How to See (Most of) Scotland in a Weekend

Given that it’s well under a fifth of the size of both the physical landmass and population of California, it isn’t difficult to see why Scotland is a perfect weekend excursion for those living in and traveling from England. It doesn’t even require a passport to travel through our fair neighbor to the North, and despite my initial skepticism, it really is possible to see (most of) Scotland in just a three day weekend.

As budget-conscious students, the overnight bus from London to Edinburgh was our best bet for transportation, and though my almost complete inability to sleep much on buses and planes made the experience less-than-restful, it was at the very least convenient to leave London on a Thursday night and arrive in Edinburgh the next morning, ready to hit the ground running.

After a pit stop at our Airbnb rental on the outskirts of Edinburgh, we bused back into the city center, situated around Edinburgh Castle, Princes Street Gardens, and Princes Street, which is lined with shops and restaurants. Also popular, and easily my favorite area for exploring, is the Royal Mile, which leads straight to the castle and is a windy, cobble-stoned street lined with pubs, cafes and gift shops.

Edinburgh is certainly a compact city, and it’s definitely doable to hit all of the main sights and attractions within a day. Though its admission proved too pricey for our budget, Edinburgh Castle is an impressive fortress, and it’s hill top lookout offered stunning panoramic views of the city. The National Museum of Scotland was a free and fun alternative to the castle, offering up everything from a cast of Mary Queen of Scot’s tomb and a real-life guillotine to dinosaur skeletons and clothing, art and jewelry from around the world.

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Just across the street from the museum is Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, which I recognized as a popular stop on many of Edinburgh’s ghost tours. It’s said that the churchyard’s alleged poltergeist, the “Mackenzie Poltergeist,” is the most well-documented instance of paranormal phenomena in the world, and is known for biting, scratching, and even causing visitors to black out in the churchyard. We decided this experience sounded a bit too extreme for our liking, but Greyfriar’s Kirkyard still makes for an interesting daytime visit. It’s the resting place of many notable Edinburgh residents, and with burials dating back to the 16th century, it’s certainly worth a visit to marvel at mausoleums and headstones that are hundreds of years old. And situated in a quiet valley between Edinburgh Castle and the towering St. Mary’s Cathedral, it definitely has an eerie sort of beauty.

Also worth a look is Victoria Street, a winding incline of colorful (literally and figuratively) shops and restaurants. Here, we stopped for lunch at Howies, and I sampled the traditional Scottish soup called Cullen Skink, which is basically clam chowder with smoked haddock (delicious!) Other Edinburgh eats and drinks of note included coffee and scones at Love Crumbs, cocktails at the Whiski Room, and hearty pub food at the Royal Mile Tavern, where we dined with dozens of jovial locals as Scotland took on Wales during the 6 Nations Championship game being played in Edinburgh. Wales was ultimately victorious, but it was a real treat seeing the city streets come alive with revelers and people of all ages decked out in fan gear, and even in the face of defeat everyone still seemed to be having a good time.

We had heard that Edinburgh was somewhat known for its nightlife, but, and perhaps this is a matter of being spoiled by London’s offerings, we were a bit underwhelmed. I would recommend researching some pubs and whiskey rooms for the best taste of Edinburgh after dark, but if you do decide to check out the nightclub scene, at the very least you won’t be out too much money for the experience as covers and drinks tended to be relatively inexpensive.

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DSC_4204_retouchedThe second day of our three-day weekend (Valentine’s Day, in fact!) was reserved for a much-anticipated coach tour to Loch Ness and the Highlands. This is a popular tour route for visitors to Scotland, and though it’s offered in some variation or another by most coach operators, we decided that the Timberbush Loch Ness, Glencoe and the Highlands tour was the best fit for what we wanted to see. It’s certainly an ambitious undertaking; we arrived at our pickup location at 7:30 am and returned to Edinburgh at just after 8 pm, but it’s definitely the most economic and efficient to see the most of Scotland in a short time. Our tour guide, Dave, was informative while still being entertaining, offering us tidbits of information and staggering our stops in such a way that the tour didn’t feel nearly as long as it was.

We wound up the west coast first, stopping for photos in Kilmahog and Glencoe, where the dormant volcanoes covered in patchy snow and deep blue lochs and rivers were simply breathtaking. Other highlights included Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain, Sterling Castle, and a necessary pit stop to feed (or attempt to, anyway) some adorably shaggy Highland Cattle. After a lunch break at Fort Smith, we reached our destination; Loch Ness. I have to admit, despite the hordes of visitors pouring from the coaches, the “Official Loch Ness Gift Shop,” and even the silly looking dinosaur-green Nessie statue, it wasn’t quite as touristy or commercialized as I was expecting. Loch Ness is also far larger than I had anticipated, stretching 24 miles from end to end, and it’s easy to see how this vast body of water could have spurred so many mysterious sightings and tales for so long.

The optional 1-hour Loch Ness boat tour wasn’t included in the price of the bus tour, but it was well worth the extra expense, as it provided an up-close look at the ruins of Urquhart castle, and standing on the bow of the ship as we cruised between mountains and rolling green pastures, with rays of sun shining down through the clouds, the water rippling and sparkling as it caught the late afternoon light, I felt so at peace, so captivated by the beauty that I didn’t even mind the late-winter cold.

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After two hours at Loch Ness, we passed through Inverness, the capital of the Highlands, and began our journey south again. We made it about halfway home before it began to get dark, as unfortunately tends to happen quite early in winter, especially so far North, but falling asleep to light fading over the snow-covered Scottish Highlands was truly an experience to remember. Though I certainly could have spent longer in the Highlands, and if I were ever to return to Scotland, would head straight up north again, a day tour was definitely the best way the most of Scotland in the shortest amount of time. A third and final day in Scotland, so as to see even more of the country, could easily be spent taking a short bus or train ride from Edinburgh to Glasgow, about an hour each way, to see the country’s largest city and more modern counterpart to the capitol.

We opted for a slower-paced Sunday and exploring a few more sights in the city that we hadn’t yet seen, including Calton Hill, which offers some of the most scenic views of Edinburgh and is home to numerous monuments including Governors House, the Nelson Monument and the National Monument. Facing Princes Street, Calton Hill provides a panorama of the city, from towering cathedral spires dotting the skyline, to the majestic, jutting  Arthur’s Seat, to the beautiful Palace of Hollyrood House. And in the opposite direction, a swath of houses and churches tumble into the bright blue of the North Sea, glistening in the golden afternoon sun.

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Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetProcessed with VSCOcam with f2 preset Having clocked 24-plus hours on a bus over the course of a three day weekend to and from Scotland, I can say with confidence that I was able to cover a fair amount of the country, and though, if I were to return, I would be more eager to further explore the Highlands and more rugged regions up North, I would wholeheartedly recommend the trio of Edinburgh, Glasgow and the Highlands if you ever find yourself with a weekend to spend in beautiful Scotland.

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