During my recent trip to the U.K., I decided to schedule a quick 2-night trip to Edinburgh — which ending up surprising me beyond expectations and ultimately had me falling madly in love with the city. Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, is an eclectic magical medieval city filled with historic treasures around every corner and down every “close”. Home to the magnificent Edinburgh Castle, Arthur’s Seat, world-class museums, restaurants and pubs serving the freshest cuisine, fine Scottish whiskey, as well as being the inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, this compact walkable city makes the perfect weekend escape.
The Perfect Weekend in Edinburgh
My love affair with Edinburgh began with a scenic 4-hour train ride from London’s Kings Cross Station to Waverly Station in the heart of Edinburgh. Although the trip is a bit longer than the 90-minute plane ride (which many tourists opt to do), traveling by rail gave me the opportunity to relax and take in the beautiful countryside of the UK without the usual hassles associated with air travel from city to city.
Once in Edinburgh, it was a short cab ride from the station to our hotel, the Apex Grassmarket. The hotel, it turned out, happened to be in the hip Grassmarket area of Old Town and the perfect location within walking distance of many of Edinburgh’s top sites.
After checking into our room, my hubby and I were famished and decided to walk across the street and grab lunch at the Black Bull Inn; one of many lively authentic Scottish pubs, restaurants, cafes, and shops located in the Grassmarket. After a leisurely lunch and armed with great tips on “what to do and see” from our waiter, we were ready to set off on our afternoon adventures.
First stop of the day was the Edinburgh Castle, located high on a hill overlooking the Grassmarket. The walk up the two long and slightly steep flights of steps cut into the hillside leading from the Grassmarket to the castle was moderately strenuous. There are other leisurely ways to get to the castle, but this was the quickest route and helped us to burn off a few extra calories from lunch. Arriving in the early afternoon, allowed us to avoid the heavy crowds that usually flock there early in the morning. At some points, it felt as if we had the entire castle to ourselves.
The views from the top of the castle were absolutely breathtaking.
As you walk through the various buildings that encompass the castle grounds, the history of Edinburgh Castle unfolds with every step you take. A few of the highlights included: St. Margaret’s Chapel, the 15th-century siege cannons, the Great Hall, the Prisons of War buildings and the glittering crown jewels of Scotland.
The Scotch Whiskey Experience
After visiting the castle we headed to the Scotch Whiskey Experience just a few feet away from the castle entrance. Set in a former schoolhouse, the Scotch Whiskey Experience takes you through a tour of the whiskey making process complete with a tasting demonstration. Even if you’re not a whiskey fan like me, it is still a fascinating sight to see.
St. Giles Cathedral
Next up on our list was a stroll down High Street (the Royal Mile) for some window shopping and a stop at St. Giles Cathedral. This beautiful cathedral has some of the best preserved stained glass windows in Scotland. Built in the 15th century, St. Giles was the center of the Scottish Reformation with John Knox presiding as its minister.
We continued our walk down and back up the Royal Mile stopping into several boutiques and shops and enjoying a few of the street performers including a traditional bagpipe performance.
Dinner in the Grassmarket
After a bit of a rest and a chance to freshen up, we were ready for nourishment and headed across the street to Maggie Dickenson for some authentic Scottish grub. The restaurant was an eclectic mix of turn of the century charm and hipster vibe, featuring upscale pub delights. The lamb was a hit with my hubby.
The rest of our evening was spent strolling through part of Old Town. Our walk included a stop at Greyfriars Kirk, one of Edinburgh’s most famous churches and home to one of Scotland’s most historic and beautiful cemeteries. Meandering past the century-old crypts and graves at sunset was a fascinating adventure.
Greyfriars Bobby Statue
Near the entrance of Greyfriars Kirk sits a statue that honors the famous Skye terrier who maintained a 14-year vigil over his master’s grave. It is the tradition for visitors to leave a stick at the foot of the memorial to show respect.
The Flodden Wall and The Telfer Wall
Continuing our evening stroll, we passed the George Heriot’s School before reaching the Flodden Wall. This is the original wall that protected the city from the invading English. The Telfer Wall, which is just beyond the original wall, is the section added to reinforce the city’s protection. Across the street from these famous walls is the Edinburgh College of Art.
After a long day of travel and sightseeing, it was time to head back to our hotel and rest up for day 2.
With a full day devoted to exploring Edinburgh, we decided to wake up early and tackle the 3.5-mile hike up to the top of Arthur’s Seat as well as enjoy the Holyrood Park area. Quick tips if you plan to hike up to the top: do eat something first and/or bring a snack with you; there are a few paths leading to the top depending upon your fitness level; there are no bathrooms once you leave the area nearest the Holyrood Palace; do bring a bottle of water and drink sparingly (remember no bathrooms); the easier paths are the most crowded and get more narrow as you approach the summit.
We made it! Selfie from the top
On the way down, we stopped at the ruins of St. Anthony’s Chapel. The origins of this 15th-century chapel are not quite known. Some believe it was a hospital for a skin disease known as St. Anthony’s Fire and others believe it was built to be a beacon for ships. Whatever the origins, this place and the ruins are haunting beautiful.
Palace of Holyroodhouse
After our morning workout of a hike, it was time to check out the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Scottish residence of England’s royal family, and for a quick refreshment from the palace’s cafe. Next to the Palace is the Queen’s Gallery and across the street is the controversially designed Scottish Parliment Building.
Because we had already logged several walking miles from our morning adventure, we decided to buy tickets for Edinburgh’s Hop On, Hop Off bus tour. Normally, I prefer to explore new cities on my own, but in this case, my feet needed a bit of rest. I will say, that this particular bus tour was quite enjoyable and took us past all of Edinburgh’s top sites.
Halfway through the tour, it was time for a late lunch. We had decided to try a local pizza shop we had seen the day before. Pizza was not on my list of Edinburgh foods to try, but after eating at Slice Pizza, I highly recommend this place to anyone visiting Edinburgh. As a side note, when your New York born and raised pizza-eating husband declares that it was one of the best slices of pizza he has ever eaten anywhere, then you know this place is good.
Scottish National Museum
The next stop was the Scottish National Museum, home to some of the finest museum collections in the world and home to Dolly, the first cloned sheep. The museum features several floors of exhibits including a historical walk through machines and technology, fashion, animal species, and world cultures. Admission is free.
After viewing the various exhibits at the Scottish Museum, we wanted to tour Edinburgh’s New Town, so it was back to the Hop On, Hop Off bus to explore this section of the city. New Town includes attractions such as Princes Street Gardens, The Scott Monument, and Jenner’s, Edinburgh’s oldest high-end department store.
Dinner and Drinks
After a non-stop active day, we went back to the hotel to relax and freshen up a bit before our last dinner in the city. We ended up dining at Nicholson’s Greyfriars Bobby next to Greyfriars Kirk. Established in 1873, this landmark pub served up traditional Scottish fare.
Before retiring for the night, the last stop of the day was the Bee Hive Inn for a couple of pints with the local crowd.
The next morning we had just enough time for a quick breakfast and then it was back to Waverly Station for the journey back to London. Although my time spent in Edinburgh was short, the love affair I have with this city will live on.
Until next time, happy travels.
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