To visit Edinburgh is to discover a city like no other. Steeped in history, Edinburgh successfully manages to blend old and new with big city confidence. To some, our five day stay may not seem enough time to fully absorb the sights, sounds and texture of this vibrant city in the hills. For us however it proved to be an immersive and informative experience that we thoroughly enjoyed.
Our wonderful host in Staveley was kind enough to drive us to the train station in Oxenholme for the 2 ½ hour ride to Edinburgh. It is quite an experience leaving the train at the Edinburgh Waverly station as it covers an immense 25 acres and is the second largest train station in Britain.
One of the first things that you notice upon exiting the set of covered escalators leading to Princes Street is the massive, five-star Balmoral Hotel (originally built as the North British Station Hotel). Typical of other large railway stations of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the railway company constructed a grand hotel conveniently located close to their stations. Once a traveler’s journey ended a red jacketed porter would be at their service to whisk them, and their luggage, directly to the finest luxury hotel in the heart of Scotland’s hilly capital.
Admittedly, our lodging was considerably more humble as we rented an apartment outside the city near Holyrood Park, one of Edinburgh’s iconic Royal Parks. That decision turned out to be a very fortuitous one as we had ready access to the park yet we were also within walking distance of the city center. Over our weeklong stay there was little need for public transportation, unless our days became too long and our feet too tired!
Comfortably settled in and hungry from a day of travelling we headed out in search of a good meal. Walking in the general direction of Old Town we passed several pubs and restaurants, however one stood out among the crowd. It was the White Horse Oyster & Seafood Bar which, we came to learn, is the oldest pub on the Royal Mile and has been slaking the thirsts of patrons since the 18th. Century. 1742 to be exact!
What a find!
The White Horse Oyster & Seafood Bar is a cozy, tapas style place with a friendly staff who are more than happy to guide you through the menu of small plates, sharing platters and hand-crafted cocktails. And of course, their signature Monday – Thursday “buck-a-shuck” oyster happy hour. This well run neighborhood joint knows how to keep their patrons coming back for more.
Anxious to get out and explore some of Edinburgh we rose early and headed for Newhaven Harbour, home to the famous Welch Fishmongers. We had our choice of taking a bus to the harbour or to walk the three mile distance. We decided to walk knowing that it would be a great way to pass through several neighborhoods before arriving at the waterfront.
Established in Edinburgh in 1959, Welch Fishmongers is well known for their reputation of “boat to table in less than 24 hours”. The minute that you step foot inside their store it is obvious that their mantra holds up. The space is spotlessly clean and the fish is presented to a fault. It is not hard to understand why locals line up for the freshest fish and shellfish the minute the doors open at 8am. Their fish can also be found in some of the finest pubs, delis and restaurants across Edinburgh and beyond.
Conveniently located next to Welch Fishmongers is the Fishmarket Newhaven restaurant, a joint venture between Welch’s and the acclaimed Ondine restaurant, located in Old Town Edinburgh. These side-by-side operations are a one-two punch for any fishlover!
On our way from the Fishmongers to a nearby coffee shop and bakery we passed an old church that had been converted into a climbing gym. Three climbing buddies saw an opportunity in the sacred, yet long vacated house of worship and in 1994 opened under the name Alien Rock. As one of Scotland’s first indoor climbing spaces it quickly became a mecca for beginners and experienced climbers alike. The project is another creative example of repurposing heritage places into useful spaces, not to mention a new way to reach spiritual heights.
After coffee and a light breakfast we boarded a bus back to Edinburgh’s city center for an afternoon of exploring.
Strolling around the elegant New Town area of Edinburgh it was not hard to notice that Christmas comes early here. Running from early November through January, Edinburgh offers no shortage of things to see and do. With festive markets sprinkled around the city we enjoyed the sights, sounds and smells of the upcoming holiday season.
As the day grew longer we could see avenues, shops, trees and hotels come to life with elaborate Christmas lights and street after street had the look and feel of something out of a fairytale. Pubs, cafes and restaurants were packed with Edinburgers (I kid you not!) enjoying cocktails or an early dinner. And of course what would the holiday season be without shopping along Edinburgh’s most stylish destination, Multrees Walk.
With a day trip to Edinburgh Castle on our schedule we rose early, had a simple breakfast, and boarded a bus to the city center. The castle looms large over the city so no matter where the bus drops you it is easy to navigate the rest of the way on foot, although not for the faint of heart as the road leading to the castle is long and, at times, very steep.
Untold volumes have been written about this magnificent castle, along with its numerous colorful inhabitants, and millions have trained their eyes, and their cameras on it for centuries, yet nothing could prepare us for when we entered the grand courtyard and cast our gaze upon it for the first time.
It is huge. It is imposing. And it is awesome to behold.
Not being part of a tour group allowed us ample opportunity to explore a courtyard here, an alley there or one of the various buildings and exhibit spaces without the constraint or pressure of watching the clock. We spent the entire morning and afternoon enjoying the castle grounds interrupted only by a hearty lunch at the Redcoat Cafe located near the One o’clock Gun…which we missed…while having lunch!
Late in the afternoon we descended from the mighty castle on the hill back to New Town excited to share in the festive holiday spirit as the city streets began to light up once again.
With another unseasonably sunny day greeting us we set out to explore Calton Hill, also known by the nickname “Edinburgh’s Acropolis”. Situated at the highest point on the hill is the National Monument of Scotland, which was built to honor the Scottish soldiers and sailors who died fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. Although the building that was meant to imitate the Athenian Acropolis was never completed it remains one of Edinburgh’s most popular landmarks.
Another attribute of Calton Hill is its easy accessibility and panoramic views of Holyrood Park and the Parliament building along with Princes Street, New Town and the Royal Mile which ascends to another famous landmark, Edinburgh Castle.
With lush, grassy slopes and amazing views of the city Calton Hill is a great place to understand the layout of Edinburgh. On foot it may seem like a large city, yet from Calton Hill it is easy to observe how compact the hilly capital of Scotland truly is.
Rain was in the forecast for early evening so we headed back to New Town for dinner at Cafe Andaluz. This wildly popular tapas restaurant is the brainchild of Joe Conetta who back in 2008 had the vision of bringing a taste of Spain to Edinburgh, as well as Glasgow and Aberdeen.
The moment we walked through the door we were transported to a small village in Andalucia. From traditional music to authentic tilework, tableware lighting and thoughtfully curated artifacts, the feeling of dining in Spain is unmistakable. The extensive list of Spanish wines will satisfy even the most discerning vinophile. With a friendly staff, great food and a lively vibe, dining at Andaluz was one of the more memorable meals during our time in Edinburgh.
The previous night’s rain subsided, leaving us with clear morning skies as far as the eye could see. Time to rise and shine for our assault on the summit of Holyrood Park.
As impressive as the skyline of Edinburgh may be, the dramatic hills and crags of Holyrood Park also capture the hearts, minds and imaginations of locals and tourists alike. A typical weekend morning will find the park crawling with hikers and cyclists circumnavigating the ring road around the park.
There are many points of interest, and a wide variety of trails, in this magnificent park yet our goal for the morning was to reach the summit at Arthur’s Seat, a roughly one hour hike from the parking lot. That’s one hour on a dry day with few visitors. Being that it had rained the previous night, and it was Sunday, our time was a bit longer due to muddy trails and droves of hikers (many with dogs in tow) out for a morning of fresh air. This is after all, a cherished escape from urban living for many Edinburgers as well as a popular destination for tourists. Park lovers know well that having such a lush, wildlife haven in the heart of their capital city is truly a remarkable resource.
After reaching the summit of Arthur’s Seat we hiked up, down and around long, green meadows taking in various views of the city until we descended to the ring road that surrounds the park. Walking along the road was a pleasant surprise as there are several small lakes populated by hundreds of the park’s legendary swans along with other aquatic residents.
It is always exciting and fulfilling to visit the great cities and capitals of the world. Experiencing a new city’s history, culture, arts and architecture along with various cuisines all contribute to well rounded travelling.
The same can be said of many urban parks, for they often hold clues to the history, and the mysteries, of a city. In the case of Holyrood Park history tells us that it was a royal pleasure ground for nearly 1000 years. Prince Albert himself took such a liking to the park that he had a guiding hand in its conservation, even going so far as to organize the park’s landscaping in the 1840’s and 1850’s. It is also interesting to note that over the ages the stone for many of Edinburgh’s buildings was gathered from the park’s quarries.
Today the beloved park and former playground of the royals is surrounded by the city that it helped build.
Edinburgh buses do not give you change, so you have to have the exact money ready. Unlike other cities in the UK, you cannot pay with your smartphone.
Avoid the ultra touristy Scotch Whisky Experience is a total tourist trap. For a more authentic experience look for The Glenturret Distillery, Crieff Scotland.
QUICK TRAVEL FACTS
Notes come in denominations of £5, £10, £20 and £50. Coins come in 1p, 2p, 5p, 10p, 20p, 50p, £1 and £2.
Temperature typically varies from 39°F to 74°F and is rarely below 30°F or above 84°F.