When we planned our first trip to Scotland in Sep/Oct 2018 we figured nine days wouldn’t be enough—and we were right. We had a wonderful time exploring the Highlands (staying in both a Wee River Lodge and a Treehouse), leaving us three nights and two full days in Edinburgh. Rather than try to cram everything in, we opted for a promise of, “We’ll be back!”—thus the title of this blog post, “Edinburgh Part I.”
We arrived in Edinburgh by taxi after returning our car hire to the airport (and were glad we hadn’t tried to drive to and look for parking in the city). We were expecting the architecture of Edinburgh to be impressive, and when your hotel looks like The Scotsman, you know you’re off to a good start.
Edinburgh is an easily walkable city. We set out on our first evening to get a bit of a the lay of the land and to check out the city at night. It was cool, but not cold (temperatures were in the 50s Fahrenheit during the days and 40s at night).
One thing we immediately noticed was the abundance of interesting stairways in Edinburgh. We could walk down The Scotsman Steps (with steps made from alternating types of marble), up the steps of Fleshmarket Close, and back down the steps of Warriston’s Close leading to Cockburn Street with all its charming and quirky buildings. Dinner at the Cafe Royal lived up to its multiple recommendations and gave Sharon a chance to have haggis yet again (this time as bon bons).
Royal Botanic Garden
We had a general idea of the things we wanted to see but kept the actual order flexible to allow for the (frequently changeable) Scottish weather. Since our first morning was clear, we headed to the Royal Botanic Garden.
From our hotel, it was an easy walk of just over a mile, through New Town, to the East Gate. The Gardens are free but we decided to buy the tickets to the Glass Houses as well. One thing we hadn’t really thought about in visiting Scotland this time of year was that the leaves were turning. It made for a colorful drive through the Highlands and colorful walks in Edinburgh.
Water of Leith Walkway
After lunch at the Garden, we exited the West Gate and headed for one of the “hidden gems” of Edinburgh—the Water of Leith Walkway. This is clearly not on the tourist route (we only saw a few people, and most of them locals) but is well worth your time when you visit Edinburgh.
We covered a small portion of the path, from Stockbridge (where we stopped for a coffee) to Dean’s Village, and this is definitely on our list of things to do again and do more of next time.
We knew there wouldn’t be time to visit the Castle on the first day so we opted to explore the nooks and crannies of Old Town.
Old Town includes the Royal Mile which runs from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace. In medieval times this main road was densely packed on either side with multi-story tenements towering over the narrow “closes” that run between buildings (at one time all the way to the loch on the north side).
The Witches’ Well, the Writers’ Museum, and Riddle’s Court are all things you’ll miss if you don’t take the time to time to explore.
Even when you stick to the Royal Mile, you might fail to notice that the bottom half of the windows at Gladstone’s Land are wooden (it’s a surviving 17th-century high-tenement house and at the time it was cheaper to use wood than glass). You can tour Gladstone’s Land, but we didn’t have time—next visit:)
You might not notice that the two sides of the sign at Deacon Brodies Tavern depict a man who by day was a respectable tradesman and deacon, but by night a housebreaker and thief (it inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde).
And, you could easily walk by the statue of Scottish Philosopher David Hume without noticing his shiny toe (those in the know rub it for luck).
For Harry Potter fans, it’s worth a two block detour south to The Elephant House (which we suspect is far more crowded now than when J. K. Rowling would stop in to write). Just a bit further, past the statue of Greyfriars Bobby (immortalized after guarding the grave of his owner for 14 years), you can enter Greyfriars Kirkyard where you just might find the tombstone of Thomas Riddell, the inspiration for you-know-who. Around the corner, the colorful Victoria Street leads you back toward the Royal Mile.
We finished our first day with a late-night tour of The Real Mary King’s Close. The Close is actually under the Royal Exchange building and, for that reason, photos are not permitted. Nevertheless, it was a fascinating way to learn about life and death (the Great Plague) in 17th century Edinburgh.
St. Giles’ Cathedral
Day two started directly across the street from where day one left off, at St. Giles’ Cathedral, the principal place of worship of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh (though actually, not technically a cathedral).
The beautiful stained glass windows (including one by Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones) date to the late 19th century. Stained glass had been removed in the 16th century by religious reformer John Knox, whose stature pointing to a book captures his insistence that every person should be able to personally read the word of God—giving Scotland an educational head start on the rest of Europe.
Our favorite part of the Cathedral was the Thistle Chapel, the spiritual home and meeting place of The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle. The chapel was completed in just two years (1910-1911) by some of the finest craftsmen in Scotland. The detail is amazing and you have to look everywhere (you might even spot an angel playing bagpipes).
The sixteen Knights and Ladies of the Order are appointed by the Queen, who is the head of the Order. Access to the Chapel depends on the availability of staff. We were fortunate to be there at a time when we could get in.
Perched atop a bluff overlooking the city, Edinburgh Castle is massive and imposing. Not surprising, given the location, there have been fortifications on Castle Rock for hundreds of years (it’s reputedly Britain’s oldest continuously occupied fortified place—not to mention, the most besieged place in Britain). The oldest of the current buildings, St. Margaret’s Chapel, dates back to 1130.
We waited only about 20 minutes to get tickets (another advantage of an early October visit) and spent the afternoon exploring the various buildings and exhibits of the Castle. We saw the Crown Jewels (oldest in the British Isles) and the Stone of Destiny (which had been smuggled out of Westminster Abbey in London by four Scottish students in 1950). We also had a very nice lunch at the Tea Room in Crown Square.
One of the greatest things about Edinburgh was that as we were walking from place to place we discovered the places in-between—the cool things that aren’t in the tourists books but reward taking the time to look around. Like the School of Divinity, heart-framed gardens, the view of the Castle from the Flodden Wall, a bike with flowers in New Town, or the quaintly beautiful Circus Lane.
Until Next Time
As we mentioned at the start of this post, we realized very early that we’ll need to return to Edinburgh. We didn’t climb Arthur’s Seat. We didn’t make it to Calton Hill. We didn’t even make it to the lower part of the Royal Mile and Holyrood Palace. And much, much more.
So, if you’re heading to Edinburgh, we’d suggest allowing more time than you think you’ll need. Or, like us, you can just accept the fact that you’ll need to go again:)