First Impressions of Edinburgh, Scotland

First Impressions of Edinburgh, Scotland

Getting to Edinburgh

We touched down into Edinburgh, Scotland at 10 am, after a 6:30 am flight from Iceland.  Arriving in Scotland was seamless, and once we passed through customs, we followed the exit signs to the tram. At a kiosk we bought tickets, and boarded the waiting tram to take us into the city.

It was a sleek, smooth, 30 minute ride into downtown Edinburgh.  I was impressed with the digital signs inside and outside of the tram, making it incredibly easy for tourists to navigate.  Many of the buildings were 4 and 5 stories tall, and as I was observing this, it struck my 9 year old as well, and he asked, “Why are all the buildings the same brown color?”

As we continued into the city, we spotted the Edinburgh Castle, which was hard to miss. Perched high on a dormant volcano in the city center, it looked down on us.  No doubt it had the most sweeping view of the city, and it was a strange and wondrous site.

Settling In

We arrived to our hotel 3 hours early, very exhausted, and hoping that we could stow our luggage while we grabbed some lunch.  Instead, the receptionist announced, “You’re in luck.  Your room is ready.”  We settled into our spacious, two bedroom apartment. Reviving ourself with a two hour nap was much needed, after only three hours of sleep the previous night in our whirlwind tour of Iceland.  We went out for lunch, came back to the apartment, unpacked, and got settled in for our busy week.

Exploring the City

The following day, we set out to explore Edinburgh.  As we began walking, we realized that it would take some getting used to when crossing the streets. Normally we look left to right, but since they drive on the opposite side of the road in the UK, we kept looking the wrong direction and second guessing ourselves. We decided it was just best to cross strictly at the cross walks, which seemed to take forever to turn green.

Cars drive on the opposite side of the road, which took some getting used to for us Americans.

Edinburgh was such an easy and pleasant city to visit.  It was walk-able, clean, public transportation was efficient, and the locals were friendly and spoke with a lovely accent.

What fascinated me about Edinburgh is how it was built on land that was formed from volcanoes and glacial activity, resulting in steep crags and valleys spanning the city.  As you stand in the city center, you can look down at the gardens below and then way up high on a nearby hill (actually a volcanic plug), perches the Edinburgh Castle, dominating the landscape with its majestic position.

There are paths leading down into the city gardens, which at one time were the dumping grounds for Edinburgh’s sewage.

Arthur’s Seat

Further out at the bottom of what’s known as the Royal Mile, sits Arthur’s Seat, another plug of a dormant volcano, towering 822 feet high, one of the earliest known sites of human habitation in the area, dating back to 8500 BC.  It is a very popular hiking spot which offers panoramic views of the city.  At the time it was active, it was actually 2-3 times as high as it is currently.

As we strolled through Edinburgh, we noted the connected buildings, tall and concrete, often 4-5 stories high, many with decorated spires making them look majestic. It was beautiful and eerie and magnificent all at the same time.

Sir Walter Scott Monument

Our first stop was to climb the Monument of Sir Walter Scott, the largest in the world ever dedicated to a writer. It had 249 spiral stairs to the top, up a narrow staircase shared by people traveling up and down, making for an interesting climb.

There were several levels where we could stop and admire the city views.  There was a nice dedication to Sir Walter Scott about half way up.  It was worth the climb and a great way to orient us to the city.

Mini-Harry Potter Tour

Next we wanted to surprise the kids with a mini-Harry Potter tour.  We told them that J.K. Rowling wrote most of the Harry Potter novels while living in Edinburgh, and then we walked to Victoria Street, her inspiration for Diagon Alley.

This street was so unique!  There we visited the Museum Store at 40 Victoria Street, a Harry Potter fan’s dream!

There were two levels of memorabilia, from wands to t-shirts to puzzles to costumes.  The boys chose a few wand pens with bookmarks and some patches for their backpack.

Greyfriars Kirk

About a block away from Victoria Street, we entered Greyfriars Kirk, a cemetery with massively thick walls.  It is also believed that J.K. Rowling may have gained inspiration while wandering among the tombstones of this cemetery.

The boys cast their magic wands at the tomb of Thomas Riddle, spotted the name McGonagall, and a few other names that would be recognized from the books. The tombstones were a bit challenging to find.

In fact, we watched another family hunting around the cemetery, followed them, and learned that they had been given a map specifically to find these “Harry Potter” tombs, which they kindly passed along to us when they were finished. (Pictured left)

Aside from the fact that Harry Potter fans may enjoy the cemetery, I discovered that Greyfriar’s Kirk is also extremely haunted.  It is said that the thick cemetery walls were not built so much to keep people out, but to keep the evil spirits IN! The rumors are that one area of the cemetery had to be chained off to keep people out, because previous visitors were being physically pushed by an unknown force and coming out with actual scratches!  I wish I had known that before we visited, because that would’ve added to the thrill!  However it seemed pretty normal to us during the daytime, aside from the tombs looking extremely old and weathered. 

(Click HERE to read more about the Haunted Cemetery.)

There were many artists using the beautiful Autumn setting as inspiration for their paintings throughout the cemetery.

City Sightseeing Bus Tour

The following day, we opted to try a Hop On, Hop Off Bus Tour.  We chose the tour with City Sightseeing, which happens to be quite popular in the UK, (and keeping the receipt gave us subsequent discounts at City Sightseeing tours in Bath, England later in our trip.)

All of us got headsets and plugged in to hear the tour commentary, with several language choices, as well as a “kids” choice of listening to the Horrible Histories commentary, a British comedy version of history facts geared towards children.  I must admit that I also listened to the Horrible Histories version of the tour, and greatly enjoyed it.

They told us all types of crazy stories, such as how barbers used to perform all types of surgeries, in addition to pulling teeth, hence the red and white striped posts outside the Barber shops.  (White signified bandages, red signified blood).  Scots also use the word “bits” for things, which I found extremely fun and we learned that Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, is from Edinburgh! (They spewed out many, many other tidbits, but alas, that is all I remembered to jot down in my notes.)

What’s wrong with this picture?     
My son found the famous red phone booth.

Waverly Mall

We exited the tour bus across from Waverly Train Station, and went in search of lunch.  My youngest begged for McDonald’s, which we found in the food court, beginning his “quest” to try a McDonald’s meal in every country we visited.  The rest of us tried “Spuds”, a yummy baked potato fast food joint, and my kids were exposed to their first Coronation Chicken, which they would hunt for throughout our trip from that point forward.  (However, none would compare to that particular meal in Edinburgh.)

Then after lunch, the family was ready to call it a day, so I waved them off to the apartment, and I went back on the Hop-On, Hop-Off tour bus to get my money’s worth!  I decided to do a little independent touring of Holyrood Palace and take a short walk around Arthur’s Seat, before returning later that afternoon.  (I’ll post more about that in my next blog.)

Wow – look at these funny looking Scots we bumped into!!!

Edinburgh made a huge impression on us and our children.  In fact, my 9 year old says that it was one of his favorite cities we visited. My 11 year old says that he would love to return to Edinburgh one day to live.

Next time in the blog: The Royal Mile and our hunt for the Loch Ness Monster!

Watch our Edinburgh video: