The capital of Scotland, Edinburgh is charming, fun, and full of life. Even though I’ve been twice now, I’m already itching to go back and explore more of the city and the surrounding area. There’s history, culture, cozy pubs, beautiful scenery, and definitely a lot to do. So here you go—15 tips for a weekend in Edinburgh!
1. Bring extra layers in winter
If you’re visiting Edinburgh (or Scotland in general) between October and April, I strongly suggest bringing lots of extra layers. Having visited Edinburgh twice in November, I can say that the winter is tough. And I say this as someone from Minnesota, where it regularly gets below zero and can get snow in May. But Scotland is windy and damp, and that chill will stay with you all day. So bring warm clothes and lots of layers.
2. Pick either Edinburgh Castle or Palace of Holyroodhouse
Unless you’re a huge history buff (like me!), I’d suggest visiting either Edinburgh Castle or the Palace of Holyroodhouse if you’re short on time over a weekend. They’re both fairly expensive, and there’s a lot of the same information at both. And of the two, I’d say Edinburgh Castle is more interesting, iconic, and has more things to see—so you really can’t miss the castle.
3. Most attractions are located on or around the Royal Mile
The Royal Mile is the long street that runs throughout Edinburgh’s Old Town, from Edinburgh Castle on one end, to the Scottish Parliament and the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the other end. Most sites in Edinburgh are located either on or around the Royal Mile, besides the attractions around Princes Street and New Town. The Royal Mile is a great marker to help you with directions, and a good geographic center to base yourself for your time in the Old Town.
4. Don’t miss the view from the rooftop terrace of the National Museum of Scotland
This is probably my favorite thing that I did in Edinburgh on my most recent trip: the rooftop viewing terrace from the National Museum of Scotland. The museum is free (see below!) and the rooftop is free as well. The views are simply incredible—I highly recommend doing this on any trip to Edinburgh!
5. There are lots of free museums!
Free things! The best kinds of things! If you’re traveling on a budget and hoping to save a few pennies in Edinburgh, the National Museum of Scotland, the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, the Museum of Edinburgh, the Writer’s Museum, and the People’s Story Museum are all FREE! All of these museums do welcome donations.
6. There’s plenty of other good free things to do
Besides the museums, there’s other things to do in Edinburgh that won’t cost you anything. St. Giles Cathedral, the city cathedral, is a magnificent building right on the Royal Mile (don’t miss seeing the Thistle Chapel!). Greyfriars Kirkyard (graveyard) is a hauntingly beautiful place to wander around—but be aware that Greyfriars Kirk (the church) is closed in the winter months. You can also visit the Scottish Parliament for free. And of course, climbing up to get a view of the city from Arthur’s Seat and/or Calton Hill is completely free!
7. Don’t take the steep path to Arthur’s Seat unless you have hiking gear
There are two main paths to the top of Arthur’s Seat, the giant hill overlooking the city that is the remnant of a long-extinct volcano. One is a longer, meandering path that takes you around part of the back of the hill at a lower (therefore easier) incline. The other path is shorter, but is much steeper than the longer path. I wouldn’t recommend hiking the steep path unless you have appropriate hiking gear (read: sturdy hiking boots).
8. If you’re short on time, get the view from Calton Hill
If you don’t have time to get all the way up to the top of Arthur’s Seat (which will take about 30-45 minutes one-way if you’re working hard on the longer, less steep path), see the views of Edinburgh city from Calton Hill. Calton Hill is much lower than Arthur’s Seat, and way easier to climb (there’s lots of staircases). The view won’t be quite as good, but you’ll get a great shot of the city and save yourself some time.
9. You can’t miss the Greyfriars Bobby statue
This adorable statue of a dog, right by the National Museum of Scotland, is famous throughout the city. The Skye terrier supposedly guarded his master’s grave from 1858-1872, and later starred in both a book and a Disney movie. The statue, the story, and Edinburgh’s love for its famous pet are all just so cute, you just can’t miss it on a trip to Edinburgh. Rubbing the dog’s nose is meant to bring good luck!
10. There’s plenty to do in Edinburgh for Harry Potter fans
As the home city of author J.K. Rowling, there’s loads to do in Edinburgh if you like Harry Potter. From cafes that Rowling wrote at, to gravestones that inspired character names, you’ll have plenty to do! Check out my post on 5 Harry Potter Places to Visit in Edinburgh for more information!
11. Leith, Rosslyn Chapel and the Royal Botanic Gardens are nearby for half-day trips
Edinburgh is a very well connected city, so it’s easy to plan out your journey onwards. But if you’re looking for daytrips (or half-day trips), there’s a few in Edinburgh that are worth a visit. Leith is a seaport and home to the Royal Yacht Britannia, which took the British Royal Family around the world from 1953 until its decommissioning in 1997 (the Water of Leith Walkway, a ~12-mile walk from Edinburgh to Leith, is also meant to be lovely). Rosslyn Chapel, of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code fame, was built in the mid-1400s, and is full of beautiful carvings. The Royal Botanic Gardens are another place, a bit removed from the city center, that’s worth a visit. I’m dying to go back to Edinburgh and these places are at the top of my “must-see” list!
12. The Scotch Whisky Experience can be skipped unless you really like whisky/drinking
Honestly, if you’re not a whisky fan, or a fan of drinking in general, there’s no point in going to the Scotch Whisky Experience. It’s a cool place, and of course the tasting session is fun! But while scotch whisky is incredibly important to Scotland and its culture and history, I just don’t see it being entertaining enough or a good value for money if you don’t like whisky or drinking. I do though, and had a great visit! 🙂
13. The Grassmarket is a convenient place for barhopping
There are loads of pubs and bars to be found in the Grassmarket area in Edinburgh! It’s very easy to bar and pub hop around the street/marketplace, as there’s a string of about 10ish places all in a row. Start at one end and make your way to the other!
14. Yes, you must try haggis
Haggis is one of Scotland’s national dishes and you just can’t miss trying it on a trip to Edinburgh. Haggis is a type of pudding mix, made out of leftover sheep meat and typically combined with onions, oatmeal, and spices. It looks gross and sounds gross but (like with hot dogs) just don’t think about what you’re eating! It’s actually pretty tasty.
15. Stock up on shortbread before you leave
Another of Scotland’s culinary claims to fame, shortbread is amazing and addictive and you should buy plenty of it before you leave Edinburgh. Walkers Shortbread is the largest brand, is delicious, and you can buy it anywhere. Trust me and buy as much as you can fit in your luggage—you’ll thank me later.
The Basics: Scotland, along with England and Wales, make up the country of Great Britain. Britain, together with Northern Ireland, makes up the United Kingdom. As of now, the UK is still a member of the EU, but is not a Schengen member of the border-free zone on continental Europe. The currency in Scotland is the Great British Pound (GBP), however Scotland has its own notes—and despite being obligated by law to accept them, most businesses outside of Scotland won’t take them. You can change your Scottish bills at any bank.
Getting Around: Edinburgh is a very well-connected city, both within Scotland and the UK, and with Europe in general. The city (particularly the Old Town) is very walkable, but it does have a good public bus system if venturing outside of either Old or New Town. Edinburgh’s Old Town is built on a hill, so keep in mind you will be trekking up and down while walking around.
Where I Stayed: I’ve stayed at two different hostels in Edinburgh, both in the Old Town: Budget Backpackers, and Edinburgh Backpackers. Both were decent hostels, and I’d recommend either. Budget Backpackers has a great location right by the Grassmarket. Edinburgh Backpackers has lots of different common rooms for hanging out, great prices (my 5-bed dorm was only £12.50 for a weekday night), but is spread over several floors so I had to walk up a lot of stairs to get to the bathroom. Both charge to leave your luggage during the day (something I fundamentally disagree with). Be aware that in Edinburgh Old Town, lots of hostels are spread over various buildings, so (like at Budget Backpackers), my dorm room was in a different building and across the street from the building with reception. Both hostels were good and I’d return to either.
Have you ever been to Edinburgh before? What would your top tips be?