Usually when I think of the British Isles in winter, I think cold, wet, and generally depressing. And when the Husband picked Edinburgh for our last big trip in January, I told him exactly that. “It’s gonna be miserable,” I said. “Are you sure you want to go to Scotland?” He did.
And thank goodness he didn’t change his mind, because I couldn’t have been more wrong. Well, it was a bit wet and a bit cold, but I was definitely wrong about it being miserable.
I had been to Edinburgh before, but I’d never been out of the city and this was my chance to see the famous Scottish Highlands. But we’ll get to that. We had three full days to enjoy, and we used them extremely well in my opinion.
Super easy! There are two ways to get from the airport to the city center, and they’re about as convenient as possible.
The Tram costs £5 one way, with easy-to-use ticket kiosks (they take card and coin, but not bills). The tram runs roughly every 10 minutes, but it only operates from the hours of 5:30am to 11:00pm. We used the tram to get downtown to the vicinity of Waverly Station.
The Bus costs £4,50 and also runs about every 10 minutes, but it runs 24 hours a day. The trip is about half an hour, and since we had an early flight, we took the bus for our outgoing trip.
We spent the first two days in Edinburgh (not pronounced –burg, but –burra), where we had booked the Ibis hotel off the Royal Mile. It was relatively cheap, the room was comfortable and clean, and the location couldn’t have been better. A 20 second walk from the front door and we were on the Royal Mile, surrounded by all the pubs and shops we could ask for.
We started off our first day right, by going to the Elephant House cafe for breakfast. Now if you’re a Potterhead like me, you’re probably a little jealous right now (sorry about that). And if you’ve never heard of it, the Elephant House is the cafe where J.K. Rowling began the Harry Potter series.
It’s a surprisingly humble establishment, with a little hippie flare and tons of elephant figurines and art. On one wall you’ll see photos and newspaper clippings about J.K. Rowling. The cafe has done well enough (thank you, Harry Potter) to even have a small line of souvenirs. (No magnets though. I bought a pin instead with plans to glue a magnet to the back of it.)
However, my favorite part of the Elephant House may have been the ladies’ bathroom…. Where’s a marker when you need it?! (And let’s be honest, I’d probably get sleazy for Ron Weasley too.)
At the top of the Royal Mile, you’ll find Edinburgh Castle. It’s a beautiful spot not only because the castle is gorgeous, but because of the view. The castle itself is a little pricey (£16,50 each), so we skipped the interior. A friend of mine assured me that it wasn’t really anything special, but I can’t speak for myself.
The castle sits on a tall outcropping that affords an amazing scene of the south side of the city. On a clear day you can see the hills beyond the city, and in the winter they may be dusted with snow! It wasn’t a bright sunny day for us, but it was still so beautiful.
You can also see toward the north side of the city, although there are some trees in the way. We found a better place to get views of the north side of Edinburgh.
If you’ve ever checked Tripadvisor for the best things to do in Edinburgh, you’ll no doubt have seen Camera Obscura on the list. Now when I saw it, I thought “What the heck does that mean? Sounds dumb.” And I promptly TL;DRd. Thankfully the Husband had enough patience to actually read the description and subsequently demand we go there.
Camera Obscura is basically a fun house. Entrance is £14,50 for adults and don’t think you won’t have fun, because you will. I was skeptical at first too, but I’m very glad we went because it was worth the price. They’ll give you a stamp so you can come and go all day, and you just might.
The building is a tower, and you start at the top where you’ll get a short demonstration of the camera part of the Camera Obscura. Basically, the building is a camera. We were brought into a dark room where a woman showed us how it worked. There’s a mirror and lens at the top that reflects the entire city onto a table. She could control the angle of the mirror and gave us a tour of the city in real time. We watched as people and cars went by – it was strange, but pretty cool to see.
To me, the best feature of the top floor was the view. Here is where you can see toward the north. There’s the New Town, the Firth of Forth (the estuary where the river reaches the sea), and the Kingdom of Fife beyond. You’ll see glimpses of Arthur’s Seat beyond an ornate church tower, and the chimneys of Edinburgh are fun to see as well.
After that you wind your way down the tower, checking out the oddities and, well, playing. There’s a mirror maze, a hall of holograms, and a ton of things I don’t even know how to describe. There’s a forced perspective room, too – don’t miss getting a picture in there.
But by FAR my favorite part of the fun house was the VORTEX! It’s the simplest thing in the world, with the most staggering effect on your sense of balance. What it is: A short, raised walkway, surrounded by a rotating tube of black cloth. The cloth is painted with neon polkadots, and blacklit. What it does: MAKE YOU SICK. Seriously, don’t try to walk through it if you get motion sick. Luckily I don’t get motion sick, and I had a damn good time. I must have walked through it half a dozen times, laughing maniacally and groping for the handrails when I lost my balance. I don’t understand how walking through a rotating sheet can make you feel so drunk, but man was it fun.
Arthur’s Seat is the mound of an extinct volcano that rises above the city to the east, named after King Arthur himself. I still haven’t gotten to hike it, but I have every intention of doing so eventually. From what I read the hike takes several hours, and with only two days in Edinburgh we just didn’t have the time. And it would be much nicer to do in good weather.
Between the castle and Camera Obscura you’ll find another type of attraction – the Tartan Weaving Mill. This building is a bit of a maze, but it’s fun to check out, especially if you feel like shopping. Inside you’ll find a whisky shop, a rugby kit shop, cheesy souvenirs, wool and cashmere scarves and wraps, and of course clan tartans of all kinds. You can see tartan making in progress (make sure you look to see what clan they’re weaving!).
This might have been our favorite shop. Museum Context on Victoria Street (just below the castle in the Old Town) is such a fun shop. It’s full of oddities and gorgeous things and prints and who-knows-what-else. It’s where I got this AMAZING bag. –>
Do you see it? Do you see who’s on it? IT’S THE PROCLAIMERS. Do you even understand how happy this made me? (I would walk 500 miles just for this bag.) My life is complete, and it only cost me £8. Worth it. They have a magnet version too, for people who aren’t as cool as me.
The Grassmarket & Victoria Street
Victoria Street in general is a really fun place to browse, and it ends in the Grassmarket square.
Museums and Galleries
We found out that museums and galleries in Edinburgh are… drumroll… FREE. How freaking awesome is that? It may not be all of them, but it’s definitely most, including the National Museum of Scotland – and you could easily spend an entire day there by itself. We went, but were only there for about an hour before we had to run to the Husband’s whisky tasting.
In that hour, we covered about half of a single floor. There are SEVEN. It would be a great place to bring kids on a rainy day – there’s fun stuff to see and do, and there’s a cafe in the building as well. I’m really wishing we had planned better and had more time there. Ah well, one more reason to go back.
The Royal Mile is a tourist’s dream. Countless restaurants, fun shops, live music, walking tours (ghost tours included!), and enough incredible pubs to make your head spin. The only thing I can say about it is to explore as much as possible! You could easily spend your whole trip on the Royal Mile shopping, eating, and generally enjoying the vibe.
If you enjoy pubs, I highly recommend doing your own pub crawl! Have a pint anywhere around the Royal Mile, step outside, walk 100 feet or less and you’re at the next pub. Couldn’t be easier. Many pubs have live music seven nights a week, and many others have music on weekend nights. For live music I recommend Whistle Binkies (it was nearly dead but the music was rockin’) and Finnegan’s Wake (you’ll probably be the oldest person in there, but the music was good).
Make sure to check out The Halfway House – Edinburgh’s smallest pub! Another pub opened up a couple years ago called The Wee Pub, which is technically the smallest pub now. We went to both, and found that The Wee Pub was kind of just a gimmick. It seems to actually be a part of the pub next to it, so calling it a pub in itself seemed a little cheap to me. The Halfway House though, is a legitimate pub.
Along the Royal Mile you’ll see a dozen different kiosks advertising ghost tours. You can book online or often just show up at the kiosk at the times advertises. As far as choosing which company to go with, uhhh, well, I dunno. Really you just have descriptions to go on, so looking online at ratings and reviews can be useful. But to be honest, I think it’s safe to say they’re all going to be good.
There’s also a bus tour, but unless you really don’t feel like walking, I’d say don’t go that route. My suggestion is to do a tour that takes you into the vaults under the city. They’re super creepy and an experience you won’t get anywhere else. We did an underground tour with Mercat tours for £12 each, and it was very good – the husband even got a whipping. (Fun fact: “Mercat” is an old derivitave of “market,” so the mercat cross is the cross or obelisk in the old market square.)
BrewDog Craft Beer
Our first day in Edinburgh, I had a surprise for the Husband. A beer tasting for two with BrewDog! Unfortunately their main shop was under renovations while we were there, but they were very accommodating and managed to host us a partner shop called BottleDog.
It was a great tasting, and the BottleDog shop was probably the Husband’s idea of heaven. We got to try five beers, and they were all delicious. If you have any appreciation for beer, I can highly recommend a tasting with BrewDog. As good as our tasting was, it would be even better in their own location.
Edinburgh is whisky central. There are probably a hundred places you can do a whisky tasting within a kilometer of the Royal Mile. But I had another surprise tasting booked for the Husband with Jeffrey Street Whisky. I had very little interest in trying whiskies myself (especially since we did our pub crawl the night before and my stomach was still a little wobbly). My plan was to drop off the Husband and do some shopping on my own. However, when we stepped into the shop, they offered to make me a pot of tea so I could still enjoy the tasting without, well, tasting.
Our “whisky guide” was very knowledgeable and gave us a more thorough history of whisky in Scotland than I ever expected to learn. Did you know that in the 1800s there were two guys who advertised their whisky with parrots? They bought 500 parrots from Africa and ingeniously taught them to say “Buy Pattison’s!” These parrots were distributed to the pubs that sold their crappy whisky, and everyone flocked to see the parrots (not a common sight in Scotland, especially then). Their business boomed, but they were idiots who practically flushed their money down the toilet with flamboyant spending. Despite their initial success, you won’t see Pattison’s whisky on any shelf today.
At the top of the Royal Mile is also an establishment called The Scotch Whisky Experience. They even have a ride. Next time we’ll try that one simply because it looks fun and it has a restaurant too. But I do recommend Jeffrey Street if you’re interested in something more low-key and off the beaten path.
That’s it! That’s everything we did during our two days in Edinburgh. Our last day we spent in the Highlands.
The Highlands & Loch Ness
As much fun as we had in Edinburgh, I loved the Highlands even more. We considered doing a day tour with a bus company vs. renting a car and doing it ourselves. Renting a car came to about £40 for the rental, not including the gas (which as you probably know is expensive in the UK and Europe). The bus tour for BOTH of us came to £90, and we wouldn’t have to spend eight hours behind the wheel in a country where they drive on the WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD LIKE MANIACS.
Anyway, £90 was entirely worth it to us, and we got the benefit of having a driver to tell us about the history of Scotland along the way. (Did you know that William Wallace was estimated to be 6’8″ and carried a 6′ two-handed broad sword? That guy was HUGE. And he wasn’t actually a Highlander, so he never would have worn a kilt. Nice try, Mel.)
We booked with Heart of Scotland Tours (the Wee Red Bus) and were SO excited to go. That is, until we got an email the night before saying that they had to cancel because not enough people signed up. Luckily, before we could respond, we got a second email saying, “Nevermind, the tour will continue as planned. See you in the morning.” Phew, right?
Well, kind of. The next morning we were waiting at the bus stop for our Wee Red Bus, when a lady came up with a group trailing behind and said, “Are you doing the Heart of Scotland Tour?” She explained to us that the company we had booked with basically re-booked our seats with them instead, since they did the same tour. That would have been no problem with us, if they had TOLD US. We had no idea. Thank goodness that girl was smart enough to ask us, because she assumed we knew.
Long story short, I do NOT recommend Heart of Scotland Tours, at least not in the winter when attendance is low. We could easily have missed the tour altogether. Luckily, it worked out because the company we ended up going with was AMAZING. So listen up – BOOK WITH RABBIE’S TOURS! It was such a great day trip, and they do longer ones as well if you have time for an overnight.
The day was made even better when God smiled upon us and give us PERFECT weather. It had been rainy and cold and a bit drab the first two days, but day three dawned bright and sunny (once the sun actually came up at 8:30… they only get about eight hours of daylight in the winter).
We started the trip at 8:00am on a weekday – rush hour by any standard. And the traffic wasn’t even bad! So if you DO decide to rent a car, don’t be intimidated by the traffic in Edinburgh. Not to mention the road designs make way more sense than they do here in Italy.
Glencoe is a long valley (and the name of the town at the end) of absolutely stunning Highland scenery. I couldn’t believe the craggy mountains and still lakes everywhere. And the SNOW! We stopped at a pull off with a view of the Three Sisters mountain peaks. As you can see below, I literally couldn’t fit them all in one picture. The whole drive was absolutely breathtaking. I can’t emphasize it enough.
All I can say is that if you rent a car and go on your own, do NOT miss Glencoe. Our driver also told us that Scotland is entirely free land – you can walk, hike, and even camp ANYWHERE, as long as you do it responsibly and aren’t causing trouble.
When you book with a tour company, they’ll say that seeing Highland cows aren’t included in the winter. But we got to see them! I was so freaking excited. I was the only one who charged into the deep snow to get closer – what’s a little snow to a Vermont girl? I loved the Highland cows…. As our driver said, they’re cute, cuddly, and delicious.
Tour companies probably say seeing Highland cows isn’t included in the winter just in case. Sometimes the “heery coos” might not be out, and they wouldn’t want people demanding their money back because they didn’t get to see the cows promised by their tour. I’d say don’t count on seeing them if you book a winter tour, but it’ll probably happen anyway.
From Glencoe to Loch Ness, the drive was astounding. It’ll be useless to try and describe it, so I’ll just leave a couple pictures here to speak for me.
You can do an hour-long boat tour for about £13, and you might even see Nessie! With only an hour and a half in the town of Fort Augustus, we opted to see the town and get lunch instead. In January, most of the little shops were closed, but a couple pubs were open and we got lunch in one of them.
We were at the southern end of Loch Ness – Inverness at the northern end I suspect is the more popular tourist town, and more things may be open in the winter there. Fort Augustus was teeny tiny, but cute. And after the first five minutes off the bus, the gray clouds rolled in and big fat snowflakes started to fall. We got our sunny pictures and were happy to see some snow (we don’t get much in Italy).
Overall: If you’re considering going to Scotland in the winter, but are afraid of the “misery” factor, go anyway! You wont be miserable – even if the weather’s nasty, there’s a ton to do in Edinburgh.
I’m not sure when my next post will be – Scotland was kind of our grand finale before leaving Europe and moving to… WASHINGTON STATE!!! The countdown is on. Doubtless we’ll do some other small trips, but no idea where yet. Any suggestions?