24 Hours in Edinburgh: The Eccentric Jewel in Scotland’s Crown

Not only is Edinburgh a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s also Scotland’s capital city and home to phenomenal festivals, which have the city buzzing with a sense of excitement all year round.

Packed with medieval tenements, narrow streets through the Old Town, and a sweeping elegance that swathes the Georgian New Town, there’s no question that Edinburgh deserves its reputation as one of the most stunning and enthralling cities in the world.

Sightseeing in Edinburgh is pretty easy. You can experience different centuries of history without even moving! Head to the bottom of the famous Royal Mile where you’ll find the 17th century Palace of Holyroodhouse, the modern parliament building, and the prehistoric extinct volcano famously known as Arthur’s Seat – all proudly standing next to each other.

Edinburgh Castle
Make this your first port of call. It sits at the top of the historic Royal Mile on a volcanic plug and is perhaps the most famous landmark on the Edinburgh skyline. Beat the crowds and get there for opening at 9.30 am. The views over the city are spectacular. There is so much to take in at the castle – the National Museum of War, the National War Monument, and the Honours of Scotland, the county’s Crown Jewels.

Royal Mile
The Royal Mile is the heart of Scotland’s historic capital. It runs through the center of Edinburgh’s Old Town, connecting the magnificent Edinburgh Castle with the splendorous Palace of Holyroodhouse. The Mile is overlooked by impressive, towering tenements, between which cobbled closes and narrow stairways interlock to create a secret underground world.

Beneath the City Chambers on the Royal Mile lies Edinburgh’s deepest secret – Mary King’s Close. Back in the 1600s, Mary King’s Close and neighbouring Closes were Edinburgh’s busiest and most vibrant streets, open to the skies and bustling with traders selling their wares to the Old Town’s residents. Now Mary King’s Close is a warren of narrow underground alleys and spaces shrouded in myths, mysteries, and tales of ghosts. Urban legend claims plague victims were quarantined and left to die, then their corpses were used to build the walls.

Just a short walk away is the eclectic Grassmarket, once a medieval marketplace and site for public executions. Now the Grassmarket is a vibrant area buzzing with lively drinking spots and eclectic shops. Its detailed medieval architecture, stunning castle views, and dynamic atmosphere make it one of the city’s most-loved places. Though Grassmarket executions ceased in the 1700s, some of the traditional pubs in the area still keep the tales of its chequered past alive.

Buildings and shops in the famous Grassmarket ares of the Old Town
Buildings and shops in the famous Grassmarket ares of the Old Town

If you’re strapped for time but want to see a lot of the sights, then the one-hour open top hop-on-hop-off City Sightseeing Bus Tour is ideal. Get a birds-eye view from the top deck and explore sights including Edinburgh Castle, the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and the Royal Yacht Britannia.

Edinburgh is famed for being the world’s leading festival city. During festival season it feels as if every shop, bar, and available space has become a venue. This summer sees outstanding festivals flood the city with color and heart-thumping excitement, while the autumn nights are illuminated by the Scottish International Storytelling Festival.

International Film Festival (15-26 June)
Launched in 1947, the prestigious Edinburgh International Film Festival is the world’s longest-running film festival and continues to showcase some of the best emerging and established talent in the movie industry.

Jazz and Blues Festival (15-24 July)
The 70s saw the birth of Edinburgh’s first Jazz and Blues Festival, which was set up in 1978 by banjo player and guitarist, Mike Hart. The festival initially focused on traditional jazz with a range of free events held in pubs, but by the mid-80s had grown to envelop swing, blues, and mainstream jazz.

Art Festival (28 July-28 August)
Edinburgh’s Art Festival has grown to become the UK’s largest annual festival of visual art. This year, taking place in partner galleries and pop-up venues throughout the city, Edinburgh’s creative spirit lives on with Art Late – a series of late night openings and events, combining the city’s vibrant art scene, live music, performances, artist talks and art tours.

Royal Edinburgh Festival Tattoo (5-27 August)
Each year the Royal Edinburgh Tattoo brings together thousands of people for this annual celebration of music. It’s very much a ‘global gathering’ as it showcases the talents of musicians and performers from every corner of the globe.

International Festival (5-29 August)
This year’s International Festival will have you see Edinburgh Castle in a whole new light. It’s an epic, outdoor, public artwork that will bring together spectacular animation, lighting, and music, delving deep into 350 million years of Edinburgh’s history. Stunning animations will be projected onto the side of Edinburgh Castle, accompanied by a specially compiled soundtrack of music by Scottish rock band Mogwai.

Festival Fringe (5-29 August)
Every Wednesday and Friday throughout the Festival Fringe you get to solve an intriguing puzzle down in the depths of the Edinburgh Dungeons with a Deadly Dungeon Murder Mystery. You’ll be investigating the shocking murder of Judge Mental. Watch out though – you might encounter a few unsavory characters from Edinburgh’s past along the way.

Fringe Festival

International Book Festival (13-29 August)
Set in a specially created tented village in Charlotte Square Gardens in the heart of Edinburgh’s New Town, the Edinburgh International Book Festival has something for just about every age and every interest. This is where avid bookworms, budding writers, and talented storytellers gather.

Mela (27-28 August)
The Edinburgh Mela is a two-day festival celebrating Scotland’s diverse culture through its music, dance, and wider arts from around the world all with the express purpose of promoting community cohesion.

But Edinburgh is about far more than its famous attractions or its festivals. There are hidden museums, surprise views, secret gardens, quirky buildings – including a clutch of castles – and some lovely walks. Yes, in the heart of the city.

Even the major museums and galleries can surprise. The Scottish National Portrait Gallery, for example, has a rooftop garden showcasing the country’s rich variety of habitats, from the alpine flowers of its mountains to the grasses of its coastal habitats. The rooftop also has a stunning panoramic view across the city’s spires, domes, towers, and turrets.

Tucked down a hidden close off the Royal Mile is the Writers Museum, which any devotee of Rabbie Burns, Sir Walter Scott, or Robert Louis Stevenson will want to browse.

Edinburgh has a wealth of green spaces. There’s the huge green sward of Holyrood Park where you can skirt the volcanic heights of Arthur’s Seat on a pleasant stroll to Duddingston village – and lunch at the characterful Sheep Heid Inn – Edinburgh’s oldest-surviving pub.

The point is that Edinburgh does have all the tantalizing set pieces: the castle and the palace, grand galleries, and gracious streets, designer shops and Michelin stars. But there’s so much more to it.