This year we had the opportunity to visit the UK for the first time! For my husband’s birthday I booked us on a 5-day Scottish Highlands excursion by train. With a starting point of Edinburgh, I knew we had to explore the city before we headed north. So we flew in ahead of the train departure and spent 3 days in Edinburgh.
If you are planning your first trip or you already love this city, here are some great things to do, restaurants to savor, and one hotel you should absolutely splurge on.
When I start to plan any kind of trip it looks anything other than organized.
I’m looking up one thing after another on my phone and my laptop.
I’m furiously scribbling notes on a legal pad that I will struggle to decipher the next day.
When I started planning for London, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the vastness of the city–so I printed off three or four different maps at various zoom levels and had them all spread around me while I plotted a smooth course for us.
I’m afraid that to the outside observer–aka my husband–this planning process does NOT inspire confidence. And yet. We’ve had some pretty kick-ass vacations!
We sleep in, we see the sights, we have some relax time, we eat at really memorable places. I think that after this year’s incredible United Kingdom trip, he won’t be judging my planning process quite so incredulously.
7 Things to do that will give you an appreciation of Edinburgh:
Take a walking tour of the city
- With 3 days in Edinburgh, the first activity should be getting oriented!
- A guided tour serves as a crash-course of the history and jump-starts your navigational prowess if, like us, this is your first time to Edinburgh. We LOVED our 3 hour Royal Mile Walking Tour with Stuart Usher.
- This tour is already incredible. You’re walking around with a descendant of the Usher family, who donated the funds to build the Beaux-Arts Usher Hall. This is where you meet for the tour!
- If you want to earn some points with Stuart, get a little research in advance of some of the highlighted tour points! He gets the group engaged and talking partly by firing off questions to spark some active thinking. I tend to start out “shy” in group settings (My husband says this is really me “assessing the competition”) and there’s nothing to get me talking like knowing answers. (Even if I start out saying them quietly, in case I’m wrong.)
Edinburgh Castle tour for the history and the city views
- The castle dominates the landscape of Edinburgh, just as it dominates the history of the city. So in my mind, it’s a Must-Do. At least once. If you’re planning 3 days in Edinburgh, carve out 2-3 hours for the castle.
- We got the audio guides, but there is enough to read as you walk around. We only consulted the audio when there was something specific we wanted to learn about. I would say get one audio guide just in case you get curious.
- It’s a long steep road to the castle, so if you’re already doing tons of walking do not feel guilty about being a little lazy and having a taxi take you as far as they are able! Trust me- it’s still a steep hike from there.
- On the subject of taxis, one thing we noticed was that while Uber could drop us off at our hotel, they weren’t allowed to pick up in front of the hotel. So we ended up taking a taxi when leaving the hotel, and then dialing in the Uber to pick us up from wherever to go back to the hotel. Pricing was pretty much the same between these options.
The Real Mary King’s Close Tour might just be the best mash-up of historical accuracy and entertaining (if morbid) frolic.
- Go around the corner of the building where they sell the tickets. This tripped us up right out of the gate, so just FYI. Once you figure out where you’re supposed to be, get ready to step back in time with your tour guide, who is dressed and will be acting like an actual historical Edinburgh citizen of the time period!
- I think the tour guide concept is such a great touch. Yes, teenagers will roll their eyes and say its hokey (or whatever the latest version of that is). But they along with everyone else will stay engaged and riveted to all the facts relayed as stories.
- If you ever wanted to feel more appreciative of living in modern times, this is also a great experience. The living conditions of 1600s Edinburgh–even for the wealthy–would leave any modern-age person screaming and crying for the time machine door to open back up.
- Here’s a crazy fact: none of the wooden outside spiral staircases up the sides of buildings that served as entrance/exit to the homes in the Old Town had railings. Meaning the wealthy people who lived in the sunny and slightly more sanitary rooms at the top had the farthest to fall if they tripped. For us women, that means squeezing up, down, and around in corseted multi-layered dresses. You could die by missing a step on your way out the house as easily as the plague?! Yeah. No. Hard pass on living in 1600s Edinburgh.
Stroll through the Greyfriars Kirkyard
- Founded in 1620, Greyfriars is old and atmospheric. It’s eerily peaceful, which is how I find a lot of graveyards. (Fun Fact: I lived across from a graveyard and had to go through it to get to the playground during my childhood years in Palmyra, New York.) Reading the inscriptions on tombstones and mausoleums here is fascinating.
- Harry Potter fans could and probably have organized “inspired by” scavenger hunts all around Edinburgh. I think Greyfriars is just as good a starting point as any! If my sister had come with me I’d probably be regaling you with a “3 Days in Edinburgh – Harry Potter Edition”
- The tale of Bobby, the little Skye Terrier, might be one of my favorite stories ever. I just had to see his little doggy statue. “Let his loyalty and devotion be a lesson to us all” Sniff. I’m not crying.
- The Greyfriars link will take you right to the page with this inspiring story! Then you’ll be not crying too.
Afternoon Tea at The Balmoral’s Palm Court
- Everything about this experience will make your senses sing. The actual room is brimming with opulence! The glass dome ceiling with its blown-glass Venetian chandelier. The hand-painted de Gournay wallpaper (yes I Googled and priced out for our dining room and. . .ouch. Maybe not). The live palm trees (I forgot to ask how old they are, darnit).
- Velvet cushions and fine linens.
- The sweet notes of a harp being played above you.
- That’s just the ambiance!
- The service is stellar and the way the tea is poured at table is impossibly elegant. I bet they have to practice this. I know I would! I mean. . .how the heck does the tea not splash when it’s being poured high up from the cup? I bet that’s a physics thing.
- Every bite of food is as delicious as it is cute and small. And do not be fooled by the wee little bites. There are a LOT of bites. Arrive hungry because you will feel stuffed by the time they whisk away the three-tier stand and bring out the wee desserts.
And you will want to take at least a bite of all three!
- Plan to pace yourself! We actually slept in, skipped breakfast, and made afternoon tea our “brunch” for the day.
- Of course we went for the option that includes champagne.
Did you even have to wonder about this?
Champagne. Always the right answer.
If you have 3 days in Edinburgh, you will want to plan at least one excursion out of the city center. Uber to picturesque Stockbridge for some low-key exploring.
- Head 10 minutes away from Old Town & New Town Edinburgh to Stockbridge. It’s a little calmer, there are fewer tourists, and it’s just so lovely.
- Wander around Dene Gardens, following the tranquil gurgle of the Water of Leith. Seek out St. Bernard’s Well.
- For our 3 days in Edinburgh, we spent the afternoon of Day 2 exploring Stockbridge. After a morning spent at Edinburgh Castle. It was a perfect way to walk off our delicious lunch at The Pantry and mull over the morning!
Take in the panoramic views of this incredible city on Calton Hill
- This is where the “panorama” concept was born! Seriously. In 1787.
Irish painter Robert Barker rigged some kind of easel situation on Calton Hill and, with help from his 12-year-old son, sketched a 360 degree view of Edinburgh.
- I bet this was even harder than taking a panoramic photo on the iPhone. And that shit’s not easy! I mean keeping the same level while slowlyyyy (but not too slowly) panning around? Sheesh.
- There are a handful of cool monuments, each with their own fascinating stories! Hit the Calton Hill link and you can learn them all!
- It sounds super cliche because it is: plan to be up there while the sun is setting. Those “golden hour” views are truly magical! And you know what else was magical? All the people from all over the world and every kind of culture up there, talking quietly, smiling at everyone else, lending their services to take photos of strangers. . .it was one of the more peaceful moments surrounded by people I think I’ve ever had.
We hit John Lewis in the St James Quarter shopping center for some bubbly (wish I had thought about this the day prior so we could have chilled it in our room but oh well) and toasted the sunset.
It was the perfect ending of our 3 days in Edinburgh.
3 days in Edinburgh means lots of opportunities for good eats!
Here are 5 tasty dining options and 1 dinner reservation I won’t miss next time:
The Ivy on the Square
- The staff is affable and ambiance is Instagrammable.
- Fish & Chips for the WIN. And if you’re like me and alcohol directly after that transcontinental flight doesn’t appeal, they have some really nice zero-proof options. You can even Zen out with some CBD infused concoctions.
Royal Mile Tavern
- You’ve got to hit at least one pub!
- Scotch eggs yum and whisky obviously.
- As someone who doesn’t drink whisky on the regular, I am pleased to say I actually like the Monkey Shoulder. I bucked the Scottish “neat” method however and requested a glass with ice in it so I could chill my whisky off and water it down on my own.
- Local buzzy vibe feels so warm and welcoming.
- Fantastic food delivered quickly and by a smiling face.
- Nutella anything has my attention. Even a latte–and I don’t usually do any kind of milk in my coffee. I save those calories for dessert but hey, presto! Here’s Nutella!
- We had planned to do dinner at Cask Smugglers’ adorable outside domes. . .but they don’t serve diner out there! And we were starving! So we headed back to our hotel and into Prince Brasserie. What a happy accident! The fish pie was out of this world delicious and yes I ate most of that pillowy potato and seafood amazingness. Hey. 3 days in Edinburgh means lots of walking (this is a VERY walkable city). So I ate every single thing I wanted. NomNomNom.
- The ambiance swanky but approachable. I could hear families with small children in the main dining area.
- Sit at the bar to observe the room. The bartenders are professional but they’re also locals! If you want to know where locals go, this is a great opportunity to get some recommendations!
- Located on the steep cobblestone road just down from Edinburgh castle, The Witchery is a delightfully gothic boutique hotel and they serve up some wicked good food. (Que up the canned laughter! C’mon–that was good.)
- This was the first dinner of our 3 days in Edinburgh, and it set the bar really high for the rest of our trip! Walking in and down the carved wooden staircase into the cottegecore Secret Garden, being completely catered to by a knowledgeable and professionally courteous service team. . .and then this food comes out and WOW.
- Smoked Loch Duart salmon with Buckie crab & creme fraiche, served with burnt lemon and warm brown bread.
- Roast breast of Kypemuir duck with heritage carrot, Lyonnaise potatoes, confit leg and local cherries.
- Scottish strawberry and ruby chocolate opera gateau with vanilla Chantilly cream.
- Are you jealous? I’m jealous of my past self as I type this. DAMNNNNNN that was a good meal.
- We got to chatting with Irfan, who was kind enough to take us, tottering from wine and delirious from all the food, up a winding stone staircase to the one room not occupied. The Old Rectory. Which is, indeed “RICH RED AND FLAMBOYANTLY GOTHIC” as described on the website.
This kind of feels like The House on Haunted Hill and I was half expecting Vincent Price to walk in and tell me there’s $10K in it for me if I spend the entire night here. To be clear–I would totally spend a night in any of the 9 unique suites at The Witchery . . .Invite us over any time!
On our radar and the first restaurant we book for dinner next time we have 3 days in Edinburgh: The Spence in historic Gleneagles Townhouse.
It had a great write-up in the Wall Street Journal a couple weeks before we left, but I wasn’t feeling up to scratch the evening we had reservations so we cancelled in favor of room service.
3 days in Edinburgh means 2 nights! If you can swing it, you need to stay at The Balmoral
3 days in Edinburgh maybe means you’re only spending 2 nights–so you should stay at the the heart of the action! Located in New Town next to the Sir Walter Scott monument and an easy walk from Old Town, The North British Station Hotel opened in 1902. It was stirring up drama before it was even built, and has a very storied past–glittering and gritty. If you want to take a deep dive, I highly recommend this article. If you’re in more of a Cliff’s Notes mood, check out the timeline here.
Today The Balmoral hotel still runs like a top and they still treat all their guests like the Edwardian-era elite the hotel was originally built to serve.
Olga Polizzi, sister of Sir Rocco Forte and Director of Building and Design at Rocco Forte Hotels, oversaw the fairly recent multi-million dollar renovation of the hotel, and it’s everything. Color scheme inspired by the Scottish landscape and pieces from Scottish businesses make them feel like you’re staying with your old-money Scottish relatives: it’s all good quality but not screaming “I’m expensive”. Except maybe the all-marble bathroom with it’s giant tub, chrome fittings, and–oh luxury–wall-mounted towel warmer.
Also I stalked the tartan details and discovered the Balmoral had it made special so my dreams of owning my own version of the staff’s lovely green kilt are pretty much dashed.
I could have happily holed up in that cozy, sumptuous retreat of a room for a few more days.
We both loved Edinburgh so much, I can definitely see us returning!
But our three days falling in love with Edinburgh was only the beginning of our United Kingdom adventure! The morning of September 2nd dawned with a sun drifting in and out of lowering gray clouds as we packed our bags and headed around the corner to Waverly Station and another icon of Scotland: The Royal Scotsman, a Belmond Train.