How to Spend Three Busy Days in Edinburgh, Scotland

edinburgh from calton hill

Our two weeks in Scotland included three days in Edinburgh, where we explored a palace and a castle, got a feel for life in the 17th century (and earlier), drank some whisky, ate some traditional Scottish fare, did a lot of walking, and saw the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

Day One

Sometime after a mediocre lasagna dinner, Emma Watson’s Beauty and the Beast, finishing Scotland: The Story of a Nation, receiving lots of water from the flight attendants, and a not-terrible breakfast, our Delta flight from JFK landed in Edinburgh. Fast-forward through customs, and we were finally on our way into the city via a very friendly taxi driver who was surprised to be transporting two Americans with so little luggage. He dropped us off right in front of the Airbnb we would be calling home for the next two nights, which was very conveniently located in the Grassmarket neighborhood of Old Town and came with a view of THE Edinburgh Castle!

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The age-old dilemma: to sleep or not to sleep? We opted to not sleep, both because we wanted to take advantage of our limited time in Edinburgh and also to fast-track adjusting to the time difference (works like a charm, as long as you can stay awake). So off we went, first in search of second breakfast, which we found at the super-cute Southern Cross Cafe, just off the Royal Mile.

Lesson learned: Ask for your bill when your plates are cleared or you will wait an eternity for a server to come back to your table to check on you.

After finally paying, we meandered down the Mile, stopping in at St. Giles’ Cathedral and its Thistle Chapel. The chapel of the members of the Order of the Thistle, Scotland’s “foremost Order of Chivalry”, it features exquisite and intricate carvings throughout its small space, as well as 16 individual and unique stalls – one for each knight.

Our journey down the Royal Mile culminated at Holyrood Palace (the palace sits at the bottom, eastern-most end of the Royal Mile, while Edinburgh Castle sits at the western top). In full disclosure, I then had a minor exhaustion-fueled meltdown, but as soon as I got moving again I was all set to explore the palace’s State ApartmentsMary, Queen of Scots’ chambers, and the Abbey ruins. The history of and life at the palace were perfectly brought to life through the self-paced audio guide, which I highly recommend.

All that palace exploring made us hungry (and tired), so we set off from Holyrood in search of a quick lunch (and a nap), by way of Greyfriars Bobby. This unique statue commemorates a 19th-century dog who spent 14 years guarding the grave of his owner, until his own death.

greyfriars bobby statue

A few hours later, as the sun was starting to set, we were refreshed and ready to hit the town. I had read really great things about a restaurant called The Scran & Scallie so dinner there became our evening plan. Located in the Stockbridge neighborhood, it was an almost two-mile walk but the weather was cool and dry after an afternoon rain shower and we were excited to explore other parts of Edinburgh on our way. While we waited for our table, we enjoyed another local spot, The Stockbridge Tap, an inviting pub just down the road.

scran & scallie

The Scran & Scallie takes traditional Scottish & more broadly British dishes and breathes new, modern life into them. And boy, do they do it well. We started with haggis, neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes), and flights of local beers, then Alex opted for a steak pie while I went with my childhood favorite, ham, egg, and chips. Stuffed to the brim, we rolled out of the restaurant and were grateful for our long walk home.

Day Two

Oh, to wake up in doesn’t get much better, does it? We had breakfast at a little French-meets-Scottish cafe just across the road, L’Etoile Salon de Tea – where I gobbled down smoked salmon and scrambled eggs while Alex enjoyed his eggs on a bagel. Then it was off on a brisk walk up a few flights of stairs to Edinburgh Castle – I had read that arriving early was the best way to avoid crowds. The ticket line was already getting long by 9:30am, but our Explorer Passes allowed us to go right in to the castle.

We walked around a bit to get our bearings and also took a short, free tour then decided to rent audio guides. However, by this time they were all checked out and the very lovely British man running the audio guide booth apologetically told us there wouldn’t be any available for two to three hours. While we were having this conversation, a few people returned their audio guides and so we asked about renting those, but the audio guide manager adamantly refused to allow us to use audio guides that hadn’t received a full charge…though of course, in the politest way possible. Beholden to the Brits’ adherence to policies and procedures, we purchased a guidebook instead, which was very thorough but not ideal for walking around a crowded castle while also trying to read. So let that be a lesson to you – get your audio guide as soon as you arrive!

edinburgh castle

The castle – a fortress, really, made up of many individual buildings within the castle walls – was filled with history, including Mons Meg, one of the greatest guns in medieval Europe; Scotland’s Stone of Destiny, used for centuries in the coronation of Scottish monarchs; and St. Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh’s oldest building that dates back to the 12th century. We also visited the castle prisons and saw an early rendition of the American flag sketched on a prison door by a Revolutionary War prisoner, marveled at the crown jewels of Scotland (if you can, see them first/early to avoid lines), and perused the Great Hall and Royal Palace.

We ended up spending almost double the amount of time at the castle than we had anticipated, and still had to leave earlier than we might have otherwise in order to grab a quick lunch on-the-go and make it to our reservation at The Real Mary King’s Close. What is this, you say? It’s a historic close off the Royal Mile. What’s a close, you say? It’s essentially a narrow alleyway with tall buildings built along it. While the close was at street-level in its 17th-century heyday, the city of Edinburgh kept building on top of itself, so it’s now underground.

We booked the Real Mary King’s Close tour based on Trip Advisor reviews but were disappointed. While it was neat to get to explore the close and we did learn quite a bit about life and the plague in 17th-century Edinburgh, overall it was very amusement park-esque, with talking portraits on the walls, things designed to jump out and scare you, and a photo session at the end.

By this point we’d been in Scotland for over 24 hours and still hadn’t had any whisky (never with an “e”), so what better way to remedy that than with The Scotch Whisky Experience? Taking a risk that this might also end up to be cheesy and touristy, we booked The Gold Tour, ensuring that whatever happened, we’d at least get a bunch of good whisky. So when it was our turn, we hopped in the little barrel ride and started our journey to learn all about Scotch whisky. The barrel ride covered the basics: What is whisky? What’s it made from? How’s it made? Then we de-barreled (?) and joined a group to dive in-depth into the nuances of whisky. We learned about the main whisky-producing regions of the country (Lowland, Highland, Speyside, Islay, and Cambeltown), each with its own distinguishing characteristics, and the flavors these characteristics impart into their region’s finished product. The tour ended with a dram from the region of our choice (Port Charlotte from Islay for Alex, Auchentoshan from the Lowlands for me) in the Whisky Collection Room, which holds over 3,300 bottles of Scotch whisky, the oldest from 1897. We completed our Gold Tour with four additional drams from differing regions in the bar area, during which I discovered AnCnoc 12, now my favorite everyday whisky. We also had Glenkinchie 12Glenfarclas 10 (another new favorite of mine), and The Big Strand. Our Scotch Whisky Experience ended in the beautiful gift shop, where we purchased Ardbeg 10 to accompany us on the rest of our Scottish adventure.

The Scotch Whisky Experience was a really excellent way to spend a couple of hours and we highly recommend it. As a novice whisky drinker before this trip to Scotland, I loved how it provided some baseline whisky knowledge that I used during the rest of our trip and visits to distilleries in different regions. I also discovered some favorite whiskys during the tasting. As a more experienced whisky drinker, Alex enjoyed it too – he particularly loved seeing the extensive whisky collection. 

Bet you think after all these activities, it was time for dinner and bed? Nope! It was only mid-afternoon at this point, so we walked back to our Airbnb to freshen up, stopping at Lovecrumbs bakery for an afternoon snack. I discovered Lovecrumbs on Instagram before our trip and was thrilled to discover it was just up the road from where we were staying. The adorableness is impossible to deny.

We walked back through Old Town, stopping at Greyfriars Kirk and Kirkyard on the way to Holyrood Park and Arthur’s Seat, an ancient volcano with excellent views of Edinburgh from the top. We spent a couple of hours meandering around the trails, eventually reaching the 823′ peak.

edinburgh from arthur's seat

Everything we had read about Arthur’s Seat suggested it was a very straightforward, easy walk, perfect for anyone and everyone. We disagree with this. We’re both young and fit, and do a lot of walking and hiking at home, and found this walk to be a decent workout, particularly toward the top. I would caution against taking very young, very old, or very out-of-shape people on this particular adventure. 

NOW it was time for dinner! Fish and chips were on the agenda for the evening so we set off for L’Alba D’Oro, a chippie often rated #1 in the U.K. It ended up being a bit further of a walk than we had anticipated, and between our ravenous tummies and the persistent light rain all the way there, it was a less than fun few miles, but our spirits were lifted as soon as we got our boxes filled with fried and battered fish and salty chips. The walk back to our Airbnb was much more pleasant (though it was still raining), and we ended the day with a dram each of Ardbeg.

Day Three

We had a bit of an excursion planned for the morning, so we checked out of our Airbnb and trekked the mile to Edinburgh train station to pick up our rental car, stopping halfway at Edinburgh Larder for a full Scottish breakfast. Without any opportunity to practice, Alex was thrown cold turkey into driving on the wrong side of the road in a manual car, using his left hand to shift. And he did it admirably.

Our destination was Rosslyn Chapel, a 15th-century chapel nestled in the beautiful little village of Roslin, about a half hour’s drive from Edinburgh. The chapel has more recently been connected with the Holy Grail; you may remember reading about or seeing it in The DaVinci Code.

Despite not finding the Holy Grail, we admired the intricate stonework that covers almost all of the chapel, marveled at the stained glass windows, ventured into the crypt, and wandered around the grounds before returning to Edinburgh mid-day.

At this point, we actually continued on to Stirling and beyond, returning to Edinburgh about a week later. I’m rewriting history a bit for clarity’s sake. 

We returned our rental car and checked in to our hotel for the night, hub by Premiere Inn Edinburgh Royal Mile. Though the room was verrry small, it was so well-designed that we could have easily stayed longer than just the one night. It was modern and efficient with smart storage and individual control panels for operating the lights, temperature, and entertainment. It’s a chain we’ll seek out in our future travels.

We spent our last afternoon in Edinburgh at Calton Hill, home to some of Edinburgh’s most iconic landmarks with sweeping views of the city and beyond. It was a warm summer day so there were lots of people there, both locals and tourists, picnicking, sunbathing, and just enjoying the sun. It was cool to see Arthur’s Seat and Holyrood Palace from a different vantage point.

We had a great dinner at Viva Mexico, a Mexican restaurant off the Royal Mile. As Texans, we kept our expectations rather low but were pleasantly surprised at how good, and authentic, the food was!

Then it was time for the final event, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, held on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle. We settled into our seats, the sun began to set, and the show began.

Held every August at the same time as the Edinburgh Festival, the Tattoo is a unique display of music, dance and military pageantry featuring performances from military regiments around the world, in addition to those from Scotland. Scotland’s history is interwoven throughout the show. 

The show included many, many bagpipers, Highland dancers, a Viking ship burning, and a reenactment of the Jacobite Rising. It culminated with a lone piper, high on the castle ramparts, playing a haunting lament followed by fireworks and a mass chorus of Auld Lang Syne. It was an incredible and memorable experience, and the perfect way to end our time in Edinburgh.

Next: A Wee Time in Stirling

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