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 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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 . . . .