Edinburgh in Review: Top 10 favorite sites & activities
Its taken a couple of months, but the full nostalgia of being back in the U.S and living my 8-5 life has gotten me missing my first international trip to Scotland, Ireland, & England. Thanks to EF Ultimate Break, I was able to go on a 16-day stress-free trip where I learned about three countries that have forever fascinated me. Accommodations and airfare included, plus free admission to a lot of big sights, my trip was life-changing.
Never leaving the country, or even being on a plane by myself was a little nerve-wracking, but I’m so glad we started our trip in Edinburgh, Scotland! Seriously, looking back it’s at the top of my list of all the things we saw and visited.
Scotland is known for so many things in history and today’s pop culture. JK Rowling came up with Harry Potter in a small coffee shop off the royal mile. She even got characters names like John Riddle from gravestones in thousand-year-old cemeteries just a few blocks away.
As a millennial, I love brushing up on world history through dramatic historical fiction tv shows and books that hold hardly any realistic information (but still, you learn stuff!) For any outlander fans (seriously, obsessed) there is plenty of Jacobite history all around that country and many famous castles & clan names from the book (because Diana Gabaldon is amazing and cares about being historically accurate). Let’s not forget Reign and how, because of that show, it was basically the only reason I knew (anything) about Mary Queen of Scotts when visiting Edinburgh and Stirling castle.
Here is my top 10 list of things I loved about Edinburgh, plus a few things I’m bummed I didn’t get to see. Not knowing a lot about Scottish history, and never traveling internationally, this was the perfect place to start! There’s no language barrier (well, there is, you can barely understand people when they talk fast….and have weird names for things) and it’s a safe place to travel!
Uhm, the Royal Mile, in general, was probably my favorite part of my entire trip through all three countries. Being from Washington State, a lot of the oldest buildings I see were built in the mid to late 1800’s. We are very new state and the United States itself is a very new country. The Royal Mile is literally like stepping back in time.
It’s a mile long (hence the name) and in old Scotland, was the main street where you worked, shopped, and went about your day. It has expanded over the years but parts of it are completely original with cobblestone, shops, and history all around. On one end of the Royal Mile is Edinburgh Castle. The opposite end is Holyrood Palace (aka The Queens “vacation home”). It’s amazing to me that there are building still standing (and being used) that were built in the 1400s! Not only is it awesome that they are still standing, Scotland works to restore them, not change them. I have always had an obsession with old houses and building, and it just blows my mind that they are still using churches with parts being built in the 1200’s. There’s plenty of pubs, stores, cafes, and souvenir shops to keep you busy & although I spend just over 48 hours there, I fell in love and could’ve spent an entire week.
Click here for a link to Rick Steve’s guide to the Royal Mile and his favorite stops along the way!
My best way to describe Edinburgh Castle and my experience is to say I felt kind of like I was in Disney land. The castle is gigantic. It sits on a freaking volcano and has 360-degree views of Scotland. It has its own prison, multiple churches, houses, and buildings, holds the crown jewels and enough history to make your head spin. If you’re going, I recommend do it in the morning (pre-purchasing tickets) and going right when it opens. When I left the castle grounds, there was a line to purchase tickets and even go inside the first wall.
The castle is beautiful and basically a giant museum. You can go on guided tours, but I mostly walked around by myself and took pictures. Different parts of the castle were built at different time periods during different rulers, but you wouldn’t even notice, everything is done so consistently. One thing I did enjoy was the prison. They have a great exhibit with lots to learn about the castle (fun fact: the cobblestone you walk one was done by prisoners). As I said, getting there early is good. There were people EVERYWHERE. Lines to get in to see the jewels, lines to get in to see a church built for Queen Margareet by her son David I, literally you cannot get a picture anywhere at this castle without people in it. But, through all of that, it is so cool to be able to see a piece of history that hasn’t been changed and holds so much significance for Scotland.
Here’s the link to ticket prices, times, events & hours of the castle. It may be a good idea to purchase your tickets ahead of time to avoid queues 🙂 There are tours available, and may be better than the free-roaming I did. Either way, it is definitely something you should be seeing if you are traveling to Edinburgh.
Arthur’s seat was something I found on all the blogs I researched before my trip. They claimed breathtaking views and an easy breezy walk. Turns out, I must be really out of shape because the walk to the top of Arthurs seat was KILLER. I decided to go, last minute on our last night in Edinburgh. We wanted to catch the sunset so we left at about 5 pm and started the trek through town. There are apparently two ways to get to the top. An easy way and a hard way. We decided on the hard way for reasons I still can’t figure out, BUT, it was beautiful and really good exercise. Since it was September when we went, the weather was somewhat breezy and in the 50s & 60s (perfect were scaling hills). Looking back, I am almost positive that Edinburgh wouldn’t have made my list of fav places we went if I hadn’t had taken that hike the last night. It was breathtaking!
I’d give yourself an hour to get up to the top and an hour to get down (especially if you stop and take pictures). and plan accordingly if you want to catch sunrise or sunset. What’s convenient is that you can walk towards Holyrood palace and it sits just on the other side of the property. It’s an easy walk there, a trek up to the seat, and plenty of places to take in the beauty of Scotland!
This sounds creepy, but there’s something about the cemeteries in Edinburgh that I absolutely fell in love with. There is so much detail and attention put into the gravestones of loved ones. In Scotland, most cemeteries are used as parks. They are a peaceful place to enjoy nature. Again, being a nerd, there are some really really really old graves in these cemeteries! I loved walking around and seeing the names, dates, and effort families put into their loved one’s gravestones and can’t help but let my mind wander to the lives they lived.
As mentioned earlier, there is a cemetery in Edinburgh that is especially popular. J.K Rowling got a lot of her characters names at the Greyfriars Cemetary attached to Greyfriars Kirk (church). Besides Greyfriars Kirk (which I would also recommend taking time to learn about and tour) the kirkyard (cemetery) is said to be one of the most haunted in the world! Tom Riddell Esq & William McGonagall’s gravestones can be found here and I encourage you to walk around and see some of the other large & beautiful gravestones.
This really isn’t an activity, but Scotland has some great jewelry options in Scotland. I found some beautiful pieces of Turquoise, and Iona Green Marble. Iona Green Marble is actually only found in the Scottish Highlands. you can find different shades of the green & it comes in earrings, bracelets, necklaces, etc. I took a few pieces home just because its only found in Scotland! This is a great gift idea for anyone in your family 🙂
Anyone interested in history like me, will have museums on their list of things they’d like to do. National museums in Scotland are FREE admission. that’s right, completely free! they are also HUGE. The national museum in Scotland is at least 4 stories tall and covers more history than I can even begin to explain. If you have the time and like museums, I’d dedicate at least half a day (or even a full day) to the national museum. They have exhibitions monthly that cost to get into, but I couldn’t even get through the entire things in the two hours I was there. It may be smart to look through the website beforehand and find things you definitely want to see.
I went into a few bookstores and antique stores while I was in Edinburgh. They, of course, are really similar to ones you see in the U.S, and it’s not like I had unlimited room to come back with large pieces of history. Buuuuut, I randomly walked into an old bookstore and was able to purchase two original maps of Scotland and surrounding areas, drawn in the early 1800’s! They are so beautiful and I couldn’t wait to get home and put them in frames. There are so many things that are hard to find in the U.S (like really old maps) because they are worth so much, but when you go to countries that have been around for thousands of years, things like that are more likely available to purchase. Old maps are also interesting because a lot of times the country or area it shows has changed significantly since the date it was drawn or used. If you have Scottish heritage or ancestry, it would be awesome to do some research and be able to find maps of the areas they lived!
Art & Craft Fairs
This may not interest everyone, but one of my main goals of my first international trip was to experience the things that I would be most interested in. Sometimes the most popular (like Edinburgh castle) are so busy and expected, that the experience ends up being lackluster and you can’t really be in the moment and enjoy yourself. So, finding small, unheard of businesses, shops, pubs, and activities were my favorite. I got so much more (and learned so much more) out of those places (like the cemeteries) than walking around Edinburgh castle reading signs about history (still totally loved seeing such an important part of history and recommend to anyone who visits).
Right off the royal mile, there is an old Kirk that now houses an open market. It has mostly arts, crafts, and handmade items, but was another place I happened to have stumbled upon and absolutely loved! This isn’t something you’ll find in a lot of books or blogs as the most popular thing to do, but if you are looking for souvenirs for your trip, this could be a really great place to find a one of a kind gift!
The Tron Kirk which was a church back in the 1600’s, is now an open Scottish market. Vendors sell skin care, jewelry, fashion, and more. I found a booth while I was there that did my surname history. It’s a super cool booth that you will find all over Europe, but the people who run the booth know what they are doing and know a lot about history. All of the surname descriptions are made up of hundreds of archives, university, and historical sources in Europe and the U.K. Like I said, you will find these booths all over the place, but I found this one in the open market and was super happy to come home with some history about my family I didn’t know before.
Here’s the link to the Tron Kirk and market. The link will show you more details about the types of vendors, hours of operation, and history of the Kirk itself.
This is a must. I love beer. I’m not sure there’s a pub you won’t find amazing while in Edinburgh. Our hotel was near ‘The World’s End’ pub and is one I definitely recommend. For history buffs, this pub sat at the gate of the old walled city of Edinburgh (before the royal mile was really a mile) in the 1600’s and those who lived within in the walled city considered it the end of the world since there was no reason to leave! It still stands today and is a great way to start or end your days on the royal mile.
Stirling castle was something I had sort of forgotten about when looking through my itinerary for this trip. But, it ended up being one of my most memorable and one that I enjoyed taking pictures of the most! Besides the who Braveheart movie facts, myths, etc (which I haven’t seen), this castle did not disappoint. We got there right before it opened and it was foggy. I mean, super foggy. You couldn’t even see the castle from the parking lot. What was so great though, was as we finished our tour of the inside, the fog started to lift and you could see the full beauty of the castle, its grounds, and of the town of Stirling. The crowds here are far less hectic than Edinburgh Castle if you get there early. It’s also not quite as large, so you’re able to get through most of it in a few hours. The grounds are gorgeous and there’s lots of free roaming to do. I did the whole thing basically by myself and loved walking along the wall and taking pictures of the surrounding countryside. It also played a really important role in Scottish history and was where Mary, Queen of Scots was actually was crowned in 1543! She spent a lot of her childhood at Stirling castle and even saw her son crowned there as well. Guided tours are available, just like Edinburgh castle, but I really enjoyed just taking it all in and enjoying the nature and the castle.
Overall, Scotland was probably my favorite country to start with and I can’t wait to go back again! If you have specific questions, feel free to click on my contact me page and fill out the form, and if you’re interested in EF ultimate break, let me know and I can get you $100 off your first trip!