When I realized the Scottish capital was only a short hour-and-a-half train ride north of where my boyfriend and I would be staying in north east England, I knew we had to make the trip up there before heading back to sunny southern Spain. I ended up making it a surprise trip for his 25th birthday, which meant all the planning was left to me. I spent weeks researching and marveling at pictures of what claimed to be the most beautiful city in the UK, but nothing could have prepared me for just how much I would fall in love with Edinburgh.
I could have easily spent much longer than a day there, but unfortunately a 9:30 a.m. flight the next day made that impossible. Here are some takeaways from our day that will help you make the most of this charming city.
Check your pronunciation
First things first: make sure you actually know how to pronounce the name of the place you’re visiting. Nothing screams “foreigner” like rhyming Edinburgh with Pittsburgh (it does not, as much as my American mind wants to say it does). In real life, it’s best pronounced by the likes of you and me (if you’re also American) as “Edinbruh.”
Even after knowing that, the local pronunciation (which includes a rolling of the R) was still much more lovely than my clumsy American attempt – much like Bratislava, which sounds beautiful when pronounced by a Slovak person whereas I sound like I’m ordering a sandwich at a Jewish deli: “I’ll have the bratislava on rye, please.” Often given a bad rap in the media, the Scottish accent is actually very pretty and almost musical-sounding. A lot more Mrs. Hughes from Downton Abbey, a lot less Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons (maybe because Mrs. Hughes is played by, y’know, an actual Scottish person).
Enjoy the views from above
My original plans for the day included hiking up Arthur’s Seat, an imposing hill that towers over the city. Just getting to the bottom of it takes almost an hour’s walk from the city center, which would be two hours there and back – and that’s not even including the time it would take to actually climb the damn thing. It is, however, known for its stunning views of Edinburgh despite the tough walk, and leaves me with an excuse to go back someday.
We opted to climb Calton Hill, which is still plenty steep but much easier to get to from the city center – it’s only about 20 minutes max to the top of the hill from Waverly train station. From here, you can still get an incredible view and check out some of the cool monuments at the top of the hill.
If you’re not looking to venture out of town, you can climb the 287 steps to the top of Scott Monument. Built in honor of Sir Walter Scott, it’s the world’s tallest monument built in honor of a writer. We opted not to climb it due to the large crowds (we went on a public holiday), but it’s still an impressive structure when seen from ground level.
Prepare for the worst (weather-wise) and deal with it anyway
Scroll back up for a second to the pictures of Calton Hill. See how lovely and sunny it was?
Yeah, an hour before that, it was raining.
Weather in the UK is (in)famously unpredictable. I was pleasantly surprised by temperatures in the mid-70s Fahrenheit (24-25 Celsius) during my entire trip to London last year in early May, but that’s not to say my experience was normal. In our home base this time around – Newcastle, England – the weather had been chilly but sunny. In Edinburgh, we went from clouds to darker clouds to rain to sun (all of which were still pretty chilly). Bring a small umbrella and layers – you can always take a scarf off if you get too warm, but you’ll have to buy one in a nice Scottish plaid if you don’t have one at all.
See where Harry Potter was “born”
JK Rowling was the first person to become a billionaire by writing books. The first of those books, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was partially written at the Elephant House Café in Edinburgh in the 1990s while Rowling was a struggling single mother on welfare. Today, the café is a huge tourist attraction favored by Potterhead pilgrims, with lines stretching out the door. Even if you don’t have the time to brave the lines and get a bite to eat there, it’s a fun spot to stop by on your way from the Royal Mile to Greyfriar’s if you’ve seen the Harry Potter movies and/or read the books (and who hasn’t done at least one of the two?).
Rub Greyfriar’s Bobby’s nose for good luck
Greyfriar’s Bobby was a wonderful dog who guarded his late owner’s grave in Greyfriar’s Churchyard for 14 years back in the 19th century. Inspired by Bobby’s faithfulness, the people of Edinburgh dedicated a statue to the dog and gave him his own proper resting place in the churchyard when he passed away. Be sure to pay this loyal little guy a visit and rub his nose for good luck.
Explore Edinburgh Castle
The imposing castle that towers over the city is well worth the 17 pounds (20 euros or $22 US dollars) it costs to get in. With chapels, war memorials, crown jewels, royal living quarters, military prisons, and stunning views, you could easily spend an entire day just exploring the nooks and crannies of the castle. If you don’t have quite as long, about two hours will give you a good enough overview of this incredible monument.
Bonus: Take a peek into the city’s haunted past
This is one thing I wish we’d had more time for. Edinburgh is supposedly one of the most haunted cities in the world, with more “ghost tours” than I’ve ever seen in any other city. If (when!) I go back, taking a closer look at Edinburgh’s haunted past is definitely at the top of my list.
Have you visited Edinburgh? What are your favorite must-see sights?
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