How do you know when you’ve landed in Scotland? The men are in skirts, of course! Kilts, to be more accurate (and no, I don’t know what they wear underneath…)
Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, was my first stop, with its beautiful medieval Old Town and elegant Royal Mile.
The cobblestone streets are lined with shops selling everything in plaid – kilts, scarves, purses, postcards, mugs and key rings, as well as other Scottish paraphernalia.
The Royal Mile is crowned at the top with Edinburgh Castle, protecting Scotland’s crown jewels and Stone of Destiny, surrounded by a sweeping view of the city, and anchored at the bottom by Holyrood Palace.
In between are the Closes, or Wynds, narrow lanes and alleyways where residents used to live. They were named after the most prominent citizens or businesses, and it was highly unusual for one to be named after a woman. Mary King’s Close is underground, the city was built up over it, and it’s open to the public for tours, if you dare – urban legends tell of hauntings from plague victims and things that go bump in the night. It’s an eerie but fun way to learn of some of Edinburgh’s history.
Musicians play their bagpipes on the streets, haunting music swirling amongst the beautiful old buildings…
…and neighborhoods like Grassmarket house hostels and kilt makers, bookstores and gift shops…
… plus plenty of pubs, many with colorful histories.
Have no fear if you’re a foodie, there are plenty of places to eat as well as drink.
It was such a lovely day, I decided to climb Arthur’s Seat, a nearby extinct volcano with incredible views from the top. “It’s not as hard as it looks,” people told me. It appeared daunting, but I gave it a go. I counted around 900 uneven stone steps, and when the steps ended, there was a dirt path, then it was pretty much rock climbing. I saw moms with little kids, and people in their 70’s, so I figured I should be able to do it too. Happily, I had my hiking boots on.
I thought I was at the top, only to find another steeper bit to climb. But I made it – 360 degree views, with all of Edinburgh as well as the sea spread below me. The crystal clear day was perfectly still. “It’s usually windy up here,” a woman told me, “you’re lucky.” Yes, I am.
There’s so much to do in Edinburgh, but of course Scotland is known for its whisky, so why not check out the Whisky Experience? You’re sent off on a Disney-like ride in a barrel where a “ghost” hologram tells you about the three ingredients of whisky – water, malted barley and yeast, and how it’s fermented and distilled and aged in barrels, much like wine. We got to scratch and sniff a card that showed the scents of the 4 different Scottish whiskey regions – Lowlands, Highlands, Speyside and Islay, which correspond to the flavors of citrus, vanilla, banana and smoke. Then the best part, taste-testing! Plus there’s a sweep through the world’s largest whisky collection, with more than 3,600 bottles.
The National Gallery, with free admission, is full of religious, allegorical and impressionist paintings…
…or if you’re more into writing than art, Edinburgh is known for it’s fair share of authors, including Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott, and you can learn about them in the Writer’s Museum.
Or you can even go on a literary pub crawl and combine the spirit of history with spirits of a more liquid nature. Your hosts, actors in character, will lead you on an informative romp through several lively night spots.
For something more appropriate for the younger set, you can stop for a coffee or cocoa at the place where J.K. Rowling penned much of her first Harry Potter Book.
As an alternative to expensive hotels, and preferring a more local experience, I’d booked an Air B&B with a lovely couple a short bus ride out of the city in an area called Portobello, where I had the best of both worlds – close to the city center, but a block from the beach, and Scotland was experiencing some unseasonably warm early fall weather.
What do you do when your hosts invite you to a real Scottish meal of Haggis, and you’ve discovered on a tea towel in town what’s in it? You suck it up and try it, of course, and I have to say, it was really quite tasty, along with the neeps (mashed turnips) and tatties (mashed potatoes), although I tried not to think of the ingredients.
One day my host wasn’t busy, and accompanied me for an afternoon. She’d packed a picnic, which we shared on a bench in a park overlooking the city…
…then walked through town to the botanic gardens to view an art exhibit…
…and strolled towards home along Leith canal, the clouds and blue sky reflected in the water, with ducks and swans gliding by, a lovely last day in historic, eclectic Edinburgh.
Lest you be disappointed, having perhaps heard of incessant Edinburgh drizzle, I did manage to experience one day of gray, gloomy skies and damp weather, so I’ll leave you with this, a perhaps more common view of this fabulous historic city…