How to Spend 3 Days in Edinburgh

Dec 15, 2015
Having been to both England and Ireland many times, Scotland was next up on my travel list. When my family planned a trip to Ireland this summer, it presented the perfect opportunity to hop over to Edinburgh for three days to finish out the adventure.

Getting There

My sister Lauren and I booked a $50 roundtrip flight on Ryanair from Dublin to Edinburgh. A few weeks before, we saw the rate was $30. So the key is to book early for the cheapest rates. Ryanair is known for charging hefty fees for checked bags and charging even for water while in-flight, so I was a bit worried about getting to the airport and being charged anywhere from $50-$100 for my bag. Luckily, both my carry-on suitcase and a personal bag made it on board without any issues. It’s always best to travel light.

What I wasn’t prepared for were the strict guidelines for carrying liquids. My sister and I got stuck at security having to ditch a bunch of bath products that didn’t fit the small regulated plastic bag, surprised to discover that Ireland and the UK are stricter on these guidelines than the U.S. All in all, I was very pleased with my first Ryanair experience. It’s really the best way to cheaply and quickly get from city to city outside of the Eurorail.

Day 1

After a quick flight, we arrived in Edinburgh in the afternoon. We stopped by the tourism center at the airport and purchased £7.50 roundtrip bus tickets to the city center and back for our return flight. The 100 Express bus went directly to the city center and was far cheaper than taking a taxi. We were ecstatic to walk outside to find a beautifully warm and sunny day after having spent 10 days in mostly rainy and cold Ireland. Just because it’s summer, don’t expect warm weather. On our bus ride into the city center, Edinburgh instantly stunned us with its incredible architecture and history. The old portion is built upon hills with a castle at the top and an underground city of streets and closes (small walkways that lead from lower streets up to higher streets), providing plenty of chances to find hidden gems and snap gorgeous photos. We were amazed by all the foliage we saw on the way in and realized the city was filled with lovely green parks with hiking trails and grassy knolls.

First, we grabbed lunch at the Edinburgh Larder café on Blackfriars Street, right off High Street. There we enjoyed locally sourced and seasonal sandwiches on fresh bread and salad –– a refreshing contrast to the heavy meat- and carb-focused meals we had been eating previously. We then ventured to Princes Street and approached the Sir Walter Scott monument. For £4, you can climb 287 steps up a narrow, winding staircase to the top to get amazing views of the city and learn about one of Scotland’s most influential writers. There are four small balconies to get fresh air and take photos and a small museum room with gorgeous stained glass windows. A caution to those who are claustrophobic—only one person can go up or down the staircase at a time and you have to wait for others to exit before entering. With that in mind, we really loved this unique experience and it was the perfect welcome to this spectacular city.

From there, we meandered around the city and popped into shops. We then convened for the Underground City of the Dead Ghost tour, which took us on an hour and a half tour of the South Bridge Vaults. Our theatrical tour guide was convincing as he told us stories of the horrors that occurred in the hidden city vaults and the ghosts that still walk them. It was fascinating and at times terrifying, especially when at one point, all candles (the only light we had) were extinguished. While my sister and a boy next to me panicked, I couldn’t hold back my laughter at the absurdity of the situation. It was better than any haunted house and one of my favorite moments from the trip. I highly recommend it to those who are interested in the supernatural, learning about the history of the city, and aren’t (too) afraid of the dark.

Day 2

Our second day in Edinburgh started bright and early at 8 a.m. as we met our bus for the Loch Ness, Highlands, and Whisky tour that we booked through The Hairy Coo tours. The cross-country, daylong tour took us through the Glencoe Highlands with stops in various towns and finally to Loch Ness (within the picturesque town of Fort Augustus), bringing us back into Edinburgh at 8:30 p.m. We ventured out with our Scottish tour guide, Andrew, who was charming, hilarious, and full of knowledge of Scottish history. Our first stop -- at 10 a.m. -- was at Deanston Whisky distillery for a tour and whiskey tasting. It was interesting to learn about the process and the length of time it actually takes to make whisky. Next, we drove by the William Wallace monument and through rolling green hills of the Highlands, making short stops to stretch our legs. Finally, we arrived to Fort Augustus, where we took a boat ride out on the Loch Ness, which was much different than I expected. It was lovely and peaceful. What I had envisioned was a dark, scary marsh, something I got from stories I’ve read as a kid.

The boat ride started out calm and relaxed, but as we headed back to shore, the water got very choppy and waves started hitting the top deck. We realized we had to move below deck, and as we did so, a huge wave hit me -- soaking my whole head and back with water. We ran down below deck to warmth and safety to find that even water was seeping through some of the windows there. It was probably the most exciting part of our visit to Loch Ness as there was unfortunately no Nessie sighting (one can only dream). From there, we headed back to the city with stops to a waterfall and the darling Victorian town of Pitlochry. Looking back, as the tour was pricey (£45) and took up our whole day, I would’ve done a shorter, less expensive tour and might not have ventured all the way to Loch Ness which was less exciting than I expected. If you have more than three days in Edinburgh, I would certainly recommend it. The Hairy Coo tours offer shorter free tours of the Highlands that are highly rated and worthy of adding to your agenda.

That evening, we ventured out to Cowgate Street, which has a variety of fun restaurants and bars. We chose to go to the most haunted bar in Edinburgh – the Banshee Labyrinth, where we planned to grab just one drink and be home by midnight. After we realized they offered karaoke and we befriended fun, friendly locals and tourists, our night instead ended at 4 a.m. as we spilled out to the street, hugging our new friends goodbye. That was another highlight and surprise—we didn’t expect to meet such wonderful people from all over the world, and have such a great time singing and dancing with them. My sister and I walked away down the cobblestone streets feeling so happy and satisfied.

Day 3

With a long list of things still to see and do, we started out with coffee and croissants at the adorable Southern Cross Café on Cockburn Street (another street filled with unique and charming pubs, restaurants and shops). Next, we made our rounds at the National Gallery of Scotland (free!) and then stopped by the special Bailey Stardust exhibition (£11), which showcased portraits by famed photographer David Bailey. We shopped along High Street, looking at cashmere sweaters and tartan scarves. Then we went on a free Harry Potter tour (running at 11 a.m. or 3 p.m., and led by a guide dressed as Harry Potter), which stopped at the places in Edinburgh that were significant inspirations and writing spots for J.K. Rowling while she wrote the series. It was a great way to see certain areas of the city we might otherwise not have gotten to on our own.

From there, we made our way to see the parliament building, the Edinburgh castle, and then Arthur’s Seat, a dormant volcano at the highest point, in Holyrood Park. We had heard this lush park had great hikes and plenty to see and so we ventured up a bit to take in the views. If we had planned better, we would’ve started our day in workout clothing and done the entire hike and spent more time exploring. From there, we ventured to the other side of the city to go to Calton Hill, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located at the end of Princes Street offering a park and breathtaking views of the entire city. A local told us that she heads up there with friends often accompanied by a bottle of wine and snacks—next time, that will be on my agenda. We made it to the top just as it was getting dark—and it was magical to see all the city lights. We ended our day with pints of Scottish lager, fish and chips, and haggis at the Malt Shovel Inn, escaping the rain and listening to live music inside.

Final Thoughts

It was the perfect trip, and my sister and I were incredibly sad to leave. The city is extremely clean and we felt very safe. Public transportation is affordable, modern and easy to use. The city is compact and very walkable. Although the weather is always changing with rain and overcast skies, we were lucky to get some warm weather and sunshine, and even a huge rainbow. Fringe Festival was just starting as we were leaving, and though we unfortunately didn’t catch any shows, the town was becoming congested and busy which made us glad to have been able to explore it at a calmer state. We were happy to stay in the Haymarket area at the quaint and charming Apex Haymarket Hotel to get away from all the crowds. The hotel was comfortable and modern and the staff was so friendly and helpful. Also, at that time in the season, it would’ve been near impossible to get lodging in the city center so it’s best to plan ahead if you’re visiting during any festivals.

Edinburgh is captivating with its history, haunted vaults, friendly locals and visitors alike. There were so many quaint streets filled with charming shops, pubs, and restaurants to explore. If only I had one more day ... Edinburgh definitely left an impression on me and I can’t wait to return.

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