The drizzly days of April are upon us here in New England, and the weather has me thinking about Scotland. Ah, Scotland – the land of haggis and Braveheart and bagpipes galore. I spent a weekend exploring Edinburgh’s Old Town, getting lost in its winding cobblestone alleys, looking up at medieval architecture, and most notably, being struck by the delicious aromas that waft from every corner along the Royal Mile. Sure, the gray days combined with the dark stone buildings can feel pretty spooky, especially at night; but the savory smells and friendly Scots make this a place worth spending some time in.
The area has so much to offer (and if you like golf, you’ve reached a Mecca), but you don’t need to stray from the main road – which runs all the way from Edinburgh Castle to the coast – to get a great sense of the place. From the highest ground to the underground, here are a few of my must-see spots.
There is no better view of the city than from the top of this enormous hill, located at the end of the Royal Mile. Now, my hiking experience is pretty limited, and all I brought with me that weekend were skinny jeans and ballet flats, so if I could climb this thing, I know you can. It would take more than a full day to explore all the trails that cut through this beautiful hill, but you only need to head about halfway up to see incredible views of rolling green landscape and rocky coastline. Beware of slippery pebbles on the way down, though.
This is perhaps the most “touristy” spot in the area, but that’s not a bad thing, except that there is no student discount on admission. Still, it’s an impressive place. (Though I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a castle that wasn’t impressive...) Stroll through the great hall and the crown room, and spend some time at the Scottish National War Memorial. There is even a cemetery for soldiers’ dogs, which I found sad but sweet. Also, since the castle is perched on yet another enormous cliff, there is a stunning panoramic view of the other side of Edinburgh, the New City.
Well, all that exploring definitely works up an appetite, and what better place to try haggis than in Scotland? The Tolbooth Tavern is a cozy little spot, again on the same main stretch of road. Down past the street performers, the kilted bagpipe players, the man dressed as Braveheart collecting money for cancer victims, an ornate green clock will herald your arrival at the tavern. Its interior is accented with dark wood and deep red fabric covering the walls and floor. Once we settled in our booth, my friends opted for the safe route of fish and chips, but I dared to try the traditional Scottish favorite: haggis, neeps, and tatties (turnips and potatoes). The three heaping lumps on my plate didn’t do much to please the eye, but my stomach was more than satisfied. Haggis was saltier than I imagined, but very savory, and the vegetables felt just like comfort food. We were the only tourists in the place, which is always a good thing in my mind. Two thumbs way up to the Tolbooth.
Make your way back up High Street, and just off to the left you’ll find Tron Tavern, a more lively pub with a university feel. It was the perfect spot for a few 20-somethings to have a pint or two. The pub is split, and the lower level has plenty of tables and booths to gather with a group of friends. The biggest draw (for us college students on a budget) was the inexpensive drinks and drink specials. I found myself hooked on Brothers Toffee Apple Cider, which tastes just like a caramel apple! Too bad I couldn’t bring some home to the U.S.
Okay, if you go nowhere else, schedule at least two stops to Chocolate Soup. That is, if you don’t mind an overwhelming taste explosion of all things chocolate...and I certainly find no issue there. This was the brightest, lightest space I explored the entire weekend, a refreshing change from stone and gray. Cushioned seats surround coffee tables nestled next to floor-to-ceiling windows, a perfect spot for people watching. Of course, you’ll do so with a steaming mug – soup bowl, really – of “chocolate soup” in hand. Really, it’s decadent, rich hot chocolate, and the menu boasts a variety of flavors. My choice was spiced with nutmeg and cinnamon, heaped with whipped cream on top. There are also milkshakes, pastries and other baked goods, as well as “actual food” such as hearty soups and sandwiches. In short, the café was the perfect place to start my day before heading to Waverley station for the train back to London.
With welcoming locals among myriad shops and marketplaces dotted along the Mile, it’s easy to find yourself getting happily lost in Edinburgh. And really, who could resist that Scottish brogue?
Sarah Cotton is graduating from the University of New Hampshire with a degree in journalism. She spent part of her studies in London, a place she still calls home. Sarah’s parents planted the travel bug in her as a young girl, and she has not stopped moving since. Armed with a wanderlust and a love of all things visual, she is pursuing a career in travel writing and photography. Follow her on Twitter: @scottontrotter.