Edinburgh is sure to be the highlight of any UK trip. This city has it all. Castles, palaces, cozy pubs, cobblestoned streets, lush greenspace, high-end shopping, stunning viewpoints, and a mixed crowd filled with students, tourists, and politicians. Each time I visit Edinburgh I always wish I had more time.
There is plenty to fill your days with not only a city center filled with museums, attractions, shops, cafes, and historic streets to wander along but also the number of day trips right around the corner. In a perfect world I would recommend a minimum of 4 nights in order to slow down and enjoy the city and take a day trip or two…but sometimes we have limited time and can only make a quick stop before moving on to the next destination.
If you find yourself with only one day in Edinburgh continue reading for a full itinerary and guide on all the must visit Edinburgh sights and the order to do it all in!
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ONE DAY IN EDINBURGH – Complete Itinerary with MUST VISIT EDINBURGH SIGHTS
1. Edinburgh Castle
Start your day at the most iconic Edinburgh sight. Go first thing in the morning and arrive 10 minutes before opening time. Have your pre-purchased tickets printed and in hand to save time waiting in line. You could easily spend 4 hours here making sure to visit every single building and really taking your time, but because we only have one day in Edinburgh…plan on 1.5 to 2 hours maximum. The major draw of the castle is actually the views you get of the city sprawled below and walking around the castle complex.
What makes Edinburgh Castle unique is that it isn’t just one big building. It’s an entire complex of various buildings. Do your research before you visit to pick your top buildings to visit. My personal list would be the Scottish Crown Jewels, the Royal Apartments, the Scottish National War Memorial, and the prison dungeons. If you’ve been to other castles before you probably won’t be overly impressed with the interiors, which is why it’s ok to not visit every single building and pick a few favorites. All in all, Edinburgh castle is an absolute must visit Edinburgh attraction, but when you’re short on time it’s perfectly acceptable to appreciate the views and the overall complex vs. entering each building.
2. Royal Mile
After your quick tour of Edinburgh Castle you are now in the prime location to walk the infamous Royal Mile. The road descending from the castle all the way down to Holyroodhouse palace is just over a mile and filled with history. If you want to stick to your own schedule do a self-guided tour. Rick Steve’s has a great audio tour you can download in the Rick Steve’s app. You could also join a walking tour that covers the Royal Mile. Mercat does a wonderful Secrets of the Royal Mile tour that focuses on the upper half of the Royal Mile and ends at the Castle. If you decide to do a scheduled walking tour then you might have to move the castle to after the tour.
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3. St. Giles’ Cathedral
During your walk down the Royal Mile be sure to pop into Scotland’s most important church and see where John Knox once preached during the Reformation. Don’t miss the stained-glass windows, the statue of John Knox, and the impressive organ. Entrance is free but a small donation is suggested.
4. World’s End
Halfway down the Royal Mile you will find a cozy “old style” pub. Back when Edinburgh was a walled city the gates into the city stood right where the World’s End is. Two main thoughts go around as to why this spot would have been known as the “world’s end” to the townsfolk. One is that there was a heavy tax to enter through these gates. Because the locals could not afford the tax to re-enter the city, they in fact could never leave…hence why this wall and the location of World’s End was quite literally where the world ended in the eyes of the local people. The second thought is that when the wall was built and reinforced after Scotland’s defeat by the English, the local people viewed anything outside of the walls as no longer theirs (occupied by the English), and therefore the end of “their world”. This is a great spot to grab a bite or pint. This "old style" pub is known for Scottish classics like Cullen Skink soup (my favorite), fish and chips, and steak and ale pie.
5. Palace of Holyroodhouse and Scottish Parliament
As you reach the end of the Royal Mile you will walk by the Scottish Parliament building and the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Unless you want to rush through the rest of the itinerary below you won’t have time to tour these Edinburgh sights. The Palace of Holyroodhouse is the Queen's Scottish residence and has a deep history with obvious ties to Mary Queen of Scots. The Parliament building is open to visitors with free hour-long tours provided by locals.
6. New Town
Now that you’ve explored the Royal Mile and Old Town, it’s time for New Town. You’ll want to start your New Town walk at Waverly Bridge, a 15-minute walk from Holyroodhouse. If you’re short on time hop in an Uber or cab to get there in about 5 minutes. Once you arrive, cross Waverly Bridge to enter New Town. There are three main streets to focus your time; Princes Street, George Street, and Queen Street. Wander these streets and appreciate the grid like design and orderly fashion compared to Old Town. On this side of Edinburgh you’ll find Georgian architecture, the National Gallery, and streets lined with popular stores and brands. If your schedule allows stop at the Dome for a very affordable afternoon tea priced at £18.
7. Princes Street Gardens
Once you’ve had enough of New Town cross back into Old Town via the Princes Street Gardens. These gardens were once a lake that separated both sides of Edinburgh. If the weather is nice you will see locals lying about on the grass studying or hanging out with friends.
From Princes Street Gardens you should only be about a 10-minute walk from Grassmarket Square. This square is filled with pubs and restaurants and amazing views of the castle above. Be sure to walk up the steps of the Vennel to get a view of the castle all to yourself.
9. Greyfriars Kirkyard
Stop by an old cemetery supposedly haunted with restless spirits. If you’re a Harry Potter fan you can find the graves that inspired JK Rowling for several characters in the Harry Potter books including McGonagall and Riddell. Beyond the back gates of Greyfriars Kirkyard you can see George Heriot’s School which supposedly served as inspiration for Hogwarts.
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10. Victoria Street
Victoria Street is Diagon Alley brought to life in the real world. This colorful, multilevel street is a sight to behold! Walk up the street and be sure to have your camera out. Stop at Howies for dinner for traditional Scottish food with a bit of an upscale flare. Their Cullen Skink soup was some of my favorite. Maison Bleue is another good option.
11. Ghost Tour of the Underground Vaults
A trip to one of the most haunted cities in the world is not complete without a ghost tour. Many visitors don't even know about the underground world of Edinburgh...the vaults. There is a pretty spooky and gruesome past that goes along with the vaults...which makes it one of the most interesting Edinburgh sights. Several tour operators have access to the vaults. I really enjoyed my tour with City of the Dead. I did the Double Dead Walking Tour which also included Greyfriars Kirkyard. Even if you don't believe in ghosts the vaults are definitely worth a visit as it's quite fascinating to experience Edinburgh's underground city.
Additional options for tours of the vaults:
12. Pub Stop
You will probably need a drink after your tour of the vaults to settle your nerves. Head to High Street in Old Town. Between the intersecting St. Mary’s Street (by the World’s End) and South Bridge are a number of pubs. The Whiski Bar & Restaurant, Arcade Bar, and Albanach are good options. You could also return to the Grassmarket area or enjoy a pint at Greyfriar Bobby’s bar.
2 Days in Edinburgh
Have 2 days in Edinburgh? This itinerary can easily be stretched into 2 days by slowing down and entering all the Edinburgh sights listed like the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the Scottish Parliament building. You could also visit a museum or two like the National Gallery.
3 days in Edinburgh
If you have 3 days in Edinburgh consider doing a day trip to the Highlands! Rabbie's and Timberbush are two excellent small group tour operators. Both have Outlander tours for fans of the show as well as tours to Loch Ness, Glencoe, and St. Andrews.
Additional tours from Edinburgh:
And there you have it! With only one day in Edinburgh you’ve managed to see all the main Edinburgh sights and get a good feel for the city. Hopefully this quick taste of the city will inspire you to return and extend your stay. If you read my post on the best places to visit in Europe – MUST visit European destinations, you’ll already know that Edinburgh truly is one of my favorite cities in the world. The history and culture steeped in kilts, whiskey, witch burnings, and bloody battles alongside the political and university focus of the city today makes this a very memorable place…not to mention it’s located at the base of the Highlands…some of the most beautiful scenery EVER! I hope Edinburgh earns a place in your heart as it does in mine.
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One Day in Edinburgh - MUST visit Edinburgh Sights
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