We left London on September 27, boarding a train at King’s Cross Station. Trains in Europe will never cease to amaze me because – get this – they’re on time. To the minute. Again, maybe this is the jaded DC metro rider talking, but I can’t get enough of it. Our train took us across the eastern part of England, then up along the coast headed towards Scotland. The train tracks kissed the coast line and we had stunning vistas of the North Sea crashing against the rocky shore. Trains give you a much better view than buses, since you’re not stuck on a motorway. You feel much closer to the landscape as you smoothly chug along. This sightseeing journey soon came to an end, and we stepped off the train at Edinburgh Central into a different world. Instead of the packed underground station of London with crowds leading up into the buzzing metropolis above, we instead entered into a landscape dripping with history, lilting with Scottish brogue, and yes, the music of bagpipes. Welcome to Edinburgh!
Edinburgh is easily one of the most delightful European cities I’ve visited. The main touristy areas are divided into two parts, the Royal Mile and New Town. There is a ton of history I could cover but I’ll be brief – the old city built itself up around Edinburgh Castle on the hill, which makes up one end of the Royal Mile. Down the High Street (and consequently, the hill) are numerous shops, restaurants, churches, and museums. At the other end is Holyrood Palace, Queen Elizabeth II’s official Scottish residence. This part of the city is the oldest, and was jam-packed with people in the 16th and 17th centuries. The tenements would have been considered skyscrapers of their time, and the poor lived in the same buildings as the rich, both chucking their waste out the window into the mucky “closes” below. Closes are what we may consider alleyways – historically, they had a gate at the street side that would need to be closed, hence the name. Eventually, the rich got tired of living in such conditions and passing their impoverished neighbors on the stairs, so they built New Town, a monument to Georgian elegance on the south side of the castle. They drained the sewage-ridden lake in-between and made it into a verdant park. These wide lanes and neo-classical looking buildings are a very different flavor, but just as fascinating.
Our hostel was right next to Edinburgh Castle at the head of the Royal Mile, creatively named Castle Rock Hostel. Unfortunately for us, this meant uphill from the train station, and we dragged our suitcases up many staircases. Edinburgh is built on several levels, which makes for spectacular views, but painful suitcase-dragging. The hostel itself was wonderful, if a bit crowded. The common rooms were all decorated in kitschy medieval decor, and it was relatively clean with a well-stocked kitchen. Hostels are always hit or miss depending on who is in your room for the night, and we lucked out most nights. All in all it was a pleasant experience, and I won’t say anything more on the subject of hostels, except for these three things: whispering is a perfectly viable way of communicating if your roommates are asleep, don’t re-organize your entire suitcase at five in the morning (for goodness sake), and finally if you snore like that, please get it medically checked for our sake and yours.
On our first full day, we toured the Royal Mile. The street is positively teeming with tourists, either piling out of giant buses that break the laws of physics to get up the narrow lanes or as part of a very stationary tour group conveniently stopped in front of the door you’re trying to get in. On the street there are plenty of buskers during daylight hours, and if you’re on the Royal Mile you are always in hearing distance of at least one set of bagpipes. It’s quite atmospheric, though I wonder what word the nearby shopkeepers would use. There are vendors that have set up shop in little tents along the way as well, and I’ll be darned if it isn’t basically a Renaissance Faire in living city form. Clayton and I don’t like really touristy areas, mostly because of the crowds and cost, but despite all the hustle and bustle of the Royal Mile, we really enjoyed it. It’s easy to quickly escape the crowds by nipping down a “close” or stepping into a museum, most of which are free. The sites that you do have to pay for are reasonably affordable, and really well
put together. We stepped into Gladstone’s Land, a surviving 17th century tenement house with hand-painted Renaissance ceilings and tiny, winding stone staircases. We proceeded to visit several other free museums, including the Museum of Childhood, Museum of Edinburgh, and the People’s Story Museum. All of these created a detailed picture of not only the history of Edinburgh, but the lives of the people within it through the centuries. They’re directly on the Royal Mile, but a bit further down the hill from the castle so there are way less crowds. It seems tour groups don’t hit these little gems, which is a shame for them, great for us.
The next day led us into posher quarters – New Town. Edinburgh is a very walkable city if you aren’t adverse to stairs and hills, and New Town was only about twenty minutes from our hostel. This area had far fewer crowds. We get the impression that most tourists just do a day in Edinburgh and hit the castle and Royal Mile highlights. We made our way through the squares and avenues to the Georgian House, a restored house on Charlotte Square in the heart of New Town. This and Gladstone’s Land did cost money, but we managed to get a National Trust pass. You can get a three or five day pass if you buy a ticket at a National Trust site, and it gets you in the others for free. Although we only visited the two, it saved a few pounds. Each one counts!
The Georgian House was probably my favorite museum in Edinburgh. The grand townhouse has been lavishly restored to mimic what it was like in the late-18th and early 19th centuries, and the docents in each room were incredibly knowledgeable and eager to share. I felt like I walked into an Austen novel. I particularly liked the “hands on” room where you are encouraged to fiddle with different historical tools and calligraphy writing, and I was fascinated with everything from the sheer volume that Georgians ate to how the servants’ bells worked.
The next morning found us at even fancier digs, as we were exploring Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Scotland. Like Westminster Abbey, no photography was allowed inside, so we got to enjoy the audio tour and sights without any distraction. The Palace of Holyroodhouse is at the opposite end of the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle, and right across the street from the Scottish Parliament (which, if you ask me, looks entirely out of place, but modern art will be modern “art”). Built next to a medieval Abbey, whose ruins still grace the gardens today, Holyrood Palace was built in the 16th century and was the residence for such royalty as James IV and Mary, Queen of Scots. It may be plainer than Versailles, which is the definition of opulence, but compared to my last apartment, it was highly detailed and elegant. It houses tapestries centuries old, and we had chills standing in Mary’s bedchambers and looking at the very bed she slept in. The palace is still in use today,
I can’t mention Edinburgh without discussing Harry Potter. Harry Potter tourism has exploded in Edinburgh, as JK Rowling wrote most of the series in the city. She wrote the first few books at The Elephant House cafe, and as wealth and prestige poured in, she finished her the brilliant story in the Balmoral Hotel. Now, side by side with souvenir shops are stores dedicated to Harry Potter merchandise. There are Harry Potter tours you can take that take you to a bunch of places where she “supposedly” got inspiration, but rather than pay a pretty penny for one of those, Clayton and I went to see some sights for ourselves. We passed through Victoria Street several times as we explored the city, which may have been the inspiration for Diagon Alley. Whether it was or wasn’t where she got the idea, it felt like we were in Diagon Alley regardless. Colorful shops were tucked away beneath the tall, stone buildings with peaked roofs, and the rain cast an otherworldly mist as a bonus. We also visited Greyfriars Kirkyard (aka graveyard) with several headstones that will sound very familiar such as a McGonagall, Moodie, and most famously, Thomas Riddell. We were careful to be respectful, and we saw that many visitors have left notes of thanks to Rowling for her works at the graves. Unrelated to Harry Potter but fascinating to see were cages installed over several graves to prevent gravediggers – evidently people would come and steal bodies to sell to the medical college in years past. How awful! Another, less macabre Edinburgh site in Greyfriars is the grave of Greyfriars Bobby. Bobby was a Skye Terrier in the 1800s that became famous in Edinburgh for guarding the grave of his master, a nightwatchman, for fourteen years. They had been inseparable for two years before the man’s death, and Bobby never left his side. The grave is extremely touching, and when we realized what the pile of sticks in front of his headstone were for, it brought a tear to our eyes and we each added a stick of our own. A fitting, or should I say fetching, tribute.
We had passed by The Elephant House cafe several times. The otherwise rather plain coffee shop was swarmed with tourists inside and out. It’s the only coffee shop I’ve seen where you have to wait to be seated at a table just for a cup of coffee. They’ve started asking for donations of one pound just to take a photo, and I don’t blame them. All of it goes to charity, and people coming in to take photos without donating or paying for food and drink doesn’t seem right. In any case, there were far too many people for us, so we were content to just walk by. One evening, after failing to find a pub with live music that wasn’t bursting at the seams, we walked by The Elephant House and it was completely empty. It was half an hour before closing, but I suppose no one thinks to go visit the location after dark. We stepped inside, ordered a glass of wine and piece of cake, and had the entire place to ourselves. I got to admire the elephant decor (my favorite animal by far), read the articles on JK Rowling posted on the walls, and even admired the bathrooms, which are absolutely covered in graffiti of patrons thanking JK Rowling or professing their loyalty to one house or other. I admit I am a huge fan of the series, so having that more personal experience where she spent time as a struggling writer was very moving. Clayton pointed out an odd thing – isn’t it fitting that the same city that persecuted and murdered thousands of women on suspicion of being “witches” is now famous for an entire world of magic and wizardry. We did eventually get to a pub for dinner, but alas, no live music.
We enjoyed several pubs in Edinburgh, as well as other more progressive restaurants and tea rooms. I learned that Scottish Fudge is absolutely delicious, and the Fudge Kitchen on the Royal Mile will let you taste as many as you want – they encourage it, teasing us that the more we tasted, the less we had to buy because we’d had so much! Shortbread also seems to be traditional, and we popped into Pinnies & Poppyseeds, where they make different flavors each day such as cardamom or lavender and white chocolate. There are something called “tablets”, which look like fudge but are far more crumbly, and reminds me a bit of brown sugar mixed with condensed milk and solidified. We had a full Scottish breakfast at Clarinda’s Tea Room near Holyrood Palace, a cozy little establishment overflowing with doilies and figurines. My personal favorite was the Edinburgh Larder just off the Royal Mile, with a friendly staff and traditional Scottish fare that was locally sourced and jazzed up a bit. Yes, we had haggis, and we both loved it. It’s incredibly flavorful and goes really well with breakfast foods or in a pasty. It’s been painted up to be some horrible food cooked in a horrendous way, which is a shame, because when you think about it, all food ends up in a horrid way anyways, so why worry about where it starts?
Our days spent in Edinburgh were simply magical. The highlight may have been hiking Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags, but that’s a story for the next post. We fell in love with Edinburgh and already plan to return to see more of it and the surrounding countryside. The people were friendly, the food delicious, the scenery breathtaking, the history fascinating, and the atmosphere perfection. Absolutely worth a visit (or two, or three…). Although we could have stayed for another week, we were off to Glasgow, quite different but no less charming. Ever onwards!