When I studied abroad in London in 2012, I wasn’t sure if I would ever make it back to Europe. Because of this (among a variety of other reasons-cheap travel, horrible wanderlust, travel opportunities through my program, ect.), I jumped at any opportunity to go ANYWHERE. I signed up for every weekend trip my school offered, went through other student tours, and just packed a bag and set off with friends. There was one month that I did not spend a single weekend in London.
Of all my memorable trips, Scotland stands out. As soon as I stepped off the train in Edinburgh, I knew I would love this city. The architecture, the atmosphere, the people, the stunning scenery! Everywhere I looked was so picturesque, I questioned if I was dreaming. After that first weekend in the city, I knew that I had to go back! I ended up returning a few months later with a group of friends, and did a day trip to St. Andrew’s (also GORGEOUS. The university there was celebrating its 600th anniversary. 600th. That’s older than anything we have in the U.S. My own university at the time was less than a hundred years old). My only regret was that I didn’t get to explore more of Scotland – specifically the Highlands.
Even before moving to London this year, I was plotting my return to Scotland. Actually, when applying to schools in the UK I seriously considered attending the University of Edinburgh. But then I remembered London, my love, and how could I pass up an opportunity to live in my favorite city? So instead, I figured that Edinburgh, my second favorite city, would have to become short, passionate weekend affairs.
I wanted to settle into school/city life before jetting off again, so I gave myself a minimum of six weeks before I was allowed to do any travel outside the city (this was hard). I waited until reading week (sort of like Fall Break in the U.S., except we are supposed to be doing work…whoops!) before heading out. I booked a three day trip to the Highlands (!!!!!) and Isle of Skye (!!!) through Haggis Adventures. Since I didn’t have to be in class, I figured I would arrive a little early and leave a few days late. Since the tour left at 8am from Edinburgh, I decided to take the train up a little early to spend the afternoon rediscovering the city.
As usual, packing is difficult for me. I figure I am completely doomed when I look at what packrats my family are. I think that my natural hoarding abilities and overpacking is just genetic. There’s no hope for me when it comes to limiting the amount of ‘stuff’ I’ll own. And it is why I have such a problem cramming all of the things I NEED to take with me in one carry-on suitcase. It’s painful. Thanks, family.
I was gone for a total of six days, and covered a lot of ground, so it is a little less confusing if I break it down into days.
Day 1: Thursday, October 22
I skipped my classes (sorry mom and dad!) and took the train to Edinburgh. I left my room at 6:30am and I got to King’s Cross with about 40 minutes to spare. Since I’m living so far out, I figured it was better to get there extra early just in case my train to the station was late. So I had a nice cup of hot chocolate and did some people watching. Here’s the newly designed King’s Cross Station:
I had brought two books to read with me on the train, but the view was so gorgeous that I spent all four and a half hours looking out the window. The people who were supposed to sit next to me never showed up, so I basically had all four seats to myself for most of the trip.
I arrived in Edinburgh around 1:30pm, and the first thing I did was drop my bags off at the hostel. I had a few hours before I could officially check in, so I wandered around Old Town for the afternoon. The weather forecast had called for rain, but luckily the weather turned out to be gorgeous! It was nice and sunny, although it was a bit windy as the afternoon went on. I stopped at Mary’s Milk Bar, which is famous for it’s hot chocolate floats. They are situated in the Grass Market, which looks up at the castle. So I had a hot chocolate float (hot chocolate poured over ice cream. Ingenious and Delicious!!) and sat at the counter looking up at the castle. It really had the perfect view!
Afterwards, I walked around some side streets and ended up at the back of the castle. How can you not love a place that has a freaking castle overlooking the city??
And then, like any normal person, I spend a good hour exploring some of the many graveyards that Edinburgh has. They say that they had so many people that needed to be buried in such a small area, that there are people buried everywhere you walk in graveyards, even underneath the pathways. They also have the most haunted graveyards in the world. Last time I was here in 2012 I went on two separate ghost tours that went through the cemeteries late at night and heard all the terrifying stories of Bloody MacKenzie and the other poltergeists that reside there. Edinburgh is supposed to be one of the most haunted cities in the entire world, and it’s easy to see why!
I ended up walking about 14 miles, just by exploring. Here are some more pictures from walking around Edinburgh:
For Sir Walter Scott, 19th century writer. This is the largest monument to a writer in the world. You can actually go inside the monument! On Monday I climbed all 287 steps up to the top. I’m not afraid of heights, and they usually don’t bother me, but the spiral staircases are so incredibly narrow that it was a bit nerve-wracking when I realized how high up I was going.
Victoria Street, my favorite little side street. It’s hard to tell from the picture, but each shop is a different color, and the street curves around and leads to the Grass Market. This street is helped inspire Diagon Alley.
(Part of) The Grass Market. It’s much larger than it appears in these pictures. It’s now comprised of little shops and pubs. It used to be where they held public executions, and there is even a pub called “The Last Drop” (I ate there on my last trip) where the condemned were given their last drop of whiskey before being hanged.
I really wanted to eat at the Scooby Doo restaurant in the Grass Market, but they didn’t have anything I wanted to eat. Maybe next time…
For dinner I stopped at my favorite little cafe. Every time I’m in Edinburgh I have to make a pit stop here to sit and drink some hot chocolate. The Elephant House Cafe is where JK Rowling used to come to write the first draft of the Harry Potter book, when she was a struggling author. She would buy one cup of coffee and then just sit in here and write for hours. There’s also an amazing view of the castle from here as well. My favorite part of this cafe is the bathrooms! Literally every single inch is covered in things that people have written to JK Rowling. It’s a mini shrine! Here’s the inside of the bathroom door:
Around 5:00 pm, I made my way over to Calton Hill to watch the sun set. It’s probably one of my favorite spots in the city simply because you can see pretty much everything. The view is incredible! There were dozens of professional photographers who had traveled to Edinburgh just to get a picture of the sun setting from the top of the hill. The sky was absolutely gorgeous…and then a huge cloud came and covered it up, ruining their pictures. I felt so badly for them!
On the Hill are the National Monument, the Nelson Monument, the Dugald Stewart Monument, the Old Royal High School, the Robert Burns Monument, the Political Martyrs’ Monument, and the City Observatory. There is also a partial Parthenon. Edinburgh was attempting to become the “Athens and Rome of the North,” but part way through building the city ran out of money in the 1820s and was nicknamed “Scotland’s Disgrace.” But now it has become so iconic that it’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city.
Day 2: Friday, October 23
I left with the Haggis Adventures tour group at 8am. The first person I met happened to be a girl from Little Rock who is studying abroad at King’s College this semester. Small world. My buddy for the trip was a guy named Scott, who is from New Zealand and is traveling solo through Europe for the year. The stories of where he has been were amazing! Everyone on the tour was so nice! It was about 50% Americans and 50% Australians/New Zealanders. So far, pretty much everyone I’ve met (outside of class/my dorm) has been either American or Australian. We/They are everywhere.
Our tour guide was a man named Alan, who is from Glasgow. He was awesome, and really made the trip worth while. The first day was mainly driving north to make it towards our hostel in Fort Augustus.
Here’s a guide of our route over three days. We covered quite a bit of ground.
Our first stop was to Dunkeld Cathedral.
After that, we made it to Tomatin Whiskey Distillery for a tour and tasting. Once again, I was reminded that whiskey, sadly, is not my favorite drink. The picture on the right is of some of the barrels I storage for a later date. There is one barrel there that is 75 years old, and is currently worth roughly $600,000. I can’t remember how much he said each bottle will be worth when they open it, but it was astronomical.
Our next (very quick) stop was Urquhart Castle on Lock Ness. Sadly, we didn’t get to go inside.
Then, after some more driving through incredibly picturesque scenery (I kept thinking that it was too beautiful to be real), we made it to the visitor’s center of Loch Ness
It is on a main road, so in order to avoid being hit by the zooming cars, there is a little tunnel underneath the highway, which has a cute little mural of the loch ness monster.
It was sooo windy, but the view was worth almost being blown away. Loch Ness is over 20 miles long, and over 1,000 feet deep. So, I’m sure Nessie is hiding somewhere. We just haven’t found her yet.
There was a gorgeous rainbow over the lake. Unfortunately, the pictures do not do it justice
Below is some of the scenery on the drive to Fort Augustus. It was just too beautiful to leave out. Bear with me, there’s a lot of pictures! It was too hard to pick!
We stayed at a hostel in Fort Augustus for the night. I opted to have the meal they were serving instead of attempting to find something in town, since it was pouring rain and I was a bit tired. The meal: chicken stuffed with haggis. If you don’t know what it is, I’ll have you look it up for yourself. Know what it is now? And you know what? I ate every.single.bite. When in Scotland! We ended the night with a pub quiz, where my partner (Scott from New Zealand) and I won a bottle of wine. Go us! I got to meet the rest of the people on my tour. Almost all were students, with three other girls studying abroad this semester in London. One of the girls was from Pittsburg, and comes to Erie (my hometown) every summer for the beaches on the peninsula. Once again, small world. Home follows me everywhere.
Day 3: Saturday, October 24
We left for the Isle of Skye, and, surprise, surprise, it was raining. But I was excited anyway, because this is the one place I wanted to go that I didn’t make it to last time!! My expectations were exceeded! It was more beautiful than I had imagined. Now, when I thought of it before, I had pictured everything being a brilliant shade of green. But, since it’s October, everything was a vibrant fall color. The mountains were a beautiful burnt color that doesn’t quite transfer over in my pictures.
A quick pit stop for pictures of the scenery:
(My first attempt at taking a selfie. Not too bad?)
Next stop: Eilean Donan Castle, 13th century
This is one of the most photographed castles in Scotland. You may remember it from the awful Patrick Dempsey movie, “Made of Honor”? If you haven’t seen it, don’t. I just saved you an hour and a half of your life you’ll never get back. You’re welcome! Unfortunately, we did not get to go inside, but at least I got to gaze at it longingly for a good twenty minutes! Once again, I cannot stress enough that the pictures do not do it justice. I took way too many pictures, but here are the highlights:
Finally, it was time to cross the bridge onto THE ISLE OF SKYE!
Here was our first stop on the island. Almost as soon as we got off the bus it started to rain. And then there was hail. But I waited it out (getting soaked in the process. Riding on the bus in wet jeans was not pleasant-but it was worth it!), and was rewarded with not one, but TWO rainbows!!
Pit stop at Old Man of Storr. Our tour guide, whose family grew up on Skye, told us the stories the people believe of the fairies that inhabit the land. (Very) long story short, the people on the island believe that the rock that is called the Old Man of Storr (and his wife, but she’s sadly fallen over during the last few years) is actually a man named Storr who was turned to stone by the fairies. The fairies turned the couple to stone in order to keep them on the mountain forever so they could continue telling stories to the fairy community.
I’m fairly far away in the picture, but if you look closely, you can see on the left side of the picture one tall, slim rock sticking out.
Our last stop on Skye was at the top of a mountain (unfortunately, I didn’t catch the name of it). It was a very long and winding path up to the top, and there were times I was worried that our little tour bus wouldn’t make it. The view from the top was INCREDIBLE. It was also incredibly windy, so much that I honestly was worried that I would be swept away
This was our last main destination for the day. Everyone wanted to get back in time to watch the rugby game (seriously, guys??), so we headed back shortly after. I decided to walk into town for dinner. If I thought my hometown was lacking in things to do, Fort Augustus made my little town look as big as London! They had two restaurants and three pubs, one gas station, and a few little shops that closed at 4pm. It was interesting to see the Caledonian Canal that ran through the town, and I could walk over the locks, which was terrifying. I kept picturing Javert jumping off into the water in Les Miserables, it had that kind of vibe! I walked the entire town four times in about forty minutes before heading back and calling it a night.
Day 4: Sunday, October 25
This was my final day with the tour group. We slowly made our way back through the Highlands towards Edinburgh. We made a quick stop at Doune Castle (which literally translates to “castle castle”). This was made famous by Monty Python and the Holy Grail, as well as Outlander.
We drove through Glencoe, and saw the backdrop of the Harry Potter movies and reenacted the driving scene in Skyfall.
Our final stop was the Wallace Monument in Stirling. Standing 220 feet tall, it looms over the town and can be seen for miles away. I hiked up the (steep) hill to reach the top, and saw first hand how massive it is close up. It is absolutely huge! It made me really want to watch Braveheart.
We sped past the Kelpies! The two sculptures for a gateway to the entrance of the Forth and Clyde canal, and are a monument to the horse powered heritage of Scotland. Not the best picture, but we were speeding down the highway….
We finally made it back to Edinburgh around 5:00. I checked into my hostel and then grabbed dinner and a few drinks with two of the girls studying in London. I didn’t have any plans, so I decided to go on a free walking ghost tour of the city. It was fantastic! The tour guide I had definitely loves his job. It was so nice to get a tour of the city at night and see it all lit up, all while hearing tales of murder. Fun times!
Day 5: Monday, October 26
I woke up around 6:15 am so I could get an early start by hiking up Sir Arthur’s Seat. (It’s higher [and much steeper] than it looks; neither of these pictures are mine-the ones I took unfortunately didn’t turn out)
I got to the very top just in time to see the sun start to creep over the hills
I sat at the top and had a little picnic breakfast while overlooking the city. It was beautiful and so peaceful.
Here’s a picture of Holyrood Palace on my walk back down. I’ve never been in Edinburgh when the palace is open. It just gives me an excuse to come back again!
Afterwards, I climbed all 287 steps of the Scott Monument. Another gorgeous view from the top! Then I decided to go on a free walking tour of the city. I do this same tour every time I’m in Edinburgh, but it’s always with a different person, so I get to hear different stories and re-familiarize myself with the city again.
One of my favorite sights: seeing men all over the city playing bagpipes in their kilts.
Some more pictures from walking about the city:
Calton Hill from afar
It’s the original Hachi story. Bobby the dog became famous for spending 14 years guarding the grave of his owner until he himself died in 1872. The Greyfriars Kirkyard (graveyard) is right behind the pub. They have a grave for Bobby, and people come and leave toys and sticks for him.
My favorite little house. I want it.
Victoria Street, again:
I then made my way to Calton Hill, to watch the sun set again (this was definitely my favorite spot in the city this time)
Old Town as I made my way over to Calton Hill in New Town:
Standing on the Parthenon, Sir Arthur’s Seat in the background:
I then took one last walk through the city. The sky was extra spooky in preparation for Halloween. The ghosts were definitely out and about.
I wanted to squeeze every last minute in the city that I could, so I decided to take another ghost tour (I’m a bit obsessed, especially this time of the year!), but this time I did a ghost BUS tour. 1,000% touristy. 1,000% worth it.
While aimlessly walking around afterwards I stumbled upon the miniature replica Kelpies (remember the ones from the highway?) in the courtyard of the University of Edinburgh:
Day 6: Tuesday, October 27
Sadly, it was time to return to London (who would have ever thought I would utter that sentence?). Once again, I woke up early and headed out to watch the sun rise. Since I had seen the sun set from Calton Hill, why not even it out and watch the sun rise from there as well?
And then it was time to catch my train back to London. I made it home refreshed and relaxed and ready to crank out my book review on witchcraft. I think the ghost tours (and the fact that thousands of women were accused as witches in Edinburgh alone) helped motivate me to write my paper. So, win win!
(*All pictures are my own, unless otherwise stated)