Edinburgh is such a great city to explore. Climb a volcano, see where JK Rowling got her inspiration for the Harry Potter series, tour a castle, and learn all about whisky. There is something here for everyone.
If you have two days in Edinburgh, you have just enough time to visit the best spots in the city. Follow our itinerary, complete with recommendations on where to stay and where to eat.
The perfect two days in Edinburgh
On Day 1 you will tour the Royal Mile, starting at Edinburgh Castle and ending at Arthur’s Seat. It’s a lot of walking so make sure you wear a comfortable pair of shoes!!
Edinburgh Castle is the centerpiece of the city. It sits upon Castle Rock, the remains of a dormant volcano. The castle was constructed in the 12th century and has been the site of tumultuous historical events spanning hundreds of years. Now, over one million visitors tour the castle every year.
All of those visitors makes the castle very crowded, especially during the summer months. To avoid the crowds, arrive here just before opening time, so you will be one of the first inside of the castle. This makes for a much nicer experience, seeing the Crown Jewels and Royal chambers without queuing with lots of people.
For more tips on how to have the best experience at Edinburgh Castle, read our post about Edinburgh Castle: Things to Know Before You Go.
Take your pick: Whisky or Illusions
Camera Obscura and the World of Illusions
Camera Obscura is located one block down the Royal Mile from the Edinburgh Castle. If you are visiting Edinburgh with kids, this is an awesome spot to visit. Six floors are filled with illusions, puzzles, and optical tricks.
At the top of the building is the Camera Obscura show. During the show, see live moving images of Edinburgh projected onto a viewing table via a periscope. Or, just enjoy the view over Edinburgh from the rooftop. It is one of the best views of the city.
The Scotch Whisky Experience
At the Scotch Whisky Experience, learn about the distilling of scotch whisky. Your tour starts with a barrel ride through the virtual distillery and ends with a whisky tasting. We did the Gold Tour, which included a tasting of four whiskies from different regions of Scotland.
If you are traveling with kids, they are allowed on the tour. Tyler and Kara had a good time, especially during the short, educational barrel ride. Of course, children are not permitted to taste the whisky.
For full details on the tours offered, visit the Scotch Whisky Experience website.
Note: If you move fast, you can visit the Camera Obscura and take a tour at the Scotch Whisky Experience before lunch.
There are several restaurants in the immediate area. Normally, we do not recommend having lunch in the main tourist area, but since the afternoon continues on the Royal Mile, it is convenient to eat here.
We ate at Ensign Ewart, located just a few blocks down the Royal Mile from the Scotch Whisky Experience. This is a cozy pub with a small menu, serving Scottish food, beer, wine, and of course, whisky.
More Sights Along the Royal Mile
For the remainder of the afternoon, continue the walk down the Royal Mile. Go shopping, take a break at a pub for a pint of beer or a dram of whisky, and have your photo taken with one of the street performers. During the walk down the Royal Mile, there are several places we recommend visiting.
St. Giles’ Cathedral
The steeple of St. Giles’ Cathedral is one of the icons of Edinburgh. This church was built in the 14th century and today is the main church of Edinburgh. It is free to visit (although donations are welcome). The ceiling of the nave is a brilliant blue and definitely worth a look.
Real Mary King’s Close
This is the perfect tour to learn about medieval life in Edinburgh. Journey back in time to 1645 Edinburgh, down Mary King’s Close, a real alleyway in the city. This was the year of the Black Death, when one-third of Edinburgh’s population succumbed to this terrible illness. With our entertaining guide, we learned what it was like to live in Edinburgh during these hard times. If you want an interesting history lesson about Edinburgh, we highly recommend this tour.
Tours last one hour. If you are visiting Edinburgh on a weekend or during peak season, we advise booking your tickets in advance. Visit their website for more information.
This is a must visit for whisky aficionados. Cadenhead’s is Edinburgh’s oldest independent bottler of whisky. They offer tastings and have an extensive knowledge of whisky. If you are looking to bring a bottle of whisky home as a gift or a souvenir, this is a great shop to visit.
Palace of Holyroodhouse
The Royal Mile ends at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. This palace is the official residence in Scotland of Queen Elizabeth. She resides here about one week every year. When the Queen is not here, the Palace is open for visit. One of the main attractions are the chambers of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Arthur’s Seat is located in Holyrood Park, just a few minutes walk from the Palace of Holyroodhouse. This large, grass covered hill is the remains of an extinct volcano that erupted 350 million years ago. Arthur’s Seat offers one of the best views of the city. It’s a short, slightly strenuous hike to the highest point, but absolutely worth it to look out over Edinburgh from this vantage point.
There are several options for reaching the summit. For an easy walk with views out over the best of Edinburgh, walk the Salisbury Crags. For more dramatic, panoramic views of the city (and a slightly strenuous hike) climb to Arthur’s Seat.
Read our post about Arthur’s Seat for full information about how to do this.
Dinner at The Scran and Scallie
Our day ends with a fabulous dinner. Leave the touristy Royal Mile behind and venture out to the neighborhood of Stockbridge. This was our favorite meal in Edinburgh. If you want to dine on traditional Scottish food cooked perfectly, this is your place. Items on the menu include roasted bone marrow, ox tongue, fish and steak pies, mashed potatoes, cabbage with bacon, and chocolate and whisky mousse. The food is delicious and many things we tried here were brand new to us.
I highly recommend putting this experience on your list of things to do in Edinburgh. And I also highly recommend making sure you have a reservation for dinner…they are busy and fill up fast. Here’s the link to their website.
Your day can end here, or, if you still have energy to keep going, visit one of Edinburgh’s many pubs.
Today we explore more of the Old Town of Edinburgh, tour some of Edinburgh’s best museums, and visit picturesque Dean Village.
Tour One of Edinburgh’s Best Museums
After breakfast, tour one (or more) of Edinburgh’s best museums. Here are your options:
The National Museum of Scotland
This museum has a little bit of everything: world cultures, science and technology, Scottish history, art, and exhibits about the natural world. If you are traveling with kids, this museum is your best bet to keep them entertained. Plus, the museum is free.
Surgeon’s Hall Museum
Geared towards adults, older kids, and anyone with an interest in the medical field, this is a fascinating look into what can go wrong inside of our bodies. The Wohl Pathology Museum is home to one of the largest collections of pathological specimens in the world. It’s a bit gruesome, but for some that may be the appeal. Tyler and Kara were mesmerized, looking at birth defects, fractured bones that never healed, and cancers. If you want a change of pace from the typical Edinburgh sightseeing circuit this may be a place to visit.
Travel Tip: The National Museum of Scotland and the Surgeons’ Hall Museum are located very close together. If you tend to move quickly through museums, you can visit both of these before lunch (this is what we did).
Scottish National Gallery
This is a must for art lovers. Located on The Mound, the Scottish National Gallery is free to visit. After your visit, consider a stroll through the Princes Street Gardens or climb the Scott Monument for another bird’s eye view of Edinburgh.
Royal Yacht Britannia
This is one of the most famous ships in the world. It was home to the Royal Family as they cruised to various ports around the world on official visits. Now you can tour this floating palace.
The Royal Yacht is located fifteen minutes from the center of Edinburgh at the Ocean Terminal. To get here, take the Line 35 bus from Chambers Street next to the National Museum of Scotland, take a taxi, or use Uber.
Lunch in the Old Town of Edinburgh
Spend the middle of your day touring the Old Town of Edinburgh, in particular the area around Grassmarket, Cowgate, and Victoria Street. Technically, the Old Town also includes the Royal Mile. Today, we are going just one block south of the Royal Mile to explore the old cobblestoned streets and shops here.
It’s amazing how many tourists you will leave behind by stepping off of the Royal Mile. This is a small area so you can walk it in an hour or less.
Don’t miss Victoria Street! It is beautiful with its colorful façades and Gothic architecture.
For lunch, some of the more popular restaurants in the area are:
- Oink, specializes in hog roasts, 34 Victoria Street
- The Elephant House, where JK Rowling had her inspiration for the Harry Potter series. Food is nothing special but Harry Potter fans might enjoy a visit here. 21 George IV Bridge
- Vittoria on the Bridge, Italian and European food, 19 George IV Bridge
- Greyfriars Bobby Bar, Scottish Pub, 30-34 Candlemaker Row
The Potter Trail
If you are a Harry Potter fan, consider taking a walking tour, visiting the sights that served as the inspiration for scenes in the Harry Potter series. The tour starts at Greyfriars Bobby and covers most of the Old Town of Edinburgh. This tour is free and is offered several days of the week at 3 pm. For full details, visit the Potter Trail website.
Beautiful Dean Village
After lunch, spend the afternoon at Dean Village. Dean Village is a small, residential area in Edinburgh. It’s quiet, it’s beautiful, and it’s off the beaten path.
For more information, read our full post on Dean Village.
Dinner in Edinburgh
Finish the day with dinner in Edinburgh. There are tons of awesome restaurants to try. We recommend a visit to Pickles, especially if you are in the mood for a snack and not a full meal. Pickles serves cheese and meat platters, and pickles, of course! It’s not a full dinner menu, but this is the perfect place to take a break from haggis and beer and have some wine and cheese. Pickles is cozy, inviting, and we all loved it here.
Where We Stayed
The four of us stayed at the hub by Premiere Inn Edinburgh Royal Mile. We LOVED it here. For a budget accommodation with a brilliant location that is clean, modern, friendly, and quiet, you cannot beat this place. The rooms are small but their storage solutions are innovative. From a touchpad by the head of the bed we could control our lights, TV, and air conditioner. The hotel is located just one block off of the Royal Mile. There is a café in the downstairs lobby that serves excellent food. I really have nothing bad to say about this place (and that almost never happens). We would stay here again, no doubt about it.
Post updated November 2017.
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