Scotland is filled with majestic sites and sounds

Posted Thursday, Sep. 12, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
More information If you go Where to stay The Glasshouse: This hotel is in the theater district and is a short walk from Princes Street. A 2-acre rooftop garden affords a lovely view of Calton Hill. Book early to get a good deal; we stayed there for less than 100 pounds (about $150 at the time) per night, but usual peak bookings start at 230 pounds. 44-0131-525-8200; Royal Mile attractions • Edinburgh Castle: Built on top of an extinct volcano, the castle dominates Edinburgh’s skyline. See St. Margaret’s Chapel and where Mary, Queen of Scots lived in the Royal Palace. Open 9:30 a.m.- 6 p.m. daily from April 1 to Sept. 30, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily from Oct. 1 to March 31. Admission is 9.60-16 pounds. • Camera Obscura and World of Illusions: See the live moving panorama of the city at the Camera Obscura, which has been entertaining for more than 150 years. Open 9:30 a.m.-9 p.m. daily in July and August, 9:30 a.m.-7 p.m. in September and October, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. from November to March, and 9:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. from April to June. 8.75-11.95 pounds. • Palace of Holyroodhouse: The queen’s official residence in Scotland is at the end of the Royal Mile and has a great view of Arthur’s Seat. Open 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily from April through October, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. the rest of the year. Closed during royal visits. 6.65-11 pounds. Day trips • Dirleton Castle: This medieval castle in East Lothian also has magnificent gardens. Open 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily in summer, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. in winter. 3.30-5.50 pounds. • Tantallon Castle: The seat of the Douglas Earls of Angus sits on a cliff along the Forth River near the North Sea. Open 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily in summer, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. in winter. 3.30-5.50 pounds. • St. Andrews Castle: This castle served as the residence of the bishops and archbishops of St. Andrews and was the focus of the church in medieval Scotland. Open 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily in summer, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. in winter. 3.30-5.50 pounds. • St. Andrews Cathedral: The remains of this once great cathedral are a must-see. Climb St. Rule’s tower for a great view of St. Andrews and the Scottish coastline. Open 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily in summer, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. in winter. 2.70-4.50 pounds, 4.40-7.20 pounds combined with St. Andrews Castle. Other gems • The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo: Next year’s takes place Aug. 1-23. See performers from all over the world along with the massed pipes and drums, military bands, and the lone piper. Performances are 9 p.m. Monday-Friday and 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets range from 26 to 60 pounds and can be purchased at • Inchcolm Abbey: The abbey on Inchcolm Island is one of the best-preserved monastic buildings in Scotland. Take a ferry from Hawes Pier to explore the Forth River and this breathtaking island. Open 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily in summer, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. in October. 3.30-5.50 pounds. • Jenners Department Store: Shop at the oldest department store in Scotland, on Princes Street. Open 9:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. • Scottish National Portrait Gallery: See the outstanding national collection and the amazing Victorian Library in one of Edinburgh’s most iconic buildings. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Free. • Edinburgh festivals: Some events are free, but individual shows will charge. Find out more at and Getting around Explorer Pass The Explorer Pass grants entry to 78 paid properties, which includes Edinburgh Castle, St. Andrews Castle and Cathedral, and Inchcolm Abbey. A three-day pass is 24-29 pounds, a seven-day pass 31-38 pounds; buy at Transportation The United Kingdom has a great network of public transportation. Edinburgh in particular has a vast bus system that can get you anywhere in the city. A single-trip ticket is 1.50 pounds, a day pass 3.50 and a night pass 3 pounds — but make sure to have exact change. For trips outside the city, the rail system is very useful. Check return times when traveling far, as you may have to wait up to an hour between trains. You can purchase tickets online, through the ScotRail app (see below) or at a station kiosk. Essential apps • EdinBus — Lothian Buses: This iPhone app shows the multitude of bus routes around Edinburgh. You can save favorite spots, so choose sites near to you that you want to see to save time searching. Free. • ScotRail: This easy-to-use app lets you see times and prices for any train in the U.K. Book tickets and they will be ready for pickup at the station in about 10 minutes. Free. • Traveline Scotland: This app includes all bus, coach, rail and ferry routes in Scotland. Plan a trip between any two locations and it will show the ways to get there. Free.

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Only in Scotland, where venerable cities are nestled in the scenic hills, can the haunting beauty of the bagpipes fit so well. The idea of bagpipers’ tunes filling the air here may seem obvious, but you can’t help but be mesmerized.

With nine festivals taking place during the month of August, the streets are crowded with tourists and you can hear the wail of the pipes nearly everywhere in the city.

The best occasion to hear the pipes is at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. The tattoo, or military call to return to barracks, is an excellent show that exhibits and honors not only the history of Scotland and its military regiments, but represents other cultures as well.

The fleet of pipers playing in front of a majestically lit Edinburgh Castle transports you to the realm where Scotland’s true splendor resides. The ominous yet striking castle was built on top of an extinct volcano, combining wilderness and civilization.

At this year’s Tattoo, which ended just weeks ago, groups representing Mexico, Korea, China and New Zealand performed. Despite a light rain, the Imps Motorcycle Display Team, whose youngest member is 5 years old, offered the most exhilarating performance, as they rode motorbikes along the esplanade, sometimes backward, with fireworks or as part of a 15-person pyramid.

Every year, more than 200,000 people see the Tattoo, according to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo website, with about 35 percent crossing the pond to attend. This event is a must-see, but make sure to buy your tickets early. The Tattoo is performed every weekday evening and twice on Saturdays throughout August and has never been canceled due to inclement weather.

If you want to plan ahead for a Scottish adventure to coincide with next year’s Military Tattoo, here are places to go and things to do.

The Royal Mile

One of the most famous routes in the city is the Royal Mile, between Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Start your day early to beat the crowds at the castle and allow time to explore the oldest building in the city, St. Margaret’s Chapel, which dates from the 12th century.

View the Honours or crown jewels of Scotland and the Stone of Destiny, which has been at Westminster Abbey for the crowning of every monarch of the British throne for the past 700 years.

If you are on time, stay for the 1 p.m. gun firing, but make sure to get a position early. After you take in the castle, head down the Royal Mile and stop at the Camera Obscura and World of Illusions for some family fun.

The Camera Obscura on the rooftop has entertained for more than 150 years and uses mirrors to show a live view of the city below. Have fun spying on people along the cobbled streets and learn about the city’s history.

Then, head down through illusions and mind tricks, such as a room that makes it appear you are growing and shrinking, or play with light and bendy mirrors.

Continue down the Royal Mile and you’ll end up at Holyrood Palace, which is where Queen Elizabeth II stays when in Scotland. Explore the elegant rooms of the palace, but don’t forget to ask about a guided tour of the abbey, which will explain how the area received the name of Holyrood. Legend has it the name is derived from a vision of a true cross, or rood, that King David I had while hunting a great stag in the area.

End the day by eating at a local pub. No fancy wait staff here — simply belly up to the bar, place your order and take a seat. The local favorite is haggis with neeps and tatties. That translates to “sheep heart oatmeal pudding with turnips and potatoes.”

I’ve heard it’s an acquired taste.

Great day trips

North Berwick, East Lothian

A half-hour train ride east of Edinburgh will bring you to the charming seaside town of North Berwick.

From there, take the bus to see the ruins of the ethereal Tantallon Castle. The castle, which dates to the 14th century, was built for the Douglas Earls of Angus. It stands on cliffs above the North Sea and has a phenomenal view of the untamed coastline. Climb along the defenses and view the sprawling countryside that would have served the lords of the castle.

Have lunch or afternoon tea at Tea at Tiffanys on High Street for a delicious local treat. If there is time, take another bus ride to see Dirleton Castle, another remarkable example of a medieval castle, which was home to three noble families: the de Vauxes, the Haliburtons and the Ruthvens. The gardens around the keep make this an essential place to visit for anyone with a green thumb.

St. Andrews

Another day trip from Edinburgh lies to the north in the Kingdom of Fife, across the Forth River. Travel to see where Prince William and the former Kate Middleton met — St. Andrews University.

Explore the ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral and see the remnants of a once majestic building. In 1559, during the Protestant Reformation, it was “cleansed” of its altars, idols and tombs and then abandoned, allowing it to fall to its current state, according to the Historic Scotland website.

Climb St. Rule’s tower to see an incredible view of the town and the shoreline of the North Sea.

Walk down North Street and eat lunch at Northpoint, where Wills and Kate met for coffee. The tasty homemade vegetable soup or a toasted sandwich will help keep you warm, since it can be chilly even in summer.

Next, head over to St. Andrews Castle to explore underground passages of the mines and countermines, evidence of this castle’s medieval warfare.

Finish the day by browsing local boutiques on South Street.

Other gems

For a lovely afternoon on the Forth River, visit Inchcolm Abbey. Take a ferry from Hawes Pier to an island, or “inch” in Gaelic, to see the well-preserved abbey.

Sail under the iconic Forth Rail Bridge, and you may be lucky enough to spot dolphins or seals along the way. The trip takes three hours, so go first thing in the morning when there are fewer people, and bring a sack lunch to enjoy while relaxing on the island with a view of Edinburgh to your south.

Explore the ruins of the magnificent abbey and learn how the Augustinian order of monks lived in the early 12th century. Be careful when roaming, though, as seagulls and other birds nest on the island and can be quite aggressive.

Head back to the city center to shop at Jenners, which has been a department store on Princes Street since 1838. Or visit the National Portrait Gallery, a building as beautiful as the art inside.

If you haven’t done so already, walk along the crowded streets and take in side performances of the now-famous Fringe Festival. During one show this year, a man dislocated his shoulder to pass through a tennis racket. In the evenings, get tickets to a comedy act, or enjoy the ballet and opera during the International Festival.

If the hard cobblestones of the city streets and the number of festivalgoers become overwhelming, nature is not far off. Take the half-hour hike to the top of Arthur’s Seat if you are feeling ambitious, but the short climb up Calton Hill is recommended for a superb view of the city from one of Great Britain’s first public parks.

Take a leisurely stroll along Hume Walk to see the wild grass and thistle, or have a picnic as you watch the bustling city below. Be sure to visit the Nelson Monument, the Dugald Stewart Monument and the National Monument while exploring.

Rooming with a view

The Glasshouse is a marvelous, five-star boutique hotel with a 2-acre rooftop garden that provides a breathtaking view of Calton Hill. The entryway rises from the facade of an old church but was revamped into a sleek, modern lobby.

Before we could even reach the door, greeter William Yorston bounded out to welcome us to Edinburgh. The rooms are spacious, and the bathrooms have a relatively large shower (the biggest I’ve had while staying in Europe) and a tub ready for a soak.

If you stay in a suite, you may have balcony access to the rooftop garden and can enjoy a dram of whiskey in the long evenings, as the sun doesn’t set until almost 10 p.m. in August.

Before you leave Edinburgh, make sure to take a leisurely stroll along the Princes Street Gardens. The lush green in the middle of the city used to be Nor’ Loch, before the lake was drained to be used as a garden connecting the old medieval town to the new Georgian town.

The best view of Edinburgh Castle is from the benches along the garden, and if the sky is clear, relax and watch the sun set while the wails of the bagpipes waft upward — sounds you won’t soon forget.

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