Updated: Mar 27, 2021
This tiny-town packs a major punch for things to do! You can spend as little as 1-2 days in Edinburgh or stay as long as you want. This city has a wide variety of places to visit to satisfy all interests, budgets and itineraries. From single travelers to large groups, there are many great experiences awaiting its visitors.
Now, I am not much of a whiskey drinker, so if you are looking for a list that incorporates my best finds for whiskey tasting experiences, you will need to keep on looking. But, what I can tell you is that you can easily swap out or add onto the list below with a trip to the Scottish Whiskey Experience which is a main attraction here in Edinburgh. Like the Guinness factory in Dublin, this attraction pulls in just as much interest in Edinburgh.
Above all, I highly recommend just doing a nice walk of the whole city along your journey from experience to experience, or taking the City Sightseeing bus to get a full view and tour of the entire city. It's affordable, helps preserve your energy for getting through these attractions on a short timeline, and offers some great views of the city along with a guide sharing interesting facts and stories of what you are seeing.
The city of Edinburgh is petite and easy to walk around - coming from someone who has a bad back & knee and a fat bodied frame. Because there is so much to see, I was able to take many breaks along my walking routes. And when I just didn't have enough boost left, I was able to hop back onto the City Sightseeing bus to get me to my next stop - or to just catch a breather while relaxing on the bus and taking in the sights.
In any place I visited, I never felt that my size was a limitation. I was fully welcomed warmly by anyone I interacted with - on the bus, the general public, shop owners, waiters, docents at museums, etc.
If you only spend a couple days in this beautiful capitol of Scotland, here is a list of my top 6 attractions to experience.
National Museum of Scotland
Approximate time to visit: 1.5-2 hours
Any country you go to where there is a national museum, make it a priority to visit it. Most of the time, the national museums are free of charge and offer a perfect introduction to the country's story covering various aspects from natural history and archaeology to cultural and social history and from ancient to modern times.
Admission to the National Museum of Scotland is free of charge. During my last visit, a balloon artist completed an art installation for the museum that was very cool to see. The museum itself is a beauty to look at with its large open multi-level gallery with a glass ceiling. If you've been to the museum before, make a trip back to it again! They do a phenomenal job at consistently rotating exhibits bringing fresh new perspectives and new interactive learning opportunities to its visitors.
Approximate time to visit: 1.5-2 hours
My favorite place to stay in Edinburgh is in the Grassmarket as it is not only the oldest part of town, but it also sits just under the castle. Waking up to the sights of this towering fortress against the hillside is powerful, majestic, haunting and beautiful. The castle is perched at the top of Castle Rock with phenomenal views of the entire city.
Edinburgh Castle sits at the top of the Royal Mile which is the main road connecting between the castle and the Palace at Holyrood (the two royal residences). The one o'clock gun salute makes a booming sound over the city every day.
The large vast open space just outside the castle walls is the stage for the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo which takes place in August during the Fringe Festival. I watch on YouTube recaps each year. Inside the castle are the Royal Palace, the Honors of Scotland (crown), the Stone of Destiny, the Great Hall, National War Museum, the tiny St Margaret's Chapel, and much more. There is also a cafe onsite where I had a perfect scone with cream and jam, and tea, of course.
Palace of Holyrood
Approximate time to visit: 2-2.5 hours
The grand entrance to the Palace of Holyrood is an extravagant welcome to explore its history. Much of what we see today was built in 1528 with the original abbey ruins still on site (built in 1128).
Some of my favorite places to go in the palace are standing outside the palace in front of the ornate fountain, Mary Queen of Scots' bedchambers (there's a dark story about the murder of her close friend and advisor), walking through the palace gardens looking up to Arthur's Seat, finding solace in the abbey ruins, and lounging on the patio of the tea room while enjoying a snack and a spot of hot tea.
For an additional fee, you can access the Queen's Gallery which houses several extravagant artifacts and pieces of art alongside featured temporary exhibits. It also has a beautiful gift shop stocked full of perfectly packaged teas & cookies, Queen Elizabeth souvenirs, books, and more.
Direct neighbors of the Palace are two ultra-modern structures - the newer Scottish Parliament building (which was controversial in its design due to the stark contrast it has to the medieval palace next door) and is open to visitors to even witness the country's politics in motion, and the Dynamic Earth which is a completely immersive and interactive experience that focuses on the natural phenomenons that shape the earth. Fantastic for kids!
St Gile's Cathedral
Approximate time to visit: 0.5-1 hour
At the center of the Royal Mile is St. Gile's Cathedral. The loud hustle and buzz of the tourists and street entertainers outside are instantly hushed once inside this grand cathedral. Founded in 1124, it has gone through many transformations over its 900 years of history. Today there is a tower you can climb up (for a fee), otherwise the main area of the church is open for free or a suggested donation.
Approximate time to visit: 1 hour
Budget: $0-$10 One of my favorite routes to walk in Edinburgh is from Grassmarket cutting through Greyfriar's and then heading past the National Museum of Scotland, hooking over to the Royal Mile. I constantly find myself feeling a magnetic pull to Greyfriar's Kirk. Not only does it have a story of an amazing dog, it is home to the burial sites of many poets, inventors and you can even say wizards. I am pulled to this eerie yet peaceful site just as J.K. Rowling was as she followed a similar route through the graveyard gathering inspiration for the Harry Potter stories, including the headstone of Thomas Riddell.
Just outside of the churchyard is a little statue, Greyfriar's Bobby. This is to commemorate the loyal dog who continue to visit his owner's headstone every day for over 14 years. Although you may see many people rub the nose of the statue, please don't! This is ruining the statue hence why his little nose is rubbed raw revealing a bright bronze nose. Guides and locals around the city will politely remind visitors to not touch the nose, but of course it still happens.
Victoria Street & Grassmarket
Approximate time to visit: 0.5-1 hour
Budget: $0 (+ shopping)
One of the most iconic and prettiest streets in Edinburgh is Victoria Street which joins Grassmarket to Cowgate and Lawnmarket which is packed with attractions and activities to enjoy. Victoria Street has been used as a filming location for a variety of movies and shows, and is known to have inspired J.K. Rowling in the creation of Diagon Alley. It is lined with quirky and adorable shops that I had fun visiting and picking up art prints from local artists. There are also a couple of dedicated Harry Potter themed stores that are an absolute whimsy to pop into and escape to the wizarding world of wonder. Just around the corner from Victoria Street is the Elephant House coffee shop where it is said J.K. Rowling visited frequently while writing Harry Potter.
I have stayed at the Grassmarket Hotel, as well as an Airbnb apartment on Grassmarket. I love this area of town. Grassmarket has a line of pubs and restaurants to enjoy, so it a very lively and vibrant place to be. Even during the off season, I could still find entertainers and musicians just outside the pubs delighting those nearby.
Grassmarket is also a great location for easy access to the hop on/hop off bus system, affordable hotels, plenty of Airbnb/self-catering accommodations, convenience shops, Saturday farmer's market and grocery stores. For me, it ended up being the perfect hub to venture out from while also enjoying the conveniences nearby to feel like I could live like a local even for just a week.