magnificent morning view from atop Arthur’s Seat, the highest point in Edinburgh. With amazing panoramic views of the city and the seaside in the distance, climbing this hill is absolutely one of the best things to do in Edinburgh for free. Arthur’s Seat is often suggested as one of the likely locations for Camelot. While climbing the hill is possible from any direction, the best way to approach the hill is from the east. It may require some effort, although not too much considering the fact that the hill rises only to a height of 250.5 m (822 ft). There is a hill fort at the summit, while nearby smaller hills are occupied by other historical landmarks, including the ruins of Saint Anthony’s Chapel to the north. Make sure to bring suitable footgear (sneakers or walking boots) and absorb the view looking down on the city as you start your one day in Edinburgh.
Visit the Palace of Holyroodhouse
After Arthur’s Seat, take one of the paths leading north through Holyrood Park until you reach the Palace of Holyroodhouse. It shouldn’t take you more than 20 minutes. At the price of £14.00 for adults (with discounts for children, families, and students), you can explore the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. Located at the end of Royal Mile, the Old Town’s main thoroughfare, Holyroodhouse is open all year long. The audio tour, included with the ticket, focuses on the history of the Palace as it relates to famous historic figures such as Mary, Queen of Scots. Behind the palace, you can go for a walk among the columns and the ancient, crumbled arches of Holyrood Abbey, founded in 1128 by King David I. Wardens clad in traditional Scottish garb (Stewart tartan) offer free tours of the spectacular ruins.
Follow the Royal Mile
The Royal Mile is the name used for several streets that run between the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Edinburgh Castle straight through the Old Town. Connecting two of the most significant locations in Scotland’s royal history, the Royal Mile is precisely a mile long. Getting from Holyroodhouse to Edinburgh Castle shouldn’t take more than 20-30 minutes, with endless pubs, shops, restaurants, and attractions in between. Notable locations include the modern Scottish Parliament Building, Canongate Kirk (a 17th century church where many eminent Scots are buried), the home of John Knox (15th century Puritan reformer), St Giles’ Cathedral, and many others.
Check out the Museum of Edinburgh
After a short walk down the Royal Mile, you will reach a number of impressive historic buildings across the street from Canongate Kirk. Look for a bright yellow building with a red front. Don’t get fooled by the unimpressive interior – visiting the Museum of Edinburgh is one of the best things to do in Edinburgh, and to top it off, it is completely free. The Museum, formerly the Huntly House Museum, focuses on the city’s origins, legends, and history. Among its exhibits, you can find an authentic copy of the National Covenant dating back to 1683, beautiful Scottish pottery, and an engaging exhibition on the suffragettes. In just 30 minutes to one hour, depending on how much you like looking at old armor and cannons, you can get a sense of Edinburgh’s history. If you’re looking for things to do in Edinburgh with kids, the Museum of Edinburgh is a good choice, since it has an area where children can dress up, get hands-on and do some crafts. On the topic of things to do in Edinburgh for families…
Consider These Things to Do in Edinburgh with Kids
If you are wondering what to do in Edinburgh with kids, check out some of these options. Apart from the Museum of Edinburgh, you can also make a brief stop at the Museum of Childhood further down the street. With a large collection of children’s toys and games, the Edinburgh Museum of Childhood was the first museum anywhere in the world to focus on chronicling childhood and its history. The collection, ranging from the 18th to the 21st century, will keep your kids interested and engaged, and you won’t have to spend a single penny.
Additionally, doing the Potter Trail and exploring the locations that inspired the beloved book series ranks pretty highly on the list of things to do in Edinburgh with kids. Attractions include the real-life Diagon Alley, which can be seen on Victoria Street if you go left on the last roundabout before the castle, as well as The Elephant House, a relaxed café where J.K. Rowling wrote the books.
Interestingly enough, if you don’t know how to find all of these places on your own, doing a guided tour that lasts 1-2 hours won’t cost you anything, apart from the tips/donations at the very end. If you are on a budget and would like to know more about the various things to do in Edinburgh for free, don’t worry. With so many attractions to visit, you will never run out of options.
Things to Do in Edinburgh for Free
So, we’ve got the Potter Trail, the Museum of Childhood, the Museum of Edinburgh, and Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood Park. When it comes to things to do in Edinburgh for free, you can explore some of the city’s other public parks, such as Princes Street Gardens (see below). Visiting the National Museum of Scotland, located not far from the aforementioned Elephant House, is also free of charge. With a magnificent, huge open space with balconies and a beautiful glass ceiling, this museum is an architectural wonder in its own right.
You can visit the Museum instead of exploring the Palace of Holyroodhouse in the morning, while in the afternoon, you can replace the stop at Edinburgh Castle with a visit to the Scottish National Gallery. Visiting the gallery is one of the top things to do in Edinburgh for free, seeing as it is located in the very heart of Edinburgh, just off Princes Street, and it is home to one of the most extensive collections of fine art worldwide, including priceless works of art by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Titian, Botticelli, Raphael, Turner, Monet, Gaugin, and Van Gogh.
Explore Princes Street Gardens
Just south of Princes Street, one of the city’s main thoroughfares and its main shopping street, you will find Princes Street Gardens, a gorgeous public park in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. You can check out Princes Street if you feel like it, but otherwise exploring the park itself should prove interesting enough to take up close to an hour of your Edinburgh itinerary. Separating the New Town from the Old Town, Princes Street Gardens is filled with magnificent floral displays, as well as numerous statues and monuments. For example, you may come across the statues of Adam Black, David Livingstone, and Wojtek the bear, while the Scott Monument (honoring Sir Walter Scott) dominates the eastern side with its spire-like Victorian appearance.
Grab a Bite to Eat
If you don’t mind eating on the go, Princes Street Gardens is also a popular place to have lunch. You can grab something to go from one of the numerous small diners just off Princes Street, such as the Miros Cantina Mexicana, pick a bench to sit and enjoy the great views of Edinburgh Castle as you chow down. For fans of fine dining, consider The Witchery by the Castle with its delicious lamb wellington and luxurious, extravagant ambience. If you are looking for special deals, check out 5pm Edinburgh.
Spend the Afternoon at Edinburgh Castle
One of the most recognizable symbols od Edinburgh and of Scotland in general, Edinburgh Castle is a momentous fortress dominating the skyline of Edinburgh from atop Castle Rock. With human occupation since at least the Iron Age and as many as 26 sieges in the last 1100 years alone, the site is famously one of the most besieged and attacked places not only in Great Britain, but the whole world.
For £18.50 on site (or £17.00 in advance), you can visit Scotland’s most frequented attraction, explored by more than 70% of Edinburgh’s leisure visitors. Definitely must-see on your one day in Edinburgh. Inside the castle, pay a visit to the National War Museum (tracing the country’s military history), the Royal Palace with its collection of medieval arms, and St Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest building in Edinburgh and the oldest chapel in Scotland, completed in 1130 by King David in honor of his mother, Queen Margaret.
The castle closes at 5, so assuming you get there around 2 or 3, you will have plenty of time to see everything. Later on, as you close out the day, make sure to find a nice viewpoint and enjoy the impressive sight of Edinburgh Castle at night.
Test Your Courage at The Real Mary King’s Close
Back on the Royal Mile, across the street from St Giles’ Cathedral, you will find Mary King’s Close (a Scots term for alleyway). Visiting the close is certainly among the more unusual things to do in Edinburgh, but also one of the more well-liked. After spending the day learning about kings and other notable historical figures, the Mary King’s Close gives you a chance to see how the other half of the city lived in the past. Although dark and gloomy, it is well worth a visit, especially if you are a fan of urban legends and tales of murders and hauntings. On site, you can arrange a brilliant tour with enthusiastic guides, although booking in advance via their website is advisable. The price for adults is £15.50. The last tour starts at 9 PM during the winter months and at 9:30 PM April – October.
Spend the Evening at Cabaret Voltaire
If you’re looking for things to do in Edinburgh at night, look no further than the Cabaret Voltaire, a trendy live music venue and basement club with a great selection of cocktails and craft beers. Located halfway down Blair Street in the Old Town, Cab Vol, as it is sometimes referred to by the locals, is an underground, multi-floor venue with retro-style arcade machines integrated into the tables, an atmospheric basement, and amazing wall paints. The club used to serve pizza, which is why some reviews online still mention being able to grab a bite to eat there. Although that is sadly no longer the case, Cab Vol is now focused on developing the city’s music scene. On the one hand, the club is passionate about grooming local talent, with most of their resident DJs being from and residing in Edinburgh, but they also welcome an abundance of international guest DJs from across the world.
Whether you are looking for great beer, excellent music, or just a place to dance all night, Cabaret Voltaire should be your first choice. Check out their official website for more info and special offers.
WHERE TO STAY IN EDINBURGH?
Principal Edinburgh George Street
With an enviable location just a stone’s throw away from Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh Castle, and Holyrood Palace, The Principal Edinburgh George Street is the first choice for travelers looking for an exclusive, unforgettable experience in Edinburgh. Featuring elegant, richly furnished rooms, the hotel manages to achieve a sense of grandeur through simple detailing and uncompromising focus on natural materials. The rooms all boast amazing views and the guests can enjoy a charming little bar on the 5th floor.
ibis Edinburgh Centre Royal Mile – Hunter Square
Just off the historic Royal Mile, ibis Edinburgh Centre Royal Mile is a stylish, modern hotel with bright and spacious bedrooms, each with a flat-screen TV, a private bathroom, and a large work desk. An all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet is open for guests every morning, in addition to the 24-hour bar with beverages and light snacks.
You will fall in love with this charming hostel, its lively modern rooms, its shared lounge, its hip bar inside a “kick-ass” old VW van, and its helpful crew that makes everyone feel like one big family. With spacious lockers, free Wi-Fi, amazing parties each evening and a continental breakfast every morning, Budget Backpackers is the place to be if you’re getting ready to take on Edinburgh in a day. Bonus points: you can play pool at the property, work in the café on the 1st floor with your laptop, and leave your luggage before checking in in case you arrive early.
If these properties don’t have what you’re looking for, check out 5pm Edinburgh for special last-minute deals you can’t afford to miss!
Day trips from Edinburgh
Loch Ness, Glencoe and the Highlands Small-Group Day Trip from Edinburgh
An organized small-day trip from Edinburgh is the best way to explore some of the most famous attractions in the Scottish Highlands, including Glen Coe, Stirling Castle, Loch Ness, and Cairngorms National Park. With a professional guide to offer deeper insights, an organized tour is the perfect opportunity to see more of the Highlands in less time.
Da Vinci Code and Scottish Borders Small Group Day Trip from Edinburgh
This guided tour will take you on an adventure – to learn more about the real-life mysteries of The Da Vinci Code and the Holy Grail. With visits to Rosslyn Chapel and Melrose Abbey, your guide will bring to life notable historic figures including the Knights Templar and Robert the Bruce. Just relax and take in the breathtaking scenery as you tour the Roman ruins, the charming small town of Melrose, and secluded forgotten chapels whose provocative symbolism holds the key to untold mysteries of the past.
West Highland Lochs and Castles Small Group Day Trip from Edinburgh
For fans of Monty Python and The Holy Grail, you can’t beat this day trip from Edinburgh, which includes a stop at Doune Castle, forever immortalized in the famous cult classic. Before that, you will get a chance to visit Stirling Castle, the one-time residence of Mary Queen of Scots, in addition to Inveraray Castle, Laky Fyne, and Loch Lomond. Learn more about Scottish legends such as Rob Roy MacGregor and William Wallace and let your mind wander as you admire the unparalleled medieval castles in the rugged Breadalbane Mountains.
EXTRA TIPS FOR VISITING EDINBURGH
– Most of the things to do in Edinburgh, especially museums and galleries, will be unavailable early in the morning. In general, they open around 9:30 or 10, which is why you will have to spend the first hour or two just walking around and sightseeing.
-For Edinburgh Castle, the 11am and 12 noon slots have to be booked online at least 1.5 hours in advance. No more visitors are accepted after 4 PM (1 hour before closing).
PIN FOR LATER!
If you have any other propositions for this One Day in Edinburgh Itinerary, feel free to share them in the comments below!