Last updated 28 May 2020
Edinburgh what’s not to love?
As the capital of Scotland, Edinburgh commands attention. But apart from being the country’s epi centre, Edinburgh exudes a distinctive charm that is difficult to resist. The compact layout of the city means it’s easy to get around and explore, even for someone like me with a hopeless sense of direction!
I’d come to the end of my seven day hiking experience on the Isle of Skye and I was very keen to re-visit this magical city. My last Edinburgh stopover was back in 1997 during the lingering of winter. I still remember wandering around Edinburgh Castle, chilled to the bone from the icy wind blowing straight off the North Sea. The bitter conditions forced us to depart early from the castle to the closest pub on the Royal Mile for a much-needed warming whiskey. As you do!
But on this occasion I was in Edinburgh in the first week of May, the onset of spring. This is my post on what I crammed into my two days. But because I love history and couldn’t resist including some of the past that is such an integral part of this vibrant city, my post was too long to read in one go! So I’ve split it into two: day one and day two.
Arriving in darkness the evening before on the train from Inverness, it was a nice surprise the next morning to open the blinds to blue sky and sunshine. That and phone’s weather app promising warm temperatures was all I needed to escape my hotel room and explore.
The Royal Mile
The Royal Mile are the streets that connect Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace. Yes it’s touristy, but walking its length is a ‘must do.’
Bagpipe buskers stand in doorways, emitting the unique ‘sound’ always associated with Scotland. (Remember to toss a coin into the busker’s container. Don’t be one of those tourists, who stop, take a photo and then move on without making a donation for the busker’s efforts.)
On another section I pass a lone poet kitted out in tartan orating verses of poetry in thick Scottish brogue. (Not that I understood what he was saying.) But this is part of the Royal Mile experience. And a reminder Scotland has produced some of the world’s most revered poets, aka Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott.
Above the western end of Princes Street, perched on top of a volcanic crag called Castle Rock is the iconic Edinburgh Castle. The castle originally built as a royal residence in 1058, has views to the Firth of the Forth and the New Town from its fortified interior. The elevated position also made it easier to observe any enemy invaders attempting to storm the castle. The castle has seen its fair share of military action over the years. The last was the ill-fated Jacobite up rising led by Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745.
This is one of Edinburgh’s most popular tourist attractions as the lines to the gates waiting for opening attested (possibly helped that it was a Saturday, a long weekend and the weather was amazing.)
Because I’d been through the castle 20 years earlier (on that chilly day) I was content to take some happy snaps of its grand exterior and the statues of Robert the Bruce (on the left) and William Wallace (on the right) guarding the the castle’s magnificent 16th century Portcullis Gate before continuing down the Royal Mile for more exploring.
Princes Street Gardens
This public park in the middle of Edinburgh was picture postcard perfect whenever I walked past its green perimeter (which was regularly as I was staying at the nearby Waldorf Astoria adjacent to Princes Street.) The park area separating the Old and New Town has an interesting history. It was originally a body of water called the ‘Nor Loch’ used as a defensive ploy to slow down any English invaders considering storming the castle. When the old Town became overpopulated, the Nor Loch was drained (around 1760) and ‘The Mound’ was created using excavated rubble from the basement of buildings being built in the New Town. One side of the park was marked private to be used only by the landowners. This formed a division between the two sides of the garden until 1876, when the council turned the entire area into a public park.
This fabulous green space filled with established trees and spring flowers, is another ‘must do,’ especially when the weather is as fabulous as it was the weekend I was in town!
This 61 metre high monument on Princes Street to poet, playwright, author and historian Sir Walter Scott (1771—1832) became my landmark to guide me back to my Hotel. The blackened tips of the Victorian Gothic monument are easy to spot from any elevated section of the city. And as a writer, I was impressed to discover it’s the ‘world’s largest monument’ to a writer!
Scott was an Edinburgh prodigy, born and raised in the city. He gathered the folk tales from the Borders, inspiring him to write a series of romantic tales. He was integral in reinstating the tartan to Scotland (the wearing of Highland dress was banned from 1747) and helped change the world’s perception of Scotland as being backward and dangerous. I wonder if Scotland would have achieved the title of ‘world’s most beautiful country’ voted by the Rough Guides Readers in 2017 if it hadn’t been for Scot’s 19th Century PR work?
National Museum of Scotland
As you enter the 1400 square metre vaulted entrance Hall off Chambers Street, make sure to look up.
It’s hard to not be wowed by its vaulted glass roof. The museum has eight floors filled with 20,000 artefacts. Scotland has a violent history, but the museum also showcases some of Scotland’s greatest achievements. These range from steam trains, to formula one cars, from Dolly the cloned sheep to dinosaur bones.
If you time it right to watch the Millennium clock strike on the hour you’ll observe an eclectic piece of machinery and all it bizarre workings. And my bad for bailing on the third level and not making it to level seven – the roof terrace for the views over the city.
Even if you’re not a “museum person” it’s worth popping in for a quick look. As with all museums around Scotland, entry is free.
Not far from the museum at the junction of the George IV Bridge and Candlemaker Row is a life like statue of a Skye Terrier dog called Greyfriars Bobby.
I’m a sucker for a good story especially with a dog in it. Read past this if you know it, but Bobby belonged to John Gray who in 1850 began working for the Edinburgh Police Force as night watchman. From 1850 John or “Auld Jock” as he was affectionately known and Bobby patrolled the Edinburgh streets at night-time. Unfortunately in 1858 John died from tuberculosis and was buried in Edinburgh’s Greyfriar’s Kirkyard (churchyard.) Bobby refused to leave his master’s grave, parking his wee body next to the headstone every night. Dogs were not allowed in the graveyard, but Bobby’s presence was ‘overlooked’ and locals built a shelter for Bobby next to his master’s grave. For fourteen years locals in the area looked after Bobby, who apparently never left the grave apart from when he sauntered up the road for his daily meal at a nearby eating establishment.
A few books have been written to refute the story about Bobby – and yes it’s questionable whether a terrier known for changing alliances at the drop of a hat, may have stuck around for 14 years near his dead master’s grave. But I think it’s a great story. So I located Bobby’s statue and managed to sneak a photo in between the loads of tourists lining up for a photo next to this Edinburgh icon. Just remember be gentle if you pat his nose for luck – apparently they’ve had to remodel him twice from all the ‘patting.’ And there’s local folk out there trying to permanently prevent tourists from touching him!
Bobby’s actual gravestone is over the road in the Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. Pop in for a look and if you’re a dog lover, leave a wee stick at Bobby’s grave. And make sure to have a wander around the Kirkyard and read a few of the interesting stories on some of the gravestones!
Royal Yacht Britannia
The de-commissioned Royal Britannia Yacht is berthed permanently at Ocean’s Terminal. I travelled there by jumping on the No. 21 bus outside the hotel (20 minute trip.) Yes this is another touristy experience, but wow what an insight into the Royal family and life on board this impressive vessel. It’s a self-paced tour with headset sharing information at various stations. Loved the Rolls Royce Phantom V on board for those ‘just in case its needed’ moments!
The tour can take almost two hours, depending on how long you linger. But make sure you tour the lower deck to the ship’s laundry for the lowdown on how they kept everything clean and pressed for her Majesty and family.
The Waldorf Astoria – The Caledonian
The Caledonian has a history (what building in Edinburgh doesn’t?) Constructed between 1899 and 1903 originally as a British railway hotel, passengers accessed the station below the hotel through a set of grand arches. These impressive arches have been maintained and form the hotel’s grand entrance today.
The station was closed in 1965 and was demolished five years later. The hotel remained and was purchased by the Hilton Hotel chain in 2000. A massive refurbishment was completed in 2011 transforming the hotel to its present luxe state.
The hotel’s lounge area is called Peacock Alley, the name given to the original station concourse and ticket office. Peacock Alley is a double storey open plan room with a glass atrium roof. The room is light and airy and when looking at it from the mezzanine level looks remarkably like a classy rail station. The difference is the chairs and sofas are arranged to encourage sitting and quiet conversation, no running off to catch a train.
A perfect end to my day
After all that walking around the hard cobblestone streets absorbing parts of Edinburgh’s culture and history, I was looking forward to sitting in one of Peacock Alley’s lounge chairs and unwinding with a glass of something refreshing. While enjoying my chilled glass of wine, a trio of musicians set up around the nearby grand piano. As the sounds of subtle jazz tunes filled Peacock Alley, I watched the steady hands of the original Caledonian Railway station clock keep time on the wall behind the musicians. I wanted the clock to stop. Freeze that moment in time a little longer.