It started at a baby shower for my dear new cousin. I was sitting at a table with my mother when she began explaining that in five weeks time, my dad was going on a business trip to the south of England. She went on to say that when his business concluded, he would fly her out to join him on vacation. "You know, this is the longest flight I've ever been on, alone. I'm kind of nervous!", she remarked.
"We'll go with you!", we responded, before a moment could pass.
A week later, I got a phone call from my dad. He was inviting Cindy and I to join them in the United Kingdom. It only took one extra day to clear our schedules and line up finances. We were going!
The original vision of the trip was to do a London-plus (something else) trip. London-plus-Paris. London-plus-the English countryside. London-plus-Dublin. But as the research wrapped up, it was clear that Edinburgh was the spot that caught our fancy. In fact, so much of Scotland seemed alluring that our trip was essentially structured around the country, with London serving as a minor bookend. Two days were slated for the famous Scottish Highlands but surrounding that trek was two days in Edinburgh. The Scottish capital would prove to be a perfect base camp for the highlands and one of the most charming cities I’ve ever visited.
Our journey began at the King’s Cross train station in London (platform 4, if you were wondering) where we caught a Virgin Rail train north. As the fully loaded train left Londontown miles behind, the flat and featureless countryside gradually gave way to small hills and dips, trees, beautiful towns, and a vista of the North Sea crashing into the English coast. After almost 4 1/2 hours, our now half unloaded train arrived at Edinburgh’s Waverley Station.
We exited the station through a small, northeast exit and immediately had to trudge up a hill. It was cold, our bags were heavy, and with no definable landmarks, I'm pretty sure everyone thought I was leading them the wrong way.
But when we crested the hill, I quickly knew where we were. Before us was a stunning view of the Balmoral Hotel, posing proudly front of the fading light.
Our hotel was a short five minutes beyond the Balmoral. We arrived in the modern-chic lobby around 9:00pm, tired and hungry. But we warmed; we ate; we rested. The next day would be a full day of exploring this beautiful city.
Eight hours later, we gathered for breakfast in the hotel lobby and sketched out a plan: trek over to Old Town to see the castle and then work our way down the Royal Mile.
You see, the area of Edinburgh we were staying in exists as two different cities, bisected in the middle by the railway through town. On one side, Old Town, with structures dating back over 400 years (and some hundreds of years beyond that). On the other, the now ironically named New Town, with structures dating back only 200 years.
We were staying in New Town, so we had to walk 10 minutes across a grassy ravine in order to make it to Old Town.
Once we walked to the other side and pushed up a hill to the top of the Royal Mile, we arrived at the proud and mighty Edinburgh Castle. In front of the castle is a large lot, typically filled with stands for one of the many festivals that Edinburgh hosts annually. Apparently, so many festivals fill the space that it is almost more uncommon to see a view of the castle unblocked. We were happy to get our photos in front.
Located on a rocky perch that has been occupied by humans for thousands of years, Edinburgh Castle stands, a much younger 900 years old. The castle has played a significant role in Scottish history and major Scottish conflicts from the Wars of Scottish Independence, starting in 1296, to World War II, when it was used to hide and fortify the Honours of Scotland. The castle is a stacked series of walls and towers, spiraling towards an elevated courtyard.
After purchasing our “Historic Scotland Explorer Pass”, gaining us access to this castle and more, we entered the fortress. Passing under the the Arms of Scotland, we travelled up the winding castle path, studying each layer and building, in and out.
From the highest courtyard, we peeked around the royal hall and a chapel that has been beautifully transformed into a memorial for the Scottish who fought in the World Wars. We then visited the northern building, where the Honours of Scotland are on display today; I had to tell Cindy to keep it down when she said, “They don’t look that impressive to me!”. However, with the claustrophobic queue, I have to be honest: I too was wondering if the Honours were worth the wait. Regardless, we walked all around the grounds, taking photos and visiting various museum exhibits.
My favorite exhibit in the castle was organized around the various times in the castle’s history in which it was used to hold prisoners of war. Among the mocked-up cells and cellars was a old door bearing the marks of graffiti from across the ages. Under one of the hinges was 200-year old American graffiti—the stars and stripes were carved into the wood grain. It was awesome!
After nearly two hours at the Edinburgh Castle, we decided to leave and explore more of this beautiful city.
We were all very impressed with the castle but history does little to keep you warm. At several points during our tour, small snow flurries whisked past our faces. It was unreasonably cold for April. And so, as we left the castle and stood across from the Tartan Weaving Mill, we knew that scarf purchases were in order. The weaving mill was a three-(or four)-story gift shop, with plaid products of numerous designs, materials, and subsequently, prices. We each grabbed a few items and spent far too many pounds on the various fabrics.
Thanks to my job, I couldn’t ignore my growing affinity with the Royal Stewart plaid and had to grab several photos of the plaid products on display.
Just beyond the Tartan Weaving Mill was the Royal Mile, the main thoroughfare through Old Town. At the head of the street were a variety of touristy places, like the weaving mill. Most we intended to skip on by, but one such place came highly recommended: The Scotch Whisky Experience.
The Scotch Whisky Experience is like a “beginners guide” to Scotch. For a steep 22 bucks, the attraction provides about 45 minutes of entertainment—but to me, it was totally worth it!
It started with a ride. That’s right, a ride. A totally campy, somewhat cringey, dark ride. Doing for whisky what the Chocolate Factory Tour ride does for chocolate in Hershey, Pennsylvania, you ride through the production of whisky from the comfort of your very own cask, narrated to you by a “distillery manager” (who just so happens to be a ghost for some reason). As a theme park employee, the experience was silly and absolutely everything I wanted it to be.
After the ride, you watch a video that introduces four regions of Scotch Whisky—the Lowlands, the Highlands, the Islay, and Speyside (a region around the Spey river)—and explains why differences in geography and production lead to different whiskys with similar regional flavors. A scratch-and-sniff card with four colors, one for each region, provided samples of the auras for us to explore. We were then given a glass and instructed to place it over a colored circle that corresponded with the regional flavors we were most intrigued by.
We were then poured a dram of whisky from the region requested. (P.s. One of my favorite new words from the trip was “dram”, meaning a small glass of whisky.) The hostess encouraged us to sniff a whiff, but not yet take a drink. We were then taken into the tasting room.
The tasting room was covered, floor to ceiling, in glass cabinets that were packed row-by-row with classic bottles of Scotch. The only light in the room came from a small chandelier hanging in the center and the under-lit glow of the thousands of bottles, behind the glass. We gathered around a lone table and were given a brief instruction on how to examine the whisky, studying the smell, the color, the body, and finally, with a brief Scottish toast to good health (pronouced “slanj’-uh va'”), the taste.
As a beginner to Scotch, it was an amazing experience.
…which should naturally conclude with a gift shop!
After seeing the massive on-display whisky collection, we perused the marvelous for-sale whisky collection with intrigue and humor. My mom even bought a bottle, for my brother back home.
But for me, I wasn’t thirsty. In fact, I was hungry. And so, we all left the Scotch Whisky Experience, ready for lunch. When we stepped outside, we were immediately put off by the poor weather, which was now spitting rain at us. We ducked into the first restaurant we could find for an unexciting meal in a charming old chamber.
After our meal, we exited the restaurant to discover that, in the time we were dining, the skies had completely cleared. It was now a brisk but beautiful day in Edinburgh. Uplifted by the weather and ready to be alone, Cindy and I decided to split from the group to go off exploring.
We travelled down some beautiful cobblestone streets with grey brick buildings, winding down and then up the gradual hills of the city. From here, we reached the Greyfriars Kirkyard, a 500-year old cemetery. Beyond its beautiful, hundreds-of-years old tombstones and well manicured lawns, the cemetery is known popularly for two associations.
First association, is that of Greyfriars Bobby. Like other famous “faithful dogs” (think of the movie Hachi), Bobby was a Skye Terrier who supposedly spent 14 years guarding the grave of his owner until his own death in the late 1800’s. In addition to commemorative signage, the dog has a monument-tombstone at the entrance to the cemetery where locals and tourists alike have left sticks for his eternal play-time.
Second, the graveyard sits adjacent to The Elephant House, a local cafe that would be completely unremarkable except that it is the now well-publicized location where author J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book. Many believe she roamed the graveyard for inspiration and even pulled character names from the many tombstones, including that of a “Thomas Riddell”.
For this reason, we walked among the graves, looking intently for hints to the names of characters Cindy and I were familiar with. It was a fun little game until we stumbled upon a memorial wall in which someone graffitied the words “Sirius Black”. All of a sudden, the game wasn’t fun anymore. We were reminded that this is was a real final resting-place and were annoyed that other fans took it too far. And so, we exited the cemetery, passing the Elephant House on the way.
We returned to The Royal Mile to find that the weather was worsening again. Hoping to escape the impending rain, we ducked into a Starbucks to drink, pee, and mooch off of the wifi. Despite being the third day of the trip, we were still succumbing to the afternoon exhaustion of jetlag.
The coffee was a nice pick-me-up, though. Feeling that it was too early to call it a day, we set our sights on one last stop: Calton Hill.
One of three hills that seems to anchor the city (the others being Arthur’s Seat and the rock that Edinburgh Castle is perched upon), Calton Hill sits at the eastern end of Princes Street. Once climbed, it provided a stunning view of Edinburgh, as well as fantastic close-up views of the many monuments dotted across the hilltop. We were in luck to have one of the few clear-skied moments of our stay while at Calton Hill. The vista provided panoramic views from the city to the sea.
Standing so high up on such a clear day allowed us to grab great close-ups of Edinburgh’s most famous sights. Looking through my telephoto lens, it felt like a “discovery” when I swung over and found the old ruins of St. Anthony’s Chapel pinned to a hillside far below the crest of Arthur’s Seat.
Which brings us to Arthur’s Seat.
Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags is a massive hill and cliff formation at the eastern end of Old Town. With the base of the cliffs sitting at the lowest point of the city and the top of the hill standing higher than anything else in the area, the geologic formation is undoubtedly the largest defining feature of the area.
It was a strong and beautiful landmark, a rigid reminder that for all of the city’s comforts and connections to the rest of the island, Edinburgh is the starting point for a trek into the remote Scottish Highlands. And so, our story from Edinburgh pauses here. The next two days would be spent completing the fastest loop of the Highlands that modern man could muster. Upon our return, we would be tired and beat but longing for the view from atop of Arthur’s Seat.
That journey through the Scottish Highlands will constitute its own blog post. But instead of jumping to that, we will finish our tour of Edinburgh in the next post.
This is one of the most photo-rich blogs I've posted and I could only fit so many of them in the body of the post. So, for more photos of this day in Edinburgh, please check out the gallery below!