I fell in love with Edinburgh the moment I stepped out of the train station. This is the moment that I just realized that I’m a sucker for classic architecture – like those you can see in Milan or Firenze. The old yet sturdy buildings are plenty in the old-town part of Edinburgh, where the train is nearby, and my hostel is at. Plus, the weather in Edinburgh on that day is very nice – sunny and cool, but little did I know that I would soon find out that my first day in Edinburgh is not really the “true” Scottish weather.
There are plenty of things to see and snap photos of in Edinburgh. Right beside the station, there are already a park, a monument, and a few statues of famous (or at least supposedly) people from the city. I didn’t have a chance to take many photos of these things as I was banging on having more time to snap some pics later in my trip, but later also came with rain… oh well, I’m sure I will be back in the city again though.
Saint Gile’s Cathedral: making merit before being sinful
Despite the fact that the cathedral is the main church in the city and Edinburgh is actually much bigger than the other cities I have visited, apart from London of course, the cathedral is actually smaller than I thought. The entrance is free, which is quite nice given there is not much to do. There is a tall tower at the back of the cathedral, but, to my surprise, there is no “tower challenge” available here.
The good things to look here are the glass windows that are quite interesting. Instead of being designed and made by a single artist (or at least majorly by one), the glass mosaic here is a collection of works by many artists from many periods. One section in particular has a very interesting style for me.
I haven't seen this style of glass window before!
Love also the flags inside the church!
This is another one with a group of saints that are important in Scotland – a refreshing take given most of the glass mosaic focuses on the life of Jesus or the apostles rather than the more recent figures.
Johnnie Walker Whiskey Maker Cellar Experience: One tipsy evening
My first reaction to the Johnnie Walker building was that this is surprisingly much smaller than the similar for Heineken in Amsterdam. On a pleasantly surprising note, the shop has many other whiskey brands and types for me to buy. I’m so not a whiskey person that I didn’t even know that Heineken owns so many other single-malt whiskey brands. There are also a little quiz you can take to find out a palette profile to help you choose the right whiskey for you (though after the tasting later today, I was quite surprised that my preference is completely different from the test result).
There are many tours and experiences you can join at the Johnnie Walker building on Princess Street, but, being a snob that I am, I decided to go for the “most exclusive” one – the Whiskey Maker Cellar experience. This is where we get to taste whiskey fresh of the casks as well as a freshly blended whiskey. I also found out later on that the whiskeys we tasted are also not sold anywhere because these are mostly experiential.
I was joined by 7 other gentlemen, who seem to be from a whiskey club and were on a whiskey tasting trip across the nation. It turned out that this is a whiskey tasting experience of 7 experts and a noob… We were guided by Vicky, who is very nice and considerate. Noticing that I’m alone, she also tried to get others to help taking a photo for me. Thank you!
We each get to draw whiskey from a cask based on whatever we chose to taste. For some reason, I thought it would be more complicated than this. It was quite exciting!
My favorite was Caol Ila Single Malt from Islay. This was a pleasant surprise given that my test result showed that I prefer fruity whiskey, but it turned out that I like smokey one the most. To be honest, in my earlier tastings, I also liked smokey whiskey more – so I guess it should not be a surprise after all haha.
Eventually, I left the center with a few bottles of whiskey, which I’m also not sure when will I finish drinking given the fact that I’m also not a frequent drinker of whiskey to start with. Anyhow, cheers to more whiskey stock!
Scottish Highland day trip
“Don’t forget to visit the Highland” said nearly everyone who has visited Scotland when I told them that I’m going to Edinburgh. A week before I arrived in Edinburgh, I went on Getyourguide and book a high-rating day trip that I could find without much thought. It ended up not a bad trip, though I wish I have done a bit more research while planning the trip.
The trip started off very early in the morning with a much bigger group that I thought. Comparing to a 5-people trip in York, this trip has over 30 people… not really my type of trip to be very honest. However, the guide is very nice and knowledgeable. Plus, she is also Scottish and has a lot of knowledge nuggets to share throughout the trip – which I quite enjoyed.
On the way to the Highland, I seemed to have picked the wrong side of the bus though. Note to self (or anyone lucky enough to have read this), if take a ride up from Edinburgh to Scot Highland, you should sit on the left! There is barely anything to see / take photos of on the right… sadness.
We stopped at Kilmahog for breakfast and a quick “up close and personal” with the hairy cow (or “coo” according to a Scottish). I figured there is quite a lot of tour bus from Edinburgh up to Highland every day since the café we made a stop seem to be a tourist shop and café that can fit buses full of people. We got a chance to see the cow but there actually are only two at the place… though this is not the only time we see them – there were plenty along the ride – too many that they are no longer that interesting…
Glencoe was another photo stop, and it was probably the most memorable photo stop in my entire UK trip this time. The rain was pouring and windy. The temperature outside is already less than 10 Celsius to start with. Though we were all quite excited to get out of the bus to have the very first glimpse of the highland scenery, we all could agree on one thing – taking photos with this weather is a real struggle. Our guide chuckled when we were all boarded back on the bus saying “now you experience Scotland like a local”. Ha!
Love the multiple color in one scene here. Can’t wait to visit it again – perhaps on a sunny day.
The struggle is real to get a nice photo with Glencoe
There is one story the guide told us during our drive to Glencoe. It was a sad history of how the local in Glencoe rescued a group of soldiers who would have been frozen to death. After the soldiers were nursed back to good health, they were ordered to kill all the locals. Some of the villagers managed to escape, but they all died given the harsh weather. The story was later written as a folk song. I love how these stories are made into a music – we don’t have much in Thailand – do we?
Fort William was our next stop for lunch. At first, I thought we would have made a stop in the city given how it’s probably the bigger cities we have seen up here. We ended up making a stop at a place similar to our stop in Kilmahog. The lunch was good though. I got to try “Scottish Soup” which is full of healthy grains and beans. After lunch, I finally gave in to my temptation and finally bought scarves to heat myself up for future photo stops.
The next stop was probably the highlight of the trip - Loch Ness. Fun fact: Loch means lake in Scotland, so we actually meant Lake Ness when we say “Loch Ness”.
Anyhow, the first stop was at Urquhart Castle, a castle right next to the loch. The castle is quite picturesque. I would have taken many more photos if it weren’t drizzling and windy – even windier than Glencoe. One funny story: I actually ended up having to stood out and walk around a few minutes to find an opportunity to ask someone to help me take a photo. When someone agreed, I took my glasses off to make myself look good for the gram, but I was shivering so much that I shook my glasses off my hand.
You can still see my glasses next to me - that was not intentional!
After walking around the castle for a while, we were boarded on a boat ride on the loch. For children, this is probably when you say “Let’s hunt for Nessie!”. At first, given the weather, I was not planning on going outdoor on the boat at all, but I eventually gave in to my need to have a good photo (for the gram). Hence, I went outside. Luckily, the sky cleared up and we finally got a good sunny sky for the first time in the day!
After Loch Ness, everyone, including me, was so tired. The guide also seemed to notice, so she put up a few nice songs by Scottish artists on the way back. As a gay man, I was quite excited to learn that the song “Suddenly I See” on Devil Wears Prada was by a Scottish singer KT Tunstall. Also, I didn’t know until that the Lewis Capaldi, who sang Someone You Loved, is Scottish!
From the boat!
My visit to the famous castle almost didn’t happen because the wind was so strong on that day that they almost consider shutting down for a day. I didn’t know that there is such as reason for closing an attraction and didn’t quite understand how serious it is until I reached the castle and see how high up it is and how low the wall is. Bear in mind, the wind at Loch Ness almost blew me off track – that is how strong the wind in Scotland could be. Luckily, as I said, the castle was still open on my second to last day in Edinburgh.
I arrived a bit too early thinking the walk might have taken a bit longer than I expected. I ended up having a quick breakfast at a small coffeeshop two blocks away called “Deli Global”. The shop owner is super nice couple who seems to know every frequent visitor – very nice and friendly vibe! I returned to the castle entrance again around 9.15 am for my 9.30 am entry, and the line has already started forming. The “boarding” commenced on time at 9.30 am, and the line moved very quickly. Within 5 minutes or so, we were all inside the castle wall.
The view from the castle hill is amazing, though I suspect it would have been much nicer from Arthur’s Seat, which I intend to go on my next visit. From there, we could see nearly the entire Edinburgh; however, the construction crane hid a few areas.
The memorial atop the hill is dedicated to Scottish soldiers of many wars. This is probably built to replace quite an important part of the castle complex, thus showing respects for the soldiers by the Scottish… now, think about the situation in Thailand…
The memoriam from the outside - photography is not allowed inside
Camera and photography is not permitted in the Crown Room, where we get to see the crown, the sword, and the Stone of Destiny. The stone is believed to be a sacred artefact used in coronation of a king. To me though, it looks just like a normal stone.
Crown room from the outside as well...
The Great Hall of the castle is big and suitable of its name. Many kings and queens have hosted balls in this hall. It was also used as a hall for medics during the siege of the castle. There is also a great photo spot in between the iron armors here.
I love how the Scots really love and are proud of their whiskeys. There is even a whiskey shop at the castle, and it seems to be doing well too! The Game of Throne whiskeys were sold out at this shop when I visited. However, despite being an alcoholic that I am, I ended up buying a book of watercolor paintings of castles of Scotland in instead.
Greyfriars Bobby Bar: my first Haggis Neeps and Tatties
Greyfriars Bobby refers to a Skye Terrier named Bobby. He is known for guarding his owner’s grave for 14 years until his own death from a type of cancer. A statue of Bobby was built on Greyfriars Street nearby his owner’s grave – this has now become one of the tourist attractions.
Here, I finally got to try the famous Haggis Neeps and Tatties, a Scottish dish that was recommended by the guide in my day trip to the highland the day before. Haggis is basically a sheep’s offal (heart, liver, and lungs) minced with seasonings. Neeps is mashed turnips. Tatties is basically mashed potatoes. Some people may be afraid of Haggis from the description, but it actually is quite nice – similar to pig inert in Chinese cuisine in my opinion.
Harry Potter Walking Tour: Harry Potter pilgrimage
One of the top recommended tours on Getyourguide is Harry Potter walking tour, and, being a Potterhead that I am, I signed up immediately. At first, I planned to just find a map and do a walk around myself, but I was apparently too lazy to do so. I am quite glad that I did this though.
Upon arrival, I met the guide Monique, who is clearly our Harry Potter tour guide with her Hufflepuff scarf and pin badge. I was informed that we actually have 10+ people in our group, which is a surprise as I didn’t expect the tour that is available all-day to have this many people joining each trip.
We each were sorted into a Hogwarts house before started. I was sorted into Gryffindor – a bummer given I feel that I’m either a Ravenclaw or a Slytherin. However, despite not being sorted into the house I wanted, I found myself being surprisingly more competitive than I thought I would be in a Harry Potter quiz to win an imaginary house cup.
Greyfriars Cemetery is the first stop of the tour. Here we learned that JK likes to collect names for her characters from tombstone. This is actually a bit creepy, but it is very clear because there are quite many names from this place that turned out to be quite prominent characters in Harry Potter series. Tom Riddle, McGonnagall, and Moody are a few key examples. One sad story is the original McGonnagall, who is a poet that is so not famous that people forget where he is laid in this cemetery. Literally, the tombstone says “he is laid around this area”…
The real-life Tom Riddle's grave - though not the same spelling
The cemetery is also right behind the private boarding school that gave JK the idea of four houses of Hogwarts. The original drawing of Hogwarts by JK even has the resemblance of this school.
While we walked Monique also told us about some JK’s life stories that were quite influential to how Harry Potter series is shaped. For example, JK studied Latin and French, which became the basis of spells and names in the series. Her upbringing and childhood friends also become the name and creatures in the series. Potter is actually her childhood friend’s last name. The most fun part was the discussion about JK’s vandalism of a piece of furniture in a hotel room in Edinburgh. Instead of fining JK, the hotel ended up renting that room out at ridiculously high price tag to Potterhead. Marketing strategy at its finest!
Victoria Street was one of the nice stop that, though is not as pretty and resembling Diagon Alley as Shamble in York, become much more interesting with narration from Monique. A few shops here still show some similarities to what we read in Diagon Alley that it is amazing to see with new perspective. There is also an official Harry Potter shop here on this street as well!
Another fun story we learned was that Nearly Headless Nick was from an actual person called Half-Hanged Maggie, who was punished by hanging but not dead (hence, half-hanged). She later lived for tens of years and never pay taxed because she was considered dead on the official record.
There is a bar named after Half-Hanged Maggie here where she was "hung" as well
Vault Tour: ghost stories and history
Before I arrived in Edinburgh, my friend highly recommended me to try a vault tour saying that she was haunted during one of the tours. My interest sparks but I’m also scared of being haunted in my hotel room later. However, I decided to book a tour anyway. I booked one with Mercat and my tour guide for this round was Fay.
The tour started off with a brief history about lives in Edinburgh in the earlier time. One interesting part was about Nastiness Act – an act governing how people can throw a bucket full of piss and poops from a high-rise building to clean up the bucket at the time when flushing system did not exist. Basically, if you walk on the street back then, watch out of some “nasty rain”…
There is also a story about little piper boy that were hired to explore underground tunnel accidentally discovered by a pair of soldiers. He mysteriously disappeared but people still could here some Scottish pipe sound from underground until these days (though it could have been Scottish pipe from a street performer in Edinburgh also…)
The vault is the star of this tour which has a few ghosts – one is malicious; one is nice, and two are neutral. The Watcher, which sounds like a powerful Marvel character, is the malicious one that haunt people who walk into his territory. The Aristocrat and the Shoemaker are just observer who popped up here and there. The Boy is the nice and friendly one that tries to help tourists, but the way Fay sang a song to for the Boy is super spooky. There was actually one point in the tour that I suddenly got chills down my right back and was spooked!
Historically, the vault is like an underground city for people to store stuff and work. However, upon commercial downfall, it turned into a tunnel for illegal activities. I wish there can be a way for us to see how this actually happened either through a video or something else. That would be a very interesting story…
I can’t say how many times I love this city. Edinburgh is a must re-visit for me especially since I have not gone up to Arthur’s Seat and Isle of Skyle. Hopefully, the next visit will come soon!