On our family road trip around Scotland, we only had enough time to spend a day in Edinburgh, Scotland. While I would have loved to spend more time in Scotland’s capital city, our afternoon and evening were well spent exploring this magical city.
The second largest financial center and second most popular tourist attraction in the UK (both behind London), Edinburgh has served as Scotland’s capital since at least the 15th century. Probably most well-known today for being the birthplace of Harry Potter and home to gorgeous architecture, Edinburgh has witnessed millennia of history. The first trace of human settlement dates from around 8500 BC. Today, visitors can wander around the winding streets lined with beautiful sandstone buildings and feel like they’ve stepped back in time.
If you only have one day in Edinburgh and have never visited before, you’ll find the main sights in Edinburgh to add to your itinerary. My family and I explored all of the below in one afternoon and evening, even stopping for a couple of pints along the way!
While our time in Edinburgh was limited, we saw the main sights, which made me even more excited to return to Edinburgh ASAP and explore some of its many hidden gems.
Main sights in Edinburgh, Scotland
The Royal Mile
Running through the heart of Edinburgh’s old town, the Royal Mile connects two of Edinburgh’s main attractions: Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace. Surrounded on both sides by wonky, centuries-old stone buildings, the Royal Mile is too picturesque to miss!
Sitting atop a hill/rock that dominates the city is Edinburgh Castle. The site itself has been used as a fortress since the Iron Age, switching hands numerous times throughout the centuries as political allegiances turned and different reigns ended. Home to royalty like Queen Margaret and Mary Queen of Scots, Edinburgh Castle is a must-see spot in Scotland. While the hike up to the actual castle is tiring if you’re out of shape (*hides face in shame*), you’ll see some beautiful views of the city and surrounding countryside below.
The Elephant House: Birthplace of Harry Potter
If you love Harry Potter, then The Elephant House is a must-visit spot on any Edinburgh itinerary. Known as the birthplace of Harry Potter, The Elephant House is where JK Rowling spent her early days writing the world famous book series. While I couldn’t convince my family to step inside, I was so happy to see the birthplace of such an important part of my life.
Another Edinburgh spot with a Harry Potter connection, Greyfriars Kirkyard is the site of notable burials of Edinburgh residents. A burial site since the late 16th century, Greyfriars Kirkyard is hauntingly beautiful. JK Rowling has even stated that Tom Riddle’s name perhaps subconsciously originated from Thomas Riddel, a man buried in the kirkyard.
St. Giles Cathedral
Also known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh, St. Giles Cathedral has been part of Edinburgh’s history since the early 12th century. It was the focal point of the Scottish Reformation in the 16th century and today serves as the Mother Church of World Presbyterianism.
Inside the cathedral, you’ll find beautiful stained glass, large vaulted aisles and a quiet respite from the busy Royal Mile. My favorite part of the cathedral is the Thistle Chapel, home to some of the most beautiful vaulting I’ve ever laid eyes on (even rivaling that of King’s College in Cambridge). Built in the early 20th century, Thistle Chapel is the chapel of Scotland’s highest Order of Chivalry, The Most Ancient and Noble Order of the Thistle.
Entrance into the cathedral is free. However, you will have to purchase a photography permit for a small fee if you wish to take pictures.
If you make it to Edinburgh, you’ll probably find yourself on Princes Street at one point or another. Home to Edinburgh’s main shopping street, Princes Street divides the old town from the new town. While one side of the street is lined with the stores of well-known brands, the other side is open, offering views of Edinburgh Castle atop its hill and the historic buildings that make up Edinburgh’s skyline.
One of Edinburgh’s prettiest streets, Victoria Street is host to an array of colorful buildings said to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley in Harry Potter. Designed to make navigating the city easier, Victoria Street was built between 1829-1834 and is easily one of the most photographed streets in the city.
If you’re looking for your choice of restaurants and a lively atmosphere, head to Grassmarket. Located in the center of the city behind Edinburgh Castle, Grassmarket is an open plaza surrounded by delicious restaurants, fun (sometimes rowdy) bars, and cute shops. On a sunny day, be sure to snag a seat at one of the many restaurants offering outdoor seating. Be warned though: even if it’s sunny out when you sit down, you can easily find yourself in a downpour less than an hour later. Also, be sure to ask when the kitchen closes—we arrived at a restaurant at 5 pm only to discover (much to our waiter’s surprise) that the kitchen had closed moments earlier.
If you have time: Arthur’s Seat and Holyrood Park
While we arrived in Edinburgh in the afternoon and had limited time to explore the city, I wish we could have hiked Arthur’s Seat. Standing 251 meters above Edinburgh and just one mile east of Edinburgh Castle, Arthur’s Seat is the highest of a group of hills formed from an ancient volcano.
Getting to Edinburgh
Edinburgh is well-connected, with options for arriving via train or air.
Edinburgh Airport lies just west of the city and offers UK and international flights to and from the city. It takes about 25 minutes to get to and from the airport by bus, car, or taxi. There is a regular airport bus that departs from Waverly Bridge every 10 minutes.
Edinburgh has two main rail stations, Waverly and Haymarket. By train, you can take the London North Eastern Railway service to reach London, Newcastle, York, Leeds, and Aberdeen, arriving in London in about five hours. Virgin Rail also operates a west coast train route stopping at Lockerbie, Preston, Birmingham, and Coventry. We arrived in Edinburgh to Waverly Station on the Virgin train service.
If you plan to rent a car in Edinburgh to explore more of Scotland after your visit to Edinburgh, there are many car rental options. You can pick up a car from the airport or train station. Before you pick up your car, please check with your accommodation to confirm that they offer space for parking.
Getting around Edinburgh
If you’re only in Edinburgh for a day and just aiming to see the main sights, Edinburgh is very walkable. Keep in mind that it is quite a hike uphill to Edinburgh Castle (but you probably aren’t as out of shape as I am!).