I was planning to visit Scotland for some time now, and I finally made it to Edinburgh this year. The ferry across the Irish Sea was Swift, both in name and nature. Named after the famous Irish author Jonathan Swift, it took two hours to span the waterway to the UK. At Holyhead, I caught a train that took me along the beautiful coast of Northern Wales. I hopped off in the small town of Conwy, a tiny town that is known for one reason: it’s a huge castle! This was my first time visiting a castle, and I was absolutely blown away. I literally ran up the path that led through the castle’s main gate.
Amazed at Cowny’s castle
The castle (more than 700 years old) was remarkably preserved, especially the outside walls and towers. Visitors were allowed to explore almost every part of the castle, so I spent the early afternoon climbing the narrow staircases of every tower. Each one earned new views of the castle, the tiny town of Conwy, and the sea on which it was situated. The castle was completed in 1287, after only 4 years! The castle and the town walls were planned and built by Edward I, the current King of England. Since his first invasion of Wales, there had been two attempted uprisings, and he was done messing around. This was one of 17 castles that he either restored or built anew to completely crush the Welsh rebellion. After my self-guided tour of the castle, I ate fish and chips for lunch before walking the walls and ramparts surrounding the town. Houses pressed up against the walls, and I noticed several grills and tables in little circular courtyards along the walls. Imagine grilling out every evening at the foot of these ancient walls! My stroll continued outside the walls and into a nearby park where I did some push-ups and pull-ups- gotta stay fit somehow.
That night, two more trains took me to Manchester. Unfortunately, it was already after 11 PM, and I decided to sleep in the train station to save some money. Turns out the Victoria train station is currently under construction… it was a rough night, to say the least! The following day, two more trains brought me to Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland.
Arriving at Edinburgh
The history of Edinburgh is long and bloody. By the 12th century, the enormous castle for which it is known was constructed, and it has been the capital since at least the 15th. Like Ireland and Wales, there have been many battles and switching of power between Scotland and England. The structure of the city reflects this. From the train station, it was a climb uphill to my hostel. I took a quick shower and then headed up the Royal Mile. The main thoroughfare leading from the castle on the hill to the Holyrood Palace below, the Royal Mile is filled with bars, restaurants, and shops. Situated in the original Old Town of Edinburgh, the cobblestone street and the buildings’ remarkable architecture help it retain its Medieval look. Almost at the top of the hill, I entered the Scottish Whiskey Experience. As the official National Drink of Scotland, the Scots are serious about their whiskey. The exhibitions were lovely, and a corny barrel ride was entertaining. I tried a genuine Scotch Whiskey and saw the largest whiskey collection in the world: over 3,500 bottles! For dinner, I tried Scotland’s most famous dish- Haggis. It basically is a sheep heart, lung and liver wrapped inside its stomach and boiled. Yummy!
That night, I went on an Underground Tour that took us into vaults under the city. Since Edinburgh is so old, much of it has been basically buried underneath the new stuff. So what appears to be 6 or 7 story buildings nowadays have another 6 or 7 stories extending underground. The tour was fun, and they did scare me a bit in the final vault.
My second day in Edinburgh began with a hike up Arthur’s Seat. This huge ancient volcano rises above the city. The city spread out before me and ran all the way to the sea. After the hike, I headed back into town to go on another walking tour. I love these! They are a great way to hear the city’s history and see things that you may otherwise miss. To my enjoyment, the guide also talked quite a bit about Harry Potter. After all, Edinburgh was the inspiration for J.K Rowling’s massively popular series. George Heriot’s School has 4 houses and was originally set up to educate orphan boys (sound familiar?). Victoria Street is lined with popular stores, including a joke shop, and cuts diagonally (Diagon Alley) through the city. In Greyfriars Kirk, we walked past gravestones with Tom Riddle and a poet called McGonagall. A nearby street on the map is named Potterrow…Coincidence? I think not! The actual birthplace of Harry Potter is a small cafe called The Elephant House. In a table in the back, with a great view of the Edinburgh Castle, magic flowed from Rowling’s pen as she wrote the first two books. I was in Harry Potter Heaven!!!
After the tour, I headed over to the Museum of Edinburgh for a quick peek. It had a great video on the history of the city. That night, I went out in the Grassmarket area. Initially a vast public market for trading and selling goods, it now houses many pubs and restaurants. In Maggie Dickson’s, I met two guys named Andrew and Dave. They were from Stirling, Scotland and Newcastle. We hit several bars and had a fantastic ol’ night, finishing the night with some Irish dancing and late-night fried food. They were awesome guys, and hopefully, I’ll see them in Oktoberfest later on.
The following day I needed an Irn Bru to recover. Scotland’s favourite soda sells more here than Coke, which is reputed to be a hangover cure. It has a weird, kind of bubblegum taste, but not bad. I then headed up the hill to finally explore Edinburgh Castle. The crowds were pretty insane for 10AM in the morning, but the castle was incredible nonetheless. Every building houses a different museum and exhibit. The Crown Jewels and the National War Museum were two of my favourites. Great views of the city are a given just about anywhere in the castle. With Fringe Fest soon to come, a massive stadium is being constructed for the world-famous Miltary Tattoo performances held almost nightly. The castle is Edinburgh’s #1 visitor attraction, and for a good reason.
After the tour, I headed back to Maggie Dickson‘s for some Haggis, Tatties (mashed potatoes), and Neeps (a root vegetable). Maggie Dickson was sentenced to be hanged in the 1700s. She was hanged for 30 minutes, said to be dead, and then came alive while the coffin was moved to the gravesite. Because the law at the time said you only needed to be hanged for 30 minutes, she technically had served her punishment. She went on to set up this bar right next to the site of the gallows and live another 20 years. From there, I headed to the National Museum of Scotland. It was a massive museum with exhibits on everything imaginable. I especially enjoyed the history of the Scots exhibits. I stayed in that night, dining on some fries and a Deep Fried Mars Bar and talking with all the people in the hostel. Everyone is so lovely and friendly.
On my final day in Edinburgh, I went on a run-up to the top of the hill in Holyrood Park. While the rain drizzled and the wind had a bit of a bite, it seemed to enhance the city’s dark and creepy side, and I quite enjoyed it.
After a shower, I spent some time at the Writer’s Museum learning about Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Burns, and Walter Scot, three of the Scottish’s proudest. I then walked through New Town, if you can call something built in the early 1800’s “new”. This city is really one of the most beautiful I have ever visited!