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One Week in Edinburgh, Scotland Pre-tour report (detailed)

We arrived at Edinburgh Waverly Station via train from York, UK for a one week stay prior to our Rick Steves’ Best of Scotland tour. We always like to come in early to a beginning destination to get over jetlag and to give us more time to see the city. From our short time here, we have come to regard Edinburgh as one of our favorite cities and we would happily return someday.

We tried to book our stay at the same hotel that the RS tour was using, but they could not put us for a complete week pre-tour, and it was also outrageously expensive. We found a spacious Airbnb called Coinye House Close for less money (not cheap, but worth it for what we got) and it was a spacious one-bedroom apartment for two people. It had a separate kitchen, dining area and nicely furnished living room. It had a washer, which was a “must have” for us, and Wi-Fi (albeit slow speeds).

The apartment was just 280 feet off the Royal mile down a pedestrian passageway called South Gray’s Close and it was the perfect location to be able to walk everywhere. It was ½ mile to Edinburgh Castle on the uphill side and ½ mile to Holyrood Palace on the downhill. Our bright and airy 2nd floor apartment had nice views of an inner garden courtyard on one side and St. Patrick’s church on the other side.

On this forum about 6 months ago, someone asked where they should stay in Edinburgh and when I suggested they look into this place along the Royal Mile, I was shot down by locals telling me that the location was too noisy and not a very nice area to stay and that a better place to stay was over a mile away in the quiet neighborhoods either North or South of the royal mile at a similarly priced B&B. They recommended the person take the bus in every day. Well, I want to tell you they were wrong! Despite being 280 feet from the hustle and bustle of the Royal Mile, the apartment was quiet and serene and in a safe area. Because of the location, we ended up attending late night Fringe Events at venues along the Royal Mile and the University and walked back to our apartment each evening, which is something we would not do or could have done if we had to take a bus to and from our lodgings each day and night. For us, the convenience of a good location justified the higher price. And yes, during August, most Edinburgh lodgings raise their prices due to the high demand. Because we knew that, we booked this place as soon as we booked the RS tour.

From the train station, it was a short 10-15-minute walk to the AirBnB. We rode the lift up from the station platform to Market Street on the South (Old town) side and wheeled our luggage through the heavy rain following the route our host gave us and met our host at the apartment.

We rested until evening before walking to the Grass Market area to eat dinner at the Beehive Inn. Since this was our first day in Edinburgh, I let Apple Maps direct us to the area. It had us walk down to Cowgate Road and along this flat road to Grassmarket. Cowgate is an ugly area where all the cheap hostels and seedy pubs are located, and after our walk along the dirty streets on narrow sidewalks, my wife told me not to take this route again. She would rather walk up hill along the Royal mile and then downhill to wherever we were going, to avoid Cowgate and for the rest of the week, that’s what we did.

We had pub food at the crowded Beehive Inn because the Literary Pub tour, which we booked in advance, was to start there in an upstairs room at 7:30 pm. As we discovered, at pubs you order and pay for your food and drink at the bar and they bring it out to your table. I never understood the procedure for leaving a tip, or whether we should leave a tip if you order at the bar in a pub. At restaurants, the handheld credit card processors all gave an option to add a tip, the pubs we visited did not.

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Literary Pub Tour

I recommend taking the Literary Pub tour- but only if you are interested in the subject matter. The evening was warm and nice (i.e. it was not raining), so it was a pleasant tour as we walked from pub to pub and the actors performed their witty and nuanced script and debated the merits of two of Edinburgh’s famous writers: Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. They also did a scene outside the writer’s museum, and we made a note to visit this free museum, later in the week when it was open.

Others on this tour found the pub visits and drinking more important than the theme, so their tepid reviews have to be taken with a grain of alcohol. At the last pub, before the conclusion, the actors asked us trivia questions about the subject matter they had covered to see if anyone was paying attention. Example: Name any works of Sir Walter Scott. I was the only one to name four of his novels; and the actors were very impressed.

The literary tour ended at a pub at the foot of Lady Stair’s Cose around 10:30 pm. It was dark by now, but it only a short walk back uphill to the Royal mile and then downhill along the Royal Mile back to our apartment. We felt absolutely safe walking back in the late evening as there were still people everywhere and the streets are well-lit. I had planned to use an Uber if the distance seemed too far to walk back in the dark or ended in New Town, but that was unnecessary and besides, most of the Royal mile was closed off to vehicular traffic due to the Fringe Festival.

Royal Military Tattoo

We chose our RS-Best of Scotland tour dates for August, because we knew that Edinburgh comes alive in August for the Fringe Festival and the Royal Military Tattoo (as well as the International Festival and the International Book festival). We booked the Jacobite dinner and show package for the Military Tattoo well in advance. Again, not cheap, but a once in a lifetime splurge. On our show date, we dressed up a little (nice dress shoes, long sleeve shirt and tie, cashmere sweater for me, nice dress with scarf for my wife) and we walked up the Royal Mile to Edinburgh castle. The Royal Mile, just below the Castle, was blocked off to vehicular traffic causing wall to wall people watching buskers and visiting the tourist sites in this area. Because of the crowd, it took us longer than we thought to get to the dinner entry gate. We arrived just in time at 4 pm to join our escort through the castle up to the Queen Anne room at the top of the castle for our three-course dinner. The dinner was accompanied with wine and two whisky shots and started with a bagpiper welcome. As it was a sunny day, the room was warm, and I regretted wearing the cashmere sweater. This was also the first time I had haggis, and it was very good, but not something I would request to eat every day. The chefs had cooked a gourmet cake shaped layered version that a had bottom layer of haggis, then a layer of orange neeps (turnips), and a top layer of mash potatoes, so this was not your everyday pub version of haggis.
After dinner, we were escorted from the top of the castle down past the castle gates to the esplanade to our reserved seats for the 7:15 pm show and we were serenaded by bagpipe bands as we walked the gauntlet between them. A truly memorable experience!

The Royal Military Tattoo was on our bucket list of things to do and as expected we loved the show! The show is performed on the Castle Esplanade with Edinburgh Castle as the back drop. It wasn’t all bagpipe music, but there was a lot of marching and fireworks timed to the music shot from the castle ramparts as different bagpipe bands from countries all over the world showed off their skill. We highly recommend this show if you are in Edinburgh in August.

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Fringe Festival

The Fringe Festival started in 1947, when eight theatre groups turned up uninvited during the International festival and performed their shows on the street, churches and pubs and other venues “on the fringe” of the big show. The Fringe Festival has grown ever since, and now it’s larger than the International festival with over 3,548 different shows in 317 venues all over Edinburgh.
As we walked up or down the street each day, we were approached (harassed?) by hawkers handing out handbills for little known shows. Sometimes the actual actor was the one handing out the flyers. Other times, young people were hired to hand out flyers using such come-ons as “free show”, “starts in 10 minutes” “Best show of the Fringe” and my favorite- “take a flyer so I can go home.” The walls, bus stops and fences of Edinburgh are plastered with large billboards advertising shows. If there was graffiti in this town, I never saw it because it was probably covered by show billboards.

As we had no set plans on what to see during the Fringe, we let serendipity be our guide. We decided to see one show based on a handbill that appeared to be a comedy monologue about cats but turned out to by a one-woman dramatic monologue about OCD and her cat. Not great compelling theater, but a good and earnest performance. My wife saw a billboard for “Austentatious”, an improvisation troupe that makes up a story in the manner and language of Jane Austen and that was fabulous! I saw a couple of comedians and an improv troupe during the late night. All shows are one hour maximum (and I couldn’t have sat through more than an hour of the OCD play) and prices ranged from free to £12 for the Jane Austen show. I posted on Facebook that I was attending the Fringe and an actor friend replied back informing me that another fellow actor, who we had seen in a show in Berkeley, California was doing a fringe show. We found out where his show was playing and saw his show and spoke to him afterwards. What a small world!

If you like theater, improv comedy, music, dance, drama, spoken word, or avant garde performances, the Fringe Festival has it all. I hope to return again in August someday and just attend 3 or 4 fringe shows a day for a week. We met some people who do just that every year.

Free Walking Tours by the Voluntary Guides of Edinburgh

During August during the Festival, a group of Edinburgh volunteers, lead FREE tours twice a day for visitors. The guides are retired locals who volunteer their time as trained docents. While other ‘free” tours rely on tips at the end, these volunteers make it very clear, that they work for free and are not expecting a tip of any kind at the end. They do it because they love their city and want to show it off.

I’m not sure why these free tours only get half the people that the commercial tours get. We had 7 people in our tour group, and it was an excellent tour! They provided true and accurate information, without resorting to showmanship and bad comedy like the other free tours do and our tour guide walked us up and down the Royal mile and Grassmarket area, highlighting the outside of buildings such as St. Giles Church, World’s End, and John Knox’ house. When the tour guide found out I had an interest in law, he altered his tour and the seven of us entered the old Parliament building, which is now a courthouse, and we saw barristers in their wigs and robes pacing back and forth in this magnificent hall getting instructions from the solicitors.

The 3-hour tour ended at Canongate Kirk to see the grave of “Clarinda”, Robert Burn’s muse as well as other famous people. I will say, these guides don’t really care about Harry Potter and the alleged connections to Edinburgh and our guide rolled his eyes when someone asked about the Elephant Bar, which is the coffee house that brags that JK Rowling wrote her first HP book there.

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Our volunteer guide was quick to tell us why that story was not true. He also discounted the story of Greyfriars Bobby, the Scottish terrier who faithfully sat on his master’s grave for many years. He did point out Outlander film sites at the museum of Edinburgh and at White Horse Close, but only because someone in the group expressed an interest in it. If you want a Harry Potter tour, you can find that elsewhere. If you are in Edinburgh in August, this tour is recommended and it’s FREE.

After the walking tour, we found lunch at one of the many eateries on the Royal mile. Nearby to the Kirk, was Clarinda’s Tea Room, but was full and we were too hungry to wait for a table, so we ate elsewhere. We then walked back up the Royal Mile and visited the free Writer’s Museum for an hour. You really need to have an interest in Edinburgh’s three Scottish authors (which we did) or you’ll find it boring.

We nixed the idea of visiting the Scotch Whisky experience because we knew that our RS tour would visit the Dewar’s distillery in Aberfeldy, so why pay for something that we going to get for free during the tour? And we seriously discussed visiting Real Mary’s Close, but skipped it because the TripAdvisor reviews said it was a “scare” ghost tour even though our guide said the Close was the actual place that they sealed up the doors trapping plague victims, waiting for them to die. So I’m sure ghost stories abound.
After our walking tour, we rested in our apartment before walking to the Tower Restaurant at the Museum of Scotland. This is an expensive high-end restaurant on the top floor of the Museum recommended for the food and the views. But the evening we were there, it was raining. There was no sunset and the views weren’t very good. You must have reservations, or you will not get past the security guard at the circular entry hall. You cannot just show up hoping for an empty table.

Holyrood Palace and gardens

On the third day, we decided to tour the other end (the lower end) of the Royal mile and visited Holyrood Palace. We bought the combined ticket which includes the palace, the gardens and the Queens gallery, and spent 3 ½ hours there with a lunch break at the café at the Palace. We are history buffs and love the story of Mary Queen of Scots, so the highlight for me was to see where Mary’s personal advisor, David Rizzio, was killed by Mary’s husband, Lord Darnley and his men, in front of her, in her bed chambers. I later found his alleged grave at Canongate Kirk. History has the best gruesome stories!
The garden tour was not about the flowers, but the architecture of the garden and that was very interesting, and the Queen’s Gallery had a special exhibition on the connection between the Russian Czars and the British Monarchy. Great for history buffs, boring if you’re not.

The Scottish parliament is across the street from Holyrood Palace and IMHO, it’s an ugly modern monstrosity. Sorry, people of Scotland, I just can’t embrace the architecture.
From the bottom of the royal mile, you can see the hikers on the top of Salisbury Craig and Arthur’s seat peak. The hiking trail begins nearby and if I were years younger, I would find the time to hike up there.

In the evening, we met some friends who had just flown in for the same RS tour. We met at the Black Bull Inn in the Grassmarket, for pub food and a pub quiz at 7 pm. I love trivia nights and pub quizzes, but I’ve found that most pub quizzes in the UK start very late, usually after 9 pm, and that’s just too late for my wife, who knows her British Royal history trivia. So the early pub quiz time was good timing for us. The questions were geared to UK audiences, so, as expected, we came in last, even though we knew three/fourths of the questions. But we still had a fun time. My favorite question: What British Band got its name from the form you fill out to get welfare? Answer: UB-40.

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Afterwards, we had planned to go Ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee) dancing, which is Scottish square dancing, because the couple we were with are avid square dancers and I thought they might like that, but they were still jet-lagged and tired from walking over 7 miles that day, so we cancelled that.

On Friday, we did an all-day tour with Heart of Scotland tours in their “wee red bus” to see Rosslyn Chapel and Hadrian’s Wall, as this was a bucket list item for me. Rosslyn chapel’s visitor count doubled after being featured in movie “The Da Vinci Code.” And while most it isn’t true, the guides embrace it and welcome questions from tourists about it, because of publicity and admission fees it has generated for them.

From there, it was a long drive through the English borderlands to Hadrian’s Wall, but our tour guide kept our attention with lots of historical facts and stories about the Borderlands with a stop for lunch at Melrose Abbey. We really appreciated our tour guide’s candid opinions about her feelings toward Britain and Scotland and Brexit, rather than try to remain neutral on these topics to avoid offending anyone.

In retrospect, we enjoyed this very long day tour, but only do it if Hadrian’s Wall is on your bucket list. You can visit Rosslyn chapel on your own taking public transportation from Edinburgh city center. Heart of Scotland tours meets and leave on Waterloo Place, so we could see the hotel where we would start our RS tour. While waiting for the day tour to start, we also visited New Calton cemetery to see the statute of Abraham Lincoln.

Saturday morning was our laundry day, and down time day, but we decided to see two mid-day Fringe shows before resting up for the Military Tattoo that night.

On Sunday, our last free day before we moved to the Rick Steves hotel, the couple we were traveling with met us at our apartment and we took an Uber to Ocean terminal to see the Royal Yacht Britannia. Uber works just fine in Edinburgh, but in August, it always seems to be surge pricing time, so a taxi may have been cheaper. The Cost was £9 under surge pricing. The yacht is parked next to a shopping mall. You enter the shopping mall, go up two levels to find the entrance/gift shop to the Royal Yacht.
We spent 3 hours visiting the Yacht and had lunch in the Royal Deck Tea Room aboard ship. We decided to return to central Edinburgh via the #35 bus. The bus stop is across the street from the mall entrance. Exact change is needed, so we were counting coins to make sure we had the correct change, £1.60. During August, the #35 bus, which usually goes down the royal mile, is diverted to another street and we had to double check the temporary bus stops to know the correct location to get off, but once we recognized the landmarks, it was easy to find our way back.

That evening, my wife and I had dinner at Spoons, which was the original building where JK Rowling wrote her first book when the place was a café owned by her brother. Today it is a nice restaurant with good food. With some time before our Berkeley Actor’s fringe show, we did succumb to the desire to find Thomas Riddell’s (a Harry Potter character) headstone and Greyfriars Bobby’s headstone, because the graveyard was nearby.

After our last fringe show ended at 9 pm, the weather was actually nice; No rain and 68-degree F temperatures. We walked the Royal mile for the last time reminiscing on our past week and we want to share some tips for future visitors to Edinburgh.

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Conclusions

1 ) If you don’t like crowds, then don’t visit Edinburgh in August. Later, the Rick Steves tour did a walk of the Royal Mile after the

Fringe Festival had ended and it was delightfully devoid of crowds.

2) If you don’t like theater or music or any of the offerings of the Fringe Festival, International Festival or international book festival, then don’t go to Edinburgh in August. Why pay the jack-upped hotel prices in August, if you’re not getting the benefit of why the prices are jacked-up?

3) If you are going to Edinburgh in August, book NOW. All the good hotels, B&B’s and Airbnbs willbe booked soon.

4)Consider staying near the Royal Mile. It made all the difference for us on how we visited the city.

5) Take a walking tour on the first full day you visit, to get an overviewof the city and then decide what to visit in more depth the other days you are there. If you are there in August, take the FREE voluntary guides tour.

6) One day is not enough time to get to know the city.

7) Old Town Edinburgh is a walking city, but it at some point you are going to have to walk uphill.

8) IMHO, New Town isn’t as exciting as the Old town, so if you only have a limited amount of time, spend it in the Old town.

9) It will rain in Edinburgh when you are there. Bring a raincoat. In the strong winds, an umbrella is useless.

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What a fabulous report, Derek! You've just put Edinburgh back on my bucket list. I haven't been there since I was a (college-aged) wee bairn in the 70's. Sounds like it certainly merits a revisit! And I do like my Scottish authors. Thank you!

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Thank you so much Derek for your detailed report! We only had 2 full days there last July, but loved it. Perhaps you don’t care for museums, but we really enjoyed the museum of Scotland which is a lovely space. I do have to discount your #9 though as it did not rain on us in Edinburgh. In fact, we only had some rain on day 9 on the west coast out of our 12 nights there.
If you get a chance, would love a TR on your RS tour!

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Outrageously expensive hotel? I’m guessing it was the Bonham. Our guide said RS is going to stop using it because it had become too posh.

And you’re absolutely right about umbrellas. Our worst weather day was in Edinburgh. By afternoon we hunkered down in a pub and watched the umbrellas turning inside out.

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I do have to discount your #9 though as it did not rain on us in Edinburgh

Same here. I've been to Edinburgh on three occasions and not experienced rain although it did snow once which counts as precipitation.

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Derek, thanks for the great report. I've been to the Fringe a few times, and it's never enough. And- I have been rained on- several times!

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8240 posts

Fantastic trip report! Thanks for being so detailed.

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Take a walking tour on the first full day you visit, to get an
overview of the city and then decide what to visit in more depth the
other days you are there. If you are there in August, take the FREE
voluntary guides tour.

This is our usual plan to familiarize ourselves with a city, we're there in June and so I guess the free tour won't be available. Can you recommend any tour companies, free or otherwise that focus in on the history?

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Derek,
I enjoyed your report very much. The Fringe festival is on my bucket list. I plan to take the RS Scotland tour hopefully when they expand it to 14 days. I would arrive 5-6 days early, too. The Literary Pub Crawl sounds neat. Have you read any of Alexander McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street series? They are charming and entertaining while giving you a dose of Scottish history.

Thanks again for sharing.

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Enjoyed the report. I attend evening courses for my masters program in Walnut Creek, small world.

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"Have you read any of Alexander McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street series? They are charming and entertaining while giving you a dose of Scottish history."

Yes, I've read all his books, and love them all for different reasons.
The 44 Scotland St series is my favourite, as I lived in Edinburgh for 11 years as a student and afterwards; and know all the streets and neighbourhoods in the books.
His Isobel Dalhousie series , also set in Edinburgh; is also great.
The main character in that series lives in one of the neighbourhoods I lived in.
The descriptions of certain types of people found in Edinburgh, and their quirky characteristics is all very accurate!!
Edinburgh is "home" to me when I visit.

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This was such a helpful report, thanks for the write-up! Planning a trip to Edinburgh for next August, and I thought I was being overly paranoid to book rooms this far in advance, really great to know that booking this early is wise!

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I so enjoyed reading your report and especially appreciated the experience with your apartment. I hope you write about your RS tour as well. I am considering booking one that would be difficult for me to do on my own like Sicily but also interested in Scotland. Experienced guides really are worth it along with a great group of travelers like you!