After our visit to Edinburgh Castle, we wandered down the Royal Mile for our next adventure – a walking tour of Edinburgh.
We always like doing a walking tour when we are in a new city. We feel it gives us a good chance to get our bearings and get familiar with the city. We also get an idea of what attractions or locations we want to explore more of and visit on our own. And which ones we are ok with just seeing on the outside and taking a photograph. Doing a walking tour also allows us to chat with the guide and maybe get some tips on sightseeing, restaurants, pubs and the local area.
We went with SANDEMANs New Europe tours and took their “Free Tour of Edinburgh.” This company operates tours in many European cities – we did a tour with them in Dublin and I’ve also done their tours in London and Paris. Their tours are “free” in the sense that you don’t pay upfront. Instead, at the end, you pay what you think the tour was worth. SANDEMANs also runs several other tours in Edinburgh, like their Edinburgh Castle Tours and Pub Crawls. Check out their website for more details and the meeting times of the various tours.
The Free Tour of Edinburgh meets right on the Royal Mile/High Street – at the Starbucks by the Tron Kirk. You’ll know you’ve come to the right place when you see the red umbrella and the crowd gathering around.
Walking Tour Tip: Make sure you wear comfortable walking shoes – it’s not a strenuous walk by any means, but you are walking for around 2.5 hours! Since we explored Edinburgh Castle earlier this morning, we already had our walking shoes on. So we wandered down to the Starbucks and the red umbrella for the 2pm walking tour!
Once the groups and languages (there were also tours in Spanish) were sorted out, we headed out with our group and our guide – Greg. He was, as he described himself, “the quintessential Scottish stereotype – a big, bearded, bellowing flame-haired highlander with a love of tales and a flare for the dramatic.” He definitely had a flare for the dramatic and told us many tales of Edinburgh and Scotland in an animated and engaging manner, which kept us interested, amused and entertained for the entire 2.5 hr walking tour.
We won’t say too much because you really should visit Edinburgh for yourself! 😏 But we will share some of our favourite photographs and let them tell the story – like an Edinburgh Photo Walk. We will also say that we particularly loved the architecture of Edinburgh – so full of character and history!
After walking through Grassmarket and hearing some stories about public executions and hangings (google the story of Maggie Dickson), we headed to the Grassmarket Café (part of the Grassmarket Community Project) for a break and some treats!
After the much needed break, we headed towards our last destination – the area around Greyfriars Kirkyard.
One of the most famous residents of Greyfriars Kirkyard is Greyfriars Bobby. Bobby was a Skye Terrier, who was so loyal to his master John Gray – that after Gray’s death, Bobby spent the rest of his life (14 years!) standing guard at his former master’s grave. Not even the wind, rain or multiple evictions from the cemetery could keep Bobby away from his master. His story of loyalty and devotion is one that inspired a lot of people, leading to the creation of a statue, monument, books, movies and even a pub.
After walking through Greyfriars Kirk, we headed towards the National Museum of Scotland, where our tour ended and we unfortunately had to say goodbye to Greg. We really enjoyed getting to know Edinburgh with Greg. He was very animated, entertaining, knowledgeable and definitely passionate about Scotland! And it just got us more excited about exploring Edinburgh and Scotland in the upcoming days!
After the walking tour, we actually backtracked to Greyfriars… Because there was one thing that we didn’t see up close when we were at the cemetery earlier.
We are Harry Potter fans and we know that J.K. Rowling was inspired by Edinburgh while writing some of the books there – the George Heriot’s school being the inspiration for Hogwarts, for example. It seems that some of the characters’ names also have an Edinburgh connection – Tom Riddell and Professor McGonagall in particular. Here is the grave of a Thomas Riddell, who is said to have inspired the name for Tom Riddell. And nearby is the grave of a William McGonagall, whose name is said to be the inspiration for Professor Minerva McGonagall.
After that Harry Potter connection, came another! We came upon the Elephant House. This is the cafe where J.K. Rowling wrote the early books in the series. Flocks of Potterheads flood this cafe daily to say that they’ve been to the coffee shop where J.K. Rowling created the magical world of Harry Potter. (Potterheads have apparently been writing so many messages in the loo that toilet seats have been broken from people standing on them to write on the walls/windows and the staff have given up trying to paint over the graffiti!) We didn’t go in – it was super packed and busy inside, we just didn’t feel like jostling with the crowd!
Our first day in Edinburgh wasn’t over just yet! Our next stop: The Real Mary King’s Close!
A “close” as we learned, is an alleyway that leads off the Royal Mile. Mary King’s Close, situated underground beneath the Royal Exchange/City Chambers, is particularly shrouded in myths and legends – stories of ghosts, spirits, murderers and plague victims who were locked away to die. Ioana wanted to check this out. I was a little hesitant and wary – being a HUGE scaredy cat with a wild imagination and definitely NOT a fan of horror films! But I figured if this tour is suitable for children as young as 5 years old, I could handle this!
We bought our tickets online and arrived at the Real Mary King’s Close at our scheduled time. We were taken on a tour of Mary King’s Close by a costumed character guide. Our guide was Mary King’s daughter – Jonet Nimmo, who led us around the area that she grew up in. We won’t spoil the tour for you but we enjoyed learning about the history of this close and a bit of Edinburgh history. We also got the chance to see how people lived back in the days – complete with laundry hanging out the windows of tall, “underground” buildings. There were a couple of scary stories, but it was bearable and I didn’t have any nightmares afterwards!
After the tour, we walked through the on-site restaurant – The Royal Exchange Coffee House. Unfortunately they were closed by that time but the menu of local and fresh food was so tempting that we decided to come back another time to try it out!
We packed a lot into one day of sightseeing – with Edinburgh Castle in the morning, a walking tour in the afternoon and the Real Mary King’s Close in the early evening. We were pretty exhausted after all of this – plus we had only gotten a couple hours of interrupted sleep at Dublin Airport the night before! So we grabbed a quick dinner at a pub and headed back to our hostel to catch up on sleep!
Day 2 is up next with more adventures and exploring in Edinburgh – stay tuned!
From Vancouver with Love,
Ioana and Natalie
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