When traveling to Scotland, it is a must to include Edinburgh on the itinerary. However, we wanted to explore more of Scotland, especially the beautiful Highlands, rather than spending our entire vacation in the city. Luckily, even though there are many things to do in Edinburgh, Scotland’s Old Town is compact so travelers can easily see much of Edinburgh in three days or less.
Tour a Medieval Castle
The Old Town of Edinburgh stretches along approximately one mile; to be specific, the Royal Mile. At the west end of the Royal Mile is Edinburgh Castle. A ticket includes the option of joining a 30-minute guided tour of Edinburgh Castle, which we found was the best way to learn about the castle’s history. After the tour, we were free to explore the various rooms and sights at the castle.
Robert the Bruce captured Edinburgh Castle in 1314 when 30 Scots overpowered the castle guard in the middle of the night. Since he wouldn’t be inhabiting the castle and wouldn’t be able to protect it from being taken back by the English, he made sure no one else could have it by burning it down. The only original building that survived is St. Margaret’s Chapel. St. Margaret’s Chapel was built in the 12th century and is also the oldest building in all of Edinburgh.
One of the highlights of Edinburgh Castle is the Scottish Crown Jewels. The Crown Jewels were hidden in Dunnotour Castle to save them from Oliver Cromwell. They were rediscovered in 1818 by a group of people including Sir Walter Scott. During World War II, the Crown of Scotland was hidden again, this time in a latrine closet in David’s Tower. It is now on display in the building that also holds the Royal Palace, where visitors can visit the room where Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI. The crown jewels date back to 1540 and are the oldest set of crown jewels in Great Britain. Charles II was the last to be crowned King of Scotland in 1651 with this crown before Scotland became part of the United Kingdom. Included in the display of the crown jewels is the Stone of Scone, which was originally at Scone Abbey and was the stone on which both Scottish and English kings were crowned for over 1,000 years.
In the same square as the Royal Palace is another highlight, the Scottish National War Memorial, which honors all Scots lost in wars through the present day. Look closely at the stained glass windows which contain scenes of war like tanks and troops. Across from the War Memorial is the Great Hall, which has a roof made with the hull of a ship. The roof is the only original piece remaining, as the rest of the Great Hall is from the 1800s. Related: 10 of the Best Castles in Scotland for a Road Trip Itinerary
Pretend to be Royalty at the Queen’s House
The Palace of Holyroodhouse is home to the royal family when they are in Scotland. The palace was originally an abbey built in 1128 by King David I. It was converted into a palace by James IV. The palace’s present form was rebuilt by Charles II in the 1670s.
Included with admission is an audio guide that explains the history of the palace and talks about each of the state apartments. The self-guided tour passes through rooms like the Throne Room, drawing rooms, and the Great Gallery. In addition to the state apartments are the older apartments of Mary, Queen of Scots. This is where she lived after returning from France and where her secretary, David Rizzio, was murdered by her husband.
The palace also shows special exhibits. During our visit, the special exhibit celebrated the Queen’s 90th birthday with an exhibition of the largest collection of her clothing to ever be shown in Scotland.
Behind the palace are remains of the abbey as well as the palace gardens.
Hike in the City
We were surprised to learn that we could actually take a hike in the middle of the city. Thanks to a local couple we met during our St. Giles’ Cathedral rooftop tour, we learned about this great hike. They had lived in Edinburgh for decades and had never climbed up to St. Giles’ rooftop before but had always wanted to. Also on their Edinburgh bucket list is hiking in Holyrood Park. I took their suggestion while Romeo golfed Musselburgh Links. Holyrood Park is directly behind the Palace of Holyroodhouse and offers miles of hiking along with views of Edinburgh.
Holyrood Park started as a royal hunting ground in the 1100s. There are a number of interesting archaeological and geological features in the park. The land upon which Edinburgh seats is the result of a volcano. Hikers can hike Arthurs’s Seat, the remains of Edinburgh’s volcano. Edinburgh Castle is built on a vent of the same volcano.
Another site in Holyrood Park is St. Anthony’s Chapel, a chapel built in the medieval times. The chapel and well used to be a place of pilgrimage for individuals with skin problems. Hunter’s Bog, nestled between Arthur’s Seat, Salisbury Crags, and Whinny Hill, is a haven for wildlife and rare plants, and is also a favorite for dogs and their owners.
Climb a Hill of Monuments
Calton Hill stands out along Edinburgh’s horizon because it is a hill covered with monuments that look more like ancient ruins from a distance. The monuments on Calton Hill include the National Monument, which looks like Athens’ Parthenon and honors soldiers that died in the Napoleonic Wars, the obelisk-like Nelson Monument which commemorates the death of Admiral Lord Nelson, and the Dugald Stewart Monument. Calton Hill also provides spectacular views of Edinburgh Castle, the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and Arthur’s Seat.
Ride a Whisky Barrel
Just a few doors down from Edinburgh Castle on the Royal Mile is the Scotch Whisky Experience, the Disneyland of Scotch Whisky. After buying our ticket we were ushered onto an amusement park ride, a whisky barrel car that travels along a track through the process of making whisky. It sounds kind of hokey, but it really is a lot of fun.
After the ride, we sat in a small room with other visitors, watched a short film about Scotch whisky followed by a short presentation by a guide, and then had the chance to taste a single malt whisky.
A visit to the Scotch Whisky Experience is like getting a really easy to understand primer on Scotch whisky. We learned the difference between a blend and a single malt. We learned that Scotland has four regions of Scotch whisky: the Lowlands, which produce whisky with citrus flavors; the Highlands, which produce whisky with floral and vanilla flavors; Speyside, which produces fruity whiskies; and Islay, the home of smoky, peaty whiskies.
After attending whisky school, we carried our dram of whisky into the Diageo Claive Vidiz Whisky Collection, a collection of 3,384 bottles of Scotch Whisky, the largest collection of full bottles of Scotch in the world. We then moved into the bar where we could not only purchase more whisky to taste, but also try some inventive whisky cocktails. While the Scottish are quick to say that single malt whisky should not be mixed with anything more than a drop or two of water, the mixed drinks made with blended whisky are quite delicious.
Stand on the Roof of a Cathedral
St. Giles’ Cathedral is the church of Edinburgh and stands apart from the rest of the city with its crown-shaped spire. St. Giles is the patron saint of criminals, lepers, and the physically disabled. The original church was built in 1124, but the current church was built in the Gothic style in 1370. In 1450 the roof was raised and the church was expanded. The oldest stained glass window in the cathedral is from 1873 and the newest is from 1985, a window created by Icelandic artist Leifur Breidfjörd and dedicated to Robert Burns.
The highlight of a visit to St. Giles’ Cathedral is joining the 20 minute St. Giles rooftop tour during which we learned about the cathedral’s history and climbed to the roof for views inside the bell tower and over the rooftops of Edinburgh.
Enjoy Afternoon Tea in a Library
In the same square as St. Giles’ Cathedral is one of the most refined places to enjoy afternoon tea in Edinburgh. The Colonnades at the Signet Library serves an impressive afternoon tea surrounded by bookcases that reach the high ceiling. The books are all law books. Solicitors (attorneys in American speak) in Scotland used to be known as writers. The Signet Library is maintained by the Society of Writers to Her Majesty’s Signet.
The Colonnades at the Signet Library has an extensive menu of teas from which to choose, including black teas, green teas, and fruity teas. Our waiter helped us successfully navigate the tea menu to choose the perfect teas for our tastes. One interesting tea on the menu we had never heard of before was Russian Caravan, a tea that was popular in the 1950s and is making a comeback. It is bold without being bitter and the Colonnades may be the only tea room that serves this unique tea.
Afternoon tea includes two trays of treats, the first savory and the second sweet. Everything is miniature and picture perfect. The savory offerings included carrot meringues, puffs of carrot air topped with goat cheese; miniature Beef Wellingtons; quail eggs with jamón ibérico, tarts with spinach mousse and caramelized walnuts; duck pastries; smoked salmon and caviar pannacotta; coronation chicken salad sandwiches; and egg salad sandwiches. The sweet miniature desserts included apple tea and gin Jell-O; pistachio macarons; lemon meringues; blueberry eclairs; and homemade scones served with clotted cream.
Walk the Royal Mile
The Royal Mile is the heart of Edinburgh. On one end is Edinburgh Castle and at the other the Palace at Holyroodhouse, and between Castlehill, Lawnmarket, High Street, Canongate, and Abbey Strand. Along the Royal Mile are Old Town Edinburgh’s most impressive buildings.
Listen to the Sound of Bagpipes Fill the Air
Two things that are quintessentially Scotland are bagpipes and kilts. You can get your fill of both in front of the High Court of Justiciary every day in the form of one of Edinburgh’s many bagpiping street performers. The plaintive sounds of the bagpipe echo through the streets of Edinburgh and can be heard blocks away.
Gossip about Scotland’s Literary Figures
A fun way to learn about Scotland’s famous literary figures, like Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson, is to join The Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour. The tour is led by two actors who play the roles of Clart and McBrain. Clart highlights the drunken debauchery of Scotland’s famous authors while McBrain tries to elevate the conversation to a more intellectual level. All of this while leading the group to Edinburgh’s pubs and courtyards so Scotland’s literary stories can be enjoyed with a pint of Scottish beer. In addition to visiting local pubs and learning about Scottish authors, the tour also touches on some of Edinburgh’s history, like that of Grassmarket which had a gallows where criminals were hanged, including Maggie Dickson whose crime was not reporting her pregnancy. She survived her hanging and was heard banging on her coffin. Since her sentence was public hanging, which did not specify death, she was able to live the rest of her life free, having served her sentence.
Dodge the Plague in an Edinburgh Close
We stepped back in time to when Edinburgh was jam packed with people who practically lived on top of each other in not the best of conditions by taking a tour of an Edinburgh close. A close is a narrow passageway between two buildings. The poor of Edinburgh lived in the belly of these buildings, some in interior rooms with no windows to allow in light or fresh air.
The Real Mary King’s Close is a well-preserved example of how people lived hundreds of years ago. While the close wouldn’t have been underground, it feels like it is now because a floor was built at street level that creates a roof a few stories above the bottom floor of the building along the close. A guided tour takes visitors into many rooms of the close and tells the story of the building’s owner, Mary Close, a female merchant, and some of the residents. Included on the tour are windowless rooms that acted as family homes, a room where cows were kept and slaughtered, and a residence of a family stricken with the plague. Mary King’s close was very popular since it was near the food market, so had as many as 700 residents in one building. One tiny, dark stone room housed 12 people. What made Mary King’s close popular also made it one of the most deadly places to live when the plague struck because rats were drawn to the food market and fleas spread the disease.
(Don’t) Rub the Nose of Edinburgh’s Loyal Dog
Scotland’s most famous dog is Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye Terrier that kept vigil at his master’s grave for 14 years. The story goes that John Gray, an Edinburgh policeman, adopted a stray dog as his watchdog and named him Bobby. John Gray died and was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard. Bobby accompanied his master to the grave where he was buried and continued to guard the grave every night until he also passed on, 14 years later. The life-size bronze statue of Greyfriars Bobby was erected to memorialize the most faithful man’s best friend. Many travelers think rubbing the nose of the statue brings good luck, as evidenced by his shiny nose. However, Edinburgh residents insist this is just a rumor that was started by a tour company and beg that travelers stop rubbing wee Bobby’s nose so that the sculpture will not be destroyed.
Pay Respects to Scotland’s Heroes and Villains
It might come as a surprise that an American flag flies in Greyfriars Kirk. The church has stood since 1620 and its first service was Christmas Day of that year, the same month and year the Mayflower set anchor in Plymouth harbor. Greyfriars Kirk has one more connection to the United States as the refurbished ceiling is made from California redwoods.
Surrounding the church is Greyfriars Kirkyard, the church’s immense graveyard. Many of Edinburgh’s elite citizens are buried here, as well as its villains. After visiting the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, visitors can then visit both the grave of John Gray, where Bobby slept for 14 years, and the headstone for Bobby, where visitors leave sticks for him to fetch in the afterlife.
Release Your Inner Taphophile
You may be a taphophile and not even know it. If you are a tombstone tourist and cemetery enthusiast, you might be a taphophile. There are a number of cemeteries in Edinburgh, not just Greyfriars Kirkyard. A particularly picturesque cemetery we stumbled upon while walking to the Palace of Holyroodhouse is near the Burns Monument and contains some commonwealth war graves.
Search for Harry Potter Inspiration
J.K. Rowling is a modern British author famous for writing the Harry Potter series. She wrote the Harry Potter books while living in Edinburgh and drew inspiration for the books from her adopted city. Travelers can see some of these inspirations if they know what they are looking for.
One Harry Potter inspiration is the curving and colorful Victoria Street which was the inspiration for Diagon Alley. George Heriot’s School provided inspiration for the architecture of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Some of the names used in the Harry Potter novels were taken directly from the tombstones of Greyfriars Kirkyard. One is the name of He Who Must Not Be Named, not Lord Voldemort, but Thomas Riddle. We didn’t see evidence of this during our visit, but apparently fans visit the grave of Thomas Riddle and leave notes written to the fictional character.
Sights like these are included in The Reel Edinburgh Tour, a cinematic walking tour started by Mark Kydd and Laverne Edmonds, the actors who lead our literary history pub tour.
Experience Edinburgh’s History
The Museum of Edinburgh is a tiny little museum which covers the history of Edinburgh from the beginning. The most interesting part is the Foundation Edinburgh – The Story of a City Exhibit, a film presented on the floor of the museum’s theater that illustrates Edinburgh’s growth from Auld Reekie, the coal smoke filled city where the city’s population lived on top of each other in a tiny space, to the expanded New Town.
See Scotland’s Treasures
The National Museum of Scotland is a huge museum housing Scotland’s treasures as well as pieces of nature and world culture. It would take hours to see everything in this one museum. Since we only had three days in Edinburgh, we chose to concentrate on just a few of the museum’s highlights. One of these highlights is the Lewis Chessmen, chessmen that were made of walrus tusk in the late 12th or early 13th century and were found in Lewis, Scotland in 1831. Another must-see is Bonnie Prince Charlie’s silver canteen which held often needed essentials like a bone marrow scoop, nutmeg grater, and wine taster….
Watch the Weaving of Tartans
The Tartan Weaving Mill & Exhibition is a five story monument to tartan production. During the week visitors can see the mill in action and kilts being made. There are also plenty of opportunities for shopping throughout the mill.
Visit Edinburgh’s Other Monuments
There are monuments to Scotland’s important figures throughout the city. One of the most important is the Scott Monument, the largest monument to a writer in the world. The monument features Sir Walter Scott and his favorite deerhound Maida. Visitors can also climb up the stairs of the monument for yet another view of the city, though we were unable to do so as the monument was being restored during our visit.
Other monuments of Edinburgh include the Burns Monument, commemorating the Scottish poet Robert Burns, and the equestrian statue of King Charles II, which is the oldest statue in Edinburgh.
Stay in an Edinburgh Hotel on the Royal Mile
The key to seeing everything on an Edinburgh three-day itinerary is to stay in a centrally located hotel. Our Edinburgh hotel of choice was the Radisson Blu Hotel, Edinburgh, right in the center of Edinburgh and the Royal Mile. The location seriously doesn’t get any better than right on the Royal Mile, pretty much equidistant between Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse and within walking distance of absolutely everything, including attractions, restaurants, and the train station. In addition to the bar in the hotel, there are also two great pubs right across the street which have live music and serve Scottish ales and whiskies.
Even though it was just the two of us traveling, the Radisson Blu Hotel, Edinburgh set us up in large corner family room. The Radisson Blu Hotel, Edinburgh is a great Edinburgh hotel for traveling families as well as traveling couples. The family room had a king-size bed along with two double beds, a corner couch, a desk and chair, a small coffee table and chair, plus fun toys for the kids like a road rug, train set, and chalkboard. There were also two closets, which you can bet we took advantage of even though we weren’t the intended family of four.
Along with the corner room came beautiful views over the rooftops of Edinburgh. With all the tiny chimnies poking out of the top of Edinburgh’s brick and stone buildings, I almost felt like I was going to witness the scene from Mary Poppins where the chimney sweeps pop out from the chimneys and start singing and dancing “Step in Time!” Mary Poppins was coincidentally playing at the Festival Theatre a few blocks away from the hotel, also next door to a great fish and chips place.
In addition to being a great looking hotel in the middle of it all with wonderful rooms and comfy beds that allowed me to sleep through the first night without waking up (a jet lag miracle), the Radisson Blu Hotel, Edinburgh also serves a great breakfast to fuel travelers for the day. This is not your run-of-the-mill continental breakfast. There is a serve yourself area where you can make a complete Scottish breakfast of eggs, beans, fried tomatoes, sausages, and more, as well as an assortment of yogurts, fruit, and pastries. In addition, guests can order a bowl of porridge or an omelet. I loved taking advantage of this and had porridge with honey every morning.
The service that the Radisson Blu Hotel, Edinburgh provides to its guests is also worth noting. We were able to leave our luggage in a locked room so we could walk to the train station to pick up our rental car. A front desk clerk helped me out by calling a restaurant so we could change the time of our dinner reservation. Once, when we were in our room in the early evening, one of the hotel staff was visiting rooms to offer complimentary beverages. On our final night in Scotland, one of the front desk clerks offered to have breakfast boxed up for us when he learned we would be leaving for the airport before breakfast was served, and those boxed breakfasts only contained items that could be taken through airport security.
While there are certainly more things to do in Edinburgh that didn’t make our itinerary for this trip, we were able to see the best of Edinburgh in three days before heading out to explore the rest of Scotland.
Tip: Some of Edinburgh’s attractions are covered by the Explorer Pass, which offers access to 77 attractions throughout Scotland.