With just one day in Edinburgh, what attractions and landmarks do you visit? You may not have time to see it all such a short Edinburgh itinerary, but you can easily explore some of the best spots in this quirky capital.
Edinburgh is one of the more interesting destinations in Scotland, full of eccentric attractions, quirky nooks, one-of-a-kind shops, and local watering holes. It’s also the political, historical, and cultural capital of Scotland. Explore historic sites, such as the famed Edinburgh Castle or the bizarre Camera Obscura.
Need help planning your first 24 hours in Edinburgh? Use this complete 1-day itinerary as your guide…
What to do in Edinburgh in 24 hours: A complete one-day itinerary
There is more to spending one day in Edinburgh than kilts, bagpipes, and crests. Edinburgh remains the second-most visited city in the UK after London, thanks to its eclectic mixture of attractions.
Most of the sites are spread around the Edinburgh Old Town area, including the castle and Holyroodhouse Palace. The surrounding area offers access to quaint little neighbourhood pubs, parks, and shops.
As with our other city itineraries, you’ll get to see quite a bit of Edinburgh in 24 hours. The destinations on the trip are within walking distance and cover some of the most distinctive features of the city.
See all of Old Town from Edinburgh Castle
You’ll start your 24 hours in Edinburgh by visiting one of the most iconic landmarks in the city. Edinburgh Castle sits on top of Castle Rock and overlooks the surrounding area.
The castle is one of the most-visited spots in the city, due to its vantage point with a sweeping view of Edinburgh. It also stands out against the skyline as you approach the city.
The castle was first built in the eleventh century and includes many statues and monuments to famous Scots, including William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.
Inside the castle, take a stroll through various historical displays, souvenir shops, and pricey restaurants and cafes.
Lose orientation inside Camera Obscura & World of Illusions
As you descend Castle Hill, you’ll see the top of the next destination towering above the other structures. Camera Obscura & World of Illusions is a major attraction housed inside a six-storey tower in the heart of Old Town Edinburgh.
Camera Obscura is one of the more interesting things do & see in Edinburgh. On the rooftop terrace, you can enjoy panoramic views over the city from the Camera Obscura. The lower five floors include a variety of interactive optical illusions and tricks.
The optical illusions include various holograms, a mirror maze, a vortex tunnel, and several puzzles. It’s a fun experience, but may leave you feeling kind of dizzy.
Visit one of the oldest buildings with a tour of Gladstone’s Land
If you’re not too dizzy from the optical illusions inside the Camera Obscura tower, you should have no problem finding Gladstone’s Land. It’s just down the street on your left.
Before you reach Gladstone’s Land, you may need to grab breakfast. You’ll pass several options on your left, including The Wee Ice Cream Shop. Stop in for a cold soft serve ice cream before continuing your journey.
Enjoy your ice cream as you walk the last few blocks to Gladstone’s Land. As one of the oldest buildings in the area, this 17th-century merchant house attracts tourists from all over.
Gladstone’s Land gets included in almost any Edinburgh itinerary, thanks to its hand-painted Renaissance interior and well-preserved exterior.
The building once provided residential and commercial spaces for wealthy tenants. As with many older buildings, the lower floors were used for shops while the upper floors provided residential homes.
You can take a small tour of the inside and check out the paintings on the ceiling as you work your way through the narrow hallways and staircases.
Examine priceless art at the Scottish National Gallery
When you leave Gladstone’s Land, take the side street next to the structure to reach North Bank Street. Follow this street for a few minutes until you reach the Scottish National Gallery.
The gallery is a big square building and not terribly impressive. Once you get inside, you’ll find works by Scottish artists from the past several centuries.
You may not recognize some of the names, such as Raeburn or Macdonell, but that makes the trip a little more special. You’ll also get to view a few famous canvases, such as The Feast of Herod by Rubens, and several works by Van Dyck.
View torture replicas at the Edinburgh Dungeon
From the gallery, you can walk down to Market Street to reach The Edinburgh Dungeon. It’s a few minutes away on the other side of a roundabout and across from one of the main bus stops.
The dungeon isn’t a historic site. It’s a modern attraction that replicates various scenes of torture. The staff recreates real scenarios of how prisoners were treated during medieval times.
It’s a theatrical experience that should get your blood pumping. Keep in mind that it may be a little too scary for young children, but it’s great fun for older kids and adults and worth the cost of admission.
Explore whisky shops and Celtic souvenir stores in the Royal Mile
After exploring the dungeon, continue your Edinburgh trip by walking on Market Street until you reach a fork in the road. Take a right to reach Canongate, one of the many streets of the Royal Mile.
When trying to see as much of Edinburgh in one day as you can, you’ll spend a good portion of your time within the Royal Mile.
The Royal Mile is the name for the collection of streets running between the castle and the palace, forming the main pedestrian thoroughfare through Old Town. It includes High Street, Lawnmarket, Castlehill, Abbey Strand, and Canongate.
It’s also where you’ll find a large assortment of small pubs, shops, and street food vendors. This is the perfect time to grab a snack or lunch and do some shopping.
While you can find local handicrafts and original goods, the area has many shops dedicated to vices, including several whisky shops. You can also shop for cigars and fudge.
Of course, since you’re in one of the busiest tourist spots in Scotland, you’ll also find plenty of stores selling kilts and Celtic souvenirs.
Tour the former King’s apartments at the Palace of Holyroodhouse
When you finish exploring the shops and pubs inside the Royal Mile, you’ll need to cut through the rest of Old Town to get to the Palace of Holyroodhouse before it closes. Follow any of the main streets to the east and you’ll eventually reach the palace.
Holyrood Palace is the official residence for Queen Elizabeth II when visiting Scotland. It’s the eastern bookend to the Royal Mile, originally built in the 16th century.
The palace is a perfect example of English architecture. The imposing structure features two-storey towers and walls, forming a large quad with a central courtyard.
The interior includes several rooms open to the public, including the northwest tower and the 17th-century apartments. The apartments remain preserved with the furnishings of the day. Rich décor covers every floor, wall, and table.
Take a self-guided tour of the apartments and get a view of the city from the northwest tower. If you need help getting around, the staff are always friendly and ready to give directions.
Get another view of Old Town from Nelson Monument
After viewing the extravagance of the palace, walk along Calton Road. This road takes you around the northern edge of the Old Town and to Calton Hill, where you’ll find Nelson Monument.
The monument was built in honour of an admiral after a victory over the French and Spanish in 1805. It stands over 32 metres high and has an observation deck.
From this vantage point, you should see most of the sites, including the castle in the west and the palace in the east. You’ll need to climb 143 steps and pay a fee to reach the top, but it’s worth it to look out over the city, especially on a clear day.
At the top of the tower, you’ll also see a large zinc-covered ball. For over 150 years, the city has raised the ball to the top of the tower each day before dropping it from a mast at exactly 1 pm.
While it’s too late in the day to see the drop, you may catch it earlier in the day as you pass back and forth through Old Town.
Unwind with food and drinks in Edinburgh New Town
By the time you finish getting a view of the city from Nelson Monument, the day should be almost over.
To close out your trip, visit Edinburgh New Town. This modern part of the city starts at the bottom of Calton Hill and stretches out to the west for several kilometres.
Stay above Princes Street, bordering the Old Town, and explore the local pubs and restaurants. If you’re almost ready to call it a night, stop into one of the restaurants and order haggis, the traditional Scottish dish.
If you’re still ready to see more of Edinburgh, New Town is the perfect spot to take advantage of the city’s nightlife. From trendy pubs to dimly lit watering holes, the area has a wide assortment of establishments to suit all tastes.
Where to stay: The best hotels for 24 hours in Edinburgh
Thanks to the relatively compact size of the Scottish capital, most travellers will have no problems searching out where to stay in Edinburgh. If you’ve only got a day in Edinburgh, the areas in and around Old Town are a great place to start looking for your accommodations. Here are a few top choices…
- ibis Edinburgh Centre Royal Mile: Easily one of the most budget-friendly options in Old Town, this delightful hotel puts the city’s most atmospheric streets at the door while offering up cozy and stylish rooms to guests.
- Radisson Blu Hotel, Edinburgh City Centre: Don’t expect your usual chain hotel when you stay at this gem. This excellent mid-range hotel occupies a stunning historic building along the Royal Mile and features spacious rooms fitted with modern decor. It’s the extras though like the indoor swimming pool, spa, fitness centre, and on-site bar that really take the guesswork out of your choice to stay here.
- The Balmoral Hotel: Sitting steps outside Edinburgh’s main train hub, this luxury hotel is next to impossible to miss as you walk through the city thanks to its handsome historic clock tower. The interior is equally spectacular with the top-end rooms delivering marvellous views over Old Town including Edinburgh Castle.