This past winter break, we took a little trip over to Edinburgh, Scotland. We booked our trip through Groupon in the fall and were happy to have something to look forward to after finals – especially since neither of us were going to be traveling back home to the States for the holidays. This was the first trip we had ever booked with Groupon (though we had gone through LivingSocial for our first Ireland trip). We loved that the Groupon included our flights and hotel for an extremely reasonable price – if you’re flying out of Dublin, you can typically find 2-4 day vacations with flights to all kinds of European cities for between $150 and $300. I was very pleased with how it all turned out and will probably be booking trips this way in the future – in fact I have my eye on one for Krakow, Poland right now.
We visited Edinburgh at the beginning of January, so the Christmas market was still in full swing. This was a big draw for me as I love anything Christmasy and had adored the markets we had previously visited in Munich, Germany.
Our flight to Edinburgh was through Ryanair, which some of you may know is one of the cheap, easy ways to fly within the European Union. Our flight arrived at the airport around 4:30 AM, and we took a quick tram ride to Princes Street – if you ask people for advice on where to start in Edinburgh, you will undoubtedly hear this street mentioned. It overlooks the Princes Street Gardens, shown above, that divide the city into its two halves – New Town and Old Town. I could immediately tell upon exiting the tram which side was which – New Town, built in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, is in a flat grid pattern and filled with Georgian/Neo-Classical architecture.
Old Town is a stark difference with winding streets over hills and medieval style buildings, including Edinburgh Castle sitting proudly on top of a hill overlooking the city. Together, both sides make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Given that we got in so early, we started our morning with a much-needed caffeine boost; we found a trendy little cafe just inside Old Town called The Milkman. The coffee and croissants were an excellent way to start our trip, and the staff couldn’t have been friendlier.
After coffee we continued our morning by exploring Old Town on foot. Our first destination was one of the most famous in the city, the Royal Mile. This avenue runs from Edinburgh Castle at the top of the hill at one end to Hollyrood House (where the Queen stays on her royal visits) at the other. Along the way, visitors can see everything that makes Edinburgh the charming city that it is: tartan stores, whisky shops, medieval cathedrals, statues, and (of course) pubs. If you find yourself in Edinburgh and want to just take it all in, this is the place to start.
We finished our first day by visiting the Christmas Market, which filled the gardens and overflowed out onto the nearby streets. The stalls had everything from woolen goods and handmade crafts to hot chocolate, coffee, gluehwein (a warm spiced wine that is a staple of the German markets), and all the fair food you can imagine. We did our late Christmas shopping, drank hot chocolate and ate some sweet treats, and took a ride in the Ferris Wheel overlooking the market. We spent the evening there and didn’t even scratch the surface of what this holiday festival had to offer. Luckily our hotel was along the same tram line we took from the airport, so it was very easy to trudge, exhausted, to our room for the night.
We started the second day with a trip to the Edinburgh Dungeon, a fun jaunt through the more sordid history of the city put on by people who had a lot of fun doing their jobs. Part haunted house and part history lesson, we had a good time taking a trip through time and learning about witch trials, torture methods, some local ghost stories, and Burke and Hair (two infamous grave robbers-turned-murderers who made a living selling bodies to scientists eager to study anatomy – eek!)
After the dungeon we had a quick lunch (Kelsey insisted on trying haggis) before getting on the Hop-On Hop-Off tour. This bus ride took us through both
halves of the city and talked about its rich history from medieval times to the 19th century, along with some local folklore. We saw the Royal Mile again, Grassmarket (an old town square in the shadow of the castle that used to be the site of public hangings), various pubs with colorful histories (including Greyfriar’s Bobby, where a loyal pup once waited dutifully for its master that never came), Arthur’s Seat (the famous volcanic hill which offers amazing views of the city), and much, much more. These bus tours are a great way to get around a city cheaply and easily and be able to spend as much time as you want at a particular location, and I would recommend them in any city where they’re offered. At one of our stops along the Royal Mile, I noticed a crowd forming around a man with two owls. While we were stopped, I realized that the crowd was waiting for their turn to hold the birds. For any of you that don’t know, owls are easily one of my favorite animals so, of course, we immediately got in line. Unfortunately they were closing for the day, but the man assured me they would be back the next day – and you’d better believe we would be first in line. We ended the day by returning to the Christmas Market before heading back to the hotel for the evening.
Aside from the prospect of holding an owl, a highlight from the day was just seeing all of the pubs around the city and learning that seemingly every one has its own fascinating story. So again, I can’t recommend the bus tour enough.
After getting the general tour of the city and seeing a small part of it on foot, we had a good idea of what exactly we wanted to visit on our last day. We started the day at The Elephant House, a fantastic Asian-inspired cafe that also happens to be a Mecca for Harry Potter fans. This was where J.K. Rowling penned the first chapters of the Harry Potter series on napkins and scraps of paper, and they have mementos on display such as a signed book and pictures. Aside from the awesome history, I would recommend The Elephant House for its tasty coffee and pastries and a nice location in Old Town. I personally ordered Fleur’s Fantasy which is hot chocolate with a shot of Bailey’s Irish cream.
After breakfast, we had reservations at the Scotch Whisky Experience. Although it was never itself a distillery, this museum/tour did a fantastic job of teaching about the history, art, and enjoyment of Scotland’s most famous drink. I myself am not much of a whisky drinker, but I still very much enjoyed learning about the different types and the regions in which they’re distilled. At the end of the tour we did a tasting in a gallery housing the largest private collection of Scotch in the world. The assortment was a sight to behold, and I think Kelsey may have felt like he was in heaven. I would recommend the tour to anyone regardless of whether you enjoy Scotch, and they even let you keep your tasting glass as a souvenir. The Scotch Whisky Experience is just down the road from Edinburgh Castle, and after leaving we headed up there to spend a little time taking in the views from the top of the hill. Even if you don’t want to tour the castle itself, it’s worth making the trip just to see the square and look out over the beautiful city.
Finally, we made our way to Gladstone’s Land (the place with the owls) – needless to say, I was very excited. A small donation is asked, which we were happy to give, and everyone is given plenty of time to really enjoy their experience. I held Guinevere, a beautiful European Eagle Owl, while Kelsey snapped about 50 pictures. It was even better than I had hoped, and I was able to cross it off of my bucket list.
For lunch, we headed back to Grassmarket to get a better look at it (since we had only seen it from the bus). Once the site of public executions, like I said earlier, it now holds open-air stalls selling produce and various goods – and is lined on both sides with pubs and restaurants. We had a hard time deciding where to eat with all the options available, but settled on The White Hart Inn – one of the oldest pubs in Scotland. Originally founded in 1516, this is the place where Burke and Hair picked up their victims to murder and sell the bodies – quite a dark history. The interior was small and exactly what you want in an old pub, and we ate delicious Scottish fare – including Irn Bru, a soft drink that is the most popular (non-alcoholic) beverage in Scotland. Afterward we took a roundabout path through Old Town back to the Christmas Market, where we ended the evening once again.
The next morning it was back on a Ryanair plane to Dublin. I would love to go back some day, but I felt like we had a perfectly fun-filled three days in an amazing city.