One of the most charming cities in the UK, Edinburgh is filled with magic. Walk the Royal Mile between the castle & palace, follow in the footsteps of Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling and sip on Scottish whiskey in a noisy pub.
This past May I went on a work trip that included 3 days in Edinburgh. This was my first time to Scotland and everything about my stay there blew me away. Even though my time was limited, I was able to cover a lot of ground (with both work tours and free time). I thought it would be useful to write a city guide for what I recommend when visiting Edinburgh.
You can’t visit Edinburgh without checking out the castle on the hill! Since the 12th century, Scottish royalty called this location home. However – it hasn’t been home to a monarch for a few centuries now. It’s location made it a military stronghold for Scottish Independence and was even used as a military garrison at one point.
Today it is used primarily for ceremonies, such as the Edinburgh Military Tattoo festival in August. It costs between 18-20 pounds to enter the castle. I recommend purchasing your tickets in advance online, which you can do here.
Palace of Holyrood House
About a mile up the road from the castle, you can find Holyrood Palace. This is the official residence of the British monarch while in Scotland. (AKA when Queen Elizabeth, or anyone of the Royal family visits Edinburgh, this is where they stay). Since the 16th century, this palace was used as the royal residence for Kings and Queens of Scotland. Most famously, Mary Queen of Scots lived here when she returned to Scotland from France. You can tour the staterooms throughout the year (except for when the royal family is there). It costs 15 pounds to enter. For more information about purchasing tickets, check out the link here.
The Royal Mile
The Royal mile is the stretch of road between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace. It’s almost exactly a mile from the castle gates to the palace gates, which is how the street got its name!
Calton Hill offers one of the best views of Edinburgh. It can be easily accessed by foot and is free to walk up to the top. It is home to the National monument and City Observatory. This is definitely worthwhile on a nice day!
If you’re looking for a bit more adventure, you can hike up to the top of Arthur’s Seat for a view of the city and surrounding water / land. It takes about 1 hour each way to get to the top of this extinct volcano. The name is said to have derived from King Arthur, but no one knows for sure the origins. I wasn’t able to do this trek on my work trip due to time constraints but I’ve heard wonderful things from friends who have done this.
St. Andrews is a worthwhile day trip if you have enough time in Edinburgh. It’s a little over an hour driving to get there. I would recommend this if you are interested in golf, history or looking for some time along the beautiful Scottish coast. Check out my earlier post here: St. Andrews.
John Knox House
John Knox is most famous for his role in the protestant reformation. It is said he only lived in this house for a few months, during the siege of Edinburgh castle, but the length of his stay is truly unknown. The building itself dates back to 1470 which makes it one of the oldest medieval structures along the Royal Mile. It costs 6 pounds to go inside and you do not need to pre-purchase your tickets.
National Museum of Scotland
The National Museum of Scotland is free to enter and worth at least an afternoon! In the small amount of free time I had on my work trip, I was able to sneak in for an hour to explore. This was one of the coolest museums I have visited to date, so I only wish I had more time. There’s a whole portion dedicated to Scottish history and heritage, as well as a more modern portion of the museum dedicated to travel (airplanes / cars), technology (evolution of the telephone) and even some animals (reminiscent of a natural history museum). It’s open from 10am-5pm each day. For more information about what you can see here, check out the link: National Museum of Scotland.
Royal Yacht Britannia
The Royal Yacht Britannia has been serving the royal family since 1953. It’s sailed over a million nautical miles around the world! It can be described as a floating mansion, with rooms elegant enough to host state events for the Royal Family. Most famously in recent years, the yacht is where Prince Charles and Princess Diana spent their honeymoon. It costs 16 pounds to tour the ship, and you can pre-purchase your tickets online here. (I was unable to visit this during my three days in Edinburgh, but it’s on my list for next time!)
The Scott Monument is dedicated to Sir Walter Scott. Located in Princess Street gardens, it’s the second largest monument in the world dedicated to a writer. About an hour outside of Edinburgh, you can visit Scotts famous estate, Abbotsford House.
If you have enough time in Edinburgh, you may want to take a day trip to Scott’s estate. Check out our earlier post here: Abbotsford House.
Melrose Abbey can be done in conjunction with Abbotsford House, since they are only about 10 minutes apart. Picture a beautiful cathedral in ruins, rich in history. Check out our previous post here: Melrose Abbey.
Scottish National Gallery
If you’re more interested in art than artifacts, the Scottish National Gallery might be where you’d prefer to spend your time (over the National Museum). It’s also free to enter, and it’s open 10am-5pm everyday. For more information, check out their website here: Scottish National Gallery.
Cut through a Close
This recommendation may be seem a bit strange, but hear me out! A close in Edinburgh is a passageway connecting two streets. Although it seems creepy to walk down a small pedestrian street, they are actually very safe and used frequently by locals. I had the best meal of my entire trip in the UK at Devil’s Advocate, which can be found down Advocate’s Close, off the Royal Mile. You will definitely want to make reservations in advance, but I highly recommend this restaurant!
Greyfriars Kirkyard is the graveyard surrounding the church, Greyfriars. Not only is this part of the Old town a stunning spot for a walk, it also has a few fun anecdotal things about it. First – a dog is buried in this cemetery (in front of the church to be exact). This is not a common practice in Scotland, however once you hear the story of Greyfriars Bobby, you’ll understand. Bobby was a loyal dog to his owner John Gray, a police officer in Edinburgh. It is rumored that Bobby slept on his owners grave every night for 13 years following Gray’s death. In 1981 a grave was finally put in to mark the spot where Bobby had been buried. You can also rub the nose of his statue for good luck. It’s outside the graveyard, on George IV Bridge, across from the entrance gates.
The second anecdotal thing worth mentioning about this graveyard is how it inspired famous author J.K, Rowling. If you walk through the graveyard, you might catch a glimpse of some familiar names (such as Potter, McGonagall and even Thomas Riddle). Rowling wrote most of the first and second Harry Potter books in Edinburgh, so it’s no doubt she got ideas from her surroundings!
The Elephant Cafe
Sticking with the Harry Potter theme, the Elephant Cafe (literally steps from Greyfriars), is the place where Rowling did a lot of writing. I was lucky enough to have a quiet breakfast here on my first morning in Edinburgh (straight off a red eye – it was my first stop). The bathroom is littered with quotes and praise for the author. It pays homage to the characters and story she created in this small cafe. The food itself was good, but there was something quite magical in the air!
Victoria St. has to be one of the most photogenic streets in Edinburgh! You can find beautiful shops and quaint restaurants. I dined at Howies along this street one evening. It had great food and a charming atmosphere. There are rumors that this street gave J.K. Rowling the inspiration for Diagon Alley! (Any Harry Potter fan can see why).
Edinburgh is an incredible city. It’s rich with history, culture and inspiration. Every corner you turn is like a post card. Prior to this trip, Scotland hadn’t really been on my radar, but now I am eager to return with friends and family to show them this beautiful city.
Stay tuned for some upcoming posts about my time in the UK!