I have a theory. If you want to have an amazing night out, convince yourself – insist upon it to anyone who asks what your plans are – that you’re going out for just one.
I swear it’s the guaranteed way to turn any evening into an all-nighter that is so bizarre that you won’t quite believe it the next day.
Edinburgh, Scotland, May 2015. Despite visiting Ireland, Northern Ireland, and England many times, I’d never stepped foot in Scotland. I decided to squeeze in a visit en route to England. Word of warning: neither Edinburgh nor Scotland can be “squeezed in.” But even my inadequate visit was memorable, in so many ways.
I arrived in the early evening, and walked from the bus stop near Waverley station to my hostel, situated right below the castle and steps from pretty much anything in the “Old Town.” As I approached, a young woman was headed in the opposite direction; I nodded hello, and continued on in.
Checking in always includes questions of the desk staff, including where to eat, drink, and generally be merry. The young woman at the desk didn’t disappoint, giving me a few options close by. I dropped my bags, and headed out. I was tired, but going for one after a bit of travel would help me settle in.
Did I mention I was in cargo pants and hiking boots? Not exactly a live-it-up-on-the-town outfit.
I found one of the pubs, went to the bar, and ordered a drink. A live band was setting up. Finding an open spot along the bar in an alcove area, I stood, people-watching. And noticed the girl that had been walking the opposite direction as I approached the hostel nearby. We were chatting in no time. She was from Brazil, studying in France, and we were soon immersed in conversations of where we’d been, what we were doing in Edinburgh, and travel in general.
Soon, the music was almost too loud to hold a conversation. Three young men at a nearby table seemed to be periodically glancing our direction. We found it a bit amusing, and were giggling over it, when one approached. They invited us to join them at their table, where there was a bit more room and a spare bar stool.
Two were from France, one from Austria, and we shouted above the music, struggling over accents, to hold any sort of conversation. Eventually, we gave up. Well, strike that. We didn’t give up as much as one of them had an idea that didn’t involve conversation. The two Frenchmen just happened to enjoy ballroom dancing, and were keen to literally give it a whirl. In a pub. To a cover band. In Edinburgh.
I’m sure we annoyed a helluva lot of people that night. Neither my Brazilian companion nor I knew how to dance, but the Frenchmen overruled our protests. And to their credit, they were incredible. Their skills in leading and directing were the only thing that kept us from a, making complete idiots of ourselves, and b, getting kicked out for knocking over every bar stool, table, and patron in the place. By the end of it, though clumsy, there was really only one move that I kept confusing and going the wrong direction on. (Disclaimer: They probably have very different versions of this story.) Image and impression had flown out the window. I was still in cargo pants and hiking boots, now out of breath, and generally making a fool of myself. But it also didn’t matter. We were all in it together, and if you couldn’t talk, well, laughter was the next best thing.
The pub began to close at midnight. We spilled out into the street. None of us wanted to call it a night, but the surrounding streets were dark and quiet. Now what?
Enter someone’s brilliant social experiment: on the center strip of a boulevard, among a few benches and trees, someone had chalked out a hopscotch game.
Five people, all slightly inebriated, a few breathless from “dancing” (the guys were dancing – I was stumbling around at high speeds, probably crashing into people), four languages. Friendly bickering and scolding and correcting each other over the rules of hopscotch, and then attempting to demonstrate the proper hopscotch game, each trying to outdo the other.
I made it down the board, and was triumphant – until they all erupted at once, telling me I had to turn around on one foot and return back down the board. Fail on my part. It took all of my concentration to go down it once – no chance of coming back. The American forfeited.
I did try to snap a few photos, but in the darkened streets, with only streetlights for lighting, and constant movement, they will win no photo prize. But, they bring back such vivid memories of that night that I can’t help but smile every time I come across them.
And soon, we parted, though discovered the French guys were staying at the same hostel. We took advantage of the snooker table in the common room to extend the evening further, playing a game that could hardly be identified as snooker for how terrible – and amusing – it was. I think the clock in the background of a photo reads 2:15. So much for an early night!
Those are the nights you say yes:
to conversations at the bar, invitations to dance, a late night hopscotch game, a snooker table, and to new friends. You never know where the night will lead.
Just remember – you’re only going out for just one.
With curiosity and courage,
Wondering how to explore Edinburgh? Keep reading for the logistics!
Airport: Edinburgh (EDI)
Transportation into city: This has got to be one of the easiest airports to get to/from the city center. The Airlink 100 bus into Edinburgh stops literally outside the main entrance. Collect your bags, walk outside, and chances are, it’s sitting there. There’s one departing every 10 minutes, taking approximately 30 minutes to Waverley Place in the city center. From there, you will be standing directly between the New Town and the Old Town. You can purchase tickets online, but it’s just as easy to do it from the driver. Currently 4.50£ single, 7.50£ return.
I stayed in one of the larger dorms (saving money and all). But: this hostel offers everything from budget dorms to single rooms. Yes, the dorms can feel crowded, as dorms tend to do, and the bathrooms are shared and down the hall (but clean and there are plenty of shower stalls – never had to wait more than a couple of minutes)… but… this place is amazing. The common area is enormous, complete with a pool/snooker table, couches, tall windows and lots of light. The Fireplace lounge is the “quiet” common area, with sofas and chairs, and a table to work at if the need arises… and yes, a fireplace, and again, huge windows. Another great place to chill is the music lounge, complete with guitars and records. There is always something going if you’re wanting to join in, from organized pub crawls to games and movies.
A few more notes:
What to Do
Free Walking Tour: City Walking Tours Edinburgh
These are getting to be popular, and are a great way to get the lay of the land when you’re new to a city. Note: you do not go “in” anywhere – while this tour will talk briefly about Edinburgh Castle, St. Giles Cathedral, and so forth, it will walk you by them. This is a great way to see the main highlights of the city, then go back to those places you want to spend more time in. It’s free in the sense there is no set charge, but please be considerate and tip your guide. The company also offers a ghost tour and a pub crawl.
Oct 1 – March 31: 9:30 am – 5 pm, last entry at 4 pm
April 1 – Sept 30: 9:30 am – 6 pm, last entry at 5 pm
The recommended minimum time to see the castle and grounds is two hours. I’d say that’s about right, if you want to cover the highlights. This isn’t just one building, but a fortified village.
You can get your tickets online for no extra charge to skip the line – there is almost always a line. Admission for adults is 16.50£, and includes the guided tour. Alternately, you can rent an audio guide for 3.50£. Though everything is well marked, it helped keep me on track to find the main highlights. If you’d just like to explore solo, there is plenty of signage to explain what you’re looking at. The Castle website also gives six different itineraries for the time of your visit, how long you have, and what you may be interested in, so exploring solo is definitely an option as well. My favorite: St. Margaret’s Chapel – the oldest building in the Castle, believed to have been built in 1130. Small, solid, and intimate, you sense how many have worshipped here in the past 800+ years.Be sure to soak up the views from the Castle as well – on a clear day, Edinburgh is laid out beneath you, with King Arthur’s seat in the distance.
Suggested donation of 3£. Built around the same time as St. Margaret’s Chapel, Saint Giles Cathedral is the opposite in stature. It’s vaulted ceilings, beautiful stained glass, and medieval carvings – look for the Green Men! – demonstrate its central importance to the religious life of Edinburgh. Personal favorites: the stained glass windows make the light in this church feel ethereal. The Thistle Chapel’s detailed carving in both wood and stone elevate the chapel’s importance in service to the Order of the Thistle. And the Angel Font is striking in its simplicity and grace. If you wish to take photos in the church, purchase a permit for 2£.
For those familiar with Harry Potter, the Elephant Café may already be on the list of places to visit in Edinburgh. A café popular with writers of both local and world renown, J.K. Rowling made it world famous with the publication of Harry Potter. I made the pilgrimage and stopped in for coffee and a pastry (though there is amore extensive menu for those with a larger appetite).
If you’ve taken the free walking tour, you’ve already wandered the cemetery across the street from the Elephant House Café’s back windows – and have likely found the tombstones with a few familiar names. The story goes that when Rowling needed a character name, she’d find what she was looking for in the cemetery. Keep an eye out for Moodie, McGonagall, and yes, Riddle. Please be respectful – this is a cemetery and church grounds. (Also, notably the home of Greyfriars Bobby – look for his statue outside the Kirk, on the way to the front of the Elephant Café.)
Food and Drink
There are so many great places in Edinburgh, it’s difficult to choose. I stayed in the Old City and specifically the Grassmarket area and looked for the classics. Of course, the historical places have a tourist following, so be prepared. But the food and drink were good, and will warm you up on a chilly Scottish evening.
I had to eat at Maggie Dickson’s. The story behind the name is just too great to not check out. And I wanted fish and chips – most places have it on the menu, so why not get it here? And a treat of toffee pudding and vanilla ice cream was great comfort food. (Update: Maggie’s now uses Facebook and Zomato rather than a separate site.)
This was an impromptu stop, mainly because I wanted to get out of the chill and warm up, and the atmosphere – cozy seating with leather booths and upholstered chairs, warm reds and browns – was ideal. And, they had another comfort food classic I was after – pies. I’d had my fill of Shepherd’s Pie in Ireland, and the other options looked amazing, but went for the Taylor Walker Steak and Ale pie. Warmed me right up, and set me right for continued exploring. (Update: The Beehive Inn has changed hands and is no longer part of the Taylor Walker group. I hope on my next visit to Edinburgh, I can report that the food is still amazing under the new ownership!)
I didn’t get a chance to eat here, but I loved the variety on of beer they offer. If you love trying different brews, this is a great option. And they have great pairing notes too, if you have a chance to dine in.
This is the location of the infamous night of “just one.” Fantastic for live music and cheap drinks.
There is so much more to Edinburgh, the surrounding area, and Scotland in general. Future posts will talk a bit about my day trip north and the few hours at Rosslyn Chapel (and logistics on how to visit easily and on your own, without a car).
Those are my highlights in Edinburgh for a day… happy exploring!
With curiosity and courage,