How to Plan the Perfect Edinburgh Day Trip from London
Did you know you can visit Edinburgh in a day – from London? Let me be clear: it’s not easy – it’s a long day with lots of travel to take a day trip to Edinburgh from London. But if you time it right, you can absolutely visit the Scottish capital on a day trip from the English capital.
I had the joy to visit Edinburgh once while living in London; friends and I went up for a weekend trip (city break). While I plan to write up a guide for how to spend three days in Edinburgh at some point in the future, I wanted to share my advice for planning an Edinburgh day trip in case you have your heart set on it when planning your London itinerary.
In this post, I’ll break down your options for visiting Edinburgh from London in just one day and what to do with your time in Edinburgh once you arrive. If you’ve never considered planning a day trip to Edinburgh during your London trip, now’s the time to consider it. Siubhal sàbhailte! (That’s ‘safe travels’ in Scots Gaelic, if you’re not familiar.)
How to Get from London to Edinburgh
Just like knowing if the attractions of a place interest you enough to organize a day trip, knowing the different transport options to get to the destination is crucial. This is especially true for a further London day trip destination like Edinburgh.
Unlike other day trips, planning the travel portion of your London day trip to Edinburgh is perhaps the most important part. The two U.K. cities are over 400 miles (640km) apart, and a drive takes about 7 hours and 30 minutes. This means that – while theoretically possible – I don’t recommend driving or taking a bus if you want to visit Edinburgh in just one day from Scotland.
There are overnight buses from London to Edinburgh and back (both National Express and Megabus offer sleeper coach options from £10-£30 per person) that might be an option if you wanted to bus up to Edinburgh one night, spend the day in the city, and return by bus that next night.
The quickest way to get to Edinburgh is by plane. Considering you’re planning a day trip to Edinburgh, this might be the most convenient option in terms of time as direct flights from London to Edinburgh are usually between 60 minutes to 90 minutes. The good news is that flying between London and Edinburgh is popular and affordable, with one-way trips starting as low as £14. However, keep in mind that flying means you need to arrive at the airport two hours in advance, and transfer to/from the airports in both London and Edinburgh.
Your final option to reach Edinburgh is by train. The U.K. has excellent railway services, with London North Eastern Railway, Caledonian Sleeper, and Avanti West Coast running daily services between London and Edinburgh. The ride takes an average of 5 hours and 39 minutes, and tickets start from $21.36 if you book in advance. Most Edinburgh trains depart from either Kings Cross St. Pancras station or Euston Station, and arrive in central Edinburgh.
This means that – funnily enough – flying from London to Edinburgh (or returning) can take nearly as long as the train, when you add all the travel time in.
So what do I recommend? Personally, I loved the train ride, especially if you can catch an overnight train north from London to Edinburgh and an evening return train. However, if you want more time in Edinburgh, you might be able to catch an early morning flight there and late evening return that give you more actual time on the ground exploring the city.
The Best Things to Do for One Day in Edinburgh
Known for its Georgian architecture, buzzing pubs, and hidden alleys, Edinburgh is a fascinating city with interesting sights on every corner. I’ve compiled a list of the top things you can do here to avoid missing any.
1. Visit Edinburgh Castle
Perched on top of Castle Rock, Edinburgh Castle is arguably the highlight of any Edinburgh day trip. It is as gorgeous as it is historically relevant. Humans have occupied the castle since the Iron Age. It played a key role within the Kingdom of Scotland as one of its main strongholds, witnessing decisive conflicts like the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 14th century to the Jacobite rising of 1745.
Today, the castle houses numerous Scottish artifacts, including the Scottish Crown Jewels. Other highlights are the Great Hall and the 12th century St. Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest surviving structure in the castle, and Edinburgh. Also, the castle terrace and towers provide sweeping views over Edinburgh.
2. Walk the Royal Mile
The Royal Mile is Edinburgh’s most famous street. It runs through the heart of the medieval city connecting Edinburgh Castle with the Palace of Holyroodhouse. You will marvel at the breath-taking Gothic architecture, cobbled closes intertwining with narrow alleys, and an uncountable number of museums, galleries, cafés, pubs, restaurants, and shops, purveying the entire spectrum of goods for which Scotland is famous for: tartan plaids, whiskey, bagpipes, heraldic iconography, and more. Dare to venture into its various alleys to discover hidden historical landmarks, oddities, and interesting little secrets.
3. Try Haggis & Scotch (in a Pub!)
No Edinburgh day trip would be complete without you indulging in a few Scottish national dishes and drinks. Let’s begin with the edibles. Haggis is Scotland’s national dish; it is a savory pudding featuring the sheep’s liver, heart, and lungs, minced and mixed with beef or mutton suet and oatmeal and seasoned with onion, cayenne pepper, and other spices. The concoction is packed into a sheep’s stomach and boiled. As for the drinks, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that Scotland is a big name within the alcohol industry, with its unbeatable Scotch.
While you can get a taste of Scotch whisky at any pub, finding Haggis is a tad more difficult, especially the original recipe. I suggest you ask the hotel’s staff or locals where you can sample Haggis. Amber, the restaurant at The Scotch Whisky Experience, serves a good selection of Haggis.
4. Climb Arthur’s Seat
Arthur’s Seat is the highest peak of a group of hills within Holyrood Park. It is an ancient volcano and is 823 feet tall. Climbing the gorgeous peak will grant you outstanding views of Edinburgh. ‘
At a glance, climbing up Arthur’s Seat doesn’t look intimidating. Don’t underestimate the hike to the top, though. While it isn’t long, the walk up is steep. Bring comfortable shoes, a wind-proof jacket, and a bottle of water. Within the park, you can also visit St Anthony’s Chapel – a 15th-century medieval chapel, Salisbury Crags – a series of 150-foot cliff faces dominating Edinburgh’s skyline, as well as Duddingston Loch – a freshwater loch rich in birdlife.
5. Admire the View from Calton Hill
You can still get good views without engaging in a strenuous climb. Calton Hill is one of Edinburgh’s most prominent hills. Besides providing sublime views of the city, the hill also has a collection of historical monuments, with the National Monument as the most famous one. It is a memorial to the Scottish soldiers and sailors who died fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. Its architecture resembles the Parthenon in Athens.
You can access the top of the hill from a staircase at Regent Road on the south side of the hill, Royal Terrace on the north side of the hill, or you can drive up and park. Its summit gives you panoramic views of the city and many landmarks, including Arthur’s Seat, the Parliament, Leith and the Firth of Forth, Princes Street, and the Royal Mile.
6. Climb the Scott Monument
You can not plan an Edinburgh day trip and skip the Scott Monument. However, it would be pretty hard to miss it, as its unique structure elicits curiosity in all passersby.
The architectural gem is a crenelated, Gothic spire monument commemorating Scottish author Sir Walter Scott. Its imposing architecture enhances the medieval feel of Edinburgh’s most historic district. You can ascend for a modest fee of £4 and enjoy excellent views of Calton Hill, the Prince Street Gardens, and Edinburgh Castle. As a heads up, the staircase has 287 steps to the top. So it might not be suitable for everyone.
7. Visit the Scottish National Gallery
Located on Princes Street, the Scottish National Gallery is every art lover’s dream. Despite the gallery not being as big as many others in Europe, this museum’s paintings and portraits collection are fantastic, with many Renaissance, Baroque and Romantic masterpieces worth visiting. The museum’s collection features paintings from the Renaissance up to the 20th century, featuring both Scottish and international artists. The museum is free, although you have to book tickets in advance through their website.
8. Tour the Real Mary King’s Close
The expression there’s more than meets the eye applies perfectly to a city like Edinburgh. Mary King’s Close is a system of streets and spaces from the 1600s Century hidden beneath Royal Mile. The historic close got its name from a merchant burgess who resided in the Close in the 17th century. Its historic relevance goes back to the 17th Century when the Bubonic plague hit Scotland and its population.
For a long time, people have associated the close with urban legends and myths, due to the many Bubonic plague victims who died there. Continuum Attractions organizes a one-hour social history tour where guests explore the close’s hidden streets and learn the spookiest stories.
9. Experience the Camera Obscura
I think Camera Obscura is a fantastic stop for families that visit Edinburgh from London. Located in Outlook Tower, the Camera Obscura is Edinburgh’s oldest visitor attraction, dating back to 1853. The building features five floors of interactive, hands-on optical illusions, tricks, and fun activities, including a vortex tunnel, mirror maze, and shrinking room. You can also enjoy the most beautiful views of Edinburgh from their Rooftop Terrace with 360-degree views. Just so you know, the illusions exhibits are usually a bit busy with people and kids, in particular, so you might have to wait to see them.
10. Take a Harry Potter Tour
Edinburgh was a key piece when J.K Rowling was conceiving Harry Potter. The British author wrote part of the first book in several city coffee shops and drew inspiration from many of the city’s buildings and landmarks to create Hogwarts Castle.
You can visit Harry Potter sites on your own. However, I suggest you book a Harry Potter tour. There are tons of options; City Explorers offers a free Harry Potter walking tour every day at 2 pm. They visit locations that inspired the books and share the relationship between each place and the author.
11. Catch a Comedy Show at The Strand
Some people save a visit to The Strand in case they have to endure inclement weather during their day trip. Rainy or not, I think you should catch a comedy show at The Strand. It is Edinburgh’s only purpose-built comedy venue, and its comedians will leave you in stitches. The acts are always top quality and highly entertaining. Most people love the venue’s intimate atmosphere and attentive staff. The food and drink are well-priced and more than reasonable despite how popular the place is. If you want to catch a Saturday show, you need to arrive well over an hour earlier to grab a decent seat– or a seat at all – as it does get very busy.
The Perfect Edinburgh Day Trip Itinerary
So how do you put it all together for an Edinburgh day trip? As I said at the top – this is a long day trip, and you want to pack a lot in since you traveled a long way to get here. Here’s how I would put together most of the attractions I mentioned above into a single – albeit tiring – day:
- Get up and catch your early morning flight or train to Edinburgh – or awaken from your overnight train or bus as you arrive in the city.
- Start by soaking in some of the capital city’s culture: art lovers can walk down The Mound St. and visit the Scottish National Gallery; architecture lovers can visit the Scott Monument on Princes St.
- Whichever attraction you chose for the majority of your morning, Edinburgh Castle is your next destination.
- After exploring the castle, walk down the Royal Mile to the east. Find a pub to have lunch along the Royal Mile.
- As the afternoon begins, consider tucking into the Real Mary King’s Close or the Camera Obscura depending on your interest.
- Continue walking through the Royal Mile to the East to find Arthur’s Seat within Holyrood Park.
- Walk down the Royal Mile again and take one last look at the city.
- Board your return bus or train – or catch a taxi to the airport for your flight back to London.
Of course you can swap out any of these activities for others that suit your interests better – or in the event that it’s rainy when you visit Edinburgh. This is still Britain after all. (For now anyway – if you want a heated discussion over your pub lunch, try asking a local how they feel about referendums and Scottish independence. Perhaps brush up your knowledge a bit first though!)
Have any questions about planning your own Edinburgh day trip from London? Let me know in the comments!