Now this is a very exciting time! After taking a couple of trips around England last weekend, I feel confident enough to be able to start solo traveling to other countries now. Hurray for street smartz, life skillz, and independence! In all seriousness, it’s thrilled to have hit this milestone since it’s my goal to spend my life traveling all over the place.
Given that our weekends at Oxford last 3 days, it seemed to make the most sense to stay in Britain, and so a friend and I booked a flight to Edinburgh, Scotland since it seems to be a favorite destination of both bloggers and real life friends. So it was only a matter of beginning to meticulously work out the travel details on our student budgets. The rest is history, so let’s get into it!
travel date: September 2019
Getting to Edinburgh
The first leg of our journey from Oxford to Edinburgh involved hopping on a double decker bus to the London Heathrow airport. These buses are the best way to get around England that I know of, you just show up to the station and the fare is only about £12 with the student discount- much cheaper than other options I’ve taken.
Arriving at London Heathrow atrociously early in the morning, we weren’t in much of a rush to get to the gate. While making our way through security, I somehow managed to lose my plastic bag of liquids in my carry-on backpack, which was pretty embarrassing all things considered. When it was inevitably found in the recesses of my backpack by security scanners, the security agent was actually so chill and understanding about the situation, even helping me to find a plastic baggie to put them in. I was so relieved and impressed, the TSA here in Britain is much more friendly than in the states, where I’m sure they would’ve been quite angry with me for a mistake like this.
Next, we boarded our Flybe flight to Edinburgh. This was my first flight on one of the famed European budget airlines, and true to its reputation, it was a great deal. There were definitely no “bells and whistles”, the flight simply brought us from here to there in 2-3 hours, but that’s all I wanted.
Staying at the Castle Rock Hostel
Like the rest of Britain, lodging in Edinburgh tends to be quite expensive, so we knew that a hostel was the way to go for our trip. There are a couple of these in Edinburgh, and their prices are all comparable. So finally I figured, why not choose the best reviewed hostel with an unbeatable location? Enter, Castle Rock Hostel!
Edinburgh’s famed castle sits on top of a steep hill, making it blessedly easy for someone to find the hostel. Or so you would think. We walked up and down and around that hill probably six times before finally ducking down the correct alley and finding the street where Castle Rock hostel is found. It’s namesake is appropriate, the castle is pretty much vertically looming over the hostel’s front door.
Like I said, I’ve never stayed in a hostel before, but the folks at the front desk were more than happy to give us a run down. Our bunks weren’t ready yet, but we were able to stash our heavy backpacks in a locked storage room before heading out to have lunch and explore.
Prince Street Gardens
Since we got insanely lucky with excellent weather, our primary plan for today was to take a free walking tour of Edinburgh, but since there were a couple of hours before we had to meet at the starting point, we just walked down the hill to see what we could see.
The most notable landmark is probably a giant, gothic monument that we passed. To me, it looks like an spindle-ly tower made out of shadows. A bit more walking, and we arrive at the top of a staircase that serves as the entrance to the Prince Street Gardens. There was a fellow with the full traditional Scottish attire and playing bagpipes.
After listening for a minute or two, we made our way down the staircase and into the gardens. The Prince Street gardens sort of wrap around the castle hill. They are exceptionally verdant with sprawling lawns and trees on either side, like crazy green. Maybe it’s all the rain? There are a bunch of sculptures on either side of the path, an unusual mix of abstract and human sculpture.
Reaching the end of the path, we found what I believe is the most gorgeous fountain of all time. The multi-tiered Ross fountain is made of copper and gold, but the copper has since oxidized, giving it a bright teal color.
I swear I took about a billion photos of this fountain. We spent awhile in the surrounding square, just hanging out, enjoying the soft trickling of the fountain, views of the castle, an albatross, and the other surrounding sights.
Taking a Walking Tour of Edinburgh’s Old Town
Reading a couple of other study abroad blogs, one of the best things to do when traveling through major European cities as a student on a budget is to take one of the many “free” walking tours offered. I only include ‘free’ in quotations because it really is important to tip the tour guides as much as you can. These walking tours are well deserving of it too, in my experience.
Our tour with Little Fish Tours was set for 2pm, and we met up with the guide on High Street in front of the St. Giles’ Cathedral. While waiting for the whole group to get here, a street performer cleared a space in the middle of the street, set a briefcase in the center of the road, and lit its contents on fire. I’m not sure if the point was entertainment or to make a political statement. Regardless, it sure did capture my attention, and that of everyone else around him.
Adam Smith monument
Our tour started with the Royal Mile, and specifically, under the statue of Adam Smith, where we met our guide- Angus. Starting here, Angus explained that Adam Smith was a Scottish economist and philosopher from the 18th century who’s ideas influenced the capitalist societies we see today. Someone has put a traffic cone on his head, so there’s that too.
St. Giles Cathedral
Behind Adam, we beheld the St. Giles’ cathedral. Like most of the great buildings here in Old Town, it’s a lovely, gothic cathedral complete with a triangular roof and spindly spiky trim. We didn’t go inside, but according to the tour guide, St. Giles’ cathedral has served a laundry list of purposes since its construction in the 12th century. From a revolutionary meeting place for the Scottish Reformation, to a jail, and even parliamentary seat, apparently St. Giles is the place to be!
Nearby, we checked out the Mercat Cross. Turns out, it’s not actually a cross in the traditional sense, but an octagonal monument with a unicorn on top. The monument demonstrates both a connection to Britain (with the octagon base), and a distinction as its own nation, as the unicorn is a sort of national symbol for Scotland. How cool is that?! A unicorn!! Excellent choice, Scotland.
Here the guide explained that Scotland’s relationship with England is a complicated one. While they are technically tied together by Great Britain, apparently there’s some animosity between the nations. Apparently, part of England’s national anthem “God Save the Queen” actually takes a dig at Scotland, and Scotland’s anthem “Flower of Scotland” does the same in response. Seems strange, seems tense.
Behind the Mercat Cross is Edinburgh’s Parliament Square. Admittedly, I can’t remember much of what was said about Scotland’s parliament, but the square itself was surprisingly quiet, I think some kind of session was going on as we passed by.
The Writers’ Museum
Next we were led further down the Royal Mile and gathered in front of the Writers’ museum. This museum is modeled closely after the 17th century Lady Stair’s house, and provides an example of what the streets of medieval Scotland looked like. Angus gave us an excellent visual of what such a day would look like- at a certain hour, everyone flung open their wooden shuttered windows and tossed their buckets of excrement into the street. You definitely did not want to be sightseeing when that happened. I, for one, am happy to be able to explore Edinburgh without having to worry about a literal shitstorm.
Angus brought us to the Grassmarket after. It is called so because livestock used to be bought and sold here at this market square. Now, Grassmarket provides yet another excellent view of the Edinburgh castle. We happened to get this view at the loveliest time of day, where flowers were blooming and music was playing too.
The tour finished up at one of Edinburgh’s spookiest spots- Greyfriars Kirkyard. This graveyard is quite old and also ginormous. It’s one of the most haunted places in the whole world, and people regularly get their hair pulled, or are scratched, or feel a ghostly chill. For this part of the tour, we were able to explore the 15th century graveyard on our own, so my friend L and I picked our way between the grave markers, some small little placards lining the cobbled walls, and some formidable crypts. Regardless, I experienced no harassment or grief from the ‘other side’.
We met up with the group again at the front of Greyfriar’s Kirkyard to learn about the famous Greyfriars Bobby. What or who is Greyfriars Bobby, you may ask? Bobby was the loyal Sky Terrier, and publicly-accepted deputy of an Edinburgh police officer. When the officer died, Bobby spent the next 14 years following his patrol route through the city by day, and sleeping beside his companion’s grave at night. Let’s all “AWWWW” collectively at that, because how cute and sad is Bobby’s story? Today, there is a statue erected of Bobby to honor his loyalty, and the loyalty of all our canine companions. Well deserved, I’d say.
This is where the tour ended, and Angus explained that these tours are pay what you can. This is a fantastic system, as we were able to pay as much as our budgets allowed. It appeared that no one took advantage of the system by not tipping, and so I think this is a great way to structure tours! I know I’ll go on one again if I get the chance.
Settling in at Castle Rock and Seeing a Comedy
After leaving Greyfriars, we stopped at a grocery store and grabbed some supplies to make dinner at the hostel. By then, our room keys were ready to go, so we picked up our bags from storage and made our way up the stairs.
Castle Rock hostel has such an eclectic, fun vibe with suits of armor in the stairwell and murals on the walls. There’s also a communal kitchen, study room, and a couple of rooms for just hanging. L and I were lucky, we booked the last two beds in the girls dorm, an option that just made us feel safer as first time hostel-ers. There are 16 beds, and each of us has a locker that provides more than enough room for our things. I chose one of the upper bunks, I find it’s more comforting to sleep above the foot traffic. We got to talking with a couple of bunkmates from Philadelphia, who were looking forward to a pub crawl later.
L and I cooked our pasta and marinara in the communal kitchen, where we learned that Castle Rock was hosting a couple of activities for the night. The pub crawl that the Philly gals were talking about sounded like an insanely fun option, but we have a tour of the Scottish Highlands to catch absurdly early in the morning, so I had to be responsible for once. There was a movie showing, and a jaunt to a comedy show. So while my friend decided to stay and catch up on some reading for homework, I decided to join the group headed to the comedy.
I don’t remember where exactly the show took place, but it was a cozy little room with a bar and a set with three different comedians. The comedians were pretty funny, and in between acts, I tried to chat it up with the Castle Rock guests in the seats next to mine. Though perfectly nice, they were both a bit older and in different stages of life than me. We didn’t really click and become instant BFFs, but it was still cool to talk about what had brought us here to Edinburgh. The lady to my right had just closed down a business venture, and was traveling across Europe while deciding what she wanted to do next. While walking back our little comedy group made plans to go on a ghost tour the next day. Though once again, I already had plans with that highlands tour. As excited as I am for those plans, I wish we had more time here in Scotland so that I could make some hostel friends.
Overall, My Verdict
(note: I can never decide between “Overall” and “My Verdict” for the last heading, so why not both for this one!)
The jury says- Edinburgh is great! Everywhere I go, there’s a lovely park or street or ethereal gothic monument. Again, cannot stop thinking about the Scotts monument.
It is so easy to find fun and free things to see and do here, and the Little Fish Tours give a great, comprehensive sightseeing tour of the city’s history and important folklore. As much as I’d love to spend another day just wandering around and finding new things to do, tomorrow will be a jam-packed and very exhilarating tour of the Scottish highlands, I couldn’t be more excited for it!
As of now, I’m typing this up in my bunk, but really need to go to bed soon for the early morning ahead. I’m not entirely sure that will happen though, as lots of people are leaving and returning from pub crawls, so it’s quite loud. This isn’t horribly upsetting, I knew going in that hostels are busy and loud and it may take some getting used to, but my hope is to have at least a light sleep tonight.
I guess we’ll see tomorrow. And with that, see ya later!