Our friends Rachel and Brandon (of rachelbrandon.com) are visiting us this week for only a week. They wanted to visit Scotland, and given their short time here, and my having class on both Friday afternoon and Monday morning, the only option for voyaging to yon’ Caledonia was to take a train to Edinburgh early Saturday morning, and then come back the very next night.
I was wondering if we could do Edinburgh justice by spending what amounted to just over 30 hours in the city and make the 5-hour train ride worthwhile.
And the answer is…YES!
I should highlight a few important caveats before spouting forth my sage advice on making the most of a short time in the ‘Athens of the North.’
Caveat the first: We didn’t go inside Edinburgh Castle (or at least not the part you have to pay to go inside); that seems to be a day or at least half-day unto itself, so it didn’t really make sense for this trip. I realise for some people, the point of going to Edinburgh is to go in the castle, and therefore, this post has just lost all credibility. C’est la vie. Nevertheless, the views from outside the castle, and just inside the guardhouse are very impressive (and free!). In some places, it really looks as though the castle was carved out of the rock, rather than built upon it.
Caveat the second:
The weather while we were in Edinburgh alternated between sunshine (a real rarity in these parts) and snow. Although the snow meant it was quite cold, I generally find snow to be more pleasant to walk about in than rain, and since our trip involved lots of walking around outdoors, it might be less pleasant under normal Edinburgh conditions, namely rainy days.
Now on to the trip tips…
Just off the Royal Mile is the National Museum of Scotland. We went here on our first day, and I would actually suggest going here first thing. I needed to reacquaint myself with the Scottish monarchs and other bits of Scottish history, and having a little bit of a refresher at the museum can help give you context for some of the other sights you’ll see around Edinburgh.
We decided to trek up Calton Hill, in part, because my initial objective — climbing up Holyrood Park to Arthur’s seat — seemed increasingly untenable in light of the unfavourable weather conditions. But I would list Calton Hill among the obligatory stops in Edinburgh (if that endorsement isn’t enough for you, Robert Louis Stevenson said the best views of Edinburgh were from Calton Hill). There are a number of interesting monuments up there, and the views are spectacular all around the hill. To the east, you can see the Firth of Forth. To the west, you can look back toward the castle. And to the south is the dominating Holyrood Park.
Our couchsurfing host recommended walking along the Water of Leith to the Royal Botanical Gardens on Sunday, stopping at Stockwell Market for some hot chocolate (that last bit turned out to be crucial!). The pulsating snowfall along the way made the Water of Leith especially magical, but I imagine that, absent that, the experience would simply substitute comfort for enchantment.
Although it was snowy March, and some bits of the Botanic were clearly not ready for primetime (the Queen Mother’s Garden was looking particularly sad), there were a surprising number of rhodendrons in bloom, and there is an impressive collection of native Scottish trees which are, of course, well-adapted to such a fearsome climate. I imagine the place would be even more colourful in the summer. Here, as with many other places in Edinburgh, there are fantastic views over the city.
Finally, if your interest in history extends beyond kings and queens and the squabbles of the rich and powerful, there are several things in Edinburgh for you. The People’s Story, a free museum along the Royal Mile tells the story of two typical families at different periods in Edinburgh’s history, and gives you a greater appreciation of many traditional trades. The museum also tells the story of changing social relations and labour conflicts in Scotland.
And with some reservation, I can also recommend a City of the Dead underground tour. I hesitate to commend it to you because if you are the sort of person who is easily frightened (as was the large group of Welsh ladies on the tour who had come to Scotland the day before for the Six Nations rugby match), you might not enjoy it. The tour is partly about trying to scare you and tease you with the possibility of encountering the paranormal, but it’s also a great chance to wander into the underworld of Edinburgh and learn about the desperate conditions of the people who, driven in by poverty and social exclusion in the 19th century, tried to survive in absolutely mind-boggling circumstances. It’s a side of Edinburgh’s history that isn’t visible from the grandeur of Royal Mile or the majestic heights above the city.
So you can do a lot in Edinburgh in only 30 hours. Of course, you could probably spend a lot longer if, for example, you wanted to taste more whiskey (or at least gain a deeper appreciation for the whiskey you’re drinking ;)), wanted to spend more time in the National Museum of Scotland, or of course, spend a whole day in the Castle. But no matter how long you linger, Edinburgh will doubtless leave you satisfied.