It’s not hard to see why most visitors fall in love with Edinburgh: its medieval castle, cobblestoned streets, and stone buildings provide no shortage of Old World charm. Luckily you don’t need weeks to explore this compact city, and thanks to direct flights from the East Coast, exploring Edinburgh in a weekend is manageable. First-time visitors need to make time for visiting the city’s biggest attractions and sampling traditional treats like tablet and haggis, but there's lots more to see, eat, and do here. So pack a stylish raincoat and comfortable shoes, and get ready to explore Edinburgh's biggest sights and hidden treasures.
Unpack your bags at the Balmoral (pictured above), the grande dame of Edinburgh’s hotels, which occupies a prime spot in the heart of the city. A kilt-wearing doorman will assist you with your bags, and if you’re still hungry, head into the breakfast buffet at Hadrian’s, which includes everything from thick-cut British bacon and smoked salmon to mini doughnuts and bowls of Scottish berries.
Kick off your weekend by visiting the city’s biggest attraction: Edinburgh Castle. (Buy your tickets online to avoid the inevitable long lines.) You could spend all day here, but don’t miss the room housing the Crown Jewels, as well as the Stone of Destiny, which is used in royal coronations. Look out for Mons Meg, a 500-year-old cannon and try to time your visit for the 1 p.m. gun firing.
Break for lunch at Contini Caffé, handily located at the bottom of the castle in Cannonball House. This new restaurant serves an Italian-Scottish menu in a light and airy space. Order a pot of tea to warm up followed by a panini; downstairs, there’s a porridge-and-gelato bar.
After lunch, head to Camera Obscura and the World of Illusions, which is a short walk away. Both kids and adults will be entertained by the five floors of holograms and optical illusions.
If jet lag is wearing you down, pop into the new Mimi’s Bakehouse for coffee and a cupcake in flavors that include Snickerdoodle and chocolate mousse. There’s also a walk-up window for ice cream with uniquely British flavors, such as Victoria Sponge.
Head back to the Balmoral for a quick dip in the pool or splurge on a spa treatment before heading out to dinner. From the hotel, it’s about a 15-minute walk to Field. This restaurant is included in the latest Michelin guide, but there’s nothing pretentious about it. The focus is on fresh, seasonal ingredients, and standouts include the beetroot cured salmon, served with a passionfruit cannelloni, as well as the slow cooked pork belly, accompanied by a baked avocado topped with sweet corn and chorizo.
After a hearty breakfast, stroll down the Royal Mile to the Scottish Poetry Library, located off a “close” (side street). When you see the Starbucks, turn onto Crichton’s Close; the library is housed in a modern glass-and-wood building. You should browse the collection of Scottish poetry from Scottish writers, see the hosted art exhibits or listen to audio recordings from Sylvia Plath and William Carlos Williams.
Back on the Royal Mile, look out for Dunbar’s Close, which is practically across the street; here, you'll find one of the city’s hidden gems, Dunbar’s Close Garden. This secret garden was designed in 1976 in the style of a 17th-century garden and is an ideal place to sit with a coffee and unwind.
Whiskey lovers should make a beeline to Cadenhead’s. Established in 1842, this is Scotland’s oldest independent bottle shop. Cadenhead’s specializes in unique, single-cask malts. The inventory is always changing so be sure to look at the handwritten chalkboard to see what’s available.
Wander up the Royal Mile and settle in for lunch at the new Crafters Barn, whose décor can be described as Highland chic, thanks to tartan-covered banquettes, subway tiles, and exposed stone walls. The menu features Spanish-inspired tapas as well as Belgian craft beers and a Highland cheese board.
Just across the street is the Museum on the Mound, a currency museum housed in the Lloyds Bank headquarters. One of the highlights of this small museum is a glass box containing one million pounds in cash (the equivalent of $1.5 million), and a display where visitors can try to crack open a safe.
Head back to the hotel to unwind and rest your feet. Once you’ve been energized, walk to the new Hanging Bat for a pre-dinner beer. This bar, which has exposed stone walls and Edison bulbs, specializes in craft beer and also has a small food menu featuring a “dog of the day,” a braised hot dog.
But save your appetite for a long, leisurely dinner at the highly acclaimed Timberyard (pictured above), which is housed in a former timber mill near Edinburgh Castle. The massive space has the look and feel of an industrial loft and was designed by co-owner Andrew Ratford. He kept the original floorboards and exposed ceiling beams, and an outdoor area houses quail and ducks. Kick off with a cocktail like the Rum Shrub, which is made with spruce vinegar and lemon verbena, before tucking into one of the small plates called “bites,” such as smoked sea trout with crab and courgette, or quail egg served with ham hock.
Get up early to see a little more of the city. Stroll to the elegant Georgian House (pictured above) in Charlotte Square to see how a wealthy family would live in the late-18th century. The volunteers are eager to chat and happy to point out little details like the comical design at the bottom of chamber pot, which was traditionally given as a wedding gift.
Head to the shabby-chic Love Crumbs bakery to pick up a sweet treat to bring on the plane. This shop only sells cakes and tarts, which are displayed in an old armoire. Go for the fig-and-almond polenta cake, or the sea-salt-and-olive-oil chocolate cake.
Where to Stay
The Balmoral offers one of the best locations in the city, and is ideal for those looking for a big, full-service hotel complete with a Michelin-starred restaurant, new whisky bar, and spa. For something a little smaller, try Paul Kitching’s 21212. Best known as one of the city’s top places to eat, 21212 offers four sleek bedrooms above its restaurant.
When to Go
Nobody comes to Scotland expecting good weather, so as long as you bring a raincoat, consider it a year-round destination. In August, the city comes alive during the month-long Festival Fringe, and Edinburgh’s New Year’s (or Hogmanay) celebration is also legendary. For more information on events in the city, check out Visit Scotland.
How to Get There
Direct flights to Edinburgh are available from Newark and Philadelphia, as well as Orlando and Chicago seasonally. From the East Coast, typical flight time is about 6 hours.
Christina Valhouli writes about travel, beauty and lifestyle trends. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Post and Departures.com. Follow her on Twitter: @cvalhouli.