There are several things I consider travel jackpot. A flight upgrade. A hotel upgrade. Any upgrade. Early check-in after a red eye flight. Being the only couple booked on a group tour. Lift access at a train station! But another one of my favourite holiday wins is the opportunity to see a city you hadn’t counted on.
My boyfriend and I were visiting friends in Glasgow, Scotland last month as part of our five week trip to Europe. We had one day left in the city and were sat around our friend’s breakfast table thinking about what to do. When Edinburgh was suggested, I initially dismissed the idea. I’d spent five hours on a train from London that week and wasn’t keen for another long travel day. But then I was told Edinburgh was only 50 minutes away by train. I had no idea! I’d been to the UK before and it was, in fact, my second visit to Glasgow. I felt foolish but it was decided – we’d make a day trip to Edinburgh. A brand new city. Unexpectedly. Holiday jackpot!
Edinburgh has two main areas – the Old Town and New Town (which, despite its name, was actually built in the 1700s). Old Town sits on top of a hill, crowned by the magnificent Edinburgh Castle. There are steep cobblestone streets, souvenir shops and it’s also home to the National Museum.
By contrast, New Town is largely flat with neat, well-planned streets. Here you’ll find the main train station Edinburgh Waverley, gardens and the shopping precinct. It’s a short (10 minute) walk between Old Town and New Town, with The Mound being the most common thoroughfare. The Mound is also home to the National Gallery and the Bank of Scotland headquarters.
Edinburgh is about an hour’s drive from Glasgow or you can catch the train. You can get a return off-peak ticket for £12, allowing you to depart Glasgow after 9.15am weekdays (anytime weekends) and catch the 4.30pm train back. A peak ticket is £23 but you can travel anytime. The journey take about 50 to 60 minutes, depending on exactly where you leave from and how many stops the train makes. The countryside views are beautiful! Click here for the ScotRail website. Alternatively, there are frequent trains from London to Edinburgh, taking about 4.5 hours (from £30).
Edinburgh Castle was at the top of my sightseeing list and I got my first glimpse as we pulled into Edinburgh station. My friend pointed out the view from our train window was a unique angle you couldn’t get in the city. Edinburgh Castle was a 15 minute walk from Edinburgh station, via a short but steep stair case. We arrived at 12.45pm and had our tickets (£17 for an adult) within a few minutes.
We followed the crowds to wait for the One O’Clock Gun. The firing of the gun dates back to 1861, allowing ships to set their maritime clocks for navigation. At exactly 1pm, the gun went off. It was entertaining but brief. Don’t worry if you miss it and note: the gun isn’t fired on Sundays either.
I was much more fascinated by the actual castle. I had expected one large building, with long hallways connecting different rooms and courtyards like in the movies. But Edinburgh Castle was more like clusters of individual buildings, with big outdoor areas. Some buildings had been converted into mini-museums, and others like the Grand Hall were more of a recreation.
The views across the city were breathtaking and it was easy to see why the location had such military value. I enjoyed looking out to the ocean and countryside as much as exploring the castle itself. Our entire visit lasted an hour, but you could spend much more time there if you read every bit of information. We didn’t visit the War Museum either, but that’s because we were ready for lunch.
Opening hours: 9.30am – 6pm (5pm 1 Oct – 31 Mar) | https://www.edinburghcastle.gov.uk
lunch: rose street
After visiting Edinburgh Castle, we walked to New Town via The Mound. The route took us past the impressive National Gallery and the Princes Street Gardens. Our destination was Rose Street, where you’ll find plenty of pubs and restaurants offering hearty looking meals.
I was keen to try some traditional Scottish food and was intrigued by vegetarian haggis. I spotted it on a menu outside Auld Hundred so we grabbed a table upstairs. I ordered vegetarian haggis with ‘neeps and tatties’ (£7.95), or ‘turnips and potatoes’ for those who aren’t versed in local lingo. My boyfriend and our friend ordered chicken breast stuffed with haggis (£10.50) and macaroni cheese with chips (£7.75) respectively. With a round of beers, we were set! Unfortunately, I didn’t like the random beer I’d chosen so I defaulted to a pint of Tennents lager (£3.75).
Our meals arrived and we didn’t waste a minute. My vegetarian haggis tasted like a mild falafel relative, with a chewy, thick oat texture. My boyfriend said his chicken-stuffed haggis was far tastier than his initial haggis experience many years ago. All in all, a hearty and warming lunch. Don’t forget to tip 10 per cent at restaurants!
By now, we had less than an hour before our train left for Glasgow. From Rose Street we walked up to George Street towards St Andrew Square. Here I was introduced to the small but beautiful department store Harvey Nicols. If you can’t afford the designer shoes or clothing, head to the 4th floor to experience the Chocolate Lounge. It’s like a sushi train, but instead offers various chocolates and desserts along with champagne. It was beautiful! This floor is also where you’ll find a great selection of wine and spirits, along with gourmet foods.
We caught the latest train back possible on our off-peak tickets, which departed Edinburgh about 4.30pm. Next time I visit the Scottish capital, I’ll check out the National Gallery, go whisky tasting and visit the port district of Leith which is about 10 minutes drive from the city centre.
Edinburgh is a city unlike anywhere I’ve been before, especially Old Town. Walking through its streets is almost like time travel if you can ignore the selfie sticks and hoards of people. The level of restoration and preservation of old buildings is extraordinary, and the historic feel continues well beyond Old Town when looking out across rooftops. Edinburgh was an unexpected bonus on our holiday but such a highlight!
QUESTION: When did you unexpectedly visit a bonus city?