Going to Edinburgh was my first real solo backpacking experience. Sure I’d been living in Ireland for a few weeks by then and seen a bit of the country, but I had either been with my parents or close enough to my new home that I didn’t feel that it really counted. I chose Scotland because it was nearby, they spoke English, and it just seemed like a good place to start. It was a good pick because I fell in love with the country, especially Edinburgh. Since my original visit I’ve been back twice, each time finding something new and difference to see and explore. So for any first-timers heading to Scotland’s capital, here’s my take on how to spend 2 days in Edinburgh.
How to Get to Edinburgh
Unless you are arriving from somewhere else in Scotland or England, you are likely going to be arriving by plane. The Edinburgh Airport is about a 25-30 minute bus ride to the city centre.
There is a city bus that will take you into town; tickets can be purchased outside the arrivals doors, at the Visit Scotland office, or on the bus itself. If you are also returning to leave the country from the Edinburgh airport it is most cost-effective to get a return ticket. The bus makes a few stops on the way to the city centre, with the final stop being a Waverly train station (where you will arrive from if travelling by train). From here you can likely walk to your final destination, or grab a cab or bus; both of which are abundant in this area.
Where to Stay in Edinburgh for 2 Days
I’ve stayed in a couple different areas in Edinburgh and I don’t think there is really a bad location. I do recommend trying to stay close to the city centre. Look for accommodation close to the Royal Mile of Edinburgh Castle to be close to all the action.
If you are looking for a great hotel in Edinburgh, my mom and I loved the Scotsman Hotel. It’s in a great location within walking distance to all the main attractions, offers beautiful views, and is in a gorgeous historical building. We lucked in and found a sale but, typically, it’s a pricier hotel.
Some more recommendations on where to stay in Edinburgh:
Getting Around Edinburgh in 2 Days
Edinburgh is pretty small and compact and easy to walk around. That being said, it is a very hilly area and no matter where you are, you always seem to be climbing uphill. However, it’s a beautiful city so if you are planning on stopping for photos, it doesn’t really matter.
If a lot of walking and hills is not quite what you wanted, try the Edinburgh hop off hop on tours. It’s a great way to see the sites and the city without tiring yourself out and doesn’t cost a fortune.
Finally, Edinburgh also has city buses and a tram system you can use as well. I wouldn’t, however, advise renting a car to explore the city as the roads are small and windy and the Royal Mile is pedestrian only.
2 Days in Edinburgh: The Best Things to Do
There is a lot to do in Edinburgh from museums to castles, shops and pubs, even ghost tours of Harry Potter sites. Every time I visit I always find something new, but here are a few of my all-time favourite and top recommended things to do and see with 2 days in Edinburgh.
Tour Edinburgh Castle
Perched atop the highest point in the city, Edinburgh Castle is impossible to miss. You could easily spend half a day exploring this fortress. From the prison barracks to the National War Museum to the royal jewels and Stone of Destiny, there are a million and one things to see at the castle. Not to mention the stunning views looking over the town. Your best bet to beat the crowds is to visit first thing in the morning. Tickets can be booked online ahead of time, or just inside the gates. Make sure you also listen for the one o’clock gun fired every day at 1 pm (except Sundays). Although it is fired from the castle walls, it can be heard throughout the city, so keep your ears open.
Climb Arthur’s Seat
Check climbing an extinct volcano off your bucket list by taking a hike up Arthur’s seat for the best views around. Located in Prince’s park down by Holyrood Palace, hiking up Arthurs seat and the surrounding area is a popular activity for locals and tourists alike. Make sure you wear good shoes as the ground is rocky and uneven- and only climb if the weather conditions are good- it’s incredibly slippery if you get caught in the rain (like I did). The climb takes most people around 30-45 minutes but that includes stopping to take in the views. I recommend going earlier in the morning to skip the crowds.
Take a Haunted Tour (or two!)
Edinburgh is renowned for its violent and macabre history, and has a reputation for being one of the most haunted spots in Europe- so you can’t leave without doing a big of ghost hunting yourself! I’m a big baby when it comes to anything supernatural but have done a different tour each time I have visited. Different tours and companies will show you the different sides of Edinburgh. Some will take you through underground vaults where you will hear terrifying stories of fires and plagues that have left behind ghostly children seeking out a woman’s motherly touch. Others will take you to the graveyard in search of the MacKenzie Poltergeist, one of the world’s most malignant spirits who is said to leave physical marks on his victims. But amidst the legends of the supernatural are also the real stories of witch hunts and torture, and the notorious Irish serial killers Burke and Hare.
Geek out over Harry Potter
Any Harry Potter fan knows that Edinburgh is the birthplace of this world-famous series and has tons of interesting sites associated with it. From The Elephant House cafe where JK Rowling wrote some of the stories, to the Greyfriar’s Kirkyard where you can find certain character’s names on tombstones; there’s lots to see and find. You can do your own tour to see the highlights, or if you really want the best experience, take a guided tour.
Walk The Royal Mile
This pedestrian-friendly road is what connects Holyrood Palace (still a working palace today) to Edinburgh Castle. Literally one mile, this stretch of road is lined with pubs, shops, and interesting museums. This is the best place to purchase some famous Scottish cashmere (though do some price shopping first) and makes for some great photos. Places to visit along the way include St. Giles Cathedral (although make sure there isn’t a wedding going on before you burst inside!), Scottish Parliament, Museum of Edinburgh, The Writer’s Museum, Mary King’s Close, and Tron Kirk. The Royal Mile is also a great spot to duck into a pub to escape the rain or grab lunch and a pint.
Hit the Pubs
Pub life, like in Ireland, is a staple of Scottish culture, and they aren’t hard to come by in its capital city. The two most popular areas for pubs include the Royal Mile and Grassmarket. Grassmarket is probably the most popular and is known as a hot spot for bachelor parties or the place to be during sporting events. Although it’s hard to go wrong with any Scottish pub I would highly recommend The World’s End Pub on the Royal Mile and the Fiddler’s Arms in Grassmarket. Both have great food, drink, and atmosphere. Scottish pubs are also perfect spots to try the infamous Scottish dish of Haggis, or a plate of good ol’ fish and chips.
Additionally, if you are a whisky enthusiast you can’t leave Edinburgh without a dram or two! Whiskey lovers may also be interested in this Scottish whisky experience with a local.
Take a Free Walking Tour
Part of Edinburgh’s draw is its incredible history, and unless you want to spend your entire visit with your nose jammed in a guidebook the best way to get the stories is by taking a tour. Sandeman’s New Europe Tours offer a free (aka tip at the end) 3-hour walking tour of the city every day at 11am and 2pm. They will show you some things you will never find on your own, as well as let you in on some great stories. My favourites include the reasoning behind the term ‘shit-faced’ and the story of Greyfriar’s Bobby.
Visit Calton Hill
Just east of Prince’s Street, Calton hill is another great place to find some spectacular views of the city. It’s also home to numerous monuments and the city observatory. Legend has it that Calton Hill is actually a gateway to the fairy world. But whether you believe in those stories or not, it makes a great place for a picnic.
Wander through New Town
At 200 years old, the ‘new’ part of the name may be a little questionable, especially given that it is older than my own country. This part of the city is mainly made up of neo-classical and Georgian style architecture, is popular for some beautiful hotels and for shopping. The most famous street of new town is Princes Street which is lined with boutiques and shops including Jenners; the Edinburgh equivalent of London’s Harrods. New Town is also home to a few museums including the National Gallery of Scotland.
Climb to the top of The Scott Monument
The Scott Monument is one of the main sights of Edinburgh. Located in the Prince’s Street Gardens this gothic tower makes for beautiful photos and, for the price of a few pounds, is open to visitors to climb. There is a totally of 287 steps to the highest platform with a couple viewing platform stops along the way. From the top, you will be rewarded with great views from all sides including Edinburgh Castle. Warning: unlike at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome there are not two separate staircases- everyone goes up and down the same one. So yell as you go in the hopes that whoever is below/above you will wait at the platform or else one of you will be retracing your steps.
The capital of Scotland is a beautiful city and remains one of my favourites and even if you only have 2 days in Edinburgh you can still manage to see and do quite a bit!
A Note on Travel Insurance in Scotland
Please, do NOT travel without travel insurance! I’ve had to rely on mine multiple times. While the cost may seem annoying and better spent elsewhere, trust me when I say you’ll be sorry if you don’t have it. For just a couple bucks a day, you can save yourself a whole lot of stress and money. I like to recommend SafetyWing for travel medical insurance as they are one of the most affordable options I’ve found, plus, they are who I use and I have had great experiences with them. Learn more about the importance of travel insurance here.