Scottish Castles and Views–Loch Ness Area and Eilean Donan

On the Road to Skye

We said farewell to our adventures in Nairn/Inverness and set off for Loch Ness and more Scottish castles. We also had high hopes for fabulous views of the Highlands on our way to Skye. Boy, were we NOT disappointed!

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Loch Ness Cruise–Scottish Castles and Views

We left early in the morning to allow enough time for any possible traffic around Inverness to get to our cruise on Loch Ness. It took us around 45 minutes.

Our particular Jacobite Cruise leaves from the Clansman Hotel, which is across the street from the dock. We were fortunate to find a parking spot at the hotel. There were several buses there and it was busy. We went inside to check out the gift shop while we waited (and bought our Nessie souvenirs), and then headed down to the dock.

The cruise we booked was a two hour cruise, which included the entry fee and a self-guided tour of Urquhart Castle. The boat was clean, roomy and had a bar that sold drinks and snacks. We started out on the open deck, but as it was pretty cold and windy on the Loch we eventually moved to a table inside. The crew was very nice, friendly and professional. It took about 30 minutes to get to Urquhart and the views were beautiful. It was a treat to see Urquhart from the water.

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Urquhart Castle

Urquhart Castle is located in what is called “the Great Glen.” This area was formed by long-ago seismic activity which split open Scotland and raised the Highlands. There are four large lochs in this “crack,” and it formed a natural roadway through Scotland. This “highway” runs from Ft. William to Inverness.

Located on Loch Ness, this 500 year old fortress has seen much of Scotland’s violent history. Government forces blew up the castle when abandoning it during the Jacobite Rising in 1692. Because of its strategic location in the Great Glen, it was fought over time and time again.

We docked right next to the castle and had an hour to walk around and explore, and had fun imagining how it looked in its glory days. It has a fascinating history. We spent so much time exploring the ruins that we never made it up the hill to the visitor center! You can climb to the top of the great tower and the views are even more incredible.

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On the Road to Skye

Can we talk about how incredible the drive from Inverness towards Skye is? I actually started crying it was so beautiful. Plus I was so excited to be there and experiencing the Highlands first-hand. Sounds crazy, I know. And for many of the incredible views I was unable to take photos as there was no “scenic pull-off” area. It was a beautiful day, and it was such a gorgeous drive. Below is a slide show of many of the photos we took. I apologize for the large number of them. I really couldn’t choose! Enjoy the slideshow below:

 

 

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Eilean Donan Castle

The last stop on our “Castles and Views” journey to Skye was the beautiful, iconic Eilean Donan Castle. On this gorgeous day, the views of the castle and surrounding area were incredible. The entry fee includes a self-guided audio tour, which I recommend. We were able to walk through and learn about the castle. Did you know the bridge that leads to it was used in the James Bond film, “The World Is Not Enough” and Bond drove his sports car over it? Looking at that bridge, I don’t know how he did it.

Eilean Donan, like Urquhart, has a very violent history as well, because it is strategically located where three Lochs meet. Also like Urquhart Castle, government forces blew up Eilean Donan during the Jacobite Rising in 1719. The castle was abandoned for 200 years but purchased by a military man in 1911 who reconstructed it based on some original plans and finished the work in 1932.

It is a truly beautiful place and I highly recommend you visit if you go to Scotland.

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Truly worn out from seeing all of this beauty, we entered sensory overload as we crossed the bridge to Skye and headed to Portree to check in to our next hotel. Our stay on the Isle of Skye is up next on the blog.

Have you ever taken this drive to the Isle of Skye? How did it make you feel? I was truly overwhelmed. What a beautiful place.

Inverness Area–Castles, Battles and Standing Stones

What sites are there to see around the Inverness area? Plenty! After our fun times in Aberdeenshire and Edinburgh, our itinerary took us up through the Cairngorms and on to the Inverness area.

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Aviemore and the Cairngorm Mountain Range

We left the Aberdeen area and drove northward through the beautiful moors to go around the mountains to Aviemore. We took a very small, narrow road going north, and came over a rise to this amazing view. The view was absolutely incredible and so different than what we are used to.

 

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Since we had already hiked that morning in Braemar, we decided to take it easy that afternoon, and just drove up to the Cairngorm Mountain parking area and took some photos of the views.

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We ate lunch at a cute little pub and then headed to Nairn, a beautiful sea-side town with incredible views about 30 minutes from Inverness. 

Invernairne Guest House

For the next two nights we stayed at a beautiful guest house with beach access in Nairn. Invernairne is a lovely country house run by very nice, hospitable hosts who make killer scrambled eggs in the morning! They have a great honor bar, stocked with all kinds of liquor, wines and beer, sodas, etc. The hotel has a lovely backyard with tables and a beautiful sunken garden. Taking the path down to the beach reveals a beautiful expanse of the Moray Firth, the mountains beyond, and a rocky and sandy beach. 

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We took the short path down to the beach and enjoyed being by the beautiful water. The beach there is part sand and part rock. There is also a nice walkway that runs along the beach to provide much easier walking.

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Our room was in the back of the hotel so we faced the Moray Firth and had amazing views. Everything was top-notch and very well done, from our comfortable bed and bedding to the well-appointed bathroom.

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Nairn

We only spent one evening exploring Nairn. When our dinner plans fell through, we ate in a restaurant across from the grassy public park next to the public beach, and enjoyed the seaside town atmosphere. We drove a bit through the town, and it seemed pretty lively.

Brodie Castle

Brodie Castle is very close to Nairn, so we went there first as soon as it opened. It was very beautiful and the tour of the interior took about an hour. The castle had a great history and was lovely to visit.

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Cawdor Castle

Our next stop was Cawdor Castle. Dating from around 1454, the Castle has beautiful interiors and artwork, and a really cool legend of how the location was chosen next to a holly tree. The original holly tree is on display in the lowest level.

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What is truly special about Cawdor are the gardens. I think we took 250 photos there. The castle has three gardens, and includes a maze under the gaze of a Minotaur statue and beautiful sculptures throughout. When we visited the gardens were in top form. Here are some photos:

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Culloden Battlefield near Inverness

Our next stop that day was Culloden. For all of you Outlander fans, yes, it’s the big battle that Jamie fought in. This site was where the British defeated the Jacobites and Bonnie Prince Charlie and squashed all efforts to re-establish the Stuart Kings in Scotland.

The Battlefield has a very good visitor center/ museum, and then you can go outside and walk around the battlefield. There are monuments for many of the different clans that fought there. The battlefield is a pretty large area, but definitely walkable. It was sobering to see the boggy ground that some of the Jacobites were forced to attack over. It is no wonder that they were unsuccessful. As we traveled around Scotland, we saw constant reminders of just how Bad Ass the Scottish are, how they never wanted to give up and kept fighting, and what incredible, fierce warriors they were. The history of Scotland is very violent, bloody, and fierce, but I find it completely fascinating.

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Clava Cairns

Our final historic site that day was Clava Cairns. For you Outlander fans, these stones are similar to the one Claire touched and was transported through time. Clava Cairns has probably at least 30 standing stones, spread out over a fairly small area. The standing stones surround mound-type buildings called Cairns, made of rock. One has an opening and you can stand inside. In the exact middle the temperature decreases at least 10 degrees. It was very cool (pun intended).

We enjoyed walking around the area and reading about how these Cairns and stones were used, why they were built, and the efforts to preserve them. I highly recommend a visit here!

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Dinner at Cafe 1 in Inverness

Since the Cairns were fairly close to Inverness, we made reservations that evening in the town so that we could see some of the city. Inverness is a beautiful, small city along a nice river. We ate at a fabulous restaurant called CAFE 1. It was very busy and crowded, but the meal was delicious and the service was great. I highly recommend it!

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Recommendation

The Inverness area offers some great sites for the history buff. If you only have a very short time, I recommend visiting Cawdor Castle, Culloden and Clava Cairns. Nairn is a beautiful and convenient place to stay, and wasn’t very touristy at all. Most of the sites were very close and easy to get to from Nairn.

Next up: We travel from Nairn to Isle of Skye, with a visit to Loch Ness along the way. What are your favorite things to do and see near Inverness?

Castle Tours and Views–An Aberdeenshire Adventure

After an incredible three days in Edinburgh, we were ready to start our tour of the Scottish countryside with visits to Aberdeenshire Castles. We rented a car in downtown Edinburgh, and then drove to our first countryside castle, Glamis.

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Glamis Castle

Although not an Aberdeenshire Castle (it’s in Angus), this beautiful estate was on the way there. We got there around opening time and had a great guide who took us through the inside. Glamis is the childhood home of HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and also inspired Shakespeare to write MacBeth. As with almost every castle we explored, it also hosted Mary, Queen of Scots. The same family has lived there since the 1300s, and some great stories include that one Lady Glamis was found guilty and executed for witchcraft; King Malcom II was murdered on the site of the present castle; the family forfeited the castle to the Crown and then it was occupied by King James V; and it was occupied by Cromwell’s troops. There are many ghost stories, too! Below is a gallery of photos from our visit.

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Dunnottar Castle

Our next stop was Dunnottar Castle, which is an incredibly beautiful, windswept ruined castle on the eastern coast. There are lots of steps up and down to the castle, but the effort is so very worth it. There are different sections to explore, including fortified walls, the living quarters, a chapel, the cemetery, and stables/support buildings.

Some of the incredible history includes that it was captured by William Wallace in 1297; owned by the extremely powerful Keith family who became the Earls of Marischal; visited, of course, by Mary Queen of Scots and James VI; the castle protected the Scottish Crown Jewels, which were smuggled out just in time before it was forced to surrender to Cromwell’s forces; the Keiths supported the Jacobites and lost all of their property and the castle. At one point it is said the Earl even had a lion at the castle!

Dunnottar is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, surrounded by water on three sides, jutting out high on a cliff. Views toward and from the castle are incredible. I would rate this particular castle as one of our top ones that we saw while in Scotland, and definitely the best of the Aberdeenshire Castles. I highly recommend you add it to your touring list. It is so isolated, desolate and beautiful! See some of our beautiful shots from this visit below:

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Douneside House

We then checked in to our hotel, the beautiful Douneside House in Tarland. They offer military discounts, which worked great for us! There is a sad history of all three sons dying right before and during WWII, and of how Lady MacRobert donated a plane to the British Royal Air Force. She also started a foundation, The MacRobert Trust, that does a lot of charity work and honors military personnel. So if you are military, you can qualify for a military discount there.

We celebrated our anniversary that evening in their delicious, intimate restaurant. The views from our room were stunning, and the gardens and walking paths around the hotel were breathtaking. My husband used their fitness center, and said it was top-notch. Our food, our room, the drinks, and service were all very good. See below for a gallery of photos of our room, our views, and the incredible gardens and walking paths at Douneside House.

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Castle Fraser

The next day we again went castle-hopping. Our first stop was Castle Fraser. And yes, in the gift shop, they had a life-sized cutout of Jamie Fraser from Outlander. And yes, I took it out to the courtyard and posed with him. Don’t hate.

This building was also very striking. We went all the way up to the top of the round tower to see the beautiful countryside around the the estate. Below is a gallery of the beautiful locations and scenes from Fraser.

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Fyvie Castle

Next we went up to Fyvie Castle, an 800 year old castle. It has beautiful grounds, and the inside is very grand. There is a stature of Sir Jeffery Hudson, known as Lord Minimus, who was a dwarf and a favorite of English Queen Henrietta Maria of France. He led an amazing life–you can learn more about him here. Our guide speculated if he was the inspiration for Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones.

See the gallery below for great photos from our visit (and the amazingly cute dogs we saw there)!

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Crathes Castle

It was pretty late and we missed the last tour for Crathes Castle, but we stopped there anyway and explored the grounds a bit and looked at the beautiful building. Here are some shots from that one:

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Banchory Lodge

We had dinner reservations for Banchory Lodge. It is a lovely inn and restaurant on the banks of the beautiful River Dee. The food was good, service was fantastic, and we sat by the river for a bit before heading back to Douneside House.

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Ballater/Braemar

The next morning we got up early and headed for our first Scottish hike. We stopped in Ballater (cute little town) for a quick breakfast, and then drove to Braemar to hike up an easy hill, Creag Choinnich. The hike is only 2.5 km and it took us about 2 hours, as we walked all around at the top and enjoyed the beautiful views of Royal Deeside and over to the Cairngorms Mountain Range.

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And so…

That was our last stop in Aberdeenshire! Next up: Inverness and the Cairngorms.

Have you been to Aberdeenshire? We love our castles, so it was a great choice for us. What is your favorite castle in Aberdeenshire or which one would you like to see? Please comment below!

Edinburgh–A Friendly and Historic Bucket List City

Visiting Scotland and especially Edinburgh has always been a dream of mine. I have been to England and Ireland, but never made it to Scotland. Since it was my turn to choose on the bucket list, I decided Scotland would be next, figuring those beautiful mountains needed hiking and it was better to hike sooner rather than later! Our entire Scotland itinerary can be seen here.

Our first stop in Scotland was the incredibly beautiful, friendly city of Edinburgh. For non-UK people, remember it is “Ed-in-bur-ah” not “Edin-burg.” (you will sound like someone in the know if you keep that straight lol).

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The Balmoral Hotel–an Edinburgh Gem

view of the back of the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh
View from the bridge of the back of the Balmoral Hotel with its famous clock tower.

Our flight arrived around 11 am, and we took a taxi to our hotel. We were booked at the Balmoral Hotel, a gorgeous hotel next to the train station. They gave us an incredible free upgrade when we checked in. Our basic room was now a beautiful, large suite. I always try to book directly with hotels, as in my experience, they are more likely to upgrade you than if you book with a third party site. We got super lucky on this one!

We had a very comfortable sitting room, a huge closet, beautiful bedroom, and gorgeous marble spa bathroom. Since Sir Sean Connery had helped them re-open the hotel, every room at the Balmoral has a photo from one of his James Bond movies. That was a very cool touch. Who doesn’t love James Bond? We also had incredible views of Edinburgh from our windows. 

sitting room of suite at balmoral hotel
The sitting room of our upgraded suite at the Balmoral.
bedroom in suite of Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh
The bedroom–with beautiful windows overlooking the old town.
Marble spa bathroom in suite of Balmoral Hotel
Beautiful spa bathroom.
James Bond photo in every room of Balmoral Hotel Edinburgh
Our James Bond Photo!
view from windows of suite at Balmoral Hotel of Arthur's Seat
View of Arthur’s Seat from our hotel. Just a quick walk over that bridge and you are are almost to the Royal Mile.

Since our room wasn’t ready yet, they helped us stash our bags and we were able to change our clothes and freshen up a bit, which was nice. The staff at the Balmoral is just incredible. They are very friendly, kind and helpful. 

view of Palm Court room in Balmoral Hotel
Palm Court, where they serve a very fancy Afternoon Tea in the Balmoral Hotel.

Scott Monument and Calton Hill–fabulous views of Edinburgh

We walked about a block to pose in front of the Scott Monument, then had another quick walk to Calton Hill. It was an easy climb up steps to view the various monuments and get amazing views of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Arthur’s Seat, the Salisbury Crags, Edinburgh Castle, and the city. It was a great way to get a grasp on the layout of the city and the view made us very excited to explore more.

view of edinburgh from calton hill
Beautiful view of Edinburgh from Calton Hill.
monuments at the top of Calton Hill
Monuments at the top of Calton Hill

The Real Mary King’s Close–see what’s under Edinburgh!

We then walked up to the Royal Mile, as we had entry tickets in advance for The Real Mary King’s Close. This is a historic site that takes you below the city to see old streets and buildings that still exist below the city. These are very old and from plague times. It was ok, our guide was a bit theatrical, or maybe we were just too tired, but if you don’t have time for this site, don’t sweat it.

woman in front of sign at Real Mary King's Close in Edinburgh
Make sure you purchase tickets in advance, as the tours are small groups and seem to fill up fast.

We had another drink in a cute pub, then went back to the hotel to get in to our room, take a shower, and rest a little. We had a very early dinner at the hotel, then slept!

Edinburgh Castle

woman in front of Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle

The first morning we arrived at the Castle around 9 am. I had reserved online in advance Scottish Heritage Passes to tour Edinburgh Castle. We didn’t have to wait in the long line, but went in to the Information Office where we quickly got our passes. The Scottish Heritage pass allows for entry in to various castles and historic sites around Scotland for a week. We were going to several of the sites that it covered, so it was economical for us to get these passes instead of paying at each site. 

view of battlements at Edinburgh Castle
The battlements at the castle

I suggest you arrive at the castle early before the crowds get too crazy. It got very crowded when we were there in June.

We loved exploring the castle. There is so much history there, and it gives you a glimpse of the incredible history of the entire country of Scotland.

woman standing in front of Edinburgh castle
Edinburgh Castle. They had several museums and chapels within the castle walls.

The castle also had amazing views over the city. We enjoyed exploring the museums and all of the various parts of the castle.

Michael Neaves Kitchen

Micheal Neaves Kitchen Restaurant building
Michael Neaves Kitchen Restaurant–a very cool building down a small “close,” or alley/side street. We ate a delicious lunch there.

We next made our way towards the Palace of Holyroodhouse. On the way, we stopped in to Michael Neaves Kitchen, an excellent restaurant, for lunch.

Palace of Holyroodhouse

front view of Palace of Holyroodhouse
Entrance and courtyard of the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse is the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh, and in fact, she came the week after we were there. It is a very historic place, very beautiful, and the site of a brutal murder. The Palace has been the residence of Mary, Queen of Scots as well as Bonnie Prince Charlie. They give you headsets so that you don’t have to take a guided tour. I really loved the ruined chapel, it was so romantic.

front view of Palace of Holyroodhouse with Arthur's seat in background
The Palace of Holyroodhouse with a view of Arthur’s Seat.

 

view of interior courtyard at the Palace of Holyroodhouse
The interior courtyard at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

 

view of chapel from the side and behind palace of holyroodhouse
View of the chapel from behind the Palace of Holyroodhouse

Arthur’s Seat–Climb to the top of an ancient volcano overlooking Edinburgh

path leading up to Arthur's Seat
The path up to Arthur’s Seat. A bit rocky, but a very fun, easy hike.

From the Palace, you have an easy walk to the pathway to Arthur’s Seat. We stopped on the way up at the ruined chapel.

woman on path to Arthur's Seat
This is the path up to Arthur’s Seat, an easy climb. Just wear good shoes for walking! On the top right you can see the ruins of an old chapel.
view from the top of Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh
The view of Edinburgh from the top of Arthur’s Seat.

The climb up is not too bad, and I recommend good walking shoes at least. It does get rocky in some spots, and if it is wet it could be a bit slippery. It took us about 45 minutes to climb up to the very top for amazing views of the city and surrounding area. This hike is a must-do in Edinburgh, we really enjoyed it. But then we also like easy hikes!

 

woman sitting on rock in front of Salisbury Crags in Edinburgh
Me with Salisbury Crags behind me…after we climbed Arthur’s Seat. It was such a fun day.

Afternoon Tea at the Balmoral

One afternoon we had some extra time and decided to do Afternoon Tea at the Balmoral Hotel’s Palm Court. The tea was unlimited, and the food was truly delicious and diverse. It was a fun experience and a very special treat.

woman sitting at Afternoon Tea at Balmoral in Palm Court
A harpist plays during Afternoon Tea at the Balmoral Hotel’s Palm Court.
woman at afternoon tea at Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh
Sandwiches and fruit tarts, oh my!
desserts at afternoon tea at the Balmoral hotel
I couldn’t wait for the picture and ate one first! These were the yummy treats to finish our experience at Afternoon Tea.

Contini George Restaurant

We headed back to the hotel to change for dinner, and took an uber to Contini George Street, a very good Italian restaurant in an old bank building. It was very romantic and the food was excellent.

menu of Contini George restaurant in Edinburgh
Menu at Contini George. It was a great experience. The food in Edinburgh was really good, even for me, a very picky eater.

Elephant House–for Harry Potter Fans

The next day was very rainy. We put on our raincoats and walked towards the National Museum of Scotland, and found breakfast along the way at The Elephant House, which for Harry Potter fans is a great hidden gem…supposedly J.K. Rowling sat here often, nursing the one cup of coffee she could afford, writing at one of their tables. There is an incredible view of the castle from their windows. The bathrooms have Harry Potter graffiti all over the walls, which is kind of neat. We had a delicious Scottish breakfast there. 

view from windows of the elephant house of edinburgh castle
Our view of the castle while enjoying a delicious breakfast at The Elephant House.
scottish breakfast with haggis balls, eggs and bacon
A true Scottish breakfast at The Elephant House–note the Haggis balls. My husband loved them.

Greyfriars Bobby and Greyfriars Kirkyard

On the way to the museum, we came across the Greyfriars Bobby statue and Greyfriars Kirkyard (cemetery). These weren’t on my itinerary, but we had time and I had wanted to see this statue of the sweet little famous dog. I remember watching the Disney movie when I was very young, so was excited to see it. We walked up to the cemetery to see his grave and the grave of his beloved master, then wandered around the cemetery. We saw a sign that said J.K. Rowling got the names of several of her characters from the gravestones here, so we had fun wandering around trying to find them. After a google search (!) we found Tom Riddle!

woman touching statue of Greyfriar's Bobby in Edinburgh
Me and the statue of Greyfriars Bobby. I loved the movie when I was a child, and I was so excited when we stumbled upon this. Note his discolored nose. I guess there is a legend that says rubbing his nose is good luck. But it damages the statue–so don’t do it!
gravestone of Greyfriars Bobby in Edinburgh
The sweet gravestone for Greyfriars Bobby, a very devoted doggie. I loved how people had left sticks on there. So sweet.
woman pointing to Thomas Riddle name on gravestone in Greyfriar's kirkyard in Edinburgh
We found J.K. Rowling’s inspiration for Tom Riddle at Greyfriar’s Kirkyard.

National Museum of Scotland

Next up was the National Museum of Scotland. You could really spend an entire day there. Entry is free, and it has a great overview of Scottish History. It was a very well-done museum and I highly recommend it. It was a great place to explore on a rainy day.

Royal Mile & Victoria Street–must sees in Edinburgh

man in tartan crossing the royal mile in edinburgh
The shopping street known as the Royal Mile.

We explored shops along the Royal Mile and I succumbed to a plaid purse with matching gloves. And of course several scarves, which were on sale everywhere and in beautiful tartans. Dinner was at Howies Victoria Street. It was good, very small, and reservations are suggested as it got very crowded.

view of The Royal Mile in Edinburgh
The Royal Mile, an incredibly diverse shopping street in downtown Edinburgh. Such beautiful architecture there, too!
Ragamuffin shop with textiles in window on Royal Mile
Cool shop along the Royal Mile. If you like cashmere and wool scarves, this town will give you much joy!

Make sure you at least walk down Victoria Street, because it has beautiful architecture, colorful buildings, and many small, interesting shops. And for Harry Potter fans, it was the inspiration for Diagon Alley.

view of Victoria Street in Edinburgh
Victoria Street, the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books.

Recommendation

The next day we left Edinburgh for our adventures in the countryside. We had a fabulous few days in this beautiful city. I really loved the friendly, historic atmosphere, the beautiful buildings, and the ease of getting around. Just make sure you spend at least 2 days there, 3 if you can. We didn’t see everything, but researching in advance for your interests is key. I would love to go back, but for now I have incredible memories of a wonderful stay.

Have you been to Edinburgh? What are your must-sees and what was your impression? Please comment below!

 

 

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