Intro to Scotland
Edinburgh is kind of like a mini London, complete with double decker buses and an awe inspiring castle that sits atop the city. Like so many European cities there is an old town with cobbled streets and narrow alleys and a newer town with grand boulevards just outside the castle walls. The Highlands is the area north and slightly west of Edinburgh. It’s the birthplace of scotch, James Bond, and the Lochness Monster. If you’ve seen the movie Skyfall there is no need for me to describe the scenery. The rolling green and brown hills are dotted with patches of incredibly dense forest, sometimes covered in moss, and often shrouded in a thick layer of fog. Driving north through this sparsely inhabited rural corner of Europe it’s easy to understand why the Romans thought this region was haunted.
Edinburgh does not have many direct flights (we had to fly out of Newark), but if you can find one, it’s only a short 7 hours. While that makes Edinburgh a decent option for 2-3 days, we wanted to see the Highlands so we were there for five nights. If you’re going to drive through the Highlands we suggest flying into Edinburgh, renting a car there after a couple night stay, driving north west through the Highlands, and flying out of small airport at Inverness. You’ll have to connect through Edinburgh, London, or Dublin.
Edinburgh’s airport is now connected to the city by a shiny new and easy to use tram. That’s probably the only time you’ll use it too as the city is very compact.
When we went
November 2014, the week of Thanksgiving. We flew into Edinburgh (slept 2 nights), drove to Oban (2 nights), drove to Inverness (1 night).
What we did
Day 1 – Took a direct overnight flight from Newark Airport to Edinburgh, whose airport has a sleek new tram that runs right into downtown, just below the old town. In Edinburgh we got an Airbnb apartment right on the Royal Mile (High Street), the main drag in the city’s old town. The first thing any traveler should do in Edinburgh is go see the castle. Buy your tickets online to save time.
For lunch we ate at The Doric Pub, one of the oldest in Edinburgh. This was our first chance to try scotch in Scotland and haggis. Haggis is making a comeback in Scotland and it was readily available in most pubs we went into in Edinburgh, often as a side order. It’s similar to English black pudding and it went great with eggs. If you go to Scotland you owe it to yourself to try it at least once, you might be pleasantly surprised.
In Edinburgh we met up with friends from the Mrs’s college; Stephie, her husband Mike, and Stephie’s friend, Colleen. Mike was temporarily working in Brussels and the two of them had spent the last several months taking weekend trips all around Europe. On the first day we were there we arranged for a local guide, Ken Hanley, to come to our apartment and give us a private scotch tasting. Ken was great, almost as knowledgeable about scotch as he was about Scotland. This is him, kilt and all.
Our first night ended at the city’s Christmas market, which had just sprung to life. As far as Christmas markets go this one didn’t make the top of the list. However, the food selection wasn’t bad and you’ll never hear us complain about a fresh grilled brat and a beer.
Day 2 – We completed a Rick Steves walking tour of the old city and went to the National Museum of Scotland, for an interesting look at Scotland’s past. Their sports hall of fame was a highlight, although we don’t know how many other countries would include a “walking” category in theirs. On Sunday, Mike had to head back to Brussels. Stephie and Colleen met another friend and we went off to explore the Georgian Style “new” town and had a great lunch at Oink. As the name implies they serve pork. Just pork. There is a full pig in the window and they spend the day carving it up and serving it on fresh bread.
Pre-dinner we spent some time at a nearby bar named The Devil’s Advocate, which is in a great reclaimed space down one of the city’s many medieval alleys. After several glasses of scotch it was off to dinner at Angels with Bagpipes, an upscale pub conveniently located right next to our apartment.
Day 3 – On Monday, we rented a car at Waverly Station (the main train station in Edinburgh) and took off for the Highlands. Our first stop about an hour out of the city was the town of Sterling, with a famous castle of the same name. Perched on a rocky bluff overlooking all of central Scotland it was long said that he who holds Sterling Castle holds Scotland. We took one of the free guided tours which was well worth it. Not sure if all the guides were that good but our guy was one of the most enthusiast we’ve ever had at a historical sight. Sometime after nightfall we reached the west coast of Scotland and the charming little port town of Oban, which is also famous for its scotch. Oban bills itself as the seafood capital of Scotland and the little town still has its own fishing fleet. On night one we ate on the edge of the harbor at Ee Usk and had a great meal of local oysters, calamari, salmon, dover sole, scallops, and scotch. For all you might hear about Scotland’s bad weather this was the first and only night it rained during our trip.
Day 4 – The jet stream may keep the climate in check but being this far north in November means the sun sets early and comes up late, not until about 9am. We were out well before that and took a car ferry over to the delightful island of Mull. Even as the sun came up during our journey the surrounding coast line remained covered in fog. Your first sight on Mull is a most spectacular castle, which is actually the ancestral homeland of the real life person whose exploits during World War II were the inspiration for James Bond.
If the Isle of Mull sounds familiar to you it might be because it’s also famous for its cheese, Isle of Mull Cheddar, sold in many upscale grocery stores around the world. The island itself is sparsely populated and you can drive across it in about an hour. There are lots of farms and chances are you will at some point drive past a small group of the cutest cows known to man, the Scottish Highland cows or “Hairy Coos” as they are known locally.
The scenery around Mull was spectacular. It was impossible to avoid stopping for photos nearly every couple miles.
On the other end of Mull is another smaller ferry which can take you to the windswept island of Iona, the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland and home to a beautiful old monastery, a small community, and a lot of sheep. The lone cathedral on Iona is where the Book of Kells was written.
Back in Oban for dinner we had more seafood at Coast including fresh mussels, more salmon, langoustines, cheese, and another locally caught fish. The mussels might have been the best we’ve ever eaten.
Day 5 – Today we drove from Oban, up through the Highlands, past the famous Loch Ness, and ended in Inverness. Outside of the town Glenfinnan is a famous train bridge crossed by the one and only Harry Potter on his way to Hogwarts.
Loch Ness is best seen from Urquhart Castle, which is perched just on its western shore.
We had a great dinner in Inverness at Rocpool but mostly we just ended our trip there because it was easier than driving all the way back to Edinburgh.
Mrs’s highlight – Taking a small ferry over from Mull to Iona was a little chilly but we were able to warm ourselves up by going to the only B&B cafe (beautifully located on the beach) which served two things — homemade leek and potato soup and homemade Isle of Mull Cheddar Cheese scones. The scene, ambiance, food, everything…was just perfect.
Mr’s highlight – Isle of Mull. If you go to Scotland make time for the Highlands and take a day to check out this beautiful island. All roads have just a single lane with spots to pull over to let cars pass by you. Driving can be tricky, but it’s well worth it.
Mrs’s favorite meal – I will have to agree with the Mr that the seafood in Oban was top notch. Coast and Ee-usk served fabulous fresh locally caught seafood.
Mr’s favorite meal – Both meals in Oban were pretty great. It’s clear they are into the whole “locally” sourced thing and any town with its own fishing fleet is bound to serve a decent fish or two.
Edinburgh Castle. Edinburgh. If you’re going to see one sight in Scotland this should probably be it. It’s the high point and the birthplace of the city. Buying your tickets online before you go is a good idea.
National Museum of Scotland. Edinburgh. Just off the Royal Mile, a delightful look at Scottish history past and present.
The Royal Mile. Edinburgh. From the castle down to the palace this road is lined with pubs, museums, tartan hawkers, and whisky shops.
Ken Hanley, blue badge guide. Give him a call if you want a great tour of the city or a private whisky tasting.
Stirling Castle. Stirling. About an hour outside of Edinburgh. Great stop if you’re on your way to the Highlands or the islands. We went on the free guided tour which was both interesting and led by one of the most informative guides we’ve ever had at a sight like this. We had a nice lunch in the inn below the parking lot.
Doune Castle. Doune. About 15 minutes away from Stirling. The castle was used in Monty Python. That should be enough to make you either want to stop or not.
Urquhart Castle. Loch Ness. For the best views of this famous loch, and maybe even a monster sighting, check out this old crumbling structure on the west coast of Loch Ness. Its about 30 minutes from Inverness.
Sightseeing tip: All the castles above are on the Scotland Explorer Pass, which can be purchased for 3 or 5 days and allows free access to these and many other paid sights in Scotland. The pass only makes sense if you plan on seeing at least three major sites (i.e. Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle, and Urquhart Castle). You can buy this ahead of time and print it at home.
Greystones in Oban was a little expensive but the view was amazing, location was great, breakfast was delicious, and the owners quite friendly and helpful. We stayed in the sea view turret room.
In Edinburgh try to check out the Airbnb options if you’re there for two nights or more. Look for a place on High Street in the old town. We stayed here.
Angels and Bagpipes – dinner; Edinburgh. Modern Scottish cuisine in a classy setting.
The Devil’s Advocate – hipster drinks; Edinburgh. Amazing whisky and cocktail selection in a bar that looks like a reclaimed warehouse.
The Doric – pub; Edinburgh. Supposedly one of the oldest in the city. Great ambiance and a delicious selection of classic and new pub food. Great fish and chips! Also our first haggis tasting. Both are recommended.
The Elephant House – breakfast, cafe; Edinburgh. JK Rowling worked on Harry Potter in this very cafe. That alone is enough to make it an attraction but the food is quite good too. Its a great stop if you’re heading to the National Museum in the morning.
The Hula Juice Bar, Cafe and Gallery – breakfast, cafe; Edinburgh. Cute cafe showcasing local artists.
I.J. Mellis Cheese Shop – any time; Edinburgh. We had to stop here before our whisky tasting for some necessary snacks. They have a nice selection of cheese from around the UK.
Oink – lunch; Edinburgh. A whole pig, lots of buns, a few sides, and some tables. That’s the general concept of Oink. They crank out roast pork all day every day. A great lunch break while sightseeing. There is one near the castle and one at the other end of High Street near the Scottish parliament.
Ee-usk – dinner; locally caught seafood in Oban. Oban is known for seafood and neither place we went to disappointed. Ee-usk is on the water and offers a nice little view of the small harbor.
Coast – dinner; locally caught seafood and game in Oban. In the town, with no harbor view, the fish dishes here were every bit as good as Ee-usk.
Argyll Hotel and Cafe – lunch; B&B on Iona. One of the very few inns or restaurants on tiny Iona.