Magical and Medieval: A Long Weekend Break in Edinburgh

by | Sep 21, 2023

Edinburgh city with cathedral tower and a park, Scotland
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Last updated on November 19th, 2023

Featured image: Edinburgh in the off-season is the perfect time to explore the city | Photo by martinm303 on Envato

An all-season, walkable and safe destination for women

by Carolyn Ray

Even in the off-season, Edinburgh is one of those magical places that can be enjoyed year-round. With its medieval Old Town, historic buildings and music and literary festivals, it’s no surprise that Edinburgh has been named one of the world’s best places to visit, the best urban destination for a holiday by National Geographic and the UK’s second best city, after London, by Conde Nast Traveller.

According to Visit Scotland, in 2019, 24.8 million people visited Edinburgh for day trips, and 5.3 million people stayed overnight, making it the UK’s second-most visited tourist destination. When I was there in February, the weather alternated between sun and rain, but that didn’t deter me from enjoying its cobblestone streets, old town and top tourist sites. (Just make sure you bring an umbrella, and walking poles if you need them for the hills!)  Edinburgh is also known as one of the safest places for solo women and comes highly recommended by our own readers.

Arriving from London’s King’s Cross Station, the train rolled through beautiful countryside, stopping along the coast at Stevenage, Newcastle and Morpeth. Operated by Lumo, the train is 100% electric, with one of the cleanest, most accessible bathrooms I’ve ever seen (I even took a photo!) Upon arrival in Edinburgh’s Waverly Station, I was immediately put in a literary mood with humorous Sir Walter Scott quotes on billboards like “A glass of good wine is a gracious creature” or “Life is too short for the indulgence of animosity” as I walked out to the Princes Street Gardens toward my hotel.

Check train schedules and buy tickets on Trainline here!

Edinburgh Scotland Streets

The charming streets of Edinburgh / Image by Peter H from Pixabay

Six things to do in Edinburgh on a long weekend

1. Sleep with Ewan MacGregor

I wanted to spend most of my time exploring the old city, but not pay a small fortune to stay nearby. I found Angel’s Share, a boutique hotel about a 10-minute walk from Waverly Train Station. Each of its 31 rooms is named after iconic Scottish actors, musicians and sportspeople, like Gerard Butler and Annie Lennox.

I am a huge fan of Ewan MacGregor (particularly his Long Way Up documentary) and when I was given the Ewan MacGregor room I saw that as a sign I was in the right place. My room was on the second floor, complete with posters from Trainspotting and a framed photo of Ewan in a kilt above my bed. (Needless to say, I didn’t sleep a wink!)

Not only does Angel’s Share have its own restaurant where guests get 20 percent off all food, it’s very close to the trendy St. James Quarter, which opened in 2021. You’ll find many bars and restaurants with names like the Conan Doyle and the Pug and Whistle. The iconic Johnny Walker Distillery is next door. While scotch wasn’t on my agenda, I did pop in for a quick visit to see the ‘Striding Man’, the Edwardian dandy, but didn’t partake.

Other places to stay in Edinburgh recommended by JourneyWoman readers

Beverly G. recommends The Intercontinental in Edinburgh, (9-21 George Street). “It’s in the “new town” and a very short walk to the “old town”. It was a wonderful hotel.”

Trina D. recommends Destiny Scotland on Market Street, across the street from the main rail station and down the hill from the castle. “Super close to the Royal Mile. Very reasonably priced, nice suite, and super convenient to everything.”

Mandy B. suggests The Ibis on South Bridge in the Old Town. “Small rooms, but clean, quiet, in a great location with a great staff. Full Scottish breakfast and a good bar and restaurant.”

2. Walk the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace

The Old and New Towns of Edinburgh are one of the most beautiful cityscapes in the world, inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1995. No visit to Edinburgh is complete without a stroll down the Royal Mile, with Edinburgh Castle at one end and the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the other, resting in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat. Some sections of the Town Walls survive from pre-1540.

The Mile is overlooked by impressive, towering tenements, between which cobbled closes (dead end streets) and narrow stairways interlock to create a secret underground world.  It is quite a vertical and uneven climb up, so wear comfortable shoes. On Sundays, the Mile is closed to motorized traffic.

At the beginning of the 16th century, the houses in Edinburgh were still almost completely built of wood and clay. None were more than two storeys high, many with thatched roofs. These houses burned in the 1544 invasion of Edinburgh by the Earl of Hertford, and only parts of the Castle, St Giles and Holyrood remain.

Over 900 years old, Edinburgh Castle was built on Castle Rock in 1103, as a royal residence and military base, by King David I of Scotland. The last monarch to stay in the Castle was King Charles I in June 1633, the night before his Scottish coronation. The oldest building at the Castle (and in Edinburgh) is the 12th-century St Margaret’s Chapel at Edinburgh Castle, where Scotland’s royal family worshipped. Find a tour of Edinburgh Castle here!

Edinburgh Castle in the rain with pink umbrella

Edinburgh Castle, stunning even in the rain / Photo credit Carolyn Ray

Other stops along the way include the beautiful and historical St Giles’ Cathedral, which was founded in 1124 by King David I, and has been a working church for almost 900 years. John Knox House and Moubray House are the oldest houses in Edinburgh, built in the 1600s along the edge of what was then the city wall.

If you’ve read Phillipa Gregory’s book “The Other Queen” about Mary Queen of Scots, just setting foot in the Palace of Holywoodhouse evokes intrigue. The only surviving legitimate child of James V,  Mary married her half-cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, in 1565. It was here at the Palace that (allegedly) Darnley orchestrated the murder of Mary’s Italian secretary and close friend, David Rizzio, who was rumoured to be the father of her child, in 1566. Just visiting the bedroom where this is said to have happened gave me the chills!

One of the most memorable (and perhaps eerie) places to visit is the Abbey at Holyrood Palace, which was founded in 1128 by King David I as an Augustinian Abbey. Over the centuries, it was altered and expanded, becoming one of the largest and most impressive monasteries in Scotland by 1500. It was used for several coronations including James V and Charles 1. It fell to ruins after the Catholic James VII and II evicted the worshippers in 1687.

3. Enjoy the view from Salisbury Crag in Holyrood Park

Once you’ve walked to Holyrood, it’s only a short distance to get the best view of Edinburgh from Holyrood Park, a group of hills near the Palace.

Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano and the highest point in Edinburgh, is at the centre of the park, with the cliffs of Salisbury Crags to the west.  The hill rises above the city to a height of 251 metres (823 ft), provides excellent views, is quite easy to climb, and is a popular walk. Do this on a sunny day with no rain. It is quite windy, so take care near the edges, as it is in a natural state.

4. Seek out historical pubs

With almost 400 pubs, Edinburgh is home to some of the oldest drinking establishments in the world.

In Grassmarket, once the site of public executions, there are many boutique shops, restaurants and pubs, including Edinburgh’s oldest (and supposedly haunted) pub, the White Hart, established in 1516.

Other historic pubs you might want to explore include Deacon Brodie’s Pub on the Royal Mile (1806), the 15th century Beehive Inn, Ye Olde Golf Tavern (1456), and the Sheep Heid Inn, which is also one of the oldest restaurants in the world (1360).

Edinburgh Crag

The view from Salisbury Crag/ Photo credit Carolyn Ray

Things to do: Find endless activities and things to do in Edinburgh by clicking here

5. Take a walking tour

The home of world-famous writers, poets and playwrights including Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), Sir Walter Scott (Waverley), and JK Rowling (Harry Potter), Edinburgh has a remarkable literary heritage. In 2004, it was crowned the world’s very first UNESCO City of Literature and It has its own Poet Laureate, the Edinburgh Makar. In August, the city hosts the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the world’s largest literary festival of its kind. It’s also the home of the world’s first circulating library in 1725 and over 50 bookshops.

I didn’t get the Writer’s Museum (otherwise known as Lady Stair’s House), which houses almost 400 years of history and displays from world-famous authors such as Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. The Edinburgh International Book Festival runs annually in August, with more than 800 events featuring everyone from the rising stars of fiction to Nobel Prize-winners, plus events for children and young adults showcasing the finest writers and illustrators for young people.

In honour of Scotland’s national bard. Burns Night is celebrated annually on January 25 in honour of noted poet Robert Burns, Scots and Scots-at-heart around the world to pay tribute to the great poet’s life and works, starting with the traditional Burns Night supper.

Fun fact: Several places in Edinburgh provided J.K. Rowling with inspiration for her books, including Diagon Alley, George Heriot’s School, and The Elephant House, where Rowling spent many hours writing the books. However, most of the castles used for filming were in the UK, such as Alnwick Castle, the inspiration for Hogworth’s.

Click here to find a walking tour in Edinburgh!

6. Tour the Royal Yacht Britannia in Leith

The Royal Yacht Britannia has been docked in Leith since 1997, when it was decommissioned. Although The Crown wasn’t filmed on the boat, I couldn’t wait to watch season five of The Crown again to compare the original with the movie set.  Undeniably one of the most famous ships in the world, the 412-foot Britannia served the Royal Family for over 44 years. It also served as the venue for several royal honeymoons, including Princess Diana and Prince Charles in 1981.

From Edinburgh, take bus 35 to Ocean Terminal, and from there, it’s a short walk. Although I found it a bit odd to walk through a mall to get to the ship, it was worth the visit, if only to imagine the Queen and the Royal Family walking the halls. There are elevators to access each level, and a lovely restaurant where I enjoyed a soup and sandwich (with the edges removed, thank you very much!)  It’s recommended to pre-book tickets, which are $18.50 with no discount for seniors. Find tickets here!

Edinburgh Royal Yacht Britannia

The formal dining room on the Royal Yacht Britannia / Photo credit Carolyn Ray

Other things to do in Edinburgh  

What to skip: Edinburgh’s underground was created when the city decided to cover over many of the tenements, essentially creating an underground city. In some of the steeper areas, it’s 16 stories deep. As part of my visit, I was offered a complimentary visit to The Real Mary King’s Close, a one-hour tour that takes you into the ‘underground’ with promises of myths and legends. While interesting to visit, it was a bit too orchestrated for my liking.

Buying scarves: Along the Royal Mile, there are many shops that offer a variety of cashmere and wool scarves. In speaking with the various owners, I discovered that there are many prices and levels of quality, and some are not actually made in Scotland. If you want an authentic product from Scotland, make sure the tag says 100% pure cashmere (as those I found at Kiltane did).  I couldn’t resist buying a wool hat from a little shop on the corner.

Greyfriars Kirk: Reputedly one of the most haunted cemeteries in the world, Greyfriars Kirk is the was founded.in 1620, during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots. Then there’s Greyfriars Bobby, who sat devotedly by the grave of his master, Constable Gray for 14 years after his death in 1858. 

Rosslyn Chapel:  Less than an hour from Edinburgh by bus (or 20 minutes by car), this 15th-century chapel is in the village of RoslinMidlothianScotland and will be familiar to those who have read the novel ‘The Da Vinci Code’ which ends in Rosslyn Chapel. Book a day trip now!

Witches Well: The Witches’ Well is a monument to accused witches burned at the stake, with a memorial drinking fountain attached to a wall at the lower end of the Castle Esplanade, below Edinburgh Castle.

Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh: The Royal Botanic Gardens are a world-leading centre of excellence in plant science, conservation, and education.  In the buzzing area of Stockbridge, the gardens offer visitors peace and tranquillity amongst 72 acres of stunning scenery.

Scottish National Gallery: Situated in the heart of Edinburgh, the Scottish National Gallery is close to Princes Street, and home to one of the best collections of fine art in the world.

Less-Travelled Places in the UK

As the CEO and Editor of JourneyWoman, Carolyn is a passionate advocate for women's travel and living the life of your dreams. She leads JourneyWoman's team of writers and chairs the JourneyWoman Women's Advisory Council and Women's Speaker's Bureau. She has been featured in the New York Times, Toronto Star and Zoomer as a solo travel expert, and speaks at women's travel conferences around the world. In March 2023, she was named one of the most influential women in travel by TravelPulse and was the recipient of a SATW travel writing award in September 2023. She is the chair of the Canadian chapter of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW), a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada (TMAC), Women's Travel Leaders and a Herald for the Transformational Travel Council (TTC). Sometimes she sleeps. A bit.

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