How to spend a weekend in Edinburgh: Discover the best things to see, do, eat and drink in Edinburgh in a two-day itinerary featuring the Scottish capital’s historic sights, museums and scenic views.
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Scotland’s capital Edinburgh is one of my favourite places in the world. Set on a volcanic outcrop overlooking the Firth of Forth, this historic city is packed with castles, palaces and museums to explore, surrounded by beautiful architecture from the medieval cobbled streets of the Old Town to the elegant Georgian terraces of the New Town.
Add in some fantastic bars and restaurants and you’ve got all the ingredients of a perfect weekend break. So here’s my two-day Edinburgh itinerary to help you plan your weekend in Edinburgh, with a guide to what to see as well as where to eat, drink and stay.
How to spend a weekend in Edinburgh
Check into your accommodation then start your weekend in Edinburgh on Grassmarket. This area below the castle is one of the oldest parts of the city and has been used as a marketplace since the 14th century. And look out for a pub called ‘The Last Drop’, named in honour of Grassmarket’s other past role as a site for public hangings.
Today Grassmarket is known for its nightlife and is an ideal place for a pre-dinner drink. Though it’s worth a quick diversion to The Vennel across the road first, a narrow passage with steps climbing uphill where you get a great view across to the castle.
If the sun’s shining, Cold Town House is a microbrewery below Castle Rock which is set across three levels and has a roof terrace with panoramic castle views. Or if it’s a bit too chilly to sit outside, Under the Stairs is a cosy cocktail bar with shabby chic décor tucked away in a basement a couple of minutes away on Merchant Street.
Next head up colourful Victoria Street to the Royal Mile for dinner at the atmospheric Gothic-style Witchery restaurant. You can eat in their 16th-century oak-panelled dining room or candlelit secret garden. The menu features local Scottish produce – including a splurge-worthy seafood platter of langoustines, mussels, crab and oysters.
The Royal Mile is the historic heart of Edinburgh – running from Edinburgh Castle at one end to the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the other. It has more than its share of touristy tartan shops, but its cobbled streets are also home to many of Edinburgh’s top attractions. Though it’s actually just over a mile (1.81km) as it’s based on an old Scots mile.
Start your exploration of the Royal Mile at it’s highest point outside Edinburgh Castle*, which is built on top of a volcanic crag. There’s been a castle here since the 12th century, and that was built on the site of an Iron Age fort. Over the years it’s been a royal residence, military barracks and prison – and the most besieged place in Britain.
Today the castle is still used by the military but much of it is open to the public. You can see how kings and queens lived in the royal apartments and how prisoners lived in the dungeons. There’s also the tiny St Margaret’s Chapel – Edinburgh’s oldest building – the Scottish Crown jewels and museums dedicated to different military regiments.
When you’ve finished looking around the castle, head down the Royal Mile where you have a choice of three different museums, depending on what you’re interested in. The Camera Obscura is a mind-bending world of illusions with puzzles, optical illusions, holograms and a mirror maze, as well as views over Edinburgh from the rooftop.
The Scotch Whisky Experience* opposite takes you on a journey though the history and production of Scotland’s national drink (literally as you ride around in a giant barrel) before learning about different whisky-producing regions and choosing a dram to taste.
Or Mary King’s Close is a trip underground to a warren of narrow alleyways and abandoned houses. They were buried beneath the Royal Mile when the Royal Exchange was built in the 17th century, and the tours are part history tour, part ghost tour.
Once you’ve finished in the museum, walk a bit further down the Royal Mile until you reach the George IV Bridge and stop for lunch at The Outsider. This restaurant sits right on the bridge and has fantastic views of the castle – it’s also one of the area’s best lunchtime bargains with main courses like Scottish mussels or steak frites for under £10.
After lunch, take the short walk to Greyfriars Kirk to look around the church and churchyard. The church was built in 1602 on the site of a medieval Franciscan friary and gets its name from the grey robes monks wore. It was the the first church to be built in Scotland following the Reformation and was where the National Covenant was signed.
The church is surrounded by ornate tombs and graves – and Harry Potter fans might recognise some of the names on them like Thomas Riddell. The church is close to cafés like The Elephant House where JK Rowling conjured up the world of Hogwarts.
Near the entrance is a memorial to Greyfriars Bobby – a Skye terrier who’s said to have sat by his master’s grave for 14 years after he died. Look out for the pile of sticks left for him. There’s also a statue outside the Greyfriars Bobby pub on Candlemaker Row (but try to resist the temptation to rub his nose as all the attention is damaging the statue).
Next head across the street to the National Museum of Scotland. With galleries covering the history of Scotland, science and technology, nature, art and world cultures it’d take all weekend to see everything, so pick a few sections to concentrate on.
Some of my favourite spots are the beautiful light-filled Grand Gallery, vintage clothing in the fashion and style gallery and the exhibits on space exploration and technology. You also get another great view across the city rooftops to the castle from the roof terrace – to get there take the lift from the Kingdom of the Scots gallery up to the seventh floor.
Next head back to the Royal Mile and continue walking downhill towards Canongate. If you need refuelling, stop off at Mimi’s Little Bakehouse for a cup of tea and one of their delicious cupcakes. Then once you reach the bottom of the Royal Mile you’ll see the modern Scottish Parliament building and the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
The Palace of Holyroodhouse* is the monarch’s official residence in Scotland and was built in the 1670s in Baroque style. If the King isn’t in residence you can tour the lavish staterooms with their tapestries and artworks, ruined Holyrood Abbey and the tower where Mary Queen of Scots’ husband Lord Darnley killed her secretary in a jealous rage.
Then climb up to the top of Calton Hill just before sunset for one of the best views in Edinburgh. The hill is topped with a diverse mix of monuments, from the Greek-style National Monument to the Nelson Monument with its design inspired by a telescope.
Once the sun’s gone down, just at the bottom of the hill is the Gardener’s Cottage restaurant. This tiny cottage was once the residence of the royal gardener and they still use produce grown in their kitchen garden on the menu. There’s a seasonal set menu which changes frequently, and they’re happy to adapt it for gluten- or dairy-free diners.
And if you fancy an after-dinner drink, it’s just a short walk to Broughton Street and Pickles wine bar. This underground bar is a welcoming spot with fairy lights, sofas to sink into and an extensive wine list (and cheese platters if you’ve got room left).
Start your Sunday with a walk along the Water of Leith walkway. This 12-mile riverside path runs from Balerno at the foot of the Pentland Hills, through Edinburgh to the docks in Leith, but one of the most scenic stretches is from Dean Village to Stockbridge.
Pick up a coffee from Cairngorm Coffee on Melville Place, then start your walk in Dean Village. This peaceful Edinburgh neighbourhood used to be a separate village where water mills ground grain until the 19th century. Cross the bridge in front of the red sandstone Well Court buildings, built to house mill workers, and pick up the path.
The walk to Stockbridge is just less than a mile, but it’s a beautiful place to stroll, passing through trees and beneath the arches of the 106-foot-tall Dean Bridge. Just before getting into Stockbridge you pass St Bernards Well, a Greco-Roman style temple built in the 18th century on top of a natural spring said to have healing powers.
Stop off at Stockbridge’s Sunday market for a browse. The market runs from 10am–4pm and stalls include local food producers, gins, soap and jewellery. And just across the street is IJ Mellis, an institution for cheese lovers with cheeses from Scotland and beyond.
Then head to The Pantry for brunch, making a quick diversion into Circus Lane along the way. This cobbled street is one of Edinburgh’s most popular photo spots, with flower-draped mews houses and St Stephen’s Church tower at the end of the street.
The Pantry serve brunch all day, including a full Scottish breakfast (and veggie version) as well as dishes like cinnamon French toast, eggs Benedict and their special ‘Sunshine on Stockbridge’ breakfast with roasted sweet potato, tomato, sriracha, smashed avocado and poached eggs. It’s a popular place though so you may need to queue.
After lunch, take a walk through the wide streets and elegant Georgian buildings of Edinburgh’s New Town and call into one of the city’s art museums. The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is set inside a neo-Gothic red sandstone building on Queen Street.
It has a mix of paintings, sculptures and photos of famous and not-so-well-known names from Scotland’s history. And the building is almost as impressive as the artworks, especially the entrance hall with its colourful painted friezes and hanging lanterns.
Or carry on walking to the edge of the Princes Street Gardens where you’ll find the Scottish National Gallery. It’s one of a group of galleries along with the Portrait Gallery and the Galleries of Modern Art to the west of the city which each cover different periods of art history. And the permanent collections in all of them are free to visit.
The National Gallery covers the period from the early Renaissance to the end of the nineteenth century. Like the National Museum there’s a huge amount to see, so you’ll have to choose the bits that interest you the most, from paintings by famous names like Monet, Van Gogh, Vermeer and Raphael to works by local Scottish artists.
Then finish your weekend in Edinburgh with afternoon tea at The Dome. The Dome is an Edinburgh institution, originally built in 1844 as the Greco-Roman style headquarters of the Bank of Scotland. In 1996 it was sold off and is now a smart, vintage-style bar and restaurant, centered around the grill room with its huge glass rooftop dome.
Afternoon tea is served in the sophisticated Georgian Tea Room, with dainty sandwiches, cakes, macaroons, pastries and scones with jam and clotted cream served on a tiered china stand (with a Champagne upgrade available if you fancy a bit of extra sparkle).
Map of things to do in Edinburgh
How to get to Edinburgh
Edinburgh has two train stations – Waverley in the centre and Haymarket to the west. It takes around 4.5 hours to travel from London to Edinburgh by train*. You can also take the Caledonian Sleeper overnight train from London to Scotland, which departs London Euston at 11.50pm (11.30pm on Sundays) and arrives into Edinburgh at 7.30am.
If you’re travelling by car, Edinburgh is around 400 miles (7 hours’ drive) from London or 120 miles from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. And if you’re visiting other destinations in Scotland, it’s 47 miles to Glasgow, 52 miles to St Andrews or 146 miles to Fort William.
There’s overnight car parking in Edinburgh at the Q-Park OMNI Centre (EH1 3AN), but expect to pay at least £20 a night. Better value are the Park and Rides on the edge of the city where parking is free, you just pay for the bus into the city. There are seven around the city including at Hermiston (EH14 4AT) which is 30 minutes away by bus.
Edinburgh also has an international airport, located around eight miles west of the city centre. The two are connected by tram or via the Airlink 100 bus, both of which take around 30 minutes to get to St Andrews Square (near Waverley station).
Getting around Edinburgh
The centre of Edinburgh is fairly compact with the main attractions within walking distance – though beware there are a lot of hills and steps to climb. If you want a break from walking, the recently extended tram route runs from the airport to Leith and Newhaven.
Trams run up to every seven minutes between 6am and midnight. There are also Lothian Buses services on over 50 routes around the city, some running 24 hours a day. You can check tram and bus times and buy tickets online using the m-tickets app.
Tram tickets must be bought in advance from the app or ticket machines, and you can also buy bus tickets onboard using card or cash (exact change only). And there’s a DAYticket available for £5 which gives you unlimited tram and bus travel for the day.
Where to stay in Edinburgh
Splash out on a decadent stay at the Gothic Witchery by the Castle* on the Royal Mile. Their nine different themed suites are decorated with antique furniture, velvet drapes and oak panelling. They also come with roll-top baths, four-poster beds, turret sitting rooms or even their own library, with a breakfast hamper delivered to your room.
The Cheval Old Town Chambers* are a selection of self-catering apartments for two–six people in three 15th-century buildings in the Old Town. They’ve been renovated in Scandi style which complements the original beams, walls and quirky layouts. Each apartment has a kitchen and lounge area, and some also have a city-view balcony.
Or Motel One have two good-value hotels in convenient central locations near Waverley station – on Market Street* and Princes Street*. Their simple stylish rooms have a few local touches in the décor, with queen- or king-sized beds and rainfall showers, and you can choose to pay a bit extra for one with a view. There’s also a comfy lounge bar.