Here are the highlights of our four days in Scotland during our recent “trip of a lifetime” to the UK. Travel tips & pictures for wanderlust fulfillment included!
In my last post, I mentioned that I’d be taking a few weeks off from blogging while my husband and I went on our “trip of a lifetime” together. We spent ten days hopping around Scotland and England together and having an incredible adventure. Now we’re back, and I have TONS of fun ideas to share with you in the coming weeks (LONG plane rides = lots of writing/brainstorming time).
However, I am a firm believer in recording memories, and I tried to keep up on writing about our trip in my journal as we went…mostly during train and plane rides. By the time our plane touched down in Salt Lake City, the full story of our trip ended up being more than 5,000 words! I figure you all probably don’t need that much detail, but I thought I’d share the highlights.
You won’t get any amazing parenting tips from this post, but I can promise some good eye candy and some helpful travel tips in case you ever find yourself in Scotland (which I hope you do…it was breathtakingly beautiful!)
Falling in Love with Edinburgh
We began our adventures in Edinburgh (pronounced “ED-in-bur-rah” by the way). The red-eye flight to get there was pretty brutal, and it was super rainy when we came out of the airport, but we managed to find our way to the “airlink” bus where we bought some cheap tickets that took us straight into downtown.
We stayed at the Motel One Princes, which was a great, no-frills hotel. The room was small (common in Europe), but the bed was a good size, and everything was clean and nice. And the location was right in the middle of town, so it made all the tourist attractions walkable. I was amazed actually at how compact everything in Edinburgh was. Within a 20-30 minute walk you could access pretty much all of the main tourist attractions. Note…I never said it was easy walking…there are lots of hills.
We had planned to just drop our luggage at the hotel because we weren’t supposed to be able to check in until the afternoon, but they said they had a room ready (YAY!), so we happily went upstairs to relax for a bit. We debated whether to let ourselves take a nap, but exhaustion won out and we collapsed for an hour or so…just enough to get us through the rest of the day.
After we were back on our feet, we headed out to explore the city. Here are some of our favorite things we did during our two days in Edinburgh:
The Scottish National Gallery
Our first afternoon we spent a couple hours looking at the works of famous artists from Titian and Rembrandt to Monet and Van Gogh. So amazing! It’s right in the middle of Princess Street Gardens (which we would have spent more time in if the weather had been warmer…or sunnier…or both), and there are often bagpipers playing outside–like this guy we saw–which is fun to listen to.
The Royal Mile
The Royal Mile is the main street in “old town” Edinburgh that goes from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace and King Arthur’s Seat. It’s filled with shops and cafes, and makes for a great walking tour of several of the big sights of the city. We spent a lot of time both days walking this street because we weren’t super efficient in our site-seeing.
St. Giles Cathedral
This beautiful cathedral is right on the royal mile. I LOVE old churches, and no matter how many I saw on our trip, I continued to ooh and ahh over their beautifully complex architecture. The unique feature of this one is the bright blue ceiling in the nave of the church.
Another church and a beautifully eerie old graveyard. I loved wandering and looking at the tombstones. It’s also known for being the inspiration of some of the names of Harry Potter characters, like Thomas Riddle and Moodie (it’s right behind the little pub where J.K. Rowling supposedly wrote some of the beginning chapters of Harry Potter).
This is a quaint little part of “new town” Edinburgh (which is still old). You walk past a bunch of cool Georgian-style homes and come to this adorable little neighborhood right on the water of Leith. Sadly, one of the most picturesque spots was hidden under scaffolding because (presumably) it’s undergoing restoration, but we still enjoyed strolling along the narrow streets and along the water’s edge. This blog post has some great information about visiting this part of town, FYI.
We accidentally slept in until after 10:00 in the morning our second day. Apparently, we needed to get over the jet lag. Once we finally woke up, we got ready quickly and headed over to Edinburgh Castle.
The castle was amazing, with the oldest building (a chapel for St. Margaret) dating to the 11th century! It’s also where Mary Queen of Scots escaped to give birth to James the VI (I), and it’s where the Scottish royal crown, scepter, and sword are kept (as well as the “stone of destiny”…which is really just a big rectangular rock that has symbolic significance). It was definitely worth the time we spent there.
Tip: the lines to get tickets can be REALLY long, but you can buy them online in advance, or if you’re going to be visiting several castles and historic sites during your trip, look into purchasing a Scotland Explorer pass. I had planned to buy ours online, but didn’t get around to it (oops). Thankfully, I found out you can also buy them in the gift shop at the castle’s entrance and skip the whole big line. YAY!
The National Scottish Museum
We discovered this museum our first day (because this pregnant girl needed a bathroom stat!), but it was closing soon, so we went back the second day to spend a couple of hours exploring for real. The have all kinds of exhibits about everything from vikings, medieval battles, the monarchy, and even modern inventions. And that was just the sliver that we were actually able to see. We ended up staying until the museum closed and could have stayed MUCH longer.
King Arthur’s Seat
After the museum, we walked down to Holyrood Palace (which wasn’t open for tours that day), and hiked up part of King Arthur’s Seat. It was SUPER steep at first, but then it evened out significantly, so I didn’t die or go into labor, which was good.The view from King Arthur’s Seat was wonderful, and I wish we could have hiked all the way up, but we needed to head back into town to grab dinner before our tour of the Real Mary King’s Close. This is me sitting down on a rock enjoying the beauty…and trying to catch my breath!
The Real Mary King’s Close
We got crepes for dinner at a yummy little café, and then headed over to our tour. The “closes” in Edinburgh are essentially little alleyways between buildings that run perpendicular to The Royal Mile. Because Edinburgh used to be a walled fortress city, they had to build vertically instead of laterally…thus the creation of buildings that were 8+ stories high.
The poorest of the poor would live in the hovel-like lower levels; the more wealthy lived on the upper floors, where you actually had real ceilings and floors and might see the light of day. The closes themselves became the place for peddling wares in business stalls…and unfortunately the place where all the residents dumped their sewage…eww. The tour was slightly cheesy, but very entertaining and it gave me a better understanding of the history of the city…totally worth the time and money. I recommend booking an evening tour because it’s one of the few things in Edinburgh that stays open past 5:00.
Our third day can be summed up in a single word: RAINY. It was rainy when we woke up, it was rainy as we walked to pick up our rental car, and it was rainy ALL. DAY. LONG. It finally stopped about 8:30 p.m. Needless to say, we had to alter our plans for the day a bit because of the cold and rain, and we ended up cutting out something I had REALLY wanted to do (visit Inchmahome Priory), but we still saw some great sights and Graham successfully navigated driving on the left side of the road
Once we got our rental car, we drove to Dunfermline, a beautiful old church that wasn’t on our original itinerary, but we decided to go there because it would be indoors. There were some ruins of an extremely old building there, and then there were two parts of the main church—one section which only dates from the 1800s, but the other part dates back to the 1100s…and it’s still intact! It’s also the burial place of the famous Scottish king Robert the Bruce.
Then we headed to Stirling Castle, which was probably my favorite castle we visited. Despite the rain, we had a cheery tour guide who didn’t even bother to use a hood or an umbrella. He explained all about the Royal family tree and who lived in and influenced the castle. My favorite was the great hall, essentially the large banqueting room/throne room of the castle. The roof is what they call a hammer beam roof, made by ship builders with the same method used to construct the hull of a ship—so it really looked like someone had turned the bottom of a boat upside down. And, it’s all constructed without any nails! They use some wooden pins, but the majority relies on carefully distributing the weight of the ceiling in this puzzle of wooden beams.
Don’t you think we’d make great monarchs?
The great hall was connected by a small covered bridge hallway to the king & queen’s palace. The whole thing was painted in what they call “king’s gold” (a sunshiney yellow hue) which both colored and sealed the sandstone that was used to build the building. Apparently, many of the castles and palaces back then would have been painted rather than left with exposed stone, which would have made for some pretty spectacular colors on the hillsides!
After lunch at the most AMAZING Italian restaurant (or maybe I was just really cold and hungry…but I do think it was quite good), we decided to head straight to our B&B on Loch Lomond. I was SO happy to get out of the rain, take off my sopping wet shoes (I really need to get some wellies), and climb into bed to warm up.
We had planned to take a cruise of the lake, but it was so rainy that we just cozied up inside and relaxed for the evening.
DAY 4 – Inverary, Oban, and Glencoe
Inverary Castle is still lived in by the 13th Duke of Argyle (and clan chief of clan Campbell). It was fun to be a part of a living castle (really more of a palace, since it has no military/defensive function now). There were pictures of the Duke and his family, a letter welcoming us as his guests, and personal touches throughout. The family apparently lives on the top 3 floors, and splits time between Inverary and London.
The castle was beautiful, and it reminded me of a lot of the fancy estates I visited in England the last time I was in the UK (think Pride and Prejudice). The grounds were just as beautiful if not more so, and I enjoyed strolling through the gardens pretending like I was Elizabeth Bennett on an early morning stroll.
We left Inverary and headed through the hills to Oban (OH-bin). Part of the fun of the day was just seeing the countryside along the way. We passed several lochs as we drove and tons of little towns many with their own beautiful little churches, amazing architecture, and a few more ruined castles.
Oban itself had a really different feel than a lot of the towns we visited in Scotland. It’s a coastal port city with a really outdoorsy crowd, I think because it functions as a kind of gateway to the highlands and to some of the isles in the area. It was fun to wander down to the harbor, grab some “toasties” (toasted sandwiches) and people-watch as the boats went in and out.
Our last major stop of the day was Glencoe. I had really wanted to get way up into the Highlands to the Isle of Skye, but time just didn’t allow it on this trip, so I planned instead to take us to Glencoe, where you at least get a taste of the highlands. Google led us astray, so we never did really find the Visitor’s Center, but we managed to find a hike to do (or at least do part-way…it was CRAZY steep…you can see the trail behind Graham in the picture below).
This next picture gives you a sense of how steep the hill was for a lot of the way. Eventually, Graham told me he didn’t trust my judgement anymore (lovingly), and that he thought we should turn back before I overdid it. He’s a good husband that way. Everything was so dramatic and green…it was breathtaking (or maybe that was just because it was such a difficult hike).
I made Graham stop a couple of times as we drove back toward Loch Lomond so I could take pictures of some particularly picturesque places.
We had dinner at a little pub called The Village Rest in the town of Luss, then wandered along the banks of Loch Lomond for a bit before heading back to our B&B for the night.
Day 5 – Glasgow
We left our B&B early and drove down to Glasgow to return our rental car, explore the city for a few hours, and then catch the train to London. I think Graham was really to be done driving on the left side of the road (can’t blame him, although he did great). I had planned on stowing our luggage at the train station, but they apparently don’t have luggage lockers (oops). Thankfully, the car rental place offered to keep our luggage for us until train time. Yay for kind people!
We wandered up Buchanan Street and over to Glasgow Cathedral, which was gigantic and incredible to see. It’s the largest Gothic-style cathedral to have survived the reformation (and destruction of countless churches) during the 17th century…so it’s really old and impressive.
I honestly wasn’t overly impressed with Glasgow as a whole. It wasn’t bad; it was just more of a typical big city, and I felt like it lacked some of the history and charm that drew me to Edinburgh. To be fair, we only spent about 4 hours there, so that’s not a great sampling of what the city has to offer. If I were to go back, I’d love to see Glasgow University and some of the gardens & museums in that area, which are supposed to be top notch.
WHEW! Okay, so much for being brief, but we just did SO much on our trip. If I haven’t completely overwhelmed you, stay tuned for part 2–where we explored London!