As far back as I can remember, I’ve had a wanderlust. Whether as a child sneaking off to investigate the neighborhood or as a road-tripping adult discovering the next state over, exploring has long been core to my identity. I’ve always loved the sense of home and belonging, but it seemed so much more poignant upon returning from an adventure. I was excited to be home with family, but equally excited to share stories of the new friends and family I’d met along the way. Those feelings were exponentially intensified when I took my first trip abroad. The world suddenly became very large and very small, all at the same time and I was amazed at how connected I felt to people and places on the other side of the planet. The idea firmly took root that we all have many ‘homes’ and ‘families’ – all over the world. There was simply no turning back from the amazing sense of scope and wonder I had experienced.
I’ve been completely changed and moved by chance encounters with strangers over the years – some of whom I’d never see again and some who have now become dear friends and family. If only one of my tales has moved someone I’ve met along the way and inspired their own sense of wanderlust or of belonging on the other side of the world, I will count myself lucky among storytellers.
And on that note, a few tales from my most recent adventure abroad…
As my friend Kristen and I embarked upon what we had dubbed our Scottish Tour of Destiny, I was a few days into a nasty cold, winter travel conditions were in effect, there were only a few hours of light per day in the areas we were headed and we’d planned an action-packed itinerary with multiple flights to make it work… What could possibly go wrong? (Which would soon become the catchphrase of the journey…) Throw in driving on the wrong side of the road (and the wrong side of the car) through torrential rain and gale-force winds and we had ourselves an epic adventure in the making.
We’d taken advantage of an airfare sale through Icelandair earlier in the year, so our outbound and return flights included layovers in Reykjavik. (I’ve always wanted to visit Iceland and why not do it for free!) On the day of our departure, we got to the airport in plenty of time, security was relatively easy-going and we had ample time to relax before boarding our flight to Reykjavik. But then, just as we were to begin boarding, it was announced we’d be departing FOUR hours late as the AC wasn’t working on the plane and they’d have to find us a new one. This also meant we’d be missing our connecting flight to London and likely our entire first day in London. (Pro tip: Don’t plan anything for the first 36 hours of a trip that requires advance-purchase tickets. We almost opted to do the Harry Potter lot tour our first day and are SO glad we didn’t!)
While we lingered at our home airport, stretching out the $15 food vouchers the airline had given us, we chatted with fellow passengers and generally passed the time. It’s fascinating, the stories you’ll hear when randomly visiting with strangers. There were also a few passengers who were definitely of the ‘glass half empty (if that)’ variety and they had no trouble dragging everyone else into their world. Never mind we were all in the same boat, so to speak. (Insert eye roll *here*) Just be cool. Harassing the airline desk attendants isn’t going to get you there any faster… We did, however, meet some pretty cool people and make a friend or two along the way.
One woman in particular, Karen, was on the way to help her son move to Finland. She was transporting a rather large load of belongings for him and was worried the luggage wouldn’t follow on her new route. We were all being placed on new connections out of Reykjavik, but the airline wasn’t updating anyone until we arrived in Iceland – and the way the flights were looking, it seemed like we’d be staying the night in Reykjavik while things were sorted. It all felt like a pretty nebulous crap-shoot…To make matters worse for Karen, she didn’t have a cell phone and had packed her list of phone numbers in what was supposed to be her carry-on. Which they annoyingly made her check at the gate… (Something similar happened to Kristen and our foolproof, don’t-have-to-worry-about-checked-luggage-not-making-the short-connection plan was thwarted. Airlines and their shrinking carry-on allowances… Gah!)
Because Karen had no phone or phone numbers, she was unable to alert her son to her travel changes and he would likely be very worried. She did, however, know the email address of her other son. I used my phone to email him – hoping he wouldn’t dismiss the message as spam – and alert him to the changes. He, in turn, got a hold of his brother, gave him the scoop and got back to me. Technology! When we finally arrived in Reykjavik, I let Karen borrow my phone to call her son – crisis averted and all was well.
I’ve definitely benefited from the kindness of strangers on my own journeys and it was nice to pay it forward this time. Because we’d chosen to strike up a random conversation and get to know a stranger, we were all able to pass the time more enjoyably, everyone got where they needed to go (and with luggage!) and we made a new friend. One with whom I ended up having much in common! I also have family in Finland, we both share a lifelong wanderlust and have a knack for meeting people along the way. You just never know when you’re going to make a new friend. (Her seat was even next to Kristen on the flight – kismet!)
After we finally boarded our flight, we were on our way to snowy Iceland. It was stormy, but things were off to a decent start when all of the sudden the turbulence began. I’m a pretty mellow flier, but this was turbulence the likes of which I’ve rarely experienced – some of the worst ever, in fact. (I overheard a flight attendant saying it was the worst she’d experienced in 24 years.) The oxygen didn’t deploy, but people were actually screaming – and I did find myself thinking, “Wow – is this how it’s going to end??” (We also weren’t even out of Washington State yet!) Things did eventually settle down, but it was one of those experiences where you make fast friends with the strangers next to you… Even more friends along the way! It may have also lead to a few glasses of wine during the flight… Heh.
While we didn’t end up staying the night in Reykjavik, we did spend an entire morning and afternoon hanging out at the airport waiting for our rescheduled connection. (The sun rose at 11am and set around 3pm!) Icelandair also gave us rather large vouchers to spend on food, so we entertained ourselves by sampling Icelandic fare and doing some shopping. The main part of the airport is quite modern and open and it was actually enjoyable to hang out and explore. The international departure section of the airport, however, was a long, narrow gauntlet of crowded confusion. I even had the “pleasure” of running through the airport, dodging other travelers as I attempted to get to my departure gate. (They only made ONE announcement and it happened to be the “final” one. My sickly lungs were not happy with the situation…) Once we made it onto our London connection, everything smoothed out. The flight was calm and aside from the one hour circle-tour we were forced to endure over Heathrow, we finally touched down in merry old England.
With the craziness of our journey to London finally at an end, we arranged an Uber to our first night of lodging. (Uber is now in most of the major UK cities) As it was now dark and later in the evening, it was a little tricky finding our way down to the 100-year old Danish fishing barge situated on the shores of the River Thames. With a little help from a local shopkeeper, we found our way and were greeted by our lovely hosts. You never know what gems you’re going to find on Airbnb and this was definitely one of them. Granted, for someone getting sicker by the hour, sleeping on a drafty, vintage barge might not have been the best laid plan. However, for sheer uniqueness, it was worth it and I’m glad we braved the cold. Additionally, our hosts were incredibly kind and very understanding about our late arrival and gave us several great tips about getting around London. It was also pretty spectacular to wake up to a brilliantly sunny morning on the Thames.
As we’d missed our first day in London, we were forced to pare down our sightseeing before heading on to Edinburgh that afternoon. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting London several times in the past, so it wasn’t a total tragedy – and we knew we’d have another partial day at the end of the trip. That said, we still wanted to make the most of the few hours we had and tried to pack in as much as possible. After a hot cup of tea and a round of DayQuil, I was ready to go!
Since we’d booked our train to Edinburgh out of London Kings Cross, we took the Tube over from our spot on the Thames. Once at Kings Cross, we located the Excess Baggage shop to temporarily stow our luggage (I love this service!) and immediately opted to check out the Harry Potter shop at Platform 9 ¾ . I’m not gonna lie – I took a few dorky pics of the Platform 9 ¾ wall. Being a bit of a Harry Potter fan girl, it was tough to make it out of the shop without making major purchases. However, since we knew we’d be hitting up the mother-lode Harry Potter studio lot tour later on our trip, we muddled through.
Pro Tip: Arrange your long distance UK train trips ahead of time using the Trainline app or website. Trainline is indispensable! Also invest in an Oyster Card once you get to London. You can find card dispensing machines in all major Tube stations. Another helpful travel aide is the City Mapper Transit Navigation app. It’s great for giving you the quickest route and transportation type to get where you’re going. (Works in many major cities around the world!)
Next on the agenda was to grab a quick lunch while cramming in as much sightseeing as possible. We made a quick pit stop at the *Pret A Manger shop at Kings Cross, but our main foodie pilgrimage was a visit to one of my favorite places on the planet, Fortnum and Mason. (Supplying London with delicious wares since 1707!) I stop in every time I visit London and it’s near impossible to leave the store without a big basket of delectable goods. Sadly, as we were only on Day 2 of our journey and had very limited luggage space, I had to greatly restrain my purchasing. However, I did stock up for the train ride with a Scotch egg, shrimp sandwich, dreamy Turkish Delight and assorted baked goods from their downstairs deli counters. For the record, I don’t remotely care how crass I looked as I shoved that Scotch egg down my gullet while standing outside the store. Fancy store entry or not – that Scotch egg needed to be eaten and STAT. It was DELICIOUS.
* London has no shortage of delicious, grab-and-go food options, but the main train and tube stations are a fine place to grab tasty sustenance on the run. Not to mention, a great place to check out trendy shops, bookstore, pharmacies, etc. Very convenient!
After fueling up on Scotch eggs and a fresh round of DayQuil, we popped in next door to Hatchard’s bookshop. (Their nearby Piccadilly location is London’s oldest bookshop, c. 1787) Aside from taking in the multi-floor shop, Kristen was also on the hunt for an Edinburgh “pop-up” map and they had an extensive map and travel guide section. I was also hoping to stop in at The Royal Academy of Arts, located just across the way from Fortnum & Mason, but we were running short on time and needed to get back to Kings Cross. I’ve visited the Royal Academy on past adventures, but never tire of taking in the amazing displays. Also not to be missed in the immediate vicinity is the tourist spectacle that is Piccadilly Circus. Jumbotron advertisement screens, crazy traffic, double-decker buses – Take it all in!
Back at Kings Cross, while waiting for our train to begin boarding, we met a little boy and his somewhat weary grandmother. Not only was he incredibly chatty and animated, he took it upon himself to entertain us with several tunes from his school’s recent Christmas pageant. Sort of felt like a scene out of Love Actually… It was a fairly amusing way to pass the time and a nice accompaniment to contemplating all the things I love about London and places I’ve visited on past adventures.
(Note: This is but a tiny tasting. I’m pretty sure you could live a lifetime in London and never see it all!)
- National Gallery – Located in Trafalgar Square. Hands down, a must visit gallery. Rubens, Titian, Cezanne, Seurat, Monet, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Michelangelo, Raphael, da Vinci, Botticelli – COME ON!!!
- National Portrait Gallery – Also near Trafalgar Square and not to be missed!
- The Regents Park and Primrose Hill – I used to stay at the nearby International Students House during my earlier visits to London and spent a lot of time at Regents Park. It’s lovely and also home to the London Zoo and the Open Air Theatre. (Shakespeare in the park – and more!) Also close to Regents Park is Baker Street and the Sherlock Holmes Museum (221b) and the original Madame Tussauds. (c. 1884)
- Hyde Park – A London classic. You can’t go wrong with a visit to Hyde Park. It’s beautiful, expansive and always entertaining. The willow trees and swans of The Serpentine are stunning, the Rose Garden absolutely beautiful and Speaker’s Corner is never dull.
- Greenwich Park (UNESCO World Heritage Site) – Stand on the Prime Meridian and experience the impetus of modern measurement. (Greenwich Mean Time has been the standard of timekeeping since 1884) Pop into the Royal Observatory (they offer classes) and check out the beauty of the Cosmos at the London Planetarium. The famous Cutty Sark is also “harbored” at the park.
- Tower of London (UNESCO World Heritage Site) – The storied palace grounds, the imposing Tower of London ravens, the haunted chambers, the famous prisoners, the daunting fortress walls, the expansive armory, the British crown jewels – An amazing display of history and intrigue to explore!
- Harrods – Quintessential shopping in the heart of London. Spectacle, excess, delicious treats, delectable dining, things you could never afford – all on 7 floors, in 330 departments!! Why not??
- Marks and Spencer – Check out the Oxford Street flagship store for a bit of classic British shopping. I swear by their tights and their knickers are ever the UK favourite. I’m also fond of grocery shopping in their food section.
- The British Museum – One of the most amazing museums of ALL TIME. I can’t say enough. Go there!! See statues from the Parthenon, take in the amazing Egyptian wing – marvel at the Rosetta Stone! Honestly. Don’t miss it!
- Notting Hill – Ridiculously charming, funky and entertaining London neighborhood w/colorful houses, cool shops and clubs and meandering roads. Check out Portobello Road on Fridays and Saturdays for the full market experience, complete with amazing antique vendors. The spectacular Natural History Museum is nearby and a must-see for any lover of epic fossils – dinosaurs and more!
- Buckingham Palace – For all things royal. Imagine yourself as an extra in The Crown or Victoria and channel the long history of the English / British monarchy. (Not all having taken place at Buckingham Palace, of course)
- Westminster Abbey (UNESCO World Heritage Site) – Over 1000 years of history, the abbey is home to all British coronations since 1066 and has played host to a bevy of weddings, funerals and epic moments in world history.
- Kensington Palace is one of my favorite places to visit in London. Former home of Princess Diana and present home to her sons and their families, it is also home to the lovely Orangery at Kensington Gardens and Kensington Gardens, If you’re in need of a traditional high tea experience, the Kensington Palace Pavilion and Tea Room is the only place you can have traditional afternoon tea on royal palace grounds.
- Houses of Parliament – The counterpart to the royal set, the stunning Houses of Parliament with its iconic Big Ben is the governing arm of modern Britain and its constitutes. (Note: Big Ben is currently undergoing a 4 year renovation as of 2017, including the Elizabeth Tower / Great Bell (Big Ben) and Great Clock)
- In addition to the incredibly convenient and extensive London Tube, take a Cruise on the Thames to see London from a different angle – or hop on/hop off one of the classic double-decker bus tours for a best-of-London extravaganza. There are so many ways to see and enjoy London!
Since we were leaving later in the afternoon, there wasn’t much scenery to enjoy along the way to Edinburgh. Winter nights fall quickly and most of the journey was spent simultaneously nodding off to NyQuil and defending my personal space from the guy next to me. I’ve taken this journey before and there’s nothing like rolling into Edinburgh and getting your first glimpse of the castle on the hill. This time, however, the scene was dark and groggy as we pulled into Waverly Station, located in the heart of Edinburgh and situated between the Old Town and New Town. (Both included as a UNESCO World Heritage Site)
Upon disembarking from the train, we were hit with just how chilly it was that evening. I’m normally a giant fan of frigid temps (that aforementioned Finnish heritage), but this was some serious, countenance-challenging cold. Granted, I’m sure my worsening sickness (and all it was turning into) was partially to blame for my lack of tolerance, but the cold seemed to reach directly into my bones and squeeze. Our Airbnb wasn’t too far away, so grabbing a taxi seemed silly, but I’ll fully admit to lamenting each step as we slogged our way through the cold. However, since we were surrounded by the stunning winter beauty of Old Town Edinburgh, I was absolutely willing to power through.
For the record, Edinburgh is one of my favorite places in the entire world. I first visited Scotland in 1995 with the intent of working in Edinburgh as part of a university work-study program. (I ended up at a little inn in the Northern Highlands, but more on that later) As I mentioned earlier, there is nothing like rolling into Edinburgh on a sunny day and catching that first glimpse of Edinburgh Castle. I immediately fell in love with the city and those feelings have never since waned. Cold, hot, sunny, stormy – Any time of the year, Edinburgh is one of the most amazing, magical and intriguing places to be found. Adding it’s one of the most artist-friendly cities in the world and deemed one of Europe’s most haunted locales assures there will never be a dull day in Edinburgh.
Upon arriving at our very charming flat located directly on the history-laden Royal Mile, our equally charming Airbnb host greeted us with a personal tour of the flat and a lovely gift basket. Scottish hospitality is a wonderful thing and we felt very welcome in our temporary home. Looking out of my bedroom window and finding The World’s End pub located directly across the street was an unexpected bonus. (The World’s End used to mark the edge of the walled-city of the Old Town and was to many of the residents housed inside, the actual world’s end. It also plays into the story-line of Voyager, the third book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.)
- Nerd Alert: Outlander is one of the inspirations that originally brought me to Scotland – along with the first Highlander And the Highlander television series. Time traveling and immortal Scotsmen?? Yeah, I was totally on board… Still am, in fact. Additionally, the Outlander series has now been fabulously adapted for television on the STARZ network. Check out this local Outlander guide for a good list of spots to investigate during your Edinburgh visit.
Since our Fortnum and Mason wares had worn off and we were bursting at the seams with the excitement of being in Edinburgh, we dumped our bags and headed up the Royal Mile to find some Scottish cuisine. Also on the agenda was to meet up with our friend, Piotr, who was joining us for the Edinburgh portion of our adventure. He was doing his own UK exploration with further travels in Poland, but had popped into Edinburgh for a few Scottish exploits along the way. Since he had arrived in town earlier in the day, he was able to procure a table at the crowded Deacon Brodie’s on the Royal Mile. (The duplicitous William “Deacon” Brodie inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) It’s a bit touristy, but classic and their fish pie and hot toddy were just what I needed to power up in the cold. (It should be noted that Kristen ordered her first meat pie (Of MANY) that night. And okay, I ordered my first hot toddy… (Of MANY) Suffice to say, we were both on personal journeys to hunt down the tastiest versions of each.)
After dinner, we braved the cold (snow was forecast!) and walked up and down the Royal Mile. Famously located at the top of the Royal Mile is Edinburgh Castle. We were planning on an official visit the next day, but wanted to check out its majesty in the brisk, Scottish night. The castle is always beautiful, but under a cold, starry sky, it was positively stunning and foreboding. To think of the near thousand years of history housed within its walls is absolutely mind-boggling. It’s hard to follow up that kind of pedigree, but walking back down the Royal Mile and taking in the activity still taking place along its well-worn cobblestones with adjoining closes, wynds and courtyards was equally remarkable. It’s also home to scores of excellent pubs from which to grab a perfectly poured pint or (another) hot toddy.
On the topic of hot toddies, I furthered my research with a stop at the pub located on the street level of our flat. No. 1 High Street is a cozy Edinburgh pub offering classic Scottish cuisine and tasty beverages. They are also more than happy to put your beverage in a to-go cup to add warmth to your outdoor escapades. No. 1 High Street would be our last stop before a much needed sleep, but this was good to note for the next day’s outings.
- For a more detailed list of pub offerings in Edinburgh, check out the Edinburgh Heritage Pub Trail. (The World’s End is included on the list!)
The sun doesn’t rise quite as late as further north, but it still wasn’t until around 8:30am that light shown on the horizon. When it did finally make itself known, the morning sky was bright blue and shot through with pinkish-purple clouds. It looked like a cold and lovely start to a full day in Edinburgh.
The first point of business for the beautiful morning was to enjoy a proper fry-up breakfast. I’d very much been looking forward to this for quite some time and was excited to check out our options. As suspected, there was no shortage of possibilities and we settled on a spot near the University of Edinburgh by the name of Brunch & Supper. (Famed University of Edinburgh graduates such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle help give Edinburgh its distinct literary flavor.) Following a brisk walk to the restaurant, we met up with Piotr and plotted the day over our tasty breakfasts. I have to say, I’ve greatly missed the hearty fry-up breakfast and it was especially enjoyable on a chilly winter morning.
A few more options for breakfast in the Old Town area:
- The Inn on the Mile – A lovely boutique inn and restaurant directly on the Royal Mile. Formerly the British Linen Bank – reminds me of Gringotts!
- The Edinburgh Larder – Cool spot on Blackfriars Street
- The City Café – 50s-style diner with breakfasts my friends swear by (We tried to go on the day we left, but they weren’t open yet!)
- The Baked Potato Shop – Okay, maybe not a traditional breakfast, but “jacket potatoes” are delicious any time of the day!
After gorging ourselves on breakfast, a bit of walking around was in order. On every visit to Edinburgh, I’ve wanted to check out The Scotch Whisky Experience (and barrel ride!) located just down from the castle. As Kristen sadly doesn’t like whisky (the horror!), she decided to venture around the city on a photography pilgrimage. (Some of her excellent shots are featured in this article) Piotr, however, was down for some late-morning whisky, so off we went. I mean, come on – we were in Scotland on a brisk winter morning. What frames the picture better than some whisky tasting? (Pro Tip: Scotch whisky does not contain an “e” in its spelling. Don’t add one. DON’T DO IT. Case in point, if you happen to work at a tiny Highland inn and accidentally drop one in on the daily menu, you could very well be lectured for hours…)
Wow – what a fine way to spend the morning! The tour was very entertaining and educational. It involved riding in a giant whisky barrel while gently winding through whisky-centric presentations and fun displays. Think adult version of the Teacups ride… (Note: The ride is not jarring and you do it before the whisky tasting.) After the ride you get to explore additional displays as well as take in a well done video about the five distilling regions of Scotland and history of single-malts and blended whiskies. (Complete with a corresponding scratch-n-sniff card!) The tour then wraps up with a mini-class on Scotch tasting and a visit to the world’s largest, privately held whisky collection. Housed in a large room, the collection is comprised of several cabinets, stretching floor to ceiling. It was… breathtaking. #WHISKYGOALS
In addition to the tasting and souvenir whisky glass included in the standard tour, we opted to level up and invested in a bonus tasting at the end. (Because why wouldn’t you??) Appointed with a lovely bar, a beautiful view of the city and a fine selection of whisky, it was a great place to put our newly acquired tasting skills to the test. As I was ill and not quite myself – and a bit off in equilibrium – I sadly spilled one of my whiskies on the way up to our table. Embarrassing! (I’d only had ONE dram at that point, so it wasn’t whisky influenced…) The staff, however, was nonplussed and very kind about refilling my spillage. Wasting good whisky is pretty much a Scottish crime and I was very happy they were so accommodating.
In a nutshell, the tour was absolutely worth it and I’d do it again – and it really did aid in my whisky tastings along the course of our adventure. I wish I could’ve fit some of the golden nectar from their extensive gift shop into my luggage as well as checked out their restaurant/whisky bar, but I’ll be back. In the meantime – Slàinte mhath! (The proper Gaelic toast we learned on the tour. It means “Good health!” and is pronounced slan-ja-va.)
After the tour, we were a bit peckish, so we hit up the Café Hub in the Edinburgh International Festival headquarters, just a few doors down from the whisky tour. The Hub, formerly known as the Tolbooth Kirk, is a beautiful old church and dramatic contributor to the Old Town skyline. It was interesting to see the Gothic-style architecture and vaulted ceilings juxtaposed with the modern trappings of a festival and event headquarters. It was quite the lovely backdrop for the tea and scones with clotted cream and preserves we ordered in the café. They were rather tasty and a great way to prepare for the cold walk around the castle grounds.
From nearly every section of the Old and New Towns, it’s possible to catch a glimpse of the amazing Edinburgh Castle, perched high on Castle Rock. The imposing, stunning castle dominates the city, successfully having guarded it from a near millennia of action and upheaval. I’ve made a point to visit the castle on every trip and am fairly certain I will make time on all future visits. It would be impossible to thoroughly take in everything on one visit, not to mention be completely exhausting. The castle grounds are extensive with winding cobblestone paths that navigate around a fully-functioning town within a town. A beautiful chapel, royal lodgings, military barracks, great halls, a prison/dungeon, the Scottish crown jewels, museums and fortified castle walls with armaments to protect the castle from all sides are some of the highlights of any visit.
After the castle, we walked down the Royal Mile, taking in the scene and visiting various tourist shops. One of the places I’d been curious about on past visits was the Tartan Weaving Mill, located directly across from the castle. It’s a bit of a tourist trap, but it was very cool to see the looms at work making true Scottish tartan. If you happen to be in the market for trinkets and souvenirs, this is a good place to one-stop shop. They also have onsite genealogists to help one trace their Scottish roots and all sorts of wares to aid showing off any heritage you should uncover. Check out the Heritage of Scotland site for an example of the types of textiles offered.
It had been a gloriously sunny day with bright blue skies, but the daylight was beginning to fade and the temperature was dropping. We decided it was time to head “home” to layer up with warmer gear before venturing down to the epic Christmas Market. A beautiful holiday tradition (and FREE!), the Christmas Market is located in the *New Town in the beautiful Princes Street Garden and across from Edinburgh’s quintessential shopping destination, Princes Street. (Not to mention the stellar Scottish National Gallery and the soaring Scott Monument) Taking advantage of the lovely to-go service at the pub downstairs, we stopped in for a hot toddy to help keep us warm on the walk. (It’s a well-known fact hot toddies are good for what ails ye. WELL KNOWN.)
*The New Town isn’t really that new – especially by US standards. It was built between 1767 and 1850.
Even though the temperature continued to drop and we realized how ill-equipped we actually were for the frigid cold, it was a beautiful night to take in all the Christmas Market had to offer. We wandered through the artist’s stalls and holiday vendors, marveled at the beautiful lights and carnival rides and partook of the delicious food and drink offerings throughout the market. There were SO many scrumptious options, including countless stalls selling hot toddies, Glühwein and tasty hot chocolate and coffee beverages. Not only were there delicious Scottish fares to enjoy, there were many vendors featuring food and drink from around the world. I’ll have to say one of the biggest downfalls of being sick was not being able to fully experience all of the amazing tastes and smells. Sigh… Guess I’ll just have to go back!
I normally love winter weather, but given my sickness, the cold seemed extra pronounced and I decided to invest in some warmer gear, right then and there. (I honestly can’t remember the last time I was quite that chilled to the bone – to the point where my feet felt like ice blocks and it was painful to walk… COLD!) In addition to the new hat I’d purchased earlier in the day, I also snapped up a set of lambswool shoe liners from a festival vendor and a toasty pair of fox slippers and lambswool socks from the “TK Maxx” across the street. (Admittedly, we also stepped inside the store to get warm! It was an added bonus they had a good selection of cold weather wear… And it’s not TJ Maxx, it’s TK Maxx.) Once we were all further bundled up, we braved going back into the cold to enjoy more of the festival. Along with some more hot toddy action… Don’t judge me.
The market scene truly was a winter wonderland and although it would be the only time we’d spend in the New Town area during this visit, it was a very worthwhile way to spend the evening. There are so many amazing things to see and do in this part of town and I wish we would’ve had some more time to visit even a few.
Some of the excellent things to check out in the New Town area:
- Formerly the Nor’ Loch (now drained), the aforementioned Princes Street Gardens are a lovely place to take a stroll. The blooms and blossoms are glorious in the spring and it offers an excellent perspective of the Old and New Towns. The view of the Castle is also unparalleled and taking in the fireworks at the end of the Fringe Festival in August is one of the most amazing things ever. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra sets up in the valley of the park and music is piped around the city as the fireworks explode into the sky and cascade off the sheer cliff face of the castle. AMAZING!
- The Balmoral Hotel – Even if you just walk in and look around, it’s worth it. A beautiful example of Victorian architecture, the Balmoral is the go-to hotel for swanky lodging and aristocratic hobnobbing. The bar is amazing and the Michelin-star dining is delicious!
- In addition to the Scottish National Gallery, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art are beautifully curated and absolutely worth a visit.
- Close to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is Dean Village and The Walkway. An idyllic, peaceful area in a busy city with a rambling 12-mile trek through the area and alongside the Water of Leith.
- Check out the thriving foodie scene in the waterfront area of Leith. 4-star Michelin restaurants, pubs, bakeries – Leith has it all! Stroll along the lovely waterfront area and look out onto the Firth of Forth and South Queensbury at the mouth of the Water of Leith and marvel at The Forth Bridge. (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
After saying goodnight to the Christmas Market, we trudged back up the hill to the Old Town. (Albeit a beautiful trudge) It was time to consider turning in for the evening as we had a morning flight to Orkney Island and Ms. Sicky McSickerson was very much starting to fade. However, on the way back to the flat, we noticed a Starbucks (so very Seattle of us) and I decided I really needed an Edinburgh “You Are Here” mug to add to my collection.
With my purchase hot in hand, we began to walk back to our lodgings, but noticed a large crowd of people in the street. They appeared to be singing and dancing to a holiday song, ala flash mob – and were coming down the road towards us. We stopped to watch and I walked up a little closer to film the scene with my phone.
They all appeared to be wearing headphones and there were a few people in the front who appeared to be directing the group. One of these pied pipers was looking in my direction and turned back to the crowd and gave some sort of signal. I was just merrily watching the procession when all of the sudden they all started coming directly towards me! I kept filming – and laughing – and sure enough, they came right up to me and gave me a personal performance! It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever witnessed and it made me absolutely and completely happy. It’s making me smile right now, just writing about it!
Before I knew it, they had wrapped up their performance and bid me adieu as they continued, singing and dancing into the Edinburgh night. I learned later they were taking part in a Silent Adventures event, a flash-mob sort of outfit that organizes “silent disco” street tours all over the UK. I will definitely look them up the next time I’m in town!
After ambling back to our lodgings, I settled into my cozy room across from The World’s End. While hazily drifting off to sleep (thank you, hot toddies), I was filled with thoughts of all the spectacular sights, sounds and tastes Edinburgh has to offer.
A few of the amazing places in the Old Town I’ve previously visited and a few I hope to visit on future adventures:
- Victoria Street is a must-see street. Colorful, winding and filled with cool shops and restaurants, it was JK Rowling’s inspiration for Diagon Alley. Victoria Street is part of the eclectic Grassmarket area. Classic architecture, unique shops and restaurants, the excellent Edinburgh Farmer’s Market and its darker history of being the town’s execution spot make it a fascinating part of town to visit.
- Greyfriars Kirkyard – Noted as the most haunted cemetery in the world, Greyfriars Kirkyard is a must-visit for numerous reasons. Pay homage to the great loyalty of dogs with a visit to Greyfriars Bobby and his beloved policeman, John Gray. Check out remains of the Flodden Wall, one of the original walls built around the city. (c. 1560, built after the earlier defeat by the British at the Battle of Flodden) Seek out JK Rowling’s naming inspirations amongst the tombstones. (Tom Riddle, (Minerva) McGonagall, (Alastor) Moody)
- Close to Greyfriars Kirkyard, you can find the stunning George Heriot’s School which is said to be JK Rowling’s inspiration for Hogwarts. Also located nearby are remains of the Telfer Wall, an extension of the Flodden Wall, built between 1628 and 1636.
- Edinburgh has the reputation of being one of the most haunted cities in Europe with a dark and bloody history. In support of that mantle, there are many locations to investigate. One of the most fascinating – and tragic – is Mary King’s Close. During the Bubonic plague epidemic of 1645, the area was quarantined and many of the residents perished within. Check out The Real Mary King’s Close tour for a chilling journey through the re-opened close and alleyways. Another great way to learn about Edinburgh’s dark past is to join one of the well-done Mercat Tours walking tours.
- The Writer’s Museum is a fabulous place to celebrate the rich literary history of Edinburgh. (Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson are the focus of the museum) Housed in a ridiculously charming building located down Lady Stair’s Close, it’s a must-visit for lovers of the written word.
- Located on the opposite end of the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle, The Palace of Holyroodhouse is the storied former home of the iconic Mary Queen of Scots and the current queen’s official residence whenever in town.
- Arthur’s Seat and Holyrood Park – Technically not part of the Old Town, but within somewhat reasonable walking distance, Arthur’s Seat sports one of the best views around. Hike up to the top of this extinct volcano and take in the view of Edinburgh out onto the Firth of Forth and marvel at the centuries of history and expansion.
In addition to the never-ending list of places to visit and history to explore, one of the things I’ve come to love most about Edinburgh is its support of the Arts and ability to host spectacular festivals and celebrations. I’ve had the great fortune to take in the spectacular Arts festival, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival which takes place throughout most of August (and throughout most of the city) and most recently, the excellent Christmas Market. Running adjacent to the Fringe Festival, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is full of epic pageantry and pipes and takes place on castle grounds throughout most of August. Also running during August is the amazing Edinburgh International Festival. If you happen to be around town for New Year’s Eve, be sure to hit up Edinburgh’s Hogmanay with its torchlight procession on December 30th and fireworks and ceilidh in Princes Street Gardens on New Year’s Eve.
Pro Tips: A great way to get around the touristy areas of Edinburgh is via the hop on/hop off bus tours. (Also good if you just want to take a break from walking and listen to the onboard host talk about the city’s history) I enjoy using the Edinburgh Bus Tour to easily check out the Old Town locations in particular. I also highly recommend getting the Historic Scotland Explorer Pass (discounted during winter months) to gain quick access to many of Scotland’s historic locations. (Edinburgh Castle, Castle Urquhart, Skara Brae, etc.) This can be purchased online before you go.
The next morning we were out of our flat before the sun rose, but could tell it wasn’t going to be another sunny day. It was cold, cloudy and the smell of snow was in the air, but we braved the chill for one last Old Town jaunt. As we were departing at noon to Orkney Island, an early breakfast was in order so we headed up the Royal Mile to find something quick and tasty. We met up with Piotr along the way and enjoyed a last breakfast together at the cheery Café Edinburgh. Regardless of my taste buds only partially operating, the Scottish lox with scrambled eggs and croissant was delicious and a good start to the day.
It was sad to say goodbye to Edinburgh, but it was time to go. As we hopped into our Uber to Edinburgh airport, it vaguely started to snow. My body shivered as I pulled down my hat and put on my gloves. I was looking forward to what would hopefully be warmer weather on Orkney Island…
And with that, I bid you a temporary farewell. Join me next time for the exciting conclusion where we battle gale-force winds and sideways rain, bask in the glory of ancient standing stones and Viking homesteads and commune in the land of epic highland fortresses and feral goats. All true stories!
On a related note of cheers and toasting, I’ll leave you with my standard hot toddy recipe. It was given to me by the chef at the Highland inn I worked at several years ago. I was nursing a bad cold at the time and she swore by a “remedy” she’d learned from her mother. It absolutely did the trick and I now pass it on to anyone with even the slightest case of sniffles. Enjoy – and feel better!
- 1 healthy shot of good whisky (I prefer a less peaty variety such as Glenfiddich)
- About a Tbsp of honey
- A good squeeze of fresh lemon (a tsp or two)
- Fresh lemon slice
- 6 oz boiling water
- A healthy dash of Drambuie (optional)
Add whisky, honey and lemon juice to a sturdy mug. Pour boiling water over ingredients and stir. Add additional whisky and honey to taste and top with a squeeze from a lemon slice – add lemon slice to mug. Nice options are to add a bit of Drambuie and a finishing orange slice rather than lemon…
~And for a nice bit of accompaniment to your soothing hot toddy…
I Ate the State: Scottish Tour of Destiny – The Spotify Playlist
- It’s Oh So Quiet – Björk (from Post)
- Untitled #3 – Samskeyti – Sigur Rós (from album () )
- Prologue – John Williams (from Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
- You Do Something to Me – Paul Weller (from Stanley Road)
- Then I Met You – The Proclaimers (from Sunshine on Leith)
- Un Flambeau, Jeannette Isabelle – Loreena McKennitt (from A Midwinter’s Night Dream)
- God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen – Loreena McKennitt (from A Winter Garden – Five Songs for the Season)
- Standing Stones – Loreena McKennitt (from Parallel Dreams)
- Standing Stones – Jeremy Soule (from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Original Game Soundtrack)
- Stonehenge – Ylvis (from Stonehenge – Single)
- Who Wants to Live Forever – Queen (from Greatest Hits II)
- Princes of the Universe – Queen (from A Kind of Magic)
- Outlander – The Skye Boat Song (Castle Leoch Version) – Bear McCreary feat. Raya Yarbrough (from Outlander: Season 1, Vol. 1 – Original Television Soundtrack)
- Bonny Portmore – Loreena McKennitt (from The Visit)
- Hedwig’s Theme – John Williams (from Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
- Holding Back the Years – Simply Red (from Picture Book)
- Whisper to a Scream (Birds Fly) – The Icicle Works (from The Icicle Works)
- End of a Century – Blur (from Parklife)
- Stillness in Time – Jamiroquai (from The Return of the Space Cowboy)
- Birds – Kate Nash (from Made of Bricks)
- Wings of Speed – Paul Weller (from Stanley Road)
- I Miss You – Björk (from Post)
- Svefn-g-englar – Sigur Rós (from Ágætis byrjun)
More I Ate the State Adventures: