Getting around to seeing everything there is to see in Edinburgh in a day can be quite a tall order. Although compact, the 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. Keep this itinerary close by to make the most of your time here!
Plan your trip to Edinburgh
1. WHAT’S THE BEST TIME TO VISIT EDINBURGH?
2. A FEW FACTS ABOUT EDINBURGH
3. ONE DAY IN EDINBURGH ITINERARY
3.1. Start Your Day in Holyrood Park
3.2. Visit the Palace of Holyroodhouse
3.3. Follow the Royal Mile
3.4. Check out the Museum of Edinburgh
3.5. Consider These Things to Do in Edinburgh with Kids
3.6. Explore Princes Street Gardens
3.7. Grab a Bite to Eat
3.8. Spend the Afternoon at Edinburgh Castle
3.9. Test Your Courage at The Real Mary King’s Close
3.9.1. Spend the Evening at Cabaret Voltaire
4. WHERE TO STAY IN EDINBURGH?
5. DAY TRIPS FROM EDINBURGH
6. EXTRA TIPS FOR VISITING EDINBURGH
As 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). 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.
If that’s not really your cup of tea, fear not. Early fall and spring are much better and tend to hit the sweet spot with mild weather and manageable crowds.
Also, August is the time when the city comes alive with various festivals. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, for example, brings in loads of performers who are free to come, whereas Edinburgh International Festival carefully chooses its guests and it’s a matter of prestige to be invited. Edinburgh Beltane Fire Festival in April is also very much worth visiting, and Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival is a fantastic event for those who like this type of music. In short, there is plenty to choose from!
A FEW FACTS ABOUT EDINBURGH
Edinburgh, the second most populous city in Scotland (after Glasgow), has been the capital of Scotland since the 15th century. As the administrative center of Scotland, Edinburgh houses all three branches of government. It also houses 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.
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. Edinburgh also has 112 parks, with more trees per capita than any other city in the UK. Its rich architectural heritage also means that Edinburgh has more listed buildings than any other place in the world. In fact, both the government and UNESCO are working to preserve its weathered streets that carry memories of their proud inhabitants from different eras.
One day in Edinburgh therefore may not seem to be enough. However, 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.
Welcome to Edinburgh! The capital of Scotland is always ready to blow you away with its rich history, incredible architecture and just being an all-around fascinating city. To make the most of your time here, you will need a reliable itinerary, so here it is – these are the top sights and things to do on your one day in Edinburgh.
For a spectacular start to your one day in Edinburgh, if the day is clear and dry, go for a short hike through Holyrood Park. There you can 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. Additionally, Arthur’s Seat is often suggested as one of the likely locations for Camelot.
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. Just make sure you have suitable footgear! Looking down at the city as you start your exploration of Edinburgh will be a sight to remember.
Some of you might like to have a local guide while visiting these historic sights. In that case, finding a local Edinburgher to help you out would be a perfect solution!
After Arthur’s Seat, take one of the paths leading north through Holyrood Park. Soon (20 mins tops), you will reach the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Purchase the ticket and explore the King’s official residence in Edinburgh (you can buy tickets here, to avoid waiting in line). 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.
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. So, getting from Holyroodhouse to Edinburgh Castle shouldn’t take more than 20-30 minutes. To be fair, there are many 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.
After seeing Canongate Kirk, look for a bright yellow building with a red front. Don’t get fooled by the unimpressive exterior- 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. 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. But that’s just one of many options in this city (more on that later).
Time for lunch! If you’re in a hurry, 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 and enjoy the great views of Edinburgh Castle as you chow down.
If you’re willing to walk a bit, Gaucho Edinburgh is a fantastic Argentinian restaurant, whereas L’Escargot offers great French dishes at a reasonable price. For some good Scottish food, consider Howie’s Restaurant near Calton Hill.
For fans of fine dining, The Witchery by the Castle has delicious lamb Wellington and a luxurious, extravagant ambiance. If you are looking for special deals, check out 5pm Edinburgh.
Princes Street is one of the city’s main thoroughfares and its main shopping street. In addition, here you will find Princes Street Gardens, a gorgeous public park in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. So, you can pick up some souvenirs, and then just enjoy the scenery of this magical place.
Separating the New Town from the Old Town, Princes Street Gardens is filled with magnificent floral displays. However, it also has numerous statues and monuments. These include the statues of Adam Black, David Livingstone, and Wojtek the Bear. The Scott Monument, on the other hand, (honoring Sir Walter Scott) dominates the eastern side with its spire-like Victorian appearance.
One of the most recognizable symbols of 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.
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 will also take up some of your time, and St Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest building in Edinburgh and the oldest chapel in Scotland. It was built in 1130 by King David in honor of his mother, Queen Margaret.
You can buy the ticket here to avoid waiting in line for this magnificent sight. Definitely a must-see on your one day in Edinburgh.
The castle closes at 5, so you should 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.
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, 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.
Treat yourself to a nice dinner
It’s been quite a day, so why not sit down and recap everything that happened? Maybe over a nice dinner and with a glass of wine? The Table is just the restaurant for that as it serves wonderful dishes in an intimate atmosphere. Perfect for couples!
Chaophraya is a great choice if you’re in the mood for a Thai dinner, whereas Mussle Inn serves excellent seafood. Finally, do give Makars Mash Bar a try if you’d like to try some traditional Scottish dishes.
In short, no matter if you’re here with kids or not, if you’re on a budget, or if you’re looking for a special kind of food, Edinburgh will always have plenty of excellent choices.
If you’re looking for things to do in Edinburgh at night, look no further than the Cabaret Voltaire. It is 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.
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.
Obviously, Edinburgh is a great place for a drink, so if you’re looking for a bar, you will have plenty of choices. Thistle Street Bar, for example, is a very charming place with its own beer garden. Bramble Bar also comes highly recommended, and if you’re in the mood for cocktails, there’s no better place than Panda & Sons. There really are many options, so your evening in Edinburgh is bound to be great!
If you are wondering what to do in Edinburgh with kids, worry not! Apart from the Museum of Edinburgh, you can also make a brief stop at the Museum of Childhood further down the street. With an extensive collection of children’s toys and games, this 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 Tour and exploring the locations that inspired the beloved book series is also one of the best 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.
A guided tour of all these places that lasts 1-2 hours seems like a great idea. However, 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. Plus there also hanging out in Princes Street Gardens. 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 maybe visit the Museum instead of exploring the Palace of Holyroodhouse in the morning. Likewise, 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. 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.
InterContinental Hotels – Edinburgh The George
19 – 21 George Street, New Town
With an enviable location just a stone’s throw away from Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh Castle, and Holyrood Palace, InterContinental Hotel – Edinburgh The George 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 an uncompromising focus on natural materials. The rooms all boast amazing views and the guests can enjoy a charming little bar on the 5th floor.
voco Edinburgh – Haymarket, an IHG Hotel
46 Torphichen Street, Edinburgh, EH3 8JB
voco Edinburgh – Haymarket will offer you a fantastic stay any day of the year. The place boasts a wonderful restaurant, an excellent fitness centre, and beautiful large rooms, among other things. Excellent breakfast is also worth mentioning as you have several options to choose from. Tea and coffee-making machines are in every room, with some providing a wonderful view. Modern, elegant, and comfortable, this hotel will deliver an excellent experience every time. Thumbs up!
ibis Edinburgh Centre Royal Mile – Hunter Square
6 Hunters Square (Off The Royal Mile), Old Town
Just off the historic Royal Mile, ibis Edinburgh Centre Royal Mile is a stylish, modern hotel. It offers 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. The great 24-hour bar only adds to the wonderful experience you get here.
Kick Ass Greyfriars
37-39 Cowgate, Old Town
You will fall in love with this charming hostel, its lively modern rooms, and its shared lounge. Kick Ass Greyfriars has a hip bar inside a “kick-ass” old VW van and its helpful crew makes everyone feel like one big family. With spacious lockers, free Wi-Fi, amazing parties each evening, and a continental breakfast every morning, this 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 or work in the café on the 1st floor with your laptop. And if you come early, just leave your luggage before checking.
DAY TRIPS FROM EDINBURGH
Staying longer in Edinburgh? Well, in that case, consider yourself lucky because you will have an amazing opportunity to explore Scotland! There are plenty of wonderful day trips from Edinburgh to choose from, and all you have to do is choose. If you can’t make up your mind, here are a few suggestions you can’t go wrong with!
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 a perfect opportunity to see more of the Highlands in less time.
Pure and simple – why not spend one day in Glasgow if you have the opportunity? It’s just over an hour away, so you can get to Scotland’s largest city quickly and easily. And there’s plenty to see, too – wonderful museums, the exquisite university, and the stunning Glasgow Cathedral are just some of the sights to enjoy. The city is also vibrant, with plenty of options in the evening, so there’s really a lot to explore. If at all possible, go and visit Glasgow, you won’t be sorry!
Da Vinci Code and Scottish Borders Small Group Day Trip from Edinburgh
This 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.
-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 11 am and 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).
-The Royal Mile has a bit of a reputation as a tourist trap. That doesn’t apply to all merchants there, but some caution is advised if you’re planning on spending money there. The chances are you can get a significantly better deal somewhere else.
-It’s good to keep in mind that Scotland has the same type G electric sockets as England. Therefore, your chargers probably won’t fit if you’re coming from some other part of Europe, or most of the world, for that matter.
-See the city on foot! While there are many tempting bus tours around, walking around Edinburgh is a whole different experience. It will help you immerse yourself in the city and experience it better.
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Anca is a travel writer and the founder of One Day Itinerary - the biggest collection of travel itineraries for those who are time-limited or just want to maximize their time while traveling. Although she easily becomes homesick for Croatia, she thinks travel is essential to her happiness. She has traveled to more countries than she is years old and doesn’t plan on changing that fact. In her travel guides she aims to inspire people to travel whenever they have a spare day (or two).