Guide to Exploring Edinburgh, Scotland
Edinburgh, Scotland made us feel like we were in another world! The architecture, history, and people all had an incredible charm. Oh, and the Scotch was pretty good, too!
When we found our unreal flight deal to London through The Thrifty Traveler, we knew we had to find a way to sneak away to Scotland, also! I’ve always wanted to go as some of my family history originates from here. After a little research, we decided on Edinburgh and opted to take the train so that we could see some of the landscape on the way. Plus, it was very affordable! I purchased a Two-Together Railcard (approximately $35 USD and good for one year) that allowed Ryan and I to purchase train tickets at a discounted rate during slightly off-peak hours and weekends as long as we were traveling together. This ended up saving us over $150 over the course of our trip, so it was worth it.
We snagged an 11AM train from London King’s Cross to Waverly Station in Edinburgh on LNER. We had reserved our seats, so finding our train car and seat assignment was a breeze. We opted for seats at a table and ended up having both sides to ourselves on the trip up. A refreshment cart passed us, and they also had a dedicated bar car that you could visit. The landscape was fairly rural (though pretty), but we were able to see views of the North Sea and check out a few other UK cities as we passed through. We got into Waverly Station around 3:15 and set out to meet our Airbnb host. I’m glad we followed the street directions she gave us, because our phones would have led us up some very steep closes (alleys, basically) that would have been the more “direct” route. Slightly faster yes, but not convenient with wheeled luggage.
Our host Charlotte met us at her Airbnb flat in Old Town and was so gracious! She showed us everything we might need and even left us bread, eggs, and chocolate for our stay. The apartment was very spacious, with separate living room, kitchen, bath, and bedroom spaces set off a long hallway. I loved the large living room windows that overlooked the street below, and everything was spotless. Do note that it is located on the fourth floor and there is no elevator, so you will have to use the stairs! The location was perfect, and was a very short walk to everything in Old Town. New Town was a bit further, but still walkable!
We freshened up and set out to explore and enjoy dinner. We had already fallen in love with Edinburgh during our short walk from the train station to our Airbnb, and we roamed around for a bit with wide eyes, soaking in how cool everything was. I felt like I was in a Harry Potter Movie! The buildings, roads, and overall aesthetic is unlike anything we have in the U.S. I loved the twists, turns, and cool alleys everywhere you looked.
After a quick beer at a local pub we stumbled upon, we headed over to El Cartel for dinner. The interior was modern and well-decorated, but space is limited so be sure to arrive early or make a reservation. My mind was blown by the pomegranate guacamole with banana chips - I’ve literally never eaten banana chips before, and with guacamole they are AMAZING! Life. Changed. The wings and steak tacos were perfectly prepared, also. The drinks were a little on the small side, but we learned that in London when our liquor pours were smaller than we were used to in the U.S.
After dinner we stopped back at our apartment for a jacket (the temperature varied a lot during our May trip) and headed to Bannerman’s, a below-street level rock and whiskey bar featuring stone walls, two separate bar areas, leather chairs, and a small concert venue. This ended up being one of our favorite bars and we actually came back here each night! Their no-bullshit attitude was refreshing (they literally told a group to immediately leave after seeing them walk a little too loud and tipsy lol), the music was good, and the drinks were priced well.
Next, we went just up the block to Banshee Labyrinth - another spot we ended up visiting each night! A labyrinth, by definition, is “a complicated irregular network of passages or paths in which it is difficult to find one's way” - AKA a maze. And, this spot is literally a HAUNTED maze of bars, sitting areas, live music spots, billiards rooms, caves, and a free movie theater you can take your drink into. It’s probably the most unique bar I’ve ever been to. If I lived here I would come drink beers and watch free movies in a haunted underground theater a couple times a week, haha!
The next day we set out to explore more of Edinburgh courtesy of Visit Scotland! Our first stop was Edinburgh Castle, which was built way back in the 12th Century. The castle sits high in the sky, overlooking Edinburgh from a volcanic crag named Castle Rock. During our visit we crossed drawbridges and moats, visited chapels, prisons, and museums, and witnessed a live gun exhibition from one of the cannons.
Once you enter the grounds, you’ll realize there is a lot more to see than it looks like from the city, so make sure to give yourself at least two hours ( if not more). There are so many levels, nooks, and crannies to this castle, and it was surreal to stand where so many battles were fought and people were housed (willingly or unwillingly). The views alone are outstanding, so this is a must for your visit!
After touring Edinburgh Castle, we walked a short distance to The Scotch Whisky Experience. We opted for the Silver Tour, which took us on a 50-minute tour of the facility and gave us a sample of our preferred whisky. We learned a TON in a very short time, and the tour was very interactive. The final whisky room is something you HAVE to see in person - it’s stunning!
Afterwards we spent some time exploring random streets in Edinburgh, watched street performers, and stopped for a drink at places like Scotsman’s Lounge and The Royal Mile Tavern before dinner. Both spots offer a great drink menu and live music!
When it came for dinner, we easily navigated to Advocate’s Close and followed the steps down to The Devil’s Advocate for dinner. The first floor of this haunted spot houses a large bar and socializing space along with tables for dining. Upstairs, in the loft area, there are additional tables that provide a more intimate dining experience. We were seated upstairs in the loft and enjoyed looking out over the close and the space downstairs in the candlelight. We ordered one of their boards to start, Ryan devoured their brisket dish, and I had some of the best cod I’ve ever eaten. Actually, it might BE the best cod I’ve ever eaten. Go here!
After dinner it began to rain, but it didn’t stop us from going on the Doomed, Dead, and Buried Ghost Tour with Mercat Tours! This 1 hour and 45 minute tour gives you a quick history lesson before bringing you down to spooky underground vaults that are not accessible to the public. We definitely felt eerie down there and my phone camera picked up some interesting, um, orbs. Eek! Afterwards, we made a few additional stops before ending our journey in a spooky graveyard. Our tour guide, Steph, was great and we learned a ton of haunted history. Tickets are limited, so be sure to book in advance!
After the tour we were hungry again, so we split a small pizza at a chain called Pizza Express that was very good! Then, we ended up back at Bannerman’s and Banshee Labyrinth for a few drinks. I told you we loved these bars! If you see or meet Ryan, ask him what happened on our walk home - it’s a funny story that isn’t meant for the blog, but let’s just say it involves a trash can.
The next morning was easy going, and we slept in a bit before heading out. Maybe the jet lag caught up to us a little, after all! Or, the Jager bombs. Once we got our wheels rolling, we walked down through Greyfriar’s Kirkyard reading tombstones and admiring the architecture of some of the nearby buildings. If you’ve read any of my other posts, you know how much I love graveyards! Some people find them spooky, and admittedly I probably would also at night, but I think they are beautiful during the daylight hours!
We explored Grassmarket Square nearby, which is a wide street filled with beer gardens, artisan food vendors, and art markets. We then walked up colorful Bow St. / Victoria St., ending up back on the George IV Bridge where we stopped at the George IV Bar for a drink. We also stopped at Villager next door for some chicken skewers and a glass of wine before stopping back at our Airbnb to freshen up for the rest of the evening.
We hadn’t explored New Town yet, and it was our last night in Edinburgh, so we figured we visit this part of town for dinner. The split between Old Town and New Town is basically Waverly Station (the railroad tracks) and a strip of green space, and the difference is exactly as it sounds - the part that is older and the part that is newer. Old Town looks like you’re in another world, and has winding streets and odd alleys. New Town is more modern, with streets aligned in a grid pattern. Old Town is also higher up, and you can see Edinburgh Castle high off to the right in the photo below.
I had made reservations at The Voodoo Rooms, which turned out spectacular! Beyond an amazing bar and dinner menu, this spot also has rooms for private events and hosts small concerts. The interior was so ornate and reminded me so much of my much-loved time in New Orleans. We started the evening with cocktails at the bar and enjoyed the energy in the room. Ryan ordered a drink called Gorilla Marketing with a full raw egg in it (we’ve both previously only tried cocktails with egg white) and it was SO good! I’m glad he got it, because I probably wouldn’t have tried it otherwise.
The food and drink at The Voodoo Rooms was incredible also, and is another spot I’d highly recommend for your visit. We split the fried goat cheese as an appetizer, I ordered the cod (amazing!), and Ryan opted for their gourmet beef burger. Everything was fantastic and the ambiance was on point. Even the bathrooms were cool!
After dinner we walked around New Town a bit, and settled at a bar called Element for a drink. It reminded me a bit of a movie, but I can’t think of which one. Maybe The Holiday? Anywho, we walked back up to Old Town, where we made friends with a group of locals at The Mitre Bar and listened to live music for a couple of hours! We had so much fun, and I only spilled a little red wine on myself. * Rolls Eyes * Somehow we ended back up at Banshee Labyrinth again before calling it a night, haha.
The next morning, we packed ourselves up, grabbed some breakfast and caffeine at Starbucks (can’t get away from the mothership) and returned to Waverly Station for our train back to London. Visiting Scotland was the absolute favorite part of our European adventure, and we will DEFINITELY be back to explore more of this beautiful country. ‘Til we see you again, Scotland!