Next time you’re heading to Europe, make sure to add Scotland to your list. I promise that once you’ve been, you’ll be eager to go back again and again. 2 days in Edinburgh is enough time to enjoy most of the highlights in Scotland’s capital. To make it easy for you, I’ve rounded up our favourites from castles to ghost tours from Old Town to New Town.
2 Days in Edinburgh
In all of my travels, I have never come across a city with a such a dark and interesting past. Edinburgh is rich in history, legend and folklore. It is geographically divided into two areas by the Edinburgh River. On one side is Old Town, with roots dating from 1130 and on the other is New Town, which began construction in 1767. The city has all the culture and charm of a capital European city but it’s not overcrowded like most others. If you’ve got a good pair of walking legs, you can cover it completely by foot in the matter of a couple of days. Everywhere you turn reveals even more of that old world charm and character.
Get your bearings and take a view of the most notable places in Old Town and New Town with a hop-on hop-off bus tour. There are three different tours to choose from but if you’re looking for one that covers the best on both sides of the river, go for the Edinburgh Tour (the green and yellow bus). It’s live guided and includes lots of great local history and folklore. Tickets are £15 and you can get on and off as much as you’d like in a 24-hour period. These can be purchased right on the bus or at their office next to Waverley Train Station.
Lunch and Shopping in New Town
Hop-off your bus and stroll around New Town. Get lunch at a pub somewhere on Rose Street, it’s hard to miss as the entire street is lined from the rooftops with pink coloured pennants. If you love shopping like me, be sure to stop in Jenners, Primark, and Marks and Spencers. Grab a coffee and settle in on the grounds next to The Scott Monument, a Victorian Gothic monument dedicated to author Sir Walter Scott. It will award you with the bustling views of Princes street and a gaze across the river at the skyline of Old Town.
The Royal Mile
Take North Bridge to head back over to Old Town to explore the The Royal Mile. It is a pedestrian friendly cobblestone street that stretches from the Palace of Holyrood uphill to the Edinburgh Castle. The Mile itself will only take you about 20 minutes to walk but you’ll find yourself taking hours as you explore everything it has to offer. Finding a hotel that is central to this location will put you right in the mix and give you a great access point for exploring. Duck down side alleys called a “close” and you will discover even more hidden gems. You’ll find many places to eat, grab a beer or do some souvenir shopping.
St. Giles’ Cathedral
At the heart of the Royal Mile, you’ll find St. Giles’ Cathedral. The church is over 900 years old and it is still a major religious focal point in Edinburgh. The stained glass windows and stunning architecture is worth going inside to have a look.
It comes from an endearing tale about the love and loyalty of a dog named Bobby after his owner, John Gray, passed away. Bobby laid by his grave side for 14 years in Greyfriars Kirkyard cemetery. You’ll be sure to hear about this story on one of your tours. Tourists tend to stop and rub the nose of the dog’s statue that stands outside of Greyfriars Bobby pub or visit his gravestone located just inside the cemetery gates.
Located at the bottom of the Royal Mile lies the Palace of Holyrood House, it is the official residence of the Queen. We were pleasantly surprised by how much we enjoyed this tour. Make sure to grab the free audio tour when you pass through the gates! It offers a rare glimpse into the real lodgings of the Royals. If you’re interested in the history of Mary, Queen of Scots and the scandals that haunted her life, make sure to check out her bedroom where her lover David Rizzio was murdered.
The Abbey alone is worth the price of admission (£14.00) and it’s breathtaking ruins that date back hundreds of years. Remember to check the website before you visit to ensure that the palace is open. It does close for weeks at a time when the Queen is staying in residence. The Palace Gardens are also the perfect place to take a stroll in the warmer months.
If you aren’t looking for a ghost tour but would like to see what life was really like in Edinburgh, then you’ll enjoy the Real Mary King’s Close tour. It’s top-rated and offers lots of tour options (£15.50) throughout the day. Since the tour takes place in a real “close” from the 1600s, you’ll learn all about the history of how Edinburgh was built and the dark periods that came along with years of overcrowding. It’s a very strange and interesting experience to see what lies beneath the street level of the Royal Mile.
Although some people may tell you that the crowds of people should deter you from a visit to Edinburgh Castle, don’t listen to them! If you’ve come all this way, it seems silly to not visit this location at the top of the Royal Mile! Go early in the morning or a couple hours before closing to avoid the masses of people. The views of Edinburgh, the canons, The Stone of Destiny and The Crown Jewels are just a few of the highlights that make the £18.50 price of admission worth it. This will be the one attraction that you will likely spend the most time exploring as there is so much to see. Give yourself at least 2 hours and even more time if you pay for the thoroughly detailed audio guide.
If you end up doing everything on my list, you’ll probably end up feeling a bit like a professional Scottish historian. Some stories will be repeated but there are always different variations.
The site where the gallows once stood and crowds would gather to watch executions is now a beautiful cobblestone block bustling with pub and restaurants. Enjoy lunch or a beer at Maggie Dickson’s or The Last Drop. It seems like everywhere you go in Edinburgh there is a story to be heard and the Grass Market holds quite a few of those tales!
Something you may not know about Edinburgh: it is the birthplace of Harry Potter. At the top of the Grass Market, you’ll find Victoria Street. It was the inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s Diagon Alley. I had to go just to capture the rainbow coloured store fronts for an Instagram photo. Not far from the top of the street, take a peek in The Elephant House . A cute little cafe where it is said that Rowling actually penned Harry Potter. It’s a great spot to stop for tea and a sweet snack!
The very first thing that I wanted to book before our arrival in Edinburgh was a ghost tour. This city’s dark history warrants some of the spookiest places in the world. The “Vaults” or tunnels underneath South Street Bridge is where you want to be to get the best fright. If you want that limited access then you need to book with Mercat Tours. We opted for the 1 hour, 45 minute tour called “Doomed, Dead and Buried” (£16.00) because it included the vaults and the cemetery.
Mark, our guide, took us into the nooks off the Royal Mile to tell some of the rich historical stories of the town. He then took us to the Mercat office location where a windy staircase will take you down into the pitch black tunnels. The ambiance is more than spooky as the rooms are dimly lit by candles. I was familiar with a few of the resident ghosts as I’d watched an episode about Edinburgh on a show called Ghost Adventures a few years ago. After heading back up to street level, you’ll then head to Canongate Graveyard for a few more tales. You’ll be fascinated! They also have a number of other tours, including a History Walk and an Outlander Tour so if being scared isn’t your thing, see what else they have to offer!
Got More time?
This should keep you plenty busy for two days! A couple of things that were highly recommended to us were the National Museum of Scotland and a distillery tour. Book early if your considering a gin or whisky tour as they will up fast! We weren’t able to secure a spot during our stay but it’s on our list for next time!