Scotland is one of the most magical places on earth, and Edinburgh tops the list of cities I’ve seen with serious ‘wow’ factor.
From the first moment, you know you’ve arrived someplace special. Every step plunges you further into a mystical haven teeming with rugged mountains, lush hillsides, majestic castles, and historic streets. In essence, you feel as if you’ve fallen straight into a medieval fairytale.
Got 3 days to spare in this buzzing Scottish capital? Buckle up; the next 72 hours are going to be legendary.
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Let your Edinburgh adventure begin with a 2.5-hour guided walking tour, which will have you roaming the ancient streets as you acquaint yourself with Edinburgh’s most famous sights.
There are soaring castle turrets, domed observatories (see: Calton Hill), wild green volcanoes, charming traditional pubs, ancient graveyards, and so much more.
Right from the start, you’ll get a grasp for Edinburgh’s charming Scottish nature. The locals are lovely, and the streets themselves are gracious even in their rolling states. The Royal Mile, Edinburgh’s main thoroughfare, is a winding cobblestone spectacle filled with the ancient spires of St. Giles Cathedral, the quaint affections of centuries-old pubs, the colorful flare of whisky stands and cashmere shops, and the dazzling sounds of bagpipes issuing from men in kilts – all sloping upwards to the grandeur spilling from the mouth of Edinburgh Castle.
Edinburgh Castle is simply spectacular. All feelings of surreality at being inside a real-life castle aside, the place is a trove of history and culture, with splashes of elegance and majesty thrown in. And, um, can we talk about those views? As you ascend the castle ramparts, breathtaking panoramas of the entire city curl out around you in waves of ancient allure – it’s unbelievable.
One could spend hours at the castle, wandering the sloping cobblestone alleys, climbing the towers, examining every inch of the centuries-old cannons, and taking in the numerous exhibits amidst the ramparts and battlements.
There’s a Prisons of War exhibit, numerous chapels, the Scottish National War Memorial, and the Royal Apartments. Be sure to venture inside the Great Hall, where medieval demonstrations are given by knights in chain-mail as the suits of armor and high-arching scarlet walls dazzle your imagination.
Next to the Great Hall you’ll find the Scottish Crown Jewels, a living, breathing history lesson. Get transported through Scotland’s turbulent past as you learn about the inception of the Scottish Royal Line, the meanings behind the Crown Jewels, and so much more – all leading up to the display of the breathtaking crown, sword and scepter. (In complete honesty, I found the exhibit more enjoyable than that of the English Crown Jewels.)
Round out the afternoon with a visit to the castle’s Tea Rooms, or perhaps sample one of Scotland’s greatest exports at the Whisky and Finest Food Shop.
Upon departing the castle’s magical ramparts, finish up your first day in the city by sampling the pub scene. Chow down on famous Scottish cuisine (haggis, anyone?) and unwind with a pint (or four) – you’ve earned it!
Kick off your second day in the city with a hike up Arthur’s Seat, the highest point in Edinburgh. Next to the castle, it’s undoubtedly one of the coolest things to do.
As you start the trek through Holyrood Park up to the summit, you’ll feel like you’ve escaped into a lush emerald glen, surrounded by imperial peaks with nothing but a winding pebbled path in front of you.
The higher up the extinct volcano you get, the more spectacular the scenery becomes. It’s simply breathtaking seeing Edinburgh stretched out before you, melting into an azure sea and blanketed by a fleet of bleached cotton-candy clouds. Gaze upon the 360-degrees vistas, taking in the jagged emerald hills in one direction, the endless sea in another, and the charming castle-filled streets filling up the rest – and prepare to battle some epic winds while you do so.
Once you’ve conquered Arthur’s Seat, break for lunch before opting to explore Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Scotland. Spend a few hours wandering through the palace, and take a peek at the royal grounds and gardens.
After departing the palace, venture over to The Elephant Cafe, a charming coffee shop where JK Rowling allegedly first wrote Harry Potter. Order an afternoon pick-me-up and snag a table in the back room, taking in the view of Edinburgh Castle. Fans of the book series will find themselves particularly moved by the bathrooms, where hundreds of colorful quotes, drawings, and messages adorn the walls to express the impact one magical mind has made over the years.
Head down the road to Greyfriars Kirkyard, a graveyard dating back to the 16th century. It’s a strangely alluring place, home to some of Edinburgh’s most notable departed residents. (It’s also worth noting that the graveyard stands beside a stately private school that’s rumored to be the inspiration for Hogwarts.)
Look for a stone commemorating Greyfriars Bobby, a dog adored by the Scottish for his fierce loyalty. He was best friends with his owner until the owner’s death, upon which Bobby stayed by his grave for 15 years. Venture outside the graveyard and you’ll find a pub named after Bobby, as well as a statue of him. Rub his nose for good luck!
Grab dinner and finish off the night with a haunted tour of Edinburgh. I recommend the Terror Tour (why not go full out, right?!) from Auld Reekie, where you’ll spend an hour and a half wandering the city’s mythic streets. Learn how the term “hanging out” originated, and discover where the first edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica was published. Oh…and go inside a museum detailing the torture weapons used in medieval Scotland, before venturing down into the vaults of Edinburgh.
Located inside a series of ancient bridges built beneath the city to house medieval Edinburgh’s impoverished residents, the vaults are a series of stone rooms haunted by poltergeists and other spirits (they’re also home to Wiccan temples). A majority of the tour will have you exploring their eerie depths, listening to chilling tales and testing your courage in moments of constricted spaces and pitch darkness. Though not for the faint of heart, this is a must-do experience in Edinburgh!
Feeling like it’s been a whirlwind? Spend your final morning wandering around the tranquil Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, enjoying over 70 acres of beauty. The best part? Entrance is free!
Alternately, return to the Royal Mile for further exploring, dipping into the shops and reveling in the infectious energy of the city’s main thoroughfare. Spend a few hours in the Camera Obscura and World of Illusions museum if you feel like it, or simply curl up with a cup of tea and watch the world go by.
In the afternoon, make your way up to the base of the castle, where you’ll find The Scotch Whisky Experience. This incredible exhibition will take you on an interactive adventure, where you’ll learn how whisky is distilled, what its significance to Scotland is, and how it differs from the other whisky (the one with an e!). Discover the differences between single malt and blended whisky, how the flavors differ based on what part of Scotland it’s made in, and what the proper way to taste the liquor is. You’ll even get to go inside the largest collection of whisky in the world – over 40 years in the making!
Load up on liquor to take home with you, before hitting the pavement to enjoy your remaining hours in the city. Don’t forget to try one last Scottish delicacy before you go: deep-fried Mars bars. Don’t question it, just do it.
Exploring Edinburgh feels like stepping back in time; whilst there, you get the sense that nothing has changed since the Middle Ages (besides the whole public execution thing – but we’ve all done things in our past we’re not proud of.)
Three days is all it will take to fall madly in love with this place – in fact, you may find yourself enamored well before then. Everything about Edinburgh – from its friendly ambience, to its majestic natural wonders, to its historic streets bedecked by castles and cathedrals – will be enough to make you want to cancel your return ticket and never emerge from this medieval wonderland ever again.
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