It was about two and a half years coming, but we finally got back a little of what COVID stole from us in 2020. This post covers six nights in Scotland, after stops in London and York, in early August 2022.
The word that comes to mind when thinking about Edinburgh is simply rock. As in, the overriding and dominant thing you’re aware of when you spend most of a stay in and around the city centre. The big rock high above city with Edinburgh Castle perched upon it defines the Scottish capital. High Street (The Royal Mile) runs slowly downhill from the castle to Holyroodhouse Palace, with its network of closes and cross streets branching out like the city’s spine, ribcage and blood supply.
If you’ve read my other posts from this trip, I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise when I say how much we loved this city, too. Being Scottish and Irish, this is when I finally began feeling like I was connecting with my roots, even if only a little. The area we stayed in is lovingly referred to as Edinburgh Old Town, whereas Edinburgh New Town was on the other side of the train station, north of Princes Street. We opted for staying near the history over the higher end shopping, though we did venture over to the area a couple times.
Roughly 2.5 hours north of York, Edinburgh is a city of some 500,000, but feels much smaller. Walkable like everywhere on our trip was, aside from the castle and Royal Mile, there really isn’t a downtown in the big city sense. I saw no high rises or modern core, beyond the mile and the surrounding parkland and business/tourist areas. It is perhaps this feature that makes it such a wonderful place to visit.
We stayed in another Hub by Premier, the Hub Edinburgh Royal Mile, and found ourselves in yet another perfect location for first time tourists. We were about a block down Market Street from the Edinburgh Waverley train station. A block off the Royal Mile, roughly halfway between the castle and Holyroodhouse made it very easy to get everywhere by foot. I think we used transit maybe twice in our four nights there. We also discovered the excellent Brew Dog craft taphouses, which we enjoyed again during our Dublin stay. Hazy Jane Guava is pretty much to die for if you ever get the chance.
August’s festival season, including the world’s largest Fringe Festival, was just about to descend on Edinburgh, so while we thankfully squeaked our stay in just prior to it commencing, the place was really alive with people and activity, and the weather was mid-20s to 30 celsius the whole time.
I’m going to follow my pattern for other posts and just feature the things we did, from the obvious to the less so, with lots of photos. We tend to wander around so much, writing a chronological narrative just doesn’t work very well.
Distance walked / hiked: 47.2 km
Edinburgh Castle (castle rock) & the Royal Mile
Much the way staying in Westminster London means copious amounts of Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, central Edinburgh really is first and foremost Edinburgh Castle. With its beautiful imposing exterior and massive rock wall below, to the entry stadium and the Royal Mile down to Holyroodhouse, it defines the landscape of the city centre.
From the outside
I have a metric tonne of pics, so I’ve tried to choose a few exteriors of it from all angles below, including the surrounds. If you like walking up and down hills, you’ll love central Edinburgh. The first photo, below, is also used as the featured image for this post.
From the inside
Of course we went in. I wouldn’t say this was anywhere close to our favourite part of the stop, but there were views and some nicely recreated prisoner cells, and most importantly, it was a castle.
The Royal Mile
There’s no particular order or rationale to the following pics, just a random assortment of photos taken during our many strolls up and down and through the Royal Mile. There were A LOT of people. The first pic below was an old guy we chatted with for a bit, and his sweet black lab.
Just south of Holyroodhouse Palace was Holyrood Park, a large sort of barren urban park with two defining features. Arthur’s Seat is the highest point in the park and a pretty solid hike up in its own right. It’s worth the climb, because you are treated to some absolutely stellar 360 degree views once you reach the top. Read the caption for a bit about the last three photos and its second feature.
It’s possible that a lot of this story is folklore by now, but there’s still enough truth to what happened to make it an enduring and touching story about man’s best friend. The crux of the thing is this little dog being inseparable from, then losing his master to consumption at a very young age, hanging around waiting for him for the remaining many years of his life, and essentially being adopted and cared for by the city until he died at 16. Below is the pub and statue (with Connie touching his nose for luck), and his headstone in Greyfriars Kirkyard.
I didn’t get much low-down on St. Giles, but when you pass something enough times walking up and down and up and down and through the Royal Mile every day, eventually you just have to go into the biggest cathedral in the area.
Just to the north of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Park, was an area called Calton Hill in New Town (I think). Not nearly as high or impressive as Arthur’s Seat, there was a small restaurant and a couple Scottish landmarks (including the National Monument of Scotland), and it was a great place for a stroll and some pics looking back toward Old Town and toward the Royal Yacht Brittania in Leith (where we didn’t go).
I suspect the main reason we went to see this is that Connie’s stepson by her first marriage is named Dean. Well … maybe not. However, it is noted as one of the most beautiful little residential areas in Edinburgh and, in spite of being one of the things we walked the furthest to, it didn’t disappoint. Intimate little winding streets, quaint homes, with Water of Leith running through it.
National Museum of Scotland
As I’ve said before I don’t really take pictures inside museums and galleries, because I find they never accurately convey my experience, and they’re so completely out of useful context, they’re somewhat pointless. I have to comment on the National Museum of Scotland. We thought we’d kill a couple hours at most there and, after doing our laundry that same morning, we spent the rest of the day (and could have spent more) there. It was fantastic, and we managed to have a pretty decent lunch too. I learned so much about the Roman and Norse history and gained a much greater understanding of the timeline. The museum is free and we decided to pay the nominal fee to check out the fascinating graverobber exhibit. Let’s just say the early days of teaching surgery left something to be desired in the ethics department. The bodies weren’t always cadavers when they were first targeted, either.
Princes Street Gardens & the Scott Monument
This was primarily just enjoyable urban walking, beginning just the other side of the train station and bordering New Town, as it winds around the north-northeast side of castle rock. The Scott Monument below is a spire erected in memory of Sir Walter Scott. You can take the stairs to the top, but we didn’t.
The Many Closes
Honestly, I took so many photos of the closes in Edinburgh, it’s hard to pick any, so below I’ve included a random bunch of them. Effectively, they are the very narrow streets, which are more like alley walkways, crisscrossing High Street, where people lived and did business (and still do the latter) in Edinburgh hundreds of years ago. The higher up you lived, the more affluent you were, with many of the poorest people living in the dozens in small underground spaces with dirt floors. We learned this on one of the tourist fails we did. It got great reviews, but we found the Real Mary King’s Close a little too performative and goofy for our liking. Walking around and reading would have been far cooler than effectively getting what I suspect was a theatre student play-acting. At least we got some good historical information.
We Made Chocolate
We missed doing the chocolate tour in York, where it probably would have been more appropriate given the city’s history with it, but decided we wouldn’t miss The Chocolatarium. Kitty corner from our hotel, we finally did this on our last day in Edinburgh. We not only did the tour but got to take home chocolate bars we made. Super informative, if you’re into sugar like me.
Our First Whisky Tasting
After decidedly NOT being a whisky person my entire life, we’ve both come back converts. We finally had a whisky tasting with dinner on our last full evening in Edinburgh, and it didn’t disappoint. We had another scotch tasting up in Aviemore and a couple more Irish Whisky tastings during our time in Ireland. We tasted selections from each of the four Scottish Whisky regions and, my god, the smoke and the peat was delicious.
We didn’t find this particularly engaging. The Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh is, well, a palace that is more for tourists than living. Lots of artifacts, beds, furniture, things about Mary Queen of Scots, etc. However, I’ve included a couple photos of the ruins of Holyrood Abbey below as well, which sits out back and is currently closed due to risk. It was far more interesting.
One thing I found really different is the number of graveyards in Edinburgh. They were seemingly everywhere and really fascinating. I’m not really macabre, but seeing how some wealthy families commemorated their dead with elaborate burial plots sometimes several hundred years old, was very interesting.
No post about this trip would be complete without some obligatory shots of streets. Aside from the Closes, there aren’t quite as many walkable little streets everywhere and I noticed more cars in general in Edinburgh, but that didn’t mean that many of the ones in Old Town near us still weren’t low traffic and very pleasant. Some randomness below in no particular order.
That’s a wrap for our time in Edinburgh, which in case it isn’t obvious above, we really enjoyed. Because it’s a very small piece of the trip, I’m including our two nights in the Highlands below.
I wanted to make sure we got up to the Highlands because I’m just not sure when we’ll get to Scotland again. Pondering locations and wanting something quiet, we shunned the more commercial nature of Loch Ness and Inverness and opted for going not as far north, but further east by train into the Highlands. Due to its proximity to Cairngorms, we chose Aviemore.
After 12 days in very busy places, the quiet of Aviemore was a really nice reprieve. It’s also the only time on the trip that we experienced a daytime high that necessitated layers and long pants. We got a nice hike and lovely little steam train trip in, while enjoying lots of cooler quiet strolls around this picturesque little place. And, while the highly rated Cairn Gorm Brewery tap room was closed, we got another very nice whisky tasting in. This begat a very sad whisky incident (below) at the airport.
As it turned out, we would have needed at least another night so we could have actually taken a daytrip to Cairngorms National Park to do a hike at, oddly enough, Cairn Gorm Mountain. There just wasn’t enough time and public transport gets a little tougher for that kind of trip because you can’t depend on it to be regular or quick.
Distance walked / hiked: 17.2 km
I’m just including photosets below and will allow them to do most of the talking.
Town & Surrounds
Craigellachie Nature Reserve Hike
We would have gone longer, if we’d known what we learned later about the trails looping back, but we didn’t have an accurate map. It’s a beautiful, lush green area.
Strathspey Steam Train
Aside from outdoor pursuits, there isn’t a ton to do right in Aviemore and the steam engine ride to Boat of Garten and Broomhill is highly recommended. It was a pretty low-key affair and took a couple hours for the return trip. Just a few shots below of the steam engine and a few things along the way.
Whisky Tasting #2
The options weren’t quite as amazing in this little strip mall whisky store, but we had one really delicious Spey whisky and Connie decided to buy a 200ml bottle of Spey Royal Choice to take home. It would never actually make it out of Scotland, but more on that below.
The Sad Denoument
It was a bit of a long day getting from Aviemore to Dublin to begin the final week-long Irish leg of the trip. A near three-hour train trip leaving Aviemore around 8 in the morning, with arrival at Edinburgh around 11:15, hopping on a train to the airport and then prepping to fly to Dublin around 3pm. What made it worse is neither of us thinking about the 100ml limit for carry-on liquid for our Aer Lingus flight to Dublin. I’ll have more on the little fiasco that was in my next installment for our Dublin leg.
Alas, we had no checked bag, and no way to bring it with us, so sadly (for us, not for some random airport security person), we never got to drink the lovely scotch Connie bought to bring home. We ended up with some really nice Irish Whisky at duty free in Dublin, but this $80CDN loss still stung a lot.
Regardless of not getting the Highlands hike at Cairn Gorm I had really wanted and a little whisky mishap, the overall Scottish leg of our trip was tremendous and Edinburgh is a really impressive place to spend some time.
While Johnnie Walker usually greets people to Edinburgh, we only saw this as we were leaving Scotland.