A Short Visit to Edinburgh – Part 1

Edinburgh skyline

How much can you see and do in an old, historically significant city on a three-day visit? Quite a bit, it turns out. We decided before we left that the best way for us to experience as much of the city of Edinburgh as we could was to take some small-group walking tours with local experts, so we signed up for three different, short tours as well as a distillery tour. While we left Edinburgh at the end of our stay feeling tired, we learned and saw more than we imagined while we were there, far more than we ever could have figured out on our own.

The big, old stations in the north of England, like this one in Darlington, have been modernized, but retain many of their original features such as wide, arching glass roofs and decorative iron pillars.

The train ride up to Scotland from the Cotswolds was long (10 hours, on four different trains), and we arrived to rain in Edinburgh. The signage in Waverly Station was only mildly helpful at best but we eventually found our way out of the station to the taxi stand and had a short ride over to our small, but cozy apartment. After getting ourselves checked in, we headed down the street to a small Indian restaurant that our taxi driver had recommended. I had lamb korma, Brett got a chicken biryani and we shared an order of garlic naan as each piece was the size of a large dinner plate. We were almost too tired to eat but managed to get half of our orders eaten and brought the rest back to the apartment for dinner the next night. Our one concern with the apartment was that the bed might be too soft, but both of us fell asleep quickly and slept soundly that (and every) night.

Cobblestone streets were the norm in much of Old Town Edinburgh.
Small covered lanes or closes (alleys) ran between larger streets in the city.
Edinburgh is a very old city, and beyond its castles, streets, and famous buildings its age and history can be found in the smallest of places. We had no idea what this place had been, with the words currently just a few feet above street level.

The taxi driver had said the weather would be good for the next couple of days after our arrival, but we woke up to gray, cloudy skies again. The rain had stopped however, so after breakfast (yogurt and oatmeal provided by our host) Brett and I set out to visit the city’s main attraction, Edinburgh Castle. Located only a 10-minute walk away from our apartment, we still had to contend with cobblestones, hills, and many stairs to reach the entrance. Blue skies were poking through as we arrived and before we knew it the clouds were mostly gone. For the rest of the day we enjoyed blue skies and sunshine.

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We spent over two hours touring the castle grounds and the Great Hall, and went up into the Royal Apartments where Scotland’s crown jewels can be viewed (while not quite as stunning as England’s Crown Jewels, Scotland’s are quite beautiful and considerably older). Also on view was the stone seat where Scotland’s kings and queens were crowned. Overall, the castle and grounds were magnificent as were the views from the castle, and our visit was well worth the price of admission. There was also a nice cafe inside the castle as well as a tea house and whiskey tasting room, and we opted to stay and have an affordable lunch at the cafe before heading down the Royal Mile (or High Street).

Kilts and bagpipes on the Royal Mile
St. Giles Cathedral
There was more cashmere for sale than can be imagined. Prices were consistent from shop to shop as well so it didn’t matter much which store you chose for your shopping.
I wanted the dress MacDonald tartan as I’m descended from the clan, but although I looked in more shops than I can count no one had it or anything close.

After lunch, we took a stroll down the high street toward Holyrood Castle, where members of the royal family stay when visiting Scotland. We wanted to get a cashmere scarf for each of us, and we were also looking for a shop that carried some of the best shortbread in Edinburgh. The amount of cashmere available on the high street was frankly overwhelming, with practically every other shop on each side of the street selling it in some form or another. Shop walls were lined with shelves holding scarves and sweaters, and there were often large tables set up, covered with even more scarves in every color and pattern imaginable. I was looking for a particular tartan – dress MacDonald – as my maternal grandmother’s family came to America from Scotland and belonged to the MacDonald clan. Brett and I eventually decided to stop in a shop called Marchbrae (we liked the name) and after nearly going out of our minds because of all the choices we eventually found scarves that we liked (it turned out that not one store carried anything in the dress MacDonald tartan, let alone a scarf). Leaving Marchbrae with our scarves, we walked further down the street to Cranachan & Crowdie to check out the shortbread. The store had samples available and we ended up buying ourselves a small tin of orange shortbread with chocolate chips. Let’s just say that real, small-batch shortbread tastes 100x better than Walkers, which is pretty good stuff.

Looking back up The Bow (Victoria Street). Lined with small, unusual shops, the street was J.K. Rowling’s inspiration for Diagon Alley.

At that point, we had a choice between continuing down to Holyrood Castle or heading back to our apartment, and as we were both still quite tired we decided to go back and rest up for the next day, our “Day of Tours,” with three different tours scheduled. The walk back to the apartment was lovely, and we got a lovely surprise when the route we went took us down Victoria Street (“the Bow”) to the Grassmarket. From there it was just a few more minutes to our apartment. We were surprised to discover that evening we had walked over four miles and taken 10,000 steps. No wonder we felt so tired!

One of three stills at the Edinburgh Gin Distillery – this one is named Flora, and she was busy creating a batch of specialty gin the day we visited (it can be seen boiling through the porthole).
Edinburgh Gin produces seven varieties of gin and seven gin-based liqueurs. They also still distill two varieties of whiskey – the earnings from the whiskey is what allowed the owners to begin making gin.
At the end of the tour we were served a tasty gin & tonic, and also got to sample some elderflower gin.

The next morning we were up early for our first tour of the day, the Edinburgh Gin Distillery, located in the opposite direction from the castle, near the historic Caledonia Hotel. Our small group started with a presentation on the history of gin in Scotland followed by a talk about how gin was made. We were allowed to smell and taste some of the various botanicals used in the making of gin and learned that without the inclusion of juniper and possibly other botanicals gin is basically not very good vodka. Afterward, we went in to view two of the distillery’s three small-batch stills close up and then were treated to a sample of one of Edinburgh Gin’s varieties (elderflower, I think) and a gin & tonic made with their standard dry gin. Because we had been on the tour we received a discount at the gift shop and Brett and I chose a bottle of Seaside Gin, their most popular variety, infused with not only juniper but seaweed and plants foraged from the Scottish coast. It is delicious.

Chicken and mushroom pie for lunch at the Mitre pub on the high street. Brett chose a trio of mini pies for his lunch. The delicious, flaky crust on my pie was the best I’ve ever had anywhere.

Before we went to our second tour of the day we walked back to the high street and had lunch at the Mitre pub. We both wanted to try their meat pies which were reasonably priced (£12/$14.75) and came with mashed potatoes and gravy and vegetables. Both our orders were delicious and filling, and we left lunch feeling satisfied and ready to take on our next tour. The Marvelous Medical Tour took place on the city’s southside and covered Edinburgh’s heyday as the center of medicine in the English-speaking world. We were the only people signed up for the tour that day, and besides learning about the many medical techniques that came out of Edinburgh and getting to see a part of the city often missed by visitors, we also heard all about all sorts of things from grave robbers to the real-life Sherlock Holmes to chloroform parties to plague doctors and more. Our guide really knew his stuff, it was all interesting, and we had a great time.

The “new” medical college is only a couple of hundred years old. Medical students at the University of Edinburgh still take their anatomy classes here.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s lodging while he was a medical student in Edinburgh. His professor, Dr. Bell, was the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes.
The old surgical hospital is still used by the university today, but not for surgery. Innovations such as using chloroform for anesthesia and techniques for disinfecting wounds and surgical tools were developed here.
The Old College is no longer part of the medical school but is used by other university departments these days. Charles Darwin studied medicine here but decided he did not want to be a doctor.

We had a few hours between that tour and our final tour of the day, which actually was going to take place at night, so we walked back to our apartment to rest for a couple of hours with a stop for ice cream on the way at Mary’s Milk Bar, a cute shop in the Grassmarket selling sweets and artisanal ice creams and gelato. Unusual for us, we both chose the same flavor of ice cream, fig with honey, a delicious treat.

Later, just before the sun went down we headed back out once again, this time to learn about Edinburgh’s dark history . . . .

18 thoughts on “A Short Visit to Edinburgh – Part 1

    1. We loved our stay too and wished we’d had at least one more day. There was so much to see, and the locals we met were very friendly. I would really love to see more of Scotland as well.

      There were LOTS of visitors there though (and some of the rudest we’ve encountered anywhere). I can’t imagine being there during the summer or during the Fringe Festival.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have always wanted to visit the comedy festival. But know I would hate the crowds. I couldn’t imagine Europe in summer. September/October is my limit, I think.

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      2. I could skip the comedy festival but I would love, love, love to see the Tattoo which is unfortunately at the same time. They were taking down the stands during the time we were there.

        I’m with you on the crowds. September and October are when we tour “popular” spots (if we go at all). I don’t know how you survived Oktoberfest.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Thanks for the lovely photos and info. It brings back lots of memories. Sorry the signage at the train station hasn’t improved one bit since we were there 15 years ago!

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    1. OMG, those train station signs (or lack of them). We went around in a circle a couple of times trying to follow the arrows on the signs, and up and down a flight of stairs as well before I finally saw a ramp and said “let’s try this way” and it luckily turned out to be the exit to the taxi stand! And then it was raining when we went outside, but by the next day our luck had changed and we had a wonderful time!

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  2. Ah, I love this! So many good memories brought back for me, too. Your descriptions and photos are really wonderful as always. It’s a beautiful city. My DD talked about moving there, but the days are even shorter there than where she is now. Of course, they’re only a short plane ride from the sun there, which is more than I can say for us in the Midwest. Ha!

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    1. It really was a beautiful city. I loved looking at all the old buildings and thinking about how old they might be or how people lived in them. Our apartment was fairly small but back in the day a whole family probably lived in it!

      The weather reminded us of Portland – even though we enjoyed a couple of lovely days, we knew the cold and rain was not far behind.

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  3. Oh goodness, I would love to visit there, if even just to listen to people speak and remember my Grandma Helen. She grew up there, and we are Clan MacBain – I believe we are related to the MacDonalds!

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    1. I think MacBains are a different clan than MacDonald, but all I know is what I can find on Wikipedia. I’m not sure when my grandmother’s family came from Scotland – but her family name was Conn which is a sept of Clan MacDonald.

      You should make Scotland one of your destinations – just don’t go in the summer or during the Fringe Festival. We were told again and again that the crowds in Edinburgh are unbelievable then.

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  4. I was there in 1981. My mother is a Cochran and they are a Sept of the McDonald Clan with their own tartan called the Cochrane Special. When I was there, all I could find were McDonald tartans. I saw a picture of the Cochrane tartan but it was only available by special order. I’m sorry you weren’t able to get a scarf in the correct tartan. That makes for a special memory.

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    1. My grandmother’s family name is Conn, a Sept of the MacDonald Clan. I loved the colors in the dress tartan but I’m guessing it would have to be specially ordered as I couldn’t find it anywhere on anything. I’m happy with the scarf I got though. I think both our families came from the West Highlands – now I want to go visit out there!

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  5. I only had a few hours In Edinburgh and Glasgow following 10 days in The Highlands in 2018. I plan to visit again for a longer time. I have a picture of the same bagpiper!

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    1. I think the bagpipers swapped out every other day. We saw this guy on our first and third day, and another one in between. There were a couple of others as well down the high street, and we several local men walking around in kilts when we were out and about.

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