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3 1/2 days in Edinburgh

July 19, 2018 • By

Edinburgh is one of my favorite cities in the world. I can wander the Royal Mile ducking in and out of shops or pubs when the rain comes or spend hours learning about Scotland’s fascinating history in one of its many museums. With its bustling shopping and restaurant district in the New Town to the historic sites and Medieval Castle in the Old Town, there is something for everyone. The city serves as the capital of Scotland and seat of its government. It’s also the second largest financial center in the United Kingdom behind London, which means it’s not only about kilts and Whisky but a place where serious business occurs. If you go, grab a raincoat and an umbrella and imagine yourself as Mary, Queen of Scots and travel back in time to a city filled with adventure and mystery.

Fantasy Aisle, Edinburgh Castle, on Castle Rock, Old Town sits on an extinct volcano

Edinburgh Castle, on Castle Rock, Old Town sits on an extinct volcano

DAY 1

I arrive by plane from Shannon, Ireland midday, grab the Airlink directly outside baggage claim and 30 minutes later my bus drops me in the West End, where I booked an Airbnb for three nights. I drop my bag; peel off a layer of clothing and head to Edinburgh Castle, a 10-minute walk from my location. The view of Edinburgh Castle never disappoints as I narrow my focus on the medieval fortress towering high above the ground serving as a symbol of Edinburgh and the strength of the Scottish people. Mesmerized by its beauty and grace, I take a deep breath and trek up the stairs connecting the Grassmarket district to the Old Town. I spend three hours exploring the Castle’s grounds.

Edinburgh Castle – Perched at the highest point of the Old Town on Castle Rock, the castle dates to the 12th Century when King David I ruled. The courtyards and museum can get quite crowded especially in July or August so plan to go early or later in the day. Hiring a guide is highly recommended.  You can easily spend four hours visiting the site. Hours: 9:30 AM – 6:00 PM. Cost: Adults £18.50/$24, Child £11.50/$15 (Save by booking in advance) See Royal Edinburgh Ticket

Next, I brace myself for the hordes of tourists along the Royal Mile. It’s particularly crowded between King George IV Bridge and the Castle. I allow myself the beating because quiet is only minutes away as I cross South Bridge to Scott Monument, the Gothic looking steeple dedicated to Sir Walter Scott, a famous Scottish novelist and playwright. I am now in the “Mound” or Prince Street Gardens, a park filled with beckoning benches, colorful flowers and cafes directly in the shadows of the Old Town. It’s a great place for relaxing and people watching. Eager to see the castle from another vantage point, I plunk myself on a bench and stretch my legs.

Filled in land directly under the Castle known as the Mound and Princes Street Gardens

Filled in land directly under the Castle known as the Mound and Princes Street Gardens

No rest for the weary. It’s time for dinner and England is playing Nigeria in the World Cup (soccer). I retreat closer to the West End and stumble into Shakespeare’s Bar for a pint and some tomato soup. The bar is crowded but not as I expected. I chat up a bartender who informs me that the Scots aren’t big fans of the Brits. In fact, I begin to wonder why Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom. England wins and I call it a night.

DAY 2

Fantasy Aisle, Arthur's Seat, Climb for spectacular view of Edinburgh, Scotland

Arthur’s Seat, Climb for spectacular view of Edinburgh, Scotland

It’s 6:00 AM and the sun has been raging through my window since 4:30 AM. Summer in Scotland provides 17 hours of daylight making outdoor activities accessible day and night. With the forecast calling for rain, I decide to haul myself out of bed and hike Arthur’s Seat. I walk from the West End, down the Royal Mile to the beginning of the climb, which begins in front of Holyrood Palace. I ignore the signs that read, “this way” and venture along the cliff before retreating and correcting my mistake. About an hour climb to the top, I brave gusting winds to enjoy 360-degree views of the city stretching from the port to the countryside. It’s a challenging climb but accessible to all levels with the right shoes and clothing.

Fantasy Aisle, Scottish Porridge, creamy and hot. Try with honey at Sugarhouse Sandwiches along the Royal Mile

Scottish Porridge, creamy and hot. Try with honey at Sugarhouse Sandwiches along the Royal Mile

Having worked up an appetite, I make my way back to the Royal Mile where storefronts and cafes are opening. I spot a display of scones and donuts in the window of Sugarhouse Sandwiches and peek my head inside where a wave of freshly prepared baked goods lures me into the dining room. I devour a bowl of Scottish porridge with honey and a hot latte and get back to pounding the pavement.

Fantasy Aisle, Inside St. Giles Church, Church of Scotland dating from the 14th Century

Inside St. Giles Church, Church of Scotland dating from the 14th Century

I’m torn about whether to go and shower but one look at the sky reminds me this is Edinburgh and when the skies are clear take advantage of the time. I inquire about one of the many “free” walking tours along the Royal Mile. A tour starts at 10:30 AM and with one quick glance at the time, I sign up for it. My guide Chelsea is originally from Calgary, Canada and while she specializes in World War II history it’s clear after spending an hour with her she is passionate about Edinburgh’s past–her stories captivating.

There are several free tours offered along the Royal Mile but make sure to pick one that covers St. Giles Cathedral, Greyfriars Kirk and gives a historic overview of the city. There are optional Castle Tours and Haunted Edinburgh Tours also for free.  I tipped £10 /$13

Fantasy Aisle, Scott Monument, in honor of Sir Walter Scott the historical novelist.

Scott Monument, in honor of Sir Walter Scott the historical novelist.

My free tour ends at the Writers Museum and since I am in the City of Literature I want to learn more about Edinburgh’s greatest writers.  The museum showcases the works and personal items of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson.  I envision Scotland’s gripping past and revel in their stories.  Before leaving Makars’ Court, I pause to admire the inspiring words of Scottish authors inscribed in the stones throughout the square.

The Writers Museum is located off the Royal Mile in Lady Stair’s House, which dates to 1622. There is a gift shop filled with tasteful items and books from Scottish authors. Hours: 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM. Entry free

Crossing the Mound to the main thoroughfare of the New Town, Princes Street, I am exhausted from walking and hungry. I head toward my neighborhood cutting along Rose Street, a fun-filled street parallel to Princes lined with hundreds of pubs and restaurants. I pick a place for dinner and make a mental note to make a reservation. The winds have brought cloud cover and cold air and I sense rain is near. I hasten my pace and notice Fatty Owls. Its charming windows wave me inside and I order a soup and sandwich. Locals gather and I eavesdrop on their conversations. They are complaining about the weather–no surprise here. I finish my lunch with peppermint tea and remember I still need a shower.

Fantasy Aisle, Cafe Royal Oyster Bar, Oysters and Smoked Salmon a local specialty in Edinburgh

Cafe Royal Oyster Bar, Oysters and Smoked Salmon a local specialty in Edinburgh

After a shiatsu massage at the Healthy Life Centre, my taste buds are crying for food. I make my way to Rose Street in the New Town, where I attempt to negotiate with the reservation manager at the Mussel Inn. The restaurant is hopping but he politely turns his smile into a frown and suggests next time I make a reservation (I forgot to do that). The zen I am feeling from my massage is fading and I Google “Best oysters in Edinburgh near me.” Cafe Royal Circle Bar is only minutes away from my location and I make a mad dash to the restaurant. The interior bar is covered in dark wood, with soft lantern lighting. It’s lined with bar tables and booths for larger groups. My eyes dancing with excitement, my stomach gnawing, I order smoked salmon, two-dozen oysters, chips and a typical Scottish dessert with berries and cream sauce. Wishing I had a wheel barrel to escort me home, I step into the pounding rain and call an uber. I sleep well. *Tricky to find with construction. Find the Apple store on Princes Street and make your way around the corner.

Fantasy Aisle, The Abbey, part of Holyrood Palace dates back to 1128

The Abbey, part of Holyrood Palace dates back to 1128

DAY 3

Today, I retrace my steps from Day 2 and locate Sugarhouse Sandwiches. It is only minutes away by foot from Holyrood Palace and my first stop of the day. I gorge myself on a warm blueberry scone but it’s not enough and I order the creamy Scottish porridge with honey–again. The Scots prepare their food piping hot, I burn my mouth on the porridge but waiting for it to cool is not an option.

Fantasy Aisle, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Queen's residence in Scotland

Palace of Holyroodhouse, Queen’s residence in Scotland

Heeding my own advice, I arrive at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s residence in Scotland, right at 9:30 AM when the ticket desk opens. It’s too early for tourist buses and I’m free to roam the public rooms of the palace fantasizing about life as a member of the Royal Family. Staff is busy preparing the grounds and palace for Queen Elizabeth’s arrival next week.  I ponder who in Scotland can secure me an invite but no one comes to mind.

Palace of HolyroodhouseThe palace serves as the Queen’s residence when she is in Scotland. There is a beautiful art collection and the audio guide tour provides a great overview of the history of the palace as well as what function it serves today. There are also several options for guided tours. Be sure to explore the Abbey and grounds directly behind the palace before exiting the entry gates. To beat the crowds, go right when the palace opens at 9:30 AM. Cost: Adults  £14.00, $18 – Over 60 / Student (with valid ID) £12.70 /$16.50  See Royal Edinburgh Ticket

My afternoon plans are set giving me enough time to tackle Calton Hill. With its steep hills and winding pathways, the city is keeping me fit. I alert my quads to the climb ahead, and drag my body up more stairs arriving at St. Andrew’s House, the headquarters of Scottish government. I pause to take in views of the Old Town specifically admiring Edinburgh Castle, the Scottish Parliament Building and Holyrood Palace. A little less breathless, I hike more steps to a cluster of historic buildings: National Monument, Nelson Monument, the Dugald Stewart Monument, Robert Burns Monument. This is a great location to admire panoramic views of the city and appreciate Scottish history.

Fantasy Aisle, Lobster for lunch in Leith at the Ship on the Shore

Lobster for lunch in Leith at the Ship on the Shore

It’s about time for lunch and I wind my way down Calton Hill to Leith Walk, the main road connecting the city center to the port of Leith. It’s about a 30-35-minute walk from the New Town and I want to work up an appetite. I am craving lobster and where better to go for seafood than Leith. The Ship on the Shore is located steps away from the port and clustered around inviting docks and other seafood restaurants and cafes. I order the smoked salmon, oysters, garlic lobster and chips. When the waitress asks if I want dessert, I decline feeling glutinous.

Fantasy Aisle, Calton Hill, place of many Scottish monuments and great views of the city.

Calton Hill, place of many Scottish monuments and great views of the city.

It’s a gorgeous afternoon and the sun is granting me a gift. I walk back to the city center along the Water of Leith nature path starting at the docks and ending at the Tesco Supermarket in the New Town. The path is great for walkers and bikers and tree and bush provide a shady respite from the sun or rain. It’s now late afternoon and I haven’t made time for shopping. I cut through Queen Street Gardens and sneak a look in the stores along George Street. They are mostly US and UK chains catering more to the mainstream than tourists and my dollar doesn’t go far on the pound. I escape bag free.

Fantasy Aisle, Grassmarket or Harry Potter's Diagon Alley. You decide?

Grassmarket or Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. You decide?

I have a few hours until my next tour and decide caffeine is needed to snap me out of my food coma. The Grassmarket in the Old Town is adjacent to Edinburgh Castle and provides plenty of cafes and pubs to grab a beer, pastry or coffee and tea. There are also upscale Scottish brands and tourist shops to peruse. I am appropriately jolted awake when my heart rate and Victoria Street collide. I stop in a Harry Potter themed store to catch my breath and notice a women’s dress shop across the street. I am admiring myself in the mirror twirling from side to side when a little voice inside reminds me I will never wear a plaid kilt in New York City.  I am proud of my willpower and that I saved £190/$247.

Fantasy Aisle, Edinburgh's famous literary pub tour nightly at 7:30 PM

Edinburgh’s famous literary pub tour nightly at 7:30 PM

It’s Happy Hour and I am excited for the Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour.  We gather at the Beehive Inn in the Grassmarket where our hosts for the evening begin exuberantly ranting about Robert Burns and I don’t quite get the joke and I scrutinize my fellow tourists across the room. It hits me. This man and woman are performers. This is an act! My group consisted of 10 people (English speakers) from Canada, Australia and the United States. We laughed for hours (pub = alcohol) learning as much about Edinburgh’s literary community as Scottish history. After the tour ended, five of us—one couple from Michigan, the other from near Ottawa and me–took the idea of pub crawl to its literal sense and closed out the night around midnight chasing open pubs along Rose Street until the bewitching hour forced us to call it a night at McDonald’s for greasy fries.

Edinburgh Literary Pub TourThis is very fun. Tours are nightly at 7:30 PM with a group of about 10 people. Actors portray Edinburgh’s greatest writers and tell their stories in pubs in the Old Town and New Town — many of the pubs are historic places where writers gathered or fashioned their stories. If this is your first visit to Edinburgh, I suggest booking on day one. Sorry over age 18 only. Cost £12/$16

Fantasy Aisle, Enjoying a pint on the literary pub crawl

Enjoying a pint on the literary pub crawl

1/2 BONUS DAY

I wake up groggy, the effects from the pub tour and fries obvious. It’s my last day and I have goals to accomplish. I pack up my suitcase and depart the Airbnb as I found it–sparkling clean. Lugging my belongings the 10-minute walk to the Grassmarket, I spy a vegan cafe, Pumpkin Brown, where I proceed to shovel down a raw bowl of mixed fruit muesli and a turmeric latte. This will definitely realign my system; I hope.

Fantasy Aisle, Healthy option at Brown Pumpkin in the Grassmarket neighborhood of the Old Town, Edinburgh

Healthy option at Brown Pumpkin in the Grassmarket neighborhood of the Old Town, Edinburgh

I struggle to carry my suitcase up Victoria Street, over George IV Bridge to Waverly Train station. I don’t remember sweating this much in Edinburgh. The “left luggage” services are near the Princes Street entrance. After zig-zagging through passengers, I park my possessions with two nice men, grab a ticket and listen to their warning, “After 2 hours, the price jumps.” Free of my constraints, I am reborn, and off to wander the Royal Mile one last time.

Fantasy Aisle, John Gray's famous Skye Terrier Bobby

John Gray’s famous Skye Terrier Bobby

The stairs from the New Town to the Old Town continue to plague me but I am on a Harry Potter discovery mission and time is ticking. I walk through the Grassmarket to an unmarked entrance connecting Greyfriars Kirk to the Old Town. The free city tour visits the cemetery but I want to see more. I secure a map from the church and to my surprise and pure exhilaration, I locate the McGonagal, Cornelius, Moodie, Black and Potter tombstones. They served as an inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s characters in the Harry Potter novels. I take a second look at George Heriot’s School, and observe its likeness to Hogwarts. My imagination carries me to the pages of Harry Potter and I wish I could cast a spell to stay here forever but I have one more stop before lunch.

Fantasy Aisle, Greyfriars Kirkyard, an inspiration for Harry Potter and other Edinburgh Tales

Greyfriars Kirkyard, an inspiration for Harry Potter and other Edinburgh Tales

Visiting the National Museum of Scotland is a must for families especially on a rainy day. I browse through the displays on Scottish dress through the ages and take special note of the different clan attire. Each clan represented by a different colored kilt and hat.

National Museum of ScotlandThe museum contains Scottish antiquities, culture and history and it’s next to the Royal Museum, which holds the science and technology, and natural history exhibits. The galleries are spacious and there are special traveling exhibits year round. There is also an extensive gift shop and two cafes to eat or drink. Hours: 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM.  Entry free

Fantasy Aisle, Sea Bass from Restaurant Ondine on George IV Bridge Old Town

Sea Bass from Restaurant Ondine on George IV Bridge Old Town

It’s noon –and an early lunch is in order. I scoped out Ondine previously and knew it would serve as a great place for my final meal in Edinburgh. I order a glass of wine (hair of the dog), two-dozen oysters, and the seabass with creamed spinach. I even eat the bread with butter. Satisfied, I walk along the Royal Mile slowing my pace, taking in the fresh air and gazing affectionately on the castle. I browse a few stores buying a knit hat from the Tartan Weaving Mill and an Edinburgh patterned cashmere scarf from Kiltane.

Now it’s certainly time to go. I collect my bags, paying more than I intended and I study the boards for Glasgow Queen Station. To discover Edinburgh is to live its stories.  I can’t wait to visit again.

All Aboard!

 

Important Note:  Edinburgh is also know as Festival City and boasts some of the best international art, music, theater and storytelling in the world.  I highly recommend visiting the festival website for more information.  The city swells to capacity during the Fringe and Military Tattoo festivals in August.

For a complete list of the places I visited, see below the photos.

 

LISTING

Airlink

Located outside baggage claim.  Arrives every 15 minutes. From the Airport to the Center of Town, it costs  £4.50 and takes about 30/35 minutes.

WHERE TO EAT

Restaurants New Town

Mussel Inn
61-65 Rose Street – Mussels and fries. Small space, fun area.  Make a reservation.

Cafe Royal Circle Bar
19 W Register Street – Go for the atmosphere, oysters and Whisky.

Fishers in the City
58 Thistle Street – Seafood / Original restaurant located in Leith.

Restaurants Old Town

Ondine
2 George IV Bridge – Seafood (expensive).  Right off Royal Mile. Great views of George IV Street and Victoria Street.

Sugarhouse Sandwiches
158 Canongate (on the Royal Mile) – Great cakes, muffins, breakfast and lunch, vegan, vegetarian options. Homemade everything. I loved the Porridge so much I went back twice.

Restaurants Grassmarket

La Barantine Victoria
Victoria Street – French Patisserie and cafe, soups, sandwiches to stay or go.

Pumpkin Brown
16 Grassmarket – Vegan, organic cafe and light meals to stay or go.

Restaurants West End

Fatty Owls
33 Bread Street – Charming cafe, soup, sandwiches, coffee, tea.
fattyowls2016@hotmail.com

Shakespeare’s Bar – Pub grub, meat pies, fish and chips, beer.
65 Lothian Road

Restaurants Leith

The Ship on the Shore
24 26 The Shore – Seafood restaurant and Champagne bar.  Fish brought in daily.
seafood@theshipontheshore.co.uk

Fishers
1 The Shore – Nautical old-fashioned feeling, oysters and wine

TOURIST ATTRACTIONS 

Old Town

Edinburgh Castle – Book a guided tour and arrive early.

Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour
info@edinburghliterarypubtour.co.uk

Palace of Holyroodhouse
9:30 AM – 6:00 PM – Go early to beat the crowds.

Real Mary Kings Close – Underground streets and old stories of the “real” Edinburgh.  Meet the residents.  *Must make a reservation. It’s one hour and there are tours every 15 minutes.
On the Royal Mile near St. Giles Cathedral

Writers Museum

National Museum of Scotland

Leith

The Royal Yacht Britannia – Explore 5 decks including the State Apartments and the Engine Room. It is accessible by Lothian Buses 11, 22 and Skylink 200 and 300 every 10 minutes to Ocean Terminal.

SHOPPING

New Town

Multrees Street – Luxury designers like Louis Vuitton

George Street – Upmarket retail US and UK based chains like Anthropologie, Karen Millen, LK Bennett

Princes Street – Apple store, McDonald’s, House of Fraser, Vodafone

Old Town

Kiltane of Scotland – Cashmere, wool & tweed scarves, kilts, jackets
336-340 Lawnmarket

Tartan Weaving Mill –  Nearby the Castle. Nice quality gifts, clothing, everything
555 Castlehill

FITNESS

Healthy Life Centre – Holistic Treatments and Therapies, Yoga and Pilates
35-37 Broad Street – West End

 

 


Europe, General travel, History

Unraveling the Mysteries of Edinburgh

July 17, 2018 • By

Walking along the Royal Mile’s cobblestone streets, I pause to hear the whispers of another time but I shake my arms and stave off the voices. I don’t have time to listen. I am rushing to hike Arthur’s Seat before the rain arrives and in Edinburgh, rain is imminent.

Fantasy Aisle, Arthur's Seat, Climb for spectacular view of Edinburgh, Scotland

Arthur’s Seat, Climb for spectacular view of Edinburgh, Scotland

In summer, daylight blankets the city for more than 17 hours a day. The sun has been stretching for nearly four hours and provides me with needed inspiration for my climb. My hike to Arthur’s Seat, the looming hill that begins at the base of the Old Town, provides 360-degree views of the city. It’s worth the racing heartbeat and howling wind to get a better layout of this great Medieval City.

Fantasy Aisle, Edinburgh Castle, a Medieval fortress overlooking the city served as a Royal Palace and a Military Complex

Edinburgh Castle, a Medieval fortress overlooking the city served as a Royal Palace and a Military Complex

From atop Arthur’s Seat, I imagine the battles that took place in the fields surrounding Edinburgh Castle when clans armed with military might and passion for power fought for control of Castle Rock, the ultimate trophy. I peer out on the Firth of Forth and envision the great ships that docked in its waters and the hope and hopelessness of the people on shore. The wind whips around my body attempting to imprison me but I snap back into the present. Clouds hover, the vibrant color of the city changes to gray and subdued and I retreat down the hill.

Fantasy Aisle, The Queens residence in Scotland, Palace of Holyroodhouse

The Queens residence in Scotland, Palace of Holyroodhouse

Edinburgh symbolizes Scotland’s strength and resilience. The city encapsulates a rich history of war and peace, prosperity and poverty, religion and royalty. Wandering through the city’s streets, I am transported back in time. I wait for the extinct volcano on which the Old Town resides to quiver, to send shock waves. I conjure images of Robert Louis Stevenson’s, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and understand how one person could be consumed by two personalities in Edinburgh. Locals attribute the tale to Deacon Brodie, an infamous politician who served as a respected businessman during the day and robbed people by night. Others claim the novel is based on the division of rich and poor ever apparent in the differences between the Old Town and the New Town. In the late 1700s, as buildings deteriorated and disease ran rampant, wealthy families created a new living and business quarter or “New Town” off the Castle Rock and steps away from the Old Town. Today, tourist shops, cafes and pubs line the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s residence in Scotland, but there are still signs of a torrid past as the voices I heard earlier return and I understand there is no escaping the magic of this city.

People from all over the world are attracted to Edinburgh for its cultural significance. Students flock to the city for higher education and remain after their studies. My guide Chelsea, originally from Calgary, Canada, arrived in Edinburgh eight years ago to obtain a Masters of Arts at the University of Edinburgh.  She says the city’s allure is often a romanticized version of its past where disease and despair receive more attention than the perseverance and pride of its people.

Fantasy Aisle, George Heriot's School or Hogwort's. Believed to be the inspiration for J.K. Rowling's Hogworts

George Heriot’s School or Hogwart’s. Believed to be the inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts

Known as the City of Literature, Edinburgh’s stories transcend time. The words of Edinburgh’s greatest writers awaken in the narrow passageways connecting the New Town to the Old Town and the past to the present. I often feel like I am navigating an Inspector Rebus novel or that I’m Hermione Granger, a character in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and the evil Voldemort will cast a spell on me any minute. There is an aura of mystery in Edinburgh where history, education, music, and storytelling are intertwined and revered and the talk of literature is as much a part of the conversation as the weather.

Fantasy Aisle, Highland Bagpiper in traditional attire

Traditional Clan Attire and a Highland Bag Pipe

There are many more chapters to read and pages to write about this great capital city of Scotland but I am late for tea with the Queen* and I must not keep her waiting.  I’ve heard there will be piping bands and I love a man in a kilt.

*My invite must have been lost in the mail