One of the benefits of having a summer anniversary is that you can usually double count your summer vacation as an anniversary trip! Since living in the UK we have really enjoyed how easy it is to use the train system. The fact that we can walk 8 minutes into town and go, has been great, so this month, to celebrate our marriage, we hopped on the train to Edinburgh, Scotland. No traffic, no aggressive drivers, no hunting for places to park.
Edinburgh reminded me a lot of my visit to San Francisco: hilly (though at the end of the day San Francisco still wins in the hills department). The city is divided into two main sections: ‘Old Town,’ which settled during the medieval period, and ‘New Town,’ dating from the 1700s. This should be considered if you have mobility issues. Many places are handicap accommodations, but it can still make the day out feel very tiring.
The Royal Mile acts as a spine to Old Town. It leads you up to the castle and most of the roads on either side of the Royal Mile are downhill (which means they are uphill when you need to return to the Royal Mile). We arrived in Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival (more on that in a few paragraphs), so the Royal Mile was particularly packed with visitors. On our first full day of site seeing we made our way to the Castle, which already had quite a queue going by 10am in the morning. Fortunately, we’re members of English Heritage; which in addition to getting us discounted admission to the castle, it also let us go into the priority line and bypass the queue. If you are thinking of visiting Edinburgh in August I would highly recommend purchasing your tickets in advance online, if your travel schedule is predictable enough that you will know what day you want to visit the castle.
Edinburgh Castle offers for rental audio headsets in several languages for visitors. Fortunately, Scotland is English speaking (and while there is an audio guide available in English) we opted for the free tour guided by one of the castle employees. Our tour was quite good and our guide (who was quite personable) took us around the castle grounds and discussed the stages that things were built. One interesting item we learned on the tour is that the blackening of the buildings that is common in buildings in Old Town, blackening that most people is due to pollution, is in fact not. Many of the buildings are built using shale stone that contains oil, which slowly leaks out of the stones over time. Edinburgh Castle isn’t the traditional castle that American’s have in mind. It wasn’t built by the Lord of Edinburgh to live imposingly over his serfs. It was built for defense of the city, there is a natural well underneath the grounds. The castle is still operational today for the military, and as a result there are several buildings that are not open to the public. The grounds of the castle also house the crown jewels of Scotland as well as the War Museum of Scotland.
Aside from the castle, Old Town has several smaller attractions: a medieval merchant house, the Whiskey Experience, the University, and many cashmere shops. We rented a studio apartment in a square just off the Royal Mile from Airbnb.com
After our morning at the castle we walked towards the University and found a sandwich shop for lunch and tried one of the two things you can’t leave Scotland for your first time and not have: Irn Bru. It is a carbonated energy drink (think cross between Red Bull & Mountain Dew) that tastes a little bit like bubble gum. Not a bad thing to try, but I don’t know that I’d get it again (at least not until they come out with a diet version).
That afternoon we checked out the National Museum of Scotland, which has a very extensive exhibit on the history of Scotland. Just a word of note, make sure you go up the correct stair cases. Otherwise you’ll get the history of Scotland in reverse, not just the most recent exhibits first, but you’ll arrive at the exhibit at the end of the topic, which made it a little more difficult for me to follow. The museum also has non-historical exhibits related to Scotland. Including one of famous Scottish racing driver Jackie Stewart’s Formula 1 car:
For dinner we had the second thing that you are not allowed to leave Scotland without having had: haggis. Haggis is a country dish made up of various pieces of an animal no one wants to eat minced up with oats and seasonings, boiled inside a stomach lining. Served with mashed turnips and potatoes, and whisky sauce it was delicious! I know it doesn’t sound appetizing but it was sooooo good. It tastes like meat flavored stuffing.
The next evening we attended the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Which is an exhibition of bands from around the world. Some pipe & drum, brass, step dancing, an of course stunt motorcycling.
The performance has an overall story arch about the seasons and the changes that come with it, as well as incorporating the cultural traditions of the visiting bands. This year the tattoo commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Korean Armistice (though it was the band from New Zealand that performed Gangnam Style).
New Town was primarily built the 1700s and contains a lot of Georgian Architecture (think Bath, England). It is the more commercial part of town, and feels more lived in by Scots. There is a lovely park along the main train line between Old Town and New Town. The Georgian House is one site in New Town that is appointed with furniture from the 1700s. It is not hard to get to Old Town from New Town, and I think if I were to visit Edinburgh again (having now seen the castle) I would stay in new town and explore more that that area has to offer.
The Scottish Museum of Modern Art is located in some of the hills of New Town, and walking to it takes you through some very cute neighborhoods.
One exciting find in New Town was a delicious Korean Restaurant, which very much reminded us of our ‘old’ home in Northern Virginia and hard to get in our ‘new’ home of North Yorkshire.
The Fringe Festival
The Fringe Festival takes place in Edinburgh for most of the month of August every year. Showcases artists work from performance, comedy, and drama. There are hundreds of venues across the city with shows starting all the the time throughout the day, with shows geared for children if you’re traveling as a family. There is an app to look up shows and their times, but also thousands of very pushy artists handing out flyers along the Royal Mile (I shudder to think of the number of trees chopped down in the name of the Fringe), most shows claiming to start in 15 minutes. If you couldn’t quite tell I really didn’t appreciate the peddlers, many of whose shows (after glancing at their flyer before it ended up in the bin) didn’t look very good. It seemed like there was a lot of young people passing off their weirdness as art (yes, I’m over 30).
We stuck to more established venues, and shows that had received favorable advanced press online. One was Circa: Wunderkammer, which is a cross between Cirque du Soleil and burlesque. Very good, but I do feel like the disclaimer of no under 13 years olds was accurate. But I would take a mature adolescent.
The second event we attended didn’t allow under 18 year olds. The comedy club Underbelly organizes several of the Fringe venues (they did Circa as well), and Spank is the midnight to 3am show featuring several comedians that have shows at the Fringe, and is designed to promote visitors to go see their full length shows. It is a good format and if you don’t like a particular comedian you don’t have to sit through them for more than 10 minutes, or could use that time to go the the WC or get a drink from the bar. The one slightly odd feature of the show is that after the intermission the host allow anyone in the audience who has something at the Fringe to promote can for one minute, as long as they are naked. Only one person will tried, but didn’t have the courage to do the ‘full monty’. But don’t feel like I missed out; at the end of the show the hosts, and people in the audience who must not have anything to promote but like being naked, get naked anyways.
The trip back
We took a Sunday evening train home, which at the time of our booking was only 2 pounds more to be in first class. And it was fantastic! The seats were a little bit wider, the cabin was quieter, and there is free WiFi. Since it was a Sunday to ‘freebies’ in first class aren’t quite as opulent; no free booze or hot meal. But we did get unlimited coffee/tea and soda, a sandwich.
All in all I had a wonderful weekend in Edinburgh and would highly recommend visiting. I also feel like it is a city I could return to and not feel like I had done everything already. There is more at the museums, and I would like to hike Holyrood Park:
but when we were in the area we didn’t have our jackets (it looked fairly windy up on that hill), and it was as the Brits would say “the morning after the night before,” so we didn’t quite have the energy.