With the US dollar stronger against the British pound than it’s been in a long while, it was a good time for Americans to visit the United Kingdom. Scots are extraordinarily friendly, even helpful, making it all the easier to fall in love with Scotland. Although they speak English, incline your ear to listen carefully, or you may have no idea what’s been said!
Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh (pronounced Edinbura by locals) is a delight to the senses and everything I imagined a Medieval city to be. Over a thousand years of history pours forth from the cobbled stone streets and narrow closes and wynds (alleyways), the green parks and majestic cathedrals, the stories of life then and now. Surely, you too will be awestruck with the knowledge that you are inhabiting a place where a bloody battle or penitent prisoner may have offered prayer right where you stand. If only the walls could talk.
The city has it all – a rich literary history, gorgeous architecture, a decidedly creative and youthful vibe, coffee shops and pubs galore. With one of the highest educated workforces in the UK, a thriving student population, the world’s largest arts festival, successful local entrepreneurs and global luxury goods all have a strong presence. The city center is easy to navigate on foot and there’s no shortage of tasty food and ale to wash it down.
Half the population of Scotland lives the short distance between Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. When you’ve had your fill or urban buzz, consider heading to the Scottish Borders, as we did, to take in miles of rolling hills dotted with newly born spring lambs feeding in vast green meadows. Small towns with ancient ruins await as well as miles of hiking and biking trails. Scottish hospitality is sincere and ubiquitous.
Here’s a sample itinerary based on what my family did with our time in Edinburgh.
DAY ONE – Getting Acquainted
Our flight arrived at Edinburgh International Airport in the morning and we picked up our car rental reserved through Arnold Clark Car Rental. It was smooth sailing and we were very happy with our choice, so I recommend them. Scots drive on the left, so if you are used to driving on the right, you may want to at least consider getting an automatic transmission to make your drive a bit easier. The most you’ll have to navigate carefully is the drive in an around the city center, so have a reliable GPS unless you know where you’re going.
Our hotel, Old Town Chambers, is actually a serviced-apartment rental located right off the Royal Mile in the middle of the action. This is the type of place I prefer because small hotels usually offer a more unique experience, often for a better price. This was the perfect spot for exploring, but not so great for parking. We parked at the Waverley Bridge Parking Station. You can leave the car overnight for days, for a fee of course.
[HOT TIP: Bring paper and crayons for rubbings, a free and unique souvenir.]
Once you’re all checked in and have the car tucked away, wander the Royal Mile, the main thoroughfare in the Old Town, flanked by Edinburgh Castle on one end and Holyrood Palace on the other. You can start with St. Giles’ Cathedral, right across the street from Old Town Chambers hotel. Founded in 1124, this Presbyterian church has services daily and is open for tours and other events.
It’s known as the as the High Kirk of Edinburgh, the Mother Church of Presbyterianism and contains the Chapel of the Order of the Thistle, Scotland’s chivalrous company of knights chosen by The Queen. Besides, it is simply stunning.
Consider a free walking tour later that evening. Signs for various free tours dot the Royal Mile. We jumped on the evening Free Ghost Tour without a reservation. It was a wonderful way to get to know the city and to hear about its history from a knowledgeable, friendly Scot, with a terrific accent of course!
After the tour, we enjoyed a late dinner at Viva Mexico (gluten-free options). We didn’t have a reservation but got lucky that there was a table available, so you may want to call ahead. The food was good and we didn’t mind the late hour thanks to the jet lagg.
[HOT TIP: By law, kids are not allowed by law in pubs, even if they serve food, after 8pm. Also, you cannot purchase alcohol from a shop or supermarket after 10pm.]
DAY TWO – Writers and Knights and Kings OH MY!
On our walk to Edinburg Castle, we had breakfast at The Elephant House, made famous because JK Rowling wrote the Potter books over coffee and cake in this relaxed, friendly cafe. The food was good, but go for the view of the castle and to enjoy another part of the history that has made Edinburgh so inspiring to great writers for centuries.
Next stop, Edinburgh Castle. I booked our tickets ahead online to avoid waiting in a long line and to be sure that we could see it on the day of our choosing. If you are there by 1pm, you can see the firing of the One O’clock Gun dating back to 1861 when it allowed ships in the Firth of Forth to set their maritime clocks needed to navigate the oceans. The gun is fired at 1pm every day except Sundays, Christmas Day or Good Friday.
There were a few things I wanted to be sure to see: The legendary Stone of Destiny, the Scottish Crown Jewels, and St. Margaret’s Chapel, built in 1130. Turns out we had plenty of time to see them all and the rest of the castle grounds. We spent about 2 hours and didn’t take a guided tour, or use an audio-guide, both available. Sans kids my husband and I could have stayed longer.
[HOT TIP: Consider joining the National Trust for Scotland. Depending upon how many sites you have time to take in, this could add up to be a big savings.]
We spent the remainder of the afternoon walking around the city. First in the Grassmaket and Lawnmarket neighborhoods. Victoria and Bow Street are particularly picturesque with their delightful shops and places to grab a bite to eat or quench your thirst. If you are a fan of pork, try Oink. Opened by two farmers from the Scottish Borders, this tiny restaurant roasts an entire hog and sells the succulent pulled pork on fresh rolls in varying sizes with your choice of stuffing, sauce and relish.
If you are up for more walking, walk the length of the Royal Mile, about a mile as the name suggests, all the way to Holyrood Palace and the Scottish Parliament. By the time we got down there they were closed to tourists, but it was a nice way to spend the afternoon and we were glad to see them. We stopped at Whiski Bar Restaurant for a bite to eat and drink. This place really seemed like a true pub, complete with the sweet smell of whisky stained floors and walls covered with old-timey photos and bric a brac.
We were now well positioned to head to the New Town on North Bridge Road. New Town is named so for its later 18th century development including gorgeous Georgian-style mansions. At the corner of North Bridge and Princes Street you can’t miss the landmark and luxury hotel the Balmoral, Gaelic for ‘majestic dwelling’. Since 1902 the clock in the tower is 3 minutes fast, ensuring the people of Edinburgh won’t be late for their trains. Continue to the Princes Street Gardens and the Scott Monument to Sir Walter Scott, the largest monument to a writer in the world.
Speaking of trains, Waverly Station, the principal railway serving the capital (and the place we parked our car) is just next to the hotel under South Bridge Road. We enthusiastically met some family members joining us for our adventure, having taken the train from London. A short walk across the bridge toward Market Street, up Cockburn and a shortcut up Warriston’s Close took us to our hotel where our family members could check in.
[HOT TIP: There is a wonderful little coffee shop called The Milkman at 7 Cockburn. Have a caffeinated beverage to fortify yourself for the climb up the stairs of Warriston’s Close.]
That evening we enjoyed the food and fun of the decidedly American western atmosphere of Burger’s and Beers, a very short walk from the hotel on High Street, as this section of the Royal Mile is known. The fare was hearty and with a bona fide and tasty gluten-free bun, the carnivores who cannot have gluten among us were happy campers.
DAY THREE – Life and Times in 16th – 17th Century Edinburgh
It’s worth the wait, if there is one, to have breakfast at Edinburgh Larder on Blackfriars Street. There are so many delicious, farm fresh organic food options, delighting a foodie like me. Again, wonderful gluten-free baked goods are up for grabs here too.
Lazily we enjoyed ourselves right up until our tour at The Real Mary King’s Close, which I booked ahead of time online. The entrance is on the Royal Mile just steps from the hotel. I didn’t realize when I booked our accommodations and tours that some things were quite literally right next door. Most of what I had hoped to see was within a ridiculously short walk. I give this tour my highest recommendation. You will learn what Edinburgh was like for the thousands of poor peasants surviving during the Middle Ages. You may even learn why Edinburgh was known as Auld Reekie.
Okay, so now you have an image of peasant life in Edinburgh. Head out onto the Royal Mile towards Edinburgh Castle and visit Gladstone’s Land, for a glimpse at tenement life in Old Town. Eponymous owner Thomas Gladstone had remodeled the 500-year-old building to attract wealthy tenants to his apartments. A definite step up from the crowded closes surrounding the high point of the street.
Finally, for a 360 view of life all except for the Royals in Edinburgh, head to the New Town to tour The Georgian House, No. 7 Charlotte Square to see how wealthy socialites lived. New Town is known for its magnificent Georgian architecture especially showcased in its townhomes. The park in the center is privately owned by those lucky enough to live in the houses surrounding it.
[HOT TIP: If you are driving, metered parking is available on the street and I recommend you have 1 pound coins to feed it. We were nearly ticketed.]
A little further afield, one last stop on our life then and now in Edinburgh tour today, The Royal Yacht Britannia. The pinnacle of wealth, prestige and privilege then and now in the UK are the Royals. Decommissioned in 1997, Britannia is now a museum which strangely looks much as it did in the 1950s when it set sail for the first time. There’s a lot to learn, you can take photos anywhere and a few surprises await on board!
[HOT TIP: If you are driving, free covered parking is available in the garage at Ocean Terminal, level E of the blue car park follow signs to the Britannia Visitor Centre inside Ocean Mall where you can get your tickets and enter the boat. In case you’re hungry, there are several dining options in Ocean Mall. We chose Handmade Burger Company. For those of you how don’t eat meat or who aren’t interested, the falafel burger I had was excellent.]
If you have any energy left, head to Holyrood Park’s highest point, Arthur’s Seat. An extinct volcano, this ambitious climb offers the intrepid hiker magnificent views of the city. You’ll work up an appetite and enjoy looking out over the whole of the city, to which by now you’ve pledged your eternal love.
DAYS 4, 5, 6 – The Scottish Borders
One of my main objectives in Scotland, wanting to absorb the history of the Middle Ages, was staying in a castle. There is an abundance of castles turned hotels in Scotland, but I needed to find one that would allow a small service-dog, which is why I chose Cringletie House Hotel. Technically a baronial home, I figured it would give us a chance to get out of they city and into the gorgeous sheep-strewn Scottish countryside long enough to enjoy a more bucolic setting. It’s also not far from Edinburgh.
The perfect stopping point on our drive south from Edinburgh was Rosslyn Chapel, open all year round, built in the 15th century and recently made known by its inclusion in Dan Brown’s novel and subsequent film, The Da Vinci Code. The chapel has an interesting history and so many intricate symbolic carvings you’ll want a bit of time to take them all in. Better yet, attend one of the weekly church services.
I don’t know about you, but it seems the men in our family are always hungry, so we headed into town to grab a late lunch at the gastropub at The Original Rosslyn Inn Hotel. It was quaint pub grub, but that’s what we expected.
The next morning after dinner, a good night’s sleep and a huge Scottish breakfast at Cringletie we made straight for Jedburgh Abbey, founded in 1138. Grab an audio guide with your entrance ticket and away you go. This part of Scotland is known for its abbeys, dating back more than a 1,000 years. Augustian canons, priests fo the order, made their home at Jedburgh, embracing a life of humility, abstinence, prayer and although cloistered, service to the community.
If you need a break or a bite to eat I recommend the Abbey View Coffee shop, a sweet place for a caffeinated beverage or a hot nourishing bowl of soup. Continue your journey through time exploring the other abbeys such as Dryburgh Abbey, Kelso Abbey and Melrose Abbey, a magnificent ruin with lavishly decorated masonry. Melrose Abbey is the burial place of Robert the Bruces heart, marked with a commemorative carved stone plaque within the grounds.
Be sure you save time (up to two hours) to visit and tour Robert Smails Printing Works in Innerleithen. We popped in on our way back to Cringletie and it was a major highlight of our time in the Borders. Robert Smail’s is a fully functional Victorian era letterpress printing, now preserved by The National Trust for Scotland as an Industrial Heritage hands-on museum. The expert staff lead the tours and demonstrations of a skilled trade which has all but disappeared. Free parking is on Leithen Road and Hall Street.
WHERE TO EAT
We tried all these restaurants in our few days in the Borders and liked them all and the gluten-free, dairy-free eaters among us had not trouble finding entrees to tempt their tastebuds.
Cringletie House Hotel – We preferred the bar menu not the formal dining room.
Saffron (Indian) – 68 High Street, Innerleithen
Bony’s Steakhouse in the Glentress Hotel, Peebles
Peeble’s Hydro – This is a fun place to go for a happy hour drink or to check out the rather impressive selection of gin at the “gin palace”.
Abbey View Coffee Shop – 5 Abbey Pl, Jedburgh
The Original Rosslyn Inn Hotel – 2-4 Main Street, Roslin, Midlothian