It’s amazing how much you can see and experience in only 3 days in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can easily get lost in the magic of the city, what with its narrow and meandering cobblestone streets and that impressive castle looming high above the city. With its relatively compact city center, easy (albeit sometimes hilly) walkability, a long weekend in Edinburgh will keep you busy with a variety of sights that speak to fans of history, the arts, food, and more. Here are some of my favorite spots to discover in the Scottish capital city!
3 days in Edinburgh: What to Do in Edinburgh
With only 3 days in Edinburgh, you have to prioritize what you see and do. Here are a few of my favorites from exploring the Scottish capital city!
Seemingly anywhere you go in Edinburgh, the city’s castle is standing watch from above. It’s like the North Star, an ideal landmark from which to orient yourself as you explore. But the castle is also the country’s most popular paid attraction and with good reason. Still an active military garrison for the British, Edinburgh Castle dates to the 12th century. But the location has been of strategic importance since at least the Iron Age. Over the centuries, it has played a pivotal role in Scottish history earning it the title of one of the world’s most attacked places.
It’s remarkable just how many buildings sit up on that hill within the walls of the castle. It’s so large there are squares that serve as landmarks and gathering points. In addition to the original castle and its historic defenses, there are more recent additions, such as the Scottish National War Memorial. Tours are available or you can go off and explore the castle grounds on your own. The castle offers stunning views over Edinburgh and all the way to the Leith waterfront.
A visit to Edinburgh Castle is a must and for that reason, you can expect crowds. Buy your tickets ahead of time and you can avoid the ticket purchasing line. At times, the crowds can be overwhelming as some exhibits (such as the Scottish crown jewels and the Stone of Scone) are in relatively small rooms repurposed from the castle.
If you’re just looking for a souvenir, the castle has a really nice gift shop. While the gift shop is after the security checks, it is before the ticket check. So even if you don’t have a ticket, you can stop in for a souvenir.
The palace was constructed in the 17th century for Charles II. Also on the grounds and nearby to the palace sit the ruins of Holyrood Abbey from the 12th century. While it was in use over the centuries, the abbey saw coronations (such as James II and Margaret Tudor) as well as royal weddings (James II, III and IV). Likewise, there are many notable names interred at the abbey, including King David II in 1371 and King James V (the father of Mary, Queen of Scots) in 1542.
In addition to the palace, there’s also a cafe with cafeteria-style service or, if you reserve ahead of time, afternoon tea.
Only a narrow street separates the Palace at Holyrood from the Scottish Parliament. And it’s difficult to miss the legislative building, what with its very modern design aesthetic. In fact, the building is rather famous for its style that observers either tend to love or hate.
The building is relatively new having only been inaugurated in 2004 after roughly five years of construction. The building is the work of architects Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue, a husband and wife team. (Unfortunately, Miralles did not live to see the completion of the project, dying in 2000 of a brain tumor at the young age of only 45.)
The building is very approachable. Visitors can walk right up to the building for closer inspection. Sustainability is a focus of the building so there are solar panels and significant use of insulation for those Scottish winters. But it’s the panels that cover the exterior of the building that catches the eye. Sticks line, not unlike bars, some of the building’s windows and along the front entrance. Elsewhere, along Canongate, pieces of rock appear to protrude out of the building.
Just behind Holyrood Palace and the Parliament building sits Holyrood Park. The 650-acre park was once only for the royals but today it’s a popular spot for recreation and exploring. There are a number of historic ruins of churches and forts on the grounds.
But perhaps the most popular “attraction” within Holyrood Park is Arthur’s Seat, the park’s highest point and also an extinct volcano. Remarkably, there’s evidence of humans on Arthur’s Seat from 5000 BC!
Today, you can make the trek to the top of the crag for stunning 360-degree views over Edinburgh and all the way up and down the coast. You can even pick out North Berwick Law along the coast. Good footwear is a necessity for hikes on Arthur’s Seat as the trail is rocky and not always so obvious. Experts say it takes roughly 45 minutes for someone in good shape to reach the summit. I’d agree with that estimate and encourage taking breaks along the way. It’s more difficult than you expect it to be! But the view from the top and the beautiful scenery along the way make it more than worthwhile.
Visit a Museum
You simply can’t skip culture, even if you only have 3 days in Edinburgh! As the capital of Scotland, Edinburgh is home to a number of “national” museums. And if you’re looking to save some money, Edinburgh has some fantastic museums with free entry. There’s the National Museum of Scotland, the National War Museum. In terms of art, there’s the Scottish National Gallery, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
I stopped at the Scottish National Gallery during my visit. The collection includes many Scottish works of excellent quality. In particular, I couldn’t help noticing that there is an unusually large number of works depicting dogs. Do yourself a favor and stop by at least one of the museums.
Princes Street Gardens
Anyone who spends a day or longer in the center of Edinburgh is sure to experience the Princes Street Gardens. The garden sits between Princes Street and Edinburgh Castle and stretches more than five blocks along the length of the street from which it gets its name. It is simply a lovely spot for a break in this very urban city. Be sure to see the large Ross Fountain in the western end of the park.
Even in only 3 days in Edinburgh, you can get a great feel for the city by walking the walk in any of these main streets in the city. Each is a little different from the others with some special to offer.
- The Royal Mile is a tourist destination famous for its pub and bagpipers. The stretch runs, roughly, between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace. As it sits in the city’s Old Town neighborhood, the architecture and details along the street are historic and transport you back to another era.
- The main street through the heart of Edinburgh is Princes Street. Lined with shopping and restaurants on one side and the Princes Street Gardens on the other, Princes Street is quite busy with both pedestrians and drivers.
- A little off the beaten path, Rose Street is a charming pedestrian-only street with rose mosaics set in the pavement. The street is largely pubs and restaurants along with other shops and businesses. If you’re into film or music, I highly recommend checking out Fopp. The multi-storey shop is your go-to location for movies and music.
- George Street runs parallel to Princes and Rose Streets but is farther north. With some higher-end stores and restaurants, it’s less busy than Princes Street but more commercial than Rose Street.
Edinburgh has statues and monuments throughout the city. It helps turn ordinary streets into something special. It’s not every day, after all, that you come upon a monument to a mathematician (in this case James Clark Maxwell) featuring his mathematical formula. The city’s best-known monument is likely the Scott Memorial, in memory of the country’s beloved author Sir Walter Scott. The memorial sits in the heart of the busy downtown and visitors can even go inside for a fee.
Elsewhere, at the end of George Street, you’ll find the Melville Monument in St. Andrew’s Square. An interesting monument given that its namesake, Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, was the last person to be impeached in the United Kingdom after he was accused of misappropriation of money. Or, you can go stand outside the home just off of Charlotte Square where inventor Alexander Graham Bell was born.
Anyone looking to experience the most charming part of Edinburgh need look no further than Dean Village. The historic area was once a village known for hundreds of years for its grain milling thanks to its location along the meandering Waters of Leith. Today, the area is perhaps Edinburgh’s most picturesque neighborhood full of historic buildings converted into homes and a walkway to the city’s museum of modern art.
Since I was a teenager sitting in study hall reading Trainspotting and Marabou Stork Nightmares, Irvine Welsh has been one of my favorite authors. Many of his stories are set in Edinburgh and, more specifically, the Leith area on the outskirts of the city right along the Firth of Forth waterfront. So, of course, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to explore the setting.
But, as anyone who saw the film sequel to Trainspotting knows, the area has not escaped gentrification. Today you can go for a lovely stroll along the Waters of Leith that flows through the heart of the neighborhood and down to the port. You’ll pass through a charming area of pubs, restaurants, tea rooms, and more. There are Michelin-starred restaurants, a luxury hotel on a ship docked just next to the Royal Yacht Britannia, which served the royal family until the late 1990s and can now be toured by visitors. But indeed the historic nature of this working-class area still shines through.
Where to Stay in Edinburgh
Many visitors to Edinburgh may set their sights on staying near all the action along the Royal Mile or near Waverley Station, the city’s main train station. But I prefer a more quiet hotel in Edinburgh city center, like the Kimpton Charlotte Square. It’s a cool, comfortable, and convenient hotel in the city’s New Town neighborhood.
The hotel encapsulates all of the hip and whimsical touches you expect from a Kimpton brand hotel. A combination of seven Georgian townhomes, it’s got old bones but it’s thoroughly modern through and through. Add to that hands-on service — a helpful concierge escorted us to our room while providing sightseeing tips — and small touches — the in-room kettle always wins me over and the gourmet coffee roasted locally in Leith was a thumbs up for my husband — make a big difference. For 3 days in Edinburgh, the Kimpton is a great place to relax at the end of a busy day and still convenient and full of character.
Places to Eat in Edinburgh
With only 3 days in Edinburgh, it can be difficult picking places to eat. Here are a few spots I enjoyed!
The Alexander Graham Bell
As tourists, we all want to avoid chain restaurants and feel like a local. But what happens when all the locals are at the chain?
Simply for convenience — it’s literally just around the corner from the Kimpton Charlotte Square — we enjoyed breakfast at the Alexander Graham Bell pub each morning of our trip. Part of Wetherspoons, a British chain including pubs, restaurants, and hotels, the order-at-the-bar pub is quick, efficient, and cost-effective. The food is really quite decent and the staff is genuinely friendly. In the evenings, the spot is jam-packed with locals: families, young couples, and seniors.
If it’s wrapped in tasty, flaky pastry then you can find it at The Piemaker. Traditional Scotch, beef, haggis, hot dogs, apple: the Piemaker lives up to the promise of its name. So long as you get there early enough because once they’re gone, they’re gone! There’s a small amount of seating in the shop along the front window or you can grab and go.
eteaket Tea Room
Anyone looking for a good cuppa or afternoon tea in Edinburgh is spoilt for choice. But while many tea rooms can be a bit old fashioned, eteaket Tea Room is decidedly modern. The locally based tea shop complimented their thriving tea business with this cafe that serves breakfast, lunch, and afternoon tea. The selection of teas on offer will delight any serious tea fan!
Royal Mile Tavern
There is no shortage of options along the Royal Mile for a drink or a meal. But the Royal Mile Tavern caught my attention with their old school decor (lots of gorgeous hardwood) and a menu blending modern with traditional (haggis tacos?!). The food is decent and the staff is extremely helpful.
A popular spot since 1975, L’alba D’oro is considered the best fish and chip shop in Edinburgh. Who can argue with that? With an unassuming shop in a rather quiet residential neighborhood, grab a fish supper and head to the nearby George V Park to unwind.
Day Trips from Edinburgh
With only 3 days in Edinburgh, you have to be wise about your time. These day trips from Edinburgh aren’t too far and allow for plenty of time exploring. Plus, you get a great feel for the surrounding region.
Roughly a half-hour by train from Edinburgh sits the seaside town of North Berwick. The well to do suburban town offers all the charm you expect from a small town. Add to that fantastic rocky beaches, the Scottish Seabird Centre, nearby golf courses, and waterfront dining for a great day out. As if all that isn’t tempting enough, the ruins of Castle Tantallon are just down the road from the heart of North Berwick. The castle sits on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea and Bass Rock. It’s simply stunning!
While it’s impossible to see all that Glasgow has to offer in a single day, you shouldn’t disregard a visit to Scotland’s biggest city. Because there are strong rail connections between Edinburgh and Glasgow, if you only have a limited amount of time you can still fit in a day trip to get a taste of the city. By train, it’s less than an hour; trains run regularly and are relatively inexpensive.
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All opinions, as well as all photos, are my own. This post contains affiliate links.