Fake Haggis, Fake Banshees, and Real Voldemorts in Edinburgh

Updated: Apr 22, 2019

Ah, Edinburgh. The promised city of Scotland. I was very excited to get here, as I had always heard that it was a classic fairy tale European city with a distinctly British flair (and we all know those are my two jams). And it absolutely was very historic, and very Scottish. Yet I didn't love it as much as I thought I would. I think my hopes were a little too high, rather than there being anything "wrong" with the city. As this blog will show you, there isn't any reason for this sentiment other than That Feeling.

We arrived to gray skies, because this is Great Britain after all, of course we did. The train from Glasgow to Edinburgh was only about an hour (much better than the ride up from London we had done two days earlier – who’d have ever thought such a small island would take so damn long to move across. Fix your infrastructure, fifth largest economy in the world!). Upon arrival in Edinburgh, Ray whipped out his phone and ordered us an Uber (he had just discovered the app and was absolutely loving it). We arrived at the hotel a bit early for check-in, but the very Scottish woman at the front desk allowed us to store our bags. We then wandered a couple of blocks away, to Coates Cafe for a small lunch. The interior was cute enough, but the food was “basic café” enough where I won’t claim it’s an Edinburgh must-do.

Once we had been fed, it was off to the famed Old Town. We took the bus to the North Bridge, getting off on the road that connects the modern city to the old. We passed a Pret A Manger (because of course we did) and made our way up the hill to the Royal Mile aka the main street of the Old Town. Here, we quickly realized why people rave about Edinburgh – the 17th century buildings (mostly – a few were rebuilt in the 19th after a fire) are absolutely stunning, and unlike anywhere else I’ve seen. It wasn’t quite “fairy tale”, almost more “imposing Medieval castle”. Which might sound bad, but no, I loved it. As I’ve mentioned in many a-blog, I love visiting places that transport me to another time, and when you’re walking down cobblestone streets with an imposing medieval feel, you’re definitely feeling very 14th century courtier (even though yes, yes, the buildings are newer than that).

We turned right off of North Bridge, and began to walk down the main drag of the Royal Mile. Almost immediately, we came across the famous Cockburn Street, a curved masterpiece of a road. Of course, we immediately stopped to ooh and ahh, snap some pictures, and then walk down the road for a couple of blocks. The entire Royal Mile is full of absurdly impressive architecture, but none more so than this street. At the entrance, there was a baked potato shop on the corner (the oh-so-cleverly named The Baked Potato Shop), and – as we were on vacation after all – my parents wanted to stop in for a bite. I contented myself to enjoying the views (pictured) while they ate, as I’m no baked potato fan, and I was still full from our boring cafe lunch.

Afterwards, Ray wanted to explore the Scotch options of the Royal Mile, while Mom and I explored, took pictures, and enjoyed the stunning architecture. At one point, we ended up back across North Bridge, past the Balmoral Hotel where J.K. Rowling finished writing Harry Potter, and on the Festival Wheel, Edinburgh’s version of the sightseeing Ferris wheel. However, unlike most other cities, this is only a summer-time attraction – and at September 5, we were two of the last people to go on it for the year (though it is also open for the Christmas market a few months later, if you happen to be in the city for the holiday). We paid the £9.50 admission each, popped into our little cabin, and went around. The views were of course lovely, and my only complaint was that there were metal bars that made it difficult to get decent pictures. I understand the need for safety bars, but there didn’t need to be quite as many as there were...(though as you can see from the picture, it was still possible to enjoy the views between the bars).

We met back up with Ray afterwards, and took the bus back to our neck of the woods. We grabbed dinner at the Haymarket Pub, a generic pub for British standards. What stands out to me from this dinner was that this was when I learned of the pub ordering system in the UK – each table has a number on it. After you have decided what you want, you go to the bar with your order and the table number. You're your own waiter, basically. Anyways, I ordered Macaroni and Cheese, a couple of pints, and it was an enjoyable meal. We then walked back to the Haymarket Hotel, grabbed our bags, officially checked in, and went over a couple of doors (as this was a hotel spread out over several row houses) to our room. I must say, it’s not common to see a hotel room with three beds! It was really ideal though, and they were comfortable mattresses. 10/10 would recommend this place.

However, it wasn’t bed time yet. We returned to the house with the lobby, where the ever-important bar was located. A couple of Bailey’s later, Mom was ready to head back to the room while Ray and I were itching to explore. The neighborhood was so classically British – curving row houses, nestled into the hills of the area. It was a lovely stroll (in which we also discovered this monster of a neighborhood church – St. Mary’s Cathedral), but it had been a travel day on top of being a busy sight-seeing day, so we were in bed by 10.

The next morning, we grabbed the bus back to North Bridge. Ray and I wanted to check out Edinburgh Castle, while Mom decided to grab a Hop-On, Hop-Off bus tour, as her knees weren’t cooperating and those are always a great way to see a city without having

be in physical pain! We all agreed to meet a few hours later, and then Ray and I struck off towards Edinburgh Castle. This castle – much more fortress than palace – is at the end of the Royal Mile. Even if you didn’t see if dominating the cityscape, you’d know you were getting closer to it because of the increase in cheesy tourist gimmicks - so many pop-up stands, and people dressed in costumes (and not even Scottish related, we’re talking minions and knock-off Mickey’s rather than William Wallace). As we got up to the castle, the throngs were massive. We stopped and stared for a minute, then looked at each other and came to the same, silent agreement that it wasn’t worth battling those numbers in order to go inside.

However, this meant that we had about two hours to kill before we met back up with Mom. I wanted to explore the streets some more, while Ray wanted to, surprise surprise, check out more whiskey shops. So we parted ways, I popped my podcasts into my ears and explored the streets. At one point, I decided to check out the University of Edinburgh’s campus, as I had considered the school for my master’s degree and wanted to do a bit of an “in another life” trek. I found the campus (which was surprisingly unimpressive considering the reputation and ranking of this world-class university), shrugged, and continued onwards. I ended up settling into the Starbucks near the beautiful Cockburn Street, enjoying a chai latte and the views (pictured).

At the designated meeting time, I texted my parents to find out where they were. Turns out they had taken a seat at Frankenstein, a – you guessed it – Frankenstein-themed pub a few blocks away. They paid for their drinks, and we headed off to Edinburgh Vaults to go on a tour about Edinburgh’s creepy side. Mom had been really looking forward to this, as she thought it was a tour about the plague.

Well, it was definitively not about the plague. Instead, it was a cheesy ghost tour that takes place in the underground vaults of the old city. Admittedly, we might have enjoyed the tour more if we had understood what it was before going in (well, ok, also admittedly, we would never have done the tour had we known, but eh). It was cool to walk around the old vaults anyways – they were originally built as houses and shops in an 18th century Edinburgh that was getting a bit too crowded. They were then occupied by the city’s criminals and really poor. In later years, the Wicca used the area, and they still had a room set up where they go every now and then to do whatever it is Wiccans do.

In each room, we were given a story of various ghosts (or in one room, a banshee, which Mom was unhappy about. She doesn’t like banshees). Then the flashlight was clicked off and the room got cold, or the guide “called” the spirits (or banshee) and then casually tapped a couple of people in order to make them jump. If that’s your thing, you should do it, I’m sure it’s fun. We were just feeling a bit scammed in the moment, as the tour had been marketed as more historical than creepy. Or so we thought in the moment, since once we got to the hotel and Mom checked what she had read...well, it wasn't as overtly marketed as a ghost tour as most of the others, but it was still a ghost tour.

Once back in the sunshine, we split into two parties again, – Ray had been excited to visit Scotland in order to tour various Scotch distilleries, and his big tour was about to start. He excitedly headed off, and Mom and I headed to Greyfriars Kirkyard.

Now, a fun story before I continue: as a child, my mother’s nickname for me (other than “tumbleweed”) was “Wednesday”, so named after Wednesday Adams. I was a somewhat odd child, as I was obsessed with cemeteries and death. Some of my earliest memories are of road trips across the Midwest, begging my parents to stop at every cemetery we passed. When I was three, I proudly told everyone that I wanted to be a cemetery caretaker when I grew up. Once when I was around seven, my mom brought me to work with her. I was bored, so she put me in a room with a whiteboard and markers. I promptly left that room, found one of her co-workers, asked him all sorts of questions about his grandmother. Then I went to draw. A few minutes later, I told that co-worker to come to the white board with me, so that I could show him the funeral scene I had drawn, complete with his grandma in the coffin wearing a dress of her favorite color, surrounded by her favorite flowers. It was to prepare him for when the time came, apparently. I have no memory of this particular incident, but it’s one of my mother’s favorite stories. And for her concern as a parent during that era, she can’t really be curious as to where I got that from, because the woman herself loves cemeteries, Halloween, and generally creepy things. I mean, whose idea was it to go on a vault tour? DNA Mom, ya can’t be shocked when it makes it appearance!

Anyways, we headed to the churchyard for two reasons. 1. Old cemeteries are our favorite thing, and 2. I, ever the good Millennial, love Harry Potter, and because I read it so much as a child, she read it and loves it too. In this cemetery is a grave for one Tom Riddle (the bad guy, for the three of you who never read the books. Which, shame). But even for you three that don’t want to visit Voldemort, this place is worth a stop. Dating back to the 16th century, many of Edinburgh’s famous sons and daughters are buried here (admittedly I’d never heard of any of them, but if you’re a Scottish history buff!). The graves were wonderfully historic and moss-covered, fitting in perfectly with the surrounding architecture and gray skies. We spent a good hour in the yard, slowly wandering between the graves (including Mr. Riddle’s, who I assume was an upstanding citizen and doesn’t deserve his namesake).

We then meandered back through the historic buildings towards St. Giles Cathedral. A classic British cathedral, it dates from the 1300s and is Presbyterian despite its original intention. We had agreed to meet Ray here before going in, though he was a bit later (and a bit drunker) than he said he would be. Admission is free, though it is £2 if you want to take pictures. We each gladly paid the fee, both because we like to take pictures but also because historic upkeep is one of our main charitable priorities. The cathedral looked like many other cathedrals, and I really enjoyed the royal banners hanging near the stained glass. I’d not seen that before (though did again in Dublin a few months later, so I assume it’s a Gaelic thing), and the Medievalist in me was delighted.

Afterwards, the three of us struck out to find dinner somewhere in the vicinity of The Elephant House, the café where J.K. Rowling wrote much of the first book in the series. We admired the café from the outside for a minute - just long enough for a school group to walk by and the teachers to yell at the Asian tourists taking pictures of the café to “stop taking pictures of the children!!” My view on this: if you are so concerned about the children, walk them on the other side of the street from a famous tourist attraction instead of screaming at people who don’t speak your language and thus don’t know why you’re being aggressive towards them at a tourist spot. And I say as someone who lives in China at the moment – they couldn’t care less if you take pictures of their kids, so you can’t even say “they should understand based on the context!,” because everything – everything – is cultural!

Dinner was at a restaurant that has since gone out of business, which is unfortunate as it was a cute little place. I ordered a mushroom risotto, forgetting that I don’t like risotto. Ray and I also split an appetizer of haggis, though in vegetarian form. I will never bring myself to try the real thing. I love the UK, but y’all gotta stop eating like it’s still 1674. Anywho, so between fake haggis and a pasta dish I should have known not to order, dinner was a bit of a bust for me. The other two were happy though We then headed back to our hotel, calling it an early night, as our train departed rather early the next morning.

Like I mentioned in my opening paragraph, I was slightly disappointed in my experience in Edinburgh and I'm not sure why. As you can tell from reading this blog, there was no "moment" that went poorly, unless you want to count a few mediocre meals. Everything that we did in Edinburgh was perfectly fine. It was (is) a stunningly gorgeous city and everyone was very nice. Maybe it’s because we had just come from Glasgow, which had that working-class grit I love so much, so I was comparing it to that. Or maybe my brain is just a bit weird – this is far from the only example of me liking the non-popular destinations or experiences of a place more than the popular ones. Whatever it was, I can’t tell you because the Royal Mile is a stunner of a place that is absolutely worth a visit. I’m just not sure I’ll bother going again.