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Long-time readers may know me as an intrepid adventurer who braves terrifying mountains and explores shipwrecks, using my expert photography skills to bring you crisp, stunning images of my exploits. Well, I’m also capable of undertaking long, perilous journeys to far off lands, and today I want to talk about my recent trip to a country both mysterious and intriguing.
I’ve always harbored a desire to visit Scotland, mostly based on photos of wild highland landscapes and the fact that it’s close by and therefore cheap to get to. Recently, while browsing the website of proud Irish institution Ryanair (whose CEO is famous for being a giant asshole and for once floating the idea– apparently seriously– of ultra-cheap flights where the planes have no seats), I noticed that I could nab a flight to Edinburgh for only €15.
Admittedly, three nights in a cheap B&B wasn’t quite the epic Hibredean adventure I had fantasized about, but since that’s not likely to be attainable any time soon I decided to go for it. I had always heard the city is nice, and visiting an unfamiliar capital is always exciting to a degree that’s at least slightly higher than staying home and catching up on Game of Thrones.
I made fun of Ryanair a minute ago because it’s something of a national pastime, but honestly, I’ve never found them to be that bad. Yes, the planes are small and cramped and they employ a variety of ways to make those appealing ticket prices balloon rapidly if you require anything but the most basic of services (if you need to check in luggage, for example), but for the budget traveler looking for a quick trip they’re ideal. I wouldn’t want to fly to America or Japan on one of their planes, but for most European locations? Sure, why not. Give me those rock-bottom prices.
As it happens my flight over was pretty miserable, but it was due to factors that Ryanair couldn’t control. I was seated several rows ahead of three fellow Irish people, who at some point prior to the flight– which was at 12:30, by the way– had become sufficiently inebriated that they believed every word and incoherent noise out of their mouths was extremely entertaining, and that the other passengers, the flight crew, the pilots and probably the residents of the counties we flew over would want to share in the hilarity. Never before have I wished so fervently for some sort of localized depressurization event strong enough to suck a human body through an airplane window.
Any other time I’ve visited a big city I’ve stayed at a hotel in the city centre (or at least the centre of some part of the city), which I guess is probably how most people operate. There’s a lot that’s appealing about this approach: the exciting touristy things are close by, you probably have a cool view, and there’s something intoxicating about stepping out of the doors of your hotel and being right in the middle of everything.
Unfortunately city-centre hotels tend to be fairly expensive, so for this trip I stayed at a B&B a bit away from the middle of Edinburgh. And I do mean “a bit”– a brisk walk would close the distance in under half an hour, and a bus ride took about ten minutes. For sacrificing that proximity to the heart of the city I got a room that was probably bigger than any hotel rooms that would have been anywhere close to my budget, plus breakfast, for an excellent price.
That said, I found the distance from the city centre had a more profound impact than I thought it would. All of a sudden exploring the really interesting parts of Edinburgh wasn’t as simple as taking an elevator downstairs; I couldn’t easily return to my accommodation between activities for a short rest, and when I did eventually go back I found myself reluctant to go through the hassle of heading out again if the mood struck me. And I have to say that riding a bus packed with grouchy early-morning commuters isn’t really something that screams “relaxing holiday”.
All told, I’m glad I took the approach I did for this particular trip– if I had shelled out for a hotel I would have had to penny-pinch so much that I doubt I’d have had any fun at all– but for any future visits I think I’ll be saving up for something closer to where the action is.
Before I move on I want to give a shout-out to the B&B I stayed at, called Aonach Mor. It’s a family-run place whose proprietors were very friendly and welcoming upon arrival while also allowing their guests to come and go without feeling like they’re traipsing through someone’s house, and the breakfasts were excellent, with a nice variety of options. I actually like the sterile anonymity of big chain hotels, but staying somewhere with a more homely feel was a welcome change.
Also, they gave me a free room upgrade, so, you know. There’s that.
By the time I got settled in on my first day the sun was already going down, so I only had time to head out in search of dinner. Still, I got to go through the exciting routine of any seasoned world-citizen arriving at a new destination: strike out to look for a recommended eatery you vaguely remember from the pre-trip research, get lost, check Google maps, head off on a different route, get lost again, ask someone for directions like you should have done in the first place, take a look at the menu of a McDonalds to see if it’s the same as back home. You know, the usual.
(While we’re on the subject of food, Burgers and Beers at 192A High St. is massively overpriced and sells terrible burgers)
I never felt unsafe in Edinburgh– my impression is that it seemed a lot less menacing than Dublin– but I was struck by the fact that much of the city is very dark at night, with poor street-lighting. Again, my choice of accomodation was a factor here, as I would very likely not have strayed away from the city centre at night under normal circumstances.
While faffing around during the first night I discovered that imported American crap can be bought in Tescos, as opposed to being reserved for specialty shops as in Ireland. I sensibly rejected the invitation to waste money on disgusting fake-tasting sweets. For shame, Scotland.
Oh dear how did this photo get here who could have taken this? Well time to move on
I quickly discovered that Edinburgh has a greater variability of elevation than I’m used to in a city, which means that streets can be as much as three stories above or below their neighbours. This has resulted in some fairly striking architectural features, such as fun tunnels and alleyways in the older part of the city that traverse these distances in exciting ways. I imagine all the hills would be a bit of a nightmare if you live there, but they’re fun to explore as a tourist and make the place resemble Yarnham from Bloodborne.
Also Yarnham-esque are many of the churches, cathedrals and monuments dotting the city, which seem to have been constructed by a fantasy Dark Lord with a great love of vaguely sinister ornamentation.
I decided to decline this offer.
(I also didn’t try haggis at any other time, more due to the fact that I couldn’t afford to spend money on a novelty meal than due to any real unwillingness on my part)
One of Edinburgh’s more striking features is Arthur’s Seat, a heavily-eroded extinct volcano that dominates a large park in the middle of the city. I had made plans to walk to the top of it on my second day, and then discovered that it’s actually a lot taller and more imposing than it looks in photos.
Still, I have experience undertaking death-defying mountain adventures so I bravely soldiered on.
I later discovered that I had blithely picked one of the steepest paths to the top and that there was a far easier climb just a few minute’s walk away. In any case, the views were worth the effort:
Also: it’s very windy at the top of big hills and you might be cold. Pro tip.
It’s comforting to know that even in a foreign city one can encounter the soothing capitalist fugue of an Apple shop, with its stark, vaguely dystopian decor and PC monitors that cast several times most people’s monthly salaries. This one had two floors!
After enriching my body by wheezing to the top of a mildly steep hill
and enriching my tastebuds with the delicious, zesty crunch of Cheetos™ Cheddar Jalapeno snacks, I decided to enrich my mind with a poke around the National Museum of Scotland.
Friends, I was not prepared.
Do you like big museums? Like, really big museums? Museums so big that you start to feel as if the outside world was but an illusion, and that all there ever was and ever will be is the softly-lit display cases and crisply-written placards? Then have I got the place for you, because this museum is big. Over the course of five sprawling floors it covers every moment of Scotland’s history, from Pangaea right up to the 2014 independence referendum. It just keeps going and going. I’m fairly certain some of the rooms are larger on the inside than they are on the outside. If anyone ever takes the time to read every piece of text on every display they should probably be awarded a Master’s degree in Scottish history, if not a PhD.
This place absolutely knocks the socks off of the Belfast Titanic museum, and what’s more, it’s free- they just politely suggest that you leave a £5 donation.
To illustrate how cool this place is: after I around two and a half hours of not particularly thorough exploration I casually strolled through a doorway and discovered this whole other museum attached to the rest, dealing with all sorts of other topics that don’t even have anything to do with Scotland specifically. If this was in Ireland, this one area would be the entire museum; here it’s such a small part of the experience I almost didn’t realize it was there.
And they’re building ten new wings! I wouldn’t be surprised if, ten years from now, someone in tartan pants and a shirt with the National Museums of Scotland logo on it will construct a glass dome around the entire city and politely ask people to donate £5 to get in.
After the museum I checked out the National Gallery. It’s perfectly fine, with the usual range of European styles and periods you’d expect from a major gallery in a capital city– I particularly liked the Dutch and Flemish wing– but the place was a bit small, especially compared to the National Museum. I’m pretty sure the equivalent institution in Dublin is much bigger. I like my art in volume, is what I’m saying.
On the other hand there was a cool little Turner exhibition on, which focused on smaller studies and more minor works. From a cynical perspective you could assume they had that stuff because they couldn’t get any of his more major works, but it was still interesting to see.
Things got out of hand.
Guys I solved the mystery, I found out who he is.
On my last day I walked up to Edinburgh Castle. They were charging a ridiculous amount of money to get in, but the grounds were quite nice and I got some good views of the city.
Due to how compact the tourist areas in the city centre are (pretty much everything is within easy walking distance) I had started to think that Edinburgh is quite small, but as I crested hills I was continuously surprised to spot entirely new areas sprawling away in the distance.
Around this time I also visited the Royal Mile, which is the area shown in the photo at the top of this post, and had some very nice leek and potato soup at a restaurant whose name I can’t remember. If you’re in Edinburgh just wander around until you see that view and keep asking people if they serve leek and potato soup, I’m sure you’ll stumble into the right place eventually.
Look at this cool glass roof in Waverly train station.
Please enjoy the following useful Ednburgh stats:
GDP: $32.5 billion
Similarity to Wikipedia photos: 73%
Number of bags of Cheetos™ Cheddar Jalapeno Crunch: too many
Kilt Factor: 18.42
Haggis Offset: Yes
Bagpipe Coefficient: C
When looking at photos of Scotland I was often struck by the fact that it looks very similar to Ireland, except the landscape is wilder and more interesting. Edinburgh was kind of like that for Dublin: bigger, more interesting, cleaner, less cramped.
I always hate it when travel writers try to expound on the National Character of whatever country they’re visiting based on the fleeting encounters they had with people with a tourist, but I do want to talk about something I witnessed that made a lasting impression on me.
Repeatedly, as I was walking around the city, I saw people– as far as I could tell ordinary people going about their business– sit down on the ground next to homeless people begging to strike up a conversation with them. I don’t know whether that’s a normal occurrence or if there’s some reason I kept seeing it during my trip, but I can tell you I’ve never seen that happen in all my time in Dublin. Not even once.
Anyway, I was very taken with Edinburgh for a variety of reasons and definitely plan to go back some time for a longer trip. I feel as if I only scratched the surface of the city during these three days, so there’s plenty more to experience.
Before that though, I have some important business to take care of so you’ll have to excuse me.