“This was a townscape raised in the teeth of cold winds from the east; a city of winding cobbled streets and haughty pillars; a city of dark nights and candlelight, and intellect.” – Alexander McCall Smith
Edinburgh is one of those of names that frequently pops up in the conversations I have with other travellers, it’s one that is described with almost a magical quality. I’d been wanting to visit for quite a while, and that desire grew each time someone recalled their own visit in a recollection that seemed more like a pilgrimage than a holiday. “It’s magic” they’d say, “It’s mystical and filled with energy”. I’d seen the photos, heard some of the stories but didn’t feel it until, I felt it.
Edinburgh is exactly how it was described to me and so much more. It is a city built upon legend, upon history, of royalty and battles. It’s filled with literature and culture and its winding corridors and wobbly cobblestone pathways lend an ancient air to the city. It feels half way between a time long ago and present day, and it’s easy to go between the two.
We spent the majority of our short few days in the city exploring it by foot (although the tram is quite efficient in getting to and from the airport!). I won’t sugarcoat it, Edinburgh was cold, it was a cold I don’t think I’ve ever felt which is saying something coming from a resident of the Rocky Mountains. The chill is icy and damp and feels more like a cold winter’s breath than just a drop in the temperature. Despite the bone shaking chill, we explored the Royal Mile for hours.
The city is filled with things to do, from galleries to whisky tours there seemed to be no shortage of options to spend your time on. Our first night saw us sitting in a below street level comedy club, laughing at some good and not so good acts preparing for the Fringe fest. We tucked into churches and wandered through museums, my favourite being the National Museum of Scotland.
The building from the outside is tall and feels like a university campus but inside it is bright, airy and filled with exhibits ranging from dinosaur bones, statues of Buddha, Dolly the cloned sheep and several floors of artifacts exploring the local history and cultures around the world. We spent quite a few hours wandering among the exhibits before continuing on to the next stop in the day.
Popping in to The Elephant House is a must for any Wizard (or Muggle) as it’s one of the birthplaces of Harry Potter. Author J.K. Rowling spent many hours sitting in this now busy cafe writing her stories, there are subtle hints to her presence inside (check out the graffiti filled toilets). It’s easy to spot the influence Edinburgh may have had on the Harry Potter books, Edinburgh feels like a magician’s playground. The castle, much like Hogwarts sitting atop a jagged mound of volcanic rock with a large lake (with connections to witches) sitting at its feet.
J.K. Rowling’s writing spot wasn’t the only legendary icon we visited, we took our turn rubbing the nose of Greyfriars Bobby, an iconic pup who rose to fame after spending 14 years guarding the grave of his owner. We took a stroll through the adjacent graveyard, its larger than life tombstones and high walls feeling even more ominous with a layer of mist and fog. Several of the graves are guarded by Mortsafes, which were cages installed over graves to prevent grave-robbers from stealing the bodies of the deceased and selling them to the local medical college for dissection.
One of the most dominating views of the city is Edinburgh Castle, and a visit within its walls is a must. The castle, built on a volcanic mound, is a fortress used for hundreds of years as both a royal residence and a military barrack. It is a castle that has faced many sieges and battles and now houses the National War Memorial and National War Museum as well the Crown Jewels.
We enjoyed a short tour which gave some of the history of the buildings and how they operate before making it over to watch the 1 o’clock cannon being fired. Definitely an awesome thing to see and hear! The castle itself is an expansive network of buildings and walks you through the history of Mary Queen of Scots, various battles and prisoners, as well as the modern influence the castle has on the city and armed forces today.
After the castle visit, we walked the length of the Royal Mile toward the other Royal residence in the city Holyrood House before walking up toward Calton Hill in the last few moments of daylight. The hill itself looks over the city, with the volcanic Arthur’s Seat on one side and the castle in the distance. It is filled with monuments and structures like the National Monument, the Nelson Monument and the city observatory. During our walk around the hilltop it was clear to see it was a popular spot for photographers to visit.
Our evening ended with a ghostly free tour around the Royal Mile led by Free Ghost Tours. We learned about several stories involving grave robbers, local witches and how they tested to see if you were in fact, a witch, as well as a ghostly bagpiper that still continues to play under the cobble street of the Royal Mile. It was an enjoyable and informative 90 minutes!
Our final day in the city was spent experiencing every type of weather, waking up to sunshine and blue skies and then dodging the snow and sleet and enduring delayed flights. We started at the Palace of Holyrood, the Queen’s official residence in Scotland. The palace is a working one and no photos are allowed inside the rooms but the short self guided tour will bring you along the many rooms inside. It’s impressive to see the huge tapestries and formal sitting rooms still used by the Royal Family today as well as the bedchambers of Mary Queen of Scots. Outside next to the palace are the ruins of Holyrood Abbey. The now ruined abbey was built in the 1100’s by King David I and was the site of many coronations before falling into a state of ruin in the 1800’s, it’s now a fascinating and impressive site to walk through.
Before heading back to England we ducked away from the oncoming blizzard and enjoyed several of the city’s free galleries. First the Scottish National Gallery, a beautiful building filled with paintings and sculptures by some of the world’s finest artists like Botticelli, Monet, Degas, and Van Gogh. We then took advantage of a short break in the snow to visit the Scottish National Portrait Gallery before heading to the airport.
Edinburgh is definitely befitting of the adjectives that so many had used when they told me about their visit. It’s a vibrant, mysterious and deeply fascinating place that feels like a passageway between all the centuries that have held its history. I’m looking forward to my next visit, next time I’ll bring a few more layers of warmth.