Draped across seven hills and crowned by a dramatic 15th-century castle, Scotland’s capital city is the second-most-visited city in the United Kingdom (after London). Edinburgh teems with historic landmarks, diverse museums, fantastic shopping and a thriving food and pub scene.
Within Edinburgh’s medieval Old Town and neoclassical New Town, there’s so much to experience. If you only have a day in the city, don’t despair: The city is big enough to keep you entertained but compact enough that you can explore almost everything on foot.
Here’s everything you need to know to make the most of your 24-hour visit to Edinburgh.
Getting there and getting around
Direct flights to Edinburgh are available from New York City, Boston, Orlando, Atlanta, Chicago and Washington, D.C., through Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic and other carriers.
We opted for a roughly 15-minute Uber ride (30.98 British pounds, or about $39) from the airport to our hotel thanks to our 2 a.m. arrival (the last tram from the airport is at 10:48 p.m.). However, we used the Edinburgh Tram during our stay and when we returned to the airport. It was extremely convenient.
Trams run about every seven minutes during peak hours every day of the week. In the early morning and evening, they run about every 10 minutes. Multiday tickets are available and a good idea if you’re staying longer than one day and plan to explore beyond a walkable distance from your hotel.
Edinburgh is an extremely walkable city, especially if your itinerary is primarily around the city center and the Royal Mile. However, public transportation is reliable, with Lothian Buses operating more than 50 routes within the city and surrounding neighborhoods.
Stay near the action
Our hotel, the voco Edinburgh – Royal Terrace, an IHG Hotel was on Royal Terrace, on the north side of Calton Hill within the New Town area. Since I was using points and miles for our hotel, my points went further at a property a bit beyond the main tourist areas. I redeemed 97,831 Capital One miles for our eight-night stay. Rates start from $165 or 28,000 IHG One Rewards points per night.
If you prefer to be closer to the action, consider a stay at the lovely Hilton Edinburgh Carlton (from $253 or 60,000 Hilton Honors points per night) or Hotel Indigo Edinburgh – Princes Street, an IHG Hotel (from $195 or 38,000 IHG One Rewards points per night). Splurge on a stay at the iconic Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh – The Caledonian, ideally situated on Princes Street with fantastic views of Edinburgh Castle. Rates start from $275 or 67,000 Hilton Honors points per night.
Hike Calton Hill
Begin your day with an early morning climb up Calton Hill, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The entrance is at the east end of Princes Street. The hill is home to a collection of historic monuments, including the unfinished National Monument, honoring Scottish soldiers who died during the Napoleonic wars. The memorial inspired Calton’s moniker, “Athens of the North,” due to its likeness to the Parthenon. Other monuments are the Nelson Monument, the Dugald Stewart Monument, the Monument to the Scottish Parliament and the City Observatory. The Collective shop inside the observatory showcases local art, crafts and other unique souvenirs.
Arrive early to avoid the crowds and secure less people-y photos of the fantastic panoramas of Edinburgh. For a look at the city bathed in soft golden and pink hues, visit at sunset. However, you’ll likely jockey for space as it’s probably the most popular time to visit.
Stroll the Royal Mile
Edinburgh’s cobblestoned Royal Mile is the spine of Scotland’s historic capital and the focal point of the city’s Old Town. Stretching from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the mile (technically 200 yards longer than a mile) earned its name from its 500-year history as the processional route for kings and queens.
Souvenir shopping opportunities abound along the route. You’ll find a surfeit of shops filled with tweed, tartans, whisky and all sorts of glorious Scottish kitsch. The route also teems with historic landmarks, lively pubs and fantastic restaurants.
Tour Edinburgh Castle
Rising from Castle Rock, an extinct volcano at the top of the Royal Mile, Edinburgh Castle is one of Europe’s oldest fortifications. It’s been a royal residence, military garrison, prison and fortress since the 11th century.
It’s a fascinating place to spend a couple of hours. The castle houses three military museums, the National War Museum (part of National Museums Scotland) and Scotland’s crown jewels, the crown, sword and scepter used during the crowning of every Scottish monarch. You’ll also tour the Royal Palace, which features Mary Queen of Scots’ antechamber and handmade embroideries, as well as St. Margaret’s Chapel, constructed in 1130 by King David I and Edinburgh’s oldest building.
Make sure you’re inside the castle for the firing of the One o’Clock Gun, a tradition that dates to 1861. Book tickets online before your visit to secure a time slot. Family bundled tickets are available at a reduced rate. Guests age 6 and under receive free entry.
Visit a museum
There’s no shortage of museums that offer a peek into Scotland’s rich history. The best part is that many are free to enter (donations are encouraged). Here are three to consider.
Museum of Edinburgh
Inside the 16th-century Huntly House, on the Royal Mile’s Canongate area, a varied collection of relics bring to life Edinburgh’s origins and history, including an original copy of the National Covenant; the 1638 document opposed reforms proposed by the Church of Scotland and King Charles I. The museum is free and small enough that it doesn’t take long to explore.
National Museum of Scotland
This massive museum is a treasure trove of collections and exhibits that encompass everything from nature and science to technology and design. Among the highlights are Dolly the sheep, the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell; the 800,000-year-old Muonionalusta meteorite; and the pyramid casing stone (2589-2566 BC), one of the few surviving casing stones from the Great Pyramid of Giza, and the only one on display outside Egypt. Entry is free.
We were fortunate that our visit coincided with the limited exhibition of one of Scotland’s most important historical artifacts, the Declaration of Arbroath. Dated April 6, 1320, the letter was penned by the Kingdom of Scotland’s barons and freeholders asking Pope John XXII to acknowledge the country’s independence and recognize Robert the Bruce as Scotland’s lawful king.
Scottish National Portrait Gallery
This art museum on Queen Street is one of three National Galleries of Scotland and features an incredible collection of portraits of Scotland’s historical figures and notable Scots. It opened in 1889 and was the first gallery specifically built for portraits. The Scottish National Gallery showcases works from the Renaissance to the early 20th century, while the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art houses 20th- and 21st-century works.
Get a local perspective
Elsewhere connected us with local guide Steven Lindsay. Owned by TPG’s sister brand, Lonely Planet, the company pairs travelers directly with local experts in destinations around the world, including Scotland.
Lindsay worked in the banking industry for several years. However, he always had a passion for sharing the natural beauty and attractions of Scotland. He eventually left finance for full-time tourism, providing unique and personalized experiences throughout Scotland. Lindsay was an invaluable resource, offering historical perspectives, attraction suggestions, restaurant guidance and more.
Take a ‘Harry Potter’ tour with The Potter Trail
Lindsay also arranged our tour with The Potter Trail, Edinburgh’s first “Harry Potter”-themed walking tour. The company grew from a small Facebook group offering a few bespoke tours to leading several tours a day, every day. Tours are free (don’t forget to tip your guide), but you can book a private tour for your group starting at 35 British pounds (about $45) per person.
Our guide, Colin Branwell, provided a well-curated experience that touched on local history, lore and Edinburgh’s connection to J.K. Rowling’s quintessential series. Highlights included a stroll through Greyfriars Kirkyard, where you can visit the gravesite of Thomas Riddell and his son. The tour concluded on Victoria Street, which is believed to have inspired Diagon Alley and is often referred to as “Harry Potter Street.” There you can stock up on all things “Harry Potter” at Museum Context or enjoy a pint and a pie at Bow Bar (aka the Leaky Cauldron).
Do a whisky tasting
In addition to arranging our “Harry Potter” tour, Lindsay set us up with a private whisky tasting. We met with Michael Johnstone, managing director and co-founder of Edinburgh-based Walkie Talky Brewing Co.
Not being big whisky drinkers, we were excited to learn more about Scotland’s popular beverage. Our time with Johnstone gave us a better perspective of the complexities of whisky, from production to consumption. We sampled three whiskies while Johnstone shared details about the different types of whiskies and Scotland’s five whisky-producing regions.
Visit The Real Mary King’s Close
This is a fascinating opportunity to explore Edinburgh’s medieval underbelly. “Closes” are the narrow and serpentine alleys that branch off the Royal Mile. They were traditionally named after a notable resident or trade shared by several residents.
The Real Mary King’s Close was named in 1630 after resident Mary King, who built her own fabric business after her husband died. It comprised several towering tenement buildings — some reaching seven stories. In 1760, the close was partly destroyed and covered to make way for the construction of the Royal Exchange. It reopened as an attraction in 2003. A tour provides an intimate (and dark) look at life during the plague and those who called Mary King’s Close home in the 16th and 17th centuries.
As I mentioned earlier, there are loads of shopping opportunities in Old Town along the Royal Mile and the Grassmarket area, including high-end clothing and textiles shops, souvenir stores, food shops and more. Sate your sweet tooth at the Edinburgh Fudge Kitchen and browse Scottish-made Harris tweed and cashmere items at Scottish Textiles Showcase.
If you’re a fan of vintage clothing and thrift shops, don’t miss W. Armstrong & Son, one of the oldest and most popular vintage emporiums in the U.K. The original shop was opened in 1840 by William Armstrong and featured traditional men’s attire. Shoppers today can peruse everything from military uniforms and kilts to clothing and accessories from the ‘50s and ‘60s. There are four locations, including Old Town’s Grassmarket and Cockburn Street shops.
Eat all the food, drink all the pints
Edinburgh boasts a thriving culinary scene with almost limitless ways to taste the capital city — popular breakfast spots, comfort food restaurants, pub grub and more.
Edinburgh Larder and Little Larder: The two side-by-side restaurants serve breakfast and lunch, and both are very popular. Everything is made in-house using locally sourced ingredients.
Cafe Vivo: Right beside the Museum of Edinburgh, this tiny bistro has a big menu — breakfast items, soup, pasta, paninis, fish and chips and lots more.
Cafe Elm Row: This is another cozy place for breakfast, brunch or lunch in the Leith Walk neighborhood.
Greyfriars Bobby’s Bar: This historic pub sits on Candlemaker Row, just a short walk from the Grassmarket area of the Royal Mile. It’s named after a local legend, a dog named Bobby, who watched over his owner’s grave every night until his own death. (He’s buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard next door.) After your fish and chips (which you should absolutely order), visit Bobby’s bronze statue outside the pub and rub his nose for good luck.
Bow Bar: Pretend you’re at the Leaky Cauldron scheming ways to destroy Lord Voldemort. Pies on offer here are handmade locally by Jarvis Pickle Kitchen, and they are fabulous.
Bonnie & Wild Scottish Marketplace: This food hall features some of Scotland’s best independent food and drink producers. Our pies from Soup and Caboodle were on point.
The Fishmarket, Newhaven: I ordered fish and chips any chance I got, and this was my favorite place for them. Order the calamari, too. Trust me on that.
If you’re all about pub life, you will not be disappointed. Biddy Mulligans, in the heart of Grassmarket, offers an authentic Irish pub vibe and is something of a local institution. Sandy Bell’s features folk music and is a great place to chat with locals. Named after the creator of Sherlock Holmes, The Conan Doyle is near Picardy Place, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born.
Have more than a day in Edinburgh?
If you’re lucky enough to spend more than 24 hours in Scotland’s capital city, there’s plenty more to explore. Here are worthy additions to your longer itinerary.
Palace of Holyroodhouse
Originally built by James IV of Scotland between 1501 and 1505, the Palace of Holyroodhouse serves as the royal family’s official residence while in Scotland. The Royal Mile ends at the gates of the palace.
A self-guided audio tour of the expansive palace includes the state apartments, a portrait-bedecked throne room, lovely royal gardens and ruins of the 12th-century Holyrood Abbey.
Hike to Arthur’s Seat
Arthur’s Seat is the highest point of an ancient volcano that’s part of a group of hills known as the Salisbury Crags. You can access the trail from Holyrood Park near the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The (roughly) 2 1/2-mile loop takes around an hour and a half to complete, but you’ll be rewarded with incredible 360-degree views of Edinburgh and the Port of Leith beyond.
Parts of the climb may be challenging. However, I’m not exactly in peak form, and I was able to make it to the summit and back.
St. Giles’ Cathedral
This historic cathedral was founded by King David I in 1124, and most of the exterior dates back to a remodeling in 1833. It was dedicated to St. Giles, the medieval saint of lepers and those with disabilities. It’s just across the street from The Real Mary King’s Close. Join a free daily guided tour at 10:30 a.m. or 2:30 p.m.
Eat more food
If I’m being honest, I grieved over restaurants I wasn’t able to dine at during my visit — though I must admit my “to-eat” list might have been a bit ambitious. I’m already compiling a list of a few restaurants I’ve vowed to hit when I return to Edinburgh.