Edinburgh is the perfect city for a weekend break – compact, easily navigable, and packed with iconic landmarks, staggering views, and an unparalleled mix of natural and architectural beauty. 'Piled deep and massy, close and high,' wrote the city’s most famous writer, Sir Walter Scott, 'Mine own romantic town.' One of the most beautiful cities in Europe, a large amount of Scotland’s capital can be covered in just two days.
Beautiful Edinburgh is the perfect size for a two-day city break © Jonathan Smith / Lonely Planet
What better way to start your Edinburgh adventure than with a bracing walk up Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano in the heart of the city that reaches 251m above sea level at its highest point. Royal parks don’t get more majestic than this. On a clear day the panoramic views across the city (combined with the famed east coast wind) are truly breathtaking. If you don’t fancy the climb or the weather is a bit more, shall we say, typically Scottish, any of the other routes in Holyrood Park are almost as epic, offering marshland, lochs, ruins, wildflowers, and heather-and-gorse clad hills. Afterwards grab brunch at Hemma, a hearty Swedish cafe-bar at the foot of Arthur’s Seat. You’ve earned a full Scottish.
Hike up Arthur's Seat to enjoy some exercise and expansive views across the city © Joe Dunckley / Shutterstock
Refueled, check out the official residence of the Queen in Scotland, Holyrood Palace, and its fascinating, sometimes bloody, past. Across the road is the Scottish Parliament, a modern building formally opened in 2004 that people tend to either love or hate: book ahead for a free hour-long tour. Next, wander up the Royal Mile, peeking – or as it’s known in Scots, keeking – down the many cobbled closes and narrow stairways that run off this world famous street. This is the heart of Edinburgh’s atmospheric Old Town and every single higgledy-piggledy tenement, monument and close has a story to tell. Halfway up is St Giles Cathedral with its iconic crown steeple. At the top is Scotland’s most popular tourist attraction: Edinburgh Castle, a majestic 12th-century fortress dramatically perched on sheer volcanic rock. If hunger strikes along the way, Salt Horse is great for burgers and craft beers, Monteith’s is a hidden gem nestled on the Royal Mile, and the Grain Store is a beautiful Scottish restaurant boasting fantastic lunch deals.
The modern design of the Scottish Parliament Building has both its fans and detractors © Jonathan Smith / Lonely Planet
As evening falls, amble down picturesque Victoria Street to the buzzing Grassmarket, an old cattle market that has the dubious honour of once being home to Edinburgh’s public executions, but is now lined with traditional pubs, pavement cafes, and restaurants. Enjoy a pre-dinner drink here at the cosy White Hart Inn, where Robert Burns once stayed, or a dram of whisky at the Bow Bar, where more than 300 Scotch malts are displayed in a giant mahogany gantry. Round off your Old Town evening and first day in Auld Reekie (Old Smoky, Edinburgh’s nickname) at Ondine. This is the place for Scottish seafood in the capital, served in a chic modern setting. Start with a plate of the freshest oysters you’ve ever eaten and a glass of fizz.
The traditional White Hart Inn has a Robert Burns connection © Jonathan Smith / Lonely Planet
Every day should begin with a top-notch coffee, and every Edinburgher knows that Artisan Roast is the place to go for the most serious beans in town, roasted in nearby Prestonfield and sold at three hipster cafes across the city. Go to the original one, a tiny, richly scented spot on Broughton Street, then browse the gorgeous, nearby, independent shops including Curiouser & Curiouser and Life Story. From here you’re ready to head into the New Town, which (along with the Old Town) is a Unesco World Heritage Site and a masterpiece of Georgian urban planning. This elegant network of streets and crescents is well worth an hour or two of exploration, with its grand townhouses encircling private gardens hidden behind iron railings. If shopping is more your bag than architectural swooning, head to the main New Town commercial arteries of George Street and Princes Street.
Join the crowds and do some shopping along popular Princes Street © Jonathan Smith / Lonely Planet
For lunch, try El Cartel, a tiny Mexican eatery serving the best tacos in the city, Baba, a glamorous mezze, charcoal grill and cocktail bar inspired by flavours from the Levant, or Gardener’s Cottage, a beautiful restaurant in an actual old gardener’s cottage with a menu created from produce grown in its own organic plot. Then walk it off in Princes Street Gardens, a glorious public park laid out in a valley that was once a loch in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. Bisecting Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns, it’s full of stunning flower displays in summer and locals, office workers, and tourists grabbing a sandwich and an iconic view on one of the many benches. Next head to the Scottish National Gallery on the Mound, comprising two beautiful, neoclassical buildings that together house one of the greatest art collections in the world – browse works by artists including Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt, Turner, Monet and Van Gogh.
When you need a rest with a view, head to Princes Street Gardens © Will Salter / Lonely Planet
Head to lively Leith in the north of Edinburgh, a historic port resting on the shore of the Firth of Forth and home to many of the city’s best restaurants and bars. Treat yourself to dinner (make sure you book well ahead) at one of two exquisite Michelin-starred restaurants in the area: Kitchin, one of the top fine dining restaurants in the UK, or Restaurant Martin Wishart, where classic French technique meets Scottish cuisine. Finish off your two-day break with a stroll along the historic Shore, stopping for a glass of organic wine in Toast, a dram in the cosy Shore Bar, or a pint of craft ale in Nobles.
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