We spent a long weekend in Edinburgh at the start of September. The weather was a bit cool (8-18C) with the odd brief and light bit of rain. I survived the whole time with jeans and a hoody/waterproof.
When: September 2018. Some of the places mentioned might not have survived COVID.
- We stayed at “16 Pilrig Guest House”. Which was clean and nice enough for the price. The best part being the location right next to (but not on) Leith Walk: being close enough to walk into town, and also with a number of buses passing nearby.
- We got the £4 adult day-ticket for the buses each day (worth it after more than 2 rides) and used it for lots of short hops about. The Lothian bus website is good with info and routes/timetables as pdfs you can download.
- The Wikivoyage page is very detailed and useful, also the FAQ at r/Edinburgh is full of good suggestions. It is also worth stalking Reddit user /u/ani_svnit with their posts there and their Scotland heavy blog.
- Prices were higher than I would expect so far north in the UK, but nowhere near London level. Still very affordable compared to Switzerland which is my current (absurd) baseline.
- Edinburgh survived the war and post-war town planning very well (the latter I think has far more to answer for in the UK than the Luftwaffe). I was amazed at just how endless the handsome buildings in the New/Old town seem to be.
- The city was hillier than I expected. I had in mind that the castle would be on a hill and the rest would be fairly flat – that is really not the case.
- It was clearly very touristy, but it never felt oppressively so or fake. Though I do wonder how quite so many shops selling identical tourist-tack can all survive at the same time.
- They really are not shy about pushing Harry Potter merchandise. It is plastered there more than in London. The Elephant House café was amazing for how crassly they advertised that Rowling used to write there. TripAdvisor reviews suggest that quality has rather dropped since those days too in favour of moving tourists in and out as fast as possible. Though the award for best tourist tack goes to the Princess Diana memorial tartans.
- It was a little oddly formal in some ways compared to elsewhere in the UK. Pubs tended to have more waited seating areas than is usual in the UK (maybe more due to tourism numbers?), and buses seemed to be less relaxed about when they officially stop and how you get on than elsewhere.
- There are quite a few less formal pubs like the famous Bow Bar which do good beer and whiskey, though these often feel a little “old man pub like” and walking in under the age of 40 might make you feel a little out of place (though never unwelcome).
- It was really hard to find porridge. Most cafes seemed to just do Granola instead. We didn’t manage to get over there but Brochan near the Uni sounded like the best option there.
- Not going up Arthurs Seat. Mostly due to inappropriate footwear (it seems many people expecting a gentle walk are caught out by how steep and rough it can be). Though the view from Calton hill was enough (and it isn’t like I lack mountain views at home). We will go back another time and enjoy it more properly.
- I had also been tossing the idea of getting out to Stirling (50 minutes by train), or St Andrews (train and bus) but that was a bit much. We also plan to return sometime for a driving tour of the Highlands so there was no need for a 12 hour coach tour (we did, see this post).
- Not seeing the castle on the inside. I have seen enough castles, and stately home type rooms, and displays of weapons in recent years that I was more interested to wander the city. Next time.
- Didn’t grab a deep-fried mars bar. Nor did I have a Stonner kebab or a Munchy box which at least are not Edinburgh specialties.
- We didn’t really have time, but Glasgow has vast numbers of museums. It is also meant to have the best curry houses in the UK. Clearly I need to go back sometime.
Not really Edinburgh based as such but if you want some more info on the country in general.
- “Darien: A Journey in Search of Empire” – John McKendrick. The really unknown but quite amazing story behind Scotland’s colonial cockup.
- “A history of Scotland” – Neil Oliver. If you youtube Neil Oliver and Scotland you will find plenty of BBC docs with him.
- “Scotland: A History from Earliest Times” – Alistair Moffat. Not started this yet so I make no promises.
Day 1 – Arrival
A groggy arrival at 8am.
- We took the tram from the airport the full way to York Place. This is about the most expensive option compared to the buses (£8.50 open return). But it runs frequently and is an easy and comfy option. You can save some money if you walk outside of the airport zone to the next stop (Ingliston Park & Ride), but for a few quid it just wasn’t worth it to us.
- We had a Scottish breakfast at a French café (Jules Vern) by virtue of it being the first place we walked past after getting off the tram. They did a good (but not the cheapest) Scottish breakfast. First bit of Haggis – it was really bloody good, and remained so everytime we tried it after.
- Having dropped our bags at the Guesthouse we then walked up Calton Hill which gave a fantastic overview of the city and local area. It is much lower than Arthurs Seat, but also much easier to get up to with proper paths and all.
- Descending down we headed over to the old town and naturally ended up on the Royal Mile.
- I had been hoping to call at Pinnies and poppyseeds which apparently does the best shortbread. But it was closed for their post-Fringe holiday (and it has since closed forever, so we never got to try it).
- I gave my girlfriend some of the Scottish cultural delicacy that is Iron Bru. She was not very impressed. Can’t say I have ever been a fan myself either. Though you know you are in Scotland when you walk into CO-OP and there is a giant stack of 2L bottles for £1 at the front of the store.
- We wandered over to the handsome new town and had drinks and dinner at the Queens Arms. I was quite fond of the Old McGreggor beer.
Day 2 – Leith and Edinburgh
- We headed into Leith which is a handsome area, and has somewhat gone up in the world since it was the staring location of Trainspotting (the book) back in the early 90s. We grabbed some breakfast at the very nice Hideout Café.
- The waterfront along Shore was handsome enough but not spectacular. The front is lined with restaurants that are meant to be very high quality and a good choice for food lovers (though we didn’t find time to come back in the evening and find out). We didn’t bother going to the actual seafront with it just being an industrial/commercial port, and I wasn’t fussed by the Royal Yacht (and sure as hell not £16 fussed to go on it).
- From the waterfront we walked part of the Water of Leith up to Canonmills. This was a pleasant way to move through the city, but not overly special. From what I understand the upstream sections such as the Village of Dean are the most scenic parts.
- The Botanical Gardens (free) were very nice and well worth a walk around.
- Heading back into old town. We took lunch at the Greyfriars Bobby pub and explored the area around the namesake church and graveyard (the pub may not have come first).
- We attempted to feed squirrel. It wasn’t impressed by anything less than M&S nuts.
- We had dinner at the Gurkha café (living in Switzerland there is a distinct lack of good curry). Followed by a wander and a few drinks at the Canons gait. A curious mix of “could be anywhere or anything” café with some gothic cathedral themed decorations. Did some good beers though
Day 3 – Glasgow
- Train service between the two cities is fantastic. A train every 15 minutes during the day, taking about 45-50 minutes, and at a very reasonable £13 off-peak return (off peak times: get on the return train before 16:42 or after 18:11 if it is a weekday). Whilst not deep in the Highlands the scenery was still pleasant enough, notably also you got a good view of the palace at Linlithgow (birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots).
- Glasgow instantly had a very different feel to Edinburgh. Much less handsome for the most part (which in fairness would be hard to match), but with a very lively feel, and a lot of art (we kept coming across parts of the mural trail without even trying). And there were also far less tourists.
- We walk through George Square past the impressive City Chambers and headed for the Cathedral. The cathedral is historically and aesthetically very impressive. Afterwards we climbed up to the Necropolis which was interesting to walk around itself, and offered good views back down on the cathedral itself and over the city.
- Jumping on the little underground system we headed out to the West End for lunch and then to take a walk up the University east and west quadrangles which is an utterly beautiful building and was well worth the detour across town. Dropping down from there we walked through the park to the next underground station. Had we had a bit more time and energy we could have followed the park to the Botanical gardens or the Kelvingrove museum.
- Taking the underground back to St Enochs we had a quick look at the river, then took a coffee in the old underground headquarters building (far prettier on the outside, and just a standard high-street coffee chain), before walking up the lively Buchanan main street back to the Queen Street station.
- Finally we stuck out heads into Waxy O’connors by the station for a quick look at what must be the most impressively decorated pub in the UK (think LOTR meets gothic).
Day 4 – Seaside and yet more Edinburgh
- We took the train to Aberdour first thing in the morning. The ride takes 30 minutes, with a train going every 30 minutes. Being a Saturday it was off-peak all day so it was cheap and easy. Because across the river it crosses the big red Forth bridge along the way.
- The village is small but very nice – with an award winningly pretty train station. It clearly depends on tourism to keep the surprising number of pubs and antiques shops going – but it must be the most understated and nice form of catering to tourism that I have ever seen (especially at an English seaside town). Though we seemed to be about the only visitors on this Saturday morning at the start of September.
- The cafes open rather late at the weekend (9:30am or later) so we had to walk for a few minutes which gave us time for a look at the outside of the castle before going back to the style McTaggart’s deli/café for a good breakfast, then next door to the very good “The Aberdour Bakery Company” for some sausage rolls, scones, and shortbread for later.
- We followed Shore Lane down to Black Sands beach and walked past the little harbour and around the headland (taking 2nd breakfast on the cliffs) to Silver Sands where we collected shells.
- We took the (much busier) train back into the city, then wandered up to old town. Having a jacket potato for lunch (all this food talk is just to highlight the best British choices, not just me being a bit odd).
- I grabbed a few Scotland based books from the shop of the National Library. It has exhibition space but sadly that was under construction. It does however have a café that seems to be where all the locals go and was a very nice place to spend some time.
- Explored the National Museum (free) which is wonderfully laid out and well done, especially family friendly. But sadly we forgot to go up to the rooftop terrace which is meant to have an amazing view.
- We stuck our heads into Jenners on Princes Street for a few minutes. The (no longer independent) department store has been there forever and it is worth a look just for the grand main hall.
- Japanese food at Hakataya (not very British, but hard to find in Switzerland) followed by more walking around yet more unexplored parts of the new town. Walking around the big circular Ainslie and Moray places in the twilight was rather nice.
Day 5 – Homeward
- Breakfast at the Southern Cross café. A very good but very popular option, we arrived at 8am and it was empty, by 9am it was rammed with a queue. They recently won an award so are on everybody’s radar and the poor staff were rather overwhelmed.
- It was a quick and easy return to the airport with the tram.
- The airport isn’t massive, but security was quick and there are enough shops and seating options to amuse you for a few hours.