EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND: Edinburgh is a city steeped in stories, myths, and legends. Enclosed by Nor Loch, Edinburgh has been the royal capital of Scotland since 1437. While ancient volcanic activity shaped its landscape, many medieval relics made its history more charming and intriguing.
Edinburgh’s Old Town was also shaped by prehistoric volcanic activity. Built on a steep volcanic rock that protected the Castle and town from attack, the town developed along the ridge, Royal Mile that runs from the Castle to Holyrood Palace. The growth of the town was constricted by its medieval boundaries. Therefore, Edinburgh couldn’t expand outwards, so it started rising upwards with multistory buildings. The city is enclosed south and north by Loch Nor.
Edinburgh might have an enriched history but it definitely doesn’t live in the past. The medieval Old Town contrasts sharply with the Georgian New Town and they are both part of UNESCO World Heritage Site now. New Town was known as the Athens of north once, while the Old Town, known as the original Manhattan, was a place for the poor in the middle age. Getting around the city is fairly easy here which can be done on foot. Walking is highly recommended here because it gives you time to soak up the real Edinburgh at your own pace.
I have visited other capitals of Great Britain, like London and Belfast, or even Dublin in Ireland. But in my opinion Scotland is nothing like that and has more scenic beauty and thrills than any of those cities. I left Edinburgh feeling absolutely satisfied and content that I had a chance of visiting this place.
TIME of TRAVEL: I visited Edinburgh in the middle of November 2013. This is actually off-season to visit this place, because the weather can be unpredictable at this time. Expect cold, wind, rain with little or no sunshine in November. But I was told that if you are coming here for the first time or just for sight-seeing, it’s better to avoid August, because some big festivals take place in this month and can get really crowded with thousands of locals and tourists.
MY HOTEL: My hotel (or should I say hostel?), Ailsa Craig Hotel on Royal Terrace (right beside Crowne Plaza), was ok for me since I was traveling alone this time, leaving my husband and daughters back in Belgium (my husband was kind enough to babysit the girls while I took a solo vacation). The hotel was about 20 – 25 minutes of long walk from Waverly Bridge bus station. When I reached the hotel I was told that the internet isn’t working, there is no elevator to go to my room on the 3rd floor, and that there is no bathroom inside my room. I tried my best not to be shocked when he said bathroom is a shared common one for all the 3rd floor rooms. Good thing there was at least a sink with a mirror in my room and had free breakfast but the bad thing was all the rooms are so close to each other that I could hear a baby crying opposite to my room whole time the first night. The best part of it was that hotel had some very friendly and helpful staffs. I booked my Scottish Highland and Loch Ness tour thru them; the guy even gave me some tips on where to go for taking early morning photographs. The location of the hotel wasn’t bad either. It was only about 15 minutes of walk from Holyrood Palace on Royal Mile.
Last night in Edinburgh I stayed in Hilton near the airport since I had an early morning flight to catch. It’s only 5 minutes of walk from the airport.
EATING and SHOPPING: My 1st dinner here was at a Nepalese/Tibetan restaurant, Gurkha Brigade on Leith Walk. I was in the mood for some spices and hot stuff and you can get good spicy food here for a nice price. There were few other Indian restaurants on this street. Mediterranean and Italian were some other options I had. For the 2nd night, I came here again to try an Indian restaurant. This was “Passage To India” opposite of Theater Royal. They had some Punjabi specialty food…again, good food with a cheap bill.
I wasn’t getting time to try haggis, one of the most famous Scottish food that tourists try, all this time. So, when I was in Edinburgh Castle, I saw their café is selling haggis. Here is some information on what haggis is, took it from the café’s menu: “Haggis is savory pudding containing sheep’s pluck (heart, liver, and lungs); minced with onion, oatmeal, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach. Traditionally served with swede/turnip and mashed potatoes”. But let me tell you I was VERY disappointed after tasting that dish. It was a big dish and I could barely eat 1/3 of it. May be I should have tried in different place or something but left a disgusting taste in my mouth for the next couple hours. So after visiting Edinburgh Castle when I was taking a stroll on Royal Mile and going back towards my hotel after dark, I saw another Bangladeshi/Indian restaurant on Royal Mile and just went inside without giving a second thought. It was a bit early dinner for me at 4:30 but couldn’t resist. It is called “Shamoli” where they had Indian and Thai dishes…very good.
For shopping, if you are into Scottish kilts, you will find many on Royal Mile. Of course these stores/showrooms on Royal Mile are nothing but tourist traps and should be avoided if time spares. There were many small stores off of Royal Mile, just have to take turn on one of the small streets and you will find same quality products at much cheaper price. Cashmere is very popular here. Lamb wool items, like scarves, sweaters, and etc. can be found at various price and quality. Buy some Celtic jewelries, bagpipes CDs, or Scottish fudge and toffees here.
PLACES I’VE VISITED: I had only a day…a whole day to explore Edinburgh. While it was not nearly enough for this city of so much to take in, I had to hop through only the main highlights of it. I started my tour very early morning at one side of Royal Mile at Canongate. I just followed Royal Mile and checked out whatever was on my way till I reached Edinburgh Castle. Royal Mile may be a heavily touristic area but I just loved its charismatic look and attitude. This is the backbone of medieval Edinburgh that runs from Holyrood Palace all the way to Edinburgh Castle. Most of the main sites are on this street. You will be amazed by all the old and historic buildings that line up on both sides of Royal Mile and all the souvenir shops, cafes, restaurants keep this place lively day or night. Royal Mile is not a pedestrian zone but not heavily crowded by cars either.
For panoramic view of Old or New Town and further beyond, you can climb Arthur’s Seat (which supposed to offer spectacular sunrise) or Calton Hill. I couldn’t go to any of those but definitely nice place to get great some great views.
1) PALACE of HOLYROODHOUSE: This has been the royal residence of Royal Scottish family for more than 500 years. Her Majesty the Queen of Scotland visits and stays here every summer and no tourists are allowed at that time of the year. Presently, other than being a formal residence, many official matters of Scotland are conducted here.
Front courtyard is a grand place with a beautiful fountain and grand façade of palace in front of you. Arthur’s Seat, a volcanic hill created thousands of years ago, can be seen from here too.
The palace houses some of the magnificent collection of art of Royal history. The Royal and Historic Apartments at the palace are regularly used by the Queen and Members of the Royal Family to receive and entertain their guests on ceremonial and official occasions and are furnished with treasures from the Royal Collection. Historic Apartments include Mary, Queen of Scots’ Chambers – the setting for many dramatic episodes in Mary’s turbulent reign. This is where Mary’s secretary Rizzio was murdered in front of pregnant Mary by her husband Lord Darnley.
Some of the other important rooms in the palace are: Queen’s Bedchamber and King’s Bedchamber which are still decorated in the 17th century’s original style. Royal Dining Room and Throne Room were marvelous too. Along with all these rooms notice Great Gallery where Sean Connery was awarded along with many other achievers. Many antiques, old musical instruments, other 17th century furniture, decoration, and plastered ceiling set a unique mode of this place. I asked one of the attendants why all these rooms had really old, discolored, and worn-out fabrics and linens. Interestingly, the Royal Family doesn’t want to change their century old and generation old decors.
Holyrood Abbey comes at the very end of the tour and leaves a majestic memory of this whole place. This is a dramatic picturesque ruin site with ancient altar, columns, and Gothic walls. Founded by King David I in 1128 Holyrood Abbey was altered and expanded over the centuries. By 1500 this was one of the largest and most impressive monasteries in Scotland. Currently, the only surviving part of the once much larger abbey complex are the nave and its surrounding walls. The palace garden was closed (only opens in summer) and so was the Queen’s Gallery which hosts changing exhibitions from the Royal Collection. Ticket is separate for the gallery.
I couldn’t take any photos inside the Royal and Historic Apartments since it is an active palace, but in the abbey or courtyard is ok. Ticket includes a detailed audio guide. It took me about 1 ½ hours to tour the palace in a slow pace. The palace is open daily from 9:30am except Good Friday, 25 – 26 December and during royal visits.
2) SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT: Only a few steps from Holyrood Palace, on its opposite side of the street, is the Scottish Parliament. It’s an award-winning home of the Scottish Parliament in the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town. The parliament truly is a stylish and contemporary state of the art building and looks nothing like a traditional parliament house.
Access to the building is free, just have to go through a security checkpoint. Visitors can join free guided-tour of 50 minutes (have to book ahead of time) to discover the art and architecture of the parliament and how it works. I toured the parliament by myself and therefore couldn’t visit some of the private chambers and stuff. But still could explore the public areas, like the Debating Chamber, exhibition center, Main Hall, and Garden Lobby. There is also a café and a gift shop inside the parliament.
3) THE MUSEUM of EDINBURGH: As I was walking toward the Edinburgh Castle on Royal Mile, “The Museum of Edinburgh” came into my attention and decided to check it out. This is city’s treasure box filled with iconic objects from the capital’s past. The house itself is a well-preserved group of 16th to 18th century domestic buildings. It’s a journey thru time giving you a brief history of how the city developed. Many paintings, silverwares, glass arts, artistic potteries, and 18th century ceramics are displayed in 3 different floors.
“Foundation Edinburgh: the story of a city” is a 17-minutes video tour inside the museum that gives you a fascinating story of Scotland’s capital from prehistory to the present day shown in a blacked-out theater. Watch the city grow beneath your feet on a screen built into the floor – from the volcanic creation of Arthur’s Seat in prehistoric times thru the ages. The video runs every half hour throughout the day and costs 4 GBP.
The best part of this museum is that it’s free to enter. Opening times are Monday to Saturday: 10am – 5pm and Sunday: 12pm – 5pm (August only).
4) ST. GILES CATHEDRAL: This is an eye-catching architecture from the 13th century standing on Royal Mile in between Holyrood Palace and Edinburgh Castle. St. Giles Cathedral is probably the most famous and historic cathedral of the country. Ancient pillars and dazzling windows are something to appreciate here. Inside the cathedral is very majestic and grand just like its outer look. Do check out the unique crowned spire of this cathedral. It’s free to enter but had to pay 2 GBP for taking photos.
5) EDINBURGH CASTLE: At the other end of Royal Mile on one of the highest point of the city is Edinburgh Castle. This is a national icon of Scotland and itself is a storyteller of Edinburgh. No trip to Edinburgh is ever complete without a trip to the imposing castle. This was once a mighty fortress, the defender of the nation, and home of the famous Royal Edinburgh Military. The castle has dominated city’s skyline and looked over the famous Royal Mile for centuries. Now it is enlisted in UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its imposing walls have provided sanctuary and protection for many of Scotland’s kings and queens. The castle is in very good condition and ‘til today its walls have protected countless treasures of the city and the country. There are too much to see and take in here. I didn’t even realize how few hours went by walking on the cobblestone of this magnificent fortress and being amazed by its century old interiors.
It slipped my mind but visitors can gather at 1pm near the One O’clock Gun to see the master-gunner fire the gun everyday…a traditional that has been carried out almost daily since 1861, except Sundays, Christmas Day and Good Friday. Make sure to visit the quiet and small St. Margaret’s Chapel which is the oldest building in Edinburgh from 12th century. Two of the top highlights of this castle are The Crown Room and Royal Palace. Crown Room is where Scotland’s glittering crown jewels, crown, scepter, Sword of State (which was used in the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots in 1543) and the historic Stone of Destiny located. The Royal Crown came back to Scotland from England in 1996 after 700 years. It’s from 1540 AD, and made with Scottish gold, engraved, enameled, and ornamented with gemstones including diamond, garnets, amethysts, and quartz. Royal Palace was the residence of the steward Kings and Queens in the 15th and 16th centuries. This is where Mary Queen of Scotland gave birth to James VI in 1566 (man behind the King James Version of Bible). It takes about 30 minutes just visit these Scottish treasures and read up on their fascinating history. Close to the Royal Palace is the Scottish National War Memorial…a shrine to those Scotsmen of all ranks who fell in conflict from World War onwards. In the same courtyard where the Victorian Great Hall located is where tourists can be amazed by the original hammer-beam roof. Built in the late 15th century as a majestic setting for ceremonial occasions it is still used today for state and royal functions. The hall also holds a fabulous display of arms and armors as well as the “key” to the castle. Last but not least, I visited the Prisons of War which is a must-see in Edinburgh Castle. This is an atmospheric recreation of the life of prisoners at the end of the 18th century.
Other than the above that I visited, there are other museums here that may interest some visitors: The National War Museum of Scotland which hosts two individual regimental museums. But besides all mind-boggling history and artifacts that the castle offer to its guests, it also has views across the capital, over the Firth of Forth and into Fife. Enjoy the panoramic views from all of the castle walls.
Adult ticket is 16 GBP per adult and 9.60 GBP for kids. Audio guide (available in many languages) is extra 3 GBP but highly recommended. It’s about 4 ½ hours long, but you can skip through some chapters and listen to the ones only interest you. There are more than one gift shops all around the castle and a café and a tea room. Do plan to stay here few hours.
6) MARY KING’S CLOSE: This is the REAL Mary King’s Close underneath Royal Mile of Edinburgh that once used to exist as part of a medieval city from 1622. Opposite to St. Giles Cathedral, the entrance to Mary King’ Close is through Warriston’s Close. “Closes” are basically small alleys from big streets that existed (still exist actually) in the old town of Edinburgh few centuries ago. Mary King’s Close is one such “Close” from that time which was eventually sealed by the authority to develop newer city on top of it. This is a slice of Edinburgh’s medieval history and shouldn’t be missed. Buried deep beneath Edinburgh’s Royal Mile lies the city’s hidden streets that remained frozen in time since the 17th century.
I haven’t visited a place quite like Mary King’ Close before. This is one unique tour that everyone should take in Edinburgh. With a guide, visitors can explore 4 main medieval streets of this area and experience what it was really like for the people who lived, worked, and died here. We had a chance to meet some prominent people of the “close” too. You get to hear how this once bustling environment was sealed. This is an important piece of Edinburgh’s rich history which reveals a fascinating underground network of hidden closes and rooms. If you are like me, who is tickled by medieval history and legends, take this tour and you won’t regret.
This is an educational, interactive, and fun tour; I enjoyed it very much. Our guide was a superb actress and a knowledgeable girl. She told us some legends and myths that went around during that time while we were walking thru some very well-preserved dark alleys and houses. This spooky trip is not suitable for kids or someone who is claustrophobic.”. It’s 12.95 GBP per adult for an hour tour with a guide. And sorry, no photos are allowed inside the close…