Travel days are always a bit stressful, but for our Scotland trip our departure day started off great! Everything seemed to line up perfectly. No one overslept, we had no traffic on the way to the airport, and when we parked the car the bus was waiting for us which was good as we were parked in the furthest possible lot from the terminals. After a lengthy bathroom pitstop, it was from lines we swear, we got through security quickly and headed for the gate. The bathroom break put us a bit behind schedule so we were rushing to our gate when we saw a huge line to board.
Luckily Erik had suggested we book priority boarding so we were able to walk to the front of the line with no problems. We’d never used priority boarding before, and now I don’t think we will ever fly another RyanAir flight without doing so. The fact that we were able to bypass the huge line and secure overhead storage was worth the minimal additional cost. If you do decide to use priority booking wait and purchase it closer to your travel dates, as we found the cost significantly lower than when you initially booked our tickets.
Our flight arrived into Edinburgh at 1100 giving us the whole rest of the day to explore the city. When had started planning our trip we didn’t allot for time in the city, but at the last minute we decided to fly in a day early so we could see it. And I’m so happy we did! Unfortunately, our rental car wasn’t available until the following day but it turned out to be a good thing as the city is highly walkable and parking was at a premium. There is a convenient tram that runs straight from the airport to the city center and only costs about £8.50 for a roundtrip ticket. As an added bonus it’s open ended so you don’t have to return on your first day of travel. We took the tram into the heart of Edinburgh enjoying the countryside scenery along the way. It reminded us a lot of Boise, Idaho with all the open rolling hills surrounding the city and tons of trees. This was our first time in Edinburgh and I fell completely in love with the beauty of the city. The buildings of the “new city” are all old Georgian style that give the city a very sophisticated feel. But for being a capital city it felt relatively uncrowded, which I greatly appreciated.
We couldn’t drop our bags off at our lodging until 1300, so we had an hour to kill with all of our stuff. So we decided to pass the time in our favorite way: eating! There was a small cafe called Ryan’s bar where everyone was enjoying a lunchtime drink so we figured this was the place for us. After a bowl of the soup of the day, potato leek with bacon, and a macchiato we were perfectly content and refueled for the rest of the afternoon. We arrived at our AirBnB and it was the old downstairs of a Georgian-style house. The place was a labyrinth of rooms and I am pretty sure that eight of them were rented out on AirBnB. But the hosts were very kind and Winston, the dog, was a delight as he wrestled with Erik and welcomed us. After dropping our bags and a quick gear change it was off to Edinburgh Castle and the famed Royal Mile.
We hiked through the Princes Street Gardens and past the Wojtek the Soldier Bear Memorial. It was a fascinating piece of history we had never heard of before but is absolutely worth sharing. Wojtek was a bear found by a group of Polish soldiers in the mountain regions of Persia in 1942. At the time he was just a cub, and was traded by a local shepherd to the soldiers. The men cared for Wojtek and took him along as they made their way to Italy to fight during WWII. During one of the battles Wojtek was observed bringing boxes of ammunition to the gunners! After the fighting his unit was sent to England and eventually Wotjek was sent to the Edinburgh Zoo where he happily lived out the remainder of his life. The story of Wotjek got our brains fired up for learning more about history, which was a good thing because Edinburgh Castle is oozing with it.
There is a trail from the gardens that leads up and around the castle so you approach it from the Esplanade to the front. From here you can see why this location was chosen for a castle as you can see for miles in all directions. The first castle was built during the 12th century by David I of Scotland, but only St. Margaret’s Chapel, which you can still visit today, survives from this time period. The rest were destroyed during one of the numerous battles here, as this castle was a focal point of conflict between the English and the Scots and often the Scots themselves. The current castle was rebuilt by David II during the 14th century. As an added bonus free guided tours are offered about every 45 minutes, which are a fantastic way to get a better understanding of how the castle came to be what we see today. Many monarchs have stayed within its fortified walls, including the infamous Mary, Queen of Scots. In fact she actually gave birth to James VI of Scotland and I of England within the castle walls and you can visit the very room he was delivered in.
Today it plays host to the Stone of Destiny and Scotland’s crown jewels, which you can view inside the castle. There are numerous museums and memorials, including the WWI War Memorial and National War Museum, located within the castle itself so give yourself ample time. We had about 4 hours there and it wasn’t nearly enough time. And unfortunately we also missed the firing of the One o’clock Cannon, which if you couldn’t tell from the name is fired at 1pm each day. The reason 1pm was chosen instead of noon is that it saved the frugal Scots 11 shots!
After closing down the castle we decided we wanted to stroll down the Royal Mile, so named for the length of distance between Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Again, no shortage of history on this walk. You can see the home John Knox, St. Giles Cathedral, the Scottish Parliament building and so much more. But don’t get so distracted by all the history and avoid the many little shops along the way. When we first left the castle we saw what we thought was a small gift shop just outside the Esplanade called the Edinburgh Old Town Weaving Co. We popped inside, browsed around a bit and were all ready to go when Jared noticed a hallway and another small looking side of the shop. When I popped in through the door at the end of the hallway it was massive, the space seemed to be multiplying before our eyes. The shop went way, way down under ground and had several levels of shops including a floor used for weaving (hence the name). There were medieval weapons, Harry Potter stuff, and just about every conceivable item of clothing available in wool or cashmere. They even had a guy selling family crests with official certificates, and loads and loads more. The guys each bought a scarf in the pattern of their family clan. If you have time or want a fun souvenir this is definitely a store worth stopping in.
With our fill of shopping we continued our tour of the Royal Mile. In front of Gladstone’s House, which is apparently a very popular tourist attraction that we completely overlooked, because we saw a sight none of us was expecting. A man had a gyrfalcon on his arm, and for a small donation you could, for a lack of a better term, hold it. Unfortunately, we had no cash but the falconer Colin, who was with Just Falconry Borders CIC, was incredibly kind and let me hold Orin (that was the falcons name) anyway. I have long wanted to try a bit of falconry and this sealed the deal for me. It was a very special feeling holding onto Orin’s jesses and having him perch calmly on my arm. I even got to put him in his box for the night!
Riding this high we continued a short block till we came upon St. Gile Cathedral. This is the church where John Knox gave many of his fiery sermons in promotion of the Presbyterian faith. His final resting place is in fact outside the church in the car park under space 23 (or somewhere near there according to the Scotsman we encountered while looking for the placard). At this point in the evening we were all beginning to crash and were very much ready for some dinner. We crossed back over to the New Town at the North Bridge, effectively only seeing the Royal Half Mile. But as they say it’s always good to leave yourself a reason to come back.
With a stop off at the Scott Monument we made worked up to Rose Street, where there are many cafes, pubs and restaurants. We decided on the Black Cat, a small family run pub, and each had an order of true U.K. pub food: fish and chips. While the atmosphere was cozy, the food left a little to be desired, but all in all we didn’t complain. The best part of the whole experience was when a large and drunk group of teens came into the previously quiet bar and began singing loudly and banging on the bathroom walls. The group of locals in the corner wasn’t having this disruption, one of them promptly entered the toilets and gave the youngsters this bit of advice “SHUT THE F*CK UP!” Needless to say quiet was restored and the rowdy group had their beers outside. I must admit I was very thankful to that Scottish man. Full bellies and bumping feet meant we were all ready to head back and get some sleep. A quick walk found us back at our lodging and shortly after it was lights out. We needed our rest to prep for our next day driving through Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park before taking off to Islay, the land of whisky.