A city that enchants with its narrow alleys and medieval gems, Edinburgh is a requirement for any Scotland itinerary. That’s doubly true for first-timers! So we’ve put together this guide for an amazing three days in Edinburgh. We think three days gives you plenty of time to explore leisurely and not feel rushed.
From Scottish food (bring an appetite!) to the importance of unicorns, our three-day itinerary guides you to all the must-sees in Edinburgh and also gives you some good-to-know info. We’ll also share some other awesome things to do in Scotland.
But before we dive into the details, we’d like to mention a few pointers on when to go and where to stay.
When to Visit Edinburgh
The biggest question of any trip: Where are you going? Edinburgh!
The next question? When are you going?
Visiting Edinburgh during a major storm or record heat isn’t advisable. Duh. But you can’t plan around the weather; you don’t have control over that. So, putting aside the odds of extremities in weather, let’s talk about the best time to visit Edinburgh.
Wait, winter? Seriously? Yes!
There are less tourists, there’s a chance of snow (guaranteed in the Highlands), and there’s some kind of magic in that winter sunlight hitting the green hills around Edinburgh.
We’ve visited Edinburgh twice during the winter months and absolutely loved it. Summer would be warmer (still not that warm!) but there are so many more tourists, especially during August, when major festivals are always happening.
We’re slightly joking about winter, of course. Any time of the year is a perfect time to visit Edinburgh. It’s green, it’s beautiful, and it will probably be windy regardless of the month.
So, what type of weather is your favorite? You can always check Edinburgh weather averages and plan your three days around that or just pick your preferred time of year and roll with it. However, we’ve planned our trip around cheap flights and they’ve just happened to be in the winter. We’d go any time of year!
If winter in Scotland sounds interesting to you (it should!), then be sure and check out our complete guide to winter in Scotland! We talk about Edinburgh as well as a huge chunk of the Highlands!
Where to Stay
The same goes for Edinburgh as any other city. The more central you stay, the closer you are to the action. However, the more central you are, the more costly your trip.
So, if a budget isn’t hindering you, by all means, stay in a central spot and live it up! We recommend Airbnb more than hotels as they’re cheaper more times than not and you also have a kitchen in most instances.
But what if you’re on a budget? We still recommend Airbnb! The words “UK” and “budget” don’t often work together in the same sentence; it’s pretty pricey! That said, Airbnbs or hostels are still great options for a budget.
Not only is Airbnb good for your wallet, but you’ll likely stay in a more local area and you can meet your local host as well! They’ve got tips on things to do! Check out our pros and cons of Airbnb for some more info on homestays and how they work.
Cool Districts Not in Old Town: Leith, Stockbridge, New Town
Things to Note
Cash isn’t necessary to always have on you in Edinburgh but when participating in tours or stopping by smaller grab-and-go style restaurants, having a handful of pounds on you is a good idea. Just never carry a lot of money at one time! Tapping your phone or card to pay is very common here.
Instead of listing restaurants and pubs for each day of this three days in Edinburgh itinerary, we thought it best to drop them at the end and then you can mix and match for meals as you please.
Day 1: Classic Edinburgh
Free Walking Tour
The best start to any major city in Europe: a free walking tour! Edinburgh has a few companies operating so do your research on which one to use. We’ll recommend Sandemans since we used them and really enjoyed our guides.
A free walking tour is a fantastic way to begin your three days in Edinburgh. You’ll get a mental map of the city (you can ask your guide for a physical map too) and you’ll know about some must-see sights in the city.
Most importantly, you’ll hear some amazing stories and the history behind it all. All the more reason to appreciate Edinburgh! You’ll also hear about unicorns, the official animal of Scotland.
The Royal Mile
This mile connects some of Edinburgh’s main attractions and is home to some of the best architecture in the city. It’s also where the free walking tour starts!
We’ll list several things to see and do below that are located on the Royal Mile. However, if you’re in between things to do and want to do a little sightseeing, this is the perfect place! Odds are you’ll find yourself on the Royal Mile many times during your three days in Edinburgh.
The most iconic spot in Edinburgh, you’ll find the city’s castle at the top of the Royal Mile. If you’re lost, head toward the sound of bagpipes and you’ll find it!
The front of the castle is a huge, open area where you can get some great pictures. Don’t forget to snap a shot of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace on either side of the castle gate.
What about visiting the castle?
We don’t always recommend tours but we do this time! We used Sandemans again for the castle. The Edinburgh Castle tour costs £32 ($42 USD). That seems pretty steep, but that price includes your castle ticket as well. The reason we recommend a tour? There’s just too much history packed into this place and you’ll miss a lot on your own.
If you do choose to tour the castle on your own, you may want to look into the Explorer’s Pass. This is especially beneficial if you’re spending time elsewhere in Scotland. It’s a big money saver if you plan on visiting several castles and other major attractions in Scotland. Check it out!
Edinburgh Castle takes a long time to tour, as there are multiple museums, memorials and sights within. Plan on at least two hours but it will probably be longer. Packing a snack would save you some money and give you some much needed energy!
St. Giles Cathedral
Another popular spot located near the center of the Royal Mile, St. Giles Cathedral is a place of historic importance. Originally built around the 12th century, it eventually became a place for protestants due to the reformation led by John Knox. You can find a statue of him inside.
Don’t miss the stained glass dedicated to the Scottish poet Robert Burns.
Day 2: Royal Views
What better way to begin your day than the best view of Edinburgh? Arthur’s Seat is an easy walk/climb and offers you a panoramic view of Edinburgh and all its surroundings.
Pro Tip: Get an early start and beat the late morning rush to the top. You’ll get some great lighting and some alone time atop the extinct volcano to really soak it in. Pack a snack or grab a bacon and egg roll on the way at the Wee Bite (info below).
Expect the walk up to be around 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how often you stop. Most visitors start their ascent from Holyrood Palace (next on the list!) but we recommend starting from the opposite side. There are less people and you’ll descend straight toward Holyrood. Perfect!
See a complete list of walking paths up Arthur’s Seat and decide which is right for you.
Be sure and see the ruins of St. Anthony’s Chapel and St. Margaret’s Loch, near the bottom of the path, close to Holyrood Palace.
This is the official residence of the British monarchy; it’s a big deal.
Edinburgh Castle is located at the top of the Royal Mile; Holyrood Palace is at the opposite end. There is a lot to see inside, from the immaculate interior to the ruins of Holyrood Abbey. You’re able to tour the palace but we hope you saved your energy!
Switching the palace and Arthur’s Seat around or skipping one might be a good idea if you’re not keen on walking a lot. Both attractions are worth it, though!
Scotch Whisky Experience
And now for a perfect evening out in Edinburgh.
Relax, indulge, and learn about Scotland’s cherished drink: whisky. Even better, taste and learn while hearing some great Scottish folktales in a cozy corner on the 2nd floor of the Waverley Bar. This was arguably our favorite thing to do during our stay in Edinburgh.
Read more on our Edinburgh whisky tasting and why you should experience it too.
Day 3: Day Trip or More Edinburgh
There are still a lot of things to see in Edinburgh but if this is your only taste of Scotland at the time, you may want to take a day trip and see more of this beautiful country. Either way, we’ve listed options for both!
Staying in Edinburgh
Maybe you’re venturing away from Edinburgh after three days or perhaps you love it so much you don’t want to leave (we understand!). Either way, there’s enough in Edinburgh to keep you entertained on day three.
Fans of Harry Potter will love Edinburgh. From the inspiration of Hogwarts to the Riddle family’s grave, there are several spots of Potter lore to be found in Edinburgh. If you’re a Potterhead, check out our guide to Harry Potter in Edinburgh!
Greyfriars Kirkyard and its watchdog Bobby are a must for any traveler to Edinburgh. The story behind loyal Bobby is one to remember and the headstones themselves are a work of art. Some of these graves’ detail has faded but that only makes them more spooky. Visit at night for a truly terrifying experience. Not really. It’s just cool to see at night.
The kirkyard’s neighbor is George Heriot’s School, which is divided up into four houses. Have a look through the gate. Seem familiar?
This free little gem lies just off the Royal Mile. Inside you’ll find facts about three of Scotland’s best: Walter Scott, Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson. You’ll find some objects from their personal life and learn the inspiration behind the stories and poems they told.
If you’ve seen pictures of Edinburgh then you’ve probably seen Victoria Street. This colorful line of shops has even more Harry Potter lore and one of the best restaurants in town: Oink. Have a big helping of pork with your choice of sauce and stuffing on a bun, all in the middle of one of the coolest streets in town.
Take it to go and find a seat in the Grassmarket Square. The square may seem pleasant today but it was once the spot for public hangings. It was probably more crowded back then!
National Museum of Scotland or Scottish National Gallery
Both museums are packed with interesting things and they’re free! You can’t beat that. The National Museum of Scotland houses art as well as natural history and is geared toward families but if you’re just adults you’ll still have a great time.
The Scottish National Gallery has a large collection with some pretty big names inside and again, it’s free. It’s pretty hard to pass up a free art exhibit, especially with Van Gogh in the lineup.
Edinburgh Day Trip
Your options for day trips are endless. We believe renting a car is the best thing you can do here. Scotland is such a pretty country to drive and discover. You can typically rent a car for much less than a tour would cost and you’ll also be on your own schedule! The Highlands await. Read up on some day trips and tours and see what you think.
If renting a car, use Kayak to find the cheapest deals! Automatic cars are usually more expensive but the extra money is worth the peace of mind! Most visitors will be driving on the “wrong” side of the road. Read up on tips for driving in the UK for some reassurance. You can do it!
If you choose to rent a car, then head to the Highlands and thank us later. Just a short drive from Edinburgh Airport lies the Cairngorms National Park. The fact that something this scenic lies so close to the city is incredible. Take advantage of the nearby beauty!
Other Great Day Trips:
Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park
Inverness & Surrounding Areas
Restaurants in Edinburgh
The Waverley – If you went on the whisky tasting we suggested then you’ll already be familiar with The Waverly. This pub is everything you’d expect a Scottish pub to be. Dark, cozy and a great selection of whisky to try. The food menu is basic but delicious! Not sure what whisky to order? Just ask!
The Last Drop – The name could mean it’s the last drop in your glass or, more likely, it refers to the last hanging that took place just outside its door. Either way, it’s a great place to grab lunch or dinner and have a drink. Prices are fair and the food is amazing. Try the haggis, neeps and tatties or one of their other traditional Scottish dishes.
Makars – For an incredible Scottish dining option look no further than Makars. It’s not budget-friendly but it won’t break the bank either. Their beef or vegetarian haggis is some of the best but we recommend the lamb shank too. It’s a lot, so come hungry. If you’ve sampled some whisky at this point, try your hand at some!
Oink – One of our favorites in Edinburgh. Stop in for a quick and delicious pork roll. Choose your stuffing like onion and sage or haggis and top it off with one of their four sauces!
Little White Pig – This gastropub is the perfect place to unwind with a couple of drinks after a long day. It’s even better if your Airbnb is a two minute walk away! Be sure to arrive before the kitchen closes (around 10 pm) so you can try some of their tasty dishes!
Wee Bite – This is the quick breakfast you need before walking to the top of Arthur’s Seat. Honestly, it’s a great breakfast for any day. There are a few chairs inside but take away is the norm. Be sure to order a roll filled with your desired fillings like bacon, sausage, egg, cheese or potato scones (what we Yanks call hash browns). Don’t forget to add some sauce! We recommend HP sauce (also known as brown sauce). Cash only!
Summary of 3 Days in Edinburgh
Three days gives you plenty of time to truly appreciate Edinburgh and get a good taste of Scotland. We hope your Scottish adventure is longer than three days but you can always return again another day! We hope you found our guide helpful in your trip planning and as always, please comment or contact us if you have any questions!