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Edinburgh is the capital of the most stubborn, stingy culture in the world, and beautiful beyond belief.
My original plan had been to go to Edinburgh just for a day for the Beltane Fire Festival before heading up to the Isle of Skye to see my namesake. Then after Verona and Brighton I started to appreciate spending more than just a day or two in a city, and decided to go for three days. That ended up staying for five weeks.
While I have yet to get to Iceland and Scandinavia, Scotland is by far the most beautiful country in Europe. Not for the impressive cities, but for the sheer breathtaking beauty of the country itself. To be fair, I didn’t see all that much of the country. But what I did see was beyond compare.
I have lots of stories to share about Edinburgh. But first, here’s a guide for your own travels to this wonderful city. I do want to apologize for the lack of photos, since I was missing a camera for most of the time. But you’ll have to read on to get that story.
Edinburgh and Glasgow both have major airports if you want to fly there. However, flights to London tend to be far cheaper, and then the Megabus to Edinburgh from London is only around £20. Personally I like to take the overnight bus, which leaves London at 10:30 and arrives at 7 AM, giving me a place to sleep for the night too. And if you do fly to Glasgow, the CityLine bus to Edinburgh is only £1-£3, depending on the time of the day.
Once you are in Edinburgh, there are buses running throughout the city. I think a single trip is around £1.50 and a full day is £4. To be honest I’m not sure as I never took one. The city is easily small enough to walk to wherever you want to get to in no time at all.
Just like any city, Edinburgh has its choice of hotels, hostels and CouchSurfers. Unfortunately there aren’t any close camp grounds, but unless you’re like me you probably wouldn’t like to camp in Scotland’s weather. If you are planning to get a CouchSurfing host, request plenty of time ahead. They get a lot of requests. If you want to get a hostel, my personal recommendations are Kick-Ass and Budget Backpackers, which are the same company. I actually acquired long-term stay at Budget for nearly a month. Just make sure you book in advance there too if you plan to go on the weekend, as they are always fully booked. Otherwise, some other good ones are Castle Rock Hostel and The Hostel. I also spent a night at Caledonian Backpackers, but wouldn’t recommend them. Also know that the closer you get to the Royal Mile in the center of town, the more expensive hotels get. Oh, and if you want to go in August for the Edinburgh Festival (mentioned below) book way in advance and know you will be paying quite a bit more.
I absolutely love the food of Scotland. Just like the rest of the UK, they are famous for their fish and chips. But the true national dish of Scotland is haggis. Now let me say this bluntly. Don’t ask what it is. Just eat it. I had many other travelers I met do just that and they loved it. The way to order it is with neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes). I will also say that some places make it better than others, since I had it more than once. I can’t recommend the best place to get it, but I will say get it at a restaurant rather than a bar.
Other than fish and chips, Edinburgh (and the rest of Scotland) has every other deep-fried meal imaginable. And many unimaginable. Like a deep-fried pizza. Or the now world famous deep-fried Mars bar! Yup. Sounds crazy. It is! And to continue the adventure, I tried one myself. Well, half of one. I would definitely not recommend eating a whole one. In fact one bite is enough. Truth be told it was actually kinda good. But it’s a deep-fried Mars bar!!!
Now if you’re on a budget like me, there are some great places to eat around town. Edinburgh is cheaper than London, but still expensive. Buying your food at local markets and getting £3 meal deals that they all offer will always be the cheapest. Mosque Kitchen on Nicolson St is another cheap place to eat. A friend brought me there when I first arrived, and the meals are both good and cheap. It’s Pakistani food, which I can’t say I’ve ever had before. The added benefit is that the food is all gluten free, and half of it is vegan too. Neither matter much to me, but perhaps they will for you.
Actually most of the restaurants and cafes around Nicolson St, which is the university district, are quite cheap, and there are some good, cheap places around Lothian Rd. Things tend to get a bit more expensive around Princes St, and you’ll be paying top dollar for tourist food on the Royal Mile.
Things to Do
There are a ton of things to do in Edinburgh. My favorites are by far the nature-oriented options. The best is unquestionably Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood park. This is an extinct volcano only a couple kilometers away from the Royal Mile. The hike is really not as bad as it might seem, and the views from the top are beyond compare. There are many paths to get to the top, depending on the gradient you want. Or you can be crazy like me and just run straight up and down the side. Just know that the wind up there can be extreme.
There are many other parks around Edinburgh. A km south of the Royal mile is The Meadows, and Bruntsfield Links next to that. Half a km to the northeast is Calton Hill, where I attended the Beltane Fire Festival the night I arrived. The Botanical Gardens are to the northwest, and the zoo is further west from that. There are the Princes Street gardens, Dean gardens and many more.
There is also a canal which runs all the way to Glasgow, and the Water of Leith which runs from the bay to the canal. That was a great 20 km circuit one day for me and a friend.
If you’re looking for a good pub or nightlife, you can’t miss it. Edinburgh has one of the most impressive nightlife cultures I’ve seen so far in my travels, though not as crazy as Barcelona. Many of the pubs and taverns have live music at night. There are also comedy clubs, events in the parks, etc. And the posters for them are everywhere.
The Royal Mile is the center of the city. To be honest, it’s really become just a glorified shopping street, and 52 of the 54 shops are owned by the same two people selling the exact same merchandise. But you can walk down any of the dozens of small side-streets (closes) for some really incredible shops, houses and other sights. The Royal Mile has St. Giles’ Cathedral and The Hub (an old church turned festival information center). And at the top of the Royal Mile is the Edinburgh Castle itself atop another extinct volcano.
The price of the castle at £16 prevented me from taking the tour. But when I go back to Edinburgh next year I’ll be purchasing the Explore Scotland pass, which gives me access to 78 castles and other locations around Scotland for only £50 a year. It includes Edinburgh Castle, Sterling Castle, Dourn Castle, the Wallace Monument and 74 others. The pass is cheaper than the entrance fee of just those four castles.
Of course there are tours in Edinburgh. Nearly all of them start from the Royal Mile alongside St. Giles’ Cathedral. There are free and paid walking tours, free and paid ghost tours and paid pub crawls. I went on the free walking and ghosts tours, which I would definitely recommend, especially the SANDEMANs tour. There are also bus tours around the city, but those cost money and I have no experience with them.
But for the tourist, I think the primary attraction of Edinburgh is to see the home and inspiration of Harry Potter. It’s all here, or close by. J.K. Rowling wrote the first book (and possibly more, depending on the source) at the Elephant House Cafe on George Bridge. Four schools around Edinburgh were inspirations for Hogwarts. Victoria Street from the Royal Mile down to Grassmarket is better known as Diagon Alley. Tom Riddle even has a gravestone in the cemetery just behind the Elephant Bar, although Rowling swears she didn’t use it. Nearby is the Hogwarts Express over the Glenfinnan Viaduct, which you can see a picture of in my post on the Isle of Skye. The only other Harry Potter attraction I know of is Platform 9 3/4 at the King’s Cross Station in London.
And no post on Edinburgh can go without mentioning the Edinburgh Festival in August. I don’t know how I never heard of it, since it’s the biggest cultural festival in the world. I can’t find anything that gives how many attendees they have each year, but it’s simply massive. The entire city transforms into a festival town, and while it might be several companies and venues putting on individual festivals, it simply melds into one gargantuan party. I’m going to try to make it back this year for the festival, but if I can’t make it I will be attending next year for sure. They were already setting it up before I left, two months in advance!
It’s essential that I mention the climate of Edinburgh so you know what to expect. It’s not true that it always rains in Edinburgh, although it can seem that way. I saw many clear blue skies. I also saw clear skies that turned into downpours in 15 minutes. There were days it didn’t rain at all, and days it didn’t stop. There was one day when it went from rainy to sunny and back every fifteen minutes for half the day. That one was just weird. And there is also wind. A lot of it. And even more of it in the higher parts like Arthur’s Seat. It can get pretty warm in Edinburgh, but just know that the temperature and climate are extremely variable. Plan accordingly, which means plan for anything.
My few days in Edinburgh are recorded in a separate post.
After that, I went to Glasgow for a couple days, and then returned to Edinburgh to take the Hairy Coo tour again and search for my lost camera. Now there’s an adventure.
I initially lost my camera on the Hairy Coo tour hiking off the trail at Loch Katrine when it fell out of my pocket. I noticed it within a couple minutes and turned around to look for it, but couldn’t find it. The tour wasn’t going to wait for me, so I left, expecting to have to write my camera off and purchase another one. It was also a loss of a weeks-worth of photos – 280 to be exact.
I started searching for another camera, and then had the idea to take the tour again and search one more time since I knew the exact location where I had dropped it. The next available day for the tour was after I got back from Glasgow a week after the first tour. So I went out, ran the kilometer to where I dropped it as fast as I could and spent nearly an hour searching for it to no avail.
On the run back I had the idea that I should have stopped at the visitor center before I went to look. I went to ask them if anyone had turned in a camera. They said no one had, but someone had left a note under the door one day after they had closed saying a camera had been found with an email address.
The email address was written with a French script, so I had to guess at a few different spellings. I tried them all and a few days later received a response that yes, my camera had been picked up. He was back in France, but he could upload the pictures on-line for me.
I gave him access to my Dropbox and also gave him my address to see if he could ship the camera to me, telling him I would pay him back for the shipping.
A week later a package showed up for me at the hostel. My adventures and blog were back in business. I was a little elated, to say the least.
I spent many, many days simply walking around and exploring the town. As mentioned, one day was walking several kilometers down the canal, then walking up the Water of Leith to the bay and finally walking back into town. Other days were spent walking around in The Meadows and watching the slack rope walkers. I really wanted to try it myself, but once I worked up the courage to ask them they stopped showing up.
Another day was spent in the National Museum. As with the rest of the UK, the museum was free, and contained some really good exhibits. I particularly enjoyed the exhibit on the history of Scotland. I was finally able to get the true story behind William Wallace.
Four times I hiked up to the top of Arthur’s Seat for the amazing view. The first two trips up were with a friend, the next was going straight up the side without using the paths and the last was a run from the north parking lot to the top in nineteen minutes. After I got to the top I turned around, sprinted down the side and sprained my ankle when someone said something to me and distracted me after I reached the bottom.
Then there was the day I met Brendon Vince, a professional traveler and blogger. I had a chance to sit down with him for a full day, and even a little of the next day, and get tips for my blog. His advice was invaluable, and he also invited me to several closed Facebook groups for travelers and bloggers.
As mentioned in my other post, I’ve definitely decided to call Edinburgh my new home. If all of the above hasn’t convinced you how spectacular it is there, the only thing I can add is that I met so many great friends in Edinburgh in the five weeks I was there I almost feel like I’ve been there for years. I really can’t wait to get back, and leaving was actually the hardest it has been in any city I’ve traveled to so far. While I was there I started the process to apply for my citizenship, since my dad is a British citizen, but I need to have the originals of our birth certificates, not just the copies I brought with me. So I’ll be going to the states sometime in the next year to get the documents I need, and then going back to Edinburgh to get my dual citizenship and British passport, and probably working there for a few months too.
The only other thing I have to say about Edinburgh is that it is simply a must for any traveler or adventurer to visit. And hopefully what I have said above will allow you to do so no matter what your budget is.