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3 Day Edinburgh Itinerary: The Best of Scotland’s Capital

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One of our favorite UK cities, Edinburgh has so much to offer no matter what time of year you visit. It’s a great place to spend a day but an even better place to stay for longer. Three days is the ideal amount of time to see some of Edinburgh’s top attractions, sample some of Scotland’s finest food and drink and enjoy the bustling shops on Princes Street without feeling rushed.

If you have more time to spare, Edinburgh is a great base for exploring other areas of Scotland. A day trip to Glasgow, a train ride to the beautiful Scottish Borders or a day tour of the stunning Highlands are just a handful of the amazing experiences at your fingertips when you stay in Scotland’s culture-laden capital.

When to visit Edinburgh

Despite sitting at 55°, the same latitude as Moscow and southeast Alaska’s panhandle, Edinburgh’s climate is fairly moderate and it rarely experiences extreme conditions.

Summers are typically a little warm with the temperature rarely getting above 22°C (71°F). During the winter, temperatures drop but generally remain above freezing. There’s occasional snowfall in winter months, but like anywhere in the UK, no matter when you go, there’s a good chance it’ll rain.

Summer

Summer is often said to be the best time to visit Edinburgh. In many senses, this is true. Summer brings the chance of better weather, longer daylight hours and, if you want to venture out of the city, there will be far more options for you to do so.

Summer is also the time for two of Edinburgh’s most famous festivals. The Edinburgh Fringe is the largest performing arts festival in the world and sees big names every year as well as new up-and-coming performers. The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo also happens during this time. The Tattoo takes place at Edinburgh Castle and is one of those spectacles everyone should see once in their lifetime.

In 2024, the Tattoo will run from August 2nd to 24th, and the Fringe will run from August 2nd to August 26th. It’s vital to book tickets as far ahead as possible. You can get Fringe tickets on the Edinburgh Fringe website and Tattoo tickets on the Edinburgh Tattoo site. Another option for the Tattoo is to get your tickets as part of a tour with tickets, dinner and sightseeing included.

Winter

All that said, Edinburgh is great in wintertime, too. Every year, the city hosts Edinburgh’s Christmas during which Princes Street Gardens turn into a winter wonderland. A Christmas market with wooden huts selling gifts and produce plus warming street food and mulled wine combined with a fun fair make Edinburgh one of the UK’s best cities for pre-Christmas fun.

The 2024 dates for Edinburgh’s Christmas haven’t been confirmed yet, but in previous years it’s run for seven weeks from mid-November to the end of the first week in January.

Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year’s celebration, is another top time to be in the capital. The Scots take Hogmanay very seriously and put on quite the show to see in the New Year.

If you want to visit Edinburgh for a lower cost, you’ll want to avoid any of these times. Summer in particular drives hotel prices in the city sky-high, and hotels in the center book out months in advance.

Getting to Edinburgh

Edinburgh enjoys excellent transport links with the rest of the United Kingdom and the world. Edinburgh Airport is the busiest in Scotland and sees several daily flights from London and regional airports across the UK as well as all the major hubs in mainland Europe. There’s also direct flights from as far afield New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Orlando in the US, Toronto, Calgary and Halifax in Canada and Doha in the Middle East.

Getting from the airport to the city center is really easy. Trams run every few minutes during the day, taking 30 minutes to reach Princes Street. The Airlink 100 bus runs 24/7 between the airport and St Andrew Square in the city center, taking around 30 minutes. A single ticket costs £5.50 and a return is £8 available on the bus with cash or contactless card.

Edinburgh has two main train stations: Edinburgh Waverley and Haymarket, with Edinburgh Waverley being the busiest and closest to the center. Direct trains connect Edinburgh with Glasgow (45 minutes), York (2.5 hours), Manchester (3 hours) and London (4.5-5 hours) as well as a number of towns across Scotland and northern England.

Intercity buses are another, often affordable, way to reach Edinburgh. Direct services run from Glasgow (1.5 hours) and London (10 hours) along with a number of smaller, intermediate towns and cities.

Getting around Edinburgh

Edinburgh is a delightfully walkable city, and most attractions within the city center can be reached on foot. If you’re heading further out, or have lots of luggage, the city also has an excellent public transport network.

Lothian Buses run frequent services to every corner of Edinburgh with most fares capped at £2 per journey. You can also get a day ticket for £5 giving unlimited travel on all buses during the day. A £12 Network Day Ticket is also available which includes night buses, trams, airport buses and some longer journeys out of the city.

Where to stay in Edinburgh

There’s no end of hotel options in Edinburgh. Whether you want a budget chain room or a luxury boutique, you’ll have no trouble finding a place to stay. To make the most of your time here, a hotel in the city center is a wise idea.

The Old Town and New Town are the best areas to stay in Edinburgh, both of which straddle Princes Street. The West End and Haymarket are other great options for easy access to the center and Leith (whilst a little further out) is a good choice to be close to the Royal Yacht and has some great pubs and restaurants.

Some of our favorite Edinburgh hotels are Gleneagles Townhouse with its indulgent restaurant The Spence, House of Gods which is the best choice for a romantic escape and Cheval Old Town Chambers which is Edinburgh’s top aparthotel.

If you fancy something a little quirky, check out Ocean Mist Leith. This unique hotel is actually a steamship built in 1919 moored in Leith’s charming harbor. For a more budget friendly stay, Stay Central is a fun place to stay without compromising comfort.

3 Day Edinburgh Itinerary

Day 1: The Old Town

The most historic part of Edinburgh, the Old Town, is home to many of the city’s most famous attractions. Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Mile and Holyrood are just a few of the highlights in this captivating area. Unquestionably, the Old Town will be one of the great highlights of your 3 day Edinburgh itinerary.

View of Old Town Edinburgh from the sky - 3 day edinburgh itinerary

9 am: Breakfast

Scotland is famous for its breakfasts. If this is your first morning in the country, you need to try a Full Scottish Breakfast; if you thought a Full English was good, its Scottish counterpart is a hundred times better.

Tattie scones (a flat potato cake), Black Pudding (blood sausage, admittedly an acquired taste) and a generous helping of haggis alongside all the usual delights of a ‘fry-up’ are a great way to set yourself up for the day. And no need to feel guilty, you’re going to walk it off and then some.

Get your fix at The Edinburgh Larder Café on the Royal Mile. Their coffee is exceptional, and if a Full Scottish isn’t your cup of tea, they have a wonderful veggie alternative to the Full Scottish along with a heap of lighter, healthier options.

10 am: Edinburgh Castle

The highlight for many visitors and one of the must-sees on our 3 day Edinburgh itinerary, the city’s castle is visible for miles around. First built in the 11th century, it was once an important royal castle, serving as home to the monarch until 1633.

Right up until 1923, the castle served as a military barracks and still plays its role in military history through the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo which takes place here every August.

Edinburgh Castle is open daily from 9:30 am to 6 pm in summer and 5 pm in winter. Tickets can be purchased at the entrance, but during busy periods the lines are long and there’s no guarantee of availability. Book online in advance to secure entry, or consider taking a guided walking tour of the castle with fast track entry for the best experience.

Midday: The Royal Mile

Running exactly a (Scottish) mile from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, this cobbled street was first dubbed the Royal Mile by the author William Gilbert in 1901. In the decades which followed, guidebook publishers started to use the name more frequently until it stuck.

As a little bit of useless trivia, the Royal Mile actually runs for around 1.123 miles as we know them today, but in years gone by, Scotland measured things differently. The old Scottish mile was 1.123 miles, so the name is technically both correct and incorrect at the same time.

The Royal Mile today is lined with souvenir shops, traditional pubs and independent coffee shops, so there’s plenty of places to stop to rest your legs along the way. If you’re planning to get some Scotch whisky, some of the best whisky shops in Edinburgh are along this street. For the best prices, and least tourists, get you stash from Cadenhead’s towards the Holyrood end of the Mile.

The Royal Mile is also dotted with some of Edinburgh’s finest buildings. St Giles Cathedral, City Chambers, Tron Kirk and Market Cross are among the top sights you’ll pass on your walk.

1 pm: A Quick Lunch

There’s no end of places to pop in for lunch along the Royal Mile. Towards the Holyrood end, Oink Canongate is a great place for a quick (and cheap) bite. Their pulled pork sandwiches are melt-in-the-mouth delicious. If you prefer something a little more formal, Clarinda’s Tearoom is the quintessential British tearoom serving homemade scones, cakes and light lunches.

1:30 pm: Palace of Holyroodhouse

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Balmoral Castle is the royal residence in Scotland, but the official residence of the Royal Family has been the Palace of Holyrood since the 14th century and it remains so today.

Exterior of the Palace of Holyroodhouse

Holyrood is also the seat of the devolved Scottish Parliament which sits at the Scottish Parliament Building which itself is next to the Palace and is colloquially referred to as ‘Holyrood’.

The Palace of Holyrood is open year-round to visitors. Highlights of a visit include the State Rooms, Throne Room and the Great Gallery plus the majestic Holyrood Abbey which stands in the grounds. The Palace is open from 9:30 am, closing at 6 pm during summer and 4:30 pm through the winter. Tickets can be purchased on the day but it’s cheaper to book online.

3.30 pm: Arthur’s Seat

Right behind Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh’s most famous natural landmark is Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano rising 250 meters above the city. If you’re a keen hiker, it’s well worth taking a walk to the summit. It’s not a difficult climb and the round trip usually take around an hour-and-a-half.

If hiking isn’t quite your cup of tea, enjoy the views of the hill from Holyrood Park. St Margaret’s Loch is the perfect spot to relax and unwind. On the south side of the loch, you’ll find the ruins of St Anthony’s Chapel.

5:30 pm: Cockburn Street

Once you’ve explored Holyrood Park and made your way back to the heart of the Old Town, take a minute to marvel at Cockburn Street, one of the most photogenic spots in Edinburgh. Look out for the building with an owl and a cat engraved into the stonework. It’s an ode to Edward Lear’s poem The Owl and the Pussycat, and half the fun’s looking for it, so you’re not getting any clues.

6 pm: A Wee Dram

On the corner of Cockburn Street and High Street, The Albanach is one of the best pubs in Edinburgh. It’s almost always busy, so pull up a stool at the bar and make some new friends whilst indulging in a Scotch or two. If you can’t decide which one to try, order a flight and create your own little whisky tasting experience. And if you don’t do whisky, don’t worry, they have everything imaginable.

7 pm: Dinner

If a tipple leaves you feeling hungry, you’ll be glad to hear you’ve only got a few steps to walk to find a traditional Scottish dinner. Whilst you’re spoilt for choice with restaurants in the Old Town, Angels with Bagpipes is the place to go. How could you possibly pass up a place with a name like that?

Just along the High Street from The Albanach, they serve everything you’d expect from a Scottish restaurant (all apart from deep fried Mars bars, that is). There’s Haggis bon bons with whisky sauce, fresh fish, local crab, juicy steak and plenty more.

After Dark

If you’re a night owl and fancy staying out a bit later, there’s a huge number of places to go. Catch a show at the Royal Lyceum theatre, get your wits scared out of you on a ghost tour of the Old Town’s underground vaults or sit back and relax in a chic wine bar.

Day 2: The Firth of Forth

Every historic city has its river to thank for its success and Edinburgh is no different. Famous for its bridges, there’s plenty more to discover along the banks.

9 am: Breakfast

Today’s journey starts from either Edinburgh Waverley or Haymarket station, whichever is nearest to your hotel. If Waverley is closer, head for The Society Bar & Kitchen. Their full breakfasts are amazing, as are their filling breakfast sandwiches and freshly cooked eggs. If Haymarket’s your station, try Troy Café Bistro, a trendy Turkish café who dish up delicious breakfasts at astonishingly low prices.

9:45 am: Train to Dalmeny

Purchase a one-way (single) ticket to Dalmeny which can be purchased online. Aim to catch a train just before 10 am. The journey to Dalmeny takes around 20 minutes.

11 am: Cruise on the Forth

Forth Boat Tours run sightseeing cruises along the Firth of Forth from Hawes Quay in South Queensferry, a few minutes’ walk from Dalmeny station. They have three different trips, the best by far being the Inchcolm Island Cruise which leaves at 11 am.

Book your space in advance to make sure you get onboard. This trip not only offers spectacular views of the Forth Bridges and up close experiences with wildlife including seals and puffins, but the chance to explore Inchcolm Island.

Uninhabited today, the island was once home to a community of monks and nuns. They lived in Inchcolm Abbey which is now owned by Historic Scotland and open to visitors from April to October every year. The cruise allows 90 minutes to explore the island before heading back to the mainland. A landing fee of £7.50, which includes entrance to the abbey, is payable on arrival.

2 pm: Travel to Leith

Once you land back in Queensferry, follow the banks of the Forth to Leith, to reach your next stop: the Royal Yacht. The quickest and easiest way to reach it is to take a taxi. Uber is available in Edinburgh and you shouldn’t have to wait long. Traffic dependent, the ride lasts about 30 minutes and should cost no more than £20.

If you prefer to take public transport, head back to Dalmeny station and catch a train to Haymarket. From here, take a tram towards Newhaven and alight at Ocean Terminal, a five-minute walk from the Royal Yacht.

Travel tip: If visiting in winter, you might want to skip a river cruise. Instead, take a trip to Rosslyn Chapel, which lies seven miles south of the city center.

3 pm: The Royal Yacht Britannia

Once the pride and joy of Queen Elizabeth II’s fleet, HMY Britannia served the royal family for over 40 years. In 1997, the decision (quite a controversial one at the time) was taken to retire Britannia as the cost of maintaining her was soaring, and she was moored in Leith.

Whilst she may no longer sail, she has become one of Edinburgh’s most iconic tourist attractions and welcomes over 300,000 visitors every year. A visit to the Royal Yacht is a highlight of any trip to Edinburgh.

The Yacht is open every day except Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, with opening hours which vary by season. Visitor numbers are capped, so it’s worth booking your tickets online before you go.

5 pm: Leith

Once you’ve finished exploring the Yacht, spend some time exploring Leith. Heavily redeveloped over the past few decades, this once rundown dock is now one of Edinburgh’s coolest neighborhoods. If you fancy a spot of retail therapy, Ocean Terminal Mall is right next to the Britannia and has a number of big name stores.

After that, lose yourself wandering the streets of Leith. Stop off for a cocktail at The Barologist where they craft exciting meteorology-themed cocktails or grab a coffee with a view from Mimi’s.

7 pm: Dinner

Leith boasts loads of great restaurants and is fast becoming the culinary heart of Edinburgh. If you feel like splurging, a meal at Michelin-starred The Kitchin is an experience to remember. Their tasting menus celebrate the best of Scottish cuisine, using locally sourced ingredients.

For something a little more casual, The Ship on The Shore serves all the pub classics with a focus on local seafood.

Leith is always buzzing after dark, so if you’re not in need of an early night, stick around and join the party. When the weather’s good, you could easily spend all night in Teuchters Landing’s beer garden which overlooks the water.

Day 3: The New Town & Princes Street

Despite the name, Edinburgh’s New Town is anything but new. It was built long after the Old Town, during the Georgian period between 1767 and 1850, hence it became known as the New Town. Running north from Princes Street, it’s home to some of the city’s finest architecture.

9 am: Breakfast

Start your day with a delicious breakfast from Urban Angel. They’re known for their all day brunch, the highlights of which include Eggs Benedict, Bacon and Lorne Sausage Rolls and Baked Eggs in a rich tomato sauce.

10 am: Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Just a few steps from Urban Angel, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery sits on St Andrew Square. The square was one of the first parts of the New Town to be built and soon developed into the city’s most desirable address.

The gallery is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm and admission is free. Inside, it’s home to nine exhibitions which include historic portraits of Scotland’s greatest movers and shakers along with some modern interpretations.

Midday: The Georgian House

From the National Portrait Gallery, walk the length of George Street, the main street running through the New Town. It’s lined with stunning Victorian buildings and is home to many of Edinburgh’s top boutique shops.

At the far end of George Street, you’ll reach Charlotte Square. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the square was designed to be a mirror of St Andrew Square. The Georgian House sits on the square’s northern side and has been restored by the National Trust to look just as it would have in the 18th century.

1 pm: Royal Botanic Garden

From Charlotte Square, it’s about a 25-minute walk to the Royal Botanic Gardens. A taxi will take just over five minutes, or you can walk back to Hanover Street and take a bus from just opposite Urban Angel (lines 9, 23 and 27 will drop you by the entrance to the Garden).

The Royal Botanic Gardens started life in 1670 growing medicinal plants in Holyrood Park. It moved to the current location in 1820. The gardens span over 70 acres and feature collections including a rock garden, arboretum and a Chinese garden. And the best part, admission is free.

4 pm: Princes Street

To get back to Princes Street, take a bus from right outside the main entrance back to Hanover Street. The journey takes around 10 minutes. If you prefer to walk, it should take around half an hour.

Princes Street is Edinburgh’s main shopping street with numerous shops along its northern edge. The south side of the street overlooks Princes Street Gardens with panoramic views up to Edinburgh Castle and Old Town.

Spend some time ambling around the gardens admiring the views and beautifully kept flower arrangements. During the winter, this is where the Christmas markets are held. At the eastern end of the gardens, the Scott Monument is an unmissable icon of the city skyline. Built in 1838, it was designed to pay homage to Sir Walter Scott, the Scottish author who studied and lived in Edinburgh for many years.

fountain in princes street gardens edinburgh scotland with edinburgh castle in the background
Princes Street Gardens (Source: Trip Advisor)

7 pm: Dinner

For a memorable final dinner to make the end of your 3 day Edinburgh itinerary, head to Indian restaurant Dishoom on St Andrew Square. You may think Haggis, Neeps and Tatties are Scotland’s national dish, but I’m afraid to say you’d be wrong. It’s actually Chicken Tikka Masala.

If Indian food doesn’t do it for you, Italian is another national favorite in Scotland. Try Contini on George Street. Housed in a 19th century bank, they’re known for fresh, handmade pasta and local seafood.

After Dark

Make the most of your last night in Edinburgh by taking a trip on the Edinburgh Ghost Bus which gives a different perspective on the city’s attractions. After that, head along to SKYbar (Bread Street, in the Doubletree Hotel) to watch the city lights twinkling with a night cap or two.

Book your table in advance as this is one of Edinburgh’s most popular bars and space is limited.


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