A modern day city surrounding a twelfth-century castle built on an extinct volcano: Edinburgh sounds like an enchanting fairy tale. It feels like a cross-hatching of time, with each stone steeped in history. Home to thinkers like Adam Smith and David Hume who changed the way we live today, as well as countless other artists and figures, Edinburgh has the street cred to support the cultural name it’s forged for itself. Combining stunning nature, history, and significant contributions to modern theatre (a month-long festival every year!), Edinburgh offers more to do the more you explore. Old-fashioned pubs offer pints while bagpipers in kilts busk on the street. Are we in the 21st century or 1819? Edinburgh’s beauty comes from the way it harkens to both. So climb those stairs, take your 10,000 steps, have a sip of whiskey, perhaps a bite of haggis (or not), and get ready to discover a time capsule of European history.
Explore a castle and snap some shots of some beautifully scenic homes.
Morning: Visit Edinburgh Castle
You can’t come to Edinburgh without seeing the castle—after all, Edinburgh is practically in its shadow. To really experience its majesty, though, you’ve got to go inside. Cough up the fee and allot two hours to walk around and explore. The torture demonstration might curdle your blood a little bit, and the war memorials have caused visitors to shed tears. The real treasure lies with the crown jewels—but not the diamonds. No, the real treasure is found with the Stone of Destiny, which is basically a giant rock. It’s said that wherever the stone lies, the Scots shall rule. Hundreds of years of history pack themselves into the castle, and stepping in feels like stepping back in time.
Afterwards, if time allows, take a guided tour of the Royal Mile for an overview of Edinburgh’s top tourist spots, as most of the city’s major historical sites are covered, and your guide will offer a delightfully humorous insider’s perspective that you won’t get from walking it alone.
Lunchtime: Take a secret food tour
Skip the touristy foodie hotspots and find out where the locals like to go on a secret food tour of Edinburgh. Yes, you’ll try haggis, but we promise that’s not the only dish the city is known for. From creamy cheeses and delectable cakes, you’ll get a delicious taste of Edinburgh’s culture.
Afternoon: Visit Dean Village and Walk of Leith
After a busy day, there’s no better way to spend a sunny afternoon than with a walk along the port on Leith’s walkway and a trip to Dean Village. A residential area outside of the city center, Dean Village comprises enchanting homes from the nineteenth century that look like they’re taken straight out of a storybook, making it hard to believe that people get to live there. Nearby Mews present picturesque homes to snap pictures of, but be sure to be respectful of the residents. Expect a leisurely walk to take about an hour. Walk from the bridge of the Water of Leith to the Modern Art Gallery to embrace the full views.
Evening: Take a nighttime tour of one of Edinburgh’s oldest neighborhoods
A nighttime tour of Old Town is the perfect way to get a behind-the-scenes look at the significance of this area of Edinburgh. After you’ve explored the nooks and crannies of this neighborhood, grab dinner at any of the restaurants or pubs lining the cobblestone streets. We recommend staying out afterwards for drinks, too—this area is a guaranteed good time once the sun goes down.
Check out some museums and catch the sunset from one of Edinburgh’s most scenic spots.
Morning: Visit the National Gallery of Modern Art
Two majestic buildings provide hundreds of pieces of art for perusal, picturesque cafés, and outdoor areas for relaxation. Connecting the spaces is an outdoor sculpture gallery. Exhibits change every few months, but make sure to check out the reconstruction of sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi’s studio in the Modern Two building, so you can drink up all the bright colors and learn about how the Edinburgh native (his parents were Italian immigrants, if you’re confused) pioneered the pop art movement. Bus #13 offers an easy connection from Princes Street, but for the best route you should walk through Dean Village. Some exhibits charge, but most are free, and we recommend just skipping anything you have to pay for, because there’s so much to see already between the two buildings.
Lunchtime: Have a picnic in Calton Hill
Overlooking Edinburgh with a view of Arthur’s seat, the hill itself contains landmarks within it, like the National Monument, a half finished acropolis-like structure that looms over the skyline. In fact, the monument itself at the top of the hill provides the best vantage point of the glow reflected on the yellow Gorse flowers and the glinting snowy hills in Holyrood Park. Couples and families come here to picnic and enjoy the views. No, our eyes aren’t tearing up at the beauty—it’s just the wind. If you’re feeling ambitious, take a guided walking tour of the area to experience everything this area has to offer.
Afternoon: Stroll through St. Giles
Stained-glass windows light up the room, and a hushed silence that comes from centuries of worship falls over the tourists who step inside. Each window tells a story, just like every name on benches and inscribed into walls. A cathedral of secret histories. A photo doesn’t really do the cathedral justice, but standing in the middle of the church under the flags of Scotland and the high arched ceiling creates tranquility. Services and concerts ring out on certain days of the week. A moment inside the church lets you forget the aggressive musicians outside and focus on Edinburgh’s real draw: its history.
Evening: See the sunset from the top of Arthur’s Seat
Don’t think you can hike? Try anyway. Reaching the summit of Arthur’s Seat feels like making it to the top of the world. All of Edinburgh sprawls below your feet. There are multiple routes, and our recommendation is the path that begins from Queen Street next to the Holyrood Palace. From there, follow the left path to the top. Various stopping points along the way encourage you to take in the juxtaposition of the extinct volcano’s natural beauty and the city. If you go at sunrise or sunset, it’s especially picturesque, but if the weather is good, you’ll have to brave the crowds no matter the time. And hey, if that couple with gray hair can make it up to the very top, you can, too.
Once the sun has set, treat yourself to an evening tour, complete with dinner. It’s the perfect way to see Edinburgh after dark.