After skipping Dublin and Belfast during our whirlwind trip to Ireland (we just ran out of time and energy!), we couldn’t wait to explore our first major European city. While we only had 48 hours in Edinburgh, we made sure to pack it all in with miles of on-foot explorations, lots of tours, and about a dozen pints.
(P.S. – In the U.S., we have Pittsburgh, which can set you up for failure when pronouncing Scotland’s capital because it is spelled similarly, but pronounced differently. It sounds more like “Edinburra.”)
Here’s the rundown…
This was our first stop. We literally got off the tram which we had taken from the airport (long story that we’ll share later), and walked straight up, up, up the hill to Edinburgh Castle. You really can’t miss it on top of the big rock and we had no idea how enormous it is! If this is on your list (and it should be), plan at least two hours. There is a ton to see!
Even before getting our tickets, we were rewarded for our efforts by enjoying the surrounding views of the city on the windy, but clear day we were blessed with. We looked down at beautiful Edinburgh and our excitement grew exponentially for all the explorations we would have over the next couple of days.
While the castle itself was busy with tour groups and other tourists, we loved that most people were intently listening to their audio tours and keeping quiet – and often just standing to the side taking it all in. Perfect for people like us, who want to go our own way and avoid the crowds!
We loved wandering through this beautiful, large castle built in the 12th century. And were amazed by how much it played a role in Scotland’s history. It was at the center of numerous wars and changed hands many times.
Of course, the well-known and beloved Mary Queen of Scots lived here at one point as well, giving birth to her son James VI in 1566 – in one of the rooms we were allowed to visit.
Our first taste of Edinburgh was fantastic and we couldn’t wait to take in more!
Scotch Whisky Experience
Speaking of taste, we couldn’t wait to experience some well-known Scotch Whisky. And an experience it was. My future BFF-in-law loovvves him some whiskey, so I felt a little guilty for not being able to teleport him here for this. But, that’s just a good reason to take a return trip with friends!
After riding in a whisky barrel and learning all about the history of this drink known and loved around the world, we moved on to our other senses. Next up, we smelled the different ingredients of the variances with a handy scratch-and-sniff card. Then it was the part we were all waiting for … the taste!
While standing in an exquisite collection of hundreds of beautifully displayed whisky bottles, we finally got our first sips of our chosen Whisky. There were five choices, all made in different areas of Scotland.
While the whisky was good, the collection was what impressed us the most. Each bottle was so unique. And it was fun to inspect each to see how much the angels were taking. Each bottle ends up having a little disappear, which they call the ‘angel’s share.’ We’d highly recommend the Scotch Whisky Experience to anyone who loves a good dram.
Little did we know until we arrived, there are creepy tunnels and even creepier tales left over from Scotland’s dark past. To learn more about the latter, we picked up our tickets for the very popular and scarier-than-we-anticipated Edinburgh Dungeon. This experience is part well-acted play, part haunted house, and part comedy show. Throw in a boat ride and death fall, and we were too curious not to go. However, we would not suggest this one for little kids – or almost-30 adults who still have a hatred of being in the dark.
Despite my being super uncomfortable more than a few times, we laughed often at the witty jokes, learned some eery stories from the past, and had an overall good time. They really do put on a fantastic show! Although, I did leave afraid I’d have nightmares about possessed witches and cannibals attacking in the dark, seeing the lady next to Buddy scream her head off and grab his arm in one of the rooms after a guy jumped out at here, was totally worth the fear. Even if I only saw a glimpse of the scene, as I bravely hid behind my husband’s arm.
Real Mary King’s Close
This is the kid-friendly version of the Edinburgh Dungeon. It is still in an underground-esque area, but shares way more history and didn’t scare us at all. However, Real Mary King’s Close is a bit long with little interaction with what is around you, so little kids or adults who get antsy easily would probably skip it.
However, getting to see this close, was really interesting. Our guide told us all about how these areas came to be, who lived there, and why it is part of Scotland’s dark past. Turns out, the tight quarters of this low-income area led to a lot of poor hygiene, which helped the plague to run rampant. And apparently, the smell could be detected before even entering the city in the olden days.
This is not an Edinburgh-only attraction, but it was a ton of fun and a great way to kill some time while we waited for our ticket time for one of the other attractions. We thought we’d just wander through quickly, but ended up spending hours inside.
The strange exhibits play tricks on your eyes and camera, hence the name. For example, to get the photo above, I couldn’t even walk into that tunnel with swirling dots with my eyes open because it gave me instant vertigo. I had to back in with my eyes closed for Buddy to snap this photo, which looked nothing like the reality. Weird!
Needless to say, we let our inner children run free as we played and wondered at all the exhibits at Camera Obscura. If you have actual kids, this is a can’t miss. And they exist in other major cities around the world as well, so keep your eye out.
From visiting fun theme pubs (Frankenstein and the Banshee Labyrinth), to walking hand-in-hand down dark alleys and by gorgeous monuments – Edinburgh shines at night. We loved wandering around aimlessly, popping in for a bite or a pint, talking to fellow travelers or locals who were a few pints in. The spirit of this city is truly something you’ll just have to experience to understand. And we always felt safe.
This must-see area of the city is a short walk up a steep hill. But like castle rock, the views and sites at the top are well worth it. From here you can see many of the famous landmarks of the city, as well as the surrounding coastline and the famous trail to Arthur’s Seat.
Atop the hill, you can see other monuments as well, including the National Monument, Nelson’s Monument, Robert Burns Monument, Political Martys’ Monument, as well as the City Observatory.
Where We Stayed
While researching where to base our Edinburgh travels from, we wanted a place where we would be comfortable and central to the main attractions of the city. We ended up choosing Hub by Premiere Inn and loved how easy it was to check in, the modern feel of our room and the great staff.
How to Get Around
Trams, buses, and walking are highly recommended. There really isn’t any need for a car here. Get some good walking shoes and prepare for lots of hills! It is really a lovely city for a stroll, so don’t miss this great way to take in the sights and culture.
Airport, Trams, and Buses
As mentioned before, we ended up dropping off the rental car we had been driving since leaving Inverness at the airport then taking the tram into town. We left all our bags safely in the car while off exploring, then came back for them and returned the car before taking the tram back into town to check into our hotel. If we had thought this through better, we would have just used the free bag drop off at the hotel and returned the car before going into town (saving two trips and 1.5 hours of time on the tram). However, using the tram was really easy since we just got a 24-hour pass.
When it was time to leave, we had to get to the airport before the tram even began running, so we had to take the bus. But, this was also extremely easy and we just paid with exact change when we boarded.
While in town, the Hop-On-Hop-Off City Sightseeing Bus was fantastic. We opted for the Majestic Tour and used this to see areas of the city we wouldn’t have otherwise gotten out to. And just sitting on top taking in all the views was really enjoyable after two full days of wandering around on foot.
Read our other articles about our Scotland explorations here! And to learn how we traveled in Europe for five months on a budget by house sitting, read this guide.