Seeing the best of what Edinburgh has to offer in one day is a lofty goal. Although compact and walkable, the capital of Scotland has more sights and attractions packed on its hilly streets than most other cities in the UK.
That being said, seeing the city’s highlights on a day trip is doable with a ‘choose your own adventure’ type of approach, as I did during a quick stopover on my latest Eurotrip.
From sightseeing to pub hopping, here are some ideas of what to do when you’ve got 24 hours in Edinburgh.
Old Town Road vs. New Town Road
Upon your arrival at Edinburgh’s Waverley train station, you will find yourself at the crossroad between Old Town and New Town.
On one side will be the regal and medieval Old Town, and on the other, the neo-classical and modern New Town. Although possible to check out both the old and the new during your day in Edinburgh, depending on what interests you and how in-depth you like to go in your explorations, you may or may not want to spend more of your time on one side of the town.
Across the road, Princes Street Gardens, the urban park which divides Old Town from New Town, provides a nice spot to take a break and stroll along the monuments and flowerbeds.
Where to stay in Edinburgh
Edinburgh offers a range of places to stay to suit your accommodation preferences in terms of location and price. If travelling on a budget, consider staying at Castle Rock Hostel in Old Town or THE LoFT by CoDE Pod Hostels in New Town, both of which are central to the area’s main attractions. Or, you can decide to splurge on a once-in-a-lifetime stay at the five-star Balmoral Hotel, a luxury Victorian-age hotel landmark, or at The Witchery, a themed-gothic hotel suite slash fine dining restaurant.
The hills come alive in Edinburgh
Choose to either start or end the day off strong with a rewarding hike up one of Edinburgh’s towering hills, Arthur’s Seat and Calton Hill, for incredible panoramic views of the city.
Arthur’s Seat, the more demanding of the two hikes, is the highest point in Edinburgh. After kicking off the 251 mile ascent from the base at Holyrood Park, the half-hour climb to the top of the dormant volcano will result in an amazing views of the city, including the seaside in the distance.
In the West End, Calton Hill, or the Athens of the North, offers spectacular skyline views of Edinburgh from Arthur’s Seat to Castle Rock. Calton is host to several war monuments, including the National Monument, an Athenian acropolis which serves as a memorial to the Scottish veterans of the Napoleonic Wars.
The Royal Mile Club
Royal history buffs and royal watchers have their choice between Edinburgh Castle and Holyroodhouse Palace. The royal fortresses are situated on both ends of the cobblestoned stretch of Old Town’s Royal Mile (where you will be serenaded by the sweet sounds of bagpipers).
Dominating the city skyline, Edinburgh Castle, a literal castle on a hill called Castle Rock, visitors can see the Scotland crown jewels, the longstanding St. Margaret’s Chapel, the National War Museum, and sweeping views of Edinburgh’s gardens, buildings, and monuments from the fortress walls. Wait or listen for the one o’clock Gun firing at 1pm every day except Sunday.
The Palace of Holyroodhouse is the official residence of Queen Elizabeth II when she stays in Edinburgh. During the tour of the palace grounds, visitors get to walk through the chambers of Scottish monarchs Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie and see the remains of the ruins of Holyrood Abbey.
The best of Scotland’s art and culture
For Scottish history, art and culture at no cost, check out the National Museum of Scotland, a magnificent space that is an architectural wonder. In Old Town, the Scottish National Gallery is home to an extensive collection of fine art by Rembrandt, Monet, Van Gogh, and more. In New Town, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art features works by Picasso and Warhol, in Stockbridge.
If you’re more into admiring the art of natural wonders, a tranquil jaunt through the hidden gem of Dean Village will do. Located along the Water of Leith river, a quick 10-minute walk from the city center of New Town, the small hamlet is a picturesque oasis where time stands still.
Shopping for Scottish momentos
When in Old Town, shoppers can’t miss the boutiques in the colourful, winding street of Victoria Street, which, as Harry Potter fans will surely recognize, J.K. Rowling based Dialog Alley off of. The Harry Potter gift shops of Museum Context’s Diagon House and The Boy Wizard have all the Wizarding World merchandise one could desire. Other standout shops on Victoria Street include the Isle of Skye Candle Company, Red Door Gallery, and The Old Town Bookshop for rare antique books.
Old Town’s Princes Street is the high street for more modern shopping, with popular UK brands like Marks & Spencer, Primark, and Jo Malone in close proximity. Jenners, Edinburgh’s oldest and largest department store, offers a prime retail experience with its gift hall, selling tartan scarves, shortbread cookies, and other Scottish goods that are great souvenirs to take home.
A taste of Scottish flavour
With only a short time to spare in Edinburgh, use your time wisely to sample the best of Edinburgh’s Scottish dishes and drinks.
When your day begins, fuel up with a traditional Scottish breakfast, which typically consists of eggs, bacon, sausage, baked beans, black pudding, toast, and a scone. Edinburgh Larder, a farm-to-table cafe that sources local ingredients, serves some of the best brunch in town.
For lunch, head on over to Oink, a hog-roast (or pulled pork) sandwich chain, or Social Bite, an ethical cafe that donates 100% of its proceeds to projects dedicated to eradicating homelessness in Edinburgh.
For a mid-day tea break, visit the charming Clarinda’s Tearoom for their high tea offerings, including the delicious Bakewell Tart. If coffee is more of your jam, head over to The Elephant Room, also known as the cafe where J.K. Rowling penned the first few books of the Harry Potter series. While you’re there, pay your respects to the Greyfriars Bobby statue in front of the cafe. This statue honours the memory of the faithful terrier who stood watch at his deceased master’s grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard for 14 years.
With a number of nighttime spots, the Scots know how to eat and drink the night away. The pub culture is a unique experience, where one winds down after a long day by sipping on Scotch whisky and enjoying live entertainment from local folk artists. With clever names such as The Whiski Bar, the World’s End, and the Last Drop, it’s worthwhile to hop between Edinburgh’s various pub establishments. Don’t call it a night until you try haggis and form your own opinion on Scotland’s most interesting and divisive delicacy.
Within a short period, Edinburgh made an unforgettable and lasting impression on me. I cannot wait to go back to Scotland and explore what I missed during my first visit to the capital city.