How to make the most of Edinburgh in just one day

If you've only got one day to spend in Edinburgh, here are the must-do activities you should tick off your list
If you've only got one day to spend in Edinburgh, here are the must-do activities you should tick off your list

With so many sights, attractions and things to do in Edinburgh, it can be difficult to know where to start if you’re only visiting for one day.

A whirlwind tour of some of Edinburgh's top attractions and best hidden gems is more than manageable in a day, writes Gillian McDonald.

Here's how to make the most of just 24 hours in Edinburgh, whether you're travelling with your partner, as a family, on a tight budget or with money to play with.

If you’re on a budget

Go on a walking tour

Make your way around the city’s main sights on a guided walking tour.

Both Sandemans and City Explorers offer free tours, which take in iconic landmarks such as Edinburgh Castle and St Giles Cathedral, and give visitors an insight into the history of the city.

For something more unusual, try a specialist walking tour, such as a photography tour, food and drink tour or literary tour, which uncovers the inspiration behind characters like Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes.

Read more: 9 of the most unusual things to do in Edinburgh

Explore the outdoors

Edinburgh is the UK’s greenest city (with 49 per cent of land being green space) and a lot of it can be explored for free.

Hike up Arthur’s Seat to enjoy the stunning views from the top, or take the short walk up Calton Hill for one of the most recognisable Edinburgh vistas.

Even the city’s Royal Botanic Gardens can be enjoyed for free.

Visit Edinburgh’s free museums

Scotland's capital is home to lots of interesting museums, many of which have free entry – including the much-loved National Museum of Scotland

To find out more about Edinburgh’s past, head to the People’s Story Museum and its nearby companion, the Museum of Edinburgh, to discover iconic objects and stories about the history, culture and citizens of the city.

Tuck into street food

To enjoy good food on a budget, seek out Edinburgh’s best street food trucks.

The Food + Flea Market is open all year round, and events like The Pitt showcase a wide variety of local vendors (dates vary).

If you don’t fancy dining outdoors, look out for affordable street food style restaurants which have a permanent home, such as Ting Thai Caravan, Bodega and Tuk Tuk.

If you’re travelling with kids

Meet the animals

A day out at Edinburgh Zoo is ideal for families, with plenty of animals, attractions, talks and hands-on experiences to keep the kids entertained – including the famous penguin parade.

For a slightly less exotic (but just as interesting) experience, visit Gorgie City Farm to meet the animals and find out how an urban farm operates.

Visit interactive attractions

Edinburgh has plenty of museums and attractions with an interactive element, allowing kids of all ages to get involved.

The Camera Obscura is full of mind-bending illusions and tricks of the eye, as well as an original camera obscura tower, offering fantastic views of the city.

For those with an interest in science, head to Dynamic Earth to find out all about the natural world, starting by travelling back to the Big Bang and experiencing the explosion that created the universe.

Enjoy an ice cream sundae

Refuel with a pit stop at one of Edinburgh’s ice cream parlours, such as S Luca’s, which has been a favourite of locals for generations.

It has a retro diner feel, and kids can create their own sundaes from the wide array of flavours on offer.

For something a little more unusual, try Affogato’s classic Italian gelato or visit Mary’s Milk Bar, where you’ll find homemade gelato in flavours such as fig and mascarpone, rose and ginger, and even tea and jam.

Go on a spooky tour

For children with a wild imagination, Edinburgh’s ghost tours are the perfect activity and will teach them about the city’s haunted past.

Discover a long-forgotten underground city at the Real Mary King’s Close, which focuses more on the history rather than the haunting, so is ideal for those who don’t like to be too scared.

Mercat Tours offer a kid-friendly Ghosts, Gore & Grime tour which includes a visit to the Blair Street Vaults, and City of the Dead organise terrifying graveyard tours which are suitable for older children, aged 12 and above.

If you’re on a romantic break

Soak up the culture

Edinburgh is a beautiful place, and has a long history of producing artists, writers and thinkers who were inspired by their love of the city.

Visit some of Edinburgh’s galleries and museums to soak up the culture, including the National Galleries of Scotland to see iconic artwork, and the Writers’ Museum to find out about the lives of some of the city’s literary greats.

Go for a romantic stroll

Enjoy the stunning views of Edinburgh by walking hand-in-hand through some of the most picturesque parts of the city.

Explore the cobbled streets of the Old Town, relax in Princes Street Gardens, discover the charming Dean Village, or stroll along the beach at Portobello.

Eat dinner by candlelight

Edinburgh has no shortage of atmospheric restaurants, such as The Witchery - an opulent fine dining restaurant housed inside a gothic 16th century merchant’s house.

Other romantic, candlelit spots to enjoy delicious local food include The Grain Store, Forage & Chatter and Angels With Bagpipes.

Discover a secret cocktail bar

Cosy up in one of Edinburgh’s speakeasy-style hidden cocktail bars, full of intimate corners, and enjoy a nightcap.

Panda & Sons is hidden behind a secret bookcase in a faux barber shop, and Bryant & Mack is disguised as a private detective agency.

Also keep an eye out for Hoot the Redeemer - a hidden bar with a 1950s carnival vibe, including alcoholic ice cream and cocktail slushies.

Read more: 16 of the best things to do in Edinburgh at night

If you’re looking for luxury

Go designer shopping

Edinburgh’s landmark department store, Jenners, is the perfect place to pick up a luxury souvenir from your trip, and the nearby Harvey Nichols is full of designer treats too.

On Multrees Walk and George Street you’ll find a range of high-end stores with everything from designer handbags to classic British tailoring.

If you prefer to shop independent, have a look in the boutiques of Stockbridge, Bruntsfield and Morningside.

Pamper yourself at a spa

If you’re looking to make the most of your relaxing break, visit one of the city’s spas to unwind.

One Spa offers a range of massages, facials, body treatments and beauty therapy, as well as an impressive rooftop swimming pool with views of Edinburgh Castle.

The Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh is home to the UK’s only Guerlain Spa, and the award-winning Rocco Forte Spa at The Balmoral is also perfect for an afternoon of pampering.

Take part in a distillery tour

Find out all about Scotland’s national drink on an exclusive tour at the Scotch Whisky Experience.

Opt for a masterclass to develop your whisky tasting skills, or join the Platinum Tour for a comparative whisky tasting and viewing of the collection, as well as a complimentary gift to take home.

If whisky isn’t really your thing, head to the Edinburgh Gin Distillery in the West End for a range of tours, tasting and gin making experiences.

Dine at a Michelin star restaurant

There are lots of fine dining restaurants to choose from in Edinburgh, including four with a coveted Michelin star.

Head to the foodie district at The Shore to dine at Restaurant Martin Wishart or The Kitchin, both of which use classical techniques and seasonal Scottish produce to create memorable menus.

Elsewhere in the city, you’ll find the Michelin-starred Number One (part of The Balmoral hotel) and 21212.