Between the 12th-century castle, the stunning Firth of Forth vistas, the local spirits, a buzzing restaurant scene, and Arthur’s Seat perched high above, Edinburgh is one of those places that can make you question some of your life choices––like, why you don’t live there.
Nestled close on high cliffs overlooking the restless, ice-cold waters of the Firth of Forth, Edinburgh is marked by both a fascinating history and a fresh cosmopolitan culture, wedding classic and modern to yield a marvelously interesting city. We hope that you have more than one day to explore the winding streets of the celebrated Scottish capital, but if you’ve got no more than 24 hours, these are the best things to do in Edinburgh.
8 a.m.: Getting from Edinburgh Airport to the city couldn’t be easier. While you can grab a taxi, we recommend exiting the airport near Arrivals and seeking out the 100 Airlink bus, which goes right to the city center for just a few pounds. Hop on the bus and enjoy a relaxing half-hour ride into the city (we guarantee your face will be stuck to the glass). Get off at Waverley Bridge, which puts you in a perfect place to explore some of the city’s most well-known historic attractions. If you’re feeling peckish, head around the corner to St. Andrew Square and sit down at Dishoom, a deliciously cozy restaurant that pays homage to the storied Irani cafes of Bombay. Waste no time ordering a Sausage Naan Roll (fair warning: you’ll never want to eat anything else for the rest of your life)––it’ll give you all the sustenance you need to walk around the city’s quaint but oft-steep staircases and alleys for the morning.
9 a.m.: Armed with the energy from breakfast, head out into the city, back in the direction Waverly. Pass towering clock of the Balmoral (more on this iconic hotel below) and cross North Bridge to head up the Royal Mile, one of the city’s most known streets. As you make your way along the Mile, bopping in and out of shops filled with local trinkets, spirits, and lots of Scottish cashmere, you’ll be faced with the formidable and majestic Edinburgh Castle above. It won’t take long to begin to understand where J.K. Rowling got her inspiration for the Wizarding World––maybe wander over to the nearby Elephant House (“the Birthplace of Harry Potter”) where Rowling is said to have written pages of the series. There’s a lot to see on this side of town––aptly named Old Edinburgh––so depending on your own interests, you may want to pick and choose. Begin at the Castle and work your way over to the Real Mary King’s Close.
10:30 a.m.: After spending time with some of the city’s historic attractions, you’ll likely be ready for a well-earned dose of art, culture and––ahem––tea. Walk down to the Mound for a self-guided tour through the Scottish National Gallery, one of the world’s finest collections of art (think Botticelli, Turner, Monet, Van Gogh, Ramsay, and much more). After taking your time with the paintings, if you fancy a spot of tea, walk three minutes to the nearby Cafe on the Mound for a hot and restorative cuppa. The Cafe also happens to be conveniently located right next to the Writers' Museum, which celebrates three legendary Scottish writers: Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
11:30 p.m.: After you’ve had your fill of art, literature, and tea, get ready to stretch your legs. Walk up Princes Street and bee-line it for Calton Hill––it’s impossible to miss the striking Athenian acropolis (an unfinished national monument modeled after the Parthenon) that sits atop the hill. Steep but walkable, the slopes lead to a beautifully perched grassy-knoll park, where you’ll be delighted to find perhaps the most breathtaking vistas of the city, the Firth, Arthur’s Seat, and the jagged cliffs to the north.
12:30 p.m.: All of that walking (and climbing) will certainly leave you ready, maybe even desperate, for a full lunch. Make your way down Calton Hill and head toward the famed Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s official Edinburgh residence, which sits at the bottom of the Royal Mile. Along your way, you’ll come to a true heart-and-soul kind of pub: Holyrood 9A. Sit for a local ale and an honest, 100 percent Scottish beef burger.
1:30 p.m.: When you’ve had your fill (go on, take a second ale, eat some chips), amble down to the Palace. Be sure to check the website beforehand, as it is a working palace, and can close on short notice if the royal family is in town. And be sure to have a good look at all the porcelain tea sets at the gift shop. Speaking of which, it will be just about time for Afternoon Tea––a Scottish practice you shouldn’t miss out on. You can enjoy a full service at The Cafe of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, from just around 20 pounds. Expect finger sandwiches, locally-made pastries, and flaky scones with berry preserve and––of course––Scottish clotted cream. Another lovely afternoon tea service is offered at The Signet Library, back toward the center of the Old Town.
3:30 p.m.: For those interested in local spirits, a visit to Edinburgh Gin Distillery, founded in 2010, is certainly in order. Known for bold flavors, label designs that are simply the epitome of cool, and a steadfast commitment to a creation of world-glass gin, this small-batch distillery hopes to––and succeeds in––capturing the “modern-day gin experience.” The best way to find out what exactly that means? Why, a tour, of course! Just be sure to book ahead, as due to popularity the distillery tends to fill up quickly.
4:30 p.m.: Conveniently, the gin tour places you in the center of the trendy West End, a particularly stunning neighborhood on the New Town’s west side, known for winding Georgian streets, beautiful architecture, boutiques, pubs galore, and a delightfully bohemian vibe. It’s up to you to discover your favorite venues and shops (it’s no difficult task), but if you’re interested in a local pint, head to The Voyage of Buck on William Street for some marinated olives and toasted nuts to go with your brew at a bar that feels equal parts boutique and salt-of-the-earth.
6 p.m.: End your full day with dinner at the Balmoral’s own Brasserie Prince, where you’ll go for local Scottish seafood––absolute perfection, year-round––and stay for the extensive wine list. We recommend a healthy sampling from the impeccable raw bar.
8 p.m.: Finish the night off with a short walk through the glimmering city, over to Bramble Bar for nightcap. Then get a restful sleep––you and your legs have earned it––at one of our favorite hotels, below. The best bit: each one offers a delightful breakfast in bed.
Old world luxury is very much alive––you just need to know where to go to find it. Lucky for those visiting charming Edinburgh, you don’t need to stray far from the city center to locate the unmistakable sense of old glamour that envelops you as soon as you walk through the Balmoral’s gold-trimmed revolving door. Historically an Edinburgh landmark, you’ll arrive at one of the city’s most prestigious addresses, 1 Princes Street, and find not only the famed Brasserie Prince and Michelin-starred restaurant Number One inside the hotel, but some of the world’s warmest hospitality in the form of an extremely attentive staff, in addition to rooms so chic and comfortable you may not ever want to leave for the duration of your stay. The hotel’s whisky bar, aptly named Scotch, boasts over 500 whiskies on location, and the cathedral-ceilinged Palm Court tea room offers an award-winning afternoon tea service.
Speaking of glamour, Prestonfield House offers just that, in the form of opulent, five-star accommodations that wed privacy with luxury in one of the city’s most fetching historic buildings. Picture a beautiful countryside home, a la Pride and Prejudice, but located just a quick five minutes from the hustle and bustle of exciting Edinburgh. Surrounded by 20 acres of lush gardens, just a hop away from Arthur’s Seat, each room at Prestonfield House is the epitome of comfort, character, and luxury. The hotel’s restaurant, Rhubarb, which was recently named a James Thompson destination, sources delicious and local produce for an inspired, gourmet menu.
The Chester Residence
And speaking of privacy, well, that is just one of the many draws of the West End’s Chester Residence, a host of well-appointed suites (full-on apartments, really) nestled into five beautiful Georgian townhouses spanning Rothesay Place and Chester Street. The accommodations consist of a small collection of penthouses and apartments, complete with lavish bedrooms (expect a king-sized bed, of course), expansive living room and kitchen spaces, 13-foot-high ceilings, and a main building housing a luxury cocktail lounge. You’ll likely want to stay in for breakfast, so order up from the extensive continental breakfast, and prepare to cozy in.