3 days in Edinburgh: the top things to do

The view across Edinburgh from Calton Hill

Edinburgh is one of Scotland’s main draws, with more than two million tourists visiting its main attractions every year. I recently spent a long weekend there and I can see why!

The city has a wealth of things to see and do and there will be no shortage of sights to choose from if you have 3 days in Edinburgh. Its excellent location also means that that there are lots of options for day trips to attractions outside the city if you have the time.

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Read on for the top things for your 3 days in Edinburgh.

You will also find essential information on how to get to Edinburgh, how to get around the city, and where to stay.

You can book tickets here for the hop-on/ hop-off bus that will take you to the main sights in the city.

Top things to do in 3 days in Edinburgh

There’s absolutely loads of things to do in Scotland’s capital! So many that it might be hard to shortlist the essentials if you’ve only got a few days here.

I’ve listed a selection of the top sights below. But if you only have 3 days in Edinburgh, you will need to be selective. Or just book a return trip to see the things you missed!

Visit Edinburgh Castle and hear the One o’clock Gun

Built atop an extinct volcano, Edinburgh Castle dominates the city’s skyline and was built as a royal residence and fortress.

It’s a perfect place to start your visit and was the first place we headed to on our first day. You’ll get some great photo opportunities and you can learn about the city’s history at the same time!

Edinburgh Castle - one of the key things to visit on 3 days in Edinburgh
Edinburgh Castle

During your visit, you’ll learn about the castle’s different historical periods. These date back to the presence of an Iron Age fortress and then a royal fortress during medieval times.

It remained a royal residence until the time of James V who in the 16th century shifted the royal seat to Holyroodhouse (see below). The castle also played a prominent role in wars between England and Scotland.

You enter the castle grounds through the 16th century Portcullis Gate and then come up to the Argyle Battery, an 18th century six-gun battery.

You can then wander around and see the different areas inside the battlements. These include the Hospital Square with its War Museum, the Governor’s House, the New Barracks, and the Military Prison.

There is also the tiny St Margaret’s chapel, the oldest building on the site. The chapel is worth stepping into for its intricate stained glass.

Further on into the castle grounds you can visit the 16th century Great Hall, the Royal Palace and the Honours of Scotland which contain the Scottish Crown Jewels.

The One o’clock gun

If you’re visiting at 1 pm, you’ll be able to catch the One o’clock Gun (although you may also hear it from the city centre as it can apparently be heard for miles).

It has been discharged at this time every Monday to Saturday (except Good Friday and Christmas Day) since 1861.

The One o'clock gun in Edinburgh Castle
The One o’clock gun in Edinburgh Castle

The gun is fired from inside the castle walls from the Mills Mount Battery and attracts crowds of people that congregate to watch. The ritual was originally brought in as a navigational aid to help nearby ships know what time it was.

Explore Scottish history in the Palace of Holyroodhouse

The Palace of Holyroodhouse has a rich history and is another must-see.  It is located at the bottom of the Royal Mile, so is an easy place to visit, even on a short break.

You can book tickets here.

The palace is the official residence of the Queen when in Edinburgh and it’s open to the public for visitors to enter.

It’s a lovely building from the outside: a small yet attractive palace with turrets on the roof on either side. 

The Palace of Holyroodhouse - something to see in 3 days in Edinburgh
The Palace of Holyroodhouse

However, when you step inside it’s grander than you might imagine, having seen the the exterior. You can walk through a succession of grand and colourful rooms including the Royal Dining Room, the Throne Room with two thrones at one end, and the King’s Ante-Chamber.

There’s also the Great Gallery. This is a long room adorned with a series of paintings of kings and one queen on the walls.

When we attended there was also an exhibition to commemorate the life and achievements of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who died in April 2021.

These are all fascinating rooms to see, but if you do nothing else, make sure you climb up the narrow stone steps to the tower and bedchamber of Mary Queen of Scots.

And then in her Outer Chamber you can see the spot that marks the place where her private secretary David Rizzio was murdered by a group riled up by her jealous husband.

Holyrood Abbey

The remains of the 12th century Holyrood Abbey lie in the grounds. It’s worth taking a look at these while visiting. You are afforded a stunning view of Arthur’s Seat, a volcanic hill that sits over 800 feet high above the city.

Holyrood Abbey with Arthur's Seat in the background
Holyrood Abbey with Arthur’s Seat in the background

Wander through the old town and along the Royal Mile

The Royal Mile is the old town’s main street and runs from Edinburgh Castle down to The Palace of Holyroodhouse. 

The length of the road is lined with shops and eateries, which makes it an interesting place to walk and explore. And if you want to buy some cashmere sweaters or Scottish whisky, this is the place for you!

This street is also where you’ll find some of the main attractions you may want to explore while in Edinburgh. In addition to the castle and palace, there is St Giles’ Cathedral, the 15th century house of the Protestant reformer John Knox, and Mary King’s Close.

You can also book a tour in the Scotch Whisky Experience centre to try out some of the country’s famous whisky.

So the Royal Mile is definitely a place to visit and an ideal place to start your tour of this fascinating city.

Walk up to Calton Hill for some fresh air and panoramic views

Calton Hill is a significant landmark in the centre of Edinburgh and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s an excellent place to explore, especially if you are looking for a panoramic view of the city.

The view across Edinburgh from part of Calton Hill
The view across Edinburgh from part of Calton Hill

This sprawling green space is gorgeous, and an ideal spot to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city’s main arteries.  

It’s a place to wander and slow down; there are benches around this large open space where you can take the weight off your feet and soak up the amazing views. On a clear day you can just about see parts of the Forth Bridge in the distance.

There are lots of sculptures to see, including the National Monument. Having visited and seen it up close, I’m not surprised to learn that this was inspired by Greece’s Parthenon.

The National Monument on Calton Hill in Edinburgh
Edinburgh’s National Monument

Calton Hill is just a short walk from one end of Princes Street and up some stairs. It is free to enter.

Step down into the Real Mary King’s Close

The Real Mary King’s Close is a “warren of streets frozen in time where centuries of stories are just waiting to be told”. It is located beneath the Royal Mile.

A visit to this hidden world provides a unique and fascinating insight into life in the close between the 17th and 19th centuries: how people lived and died and their experiences during the time of the plague.

You can book a one-hour tour where you are guided through the narrow historic streets by tour guides playing the characters of residents of the close.

Hike up to Arthur’s Seat for more spectacular views

A view across to Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh
A view across to Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh

Arthur’s Seat is an extinct volcano that looks out across the city from Holyrood Park and provides spectacular views of Edinburgh city centre. It’s a short drive or bus ride from the city centre and is very popular with hikers.

At over 800 feet high, you can combine amazing views of the city with some strenuous exercise!

There are different hikes that you can choose from, depending on your ability and the time you have available. This website has a good overview of the different options.

Be scared at the Edinburgh Dungeons

The Edinburgh Dungeons is a horror attraction and museum which uses actors and special effects to recreate scenes from Scotland’s dark and gruesome past.

The 70-miute experience walking through the dungeon is designed to take visitors on an immersive journey through 1,000 years of history. This includes a 17th century courtroom, a torture chamber, and a cannibal’s cave.

You can also hear stories about the death of Mary Queen of Scots and the graverobbers Burke and Hare.

Other dark tours

If learning about the city’s dark history is something that interests you, there are other tours on offer.

This Old Town and Underground Ghost Tour takes you to some of the underground vaults near to Royal Mile which are said to be some of the most haunted in the world.

And this Edinburgh Ghost Bus Tour takes you on a double decker bus past some of the most gruesome parts of the city while the conductor regales you with stories of grisly crimes and ghostly hauntings.

Try a wee dram of the Scot’s famous whisky

An image of some whisky glasses in front of a barrel

Scotland is famous for its whisky and Edinburgh is an ideal place to sample some of this world famous alcoholic drink.

And if like me, you’re not too keen on it, or know nothing about it, then booking onto a tour might be the best way to give this a go.

There are plenty of whisky tasting tours to choose from in Edinburgh that you can book online.

Check out some of these here.

Also check out my post on my visit to Edinburgh’s Scotch Whisky Experience.

Our ‘Platinum Tour’ started in the early evening. This gave us enough time to sightsee during the day before heading to the tour, something which really helped as we were only visiting for a few days and had limited time.

The tour is a fun way to learn more about whisky. You start with the informational part. This includes a ‘whisky barrel ride’ (a short ride in gondola type cars that move you slowly past videos explaining how whisky is made and distilled). There’s also a short film about the different Scottish regions that make whisky.

You then get your hands on the whisky itself.  We sampled five types from the different regions and were taught about the things to focus on when drinking whisky.

I thoroughly enjoyed this tour and would recommend it, whether you think you like whisky or not. It’s also a unique gift for someone who might be visiting the city in the future.

Learn more about the city in one of its fabulous museums and galleries

The city is spoilt for museums and galleries to visit. These include:

  • The National Museum of Scotland “takes you on a discovery through the history of Scotland”.  It contains exhibits in the areas of arts and crafts, natural history and nature, science and technology and different cultures around the world.
  • The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is crammed full of pictures taken through the centuries. The displays relate to different aspects of the country’s history and include portraits of famous Scots, both past and present.
  • The Museum of Edinburgh is situated on the Royal Mile and explains why Edinburgh is one of Europe’s most fascinating cities. It has a selection of artefacts and stories to entertain both children and adults alike.

Other museums are part of the other main sights you might visit in Edinburgh – for example as part the castle, and the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

Chill out in Princes Street Gardens

The Princes Street Gardens are an oasis in the centre of Edinburgh. The landscaped gardens are situated on the south side of the city, right next to Princes Street and a stone’s throw from Waverley train station, Edinburgh’s main rail entry point.

They are perfect for strolling around or for a picnic on the grass. There are paths lined with impressive statues and the park has magnificent views of the grand buildings in the old town.

A view from Princes Street Gardens across to some of the buildings in the old town
A view from Princes Street Gardens

The atmosphere is lively: when we visited, the area was full of street artists and buskers and was a great place to spend some time.

The impressive Scott Monument is also here. A magnificent Victorian Gothic monument, it commemorates Sir Walter Scott, a Scottish poet and novelist.

Standing at just over 200 feet high, for me, it definitely has that ‘wow’ factor. There is a museum about the monument on the first floor.

The Scott Monument in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh
The Scott Monument

Experience luxury on the Royal Yacht Britannia

The Royal Yacht Britannia was used by Queen Elizabeth II and other royal family members between 1954 and 1997. Today it is open to the public as a visitor attraction and is moored in Edinburgh’s Ocean Terminal port in Leith.

You can book tickets here.

Once on-board, you can find out some fascinating facts about this retired Royal yacht from its time in service.

In addition to the areas you would expect to see on a boat – e.g. the engine room and Admiral’s cabin – you get to see the Royal Deck where the family entertained, the Verandah Deck where they sunbathed or swam, and the areas where they played sport and performed shows.

You can also take a peak in the State Dining Room and State Drawing Room. And then after your tour of the boat you can then stop off for tea and cake in the Royal Deck Tea Room.

If you don’t have time to go on-board, but want to get a glimpse of the yacht, you can admire it from a distance from the outside of the Ocean Terminal shopping centre. You can then walk back to the main part of Leith for a drink.

The Royal Yacht Britannia moored at Ocean Terminal
The Royal Yacht Britannia moored at Ocean Terminal

Relax in the beautiful Royal Botanic Gardens and have lunch in Stockbridge

Covering 70 acres, the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh is definitely one to put on your list for your 3 days in Edinburgh.

The Edinburgh garden is the second oldest botanical garden in Britain and a relaxing space to wander around in and enjoy the peace and quiet. On the Sunday morning that we visited, there were very few people in the garden and it had a really calm and tranquil atmosphere.

The garden comprises many varied sections, including an arboretum, the Woodland Garden, the Rock Garden, the Chinese Hillside and the Alpine Houses.

You will also find glasshouses in the botanic gardens which apparently house a third of the plant collection cared for here. Unfortunately, these are currently closed for restoration, but you can still admire their beautiful exteriors.

A glasshouse in Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Gardens
A glasshouse in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Gardens

The grounds are free to enter.

If you’re interested in botanic gardens, also check out my post on the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, London.

Stockbridge

The gardens are within walking distance of the Stockbridge area. This is a charming district showcasing Georgian and Victorian houses. The main street has some attractive cafes and restaurants and it has a real village feel.

Pop here for a snack or lunch after your visit to the gardens.

Eat out in Leith

Leith is situated just over 2 miles to the east of Edinburgh. It was once one of the largest fishing ports in Europe and still has an active harbour.

Parts of Leith have now been regenerated and there are stylish bars and great restaurants, particularly seafood ones. We stopped off for an evening out after heading to the Ocean Terminal to see the Royal Yacht Britannia.

We had pre-dinner drinks in Commercial Quay. This is a strip of bars and restaurants with outdoor seating for the warmer summer months.

Commercial Quay in Leith - visit as part of your 3 days in Edinburgh
Commercial Quay in Leith

We then treated ourselves to a fabulous seafood meal in the Ship on the Shore along the Shore.

We caught the bus from the centre of Edinburgh which took around half an hour and drops you on the Shore.

The Water of Leith walkway also takes you from the centre of Edinburgh to Leith and past different areas en route (including Stockbridge and the Royal Botanic Gardens which we loved).

The entire walk is 12 miles, so you may find that this is not possible on 3 days in Edinburgh. Just flag it for your return visit!

Head to the beach

Portobello Beach near Edinburgh
Portobello Beach

Believe it or not, Edinburgh has a beach! Portobello beach is around four miles outside of the city centre and is an easy half an hour bus ride away.

It is popular for both sunbathing and swimming and on the sunny day that we visited was quite busy in places. It’s probably more of a traditional beach resort: stalls along the promenade selling ice cream, candy floss and burgers, and play areas for children.

So, if you’re looking for a quiet, unspoilt stretch of sand, then you probably won’t find it here. But it’s a great place to escape the city and eat fish and chips on the sand!

The main town of Portobello – where the bus drops you – also has a reasonable choice of eateries to try out.

Enjoy some retail therapy

For those in need of some retail therapy, Princes Street in Edinburgh’s New Town is the place to go. There’s all the usual high street shops here as well as nearby shopping centres like the Princes Square Shopping Centre and the St James Shopping Centre.

For more high-end shopping, head to George Street. There are shops here that specialise in designer clothes, jewellery and antiques.

You’ll also find some decent bars in this area, as well as some excellent restaurants. We enjoyed spending quite a bit of time around George Street.

I particularly liked Castle Street, just off of George Street: there are a couple of bars here with outside seating from which you can look up to the castle.

Go further afield

There are lots of places outside Edinburgh that you might want to consider visiting if you have time.

Loch Lomond is about an hour and a half’s drive from Edinburgh.

The lake is part of the Trossachs National Park and is where you can see some of Scotland’s stunning landscape. It’s also only an hour from Stirling which has a castle and other tourist attractions.

The Kelpies horses heads sculpture
The Kelpies

Lovers of trains (or Harry Potter!) will want to see the iconic Jacobite Steam Train (or the Hogwarts Express) en route to Mallaig on the west coast of Scotland.

  • Glasgow is Scotland’s largest city and is only an hour away from Edinburgh. It can easily be reached by train. As you would expect, there are loads of things to see and do in the city. Among these are a plethora of superb galleries and museums, the 85-acre Kelvingrove Park, a cathedral, and a Science Centre. It is also excellent for shopping, eating and drinking.

To explore more day trips from Edinburgh, click here.

Practical information for your 3 days in Edinburgh

How to get to Edinburgh

Edinburgh is an easy city to get to. There are direct flights to and from other United Kingdom cities such as London, Belfast, Southampton, Cardiff and Bristol. You can also fly to many other cities in Europe and the USA.

You can also catch a train from London to Edinburgh. This takes around five hours and part of the journey takes you past some spectacular scenery.

Getting around Edinburgh

Edinburgh is a very walkable city, with most of the main sights within walking distance of each other. However, there are a few places that you might need transport for. Or you may just want to give your feet a rest!

The hop-on/ hop-off bus is a great option if you want to see the main sights easily and quickly. It operates every 10 to 20 minutes from 9 am.

Click here to book tickets.

If you’d prefer to use public transport, there are a number of bus services operating in and out of the city and which run 24 hours a day. These include the Lothian and First companies; single adult fares cost £1.70 and from £1.60, respectively.

Edinburgh also operates a tram system. However, there is only one route which has 15 stops between the city centre and the airport. Single adult tickets cost £1.80 and a single to or from the airport is £6.50.

Trains are also an option and Edinburgh’s Waverley station is right in the centre of the city, just a few minutes’ walk from Princes Street.

The trains are a good choice for trips outside of the city and links to other Scottish cities as well as to routes in England.

The best time to visit Edinburgh

Summer

The summer months, between May and September, is one of the best times to visit Edinburgh. The weather is warm enough to enjoy the outdoor attractions and activities, and to pop out to the beach.

The Festivals

The world-famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival takes place in August. The city turns into the largest art festival in the world, with shows and performances taking place in venues throughout the city. In 2022, the Fringe Festival is scheduled for 5th August to 29th August.

The city also has other festivals that take place during the summer months: in 2022, the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival is scheduled for mid to late July, the Edinburgh Art Festival for a month between the end of July to the end of August, and the International Book Festival in the last two weeks of August. 

The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo also takes places around this time (in 2022 from 5th August to 27th August). This showcases music performed by British, Commonwealth and International Armed Forces military bands and includes a spectacular firework display.

Winter

The winter months can also be good for visiting. With its picturesque old town and cold weather, December in Edinburgh is perfect for getting into the Christmas spirit.

Hogmany – or New Year’s Eve – is also a wonderful time to be here. It’s a massive event and as a result lasts for around three days.

As well as music, there are street entertainers and dancers, a torchlight procession through the city centre, street parties and a spectacular firework display at the castle.

If you’re planning to visit during any of these festival periods, then I would suggest booking your Edinburgh accommodation as far in advance as possible (see below for options).

These are the most popular times to visit and the city gets very busy. So, booking in advance will ensure you get the best rates and availability.

Where to stay in Edinburgh

You have a huge choice of places to stay in Edinburgh. It might therefore might be sensible to choose the area you want to spend most time in and then select your accommodation.

If you only have 3 days in Edinburgh, I’d suggest staying centrally, in either the old town or new town.

I’ve suggested a few places below, all of which get top reviews on TripAdvisor. However, there are other areas worth considering, including the areas outside of the centre such as Leith and Portobello.

  • The Intercontinental Edinburgh The George is a grand Georgian hotel near to Princes Street Gardens and will definitely give you a sense of luxury if you stay here. It has a bar, lounge and fitness centre and its location means it’s right in the heart of things when you want to go sightseeing.
  • The Hotel Du Vin and Bistro is another top-rated establishment. It’s just a short walk from the Royal Mile so near to all the old town attractions. It’s a smaller establishment than some of the city’s big hotels so will suit people looking for a boutique break or romantic getaway. It has a bar, restaurant and room for wine-tasting.
  • The Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh – the Caledonian is another grand hotel and well suited for a special weekend away.  It is situated in a former Victorian railway station. It has a fine-dining restaurant, as well as the Peacock Alley lounge (the old station concourse and booking office) where you can indulge in afternoon drinks, whether that is champagne or cocktails. The hotel also has a wonderful spa.
  • The Ibis Edinburgh Centre Royal Mile is a more affordable option if you’re on a budget or think you’ll be out so much that you only need a clean bed and bath. It’s in a good location (the castle is just over a 10-minute walk away) and has a bar and restaurant.
  • The Malmaison Edinburgh City is a new town hotel and a 14-minute walk from the castle. It has a restaurant and bar and beautifully designed rooms.

Click here to explore other options.

Other UK short breaks and UK staycations

If you are considering visiting Edinburgh, then I hope this post on 3 days in Edinburgh will help.  I also have a second post on my experience of whisky tasting that might interest you.

If you are looking for other ideas for UK short breaks and UK staycations, see my following posts:

My website also contains more ideas for short trips to Europe.

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