Scotland was the second stop on mine and Raechel’s England, Scotland, and Ireland tour. And it was an utter surprise and delight!
This beautiful country made the cut on our vacation itinerary mainly because our ancestors come from there (see the bonus section below), and also, why not? We were too close not to go! But unlike England and Ireland, we didn’t really have a lot of expectations or items on our To Do List.
After a bit of research, we figured out a few things to see and do, but mostly, it was a bit of a breather between two, much busier stops. However, we both absolutely fell in love with Scotland!
It was gorgeous, and the people were incredibly friendly. I think either of us would go back in a heartbeat!
Why? Keep reading!
- Both of us really wanted to take the train at some point on our trip since that’s not something we really get to do in the U.S., so this was the perfect opportunity. We made the trek from King’s Cross in London to Edinburgh’s Waverly train station in just four hours. And it was so much nicer and more comfortable than going by plane. So glad we were able to do that, and we recommend it.
- We next checked into our hotel, which was by the cruise port, and went to the nearby Ocean Terminal for lunch. Italian isn’t something I choose often, just because I’m rarely in the mood, but that places was very yummy. And I was able to get a Caprese salad, which was wonderful just because vegetables and lighter fare hadn’t been a big part of the trip so far.
- One of the main things on our list was Invisible Edinburgh, a social enterprise that employs homeless individuals as walking tour guides. (Brilliant, right?!?!) We were hoping we could join a tour later that day, so we headed to the Grassmarket District to poke around, grab some tea, and hopefully book tour tickets since that was their meeting spot.
- Scotland is known for it’s cold winds, and well, I’ve told you about our luck with the weather so far… So, it was bitterly cold that afternoon, and we ducked into a nearby cafe for hot tea. We also tried to book the tickets, but found out that there weren’t any more tours that day. They kinda do them on-demand, and due to the recent weather, there wasn’t much interest.
- Since the tour was out, we booked tickets for the day after next, and wandered around the streets for a bit. However, the sun was setting, which meant most of the businesses were closing. (Why do these major cities close everything so early!) But we managed to walk around for a bit in the wind, admiring the lovely architecture. And we knew the next day would be a long one, so we just picked up sandwiches and ate in our room.
- This day was one of the best on our entire trip due to our tour…which was 12 1/2 hours! I really wanted to see Loch Ness for the fun of it, and Raechel really wanted to take in the Highlands. So, we found a tour that let us do both, and it was awesome!
- The difficult thing about this tour is that you’re sitting for the vast majority of the day because the trip is so long. And every stop was what our amazing tour guide, Andrew (who appropriately wore his kilt), called a “ninja stop.” We were told that the quicker we could take our bathroom breaks and photo opps, the more we’d get to stop and see So, most of us took on that challenge.
- If it was cold in the city, it was far colder in the Highlands! Snow was still everywhere from the recent storm. But it was so wild and wonderful, and we loved all our little, ninja stops. Unfortunately, the photos just don’t do it justice. We were also able to stop and feed these deer in the wilderness, which ran up when they saw the white tourist buses approaching because it meant..apples! They’d come up and eat them right out of your hand. But, if you didn’t have food, they were not interested in you, ha!
- We also made our way to a truck stop type place to grab snacks for the day. (There wasn’t an actual lunch stop, so we ate along the way in the bus.) This was one of the two places we looked for souvenirs during the day, but probably because it’s one of the tour bus stops, everything seemed priced high.
- One of the reasons that made Andrew such a great guide is that he told a lot of fantastic stories. The tour guides on these excursions are certainly trained in history and lore, and you hear a lot of that on the different routes no matter where you are, but Andrew was highly skilled. And, when he wasn’t talking, he’d play Scottish music to set the scene.
- By the time we arrived at Loch Ness, the skies had cleared up beautifully. It was still quite cold, but otherwise, a gorgeous day. And, boy, do those people feed the Loch Ness legend! You see toys and dolls and trinkets everywhere! Even the boats have sonar displays so you can see if there’s anything “below.” Sadly, we didn’t see Nessie, but it was a lot of fun anyway. The stories are great, and there is a lot of necessary intrigue to the waters because of their mineral saturation and density. We also tried “Highlands Hot Chocolate” on the boat, which is hot chocolate with whiskey.
- It’s more of a straight shot home after Loch Ness as the sun is setting. This mostly meant a very, long late afternoon/early evening nap…for everyone.
- We were starving by the time we arrived back in Edinburgh around 8:00 p.m., and therefore, just looking for a place nearby to eat. So, we popped into Ensign Ewart’s Pub—and were glad we did! First established in 1680, the place is very small, but adorable. We were lucky to find a table, and the food was awesome. We highly recommend the Scottish Venison Casserole. And the live music starts at 9:00 p.m. Oh, and it’s so small that there’s no stage. They just reserve a couple small tables near the bar for the musicians. It’s really traditional, and a great experience. A totally lovely way to end our fantastic day.
- Day trip link – You’ll see lots of different Loch Ness and Highlands tours, but we both HIGHLY recommend this one. Our tour guide, Andrew, was phenomenal! (He was asked to give the tour for the Saudi royal family!) And we loved that this was a small group of people, not one of the huge buses. It is an extremely long day, and a long time sitting, but if these sites are on your list, this is the tour for you.
- This was our final, full day in Edinburgh, and our chance to really take in the city. Thankfully, we had a sunny day for exploring.
- Edinburgh is not a huge city, so the hop on, hop off bus route only takes about an hour and a half. So, we did that first to see everything and get our bearings. (Read more about my thoughts on doing this here). Plus, it’s a great way to get an abbreviated history of the place.
- Next, we toured Edinburgh Castle, the inspiration for Hogwarts. It’s right in the middle of the city, and overlooks EVERYTHING, which makes it great for photo taking on a clear day. It’s also quite large and, #nerdalert, reminded me a lot of Gondor from Lord of the Rings because it houses it’s own shops, restaurants, and chapel, not just the family’s living quarters. It’s very hilly, too, making it different in many ways from the other castles we saw on the trip. Since it was midday while we were there, we stopped in one of the on-site restaurants for a delightful lunch of tea, sandwiches, and scones. This only served to feed my obsession with Earl Grey tea and scones (try the lemon!).
- Afterward, it was on to the Invisible Edinburgh tour, which was a blast. Biffy was our tour guide, and we chose her because she was leading “The Paths of Inspirational Women” tour. It’s likely the tour we would’ve chose from them anyway, but it made it more special since it was the day after International Women’s Day. The guides, as I mentioned, are all formerly homeless, so you hear their personal stories as well as the stories of Edinburgh on the walk. Included, was passing by the cafe where J.K. Rowling started writing the first Harry Potter book. Biffy’s boyfriend, Sonny, is also a guide, and joined us on the tour, so we were able to hear bits of his presentation as well. And one of the volunteer staffers came along, too, and we asked her questions about the organization and founding. They are doing incredible work, and we felt so privileged to join them for a few hours.
- That night, we had dinner with one of Raechel’s friends from Atlanta who now lives there. It was really great to get her perspective on the city, the culture, and the country. She reinforced our love for these things, and definitely made us ready to return. Three days just wasn’t enough!
- Hop On Hop Off Bus on Viator – Like most cities, there are a couple of options for this kind of thing. With our hotel’s location in Leith, this one wasn’t the best choice. We had to take the regular bus into the city center to catch it. But there was another tour company that stopped right outside our hotel, so that would’ve been better. Of course, we just had no idea until we arrived. So, this would be something you could probably wait on until you got to Edinburgh.
- Breakfast at the hotel, and then off to the airport for our Ireland adventure!
- We hadn’t had time to do much shopping in Scotland up to this point, so most of this took place in the airport. Strangely, though, we found some good stuff, including our souvenirs and gifts. And did you know that shortbread originated in Scotland? You see the stuff EVERYWHERE, but we found a gourmet shop for it in the airport. I bought my mom lemon shortbread cookies for Mother’s Day, and the sweet clerk also gave me some clotted cream shortbread for myself. We were also told to try this stuff called “tablet” which is kind of a shortbread/candy hybrid. I brought some of that home, too, but wasn’t a fan. Too sweet!
You can check out all the trip photos here.
- The Scottish people are VERY proud of their country and heritage. You see the Scottish flag, bagpipes, kilts, etc, everywhere you go. And many of them believe they should be their own rulers, rather than under the thumb of the English monarchy. Some of them are also quite happy to talk about that as well. 😉 There is a long, bitter, and bloody history there, and after you go on the tours and here the stories, you totally get it. The British Empire did a lot of mental, physical, and spiritual damage.
- We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express Waterfront, which was fine (and included breakfast!), but because Edinburgh has such limited public transportation options, we were a couple of miles north of the city in Leith. So, this meant we either take the bus, which sucks up much-needed time in the day, or a cab/Uber. So, we ended up paying much more for transportation here than anywhere else.
- A number of things close early like restaurants and attractions, so double-check this stuff when planning.
- As I mentioned in the last post, I got sick at the tail end of the England portion. If this happens to you, you’re in luck in Scotland! They had the best meds, which is a weird statement to make, I know. But they had this cold medicine that stopped up runny noses and made stuffed up noses run. I have no idea how this works, but it was miraculous. However, they also have the same limits on how much you can buy, like England, so I only walked away with two, small packs and had to restock in Ireland, which didn’t carry it.
- You’ll find lots of little booklets with clan history everywhere, divided up by last name. I already had one from my aunt’s previous trip, but lots of the souvenir shops have them, if you’re looking for something like that to take home. You also, of course, see many types of plaids (tartans) for purchase that are associated with clans. It’s good to research this before you go, because there are a lot that look similar.
- I was also delighted to see a poster in the airport for anti-trafficking. This is an issue that is near and dear to my heart, and my foray into social justice. Edinburgh and Scotland seemed to be very focused on social justice issues from things we saw around the city and heard about.
- In taking the Invisible Edinburgh tour, we discovered that there was a retail store they also operated. Unfortunately, it was closed by the time we finished the tour. Otherwise, we would’ve eagerly looked for our souvenirs there. We also didn’t make it to Social Bite, a social enterprise cafe, or HOME, their upscale restaurant. They are affiliated with Invisible Edinburgh and Biffy and Sonny also work there. Famous patrons include William and Kate, Leo di Caprio, and George Clooney. (Sonny said they were all nice, lovely people!) But I really wish we’d had the chance to support these places as well.
- Even though we were in Edinburgh most of the time, we did use cash now and again, so it’s good to have some handy.
- Edinburgh had the most efficient airport I’ve ever seen, and also the nicest employees. It may seem weird to make note of this, but it really impressed us. That’s just how different it was from other airports!
- Fun fact: Scotland boasts the highest percentage of redheads in the world at 13%.
GENERAL TRIP NOTES AND ADVICE:
- It took me a long time to find this site (like a year and a half), but we booked our trip through TripMasters. This lovely site allows you to choose exactly how many nights you’d like in each country (worldwide), in what order, and your mode of transportation as well. It also gives you the opportunity to bundle your hotel and activities. You can go with the cheapest hotels or even upgrade to nicer ones. We got a great deal, and I definitely recommend using this site if you don’t want to book everything separately.
- These Clarks Cloudsteppers were my saving grace on this trip! I wore them most of the two weeks, and they made all the walking so much easier. I did end up with a couple of blisters, but they weren’t bad, and didn’t hurt while wearing these babies.
- I love using Viator for trip activities and excursions. The app also allows you to keep vouchers there rather than printing them.
- It depends how you like to travel, but we both liked being active and on the go. So, most lunches were just snacks we picked up or packed. Then we’d stop for nicer dinners.
- As you can already tell from this post, Raechel and I are planners. So, we had a Google Sheet set up with what were doing each day and time, along with links and reservation numbers, track expenses, etc. This helped us maximize our time really well, and was awesome since we were planning a lot over email and phone while living in different cities.
- Raechel had international data through her work phone, which served us VERY well. Otherwise, we were going to use AT&T’s international day pass, and just trade off days to split the costs.
- Unfortunately for me, most places didn’t take AMEX (which was all I carried), so Raechel paid for a lot of the little stuff like meals, and I bought the big, online things like tours with my card to balance us out.
- When we weren’t using the hop on, hop off bus or Underground (which was the vast majority of the time because Raechel is awesome at navigation), we used Uber. I would’ve definitely preferred Lyft, but it’s not in other countries yet. You can, of course, take the adorable taxis but I just love the ease of ride share apps, payments, tips, and splitting fares. (Use my link for an introductory discount.)
- I got a head cold at the end of the week, and wish I would’ve brought cold meds, aspirin, etc, with me. I found all those things there, of course, but most everything comes in packs of 16 tablets, and you can only get two packs at a time…so, I made multiple trips in all three countries.
MY TRAVEL NECESSITIES:
- We tried out these foot hammocks for the international flights. They may seem and look silly, and let’s face it, they are, but they made sleeping on the intercontinental flights a bit easier. We also had Delta Comfort seats, so we had more leg room. I was too tall to use them in the cheap seats, since my knees almost hit the seat in front of me, but Raechel is shorter, and used them in both spots successfully.
- I travel with a number of doTerra essential oils, but for active trips, I especially recommend the Deep Blue Samples. These little gems are like Icy Hot, but better, and are fantastic at the end of the day on your feet or back.
- I do not like hand sanitizer because it makes my hands feel sticky and gross. But I found these alcohol-free Babyganics wipes before my trip to India and now carry them with me everywhere. These make my hands feel clean and not sticky, and are great for travel and on the go—baby or not.
- One of my friends who is a travel writer gave me this tip, and it’s a good one. Whether it’s blistering hot (hello, India!) or a beautiful day (hello, LA!), carrying electrolyte tabs or powder is a great idea to keep you replenished.
- I don’t go anywhere without wrinkle release, because I hate ironing. And on international trips, I wasn’t sure what the iron situation would be anyway.
- Love my Envirosax! I keep several in my purse at all times, but I also take them when traveling because they always come in handy. I even use the pouch they come in on trips for cords and things.
- These Tide sink packets are great for short trip emergencies or long trips when you can’t access laundry facilities or don’t want to pay for them.
- This silicone flat iron pouch is good for when you have limited counter space and need to rest a flat iron or curling iron on the floor or another surface.
- We ended up buying a small bag of Epsom salt in England for our achy feet, but next time I’ll just take these travel packs.
- For adapters and travel cords, I’ve had great luck with these options: this Belkin block is good for home and travel, this little Monster stays in my laptop bag at all times, and this Maxah universal plug has gone with me to five countries so far.
- Sadly, my portable charger isn’t available any longer, but I prefer one like this that can charge different kinds of devices at once.
- I do a cleanse about three times per year or so, but especially after extensive travel or when food quality has been bad (hear: fried carbs). This is a good option for newbies and is more gentle on your system, but I’ve used many kinds by this brand.
Because our families are both originally from the UK and Ireland (way, way back), Raechel and I both asked for Ancestry DNA kits for Christmas so we could get our results before the trip. That made our time even more fun and interesting, and we were on the lookout for our family’s last names and traces every where we went.
For the record, I’m 44% British, 37% Ireland/Scotland/Wales, as well as a little of this and that. But, really, you could just look at me and figure that out. 😉
Next up: Ireland
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