I always wonder if I fall in love with certain destinations because they come early in a trip, when I’m fresh and excited, and then feel ‘meh’ about some places I hit on the end of an exhausting journey. But even if the fact that I arrived in Glasgow straight off an international flight from home influenced my opinion for the country, it’s safe to say that Scotland would have blown my mind no matter when I visited. The combination of incredible history, kind people, and gorgeous nature just couldn’t have gone wrong: from arrival to departure, I was totally in love. You will see this from the ridiculous length of this post. I just kept having more good things to say.
My woefully short time in Scotland was split into two: enjoying nature in Pitlochry and exploring history in Edinburgh. After several days of hiking further north, I arrived in Edinburgh ready to see the place where Harry Potter was written and where so many other world events took place. Parts of Edinburgh felt almost too Scottish – I had trouble believing that it could be so accurate to how I had pictured the country before my arrival. When I walked out of the train station the first thing I saw was a kilted man playing the bagpipes, and then a kind teenage girl approached me to help with directions. I was so disoriented by the beauty of where I had emerged that I was literally spinning around trying to figure out what direction the river was in, and I managed to decipher her wonderful accent to make my way to Castle Rock Hostel.
Every time I told someone in Scotland that I was from Nova Scotia, they happily exclaimed, “New Scotland!!” and proceeded to question me on the details of my Scottish heritage (which, in fact, does not exist. I was happy to let the Scots believe that I could be distantly related to them, because who wouldn’t want to be related to such a welcoming people?) From that girl to the receptionist at my hostel who welcomed me warmly to everyone else I met and asked for help, not a single person was rude. And let’s be real, the accent doesn’t hurt.
In a lot of places I go, there’s a few attractions you ‘have to see’ that I’m just not interested in visiting. When I travel alone, I can pack an amazing amount into a short trip and usually see everything I want to even if I’m in a city for two days. In Edinburgh, however, I spent every breakfast narrowing down my list of things to do for the day, and I got on the train to England wistfully thinking of all the places in Edinburgh I would have loved to experience – Calton Hill, the Royal Botanic Garden, Real Mary King’s Close, and a long list of other historic sites. With that said however, I fell in love all the places I did have time to see – if you’re going to Edinburgh, these places should definitely make your itinerary:
Hiking AND a view of the city…what more could you want?! The beginning of the trail up Arthur’s Seat is near the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the Scottish Parliament, and the trail is not as difficult as I read in a few places. However, it’s extremely unclear which way you should be walking – I just tried to follow trails that were sloping up and eventually made it to where I thought was the top…some signage would be very nice to have. Also, on the way down, I got disoriented and ended up basically rock climbing, then found myself in a total random area of the city and had to walk all the way back around the hill. Nice job, Bethany. Anyway, the hill itself is gorgeous; when I was there, there were a ton of gorgeous flowers. It’s amazing to have such an amazing piece of nature right in the middle of the city, and the views from the top are worth the walk! You can see so far when it’s not cloudy, and although it was unbelievably windy I stayed up there as long as I could to admire the panorama.
Honestly this was my least favourite place I went in Edinburgh, but I’m still glad I went – if I hadn’t, I would have felt like I missed an important part of the city. Kind of one of those places you check off the list and would never revisit. It’s also an extremely expensive attraction (see below), but you should still go. It’s got great views over the city and does have some really interesting historical information.
I’m basically a child, so my favourite historic sites are the ones where people are dressed up in period costumes and tell you stories about their characters. I have the mind of a 8 year old. The castle has none of that, but I did learn some facts about Scottish history.
Final recommendation: buy a ticket in advance! I got to skip the entire line (arrive before opening time) and wander around in relative solitude – when I was leaving, the hordes of tourists and tour groups were starting to arrive. Avoid at all costs!
Palace of Holyroodhouse
I went here because it felt kind of obligatory, and it ended up being one of my top favourite historical sites of all time! When I was little I was obsessed with a book series called Royal Diaries, which were fictional diaries written from the point of view of young royal girls. I adored the diary ‘written by’ Mary Queen of Scots, and went through a phase of reading every gruesome detail I could find about her life and death. Mary Queen of Scots lived in the palace, and there was a ton of information about her – it brought me back to that phase and I felt equally fascinated by her! The palace itself was beautiful and I loved walking around listening to my audio tour. At the end, there was also a special exhibition on Queen Elizabeth II’s fashion, and it was really cool to see actual outfits she’s worn and read about the inspiration and details behind her whole fashion persona. I felt like I got to watch her grow up!
The Abbey (really ruins of an abbey) outside of the main palace is also worth the visit; it was empty when I was there and felt like I had stepped back in time. So naturally I pretended I was Mary Queen of Scots walking through her home. I’m so cool.
Cost: £12.00 for adults, £11.00 with student ID
Now most normal people would not count a random cafe on the same level as a famous castle or palace…but considering my level of obsession with Harry Potter, this was a must-see for me. I actually stumbled upon it one day, having intended to go the next day, and walked in without looking at the name. I quickly realized where I was and sat down to write in my journal, pretending that I was J.K. Rowling. If you’re unaware, the Elephant House is where J.K. Rowling wrote a lot of the Harry Potter books!!! The food was pretty good but the experience was enough for me.
You’d be hard pressed to visit Edinburgh and not end up walking down at least part of the Royal Mile. This is the most famous and a very historic street in the centre of Old Town and it’s absolutely gorgeous despite the kajillions of tourists wandering down and trying to whack me in the head with selfie sticks (I say as a fellow tourist…I did, however, ditch my selfie stick last year). One end hosts the Edinburgh Castle and the other has the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Scottish Parliament and Arthur’s Seat – so you’ll probably be here at least a few times! It’s touristy but in a good way – I was absolutely charmed. St. Gile’s Cathedral as well as a few other gorgeous churches also make their homes here.
Ah, what a start to my European trip…I mustered the courage to join my hostel’s massive pub crawl; it happens every Thursday and the timing worked out perfectly for me. When I first started travelling solo I never would have gone down to the common area all alone, walked up to a group of girls and asked if I could hang out with them for the night, but now it seems totally normal to me. We got some free cider from the hostel, and I think we hit up 5 or 6 bars that night, from very weird themed ones to super fun Scottish pubs. I ended up hanging out with a group of Canadian girls and we had SO much fun – I still have them all on Snapchat and I ended up hanging out with 2 of them in Paris later on.
Pub crawls are an awesome way to go out in a city if you’re travelling solo and this one was an absolute blast.
National Museum of Scotland
Shock of shocks: I am becoming a museum person. I popped in here because it was free and I heard the words ‘rooftop terrace’, and had a great time! I headed straight to the terrace to orient myself over Edinburgh, and then figured I may as well check out the actual exhibits. I was really interested to find out more about Scottish history specifically, but I found that section of the museum extremely confusing and had no idea which way I was supposed to be going. I loved the world music exhibit and several other spots really drew my attention. The atrium of the museum is also beautiful!
As you can see, there’s a whole lot of stuff to see in Edinburgh, and this doesn’t even cover what I would have wanted to see. By the way, I stayed in Castle Rock Hostel and adored it – cheap, comfy beds, gorgeous common rooms with different themes, tons of friends to make, and of course the pub crawl! My sister visited Scotland a couple months after me and stayed at Argyle Backpackers. She described it as a nice rambling townhouse with a garden out back. It’s very quiet and a 10 minute walk to the centre of town. Either one will do you well – depends on whether you’re looking for a party vibe or somewhere to chill out!
Edinburgh is really somewhere I could see myself living, and I can’t wait until the day I get to return.