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I’ve stated several times on my blog that Edinburgh is one of my favourite cities ever. I’ve visited over six times and I know I’ll be back, so it’s about bloody time I created an Edinburgh itinerary that’s perfect for first-time visitors! And 3 Days in Edinburgh is just enough time to see all the best bits that Edinburgh has to offer.
I’ll say it right now: this guide is going to concentrate mainly on the tourist hotspots with a couple of insider tips thrown in. I hope to produce a slightly alternative Edinburgh weekend city break guide in the future. But for now, I think this is the ideal Edinburgh itinerary for first-timers.
This Edinburgh guide has been produced with a small budget in mind. It’s unfortunate that some of the top activities in Edinburgh come with a price tag (like £20 tickets to Edinburgh Castle!). Luckily, a lot of museums and monuments/places of interest I’ve included are free and the restaurants are mostly cheap eats. All restaurants and cafés are suitable for vegetarians, too. But note that I haven’t created this Edinburgh itinerary with kids in mind. It’s perfect to follow if you’re planning an Edinburgh city break or a visiting Edinburgh as part of a big Scotland trip. I really have given this 3 days in Edinburgh guide a lot of thought. And I personally think you’ll have a fantastic few days in Edinburgh if you follow this itinerary!
I’ve included exactly where to go, what to eat and drink and recommendations for accommodation and some transport tips too. So let’s dive into my 3 days in Edinburgh itinerary for first-time visitors!
3 Days in Edinburgh Itinerary
Travel to Edinburgh: How to get there
Flights: Flying to Edinburgh
If you’re travelling to Edinburgh by plane, the most convenient airport is, unsurprisingly, Edinburgh Airport. It’s a large, international airport so it should be fairly straightforward to find a direct flight (or a route with one layover) to Edinburgh.
Check for flight prices on Skyscanner to find out the cheapest dates to fly to Edinburgh. Like a lot of flights between big European cities, great deals can be found if you fly with budget airlines like Jet2, Ryanair and Easyjet.
Trains: Travelling by Train to Edinburgh
Since I live in Northwest England, I usually travel to Edinburgh by train, except once when I worked in Edinburgh for a month during the Fringe Festival where I travelled by car. But if I was spending just 3 days in Edinburgh, I’d definitely head up on the train.
Edinburgh Waverley Station is Edinburgh’s main train station. Though there are a couple of smaller stations on the outskirts of Edinburgh, Waverley is super central so I wouldn’t recommend arriving into any others.
Transpennine Express and Virgin are two of the biggest train companies that travel to Edinburgh, but sometimes I just find it easier to book my train tickets through Trainline despite their booking fee.
Top tip: I really recommend booking your train tickets to Edinburgh in advance to guarantee a seat reservation. For example, a direct train from Manchester to Edinburgh takes about four hours. And you don’t want to be stood up on a busy train for that long! Also, train tickets can be super expensive in the UK (this particular journey might cost around £80 return without a railcard). So, if you know your travel dates, just get them booked.
Transport around Edinburgh: How to travel around
Buses around Edinburgh
I’d avoid public transport as much as you can in Edinburgh and walk everywhere. Edinburgh’s Old Town and the main touristy areas don’t need public transport anyway because everything is really near each other. It’s only when you get to the New Town (north of Princes Street) and the wider city that you might need to consider using public transport (and if you have decreased mobility).
Lothian Buses is the main bus company serving Edinburgh. Every single journey on a Lothian bus, at the time of writing in 2019, is £1.70. You need to have the exact change and you drop it into the slot by the bus driver. If you don’t know where you’re going, ask the bus driver to let you know when you’ve reached your stop. And sit as close to them as possible during the journey. Otherwise, you don’t need to tell the bus driver which stop you’re going to. If I’m taking public transport in a new place, I almost always follow the journey on Google Maps so I know when to alight the bus.
Trams around Edinburgh: Flight Transfers
As of 2013, Edinburgh is now accessible via tram! Well, sort of. I generally prefer trains/trams because buses (in the UK) do not announce the name of every stop which is really unhelpful to visitors. So far, there is only one tram line and it travels to and from Edinburgh Airport and York Place (near Calton Hill).
Tram is easily the most convenient way of travelling from Edinburgh Airport to the City Centre. I mean, if it was good enough for Renton in T2 Trainspotting (2017) then it’s good enough for the rest of us. Even though it may not be as cheap as travelling by bus, it’s a heck of a lot easier if you have heavy luggage. If you’re travelling to and from the airport, adult single tickets cost £6. And if you’re travelling within Edinburgh itself, tram tickets only cost £1.70 per journey which is the same as the buses.
However, trams don’t run all night so if you’re travelling to and from the airport very early or very late, you might be better off catching one of Lothian Buses’ Airport services. There are lots of different and tram/bus combo ticket options so check their website for more information.
Accommodation in Edinburgh: Where to stay
If you’re staying just one weekend or 3 days in Edinburgh, I’d choose a hostel or hotel over an Airbnb. Booking an Airbnb in Edinburgh might be more convenient if you have young children, but otherwise, I’d sidestep the faff of cleaning and meeting with a host. As soon as you arrive in Edinburgh, you’ll want to spend every last second exploring this beautiful city!
My last trip to Edinburgh in June was for the Edinburgh International Film Festival and I opted for a hostel. I spent seven nights in the Royal Mile Backpackers booked via Hostelworld and it was such a great hostel. Fantastic location right in the middle of everything and the seven nights cost me less than £100! Granted, breakfast wasn’t included and I did have to walk down the hall to the shower but I was really happy staying here. Especially for that price!
Hotels in such a busy city like Edinburgh can be expensive. But I really stress that your accommodation’s location will make or break your trip. If it’s your first time spending 3 days in Edinburgh, book somewhere in Old Town as close to the Royal Mile as possible. Staying in New Town or far away from the Royal Mile will get very annoying fast. I book all my hotels via booking.com and, if you want to spend the perfect weekend in Edinburgh and maybe you’re celebrating something, you have to stay at The Balmoral Hotel. It’s a Scottish institution.
Day 1 in Edinburgh: Castle, Royal Mile & Scotch Whisky!
Breakfast – The Edinburgh Larder
Note on breakfast in Edinburgh: If your breakfast is included with your accommodation or it’s a low-cost add on, you may as eat breakfast at your hotel/hostel.
There are some fantastic breakfast and brunch restaurants in Edinburgh… But I wouldn’t say Edinburgh’s brunch game is very strong. Not like it is in other European cities like Amsterdam or Wrocław. Save your money and spend it on nicer lunch/dinner restaurants where Edinburgh excels!
If you do want to eat out for all three meals, then on the first morning of your 3 days in Edinburgh I recommend paying a visit to The Edinburgh Larder. It’s a relaxed, artisanal café serving hearty breakfasts and lunches using local Scottish produce and they offer takeaway, too! Open from 8:00-17:00 on weekdays and 9:00-17:00 on weekends.
- Edinburgh Castle – Hit up Edinburgh Castle as early as you can in the morning! Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the top attractions in Scotland and gets super busy. The castle sits on top of a volcano and dates back to the 12th century and is home to the Scottish crown jewels and the National War Museum. It’s a pretty bloody important building and icon of Scotland. Edinburgh Castle generally opens from 9:30-17:00 and tickets are an eye-watering £19.50 on the door, or £17.50 if you book online. I’ll be honest, I’ve not been inside Edinburgh Castle since I was seven-years-old. If you just want to go up to the castle and admire it from afar, I’d completely understand because that price is ridiculous. But I definitely plan on visiting Edinburgh Castle again someday.
- Royal Mile – Yes, essentially the entire first day of your 3 days in Edinburgh will be exploring the streets in and around the Royal Mile! But it’s such an important street in Edinburgh. Officially, it’s the ‘High Street’ but I don’t know anyone that calls it that. The Royal Mile connects Edinburgh Castle on one end to Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s residence in Scotland, at the other end. It’s the main tourist hub of Edinburgh and first-time visitors of the Scottish capital should spend an ample amount of time discovering all the important monuments on this street. I’m going to make recommendations on what to see/do on the Royal Mile in the afternoon, but feel free to go to any shops or do anything that takes your fancy!
Lunch – The Elephant House
Turn right off the Royal Mile onto the George IV Bridge because it’s time for lunch! Yes, The Elephant House is always super busy and full of Harry Potter fans and the queues can be massive. I know this, but I’m still recommending this café/restaurant for lunch.
The Elephant House makes the lofty claim that it is the ‘Birthplace of Harry Potter’ because J. K. Rowling used to go there to write in the early 1990s. This claim means that The Elephant House is never short of customers. HOWEVER, I don’t believe the queues are that long (usually) and I think it’s a well-located, affordable place to eat a hearty lunch and a surprisingly cosy atmosphere with nice staff. I’ve been twice and I’d happily go back! Plus, the whole café is decorated with elephants, so what’s not to like? The Elephant House is usually, open 8:00-21:00 or 22:00 on weekends.
- Scotch Whisky Experience – Yes, the Scotch Whisky Experience is a very touristy thing to do. And yes, the first day out of your 3 days in Edinburgh is incredibly touristy! Well, you know what? You’re in Scotland’s capital city and there isn’t a drink more Scottish than Scotch Whisky. I think a whisky tasting lead by an expert is a fantastic way to learn more if you’re anything like me and know zero about whisky. I’d personally just choose the Silver Tour for a general introduction at £16 for 50 minutes. You can book your ticket on the day or on the Scotch Whisky Experience website.
- The Writers’ Museum – After lunch, head to the Writers’ Museum which is a completely free exhibit on three of Scotland’s most famed writers: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. The Scots are renowned for being exceptional storytellers and it’s a significant part of the culture. It’s a really lovely, small museum just off the Royal Mile that is well worth 45 minutes of your time. It’s open 10:00-17:00 every day.
- St Giles Cathedral – Edinburgh’s main city church, St Giles Cathedral (AKA High Kirk of Edinburgh) was built in the 12th century. It’s the mother church of Presbyterianism and since it’s free to visit, well worth a look in! Opening hours are generally 9:00-17:00 every day except 13:00-17:00 on Sundays, and sometimes St Giles Cathedral remains open until 19:00. Entrance is free but you can make a donation. And you need to pay for a photo pass if you want to snap some photos inside. Which I think is a pretty good idea so churches can make a few pennies!
- Cockburn Street – I really love Cockburn Street (pronounced coe-burn, before you start giggling!). It’s full of really lovely vintage and gift shops with local souvenirs like Miss Katie Cupcake and Eden. Randomly, Miss Katie Cupcake transformed into a kebab shop for a scene in Avengers: Infinity War (2018).
Dinner – The Doric
At least one of your evening meals during your 3 days in Edinburgh should be a Scottish gastropub serving local, seasonal meals with a wide selection of Scotch whisky and ales. You just gotta eat traditional at least once, am I right? The Doric at the bottom of Cockburn Street meets all of these requirements and more.
The Doric is the oldest Gastropub in Edinburgh housed in a 17th-century building and serves Scottish salmon, mussels and, yes, even haggis. But there are plenty of options for veggies, too. Don’t forget to order a dram of whisky after your meal and see if you remember anything you learnt at the Scotch Whisky Experience!
- Calton Hill – After your evening meal (or whatever time the sun sets during your 3 days in Edinburgh!), head to Calton Hill. Edinburgh should be experienced from as many viewpoints as possible. And this is just one of many you’ll experience during your trip to Edinburgh. Calton Hill isn’t far from The Doric and it’s a very short, easy incline to the top. The view is well worth the short walk!
- Hoot The Redeemer Cocktail Bar – If you’re not absolutely knackered from your first day of sightseeing in Edinburgh and want to drink one last tipple, why not pop in one of Edinburgh’s many amazing cocktail bars? I recommend trying Hoot The Redeemer as it’s super near Calton Hill and has a fantastic, eclectic decor comprising of cinema seating and tarot card paintings. Vicky FlipFlop has a great blog post on the best cocktail bars in Edinburgh if you’re a cocktail fiend.
Day 2 in Edinburgh: Arthur’s Seat, Greyfriar’s & National Museum of Scotland!
Breakfast – Tesco or Sainsbury’s, anyone?
I’m kind of half-joking and half-being totally serious. For the second day of your 3 days in Edinburgh, I’m recommending one of my all-time favourite brunch places and combining breakfast/lunch together. But as the morning’s activity is a small hike, you shouldn’t exert yourself on an empty stomach.
Personally, I would just grab an orange juice and a couple of pastries from a mini supermarket for breakfast as you’ll be eating soon enough anyway! As that’s exactly what I did before I did this (small) hike back in June…
- Climb up Arthur’s Seat – Who said city breaks are all about museums and cafés? Oh heck no, if you’re going to spend 3 days in Edinburgh then you need to grab your trainers and walk up Arthur’s Seat on one of those days! Arthur’s Seat is a dormant volcano to the southeast of Edinburgh and is yet another fantastic vantage point to get a really amazing panoramic view of Edinburgh. I’d recommend starting your walk no later than 9:00 so you can beat the majority of the crowds. Start by walking down the Royal Mile towards Holyrood Palace and you’ll start to see signposts from there. It takes around 30 minutes to walk to the top so it’s not a difficult hike. Just wear your trainers and take some water, you’ll be alright. But I’d allow yourself two hours in total so you’re not rushing.
Brunch/Lunch – Hula Juice Bar OR Castle Rock Chip Shop
After your walk up Arthur’s Seat, you’ll be ready for a proper brunch/lunch! One of my all-time favourite cafés in Edinburgh is the Hula Juice Bar. I visited this café multiple times a week when I worked at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013 because it’s perfect for veggies. Think healthy and delicious soups, bagels, juices, salads and all the best hipster coffees like my own personal fave, the turmeric latte. They’re open 8:00-18:00 every day and also do takeaway.
However, if the Hula Juice Bar doesn’t sound like your kind of restaurant, then right across the road on Grassmarket is the Castle Rock Chip Shop. They’re open from 11:00-12:30 every day. It’s a no-frills, on-a-budget, proper fish and chip shop and there are some tables if you want to eat in. If you do decide on the chippy instead, you NEED to order a deep-fried mars bar!! Literally a British chocolate bar dipped in a fryer. Sounds gross? Sorry, if you want to experience the best of Scottish culture you need to try one. But if there’s two of you, split one! They’re a bit sickly.
- Victoria Street – After you’ve eaten, make sure you take the time to fully explore Victoria Street and Victoria Terrace. This is my favourite street in Edinburgh and so pretty! Pop inside the independent shops like Museum Context if you’re a Harry Potter fan or Isle of Skye Candle Company for some local souvenirs.
- Grassmarket – Walk down Victoria Street and West Bow and onto Grassmarket. This street is a historic market place and the (former) site of public executions. Now, it’s home to many bars and quirky shops including Armstrongs Vintage shop and Mr Wood’s Fossils. The independent shops in Edinburgh are some of the best I’ve seen anywhere.
Mid-Afternoon Snack – Mary’s Milk Bar
While you’re on Grassmarket you may as well have a wee pick-me-up, especially if it’s summer! The highly-rated Mary’s Milk Bar is an uber-popular gelato bar known for its unique flavour pairings and deliciousness. I had the pistachio and cardamom along with the classic milk flavour gelato and it was 10/10. They’re open from 11:00-19:00 but do note that Mary’s Milk Bar is closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
And head up the steps next to the Milk Bar called the Vennel to eat your gelato while enjoying one of the most instagrammable views of Edinburgh Castle. You are welcome!
- Greyfriar’s Kirkyard – After you’ve finished your gelato, head back down the vennel steps, along Grassmarket and up Candlemaker Row until you find Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. A ‘kirkyard’ is literally just a Scottish way of saying churchyard and this particular churchyard is the resting place of several notable Edinburgh residents and is particularly worth the trip if you’re a Harry Potter fan (more on that later…). It’s completely free to enter.
- Greyfriar’s Bobby – Ah, Greyfriar’s Bobby. This little dog is a Skye Terrier who became famous around Edinburgh in the 19th century for staying beside his owner’s grave for 14 years until he himself passed away. Who doesn’t love a loyal dog? Bobby is buried in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard and his little bronze statue can be easily seen from the end of Candlemaker Row.
- The National Museum of Scotland – It seems like a lot to do in one afternoon but visiting Victoria Street, Grassmarket and Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, etc. will take maybe 90 minutes, tops. Spend the rest of your afternoon at the National Museum of Scotland! This really is a fantastic museum. The main atrium looks like the grandest greenhouse you’ve ever seen. It’s free to visit and opening times are usually 10:00-17:00. My tip? If you’re over the age of 12, skip the majority of the museum and just stick to the ‘Scotland’ based exhibits. And DO NOT forget to take the lift to the roof! One of the best free views of Edinburgh, hands down.
Dinner – Paradise Palms
A mere two-minute walk from the National Museum of Scotland is the Paradise Palms restaurant and pub. I’m not exaggerating when I say this was one of the highlights on my last trip to Edinburgh. They serve American diner-style comfort food but they’re 100% vegetarian. I ate loaded nachos with a stout beer and it’s genuinely one of my favourite meal experiences of all time. Opening times are 12:00-1:00 every day and they have a very affordable menu.
- Mercat Ghost Tour – You can’t go to Edinburgh without braving a Ghost tour! Edinburgh is an old city with a very, erm, murderous past and its tiny cobbled alleys stacked on top of one another are filled with fascinating stories. I’ve heard nothing but good things about Mercat Tours and I believe they have the best selection of ghost/underground tours in Edinburgh. Personally, I’m eyeing up this Evening of Ghosts and Ghouls tour at 19:00, 20:00 or 21:00 every day for £18 per adult ticket. It includes a dram of whisky at the end of the tour in a candlelit cellar while the guide continues to tell ghost stories. And like I said, the Scots are known for being excellent storytellers! Definitely book in advance because these tours are very popular in peak seasons.
Day 3 in Edinburgh: Princes Street, Rosslyn Chapel & Harry Potter!
Breakfast/Brunch – The City Café
It’s the final day of your 3 days in Edinburgh! Start the morning at The City Café, a reasonably-priced American diner-style café serving waffles, french toast and even a Scottish fried breakfast. Open 9:00-late every day.
- Princes Street Gardens – You’ve rarely headed north of the Royal Mile this far on your Edinburgh city break so let’s amend that, shall we! Head to Princes Street and Princes Street Gardens and just go for a wander around Edinburgh’s most notable park. Check out all the monuments and statues like the Ross Fountain and Band Stand, the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial and maybe even pop into the free galleries that sit in the middle of Princes Street Gardens: The Royal Scottish Academy and the Scottish Portrait Gallery both open 10:00-17:00 every day.
- Scott Monument – Also in Princes Street Gardens is the Scott Monument, dedicated to the Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott. Tours are run inside the monument itself every half an hour from 10:00-16:30 every day and cost £8 for adult tickets. You can book ahead or just turn up on the day. There is a compact museum at the base of the monument where you can learn more about the structure and Sir Walter Scott before beginning the climb to the viewing platform at the top of the monument. Again, another fantastic vantage point of Edinburgh! Scott Monument also featured as a filming location in Cloud Atlas (2012).
Lunch/Café Stop – Sir Walter’s Café in the Gardens
If you’re visiting Edinburgh in the warmer seasons, there is no need to even leave Princes Street Gardens for lunch! Keep the Walter-love going and head to Sir Walter’s Café in the Gardens for a light meal. The café is open from 8:00-22:00 every day.
For the last afternoon of your 3 days in Edinburgh, I’ve got a couple of options. You may want to head back to the Royal Mile and pick up a few souvenirs or do an earlier activity you didn’t have time for. But if you’re a film lover or Harry Potter fan like I am, you may like to spend the last afternoon of your city break in Edinburgh doing one of these activities!
- Rosslyn Chapel – This tiny, ornate chapel was featured in both the book and film versions of The Da Vinci Code (2006) because of it’s connections to the Knight’s Templar and other dubious rumours. I visited Rosslyn Chapel on my last trip to Edinburgh in June this year and it was awesome. It’s a really beautiful church. Read my guide on exactly how to visit Rosslyn Chapel from Edinburgh and everything else you need to know.
- Self-Guided Harry Potter Tour – Edinburgh is still Harry Potter mad even though the films and the books were released years ago! J. K. Rowling lived in Edinburgh (still does) when she was writing the Harry Potter books. And there are lots of important sites to pilgrimage to if you’re a true HP nerd. Read my complete self-guided Harry Potter tour of Edinburgh guide complete with map and tour recommendations if you’re not keen on a DIY tour.
Dinner – Mother India’s Café
After you’ve had a fantastically filmy afternoon in Edinburgh, you’ll need a decent dinner to follow. So far, I’ve focused mainly on the hotspots and activities/food that are very traditional. That’s purposeful! It’s your first time in Edinburgh and I want to make sure you’ve not missed any of the highlights. So while Mother India’s Café is definitely not a traditional Scottish restaurant, Scots (and Brits) flippin’ love curry.
So treat yourself to a massive Indian feast in Edinburgh and hit up Mother India’s Café.
- Filmhouse Cinema – Since I am a film fan, I would definitely spend one night out of my 3 days in Edinburgh at the cinema. Filmhouse is Edinburgh’s best independent and arthouse cinema so definitely check the listings when you’re in the city. And support independent cinemas!
- Banshee’s Labyrinth Bar and Cinema – I was recommended this bar by a lady in my dorm room but I didn’t have time to check it out. You can have the best of both a bar and a cinema by heading out to Banshee’s Labyrinth for the evening. It’s a horror/Halloween/goth themed bar and most nights they screen old horror films and B movies for free in their basement cinema.
And if you’re heading to Edinburgh in August during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, I have blog posts to help you further plan your trip:
- Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo: Is the show just for OAPs?
- How to Work at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival
- A First Timer’s Guide to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival
Your second trip to Edinburgh? An Alternative Weekend in Edinburgh…
Because I love Edinburgh SO MUCH, I do plan on creating another Edinburgh itinerary for people who have already ticked off the usual tourist haunts and are returning for a weekend break. But if you need ideas now, here are some activities that might be on that itinerary:
- RZSS Edinburgh Zoo
- Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
- Stockbridge and Dean Village
- Palace of Holyrood House
- Royal Yacht Britannia
- Portobello Beach
- The Water of Leith Walkway
And that’s my itinerary for 3 days in Edinburgh for first-time visitors! Are you about to visit Edinburgh for the first time? Let me know in the comments below!