Edinburgh is beautiful. Both Old Town, which has buildings dating back to the turn of the last century (well, one building at least), and New Town–built in the 18th century–are stunning. Composed of medieval and Georgian architecture, respectively, they are full of grand buildings and humble streets, magnificent towers and narrow, aging stairways.
And it the midst of all the stone buildings sits the new and airy Parliament, a marvel of modern architecture. (It may be controversial–expensive and modern as it is–but I thought it was wonderful.)
The thing that really stuck me–and I know this is something you hear over and over from Americans who travel to Europe–is how stuffed full of history everything is. Sure, we have history in America. We have ancient ruins and sagas and deeds…but they aren’t evident in the same ways or in the same places were we live today, and even where they are, they don’t belong to me, not really. The history of Edinburgh does, in a way. It’s not exactly mine, but my ancestors may have lived here. My forebearers might have walked these streets. These kings and queens ruled lands where my ancestors lived. That means something. And the buildings ooze it, that sense of owned history.
We were in Edinburgh for three full days. I thought this would give us plenty of time to do everything we wanted to do, but sadly it did not. There is so much to see, and we kept finding that the days just weren’t long enough, and the attraction operating hours just weren’t generous enough. Some of the things I hoped to do but wasn’t able to fit in: visit the Palace at Holyrood House, climb Arthur’s Seat, take a tour of Mary King’s Close, walk around New Town and find some of the shops mentioned in my guidebook, visit some of the sights further afield from Edinburgh.
But with all those things I didn’t have time to do, there was time to do many more.
Here’s what we did: we got up early on our first morning, a Friday, and got to the castle just as it opened at 9:30. Then, instead of going in order through the exhibits and buildings, we shot ahead to the end to see the crown jewels first, then work our way back to the entrance.
This was wildly successful! We were the only tourists in the room with the crown jewels, and got a lovely, lingering view. Except there aren’t that many Scotish crown jewels. A crown, sword, scabbard, and sceptor, plus a big rock (AKA The Stone of Destiny), and a neat few odds and ends of obviously vastly significant jewelry that I should probably be more impressed by. (Question: how did the scabbard get bent/warped? I’d like to think it was in battle, but this scabbard looks awfully ceremonial. On the other hand, the sword is awesome. Absolutely amazing hilt.)
We were also the only visitors for much of our wanderings through the royal residence, which was never much used (the castle being more of a military outpost, and the royals having preference for the Palace at Holyrood House). But it’s something special to walk alone through rooms built for kings, and walk through a great and empty hall, taking pictures with no people in them.
Those first two bits of the tour, and the views of Edinburgh spread out below the castle, were my favorite parts. The rest of the buildings were given over to military exhibits, and I soon found my eyes glazing over. My takeaways:
- The Scots have fought in a lot of campaigns, and there are many, many medals to prove it.
- These people know how to build beautiful memorials to their vetrans.
- Also, they recognize their faithful dogs.
- Kilts are pretty hot.
The Tartan Weaving Mill
Located just outside the castle, the Tartan Weaving Mill has a sample of pretty much every clan tartan dreampt of, and will sell you various sundries in the different tartans. They’ll also dress you up and take your picture in kilts, outfit you in proper Scotish gear, and take as much of your money as they can. Clearly I was not impressed. Probably because I was disappointed. I thought it was supposed to be a museum and learning center, not a gimick! Color me disillusioned, in plaid. Moving on…
The Scotch Whisky Experience
This shop and tour, just outside the castle and across from the Tartan Weaving Mill, did actually live up to expectations. Although I think I’ll learn more and have better whisky during our tour of Speyside later in the trip, this was well worth the £17 (or thereabouts) admission.
Take a wonderfully cheezy “barrel ride” through a “mock distillery”, where you learn about the history and making of Scotch. (Did you know that it’s not Scotch until it’s been in the barrell at least 3 years, and not taxable until it’s bottled?) Then the guides take over and tell you about the unique characteristics of Scotch from the different regions of Scotland. Summary of the four main regions:
- Lowlands Scotch tastes like citrus.
- Highlands Scotch tastes like vanilla and honey.
- Speyside Scotch tates like fruit.
- Islay (which despite all expectations is pronounced EYE-lah) Scotch tastes like peat, and medicine. (Really, that’s what they said.)
The highlight (for me) was the Scotch Whisky Collection–walls and walls of the largest collection of Scotch Whisky in the world.
On the whole the Scotch Whisky Experience was well worth it, although I don’t recommend doing the Gold or Platinum tours–just do the basic, and then you can sample whiskies of your choice from the bar. The four samples included are not that good, and you’ll have already tasted one during the tour.
The Royal Mile
The Royal Mile stretches the distance between the Castle and Parliament to what is actually a bit over a mile. The way is lined with fabulous old buildings, monuments, nooks and cranies. Many of the old buildings are full of shops, pubs, and services that cater to tourists. All the shops sell all the same things, all the pubs serve all the same food, and most of the services offer similar flavors of similar historically-minded tours. I didn’t buy a single souvenier, and unfortunately ran out of time to take any of the tours.
I was not nearly as impressed by the Royal Mile as I’d hoped to be.
St. Giles Cathedral
This lovely, lovely church was one of my favorite places in Edinburgh. Simply stunning.
On weekdays, visitors can tour (bits of) Parliament free of charge. I was eager to see this building, which has a bit of a reputation. It won a prestigous European award for architecture, but is not universally admired–in part because it’s so modern, I think, but also because it was supposed to cost £40 million, and instead came in at over £440 million.
The architect intended to really integrate the building with the Scotish identity, adding architectural elemnts to mimic the landscape, and using only Scotish-sourced building materials. For example, the sticks in the windows here are meant to suggest the grasses of the Scotish highlands.
I found the whole building stunning, and am so glad we were able to view it.
The Royal Yacht Britannia
This 410 (or so) foot long yacht was commissioned by the Queen, and was her mode of transportation for much of her reign. It traveled more than 1,000,000 miles, and circumnavigated the globe I don’t remember how many times. Except it was a lot. It was decomissioned some 10 years ago, and the various port cities of the UK held a contest to determine where it would be docked. Edinburgh won, with a plan that indended the yacht as a centerpiece to revitalize the port suburb of Leith.
Perhaps this explains why the boat is in a mall.
Well, not in the mall, per se. The boat is in the water. The entrance to the boat is in the mall.
What to say about the yacht? It was very clean. It was cool, beause we got to touch stuff (but only the stuff that belonged to regular sailors–not the stuff that belonged to the royal family). It gave me a weird feeling to look at all the things once belonging to members of the royal family, and hear anectdotes about these still-living people and their posessions, and imagine how they lived. What must it be like to know that thousands of people every day are looking over your former living quarters, hearing about your special sheets, and taking pictures of your pillowcases?
All in all, the yacht was not as ornate or luxurious as I would have expected, and I was disappointed in the tea. (No finger sandwiches? And tea is brewed with bags? Shocking!) But the tour itself was still interesting, and I did buy my first and so far only souvenier: a Keep Calm and Carry On magnet.