So, I have lived in the UK now for over 13 years and have somehow managed to not step foot in Scotland once. Ridiculous? Yes, I think so. It was time to remedy that.
I chose Edinburgh for my introduction to Scotland, having heard good things about it from friends. Now fairly fed up with airports and planes, I was happy to find that Edinburgh is only a short 4.5 hour train ride away from Kings Cross station in London. I arrived in the UNESCO World Heritage city just past midnight on Saturday morning, walked the short way to my hotel which was about 5 minutes away from Waverly railway station and fell asleep shortly after.
The weather was forecasted to be cloudy for the entire weekend, with rain to come on Sunday and Monday. Because of this, I planned to get all my long walks and outdoor activities over and done with on Saturday, keeping Sunday and Monday morning free to explore museums if necessary.
After an eventful Saturday morning brunch (when a fellow diner on the next table started spasming and the ambulance had to be called in) on a side road off the main tourist shopping street, Princes Street, I set off for a walk from the centre of town towards Holyrood Palace, passing through the Princes Street Gardens. Though the weather was slightly cool, it was nice to see bright flowers starting to bloom on the ground and up on the trees.
Coming across The Scott Monument in the gardens, a gothic tower dedicated to the Scottish author, Sir William Scott, I decided on a whim that climbing the 287 narrow, windy steps up to the top would be a good way to burn off those brunch calories. At a total height of 61.1 metres, the view from the top is one of the best panoramic views you’ll get in all of Edinburgh, and on a clear day is very much recommended. Be aware that the stairs are fairly narrow, especially towards the top, so it may be best to stay clear if you’re a claustrophobe.
Back on ground level, I continue my walk east, passing by a Scotsman kitted out in a kilt, playing the bagpipes. My first in-the-flesh bagpiper!! 🙂
Passing by Calton Hill, I finally reach my destination, Holyrood Palace (aka Palace of Holyroodhouse). This palace is the official residence of the British royal family in Scotland and is where Queen Elizabeth II spends one week at the beginning of summer each year. Entrance fees includes an audio guide that accompanies you through the main rooms, Holyrood Abbey and the gardens and grounds.
The ruins of Holyrood Abbey were a particularly memorable sight, where the structure of the abbey clearly remains standing, though much of the roof no longer exists!
After exiting the palace grounds, I continued walking to the nearby Holyrood Park, with the intention of reaching the main peak, Arthur’s Seat (some speculate the name is derived from the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table). The walk is rocky and steep at times, but fairly easy if taken slowly, and I reach my target in just under an hour. My reward is a fabulous view of Edinburgh city. It’s such a shame the sun wasn’t out, or the view would’ve been even more spectacular.
My walk down from the hill is even quicker and I’m soon on the Royal Mile, heading back towards the centre of town. The Royal Mile is filled with small souvenir shops, pubs and kilt makers, and of most interest to me, some famous traditional hand-made fudge shops. Small alleyways (or closes as they call it) with interesting names lead off the main road on the left and right, much like a herringbone, though I’m not brave enough to explore them on a gloomy and dark day like today.
I decide to veer off the Royal Mile onto Cockburn Street, a cute little street filled with colourful shops that curves to the left. It is on this street that I discover a busy Indian and Nepalese restaurant. Having not had Nepalese food in well over 6 years, I decide to stop and end my first day of sightseeing here with some dinner. It wasn’t Scottish, but it was good!
I unfortunately woke up the following morning to another cloudy day, as expected, though counted myself lucky as it wasn’t raining yet, as forecasted. There was a cool looking Swedish cafe that I wanted to check out for brunch, so I made my way over towards The Meadows, making sure to pass by the University of Edinburgh along the way.
Having difficulty with what to choose for brunch when there were so many tasty looking options on offer, I ended going with both the pancakes AND the breakfast tray, comprising fresh bread and butter, cheese, berry jam, marmalade, granola with yogurt, fresh fruit and orange juice. Topped off with a latte, it was a good start to the day.
From here, I set off on a deliberately slow and indirect route towards Edinburgh Castle, passing by the quaint, tourist-frequented streets of Victoria Street and Grassmarket Street, as well as stopping by Greyfriars Kirkyard (to visit the memorial of Greyfriars Bobby, the most famous loyal dog) and the Elephant House Cafe (famous for being the place where JK Rowling wrote a number of her Harry Potter novels). After a short walk uphill, I finally reach and enter the first gate of Edinburgh Castle, where I proceed to spend the better part of 3 hours exploring all that the site has to offer.
If you ever get the chance to visit, be sure to start with one of the free guided tours, as it gives visitors a brief history of the castle and points out the main buildings that are open to visitors. The Scottish crown jewels and St. Margaret’s Chapel are not to be missed, but there are also a bunch of other attractions to see, such as the prisons, Great Hall, war memorial and Scottish royal state apartments.
After making a detour to get more fudge, I made my way back towards Greyfriars Kirkyard. I had decided to join the Potter Trail walking tour on a whim after seeing a small poster advertising this free tour at the Elephant House. I calmly waited for 5pm to come by under the drizzle and was delighted to be met by a wizard in a cape when the time came (along with about 15-20 other people).
I wasn’t expecting much, considering it was free after all, but was pleasantly surprised. This 1.5 hour tour took us round all of the main sites around the centre of Edinburgh that has some connection to JK Rowling or the Harry Potter book series. Our guide Will was superb – friendly, articulate, passionate and full of great Rowling / Potter trivia. I’m not a crazy fan, but I am quite a big one and so, was happy to geek out with others upon finding out, for instance, the inspiration behind Professor McGonagall, Thomas Riddle and Hogwarts.
I also found out that Victoria Street was, most likely, the street after which Diagon Alley was modelled!
If you’re a Potter fan, do yourself a favour and get yourself on one of these tours – I can’t recommend it enough! There’s no need to book (you just show up outside the Greyfriars Bobby Bar) and as I’ve already mentioned, no formal need to pay. They will ask for tips at the end though, and you only pay as much as you really think it’s worth (which I thought was very fair).
After a lovely dinner of casual French food, I returned back to my hotel stuffed and satisfied after another good day of sightseeing.
My train back to London the following day was only due to depart at 4.30pm, so I had another half a day to visit what I hadn’t got round to seeing in Edinburgh yet – the museums! I didn’t want to rush through multiple museums, and so chose just the one that I really wanted to visit, the National Museum of Scotland. As luck would have it, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition was on (for free!), which I had been wanting to check out in London, so I happily spent my time browsing through all the stunning photos before briefly checking out the rest of the museum.
It was soon time to make my way back to Waverly Station however, for my 5 hour train ride back to London. The weather hadn’t been great all weekend, but I am still glad I finally managed to visit Edinburgh after all these years. It has been a great introduction to Scotland.