I should start this post by saying that I went to Edinburgh alone and in the middle of November, so I’m sure there is much more to do if you’re with other people and it’s warm. The Fringe festival in August every year springs immediately to mind. Having said all this, I think it is very easy to see Edinburgh in a weekend and do it cheaply.
The main things to see in Edinburgh are the castle(s) and Royal Mile, but there are also some less well-known tourist sites that you should not miss. The following guide is basically how I spent my weekend.
I arrived in Edinburgh just before noon on Saturday, having caught the high-speed 7 a.m. train from King’s Cross Station in London. While there are cheaper ways to get to Edinburgh (the coach bus or overnight train), if you only have a weekend then the high-speed train is really your best option. It takes about 4.5 hours, instead of 7.5 and 9.5 hours for the other two, plus the train gets you right into the heart of the city. If you buy tickets in advance, you can find them for about £50.
Edinburgh’s most famous tourist attraction. The castle is about 1,000 years old and sits on top an extinguished volcano overlooking the city. Even if you don’t want to pay to go inside, you must make the walk up Royal Mile to the castle. It’s the best view in the city. The castle was an important part of both wars between Scotland and England and jailed prisoners during the U.S. war of Independence, the Napoleonic wars and French Revolution. That’s only a very small snippet of its history, which is on full display when you walk through the castle. The castle has the Scottish Crown Jewels and the National War museum. Fun fact: It houses one of two dog cemetery’s in Scotland. Cost: £14 (No student or youth rate).
Royal Mile runs from Edinburgh castle to the Palace of Hollywood House (hence its name) and includes many of the tourist shops in Edinburgh. I spent about three hours walking around the street on my visit because I was trying to find a scarf in my family tartan. I eventually managed to find some and bought two. I have since lost both. The Edinburgh festival happens along Royal Mile every summer. If you’re interested in tartans, I would recommend stopping into the Tartan Weaving Mill, which is one block from Edinburgh Castle. You actually get to see how they weave the tartan material (and it’s free).
Palace of Holyroodhouse (Holyrood Palace)
This is the Queen’s official residence in Scotland and she spends time there every summer. Whenever the residence is not being used for royal visits, it is open to the public for tours. The palace stands at the other end of Royal Mile and is about 800 years old. Its most famous tenant is probably Mary, Queen of Scots, also known as Bloody Mary, who was actually killed in the castle. Her apartment within the castle is still there and you can see it on the visit. Cost: £10.50 for adults, £9.50 for students and £6.35 for under 17. Free re-entry for a year, if you get your card stamped.
Elephant House Café
Located on George IV Bridge. This tea house is famous as the birthplace of Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling sat in the café for months and months writing the first few books (until they got too famous and had to be written in secret). I bought a café latte and a carrot cake for about £4. A must-see if you’re a Harry Potter fan, but delicious food too.
National Museum of Scotland
The National Museum of Scotland is on Chambers Street, just few blocks down from the Elephant House. It includes all the important artifacts from Scotland’s museum. I was especially interested in the story of the tartan (again… what can I say, I like fashion.) Apparently tartan was outlawed in Scotland for almost 100 years during the jacobite uprisings (wars between different monarchs for the throne.) The collection even includes the body of Dolly, the sheep, the first cloned animal. Cost: Free
You can’t visit Edinburgh without taking a picture beside the statue of Greyfriars Bobby. Legend has it that after his master died, he spent 14 years keeping watch over his grave. Across the street from the statue is the cemetery where he is buried. You can spot his grave, by all the sticks placed in front of the headstone.