I have to say, before we go any further, Scotland completely stole my heart.
Was it the immense amount of visible history? The magical hum of bagpipes that seemed to follow one everywhere? Or was it that the first voice I heard upon landing was a mother calling after her child, pleading with him to stop being such a “shite-bag.”
In truth, it was probably a bit of all of these things, but the fact remains that I have never before stepped off a plane and so quickly understood the energy of a city. In some odd way, I felt as if I had finally returned home.
And truthfully…hadn’t I? The entire inspiration for my journeying to Scotland was that my family recently discovered a large portion of what we believed to be an Irish heritage is actually Scottish. (Never fear fellow Guinness lovers, I’ve still got plenty of Ireland in my blood.)
But Scotland…oh boy. Where to even begin with the magic that is Scotland…
Go ahead a press play while I attempt to convey even an ounce of this country’s charm.
1. Grass Market & Edinburgh Castle
It’s impossible to ignore so let’s just go ahead and make it number 1 on the list, shall we? Dominating the city’s skyline is none other than Edinburgh Castle. The massive fortress sits atop the appropriately named Castle Rock and all at once infuses the city with a mixture of history, charm, and magic (hey, it is the castle that inspired Hogwarts after all).
Of course climbing up to the castle and paying for a day’s admission to see inside is well worth your time, but truthfully, my favorite part of the castle was constantly having it casually insert its powerful presence throughout our day’s activities. Thanks to its high vantage point, you can see the castle from just about anywhere in the city.
But that goes for all of Edinburgh’s historical sights – they are constantly surrounding you, and the people who live there are immensely proud of their heritage and are always eager to tell you more. For instance, the Grassmarket – a charming area nestled below the castle – currently home to plenty of shops, pubs, and even a market on the weekends, was formerly the execution sight where townspeople would gather to watch beheadings. In fact, in the very center of the area, you can find the placard detailing the very spot that these gruesome executions occurred. You may find this grotesque, I found it completely fascinating and even, dare I say, oddly charming.
If you’re anything like my travel buddy Kate and I – you will return to Grassmarket several times during your stay in Edinburgh. Explore a little bit everyday. If you find yourself hungry after climbing the castle steps or roaming the area, I’d love to recommend The Fiddlers Arms for a traditional Scottish breakfast, or The Beehive Inn for some fish and chips – please, don’t forget the Guinness. If you’re there on the weekend, while the market is up and running, search out the Woods Brownies stand – the chocolatey treat was an absolutely delight.
2. Arthur’s Seat
Arthur’s Seat is the highest point in Edinburgh. To reach it, you must climb an inactive volcano that sits only 1.6km east of Edinburgh Castle. I find it remarkable that something so ancient and rural can exist such a short distance from a bustling city – did I mention Scotland was magical?
In truth, I nearly didn’t go to Arthur’s Seat. I woke up the morning of the proposed hike and I found myself with a scratchy throat and a runny nose. Let me also point out that, chronologically, it had only been 4 short days since surviving Trolltunga in Norway, and frankly, I was feeling a little “hiked” out.
Regardless, I pulled myself together and went. Why? Because everyday leading up to this trip to Scotland, whenever I imagined myself there, I mentally placed myself on top of that inactive volcano. I knew going in that the day I’d hike to Arthur’s Seat I’d be venturing solo (Kate still being in Copenhagen at this time). It would mark the furthest I’d stood in the world on my own – the closest person I knew still hundreds of miles away. It was a powerful and daunting image that I promised myself I’d achieve. I vowed to hike to the top and spend as much time as I needed to breathe, meditate, and cry while listening to the Braveheart soundtrack (yes, all that really happened).
The hike is a walk in the park compared to Trolltunga…actually it’s literally a walk in the park since the volcano is encompassed by actual park grounds…but you get what I’m going for. Once I reached base, it only took me 20 minutes to get to the top, and keep in mind, I was moving considerably slower than usual given I was feeling under the weather.
I would like to note that there are a lot of areas that have small loose rocks on pretty decent inclines, and the winds as you near the top can be mighty. I am not ashamed to admit, I fell flat on my “arse” coming back down. Nothing a solid laugh and a quick dusting off didn’t fix, but obviously this made the terrain worth noting.
I hiked Arthur’s Seat during peak hours, so things were VERY busy at the top. I actually did the majority of my “me time” just below the ultimate peak on the more grassy span of land. If you’re looking for optimal solo time directly at the highest marker – dare to venture there later in the evening or even during the colder months. Just make sure to pack layers as things cool off drastically – even on a sunny, 76 degree day like when I went, I was happy to have an extra flannel with me once I reached the top.
Recommended listening for an emotionally, spiritual journey to Arthur’s Seat –
(just trust me on this, okay?)
Hike up – Brave Soundtrack or Mumford and Sons (Not with Haste, Below My Feet)
At the top – Braveheart (final credits)
Hike back down – Wonder Woman (Lightning Strikes, Trafalgar Celebration, or No Man’s Land)
3. The Elephant House & Victoria Street
Look, whether you’re a fan of the books or not, visiting the birthplace of Harry Potter should be a must on any traveler’s list. The Elephant House – a charming cafe which served witness to the creation of the first chapters of The Philosopher’s Stone – is a great way for anyone to kick off a “Harry Potter Adventure Day” in Scotland.
You have two options when visiting the cafe – wait in line for a table, or pay a small donation to just walk in and take a quick look around. We opted for the full experience and waited patiently for a table. Truthfully, while daunting, the line moves rather quickly. Even more truthfully…if you are looking for the full experience of sitting and soaking in The Elephant House, skip the meal and just go for dessert. We had both, and I can confidently say that the cakes well outweighed the quality (and cost) of the main meal. Look, I get it – people are going to The Elephant House for a glimpse into JK Rowling’s world, not to have their best meal on earth. Still, the fact remains you’ll be better off enjoying a meal elsewhere and then treating yourself to a cup of tea or sweet at The Elephant House.
Be sure to check out all the available artifacts, including a series of photos of JK Rowling working from her table in the cafe. And no journey to The Elephant House is complete without declaring yourself an official member of Dumbledore’s Army by signing any available space in the women’s restroom.
Once you’re finished at the cafe, take a left and wander down Victoria Street. Does the colorful walk feel oddly familiar? It should, as it served as inspiration for Diagon Alley. Over the years, they’ve catered to Harry’s fans – most shops along the way sell Harry Potter gifts and trinkets, but there is one shop in particular that houses 3 floors of Potter memorabilia. Don’t worry, you can’t possibly miss it – after all, it is appropriately named “Diagon House.”
If you’ve ever dreamed of owning a glittered Hedwig…this is obviously the place for you 😉
Bonus round – be sure to notice the joke shop at the bottom of the road. Sadly, while not owned by George or Fred Wesley, it still provides a friendly nod to the series.
4. Greyfriars Kirkyard
Perhaps you’re venturing here in hopes of provoking the infamous Mackenzie Ghost. Maybe you love dogs and want to hear the heartwarming tale of Greyfriars Bobby. Or, perhaps you are simply interested in continuing your Harry Potter themed explorations (several of the books’ characters have “graves” in the yard). Whatever it is that might be bringing you through its gates – Greyfriars Kirkyard is a must see.
Kate wasn’t thrilled with the vibe of the cemetery – as arguably the most haunted graveyard in the world, it isn’t hard to understand why. Even during the day, there is a certain chill to the area as you wander between the impossibly old stones and markers.
Despite my itching to explore the area longer, Kate made me promise that we would exit as soon as we had seen all the Harry Potter graves. Luckily, fate ended up working in my favor when we happened to cross paths with Wallace.
Wallace is physical proof of Edinburgh’s magic. Our paths crossed by sheer chance. You see, Wallace volunteers at Greyfriars and was actually on his way out for the day when he noticed us looking for the Harry Potter graves. He offered to walk us around the cemetery to ensure we didn’t miss any. What should have been a 20 minute errand turned into 2 1/2 hours spent with Wallace as he told us unbelievable stories of the people buried in the cemetery, history of Edinburgh/Scotland, how he met his wife, and the secret to a long lasting marriage.
Had we not captured our entire 2 1/2 hour visit with him on film, I’d be convinced that we had made him up or even seen a ghost – our own personal Brigadoon experience as it were. There was no explaining the emotional connection we had to this man in such a short amount of time.
His knowledge of the graveyard was vast – he was sure to point to areas with unmarked graves.
“2,000 unnamed souls are buried here,” he’d casually say. “Some of the graves are so shallow that when it rains, bones come up. When that happens, we try to collect them before dogs carry them away. We re-bury the ones we’ve found later in the week.”
You could see in his eyes just how excited he was to have two people interested in hearing all the stories he knew.
“And see that plot of land hidden by bushes? That’s where all the worst murderers are buried. In unmarked graves so they can’t be remembered. That’s why the cemetery is haunted. Souls like theirs aren’t allowed to move on, they are trapped here forever,” he explained.
“Unmarked graves – sure,” I said, “but it still seems a pretty ritzy location to bury your worst criminals, no?”
“Back then, it was about convenience,” he explained, “just through that exit and round the corner is the execution point. They didn’t want to have to drag the bodies very far.”
Around the corner from where we stood is the Grassmarket area I mentioned earlier. Remember that placard I spoke about? 😉 That’s the execution sight Wallace was referring to.
When we finally parted ways with Wallace – I burst into tears. I knew we had just experienced something so unique and wonderful, and that there would be no way to ever fully convey it to another person. The video we have of Wallace is one of my most cherished souvenirs from our trip. I watched the video in its entirety on our flight home, and once again was left in a mess of happy tears. To give you even the smallest taste of Wallace, here is the final joke he left us with – “One wee thing we do do here” he said, “we tell ye a little joke.”
5. Loch Ness
Can you tell I’m living my best William Wallace life in this photo? 😉 #Braveheart
We knew a first visit to Scotland would never be considered complete without a trip to Loch Ness. Kate and I booked our tickets through Haggis Adventures for a 12 hour tour through the highlands.
Now, no doubt, 12 hours on a bus gets to be a bit much for anyone, but Haggis Adventures really paced the journey well. There were several breaks scheduled along the way, with enough time to explore little pocket towns and neighborhoods of Scotland while simultaneously stretching your legs.
At the peak of your journey you are dropped off at Loch Ness. Without hesitation, be sure to book the extra ticket for the boat tour – I mean, why come all this way without giving yourself the best chance to come face to face with Nessie?
Insider tip – grab a seat on the lower level, inside. I know, I know, everyone will be racing upstairs for photo opportunities in the open air, but truthfully, the better show is downstairs, and the giant windows provide plenty of photo space.
I won’t give too much away about the information divulged during the tour, but let me just say that while I went in skeptical about the existence of Nessie, I left a true believer in all three creatures (yes, that’s right, THREE). Again, no total spoilers, but our boatman had a very convincing theory involving the formation of the famous Loch, the unlikely Arctic Char trapped inside, and nature’s biological need to adapt.
Then again, his intoxicating Scottish accent could probably have sold me on just about anything, so really, what do I know? 😉
After the boat tour – be sure keep an eye on the clock so you return to the bus on time, but don’t consider your trip complete until you grab a couple souvenirs from the market area and an ice cream cone from Delicious Ness. My recommendation is to go for a scoop (or 3) of the Honey Comb. #YUM
If you don’t yet know what haggis is, perhaps you should skip this section and agree to come back after you’ve tried it…
If you already know what haggis is…here is my plea – try it. Even just once. I know the ingredients might sound a little unsavory, but I promise you, all together, it is the ultimate treat. I sought out haggis 4 times while I was in Scotland (one of those instances with it being in a burrito) – it was just that tasty.
More on that burrito experience…
Scotland, I adore you. You officially own my heart. I promise to return as soon as I can. Until then, here is an accurate depiction of me back in America…