What To Do in Edinburgh, Scotland in 24 Hours

Edinburgh

UNESCO World Heritage-listed Edinburgh is a gem of a city. Mother Nature here is an undulating landscape of valleys and hills which meet with the sea, dotted about with ancient extinct volcanoes, cliffs and rocky outcrops. Onto this natural tapestry man has imprinted further magnificence and the whole is a medley of medieval architecture, weaving cobble-stoned streets, picturesque church spires and modern marvels of engineering demonstrated by its vast bridges.  

History is often very old here and very evident –from the ancient castle at its heart to the churches dating from the 12th century; Edinburgh’s story stretches far back in time. Thrown into the mix are the neo-classical 18th century buildings and architecture of the area known as New Town–a period which also saw the erection of the Greek Acropolis-styled monument which sits atop Calton Hill and which was never completed. But this is also a cosmopolitan city of modern delights. Home to the Fringe –the largest arts festival on the planet -Edinburgh’s streets are crammed with cultural offerings which encompass everything in the worlds of art, literature and science.   In short, Edinburgh has enough charms and diversity to keep any visitor happy for a considerable time without repeating anything. Here is a quick sampling of some of its principal treasures which can be covered in just one day.

Some Choices for the Morning

things to do in Edinburgh

A great way to introduce yourself to Edinburgh and kick-off a day of discovery is to take a morning meander through the tiered landscape of Princes Street Gardens. Watched over by the solid sentinel of Edinburgh Castle sitting atop its rocky crag, this public green space is a mix of colorful display gardens and a diverse miscellany of statues, permanent memorials and monuments. Nestled within the valley which divides the new and old towns of Edinburgh, the gardens have two prominent features –the cast-iron, elaborately sculptured Ross Fountain which dates from Victorian times and the stunning floral clock. This latter which has existed since 1903 –and which truly is a functioning clock –is a floral work of art with each of the clock’s visible components made up in total from around 40,000 plants which takes two people five weeks to create. There is also a mega-popular kiosk café complete with tables and chairs in the gardens if you need a quick caffeine fix before your next stop –the Scott Monument.

The Scott Monument

Situated on Princes Street, you can, if you choose, simply gaze on this early Victorian gothic marvel from ground level but that is a little like visiting Paris without ascending the Eiffel Tower. Built in honor of the Scottish author Sir Walter Scott, the Scott Monument is meant to be climbed –something made possible via its 287 spiral staircase steps, punctuated as you go by four different level viewing platforms.  

It would be easier to list what you can’t see from here rather than what you can as its 61.1 meter height affords panoramic views which on a clear day extend way beyond Edinburgh to Fife and the Ochils more than 30 miles away. You can tick off spectacular sightings of many of Edinburgh’s iconic and distinctive landmarks such as the River Forth and its bridges, Edinburgh Castle, the Calton Hill Parthenon-inspired monument and the extinct volcano peak known as Arthur’s Seat. Such a lofty perch also allows a distinctly different perspective from which you can fully appreciate the elaborate architecture of the monument itself as well as other city features including the higher level intricate statuary of Jenners (the ‘Harrodsof the North’), an eye-level perspective of the statue which sits atop the Melville Monument and St Giles’ Cathedral’s crown steeple.

Coffee Break Venue Choices

If all those steps and breathtaking views have left you in need of a morning coffee break you are somewhat spoiled for café choices in this area. If it is sitting outside weather it is hard to beat Castle Street’s Castello –a favored darling of the local coffee cognoscenti who will repeatedly tell you the coffee here is the best to be found in the city and the service highly attentive. Just a short stroll from the Scott Monument and tiny inside, the view of Edinburgh Castle is pretty much unsurpassable from the Castello’s alfresco area. Besides the excellent connoisseur-standard coffee there are also fresh squeezed juices and other hot drink choices including the highly rated hot chocolate. If you need a little after-breakfast top-up Castello also has a great range of home-made cakes, pastries, croissants and snacks.  

If the weather is not being quite so kind and you need to be inside other alternatives for a morning coffee within easy walking distance include George Street’s Lowdown Coffee where the pain au chocolat and the carrot cake regularly feature in rave reviews and the highly rated Milkman on Cockburn Street.

Free Walking Tours

After your refreshment stop and with the morning in full swing you can walk off any indulgences with one of Edinburgh’s free walking tours. These choices –which should perhaps be more accurately entitled ‘gratuity tours’ because you pay what you think the tour was worth only when it is finished –have become popular across the globe. They are an excellent way to take in any number of a destination’s highlights and although they may be whistle-stop in nature are otherwise designed to offer a visitor rich helpings of local history and cultural insight. Edinburgh has plenty of choice with regard to walking tours –some of which allow you to simply turn up at a meeting spot to tag along while others ask you to book your place.

Bus Tours

If you are feeling a little less energetic but still want the city highlight tour experience you can opt instead for an Edinburgh bus tour. These 5-star tours depart at least six times per hour from the Scott Monument and offer commentaries by way of headphones so you can opt in or out. One of the great benefits of the Edinburgh bus tours is their hop on hop off nature. This means if you arrive somewhere which grabs your attention you can hop off to explore further and then hop on again when you have had your fill; with tickets valid for 24 hours you can do this all day long if you should so choose. There are four different routes to choose from –all of which last for 75 minutes apart from the 3 hour ‘3 Bridges Tour’ which includes a boat cruise.

The Scottish National Gallery

If you are more interested in focusing your attention in one place the Scottish National Gallery makes for an excellent alternative morning activity. Located just a minute or so on foot from Jenners, the free admission Scottish National Gallery is one of the three National Galleries of Scotland venues in Edinburgh and houses a fine art collection globally recognized as one of the best in the world. The artworks on display here represent an A-Z of famous masters and masterpieces such as Botticelli, Cezanne, Constable, Da Vinci, Monet, Raphael, Titian and Van Gogh while the history of Scottish painting forms the gallery’s most numerous works.   If you want to take in the National Galleries of Scotland’s other two venues –the sculpture park-set Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery -life is made very simple for you. Just hop on board the circular route gallery bus which runs between the three venues which will cost just a £1 voluntary donation.

Lunch Options

After you have had your fill of fine art and have exited the National Gallery you will find yourself wonderfully placed for a multitude of lunch venue options. If you want to continue the arty theme a great choice is the Elephant House on George IV Bridge. This atmospheric restaurant, beloved by locals, is also something of a Mecca for visiting Harry Potter fans as it is where J. K. Rowling is said to have written some of the early Harry Potter novels. Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith are two more of its literary regulars. While the Elephant House enjoys a well-deserved reputation as a gourmet tea and coffee house it also has a generous menu of light bites, salad bowls and more substantial main dishes for brunches and lunches. Other quality choices in the near vicinity include top-ranked and elegant Forage and Chatter on Alva Street with its European and Scottish influenced menu and choice of dining atmospheres including its balcony conservatory and the Asian and Thai Nok’s Kitchen on Gloucester Street. Both have set lunch menus for superb value or full a la carte choices.

Some Choices for the Afternoon

things to do in Edinburgh

Greyfriars Bobby

Before you embark on your main afternoon’s sightseeing be sure to check out one of Edinburgh’s most iconic landmark statues –Greyfriars Bobby –situated where Candle maker Row and George IV Bridge converge. While certain modern theories suggest the story of this Skye terrier is not all we would have been led to believe the legend of how this small dog remained guarding his owner’s grave for fourteen years still endures. Opposite the statue is the graveyard of Greyfriars Kirkyard where the grave of Bobby’s owner, John Gray, is located -now marked with a modern stone and the grave of Bobby himself. If you decide to wander into the graveyard -said to be one the most haunted places on the planet –be sure to check out the Flodden Wall fragments here. This location is one of just a handful in Edinburgh where original remnants of the 16th century city wall still remain.

Shopping

With the afternoon in front of you, you have a huge variety of options for how to fill these Edinburgh hours. For all those who can’t get by without a little retail therapy Edinburgh is a delight. While Princes Street serves as the centre for chain and department store choices Victoria Street –located about 150 meters from Greyfriars Bobby -is the centre for small, independent shops of the quirky boutique and one-off variety where bespoke goods are the norm.

One of Edinburgh’s most photographed locations, Victoria Street is generally considered to be as pretty as it gets and that -in a city bursting with the picturesque -is saying something. This historic cobble-stoned street which is popular with both visiting tourists and locals, weaves its way down to the Grassmarket, lined with soaring store-fronts painted in a rainbow of hues ranging from tranquil turquoise to raspberry pink. What can be found within is as varied as the charming stone façades –there are artisan food purveyors such as Ian J. Mellis cheeses, Red Door Gallery’s art prints and designer jewelry, an Aladdin’s cave of literary treasure in the Old Town Bookshop and the old vintage signs, maps and globes of the award-winning Context Interiors. The rest is made up of other non-generic offerings such as unusual house-wares, tweeds, designer clothing, hand-crafts and more interspersed with juice shops, cafes and pubs.  

Even if you are not in the market to buy Victoria Street is just made for dawdling, browsing and window shopping and if you are on the look-out for unique souvenirs or refreshingly different gifts it is an essential inclusion in your itinerary.   As the principal inspiration for the magical Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter book series, Victoria Street also has some real dark history of its own. Major Weir –otherwise known as the Wizard of West Bow –was a resident here in the 17th century where crimes of necromancy and after-dark supernatural goings-on led to his execution for witch craft in 1670. It was thought until recently that nothing still existed of his house which locals shunned for a whole century deeming it haunted. More recent findings suggest however that all was not destroyed when Victoria Street was created but parts of this infamous residence still stand within the upper levels of the Quaker Meeting House.

The Grassmarket

If you are in the vicinity of Victoria Street be sure to wander through to the Grassmarket which sits below Edinburgh Castle. Since way back in the 15th century this area has been full of hostelries and taverns which catered to the market folk who traded wares and principally horses and cattle. It is still an area known for its bars, clubs and pubs offering a wealth of continental style street pavement tables and with several located in premises dating from those original market days. Among the notable buildings is the historic White Hart Inn –said to be Edinburgh’s oldest pub. This establishment has played host to several famous figures such as the grave robbers Burke and Hare in the 1800s and other rather more respectable guests such as William and Dorothy Wordsworth in 1803. Further back still,in 1791,Robert Burns also stayed here. Besides a market location the Grassmarket also saw many public executions. The simple raised disc of the Covenanters’ Memorial found in the Grassmarket today marks the spot of this macabre past with a shadow of a gibbet marked out in paving tiles beside it.

The National Museum of Scotland

There are of course plenty of other options if shopping doesn’t appeal. Also close to Greyfriars Bobby –directly across the street in fact –can be found the National Museum of Scotland which claims the title of the UK’s most visited tourist attraction excepting those found in London. The museum is a collection of ancient artifacts and priceless treasure exhibited in multiple galleries which showcase all things Scotland -from primeval ages until current times. The museum is free entry and is home to an incredible diversity of attractions ranging from Egyptian exhibits to a typically outrageous Elton John suit and from the stuffed original of Dolly the sheep (the world’s first mammal clone) to Scotland’s grisly version of the guillotine.

The Magdalen Chapel

While in the museum’s vicinity it is worth making a quick detour to take in the Cowgate located Magdalen Chapel. Many pass by this small building not realizing it is home to a remarkable 16thcentury stained glass window –the only one which survived in situation following the destruction during the Scottish Reformation.

Scottish Parliament

Another very popular visitor attraction is the Scottish Parliament complex at Holyrood which is one of the stops on the Edinburgh hop on hop off bus route. Opened in 2004, much about the building project was subject to huge controversy, not least of all its distinct architectural style which its supporters refer to as a marvel. Free tours here give you some fascinating behind the scenes glimpses while if you time your visit with a parliamentary sitting you can watch it all from a ringside seat in the gallery.

Edinburgh Castle

Last but very definitely not least on your Edinburgh day itinerary comes arguably Edinburgh’s major highlight –the majestic Edinburgh Castle. Scotland’s most-visited entry-fee attraction, Edinburgh Castle is the iconic backdrop for the annual Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo and the city’s most instantly recognizable landmark. It’s location atop a lofty cliff perch –once part of a volcano -no doubt adds something to the fortress’s atmospheric air.  Nevertheless its magic is unquestionable with the entire site relating a history that spans almost 900 years. With a story which includes huge helpings of intrigue, violence and treason it is also regarded as one of the country’s most haunted locations.  

Housed inside its ages-old walls can be found so much to see you may choose to forego other Edinburgh attractions in order to take in all the castle has to offer. Free guided tours are included in your ticket price and among the castle’s many highlights are the tiny 12th century St Margaret’s Chapel which is the city’s oldest structure, the mighty 15th century cannon known as Mons Meg which was capable of launching a cannonball that could travel for two miles, the Scottish National War Memorial honoring 150,000 dead from World War I and the legendary coronation stone known as the Stone of Destiny or the Stone of Scone. Among the museum choices are the fascinatingly restored living quarters in the Prisoners of War Museum and the uniform, weapons and military memorabilia collections of the National War Museum of Scotland. One of the lesser known Edinburgh Castle inclusions is an almost 200 year old cemetery for the dogs of military officers which, although not open to the public, can be viewed from above.  

Although the city’s views from the castle’s vantage point are worthwhile at any time of day it is certainly worth timing your visit to coincide with sunset. For many, watching the lights of Edinburgh wink into view as dusk falls is often cited as an ultimate highlight of any Edinburgh visit.

Dinner Options

As the daylight hours of your Edinburgh adventure draw to a close you will no doubt be pondering dinner choices. Luckily, for anyone who considers this to be a major part of their leisure activities Edinburgh offers incredible choice for both gourmet diners and gourmands alike. Award-winning establishments are thick on the ground –including more Michelin starred choices than can be found anywhere in the UK with the exception of London -and the options are eclectic and diverse. Quite what defines ideal dining is of course very personal but if you are a seafood fan you unlikely to find better than George IV Bridge’s Ondine. This award-winning restaurant prides itself on its sustainable-sourcing ethics which draws its produce from the finest the UK has to offer –from ‘scallop divers on Mull to lobstermen in Newhaven’. Treat your taste-buds with flavor medleys such as the African-influenced saffron and orange elements of a classic fish soup or a dish of razor clams which are married together with chorizo and lemons. While you feast on the ocean’s finest fruits you can enjoy great Edinburgh Old Town views through Ondine’s oversized windows.

If you would prefer to sample some Scottish classics in elegant surroundings head to the Royal Mile’s Michelin Guide-mentioned Angels with Bagpipes. This intimate-sized restaurant, lit by angel wings candlesticks and housed inside a bronze and marble-decorated 17th century building, offers some modern twists on some time-honored Scottish favorites such as ‘haggis, neeps & tatties in a whisky sauce.

Other highly rated options include the relaxed atmosphere Castle Terrace restaurant on Castle Terrace with its ‘Surprise Tasting Menu’ option, the Grain Store on pretty Victoria Street which delivers the very best of Scotland’s meat and fish to its diners or the classically formal Number One –one of the city’s Michelin starred choices –located at the Balmoral on Princes Street.

Some Choices for the Evening

Ghost Tours

If you are inclined to move at all after satisfying your evening appetite at Edinburgh’s finest you can walk off your calorie in take with an atmospheric ghost tour. Edinburgh’s centuries of history includes dark elements of the less than savory, hints of mystery and quite a generous helping of murder, intrigue and treason. As you explore Edinburgh’s after-dark cobblestone streets, hidden vaults and graveyards you will learn of a morbid and at times gruesome past which includes the tale of Edinburgh’s notorious grave robbers –Burke and Hare. There are plenty of tour choices with two of the best rated being Mercat Tours and the Real Mary King’s Close.

Traditional Scottish Music

Should your tastes incline more towards the traditionally musical direct your steps towards Sandy Bell’s on Forrest Road, just a short stroll from Greyfriars Bobby. From the outside this pub looks like an ordinary and really nothing special kind of place with absolutely no suggestion of the legend it is in reality. Since the 1940s Sandy Bell’s has been the scene of almost nightly –or during the day too at weekends -music sessions of the traditional and folk music kind; the list of the music world’s famous and influential who have played here –many on a regular basis -is an impressive one. This is no pub band session scene but instead an authentic, anything-can-happen nature gathering of musicians who sometimes come from far and wide to share music. The distinctive style which is often dubbed Edinburgh swing is one of the possibilities here as are jigs and reels, fiddle sessions and any other traditional genre. Although quite what you might get music-wise is wonderfully unpredictable there is no doubt you will have an evening in Edinburgh to remember.

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