Thirty-six hours was not nearly sufficient to explore Edinburgh. I plotted my itinerary knowing full well that I’d have to be either mighty efficient in with my exploration time, or else miss out on some of the things I wanted to do. I tend to be very organized with my “must-see” lists, and when I have only a small amount of time in a place, I opt to walk between sights. Odd, I know. You would think that one would use Uber or public transit to get between places to ensure that you can bang through the “gotta see it” list as quickly as possible. Instead of taking the fastest transit method, I plot my walking route to bring me through interesting areas; this way even though I might not make it to all the cultural hot-spots, I will leave feeling like I’ve had a good combination of landmark learnin’ and taking in the behind-the-scenes parts of the locale.
I really screwed up this time. I did my usual rough walking map and checked it with my sister (who had been a few years prior) to make sure that I had approximate timing right. Everything looked good, so how did I go so wrong and why did I leave feeling like my perfectly planned itinerary had failed me? There was one major factor I hadn’t taken into account…
I really just loved Edinburgh. People warned me that I could fall for the city’s old world charm. They were right. I had prioritized the things I knew I would want to see and do, but didn’t realize that I would love being there so much that I would want to stay and just hang out a little longer.
So I’ll tell you what I did, but I’m also going to tell you what I wish I had made time for. Some of the spots are actual sights and some are neighborhoods/areas also encountered. While I’m not recommending that you follow my path exactly, I hope you draw a little inspiration for your next city wander!
what we did.
I was advised that, if on a budget, perhaps skipping Edinburgh Castle. And I did… kinda. My accommodations were right next to the castle, so as soon as I arrived in the late afternoon, I ran (ok, trudged) up the stairs to check it out. The castle is on an impressive elevation above the city, so even while crossing the parking lot I had some great views of the surrounding area. The primary gate into the structure is open to the public, so I walked through to see if I could see anything interesting. Meh. It was late enough in the day that I wouldn’t have been able to join the last tour, but I wasn’t too disappointed. I had read about the castle prior to my arrival, so I didn’t feel too compelled to spend the £17 for a tour.
I would definitely recommend checking out the grounds. Bring your camera because the area is really pretty, and if you’re there on a good day you may encounter a totally Instagrammable view!
More information on Edinburgh Castle can be found here.
Arthur’s Seat/Holyrood Park
We woke up early to make sure we had enough time to tackle this short hike. The innocent-looking 251-meter hill is actual an ancient volcano! On my only full day in Edinburgh, I climbed a volcano (kinda) before 10am – #braggingrights.
There are a handful of different trails, so do a little research beforehand to figure out which one works best for your skill level. We chose to take the walking path up with a bit of a climb at the end; and then went down via a long staircase. I’m in reasonably good shape and it was a nice easy workout. The climb is doable for all types, but consider your own abilities (and footwear) when working out how long you’ll spend there.
Arthur’s Seat and Holyrood Park is beautiful and you can learn about all the features here.
After our hike, we needed to make it back to our hostel to grab lunch before the next activity. I was lucky that my sister had been to Edinburgh previously and knew in which direction we needed to walk after we stepped off the trail. We meandered through the Newington neighborhood, stopping briefly to look at a small cemetery. The way a culture and country handle rituals is fascinating to me, so being able to take a quick (quiet and properly solemn) look into a Scottish graveyard was an interesting experience.
The Meadows/Edinburgh University
Being super straight with you: The Meadows is basically just a really nice large park. There are a handful of things to do within the park (like a playground and tennis courts), but this isn’t some fabulous cultural destination. Oh, but it is the site of a drained loch… so that’s pretty cool. The North Meadow Walk backs up against Meadow Lane that has a few buildings with interesting graffiti.
I included Edinburgh University on here because the energy circulating around the area is very much unlike any other university I’ve walked through. Maybe its because its the 6th oldest university in the English-speaking world. Or perhaps it’s because the students are channeling their inner J.K. Rowling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or Charles Darwin (or a number of other notable alumni). Regardless of the reason, the beautiful campus just feels like a place of learning.
We all know that Scotland has a reputation for good whiskey, and I do feel a little like I missed out not putting a whiskey distillery on the list. I do not, however, regret the tour of Edinburgh Gin. The space is really small, but the history of gin is fascinating and the gin and tonic tasting at the end was a great send-off after an hour of learning.
Click here for information about tours and location!
This was a bit of a surprise, but as it turns out I had walked up and down the Royal Mile about 3 times before I realized what it was. You’ll see this on a lot of to-do lists for Edinburgh, and not to downplay it’s splendor, but you can tick this off the list pretty easily.
If you walk straight from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyrood, you will have walked the Royal Mile (and passed the Scottish Parliament!).
You might think that something called the Scott Monument would be something representing Scotland or Scottish heritage. You would be half right. The Scott Monument is an homage to Sir Walter Scott, a dynamic Scottish author and activist. This large, Victorian Gothic structure stands just over 200-feet and, appropriately, is right outside Waverly Station (named for Scott’s Waverly novels).
Leith is an area about a 20 minute bus ride away from the central Edinburgh hub. I wish I had been able to see it in the daylight, but we were informed that all the cool places to eat were over there. We wandered around a bit in the dark before eating, but admittedly didn’t get a good feel for the place. Apparently that’s where all the good hipstershit is.
Not formal sights, but still cool…
- I found some of the street junctions to be really stunning; where Victoria St. meets W Bow in particular. I didn’t realize that this particular area was so popular until I opened my laptop one day and it was the image that had been pulled (as my lock screen) for the day!
- Alleys. There are so many cool alleys and passageways. If you see one- walk down it and see where it goes!
- The architecture in Edinburgh has a really interesting history. I highly recommend doing a little research before you go. I’ve given away a lot of cool tidbits so far, so I’m making you do a little homework on this one 😀
where we fueled.
This was recommended to me by a staff member at the hostel. I needed coffee and a snack while waiting for my sister to arrive and it was a quick walk. I got coffee and avocado toast- both very good. The staff were friendly. Definitely recommend.
They’ve got a great menu and quite a bit of seating. If you’re still not convinced, check them out for yourself.
This was just a quick stop for a beer, though sister was starving so she also got a steak and ale pie. When we walked in there were only a couple older gentlemen sitting at the bar, not a tourist in sight!
The personality overfloweth at this vegetarian restaurant. Lots to look at. It seemed like the everyone in the restaurant was known to the staff. The food was quite good. I definitely recommend at least stooping in for a drink to check the place out.
Definitely peek their menu (and calendar)!
Like craft beer? We stopped for a quick round at BrewDog, and the selection was quite varied. My sister and I split a flight of 4 beers, which happened to be the best value and enabled us to try a few different types.
I would guess that this place is probably fantastic in the summer since they have an outdoor space.
A friend from university saw on my Instagram that I was in Edinburgh and she recommended we check out Hendersons; a piece of advice I’m glad we took. It was a delightful last meal. I liked everything about the place and it would definitely be a regular in the rotation of coffee shops if I lived there. I didn’t realize until we were walking out that there was a restaurant (by the same name) under the street-level cafe!
The best part is that they do local, seasonal, organic vegetarian and vegan. Ugh I’m dead. Love it.
We supplemented our meals (…and beer calories) with groceries purchased at Sainsbury’s. My sister had a few items that she really wanted to eat on the trip; things that she had consumed regularly while living in the UK. I love grocery stores and I’m super interested in what can be offered in non-US grocery stores (if you’ve read my piece about the link between food and travel, you’re probably not surprised here).
where we stayed.
Castle Rock Hostel
This place was awesome. They’re located right behind the castle and about a 7 minute walk from Waverly Station. We stayed in a larger dorm, but it didn’t feel too crowded. I typically look for hostels that offer free breakfast, but the price and location were so good that I was willing to forego the free food. They had a good kitchen and free coffee/tea.
The common spaces got a little loud, but I found that the floors with the rooms remained pretty quiet. This is one of those hostels that would be good for both people who want to party and people who would rather have quiet nights in.
I always recommend booking direct (or at least following their site’s preferred booking method).
what i missed.
As I mentioned in the beginning, 36 hours of exploration was not nearly enough for me. I’m usually ok letting a few things slide, but I loved the area so much that I just wanted to take in as much as possible.
I generally love bridges, but this one is pretty iconic. Also, its on the UNESCO World Heritage list, which is something I consult when working out what I want to see in different places.
There were a handful of either free or reasonably-priced walking tours posted on a bulletin board on High St. (Royal Mile). It seemed that they all departed from the same general area around St. Giles’ Cathedral . There were offerings like a history tour and a ghost tour, and I think I may have seen something about architecture as well. Given the time, I would have done all of them!
This landmark isn’t in Edinburgh, but I was really disappointed that I wasn’t able to sneak it into the itinerary. What’s so impressive about this particular castle? There was a particularly hilarious scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail filmed here. I would assume that when I visit no one will be catapulting cows at me…. but hey, a girl can dream!
The rest of Scotland
Its happened a few times where I’ve visited one place and felt a strong need to return to explore more. That is precisely what happened here. I would love to be able to block off a couple of weeks and do a road trip (or an organized tour) so I can see more of this tiny little beauty. The ever-present struggle to decide between seeing somewhere new versus returning to further explore an old favorite- is very real. The Highlands, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and all the little nooks and crannies. I wana see them all!
- If you have visited Scotland extensively, what are was your favorite?
- What qualities have you encountered that compel you to want to return?
- What other items are worthy of an Edinburgh itinerary?