Not to date myself but one of my all-time favorite musicals is “Brigadoon,” and one of my favorite television programs back in the day was “Highlander.” So I was enamored with Scotland long before I ever made it there for the first time.
I’ve returned several times since and have yet to be disappointed. On my first trip, I accompanied friends visiting their son who was spending a semester in Edinburgh. For a first-timer, Edinburgh and the surrounding area is a good place to start.
First on our agenda was a double-decker coach tour around the city. While Edinburgh is compact and walkable (albeit hilly), it’s always a good idea to get an overview of a city when you first arrive, and a guided bus tour is a great way to do that. The Scots are a good-natured people, and our guide provided a wealth of Scottish history and trivia, as well as a good dose of humor along the way.
The old and the new co-exist seamlessly in Edinburgh. The Old Town is made up of winding streets and narrow lanes, while in the New Town you’ll find classic European squares, broad streets and colorful gardens. Due to strict preservation laws, the Old Town has remained — and will continue to do so — just as it has for centuries.
Victoria Street in Edinburgh’s Old Town is one of the most photographed locations in the city. (Richie Chan/Shutterstock)
Edinburgh Castle makes a good first stop. You can’t miss it since it looks out over the entire city. Located at the top of the Royal Mile, the castle is built on a volcanic rock that has been the site of a fortification of one form or another since Celtic times. The tiny St. Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest building in Edinburgh, has stood intact for more than 900 years on the grounds of the castle. Visitors can watch the firing of the 1 o’clock gun, a custom dating back to when few people owned clocks or watches.
While at the castle you also can see the Honours of Scotland, the oldest crown jewels in Europe; the Stone of Destiny, on which all monarchs of Scotland were crowned; the Royal Apartments, which include the room where Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to the future James VI of Scotland (James I of England); and the Great Hall.
Every year for three weeks in August, the Castle Esplanade is also the site of the world-famous Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and you can join throngs of residents and tourists alike for this program of music, marching and historical re-enactments. From the ramparts surrounding the castle, you have a magnificent view of all of Edinburgh.
Leaving the castle, head down the Royal Mile, lined with restaurants, tourist shops and the de rigueur kilt-wearing, bagpipe-playing Scotsmen. At the foot of the Royal Mile is the Palace of Holyroodhouse, which not only houses some of the queen’s royal art collection but also is home to the royal family when they visit Scotland.
Bagpipers can be found busking in the streets of Edinburgh. (Allna G/Shutterstock)
Behind the palace is Holyrood Park, dominated by a volcanic remnant known as Arthur’s Seat. From the top you can see all of Edinburgh, as well as the kingdom of Fife and the Borders.
Not far from the palace, and next to the architecturally controversial Scottish Parliament Building, is “Dynamic Earth,” an exhibition that opened in 1999 and tells the story of the evolution of the Earth, from the “big bang” to the present day.
While Edinburgh is known for its drizzly, chilly climate, don’t let that stop you from strolling along Princes Street for a few hours of shopping. The other side of the street is home to the Princes Street Gardens, where you can stop for a break and enjoy the famous Floral Clock.
There are other sights to see in and just outside of Edinburgh, including the National Museum of Scotland, the National Galleries of Scotland and the Royal Yacht Britannia. But if you can, try to get outside the city a bit as well (my friends arranged for a Blue Badge tour guide to show us some of the sights — and sites — in the outlying areas so we didn’t have to worry about transportation).
The Forth Bridges is a popular photo-op stop. These two bridges, only a few miles outside Edinburgh, cross the River Forth at North and South Queensferry and connect the Lothians to the Kingdom of Fife. One bridge was built for the railway and one for the roadway; the railway bridge is more than 110 years old and is considered a masterpiece of Victorian engineering.
Not far from the bridges is the lovely little town of Jedburgh, where we first visited the ruins of the Jedburgh Abbey, which was founded in 1138, and then enjoyed a whiskey tasting at the abbey tourist shop.
Our next excursion from Edinburgh was to the Wallace Monument, which sits high atop the cliffs that overlook the site of the Battle of Stirling Bridge. If you missed Mel Gibson in the movie “Braveheart,” William Wallace was the hero who led the Scots to victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, only to be defeated at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298 and eventually executed in London.
If you just want to walk around a typical Scottish village, stop in the delightful town of Culross. The red-tiled houses and whitewashed walls of this small village are kept up by the National Trust for Scotland, which might explain its picture postcard-prettiness, but you’ll be enchanted by the cobblestone streets and peaceful air about the place. There are some sights to see, including the remains of the Cistercian Culross Abbey; the Study, a restored 17th-century house; and Culross Palace, a 16th-century merchant’s house.
If this will be your first trip to Scotland, you’ll be as charmed as I was. It’s a destination worthy of more than one visit.
For information, visit the Scottish Tourist Board, visitscotland.com.
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