3 days in Edinburgh, Scotland an itinerary for first time visitors

Edinburgh Castle - how to spend 3 days in edinburgh, Scotland
Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh, Scotland is a small city packed with experiences. From exploring the rich Scottish heritage to following in the footsteps of inventors, artists, and writers, Edinburgh has plenty of things to see and do. I recently spent three days in Edinburgh and explored much of the city. I also took a day trip, which I recommend everyone with at least three days in Edinburgh do, as you get the chance to see the beautiful Scottish countryside. Here is what I did with my three days in Edinburgh.

What to do in Edinburgh in 3 days

3 days in Edinburgh: Day One

Begin your three days in Edinburgh itinerary with a visit to the upper end of the Royal Mile – known as Castlehill. Here, you’ll find the Castle, several cultural exhibitions, and a couple of incredible places to try local food and whiskey.

Visit Edinburgh Castle

Every first visit to Edinburgh should begin with a visit to Edinburgh Castle. Sitting atop Castle Rock, and dominating the city’s skyline, the settlement on the castle dates back to the 2nd century AD, while there has been a royal residence on the site since the 12th century AD. By the 17th century, it was primarily a military barracks. It has played a role in almost every Scottish battle and is thought to be the most besieged British fortress in history. St. Margaret’s Chapel is the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh. The Scottish crown jewels are also on display here. During the August festival, Edinburgh Castle plays host to the Military Tattoo performances.

Edinburgh Castle is a very popular attraction so to skip the long lines I recommend booking a skip the line ticket in advance,

See the Camera Obscura and Experience Illusions

This is a wonderful experience if you have children, as it’s a unique way to see Edinburgh. A camera obscura, or “dark room,” is a type of illusion that allows the viewer to see the image projected through a small pinhole in the wall. The Camera Obscura in Edinburgh is located near the Castle and has six floors of illusions and other visual puzzles. While it is the oldest tourist-built building in Edinburgh, and one of the oldest in the UK, the center still functions as a learning center as well as a tourist attraction.

For more information: Camera Obscura website

Scotch Whisky Experience

Scotch lovers and anyone that is remotely interested in the national drink of Scotland should pay a visit to the Scotch Whisky Experience, a high-tech, interactive galleria of scotch. Tours range from a one-hour introduction to scotch to a three-hour experience with dinner. The Scotch Whisky Experience also has the Diageo Claive Vidiz Collection, an extensive collection of over 3,380 bottles of whiskey amassed by a Brazilian whiskey collector that was returned to Scotland in 2006. It is surrounded by these bottles where you get to taste your whiskey from the tour!

For more information: Scotch Whisky Experience website

Lunch at the Witchery by the castle

The Witchery is a luxury boutique Gothic hotel and restaurant hidden in a series of buildings on Castlehill, at the top of the Royal Mile. It is owned by Edinburgh hotelier James Thomson and is a fabulous place to enjoy an indulgent meal. The Witchery is a richly oak-paneled baroque dining room, while the adjacent Secret Garden is a now-enclosed courtyard. Lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner menus at the Witchery showcase the best of Scottish produce all year long and feature local producers as much as possible.

For more information: Witchery by the castle website

The Real Mary King’s Close

Edinburgh is made up of lanes called closes. They begin at the Royal Mile and lead perpendicularly down on either side, are typically very narrow, and once were the life and soul of Edinburgh. Hundreds of people lived in each close, one tenement house atop the other as the lane sloped downward. At times, as many as eight houses were stacked one on top of the other. Today, you can walk through many of the closes as they’re still accessible. Others, like Mary King’s Close, were closed up, and have since been restored to show what life what like in 17th, 18th, and 19th century Edinburgh. A tour of Real Mary King’s Close explores the narrow streets and homes of a hidden Edinburgh.

The Real Mary King's Close - 3 days in Edinburgh

For more information: The Real Mary King’s Close website

St. Giles Cathedral

St. Giles Cathedral is located on the Royal Mile, just below the castle. It is the High Kirk of Edinburgh, or the main church, and has been a focal point of the Church of Scotland for almost a thousand years. The present church dates to the 14th century, although some say the central pillars are older by several hundred years. It is named for the patron saint of Edinburgh, St. Giles.

St. Giles Cathedral - three days in Edinburgh
St. Giles Cathedral

Walk the Royal Mile

The Royal Mile is Edinburgh’s High Street, a bustling series of streets that run downhill from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace. Located at the heart of the Old Town, the Royal Mile is as old as the city itself. The term “royal mile” was coined in the early 20th century and popularised in subsequent guidebooks; none of the streets that make up the mile are actually called the Royal Mile. Street names are Castlehill, Lawnmarket, High Street, Canongate, and Abbey Strand. The stretch, which is just about one mile long, is lined with tourist shops, hotels, pubs, and more.

Princes Street Gardens

Princes Street Gardens is a public garden located between Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns. It was created in the 1770s and 1820s, following the draining of Nor Loch and the early building of New Town. There are two parts of the gardens, East Princes Street Gardens, which runs from Waverley Station to the National Galleries, and West Princes Street Gardens, which are larger and run down the remaining length of Princes Street. There are many monuments and statues within the park, commemorating people like Sir Walter Scott, David Livingstone, and Lord Provost Adam Black.

Shopping in Princes Street and George Street

Princes Street and George Street are two of Edinburgh’s best shopping streets. Many of the UK brand names stores have Scottish flagship shops on Princes Street, like Topshop and Topman, House of Fraser, Debenhams, and Marks & Spencer. George Street, which is the main thoroughfare of the New Town, boasts high-end brands like Anthropologie, Jigsaw, Jaeger, Lakeland, and Jo Malone London.

Admire the sunset from Calton Hill

Calton Hill is a hill in central Edinburgh, and it is home to the Scottish government at St Andrews House on the southern slope of the hill. The Parliament building and Holyrood Palace (also called Palace of Holyroodhouse) are at the base of the hill and the base of the Royal Mile. Calton Hill is famous for its views of the city and is featured in many artworks and photography. At the top of the hill are the National Monument, Nelson Monument, Robert Burns Monument, and others. The National Monument, also considered Scotland’s Disgrace and Edinburgh’s Folly, is an unfinished replica of the Parthenon in Athens and is dedicated to those who lost their lives in the Napoleonic Wars.

Edinburgh Christmas Markets

If you are in Edinburgh during Christmas, you must check out the Christmas Market. Set up in the East Princes Garden along Princes Street, the market offers traditional and unique booths with local and international vendors. You can meet Santa, explore the fairground rides, try to find the elves workshop in the Christmas maze, shop for gifts, taste a variety of foods, relax at the Bothy Bar, and more. Full of locals and visitors alike, the Edinburgh Christmas Markets are a must do at the holidays!

3 days in Edinburgh: Day Two

On your second of three days in Edinburgh, explore more of the city’s historic and cultural attractions in the Old and New Towns. In the afternoon, venture into Leith, Edinburgh’s post town, to visit Queen Elizabeth’s former yacht and enjoy a drink at one of the local bars in this up and coming neighborhood.

Holyrood Palace

At the far end of the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle is another royal residence, the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The official Scottish residence of the British monarch, it has been home to the Kings and Queens of Scotland since the 16th century. Holyrood has also been home to historical figures like Mary, Queen of Scots, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and Comte d’Artois, Louis XVI’s younger brother. Holyrood Palace is open to the public for tours when the Queen is not in residence. She spends one week here at the beginning of each summer.

For more information: Palace of Holyroodhouse Website

Dynamic Earth (great for children)

Dynamic Earth tells the story of our planet, from the beginning of time to the present day. Visitors to this interactive and multi-sensory attraction can experience the growth of the solar system, feel a polar ice cap grow cold beneath your hand, witness the aurora or feel the earth shake during a volcano. They also have a 360-degree dome cinema where, with the help of surround sound audio, you can learn about supervolcanoes and more.

For more information: Dynamic Earth website

Hike Arthur’s Seat

Edinburgh has two volcanic crags. One is Castle Rock, atop which sits Edinburgh Castle, and the other is Arthur’s Seat. Located in the Queen’s Gardens, behind Holyrood Palace at the base of the Royal Mile, Arthur’s Seat is a popular hiking and running destination for locals and visitors. There are several hiking routes to the summit, which offers lovely views of the city to one side and the Firth of Forth to the other. Sunrise and sunset are great times to head to the top.

edinburgh panorama from Arthur's seat
edinburgh panorama from Arthur’s seat

Take the bus to Ocean Terminal to see the Royal Yacht Britannia

Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia, also known as the Royal Yacht, is the former yacht of Queen Elizabeth. It was in service from 1954 until 1997 and is now berthed at Ocean Terminal in Leith, Edinburgh. The Royal Yacht was built in John Brown & Co Shipyard in Clydebank, Glasgow and was designed so it could be used as a hospital ship in wartime and a sanctuary in case of nuclear war. In 1986, it helped evacuate refugees from Yemen during their civil war. Tours include a visit to the Queen’s bedroom, state apartments, and common spaces, as well as deck tours and a stop at the bridge.

For more information: Royal Yacht Britannia website

Water of Leith Walk

Leith is located in the north of Edinburgh, and during the shipping heyday was a major port town. It has undergone a major revival since the 1980s and is now home to a vibrant dining and shopping scene. You can walk down Leith Walk, the major roadway connecting Edinburgh and Leith, or walk down a more serene pathway along the water and canal to the waterside, where you’ll find plenty of restaurants, bars, and cafes to relax at. Leith is an affordable place to live, and attracts a wide range of residents, making this community one of the most diverse and thriving in Edinburgh.

Old Leith Docks - 3 days in Edinburgh
Old Leith Docks

Take A Ghost Tour

Edinburgh, like most medieval cities, is famous for its ghost tours. There are a variety to choose from – I recommend this one, although if you are traveling with children, there are more suitable options – and they all highlight the doomed souls of this dark place. The tour begins at the Blair Street Underground Vaults, where your tour guide will regale you with stories of the dastardly deeds done by the residents. Following tales of murder, hanging, and cannibalism, you’ll walk along the streets to the Canongate graveyard, home to David Rizzio – lover of Mary Queen of Scots – and James Douglas, the 3rd Marquess of Queensberry, who also happened to be a cannibal.

For more information: Mercat Tours website

3 days in Edinburgh: Day Three

On your third day in Edinburgh, take a day trip out of the city. A full day tour, offered by Rabbies, a local Scottish touring company, will allow you to see the stunning Scottish countryside, take in a few castles and lochs, and perhaps even taste a little more whiskey.

I recommend the following day tours from Edinburgh:

West Highland Lochs and Castles

This tour explores the Western Highlands, stopping at places like Doune Castle, featured in both Monty Python and Outlander, Kilchurn Castle, set on the banks of Loch Awe, the medieval town of Inverary, and the conservation town of Luss. The route takes guests through the Arrochar Alps and along the shores of stunning Loch Lomond.

Click here for more information and to book this tour.

Loch Ness and the Highlands

This tour winds its way through the Rannoch Moor and Glencoe before arriving at the picturesque (and mysterious) Loch Ness. Guests will learn stories of the Scottish Highlands and have the chance to look out for the Loch Ness Monster on an optional boat tour of the loch.

Click here for more information and to book this tour.

Stirling Castle and Loch Lomond

Visit Stirling Castle, home to several great Scottish battles, and the William Wallace monument. This central region of Linlithgow has important historic significance to the Scots. Leaving Stirling, travel northwest to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park and see Scotland in Miniature exhibit at the Trossachs before talking a nature walk along the shores of Loch Lomond.

Click here for more information and to book this tour.

Useful tips for your 3 days in Edinburgh

The Royal Edinburgh Ticket

If you want to see the three major royal sites in Edinburgh during your three days in Edinburgh, then you should consider purchasing the Royal Edinburgh ticket. This pass gets you into Edinburgh Castle, Palace of Holyroodhouse, and the Royal Yacht Britannia. They are not only the three most important royal sites in Edinburgh, but they are also among the most popular attractions, and with this ticket, you’ll get fast-tracked entrance – a perk during high season. The Royal Edinburgh Ticket also includes hop on, hop off bus access on the city’s three sightseeing buses.

Click here for more information and to buy your Royal Edinburgh Ticket. 

Historic Scotland Explorer Pass

The Historic Scotland Explorer Pass allows holders free access to over 70 different historic sites in Scotland (only 40 of these are open in the winter). Depending on the region you’re visiting, you can purchase a region-specific pass. Many of Edinburgh’s major attractions are included in the pass, with the exception of Holyroodhouse. Passes are valid for 5 or 14 days and can be purchased in advance or at any of the properties.

Click here for more information and to buy your Historic Scotland Pass.

Where to Stay in Edinburgh

Edinburgh has some wonderful hotels in both the Old and New Town, for anyone spending three days in Edinburgh. In the Old Town, it’s easy to stay near the important historical sites when you stay at Macdonald Holyrood Hotel, while in the New Town at Indigo Hotel you are just steps from the shopping on Princes and George Street.

Macdonald Holyrood Hotel

Macdonald Holyrood Hotel is located at the base of the Royal Mile, behind the Scottish Parliament building. Its central location is great for those in Edinburgh on business or pleasure. The 157-room hotel features an award-winning spa, extensive wine cellar, and excellent views of the Old Town.

Click here to read more about my stay at the Macdonald Holyrood Hotel.

Hotel Indigo

hotel Indigo edinburgh bedroom

Hotel Indigo is a locally owned boutique hotel, located in New Town’s York Square. It is just steps from Waverley Station and a tram stop in St. Andrew’s Square, making it an ideal location for both business and leisure travelers. Rooms at this charming hotel are individually designed and reflect the history and culture of this ancient capital city.

Click here to read more about my stay at the Indigo hotel.

Edinburgh is a charming city, small and compact but with so many things to see and do! Three days in Edinburgh is a great introduction to the capital of Scotland, whose history ranges from prehistoric settlers to modern day royals. Visitors to this vibrant city can visit the castle, view the city from Arthur’s Seat, explore the Queen’s former royal yacht, or learn about the history of whiskey at the Scotch Whisky Experience. With at least three days in Edinburgh, you can even get out of the city for a day to see some of Scotland’s countryside, from the famous Loch Lomond to the mysterious Loch Ness, and everything in between. I enjoyed my time in Edinburgh and looking forward to going back to see more.

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