Boy am I in love with Scotland! This city is magical, from stunning architecture and views to its hidden secrets, there is so much to love about Edinburgh. I arrived very late Thursday night and after traveling for 27 hours straight and only sleeping a few hours on the flights, I was so excited to sleep. I took a cab from the airport with one of the most delightful Scottish gentleman who was more than happy to talk to me about his native city. He even called me ‘lassie’ when he dropped me off and I about died. After only about a 25 minute drive (about 20 pounds), we arrived at St. Christopher’s Edinburgh Hostel at about 1am (woo hoo for 24 reception hostels!).
I am extremely impressed with this hostel from its location to security measures, it was a great choice for only about 21 pounds per night. I had prepaid to confirm my booking, so check in was a breeze. I was given my bed assignment in my 10 bed female dorm and a key card for access. These are both new parts of the hostel experience to me and I love them. There is a key card access point at the entrance to the hallway, as well as our actual door. Having a bed assigned to me was also helpful so I knew exactly which bed was mine at 1am, instead of trying to find an open one. Our room additionally has a shared bathroom; it is so nice to have one in our room and only have to share it with 9 people maximum.
Overall the hostel is extremely clean and very welcoming. They offer laundry on site, as well as everything you could need (towel, converter, locks, etc) available for rent at the front desk. Breakfast is included in the price, which is something I would recommend to anyone trying to stay on a budget. That first meal of the day may only cost you a few pounds or euros, but those can add up quickly. Breakfasts that are included will get you fueled for the day without spending anything extra. I always look for this in my hostels.
The best part about St. Christopher’s though has to be the location. Located right across Market Street from Waverly Train Station, we are a five-minute walk up to the Royal Mile. It made this morning so simple for me. I woke up a bit later than I normally would, but I was up and off by 9:30. I missed breakfast by sleeping later, but found a great little market around the corner and started the day with an apple and green tea. I then continued up to the Royal Mile to see a bit of Edinburgh before meeting my walking tour.
I was smitten with this city from the first glance of the Royal Mile. From where I entered, the first thing I saw was St. Giles Cathedral. I walked inside immediately and it was minutes before I realized I was walking through the pews completely open-mouthed. There wasn’t necessarily anything to make this cathedral any better than that of Notre Dame in Paris or St. Peter’s in Rome. However, I think I had lost the true perspective of just how marvelous cathedrals are, after two years in the US. As I left the church and made my way down the road to the meeting place for my tour, I kept reminding myself that I was really in Scotland. It still doesn’t seem real.
If there is one thing I can suggest for traveling to a new city, it would be to find a free walking tour. I highly recommend Sandeman’s New Europe Tours, if possible. I went on a couple of these throughout my travels before and was always very impressed. These guides are funny and incredibly knowledgeable. Most tours run about 2-3 hours, and are free. At the end of the tour, you tip your guide whatever it was worth to you (I usually tip a few pounds to five euros). They are appreciative of anything. This is a great way to get your bearings right away in a city, learn and see a lot at once, and it is a very inexpensive activity. During the tour they will also be selling tickets to other tours and attractions at discount prices. I have used this for line jump tickets for the Louvre in Paris, it was a huge time and money saver.
Today’s tour was the same as any before, if not better. Our tour guide, Jen, was hilarious and so passionate about what she does. I learned a whole wealth of knowledge about Edinburgh that I would have never been able to in a day, let alone 3 hours. Five pounds later, I knew my way around the sights of the city, learned about where to try cheap but good haggis for dinner, and how to get to the base of Arthur’s seat.
After the tour I stopped back by my hostel to switch in my Hunters. It was a gorgeous day outside today, but very cold and windy. Also Scotland gives Idaho a run for its money in how fast weather can change. It was amazing, during the course of our tour we saw each rain, wind, and sun at least twice. We were all shedding layers to put them on again, only to take them back off once more. I knew my Hunters would keep me warmer, as well as would be better shoes for hiking.
I was then off for lunch. My Aunt Wendy studied abroad in Edinburgh and (among other suggestions) had told me I had to try Pizza and Chips. I could not for the life of me figure out what was so fancy about pizza and fries. It just sounded to me like good meal decision-making. But after asking a few people, I was told that it wasn’t just pizza, but deep fried pizza and fries, something I am shocked isn’t in the United States. After asking a million people and finally finding a “chip shop”, I had my calories in hand. I found a good people watching spot and plunked down to taste the fried goodness. Oh my word, it was wonderful. It was everything good about French fries and pizza in one, great suggestion and a very inexpensive lunch at less than five pounds!
After lunch I stumbled on the Edinburgh Historical Museum, nestled in a ‘close’ (close – small alley ways off the Royal Mile). It is very interesting and free (which we love) but small. If you really took your time, you could spend a good hour or so there, but I was too excited about hiking Arthur’s seat. I would suggest saving this museum for a rainy day, it would be a great activity for a day you need to be indoors.
But since it was one a very few nice days in Edinburgh, I was off to Arthur’s seat as quickly as I could. For someone who is afraid of heights for fear of falling, I have an odd obsession with high spaces. I love wherever I can get the best vantage point over a city, whether that be a tower or a mountain. So when Aunt Wen told me I needed to hike Arthur’s Seat for the best look, it moved to the top of my list. I do have two recommendations though, don’t wear rain boots and look at map before you start.
I halfway expected there to just be one trail up to the top and that it would be a hike, but nothing too bad. I was sorely mistaken on both accounts, also forgetting this was a dormant volcano. (We are not in the Boise Foothills anymore Toto). I took one trail that was extremely steep, something I was surprised to start with but I thought it would take me to the top faster. As I approached the crest, I saw that instead of going up to the top it went right back down again. When I got to the bottom, I looked up and saw that I had two options, the steepest hike I have ever seen or a slightly less intense road. I chose the road, but after about 20 minutes I realized I would still have a steep climb ahead of me, just on the back side. I started up and was shocked at how much steeper it was than it looked.
I think I stopped at least 15 times. Not just a “let me catch my breath, 1, 2, ok good to go”. These stops were full on, “I am dying, let’s pretend I am simply taken with the views, oh wait these are really pretty, (ten minutes later) ok, done dying lets walk more”. I took about an hour and a half total to get up that mountain, easily the hardest hike I have done in a while, but it was worth every heavy breath. The views at the top of Arthur’s Seat are better than you can even imagine. I was floored and wanted to stay up there forever. The vantage point let you see the juxtaposition between Old Town and New Town and truly just how large but still compact Edinburgh is. I only came down because it was starting to rain.
After that hike in my rain boots, I was beat. Mix the tired feet with jet lag and being chilly all day long, I was fading quickly. I opted for supper around 5pm and then back to the hostel to get some work done for the website. I wasn’t incredibly hungry but I had to eat haggis before leaving Scotland. I went to a small pub just off Grassmarket Square in Old Town. I walked in ordered Haggis, asked the bartender for his choice of beer and grabbed a table outside. There was great people watching to calm my nerves as the haggis came. It showed up (complete with neeps and tatties, or turnips and potatoes) looking better than I was expecting to. Truthfully, it was also smelling better than expected as well. To be honest the flavor was awesome and the texture was like that of a chewier ground beef. If I didn’t know it was sheep offal (nice way of saying internal organs), I would have actually liked it a lot. Except I was fully aware that it was sheep organs, that was the problem. I was very impressed though, it was so much better than expected! I was only able to work through half of it, but I am very glad I tried it.
Biggest three suggestions for Edinburgh? Definitely a free walking tour! I could stay in Edinburgh a week and not feel as though I have seen it all, but the walking tour helped to me at least see a lot and feel like I learned a bit as well. Plus it’s a cheap three-hour activity, great for my budget. Second, hike Arthur’s Seat, but don’t hike it in “wellies” your feet will not be happy with you. Finally , try the haggis! Yes it is an odd thing and even kind of gross thing to eat, but your taste buds may be surprised. You can get a pretty good plate for about ten pounds at any pub. Just think of it as a “when in Rome” situation.
Most importantly, embrace this city because it will embrace you, as my tour guide Jen said. It is absolutely true. This city is vibrant, delicious and steeped in history. So take the time to prioritize and see the sights that important to you, but don’t forget to sit down with a pint or cup of tea and watch the people. Whether you are following the footsteps of J K Rowling, from her writing nook in The Elephant Room cafe next to the school she modeled Hogwarts after or you are busy following the footsteps of the intense history of Scotland, there is something for everyone here. I have loved Edinburgh so much more than I even thought I could. This is absolutely somewhere I will come back to. I am excited for another half day here before I head on to Dublin. Now to just figure out how to stop hearing bagpipes in my head……
-The Very Hungry Traveler