The Ultimate Itinerary for Spending 1 Week in Edinburgh, Scotland
Edinburgh is a city that has so much history in its streets. It’s a very walkable city as Edinburgh’s main attractions are concentrated around the Old Town’s Royal Mile between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace. The first time I visited Edinburgh was in November 2010 and had no expectations before visiting. We were off to visit my great-aunt who was 93 and that was all I really knew. I LOVED my time exploring Edinburgh and after two visits I’m so excited to share my comprehensive, full guide to Edinburgh, Scotland!
When the Romans first arrived here in the 1st century AD, there were settlements on Castle Rock and Arthur’s Seat. This was called Dun Eiden, which meant Fort on the Hill Slope. It’s thought that the Anglos took the existing Celtic name and tacked it onto their own word for fort, burh, to create the name Edinburgh. By the 15th century, Edinburgh was the de facto royal capital and political centre of Scotland. The Old Town was then the most populous area in Scotland.
Edinburgh is one of Europe’s most picturesque cities. Its architecture is entwined with its turbulent history, with medieval buildings and monuments perched atop mighty crags. It was deemed “Athens of the North” by the great thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment. The city has gone through many phases and remained a key centre of history, architecture, food, and culture within Scotland. Visiting Edinburgh, Scotland is a special treat and the city offers something for everyone!
Where to Stay in Edinburgh, Scotland
Edinburgh’s Old Town is a maze of historic architecture that tells a story of its past through its chaos of closes, tenements, vaults, and alleys leading off the Royal Mile and thriving city-centre. At the street-level, you can find the area full of various museums, restaurants, bars, and shops. This is the perfect area to stay in Edinburgh!
We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express Edinburgh – Royal Mile. It was clean, simple, and perfect for the little time we actually spent in the room. Breakfast was included and it was only a couple minute walk away from anywhere within the city centre.
Another great option is the Radisson Blu Hotel right on the Royal Mile! It’s a beautiful-looking boutique hotel that’s very fitting to the surrounding area. Plus, what could be better than staying in an actual castle? Although I did not stay here, I would absolutely love to next time I can visit!
The Royal Mile is only 13 km from Edinburgh Airport (EDI) which is easily accessible with Edinburgh’s bus and tram system. A taxi ride will take 20–25 minutes depending on traffic. Edinburgh City Centre is also within easy walking distance of the city’s central railway hub, Waverley Station.
Where to Shop in Edinburgh, Scotland
Edinburgh, Scotland’s shopping options extend far beyond the department stores of Princes Street or the souvenir shops of the Royal Mile. Around the city, there are many spots featuring anything from designer stores, little boutiques, and farmers’ markets. Classic Scottish purchases to consider bringing home with you include cashmere, tweed or tartan goods, kilts, Celtic jewellery, and Scotch whisky.
Victoria Street is one of the city’s most photographed spots for a reason. This curved street is home to many colourful facades. The perfect place to pick up souvenirs and features charming shops such as a novelty joke shop and a rare second-hand book store that wouldn’t look out of place on Diagon Alley.
Where to Eat in Edinburgh, Scotland
The Elephant House
The Elephant House is the self-proclaimed “birthplace of Harry Potter.” Legend has it that back in the 1990s when writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling would frequent The Elephant House for their free heating and cozy atmosphere. There’s a wall inside with photos of Rowling’s writing and quotes from the author herself.
SPOON is a cafe in Edinburgh that’s known for its healthy food and afternoon tea. It’s also popular because of the history behind its location. Back in the 1990s, the building played host to a different restaurant called Nicolson’s Cafe. This was another spot where J.K. Rowling is said to have spent hours penning early chapters of the first Harry Potter book!
For my fellow North Americans, Bella Italia is an Italian restaurant chain that can be found around the UK. The location on the Royal Mile is a perfect spot to visit after a trip to Edinburgh Castle and enjoy a crispy classic pizza. For my young, jetlagged self who did no prior research before visiting Edinburgh the first time, it was great to find this spot in the heart of the city.
What to Do in Edinburgh, Scotland
1. Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle has played a pivotal role in Scottish history as both a royal residence and as a military stronghold. From the 1700-1900s, the castle served as the British army’s main base in Scotland. Today it’s Edinburgh’s most popular tourist attraction!
The highest part of Castle Rock is St. Margaret’s Chapel, which is the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh (built around 1130). Next to the chapel is Mons Meg, a giant siege gun from the 15th century. One of the main buildings on the summit is the shrine of the Scottish National War Memorial. There is also the Great Hall that was built for James IV and the Castle Vaults that were used as 18th-century prisons.
On the eastern side, you’ll find the Royal Palace that houses the Scottish crown jewels. The Stone of Destiny is also on display here. In the neighbouring Royal Apartments, you can find the bed-chamber where Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to her son James VI.
For fellow Game of Thrones fans, you’ll also find the castle interesting as the “Black Dinner” that happened here in 1440 was the inspiration for the “Red Wedding!” The 6th Earl of Douglas was only 16 when he and his younger brother David were invited to a feast with the young King James II at Edinburgh Castle and were both murdered.
From the battlements, you have amazing views of the Firth of Forth and can see the famous One O’Clock Gun, where crowds gather to watch it fire at 1 pm each day. Edinburgh Castle is full of so much history, every corner has something different as it has had so many uses over the years. Make sure to plan for at least half a day here as there is so much to see!
2. Palace of Holyroodhouse
The Holyroodhouse palace is the royal family’s official residence in Scotland but is most well known as the 16th-century home of Mary, Queen of Scots. The highlight of a tour here is visiting Mary’s Bedchamber, where her second husband, Lord Darnley, has her secretary (David Rizzio) murdered.
The palace had developed from a guest house that was attached to Holyrood Abbey. The oldest surviving part of the building, the northwestern tower, was built in 1529 as a royal apartment for James V. The self-guided audio tour leads you through a series of royal apartments and visits the Great Gallery. The tour ends with the ruins of Holyrood Abbey.
3. Scottish Parliament Building
The Scottish Parliament Building was opened by the Queen in October 2004. The complex is said to represent a “flower of democracy rooted in Scottish soil.” They offer free, one-hour tours that include visits to the Debating Chamber, a committee room, the Garden Lobby and the office of a member of parliament.
The chamber is the centrepiece of the parliament, designed to humble the politicians who sit within it. The windows face Calton Hill, reminding parliamentarians of the Scottish Enlightenment.
4. Arthur’s Seat
The rocky peak of Arthur’s Seat (251m), was carved by ice sheets from the deeply eroded stump of a long-extinct volcano. It’s now a distinctive feature of Edinburgh’s skyline and a fantastic viewpoint of the city. You can hike from Holyrood Palace to the summit in around 45 minutes.
5. Real Mary King’s Close
Mary King’s Close was an alley that was sealed off during the plague and has survived almost unchanged amid the foundations for 250 years. Now open to the public, this spooky labyrinth gives a fascinating insight into the everyday life of 17th-century Edinburgh.
Costumed characters lead tours through 16th-century townhouses and the plague-stricken homes. You’ll be able to hear all about the history and horrors that have taken place there. While this isn’t something I was interested in while I was 14, I would love to do this tour now!
6. Princes Street Gardens
The Princes Street Gardens lie in a valley that was once occupied by the North Loch that was drained in the early 19th century. The gardens are split in the middle by The Mound, which was created during the construction of the New Town and dumped here to provide a road link across to the Old Town. Beside it is the Floral Clock, a working clock that was first created in 1903. Very similar to the flower clock in Geneva, Switzerland!
The eastern half of Princes Street Gardens is dominated by the massive Gothic spire of the Scott Monument, which was built in memory of novelist Sir Walter Scott after his death in 1832. Inside you can see an exhibition on Scott’s life, and climb the 287 steps to the top for a view of the city.
7. St. Giles Cathedral
St. Giles Cathedral is a historic Cathedral that dates largely from the 15th century. Properly called the High Kirk of Edinburgh, the church was named after the patron saint of cripples and beggars. It’s not the grandest interior, but it’s rich in history. It was built on the site of a Norman-style church and was also at the heart of the Scottish Reformation.
John Knox served as minister here from 1559 to 1572. Inside the church, there is a memorial to author Robert Louis Stevenson and a copy of the National Covenant of 1638. Outside the western door of St. Giles is the Heart of Midlothian, set into the cobblestone paving. At the other end of St. Giles is the Mercat Cross, where merchants and traders met to transact business.
8. The Grassmarket
The site of a cattle market from the 15th century, known as the Grassmarket has always been a focal point of the Old Town. It was once the city’s main place of execution, commemorated by a monument where the gallows used to stand. Notorious murderers Burke and Hare operated from a now-vanished close off the western end.
Cowgate leading out of the square was once the road along which cattle were driven from the pastures around Arthur’s Seat. Today it’s the heart of Edinburgh’s nightlife, with around two dozen clubs and bars. This was a special spot to visit as my Great-Grandfather owned a china shop right in the main square in the 1800s!
9. Greyfriars Bobby Statue
The life-size statue of Greyfriars Bobby is one of the most popular spots in Edinburgh! Bobby was a Skye terrier who captured the hearts of the British in the 1800s. From 1858 to 1872 the Bobby maintained a vigil over the grave of his master, an Edinburgh police officer. The story was made into a movie by Walt Disney in 1961.
Bobby’s own grave is just inside the entrance to Greyfriars Kirkyard next to his master, and you can see his original collar and bowl in the Museum of Edinburgh.
10. Greyfriars Kirkyard
Greyfriars Kirkyard is Edinburgh’s most famous cemetery. Many famous Edinburgh names are buried here including the inspiration of J.K. Rowling’s dark-lord Voldemort. Rowling is said to have been inspired by the grave of a 19th-century gentleman, Thomas Riddell, who died in 1806.
Greyfriars Kirk was built on the site of a Franciscan friary and opened in 1620. In 1638, the National Covenant was signed in the kirk, rejecting Charles I’s attempts to impose a new English prayer book on the Scots, and affirming the independence of the Church of Scotland. Many Covenanters who signed were later taken prisoner and executed at the Grassmarket.
11. City Chambers
The City Chambers is home to the City of Edinburgh Council and was originally built by John Adam in 1761 to serve as the Royal Exchange (replacing the traditional meeting place of the Mercat Cross). Although it’s only four stories high on the Royal Mile side, the building plummets 12 stories on the northern side. The City Chambers were built over the sealed-off remains of Mary King’s Close.
12. Scotch Whisky Experience
A former school houses the Scotch Whisky Experience that takes you through the making of whisky, from barley to bottle. A series of exhibits and demonstrations lead you through the museum to the world’s largest collection of malt whiskies.
13. John Knox House
The John Knox House is the oldest surviving tenement in Edinburgh, dating from around 1490. John Knox was an influential church reformer and leader of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland. He lived here from 1561 to 1572, and the museum now features a display on Knox’s life and work.
14. Calton Hill Monuments
Calton Hill rises dramatically above the eastern end of Princes Street. Its summit is scattered with grandiose memorials dating from the 19th century. It’s also one of the best viewpoints in Edinburgh, with a panorama that takes in the castle, Holyrood, Arthur’s Seat, the Firth of Forth, and the New Town.
Looking like an upturned telescope, the Nelson Monument was built to commemorate Admiral Lord Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. The neoclassical Burns Monument is a Greek-style memorial to Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns, that stands on the southern flank of the hill.
The largest structure on the summit of Calton Hill, the National Monument was an attempt to replicate the Parthenon to honour Scotland’s dead in the Napoleonic Wars. Construction began in 1822, but funds ran dry after only 12 columns had been erected.
15. Camera Obscura & World of Illusions
Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura & World of Illusions features an interesting 19th-century device that uses lenses and mirrors to throw a live image of the city onto a large horizontal screen.
The whole experience is accompanied by an exhibition dedicated to illusions of all kinds. Stairs lead up through various displays to the Outlook Tower, which offers great views over the city.
16. Edinburgh Zoo
Opened in 1913, Edinburgh Zoo is one of the world’s leading conservation zoos. Edinburgh’s captive breeding program has helped save many endangered species, including Siberian tigers, pygmy hippos, and red pandas. The main attractions are the two giant pandas and the penguin parade (every day at 2:15 pm). The zoo is 4km west of the city centre.
17. Royal Yacht Britannia
The former Royal Yacht Britannia was the British Royal Family’s floating holiday home during their foreign travels from 1953 until 1997. It’s now permanently moored in front of Ocean Terminal. The self-guided audio tour sheds light on the everyday lives of the royals and gives insight into the Queen’s personal tastes.
18. Royal Botanic Garden
Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden is the second-oldest institution of its kind in Britain (after Oxford), and one of the most respected in the world. Founded in 1670 and moved to its present location in 1823, its 70 beautifully landscaped acres include splendid Victorian glasshouses and a world-famous rock garden.
Top Museums and Galleries in Edinburgh, Scotland
1. National Museum of Scotland
The National Museum of Scotland is spread between two buildings: one modern and one Victorian. The modern museum’s five floors trace the history of Scotland from geological beginnings to the 1990s. It connects with the original Victorian museum, which houses a collection covering natural history, archaeology, design and fashion, science and technology, and decorative arts.
2. Surgeons’ Hall Museums
The Surgeons’ Hall Museum is housed in a grand Ionic temple from 1832. The museum was originally established as a teaching collection. The History of Surgery Museum includes an exhibit on murderers Burke and Hare, which includes Burke’s death mask and a pocketbook made from his skin. I don’t deal well with even modern-day medical things so I didn’t visit while I was there haha!
3. People’s Story
The Canongate Tolbooth was built in 1591 and served as a collection point for taxes, a council house, a courtroom, and a jail. With its picturesque turrets and a projecting clock, it now houses a museum called the People’s Story, which covers the life and work of ordinary Edinburgh folk over the last 300 years.
4. Museum of Edinburgh, Scotland
Opposite the Tolbooth clock on the Royal Mile is the brightly coloured Huntly House that was built in 1570 and now houses the Museum of Edinburgh. The museum covers Edinburgh from prehistory to the present. Noteworthy displays include an original copy of the National Covenant of 1638, and the dog collar and feeding bowl that once belonged to Greyfriars Bobby.
5. Scottish National Portrait Gallery
The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is one of the city’s top attractions. Its galleries illustrate Scottish history through paintings, photographs, and sculptures. It features famous names from Scotland’s past and present, including Robert Burns; Mary, Queen of Scots; Bonnie Prince Charlie; and actor Sean Connery.
6. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is split between two impressive neoclassical buildings surrounded by landscaped grounds west of Dean Village. The main collection, known as Modern One, concentrates on 20th-century art, with various European movements including Matisse and Picasso. Most space is reserved for Scottish painters.
7. Scottish National Gallery
The Scottish National Gallery was designed by William Playfair and has had its octagonal rooms restored to their original Victorian decor. The gallery houses a collection of European art from the Renaissance to the post-Impressionism era. The basement galleries are dedicated to Scottish art.
Seasonal Events to Attend in Edinburgh, Scotland
- Royal Highland Show: Scotland’s hugely popular national agricultural show includes everything from showjumping and tractor driving to sheep shearing. It’s held over a long weekend every year in late June.
- Edinburgh Military Tattoo: A spectacular display of military marching bands, pipes and drums, acrobats, and motorcycle display teams, all played out in front of the magnificent backdrop of the floodlit castle. This event takes place during the first three weeks of August.
- Edinburgh’s Christmas: Runs from late November to early January. It includes a street parade, a Christmas market, a Ferris wheel, and an ice rink in St. Andrew Square.
- Edinburgh Fringe Festival: The largest arts festival in the world that takes place in the city over three weeks each August. It features over 55,000 performances each year.
Final Thoughts on Edinburgh, Scotland
Edinburgh, Scotland is such an incredible city! It has had a very dynamic history over the years and continues to reinvent itself and stay very close to the heart of Scottish art and culture. No matter what time of the year you visit, Edinburgh offers so much to see. I’ve now visited during the months of November and March and would love to go back during the summer or Christmas.
Have you been to Edinburgh before? If so, what was your favourite part of the city? And if not, what are you most looking forward to seeing one day? I hope this comprehensive, full guide to Edinburgh, Scotland will be helpful for when you are planning your visit to this amazing city!