“This is a city of shifting light, of changing skies, of sudden vistas. A city so beautiful it breaks the heart again and again.”
Alexander McCall Smith
Three flights, and two layovers later, and I was almost regretting my decision to land directly into Edinburgh instead of London Heathrow and taking the train north. At London Heathrow where I went through customs, I carried my luggage up the jet bridge after being coached to the propeller plane that would take me to Edinburgh Airport. I had sighed when realizing my assigned seat was next to the propeller. My feelings immediately changed when the short flight began to descend and I could see an entirely different atmosphere – vividly green with rolling hills, and miraculously a clear sky revealing the city. It was truly a good omen to arrive in such pleasant weather in Scotland and I knew I was in store for a treat.
How to get to city center? Where to stay?
As far as getting to the city center from airport – Edinburgh has several affordable options of getting from airport to the downtown Waverly or Haymarket/Princes street. There is an Airlink bus that is a steal at as little as 5 pounds per person one way, and there is alternately a tram just outside the entrance to the airport that I regrettably learned was the rather slow and methodical way of getting downtown. It was, however, also affordable and a good way of seeing what parts of the city I would be interested in exploring. I chose to stay central – and wound up choosing budget friendly but very accommodating Motel One off of the Royal Mile. They have a 24/4 front desk, bar, and lobby area with plenty of places to lounge. It was a great location and at most a two or three minute walk from Waverly train station and adjacent to Advocate’s Close. A “close,” is an alley way in Edinburgh often times up a significant length of stairs that similar to particular one would take you to a central part of the Royal Mile. Climbing up Advocate’s Close takes you very close to St Giles Cathedral. Edinburgh is littered with them, and if you press here, you can check a list of “closes” off of the Royal Mile.
Edinburgh Castle: The Trek Uphill
The first thing that I did after checking into my hotel was explore…When you have 48 hours in a city that seems straight out of an historical fiction or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel, you must combat jet lag by attempting to explore and walk by foot immediately. I did not realize in my overexcitement the challenge it would be combatting jet lag and fatigue to climb up to Edinburgh Castle from where I was staying at the Motel One. It was an uphill hike, and there is a reason that some may refer to Edinburgh as a calve-killing experience. The first thing I immediately noticed when making the ascent was the particular brutality of the wind and the mist that wasn’t quite rain but something that felt in between winter and spring. A local put it well when they informed me that Scotland often experiences three seasons in the course of a day, and being from the Midwest, that wasn’t completely a foreign concept to me.
The cheaper way to do castles if you are staying for more than a day or two or anticipate going to at least two or three of the castles would be to research tour options, or research Scottish heritage passes. You can check out seasonal hours, and ticket prices at Edinburgh Castle‘s website. The complex of Edinburgh Castle, seated on the site of an 350 million year old dormant volcano, is more like a series of museums: the most interesting focal points to me being the National War Memorial of Scotland (no photography allowed), and St Margaret’s Chapel. It is a place where you can spend at least 3 to 4 hours exploring the fortress if not longer. Edinburgh Castle also houses the Scottish Crown Jewels and the legendary Stone of Scone, and a dog cemetery for fallen canine Scots buried in a plot of the Castle erected during World War II. For military buffs, the famous 15th century Mons Meg cannon gifted to James II, King of Scots (not to be confused with James II of England) is quite the behemoth.
Where to eat in Edinburgh?
After exploring Edinburgh Castle, I was hungry. One of the aspects that makes me nervous when solo traveling is figuring out which restaurant to select in a large and diverse city such as Edinburgh. First, I would always suggest talking with locals or even the front desk staff at wherever you are staying. Word of mouth is truly invaluable. Alternately, you can check out apps or food centered tours on sites such as City Pals, Get Your Guide, or Viator that have private and group food tours and options to link up with a local guide. TripAdvisor is good if you are weighing a few specific restaurant options and want to see people’s reviews. Another option is researching an area of town, and exploring around some of side streets – restaurants in the biggest tour hubs tend to be a little pricier and less of an authentic vibe. As with any big city – be aware of surroundings although Edinburgh felt quite safe in the areas I went to especially in the daytime as a solo, female traveler.
I was fortunate to connect with a fellow travel enthusiast, Serial Jet Setter and at her suggestion we met up for dinner in Queens Arms Pub, a pub off of Frederick Street of which had a unique and inviting vibe. It was dimly lit, and decorated equally with Mary Queen of Scots memorabilia and books produced by local authors. Suffice it to say, it was a pretty good time. It was a place where locals would do trivia, and enjoy a Sunday Roast. We ended up ordering the same meal – falafel sandwich paired with roasted veggies including cauliflower. I wasn’t as familiar with blackening cauliflower and made the asinine comment of “the broccoli looks odd”, in which my friend looked in genuine astonishment whether or not she needed to distinguish that it was not in fact broccoli but cauliflower. Thankfully, I corrected myself in enough time, and she was happy to regard that as a side effect of the jet lag! I truly think if you are lucky enough to know somebody somewhere when traveling – make plans to see them. Sharing a meal and visiting a restaurant you may not have otherwise known about is a great introduction to any city.
When I travel, I am on a genuine traveler’s high and like to see as much as I can with whatever time I got. I had only 48 hours in Edinburgh, and Scotland overall. So the next morning I decided to wake up early to explore some of the different areas I had seen photos of but wanted to experience with my own eyes including Circus Lane despite only capturing blurry photos. It was also the perfect time to capture and admire St Giles Cathedral without the throngs of tourists flocking around it.
I then walked on the downwards slope of the Royal Mile towards Holyroodhouse Palace and Abbey to continue my quest to see more “historic highlights,” and thoroughly enjoyed both of those attractions. It was easier on the legs than walking the uphill climb to Edinburgh Castle. I can also tell you that Edinburgh feels very safe from a solo traveler’s perspective to walk around in, and if you need a break on the legs or want to explore a different borough such as Leith, buses and public transit are readily available as is Uber.
Holyroodhouse Palace and Abbey
Holyroodhouse Palace is where the Queen is formally welcomed when in Edinburgh. Although you cannot take photography in the actual Palace but you can around the gardens and the Abbey next to it. Pro tip: if you look on the back of the ticket when buying admission at the Palace, if you select and notify the staff at time of purchase to consider the admission a donation you can returned for admission the rest of the year as a sort of annual pass. I certainly would take that up if having stayed longer. Do take advantage of the complimentary audio guide that gives you a “highlights” walking tour around the palace.
For history buffs or those intrigued by the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, – the quarters where she stayed the night her secretary Rizzio was murdered after being dragged from her tiny supper room is still there. There is a slight reddish stain from allegedly the dried blood on the oak flooring allegedly from that same murder orchestrated by Mary’s second husband Lord Darnley, and accomplices. You walk up the very same path the conspirators would have up a narrow, stone staircase into the outer chamber adjacent to where they were dining. There are also embroideries that Mary herself had done as well as other items such as a coin purse supposed to have belonged to the infamous queen.
The Holyroodhouse Palace gardens were closed the day I was at the palace, but the Abbey is the last stop in taking the audio guide around palace. It had been partially destroyed by a fire, but as you wander, you will find that you are wandering over the graves or both commoners and royalty – such as the ill fated Lord Darnley – himself. Keeping with the “spooky” and “historic attraction” theme, I ventured up to nearby Calton Hill and the Old Calton Burial Ground and Calton New Cemetery which contains a remaining structure of the former Edinburgh jail that was built centuries before on site. The graveyard and hill provide probably one of the best aerial views of Old Town Edinburgh as well as a glimpse of Arthur’s Seat which I did not climb for fear that I would require being airlifted down.
I got very lucky with the weather in Scotland that second day I was there. The weather was sunny and warm which makes the wind tolerable. I would highly suggest making sure you have the proper pair of walking shoes with padded soles because even I thought I had proper shoes – walking was still a challenge with both the steep inclines, uneven steps, and the cobblestone streets. Also, know your limits – I normally do 5,000 steps a day at as I work in an office but in Edinburgh wound up walking nearly 30,000 a day which was tough. Even with that step count I had elected not to do Arthur’s Close as I knew the rockier terrain and steep incline could negatively impact me with the altitude and I tend to be of a clumsier disposition so attempting that alone would have been foolish.
One thing I enjoyed about strolling around Edinburgh was that I never knew what was to be found. I walked down one street and found a paper mache swan and multiple book exchange swaps for literary fans to exchange one book and leave one behind. There were also endless series of monuments paying tribute to Edinburgh’s iconic authors, economists, and politicians. One of the spectacular ones is the below pictured Burns Monument .
Day Trip Options
I wound up deciding to travel to Linlithgow and then Stirling in search of making the most of my time in Scotland and wanting to stray outside of the bigger city. These cities are both marvelous in their own right and less than an hour’s journey away. It is quite easy to hop on a ScotsRail train and buy a single or return ticket utilizing ticket machines or even your mobile device on some routes. * There are also tours that include Stirling Castle as part of a Castles tour, but many tours are lengthy and heavily itinerated with less time to explore the towns so it is best to rent a car or take a train to those cities especially since both Linlithgow and Stirling have centrally located train stations. It is also feasible to do as I did and visit both of them in a single day, and return to Edinburgh in time for an early dinner or sunset opportunity.
** With shorter routes you don’t save money by buying ahead – prices are stable except for during prime commuter hours Monday-Friday = 6-8 AM, 5-7 PM. You can also use Trainline and Omio for purchase single or roundtrip tickets, monitoring train times for delays and reroute
More Culinary Options…and a slice of Harry Potter
When I returned to town, I opted to visit Laila’s Mediterranean Bistro and ordered the mezze platter with deep fried halloumi with cranberry sauce, house made hummus, salami, and pitted olives. At the recommendation of the wonderful waitress , I also visited the Arcade Pub across the street and ordered haggis bon-bons and a Scottish Cider called The Thistly Cross. No Scottish culinary experience is the same without trying haggis although I will warn the reader – it is an acquired taste. If you are a fan of whiskey (of which I am not), Serial Jet Setter recommends Devil‘s Advocate (we had almost gone there instead of Queens Arms) also within walking distance of Waverly and most parts of Old Town. When wandering back for the hotel, I discovered a shop front that Harry Potter fans should recognize as a sly reference.
Edinburgh truly is a mammoth city with incredibly rich history and with enough to do that I could easily have spent one or two weeks if not longer there. I would return in a heartbeat and feel that I could experience and visit an all together different part of the same city – Leith, and Portobello are two of the parts I would have loved to experience in depth in addition to the New Town and Princes Street. I do feel like it is a similar to Madrid in that this city is truly best experienced by walking, and by interacting respectfully with the locals whether on a walking tour (which I would have done had I more time) or naturally as you explore, shop, and sightsee.
“Edinburgh isn’t so much a city, more a way of life… I doubt I’ll ever tire of exploring Edinburgh, on foot or in print.”