Elegant Edinburgh and an Ode to Oban

A visit to Scotland without visiting Edinburgh would be like visiting Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower, visiting Rome without seeing the Colosseum, like cheese and crackers, beer and pizza, or salt and pepper, it is a perfect combination. The capital of Scotland attracts millions of visitors every year to its cobbled stone streets, not only because of its world known festivals that wow tourists from all over the world- such as Hogmany and Edinburgh Fringe, but because the city itself is extraordinary.

Centuries of history are symbolized through the imposing castle that stands surveying the city, whilst medieval relics and Gothic churches are hidden in the very narrow streets of the city, rubbing shoulders with modern architecture and enlightening museums and galleries. Winding down street corners you discover rich heritage, Scottish culture, fine shopping (where to get your favourites from The Edinburgh Woollen Mill) and delicious food. Around the city the scenery is stunning, with spectacular coastal walks; dramatic cliffs, and rolling hills are a plenty, which are equally as attractive as the mad revels that are filled in every noisy pub and heaving club that make up Edinburgh’s thriving night life.

The local people of Edinburgh can be quite hard to spot at times. Although walking with a knowledge of the area and purpose, its not like they are wearing kilts or don ginger beards. Students, expats, and tourists, encompass many of the city’s bars and cafes, creating a cosmopolitan hub of carefree opening people. I came here on a holiday with my mum, the first trip we did together outside of England (unleashing a passion for travel that still throbs in my veins now 13 years later). I was very young  and enthusiastic about visiting all of the sights. That is why there is no personal accounts of night life, or how to explore Edinburgh like a backpacker, although all the main sights we visited- you should try see as much of as you can.

Like the cherry on top of the cake, or should I say the castle on top of the hill, you must visit the Edinburgh Castle. The castle not only plays a pivotal role on the horizon, but also in Scottish history, both as a royal residence and as a military stronghold. Entry is through the Portcullis gate and as you ascend and wander around the site, you are greeted with sweeping panoramic views of Edinburgh from the height of Castle Rock. Events are held here with momentous occasion, so book in advance if you want to immerse yourself with Edinburgh’s culture at such a poignant site.

St Giles Cathedral is another beautiful site that is steeped in history, being both a piece of art and a religious site for refuge and worship. The building has stunning architecture but a wander inside is equally as stunning and gives the visitor a quiet time to reflect, even if you are not religious. Other historical sights to see are the Abbey and Palace of Holyroodhouse, which is the official residence of the British monarch, the Royal Botanic Garden, the National Museum of Scotland and the National Gallery of Scotland: both providing scope into the diverse culture, visually powerful art, and rich history of Scotland. There are a number of independent art galleries situated around the area of St Stephen Street if you want to explore art that is unique and individual.

Edinburgh is a wonderful city to leave the travel guide at home and explore the city whatever direction you fancy, you will no undoubtedly find a treasure wherever your footsteps may take you. Although one area you really should try and check out is the Grassmarket district, a unique area of the historic old town which is thriving with artisan shops, locally sourced restaurants and cosy bars that all ooze with the traditional charm of Edinburgh, the quirkiness of its character combined with stone washed walls and its gutsy edge.

Arthur’s seat, at the top of the summit opposite Holyroodhouse, is a fine hike and merits any walker with stunning views over Edinburgh’s skyline, as well as the experience of walking over a dormant volcano. If this still doesn’t attract you, think of the lofty heaths filled with thistles and ferns which transports you to a scene from Braveheart or Harry Potter, whilst the bracing fresh air revives you. There is much to see around Edinburgh, both short and long distances, such as the town of Leith or a trip to the tourist’s favourite, Oban. Oban is known as a “gateway to the Isles”, where rural Scottish life blossoms by the sea. Tourists flock here in thousands at peak times, so if wanting peace and solitude whilst embracing the elements of Scotland, Oban is not the place. Tours from Edinburgh offer comeptitive packages and prices, all with similar experiences. Visit in off season or a neighbouring island for a more authentic experience.

Here is my ode to Oban for all those who want to read my poor attempt at poetry:

Oh Oban, you are so far away,

We didn’t know how long the journey would be,

On the bus with the horrific Celtic music you play,

And in Oban there is little to see,

but eat fish, visit the McCaig’s Tower and make friends with a hairy yak,

and note its majestical natural beauty,

I’m kinda glad were on the way back.

As I said before, Edinburgh has a wonderful attitude towards activities after dark. As well as numerous pubs, bars and clubs to choose from, there are also historical horror walking tours that lead you into the depths of City Chambers and Cemeteries to spook the living daylights out of you. Edinburgh is a city that entertains all types of guests, that plays with all your senses and leaves you wanting more. Restaurants are no different and vary from local cafés selling the infamous speciality of black pudding (dried blood anyone?), takeaways with deep fried pizza, funky restaurants and Michelin starred gourmet cuisine. The restaurants that are etched into my memory which we ventured too were; The Witchery– a luxurious restaurant that is set in a candle lit basement and introduced me to sea bass for the first time, (a life changing moment may I add) and the Tower Restaurant, situated above the National Museum of Scotland which serves impeccable food offering panoramic views.

Being with my mum (and not on my own personal budget) we stayed in, wait for it… The Scotsman Hotel. Where Scotland’s newspaper was born- and is now stylishly converted into a luxurious boutique hotel, which perfects its attention to detail by relating stylish interior to its history, has warm and helpful staff, and serves up a hearty full fry up in the morning.

N.B. I didn’t eat black pudding here funny enough, where the opportunity was best, but actually ate it years later on a first date with a man from Macclesfield, (later to be boyfriend, then ex boyfriend) where I ordered a fry up for our brunch date and was forced to eat it as he loved it and urged me to try it. Just for your own interest, it tastes as if meat but with a spongy texture- and when eating it and you remind yourself of its ingredients, is extremely had to ignore.

A Weekend in Aberdeen

I came to visit Aberdeen whilst studying at the University of Manchester, popping up for the weekend and making the wee 8 hour train journey to visit my best friend from home, as well as experience a new part of Scotland I hadn’t seen before.

If you look on a map, you can see that there is a significant distance between the two cities, the journey is as if from Brighton to Manchester, travelling over a large proportion of the UK. The furthest north I had travelled before in Scotland was Oban, I had never reached higher into the wilderness of rural Scotland. Where, I expected strong burly men spoke with thick accents and everyone ate haggis all day.

I was surprised to stumble upon Aberdeen, a city that shone out amongst the windy wild Scotland that encompasses my expectations of the north, layers of green rural landscape contrasting with grey miserable skies. The city sparkled with prosperity, (all that wealth gained from the North Sea Oil) and gleamed with its traditional granite architecture that stood grand and erect. Noone ever speaks of Aberdeen as a tourist destination within Scotland, many wandering through Edinburgh, St Andrews and the Isle of Skye, skipping out vast areas of country at a time.

I was surprised by its carefree attitude, where random welcoming people spoke to each other in pub gardens asking your opinion of the city, or a football team you have never heard of. I was surprised at the pleasant sandy beach that rolled out for miles. I was surprised at the city that was a combination of authentic Scotland – unlike other tourist destinations, that also appeared glam and smart, especially in the evening. I was mostly surprised at how nice the city was and how many attractions there were to do in the surrounding areas, offering nature on one hand and a city filled with history and culture on the other. I expressed my surprise to my friend, and she merely nodded at me without raising an eyebrow- as if to say, “duh, that’s why I’m here”.

I was taken to the beach, where we sat and watched the pounding waves roll in whilst brave surfers resembled seals as they dipped and dove through the tumbling water. The surrounding landscape is beautiful and it is a perfect spot for a walk, without leaving you too exhausted. Head to Footdee, a quaint fishing village which is now embedded into the cityscape. Filled with quirky outhouses that line the harbour, the village offers a laid back ambiance with a picturesque setting. If you are lucky, you may be able to spot wild dolphins on the horizon.

A quaint fishing village that sits in a cove nestled away from the howling winds of Northern Scotland and isn’t sidelined next to a vast city, is Stonehaven. The seaside town has a reputation for being a special destination. One filled with an impressive ruined fortress of Dunoottar Castle which looms in the background, amazing giant ice creams at Auntie Bettys sweet shop, and smells of battered fish and battered Mars bars that float in the air and tantalise your taste buds.

Another incredible destination just a short distance away from the city is Cairngorms National Park. Whatever the weather, this park is filled with an array of attractions to keep you entertained. Try your hand at skiing; mountain biking, white water rafting, canoeing, hiking, horse riding, wind surfing, cliff jumping- the list goes on, and its fitting for any extreme sports enthusiast.

However, I didn’t have much time to explore what was outside the city walls. Rather, we spent time wandering the cobbled stone streets and learning what took place within the city. Visiting the Aberdeen Art Gallery is a must for anyone who is interested in art and wants to learn about the traditions of Scotland through this medium. Otherwise, The Gordon Highlanders Museum is a fantastic museum which highlights the heroic bravery of one of the most famous regiments from the British Army (and is filled with every stereotype of what a Scottish man is like). Or, pop into the the Aberdeen Maritime Museum, where it narrates the story of Aberdeen’s relationship with the sea, how it has been affected by the booming oil industry, as well as the technicalities of the process. An excellent insight into what has made Aberdeen so successful.

Dining in Aberdeen varies from how much you are willing to spend. If you are looking for somewhere a little upmarket, try Fusion or Rustico’s, both varying in style of cuisine. Or if you are on a more affordable budget (like I was -being the visiting student) then head to Josephine’s BYOB for good tapas, or Musa Art Cafe which has a menu filled with local produce cooked in a quirky way in a buzzing atmosphere.

The clubs and bars are thriving with life throughout Aberdeen as those that revel in the night, live up to the stereotype of every citizen in the UK, hitting it hard. Students mingle with young workers, whom mingle with party crazed regulars whom mingle with knowledgeable locals- all looking for a good time. My time was short (and my evenings here felt even shorter), however popular haunts are Underground, Bar Korova, The Moorings and if wanting to drink like a king- head to Slains Castle on Belmont Street.

Really, a weekend spent here feels like you have barely scratched the surface to see what this city has to offer. More time here would be a wise choice.