Thanks to low-cost airline travel, an affordable long weekend in Scotland is only a few hours away. Aside from the hassle of last-minute gate changes typical of budget airlines, flying into Edinburgh is relatively easy and getting from the airport to the center of town is even easier.
For only 4.50 GBP, the Airlink double-decker bus takes you right from the doorstep of the airport to the famed Mound in front of Waverly Station in a matter of 30 minutes. It lets you off in front of the towering Gothic arches of the Scott Memorial, dedicated to the writer Sir Walter Scott. It’s obvious from the start that the city of Edinburgh prizes the pen far more than most.
The Old Waverly is located at the front of New Town facing the monument itself. The squeaky door and plaid carpeting are surprisingly charming even if you’re the type to favor a monochrome wardrobe, and the creaky stairs make you feel as if you’re climbing into a different world. It’s possible that you’ll be greeted by a stereotypical Scotsman (sans the kilt and beard) who holds an alarming resemblance to the beloved Mike Myers character Old Fat Bastard. This will be the first and indeed last time you’ll encounter such a character on your stay.
The hotel is charming, with a bar-full of single malts and a view overlooking the Mound. Take a walkabout on your first night and get your bearings and the first of perhaps many single malt scotches and cask ales (unfiltered and unpasteurized beer poured from a pump-action keg that still contains active yeast). We recommend the Hebrides Pub in Old Town or the Thistle Street Bar in New Town. The inside of both is just the right kind of dingy and the bartenders, friendly — when Atlas visited the latter, they were playing Tom Petty on a loop as a tribute to his recent passing.
After the best deal in town for a proper Scottish breakfast (4.75 GBP) at the Booking Office, dedicate the first full day to a little art and a lot of books. Geek out on Raeburn Place, a.k.a. Bookers’ Row, and visit one bookshop after the other, including the Oxfam and the Shelter Charity Shop. You’ll likely walk away with an embarrassing amount of second-hand books, some bearing the names of Edinburgh’s favorite sons, Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Lewis Stevenson, others perhaps bearing the name David Foster Wallace, who was maybe one-quarter Scottish and probably not related to Braveheart’s William Wallace.
For a walk that will take you away from the crowds, try Greyfriars Kirkyard cemetery, allegedly the most haunted cemetery in the world for its poltergeist sightings and the tale of a dog named Bobby who purportedly sat on the grave of his former master for years until the graveyard authorities decided to start feeding him.
The dog, as these things tend to go, was co-opted into a tourist attraction that now lends its name to a dozen or so establishments surrounding the entrance to Greyfriars. But the cemetery isn’t another tourist trap of the “Fill-in-the-blank Experience!” Aside from the quietude, the graveyard offers a glimpse into the Scotts’ effective use of euphemisms and a reminder that the city once had to figure out how to guard its dead, when anatomy was on the rise and there weren’t enough corpses to experiment with. Those cages covering the graves, called “mortsafes,” aren’t to keep the zombies in — they were installed to keep grave diggers from exhuming grandpa and selling him off for dissection and other humiliations at the hands of medical students and hobbyist surgeons. But really, you should go.
Next, try out the People’s Story Museum, an entertaining way of learning about the history of Edinburgh from the perspective of the common folk, from the Enlightenment to the age of punk. Next, you won’t want to miss the City Art Center that showcases artistic samples from the various museums throughout the city in a way that’s innovative and informative. Depending on what you are drawn to, the museum can help guide you to the place or collection in Edinburgh that’ll inspire you most.
If you like modern art, there are two museums that make up the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art that have some pretty awesome permanent collections you can visit for free. The Modern 1 offers some works by Picasso and Matisse, a sculpture garden, and reflective pools, while the Modern 2 (also known as the Dean Gallery) offers a Paolozzi installation and a very cool Surrealist section complete with pieces by Dali and Magritte, and perhaps the largest collection of books on Surrealism in the world, although you’ll have to be someone special to get at them.
Consider popping into Deacon Brodies Tavern for another cask ale (try the Wimbledon’s Hop Harvest IPA) to get your bearings and rest up a bit. You’ll need it for the Edinburgh Castle. The cost of admission is steep (17 GBP per person!) but it’s one of those things that you might regret skipping. The views from the top are worth the cost, as are the Prisons of War Rooms and the Great Hall.
After a long day, get to know the land of the Scots by sampling the waters. There’s a 1 GBP per oyster happy hour at Ondine Restaurant nearby the castle that goes from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. They carry several varieties, but Atlas recommends the Loch Fyne oysters from Argyll in western Scotland. They’ll prepare them raw, fried, or ceviche-style if you ask, and no matter what, they’re delicious.
If you’re more of an outdoorsman, Edinburg is that rare capital city where you’re never more than a short walk away from a major green zone. And we’re not just talking about tree-lined boulevards or small woodlands — this is Scotland, after all.
You have two choices for serious hill-walking just minutes away from the city center. Calton Hill, rising up around 50 meters above the east end of Princes Street, has been praised by Robert Louis Stevenson for the best view of the city, was once converted by James II into a military preparedness park (with archery practice in place of ball games!) and became a site of ill repute in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, with reports of lewd sexual activity and assaults. These days, however, it’s filled with joggers, tourists, and families, even in bad weather. So follow in the footsteps of local resident and philosophy rock star David Hume, who encouraged the city to build a walking path for the improvement of the minds and bodies of the populace, now named Hume Walk.
The hill is also a treasure-trove for history buffs, and in addition to the memorials to the poet Robert Burns and Admiral Nelson, a Portuguese canon that’s changed hands among warring empires as far as the Far East, and Hume’s grave, the curious traveler will also find traces of an imaginary city. Calton Hill had been selected as the site that would make Edinburgh into the “Athens of the North,” first and foremost with the construction of a replica Parthenon as a monument to the Scottish soldiers who died fighting Napoleon. Alas, the monument was never finished, but the columns make for very photogenic subjects from many points around the city.
Not far from the southeast edge of Calton Hill is the beginning of the large Holyrood Park, home to the Holyroodhouse Palace and the romantic ruins of the adjacent abbey. If you’re here for exercise, however, the highest point of the park is Arthur’s Seat, eulogized by Stevenson as “a mountain in virtue of its bold design.” The peak’s shape will loom as a reminder of the volcanic activity in the area that also shaped Calton Hill as well as the rock that supports Edinburgh Castle.
Also known as Lion’s head (the whole massif that the peak tops does resemble a sleeping lion, if you squint just so), Arthur’s Seat is popular with dog walkers, solo walkers, and some serious people in training who carry small rucksacks filled with stones while jogging up the paths. There’s even a bit of rock climbing, although it’s now limited and apparently requires a free permit. The summit is a particularly serene spot at sunrise, unless you get a bunch of American Millennials blasting Ed Sheeran or the like because, you know, summits are better with your iPhone’s music (please don’t).
Some opt to take the train up to Inverness for about 40 GBP per person, but to get to Skye, you’ll need to book a bus excursion from a major city or hire wheels of your own. We recommend renting a car in Edinburgh and making your way directly. Check the fares at Easirent Car Hire Services for the latter option and remember to stay in the left lane! All car rentals in the UK require you to buy insurance to cover damage to others, which isn’t covered by foreign credit cards even if you have the swankiest card out there.
Finding a place to stay can be tricky if there happens to be a surge in tourism, so do your best to book in advance. There aren’t a lot of hostel-priced options out there, but the best price we found was at the Lodge on the Loch in Onich, near Fort Williams. The rooms are cozy and the restaurant offers a scotch of the week (for under 3 GBP!) as well as daily food specials like the dry-rub ribeye steak and the mixed cheese platter at affordable prices. The view of Loch Linnhe is magical to wake up to.
After you check out, head toward Eilean Donan Castle, perhaps best-known by film buffs as the castle in Highlander. The admission fee is 7.50 GBP and they don’t allow photography inside, but you can enjoy the view with a brew and a steak-and-ale pie from the visitor’s center cafe.
Another recommended stop along your way is to the 90-meter-high cliffs of Kilt Rock, named for its pleated appearance. To add to the majesty of the view, when the wind blows you can hear an eerie tone that seems to come straight off the edges of the pleats. It turns out it’s actually coming from the protective fence from the lookout point, but forget we said that and stick with the first story.
From here, you can continue up the main road to the Quiraing, where you will probably find some of the most breathtaking views in all of Scotland, even if the mist and the mud are thick. For hikers, picnickers, and photographers alike, this trail is a must. The whole loop covers 6.8km and takes about two hours to walk without stops, but it’s recommended to plan for at least an extra hour, and, if you’ve ditched digital photography, several extra rolls of film. Aside from the fluffy grazing sheep sprinkling the moors, you won’t want to miss the Prison, the Table, and the Needle in the mist.
If you’ve brought along a tent and sleeping bag, you can camp out anywhere you like as long as it’s out of eyeshot from the trail. The spots with the least wind and best views are near the Prison. Bring extra socks and make sure your tent is waterproofed because this area gets wet fast and so will you, but the view at sunset and in the morning make up for any fever you might bring back as a souvenir.
The Highlands and the Cairngorms
Drive back along the route you came from and cross the bridge back onto the mainland. You’ll need to turn off and head north toward Loch Ness (be sure you buckle up in case you run into something large and mythical) toward Inverness. It should take you about two or three hours to make your way up depending on how often you pull over to the side of the road to snap a photo. You’ll likely want to do this more often than you think.
One recommended landmark for a photo-op is the ruins of the 13th-century Castle of Urquhart, located about 20km outside Inverness. This castle changed hands more times than you can imagine, so at least read about its history while you take in the scenery.
Park the car in Inverness and go for lunch at the R&B Restaurant and Bar for a venison sausage ring with a side of haggis pate (when in Scotland…) and another cask ale or scotch. If you’re a dude, be sure to visit the bathroom and bring some coins sterling. Your souvenir shopping will be taken care of before you know it. We’ll just leave it at that.
Take the A9 heading south along the border of the Cairngorms National Park and turn off onto A827 to Aberfeldy, also known as Dewer’s land. The drive will lead you past fields chock-full of pheasants and grouse, daring enough to cross the street at will but skittish enough to refuse to pose for an up-close snapshot. Hang your hat at the Breadalbane Arms Hotel at the center of this tiny town and hang your still-soggy camping gear to dry near the radiator as you go explore the town.
The Fountain public house has been around for decades, as have the clients. You’ll be the only one speaking your brand of English and you’re certain to strike up a conversation or two with the locals. Try their scotch of the week for under 4 GBP and make use of the free water pitcher at the bar to cleanse your palette between rounds. Here, we tried the local stuff: The Aberfeldy 12, 16, and 21-year. They’re all worth it.
Stumble back out onto the square across from the charming Birks Cinema, the single-screen retro cinema built back in 1939, and walk up the street a bit to the Three Lemons Restaurant for a little dinner. We recommend the haddock balls with king prawns, the spinach and wild mushroom appetizer, and the meat platter drizzled in anchovy oil with a glass of Chilean Malbec, because if you have one more scotch, you’ll have to be escorted home.
The drive back to Edinburgh from Aberfeldy is just over two hours, so plan accordingly if you have a plane to catch. There are a few castle ruins you can visit along your way back, but the best by far is the Huntingtower Castle outside of Perth at about the halfway point. The entrance fee is only 5 GBP and the bonus is you’ll likely be the only ones there.
The last major landmark you’ll pass before coming back into Edinburgh is the newly-constructed Queensferry Crossing. The cable bridge opened to the public in mid-2017 and, aside from being an elegant feat of engineering, lends to lovely views of the capital you’ll likely be planning to return to soon.