I could keep coming back to Edinburgh again and again. And thankfully, I do! I have visited Edinburgh on four different occasions as part of my job as a trip leader with a small group tour operator. From the enchanting charm of the historic Old Town to the elegance of the New Town's Georgian avenues, I just love this city! There is no better feeling like showing travelers the views on Princes Street & the Royal Mile for the first time – there is so much wow in Edinburgh!
Whether you're a history buff (like me), a foodie (also like me), an art aficionado (not so much like me), or simply seeking to immerse yourself in the city's enchanting ambiance, Edinburgh is a city that can appeal to every type of traveler. Embracing the cobblestone streets and a vibrant cultural scene, Edinburgh beckons as a city that effortlessly blends tradition with modernity. With its captivating skyline and a rich tapestry of experiences waiting to be discovered, this Scottish gem is the ideal destination for an unforgettable long weekend getaway.
In this guide, I'll unveil the secrets of how to make the most of your precious days in the Scottish capital, ensuring your long weekend in Edinburgh becomes the perfect fusion of exploration, culture, and magical wonder. I break down the must-visit attractions, the culinary delights, and the hidden gems that will transform your long weekend into an unforgettable Scottish adventure.
How to Spend a Perfect Long Weekend in Edinburgh
Best Things to See in Old Town Edinburgh
Running approximately one mile between Edinburgh Castle and Holyroodhouse, the Royal Mile is effectively named – it is a mile-long stretch of road that connects two royal residences. Lined with shops, cafes, and historic buildings, this bustling yet charming thoroughfare is one of the main streets in old town Edinburgh.
I’m not going to lie to you, the Royal Mile is very crowded. At points, it is extremely touristy, but you basically can’t visit the old city without walking along the Royal Mile at least one.
From street performers to local artisans, the Royal Mile provides a sensory experience that captures the essence of Edinburgh. Be sure to explore the narrow alleyways (called closes in Edinburgh) that branch off the main street. Before cars, these were the residential streets. Nowadays, there are still apartments but also plenty of restaurants, shops and museums. Wandering through will reveal hidden gems. I think Devil’s Close is the most picturesque!
St Giles Cathedral
Situated practically in the middle of the Royal Mile, St. Giles Cathedral is a beautiful Gothic-style cathedral with intricate stonework. Now it doesn't quite compare to the cathedral in my home city of Cologne, Germany but it still pretty impressive. The crown-topped tower is older than the rest of the church, and has become an icon of Edinburgh. Open to the public daily, the interior truly captivates. The stunning stained glass windows and intricate woodwork create a lovely atmosphere. I also especially liked all the banner flags with different state and house sigils on them. You might even catch live music inside!
Perched dramatically atop Castle Rock, Edinburgh Castle is THE must-visit attraction in Edinburgh. It is a fantastic example of a medieval castle, absolutely dominating the skyline of Edinburgh. This iconic landmark has played a pivotal role in Scotland's history and stands as a symbol of the nation's resilience and heritage. The castle dates back to at least the 12th century, truly standing the test of time through wars, unrest and all sorts of other unsavory things in Scottish history.
You need to buy tickets to visit Edinburgh Castle in advance with a specific time slot. Although there are open tickets available each day, they sell out quickly. Additionally, the castle hosts lots of major events throughout the year, such as the Military Tattoo festival. Once inside the castle. you can explore its ancient stone walls and grand halls. Don't miss the following things inside in the castle:
- The Crown Jewels: The Crown Room houses the Crown, Sceptre, and Sword of State for Scotland as well as the Stone of Destiny. These are the oldest crown jewels in the British Isles.
- St. Margaret's Chapel: This small chapel within the castle's walls is the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh, dating back to the 12th century.
- The Great Hall: Built by James IV in the early 16th century, the Great Hall is a grand and imposing space that was once the center of royal feasts and gatherings.
- One O'Clock Gun: The tradition of firing the One O'Clock Gun, a time signal for ships in the Firth of Forth, has been ongoing since 1861 and is still carried out daily today.
Best Things to See in New Town Edinburgh
One of the most recognizable buildings on the Edinburgh skyline is the Scott Monument. The Neo-Gothic style tower shoots 200 feet up into the air and can be seen from around the city. It is dedicated to famed Scottish author Sir Walter Scott, known for his novels like "Waverley" and "Ivanhoe." His work played a pivotal role in shaping Scottish literature and preserving Scottish cultural heritage. The Scott Monument was erected in his honor following his death in 1832. Inside the monument, visitors can find a statue of Sir Walter Scott, surrounded by 64 smaller statues depicting characters from his novels.
Walk Princes Street
Princes Street is one of the city's most iconic and bustling thoroughfares, offering a unique blend of shopping, history, and stunning views. This grand boulevard is named after the sons of King George III – Prince George (later King George IV) and Prince Frederick – and runs parallel along the southern edge of the city's New Town. The street itself was designed in the 18th century as part of the New Town's urban planning, with a deliberate focus on providing unobstructed views of the Edinburgh Castle.
And boy oh boy, are those views fantastic! I especially love walking Princes Street around sunset (on the way to Calton Hill perhaps?) when it is awash in orange and yellow colors. It makes the Old Town sparkle!
Princes Street Gardens lie between Princes Street and the Old Town. These gardens provide a picturesque green space where locals and visitors can relax amid the hustle and bustle of the city. I find it especially lively on a sunny day or during the Fringe festival when lots of people are lounging on the lawn. Plus, the gardens offer splendid views of the Edinburgh Castle, the Scott Monument, and the iconic Balmoral Hotel.
Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the city center, Dean Village is a picturesque neighborhood that feels like a tranquil escape. Dean Village is one of the oldest of the villages around the original Royal Burgh of Edinburgh, first referred to in 1535. Once a bustling milling town, this bucolic village sits along a tranquil stream that feeds into the Leith river.
The fairytale aesthetic totally reminds me of Hogsmeade or Godric’s Hollow from the Harry Potter books. It is one of my recommend stops on a Harry Potter tour of Edinburgh. Complete with gardens, 19th-century buildings, timber framed homes & a historic museum, I can promise you’ll want to snap photos here. Dean Village is a hidden gem!
What to Do in Edinburgh
Historical Walking Tour
With so much history to dig into, Edinburgh is one of those cities where it is SO worth it to take a guided walking tour. You’ll learn lots and discover hidden gems along the way. There are lots of phony or poor quality tour guides in Edinburgh. I should know - I am a tour guide! Make sure you find someone through the official Scottish Tour Guide Association.
Knowledgeable guides lead you through the narrow alleys and hidden courtyards, sharing tales of kings, queens, rebels, and ordinary citizens who shaped the city's history. From the tales of Edinburgh's dark and mysterious past in the Old Town to the grandeur of the Georgian New Town, these tours provide an immersive experience that breathes life into the city's history.
Climb Calton Hill
For panoramic vistas that showcase Edinburgh's beauty, Calton Hill is the place to be. In my opinion, it has the best views in the city – even better than Edinburgh Castle. It is best around sunset when the colors are magnificent and the atmosphere is buzzing. A short 5 minute climb up a paved pathway rewards you with sweeping views of the city, including iconic landmarks like Arthur's Seat and the Scott Monument. The hill is adorned with fascinating monuments like the National Monument and the Nelson Monument, adding a touch of historical intrigue to the natural beauty.
Harry Potter Walking Tour
Unleash your inner wizard and explore the enchanting world of Harry Potter. One of the top misconceptions about traveling to Edinburgh in search of Harry Potter lore is this – there are no filming locations from the 8 movies in Edinburgh. Not one! Most of the filming of the movies happened at the Warner Brothers Studio outside of London, as well as a few other locations around Scotland. But none in the capital city.
So why Edinburgh is so famous for Harry Potter at all? It all goes back to the books! J. K. Rowling wrote the very first chapters of Harry Potter in Edinburgh in 1990. It’s the city that started the entire series. The author says that all the ideas for Hogwarts, Harry Potter and the entire magical world she created came from her imagination. She has never verified that sites around Edinburgh inspired the books; but, as you walk around the city, you can imagine why the magical streets, sights and locations of Edinburgh have caused fans to theorize about the inspiration for characters and locations from the books.
I summarize the 8 essential Harry Potter sights to visit in Edinburgh in a separate blog post if you want to make your own DIY tour. There are also guided Harry Potter walking tours which take you through the cobblestone streets and winding alleyways that may have served as inspiration for Diagon Alley and other magical settings.
Cool Shopping Areas in Edinburgh
Victoria Street is a colorful and vibrant shopping destination that seems straight out of a fairytale. With its curved, multicolored facades and a charming cobblestone street, it's no wonder why this area is said to have inspired Diagon Alley. The street is lined with an array of boutique shops, offering everything from quirky gifts and handmade crafts to high-end fashion. A few of my favorite shops include:
- Museum Context: This is the only licensed (and most famous!) Harry Potter Shop in Edinburgh. You’ll find oodles of Wizarding World merchandise like wands, robes, plush toys, books, and souvenirs from all the Hogwarts Houses.
- Islander: Gorgeous shoes and handbags made with Harris Tweed and Scottish leather. Bring home a little piece Scotland in the form of top quality leather goods.
- Swish: This colorful shop is full of carefully curated clothing, hats, bags and collectibles, all from small makers and boutique studios.
- Red Door Gallery: Unique prints from Scottish artists are abundant here. Amazing place for a special piece of affordable art.
A hidden treasure trove for shoppers seeking something distinctive, Cockburn Street is a narrow and picturesque lane that connects the Royal Mile to Waverley Station. Similar to Victoria Street, there is an atmospheric feeling to Cockburn with a blend of vintage stores, eclectic boutiques, and indie outlets. From home decor and vintage clothing to art galleries showcasing local talent, Cockburn Street offers a curated shopping experience that caters to diverse tastes.
Located in the Stockbridge neighborhood, Raeburn Place is a haven for boutique shopping. I think it has the best secondhand and thrift shopping in all of Edinburgh. Featuring an assortment of high-quality fashion, homeware, and artisanal goods, you'll find a mix of independent boutiques and beloved local chains. There is an especially high density of charity shops with vintage clothing and accessories. Plan to spend a few hours wandering in and out of the shops along Raeburn Place.
What to Eat in Edinburgh
Perfect for foodies, you can find a delightful assortment of culinary outposts, award-winning restaurants, and cozy speakeasy bars in Edinburgh. I highlight the best spots on Edinburgh's food scene in my dedicated restaurant guide. Whether you're in the mood for a hearty lunch, an elegant high tea, a sumptuous dinner, or just craving a sweet treat and a nightcap, there is a spot perfect for you. Find all my favorite foodie spots by clicking the button below.
Where to Stay in Edinburgh
Edinburgh offers a wide range of accommodation options to suit various budgets and preferences. Where you should stay in the city largely depends on your interests, as well as the time of year. Remember that Edinburgh is especially busy during the festival season in August with Fringe and the Tattoo festival, as well as during Hogmanay (New Year's Eve). This drives up prices significantly, and can have a significant impact on availability. I advise booking accommodation well in advance.
A few recommendations for hotels:
- Parliament House Hotel: Located at the base of Calton Hill at the end of Princes Street, this hotel is just far enough away from the touristy areas to avoid noise without being an inconvenient walk. Styled nicely with tartan and Highland touches. I’ve stayed here a few times. Their breakfast is great!
- The Witchery: A luxurious and unique boutique hotel for the extreme Harry Potter fans. It makes you feel like a little wizard with beautifully designed rooms! Plus, it is steps from Edinburgh Castle and has a renowned restaurant.
- Balmoral: This 5-star luxury hotel is a big splurge, but it has one of the best locations & views in the city. It is so iconic that JK Rowling even finished the Harry Potter series in the penthouse room.
- Apex Grassmarket Hotel: Overlooking the lively Grassmarket square, this contemporary hotel provides modern amenities and stunning views of the Castle.
Do you have thoughts or questions about visiting Edinburgh? Tell me in the comments below!
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