I’ve been on a bit of a blogging hiatus but let’s skip the boring explanations and get right to it – my long-awaited trip to Scotland.
I’ve been dreaming of traveling there for nearly 20 years, but since work and other events (hey, royal wedding!) constantly bring my family to England, it just never happened. But this year, the stars aligned and I spent 11 nights in Edinburgh experiencing the city and also taking some wonderful day trips around Scotland (and one to England).
Let’s get started with my top 5 things to do in Edinburgh. It was hard to narrow the list down, so I’ll be doing a separate Harry Potter post since we did so many HP-related things!
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The Royal Yacht Britannia
This was hands-down the best thing I did in Edinburgh. You can view my full recap of the trip in the detailed account I wrote for Royal Central – including loads of pictures – but in short, Britannia was The Queen’s floating palace for 44 years. She traveled on Britannia for royal tours and family holidays, clocking in more than a million miles around the world.
It was decommissioned in 1997 and is now docked in Edinburgh’s Leith neighborhood, and today is Scotland’s number-one rated tourist attraction.
Being able to see The Queen’s bedroom was so interesting, and it was surprising how small (she had a single bed!) and simple the room was. I also loved seeing the Royal Yachtsmen’s below decks areas … the ship even had several pubs.
Before leaving you can enjoy tea in the Royal Deck Tearoom, which I highly recommend! I also recommend maybe not spending an insane amount of money in the gift shop but wait, just kidding – I totally do. Britannia has one of the best royal gift shops I’ve seen in my travels and I certainly stocked up on Christmas ornaments, towels, and even a pair of Kate’s Azuni earrings.
The Palace of Holyroodhouse
This was another highlight of Edinburgh, and it was in very close walking distance to our apartment, which was handy because I had press access to the palace arranged for the afternoon we arrived and everyone was exhausted. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside the palace so I could only take them outside.
Meghan’s dress was very simple, just like it appeared in person and on TV, but the veil is seriously gorgeous close-up and the embroidery is so intricate. The outfits Prince Harry, Prince George, and Prince Charlotte wore also are on display and Charlotte’s tiny shoes = cute overload. The special exhibition is included in your palace ticket and it’s there through October 6, so you still have time to plan a trip to see it!
While the Sussex royal wedding exhibit was one of the main reasons for going, since I’d be writing about it for Royal Central (you can read my article about the wedding exhibit here) I was actually more excited about the Mary Queen of Scots chambers. I have a pretty strong fascination about Mary and love learning about royal history, so these rooms were certainly a major highlight for me.
The gardens of the palace are so peaceful and with views of Arthur’s Seat, the extinct volcano that towers over Edinburgh, it has a completely different feeling than visiting any of the palaces in London. The ruins of Holyrood Abbey definitely add to the atmosphere, too.
You can read a more in-depth account of my visit to the palace (separate from the royal wedding exhibition piece) at Royal Central.
Okay, this is kind of a lie because it wasn’t one of my favorite things we did, but I feel like it’s something you really need to see while you’re in Edinburgh because the history (and views) make it worth the trip. It was, however, one of the most crowded and touristy places we visited in Scotland. Think busload after busload of obnoxious, selfie-stick waving tourists who pushed and shoved, jumped into your pictures without caring and made the experience pretty much lousy.
We didn’t experience this anywhere else we went, so it’s not like the city was just insanely crowded. But when I did some more research I found out the castle was the most-visited paid tourist attraction in Scotland so that makes sense.
If you’ve ever been to the Tower of London, it’s very similar in the sense that it’s a collection of separate buildings rather than one palace such as KP or Buckingham. The thing that makes Edinburgh Castle stand out is it’s high above the city on Castle Rock with seriously stunning views out to the sea.
Other than the views, seeing the Scottish Crown Jewels and the coronation stone was certainly the highlight of the castle. No photos were allowed, and it’s nothing as grandiose as the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London where you go down a moving conveyor belt with case after case of jewels, but the pieces were amazing all the same.
You also can tour the royal apartments and see some important places such as the tiny room where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to her son King James VI and I, the first king to rule Scotland, England and Ireland. As you can imagine, it’s not ideal being in a tiny room in a stuffy, crowded castle, but I enjoyed the history at least.
If you love military history, this castle will definitely be your jam as they have a military museum as well as the Scottish National War Memorial here. Military history is admittedly not my area of interest, so between that and the crowd situation, I didn’t end up enjoying the castle as much as other places. But I’m still glad we went, and I got a lot out of the things that were of interest to me (e.g. royals, picturesque views).
If you go, make sure to be there before they fire the one o’clock canon. We were actually standing in line for tickets and just missed it.
St Giles’ Cathedral
In addition to having an absolutely beautiful exterior, St Giles’ Cathedral has one of the prettiest church interiors I’ve seen in a while. The blue roof is perfection and so different than what you usually see.
The cathedral was founded in 1124 by King David I, which is insane to think about when something is considered incredibly old in America if it was built in the 1800s. It was the center of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, and if you know anything about John Knox he played a huge part in the church’s history.
While it doesn’t take terribly long to tour the building, it’s definitely worth a wander and to have a seat and contemplate the hundreds of years of happenings here. St Giles is also right on the Royal Mile, so you’ll definitely walk past it at some point during your trip to Edinburgh.
It’s free to go inside, like most cathedrals in Scotland, although they do ask for a voluntary donation and if you want to take photos, they ask for another small donation (I think it was one or two pounds and they give you a sticker to wear to show you’re allowed to take them).
As you’re walking past the cathedral, look down on the cobblestones near the statue in the photo above this one and you’ll find the Heart of Midlothian. It’s a tradition to spit on it (no, I didn’t partake) because a prison used to sit here and the heart marks its doorway. Public executions used to take place there, and it’s said the public would spit on the heart as a sign of disdain, and that debtors would spit on it after their release. Now it’s apparently good luck, but I didn’t see anyone doing it!
I was super excited to climb up here, even if I huffed and puffed half the way! I couldn’t climb Arthur’s Seat with my family because of an old ankle injury that was acting up most of the trip, so I only got to see their photos. But Calton Hill wasn’t as major of a hike, just a walk up a bunch of stairs and a steep hill with a railing to get to the top. Once you get there, you’re rewarded with beautiful panoramic views of Edinburgh.
The never-completed National Monument of Scotland is up here, and it looks a lot like the Parthenon in Athens. It’s quite high and doesn’t have any stairs to get up there, so I chickened out on account of my ankle but my husband and son climbed up to enjoy the views.
You also get a great view of the Palace of Holyroodhouse from Calton Hill!
The church itself isn’t as grand as St Giles’ Cathedral. But the kirkyard (cemetery) is what makes this such an interesting place to visit. Its most famous resident is Greyfriars Bobby, a dog known for his touching story of loyalty and friendship.
When Bobby’s owner died in 1858, he refused to leave his master’s gravesite. Amazingly, the dog remained there in the kirkyard until he died in 1872. You can see his collar and some other items in the Museum of Edinburgh, which was another cool (and also free) place to visit. To this day people still leave sticks, dog treats, and toys on Bobby’s grave, and his statue stands outside the pub named after him.
Greyfriars Kirkyard also has a huge Harry Potter connection. I’m not going to get too in depth because I’ll be writing a separate Harry Potter post, but let’s just say you might recognize some familiar characters’ names on the gravestones! You really feel like you’re wandering around in a Harry Potter book or movie while you’re here (I swear I could hear the music in my head!) and it’s a nice quiet place for a stroll to escape the busy city streets.
We enjoyed a great dinner at Greyfriars Bobby pub after wandering the kirkyard. It was funny because our table was in a little nook by the front window and we watched all the tourists coming up to pet Bobby’s statue and take selfies. We also had a taste of haggis and I have to see it was not gross at all, which was perhaps the biggest surprise of the trip!
That’s it for my first Scotland post – more to come soon. If you have any questions about my trip feel free to leave them in the comments. Have a great day!