Edinburgh is one of those cities that is all about the details. Like Lisbon, Paris, and London, this city has so many little quirks…
It’s also very compact, so the main things you’d want to see are going to be easy to do in a fairly short time. So even if you only have a day, you can really dive into this old and charming city.
What to do in Edinburgh
With such a short time in the city, we had to really focus in our itinerary. We honestly just did a lot of walking, starting on the Royal Mile (where we were staying) and then seeing what looked interesting or captured our fancy from there. It was gloomy and foggy when we were there, which was a real bummer (though quite common), and so we tended to skip certain things that would have required a sunny day to really enjoy.
Here are some of the must-see things in Edinburgh:
- The Royal Mile
- Edinburgh Castle
- Prince’s Street Gardens
- A few sights along Prince’s Street
- Holyrood Palace & Park
- Old Calton & New Calton Burial Grounds
- Calton Hill (great views!)
- Pubs & teahouses!
- Things we didn’t get to but wanted to…more along the lines of scenic views:
- Arthur’s Seat (we saw it from afar but didn’t climb)
- I really wanted to visit the cafe where J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter 🙂
- Botanical Gardens
- The Shore
- Water of Leigh Walkway
If you’re planning your own 1-day itinerary, here’s a great basic walking route for you. I wouldn’t follow it exactly, but it’s pretty darn close to the streets we walked and it’s definitely the order we saw everything in. The link in bold is to a live Google Maps view, while the below is a screenshot.
This made me truly LOL.
Here is info on our entire Scotland road trip!
A little about Edinburgh…
While the area around Edinburgh was settled by Celts thousands of years ago, the settlement of the city itself dates to the early Middle Ages—somewhere in the 7th-10th centuries, when a hillfort was established. It eventually became a residence of Scottish kings, and was considered the capital of Scotland from about the 14th century. The city has had a turbulent history, seeing a lot of war and changing hands between the Scottish and English several times.
There is SO much history packed into this small city. So much of what I loved about Edinburgh was just wandering the streets and finding those little quirks and charming old details…like that cute little gold clock in the first pic below.
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Edinburgh Castle & Prince’s Street Gardens
Of all the things to do and see in Edinburgh, you can’t miss Edinburgh Castle. I mean, like literally—it completely dominates the skyline, so you can’t miss it. There has been a royal castle on the rock since around the 12th century, though it stopped being a royal residence in the 16th or 17th century. It’s played a major stronghold role in many military conflicts, and is a sentinel over the city to this day.
There is a TON of history to be seen on the castle grounds if you have the time and that’s your thing. And the views are great as well. Here’s the official website for visiting the castle, including opening times and ticket prices.
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It was such a foggy day that we couldn’t see anything from the castle itself. Plus, we were there just after the annual Edinburgh Festival and Military Tattoo so all the seats and fences were still set up and it just wasn’t conducive to visiting (or getting good pics without all that junk in it). So after going up to the gates, we instead went back down and enjoyed the moody views of the castle from Prince’s Street Gardens…where these pics were taken.
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We circled around the castle and through the Prince’s Street Gardens, then toward Prince’s Street itself.
If you’re coming from Prince’s Street Gardens, you’ll hit Prince’s Street and see the Floral Clock. Commissioned in 1903, it was the first of its kind in the whole world. I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it, but it’s easy enough to catch. It flowers from July til October, so that would be the best time of year to see it (we were there in August).
Take a right on Prince’s Street and continue on. You’ll see a number of other interesting monuments, including this and the Scott Monument (as in “Sir Walter Scott”)—a very striking spiky monument that you can see in silhouette at sunset at the very bottom of this post.
Take a tea break at Clarinda’s
We continued down Prince’s Street and then across North Bridge and toward Holyrood Palace, at the other end of the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle. After all the walking we’d done, we felt due for a pick-me-up, so stopped in at Clarinda’s Tea Room. It’s an adorable little—and I do mean little!—place right near Holyrood Palace.
They have tons of delicious scones, cakes, and pastries, as well as a breakfast and lunch menu. There isn’t a ton of seating and it’s quite cozy (read: cramped), so you might need to wait a few minutes for a table, but was exactly the refreshment that our weary feet needed after a day of walking!
Since the 16th century, Holyrood has served as the principal residence of Scottish monarchs (including Mary, Queen of Scots). It is currently the official residence of the British Monarch in Scotland, and Queen Elizabeth spends at least a week there each year. Its Neoclassical quadrangle architecture is really quite beautiful.
You can find out more about up-to-date opening times, prices, and more at the official website. The afternoon was starting to get away from us, so we just took a peek through the gates and went on our way, rather than taking the tour.
We’d planned to climb Arthur’s Seat but were quite tired and it was pretty late in the day at this point, so just gazed at it from afar. There are a couple different routes up and the views are supposed to be great, so if it’s a nice clear day I’d recommend it! You can gain tips from others who have climbed it here.
Old Calton & New Calton Burial Ground
Old Calton Burial Ground and New Calton Burial Ground are old cemeteries run by the city, dating back to the 1700s and 1800s, respectively. These are less a “must-see” and more of a cool thing to wander through on your way from Holyrood up to Calton Hill.
The cemeteries are chock-full of notable Scots, from playwrights to military heroes to philosophers to artists. A lot of the headstones and mausoleums are really cool, and the views over Edinburgh on a beautiful day are nothing to sneeze at. The walk is worth it for the views alone.
After winding through the cemeteries, we finally climbed atop Calton Hill, which provides one of the most iconic views of the city. Like many other areas of the city, the settlement and importance of this hill go back centuries. There are tons of monuments on the hill, including the Parthenon-looking National Monument and the cute little circular Dugald Stewart Monument that overlooks the city.
If you’re blessed with a beautiful sunny day, Calton Hill is a great place to watch the sunset over the city as well.
If you’re lucky, enjoy a sunset
We had an overcast day at Calton Hill, but the night before, after we dropped off our rental car at the airport and made into the city, we went out and explored. We did see a beautiful, peaceful sunset that evening, and it would have been a great chance to get up above the city.
So there is a walking route for a jam-packed, great 24 hours in Edinburgh—perfect for first-time visitors on a time crunch. I definitely want to visit Edinburgh again some day, but I feel like we really did it justice in the time we had!
Other whirlwind city adventures you’ll love:
- How to Spend 24 Hours in Lisbon
- 11 Tips for a Day in London
- A Guide to 2 Days in Dublin
- How to Enjoy 24 Hours in Prague
- A First-Timer’s Guide to Florence, Italy
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