Three days in the Scottish capital is the perfect introduction to Edinburgh, a city filled with ancient history, authentic eateries, and all the culture you could ever wish for from a British city. Here’s how to spend a long weekend in Edinburgh, and your 72-hour guide on making the most of your limited time in Scotland!
Day one: An Introduction to Edinburgh
As the capital of Scotland, Edinburgh is a city that if explored properly, would take decades to uncover. Luckily, it’s incredibly easy to scratch the surface of this vibrant and cultural hub, if only you know how to. As such, the first day of your weekend in Edinburgh itinerary is dedicated to seeing the tourist sites, and getting a feel for the city by exploring its must-see hotspots!
Wander down the Royal Mile
The Royal Mile, so called because it covers roughly a mile between Edinburgh Castle and reaches down through the city centre towards Holyrood Palace (the Scottish Residence of Elizabeth II). A stroll down this main road, listening to the bagpipes and entering all the small shops which line its two sides is simply one of the best things to do in the Scottish capital.
Highlights of this stretch of street include a wander into St Giles’ Cathedral (a Roman Catholic church founded in the 12th-century), and the Museum of Childhood (the first museum in the world dedicated to childhood). Along the Royal Mile, there are also plenty of local Scottish pubs. While in the city, I highly recommend sampling one of the many local Scottish beers served throughout the capital, or even trying some local Scottish wine!
Walk around Grassmarket
What started in the 14th-century as a marketplace for horses (hence the name) and carried on right up until the 19th-century has since become a vital and spirited city centre district of Edinburgh. Filled with pubs, small shops and plenty of boutique hotels, you can’t go wrong by dedicating an hour or so to exploring this quirky area.
After all, the picturesque streets and quintessentially Scottish pubs located in the Grassmarket make it a must-see attraction on any Scottish adventure. There, you’ll find vibrant streets matched only by an ever-lively nightlife. This is where locals come to hang out, and where you’ll want to grab dinner, or simply head for some after exploring drinks. Nearby, you’ll also find plenty of historical buildings, including the once famous Magdalen Chapel.
Visit Edinburgh Castle
The most visited attraction in Edinburgh is its castle, which sits atop of an extinct volcano on Castle Rock. Best seen earlier in the day when fewer tourists are queuing to see the fortifications and you’ll get more of the place to yourself, it’s a must visit on any weekend trip to Edinburgh!
The Castle is a perfect morning or afternoon out for couples and families alike, with interactive exhibits exploring the history of the fortifications, as well as the city on a wider level. If you’re looking to save time, then you might want to consider buying a castle ticket in advance. And, if you prefer wandering around a historic site with a guide, then consider this guided tour!
Visit the National Museum of Scotland or the National Gallery
In the centre of the city, not far from one of the main great parks, you’ll find one of the best free things to do in Edinburgh in the form of the National Gallery. Filled with picturesque paintings and priceless artworks, it’s well worth a visit.
Incredible works of art by artists such as Andy Warhol, Sir Henry Raeburn, and Robert Maplethorpe can all be found there. If you prefer artefacts and learning about history, then the National Museum of Scotland is in the centre of the city, free to visit, and is home to Dolly the Sheep.
Day two: On the Fringes of Edinburgh
If day one was about getting to explore the city as a tourist, then day two of your long weekend in Edinburgh is all about getting to know the city on a more local level. This is the time to explore some of the city’s many hidden gems, as well as a chance to head a little off the beaten tourist track…
Visit Dean Village
You can’t spend a weekend in Edinburgh and miss out on its prettiest attraction, that of Dean Village. Picturesque and hidden away, Dean Village is well worth a visit on any trip to Edinburgh, even a short one! First constructed to house mill workers, by the 20th-century, most of the mills of Edinburgh had closed down. Today the village is a quiet slice of the city and a perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of busy city life.
Hike Arthur’s Seat
With incredible views onto Edinburgh and beyond (as well as a great, yet fun, workout) I highly recommend a hike up Arthur’s Seat for any first time visitor to the city. Although legends of King Arthur are never far away when it comes to Gaelic and Celtic countries, in this case, the extinct volcano that is Arthur’s Seat won its name in a different way.
With no traditional Gaelic name for the hill, William Maitland suggested that the mount should be called ‘Àrd-na-Said’ (Height of Arrows) during the 16th-century. Over time, the name morphed into what it is called today ‘Arthur’s Seat.’ Now, located above Holyrood Palace, a visit here can easily be combined with a trip into the Queen’s Scottish Residence. While on the hill, make sure not to miss the 14th-century ruins of Anthony’s Chapel.
Wander around New Town
Deceptively named, the New Town of Edinburgh is actually full of beautiful Georgian façades and vintage buildings… So it’s not really that ‘new’ after all! The main and most popular street of the city’s New Town is Princes Street, a row filled with all manner of stores and shops.
Day three: Conquering history, following authors
Wake up early this morning because you’re packing a lot into day three of this long weekend in Edinburgh. Today is all about exploring the outskirts of the city through its many historic castles, as well as following in the footsteps of many a famous author who once resided here. After all, Edinburgh hasn’t been named one of the best literary locations in Europe and a UNESCO City of Literature for nothing!
Follow the Harry Potter Trail
It’s well known that JK Rowling wrote the Harry Potter series while she was living in Edinburgh (a city in which she still lives in today). As a result, magical traces of the wizarding school can be found throughout the city. From Tom Marvolo’s grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard to the Elephant Tearooms in the centre of town, there’s no shortage of Harry Potter attractions in Edinburgh!
If you’re not a huge fan of Harry Potter, then it’s also possible to follow in the footsteps of many other iconic authors who once lived in Edinburgh. A beautiful museum dedicated to all things literature and called “The Writers’ Museum” can be found just a short stroll from the Royal Mile. Inside there are exhibitions dedicated to the likes of Robert Burns, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.
Take a day trip from Edinburgh
Roslin: Best known for being the home of Rosslyn Chapel, the church featured in Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ Roslin is a pretty village with plenty to see. Of course, there’s the ancient and ornate Chapel to visit, but there’s also castle ruins and a delightful tea room to enjoy a hot brew in.
Craigmillar Castle: Often referred to as ‘Edinburgh’s other castle,’ Craigmillar is one of the best castles the Scottish capital has to offer. The well preserved medieval ruins are situated just a half hour by bus from the city centre, and so the castle is incredibly easy to reach!
Cramond Island: This pretty tidal island is located an hour or so from Edinburgh’s Waverly Bridge by bus. Purchase some picnic essentials, grab a book and hop on a bus on a sunny day to make the most of this short day trip from Edinburgh. Nearby, there are coastal paths to follow and history to uncover; the most important Roman statue ever found in Scotland, the Cramond Lioness was uncovered in the estuary near Cramond Island!
Linlithgow Palace: Used as a royal residence throughout the ages, Linlithgow Palace is located in a town of the same name and was one of the most important seats of the monarchy during the 15th and 16th-centuries. In fact, it was even the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots!
Where to stay in Edinburgh
Budget accommodation in Edinburgh
Haystack Hostel: Situated close to Princes Street in the very heart of the shopping area of the city, if you want to stay in the heart of it all at an affordable rate, be sure to check out this well-reviewed hostel. Check prices and availability here.
Safestay Edinburgh: From private rooms to dorms accommodating up to 12 people, you’re sure to find a bed that’s perfect for you and within your price range. Female-only dorms are also available. Check prices and availability here
Mid-range accommodation in Edinburgh
Hotel Ibis Styles: For those familiar with the Ibis Chain, the brand’s synonymity with cleanliness and good service is probably a given. I’ve stayed in various Ibis Hotels over the years and always found them to be a great place from which to explore the city. Check prices and availability here
Luxury accommodation in Edinburgh
Principal Hotel Charlotte Square: Situated close to Princes Street, somewhere between Edinburgh Castle and Dean Village, this four-star accommodation has all the amenities you’d expect from a modern hotel, blended with a historical twist. Check prices and availability here
The Balmoral: For those looking for a true taste of luxury in the heart of the city, The Balmoral is synonymous with charm and elegance. It’s even in one of the suites in this five-star hotel where JK Rowling finished the Harry Potter series! Local legend suggests that the author signed her name on one of the pieces of furniture! Check prices and availability here