You'll probably be hungry by the time you get to your hotel and drop off your luggage, so we recommend going directly to the Royal Mile in the heart of Edinburgh. Here you’ll find numerous restaurants or fast-food places (if you arrive very late) to cater to all tastes.
Once you’ve had a nice dinner, we suggest walking to Edinburgh Castle where you’ll be able to see the city’s most visited attraction lit up and dream about visiting it the following day. Next, why not visit the Grassmarket and continue down Cowgate Street? This area has a lovely atmosphere at night and you can stop for a drink in one of its bars or pubs. When you cross under South Bridge (the Cowgate door) you can return to the Royal Mile by any of the streets on the left.
If you aren’t able to do this tour because you’re a bit tired or don't have enough time, we recommend leaving it for another day.
We'll start the day by visiting the most imposing building in Scotland and also the most visited: Edinburgh Castle. To make the most of your first full day in the capital of Scotland, and be able to complete the itinerary, you should be at the Castle before 10 am, so that you don’t have to wait for too long in the queue.
The full visit to the Castle will take three hours; therefore, just before 1 pm be sure to see The One O’Clock Gun. In the fortress don’t miss St Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh, the Royal Palace, the Honours of Scotland, and the prisons.
After leaving the Castle, walk down the Royal Mile until you get to St Giles’ Cathedral, which although not truly a cathedral, is definitely worth seeing from both the exterior and interior.
So that you can spend more time exploring the city, we recommend getting a quick bite to eat at any pub or fast-food spot on the Royal Mile. By this time it'll probably be nearly 2 pm.
The National Gallery is free and, even if you're not a huge art fan, it's worth exploring, even for a little while.
Leave the Museum and take Princes Street to the right and you’ll come to The Scott Monument, from which you’ll get one of the most stunning views of Edinburgh. If you do not suffer from claustrophobia and do not mind climbing a lot of steps, we definitely recommend going to the top of the tower.
Once you have climbed down, cross the street until you get to Jenners Street, Edinburgh’s most famous department store. Even if you don’t wish to buy anything, you can visit the shopping center and find out why it's known as the “Scottish Harrods”.
Take St David Street to reach St Andrew Square. Harvey Nichols, another popular “high-end” shopping center, is located in this square.
From here you can take George Street, probably the most exclusive street in Edinburgh to see its houses and shops. Rose Street, situated between George Street and Princes Street, is another pretty high street.
You might still have some time not only to window shop but to do some shopping for yourself, your family and your friends. You might also want to relax a little by having some coffee at The Dome, walking around the area until it gets dark, or visiting the Princes Street Gardens.
The evening is the best time to take one of the many ghost tours offered in Edinburgh. All the tours depart from the Royal Mile (between Tron Kirk and St Giles’ Cathedral). Another very worthwhile visit is The Real Mary King’s Close, which has the advantage that it closes a lot later than the rest of the attractions.
The day begins by visiting Calton Hill, Edinburgh’s most famous ridge, which is included in the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The hilltop houses numerous remarkable monuments, some of which are modeled upon the Parthenon in Athens, hence the nickname “Athens of the North”. You'll also have some breathtaking views of Scotland’s capital.
Walk down the same way you climbed up (from Princes Street) and head towards North Bridge. Before crossing, take a look at the buildings on either side. On the right stands Balmoral Hotel, one of the city’s most exclusive hotels. On the left is the Microsoft building. If you take a closer look inside the building, you’ll see that it's extremely modern inside.
Cross North Bridge, known as the “suicide bridge” until you get to the popular Royal Mile. By this time, it'll be approximately noon. Depending on when your flight leaves, you’ll be able to explore more or less of the city.
If you still have time, head down the Royal Mile and you’ll come across various museums and attractions: The Museum of Childhood, the Museum of Edinburgh, the People’s Story Museum, and Canongate Kirkyard (where Adam Smith is buried). If you’re hungry you can stop at any of its pubs or restaurants for a traditional Scottish lunch.
Holyroodhouse Palace found at the end of the Royal Mile closes at 6 pm (from 26 March – 31 October) and at 4:30 pm (1 November – 25 March). If you decide to explore the Queen’s residence in Edinburgh it'll take approximately two hours.
After visiting the Palace, you can take a peek at the façade of the Scottish Parliament, and if you still have time to spare, why not go for a walk in Holyrood Park or go back to the Royal Mile either by foot or by bus (No 35).
If you don't want to go shopping after visiting Edinburgh Castle on your first day, why not go to Gladstone’s Land or The Writers' Museum instead? If you go with children, the best option is to take them to the Camera Obscura.
Berthed at Ocean Terminal is the Royal Yacht Britannia, which served the Queen and the Royal Family for over 44 years. It's now one of the most famous vessels in the world. This could be a good idea for the second day in Edinburgh followed by Holyrood Palace and Calton Hill. Note that it'll probably take three hours to visit the Royal Yacht since the port is a little far away from the city center.
Over two days in Edinburgh?
If you’re staying in Edinburgh for over two days, the best idea is to book one of the city’s popular half or full-day tours, for example to Loch Ness and the Highlands, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, or the west highland castles or the borders.