Scotland: 2 Day Highlands Tour (Part I)

When I started planning my trip for Scotland, I knew I definitely wanted to get up into the Highlands. However, when I started to do more research, I decided not to rent a car and found that many of the trains and buses have limited access to the Highlands during the fall months. Although I hadn’t thought I wanted to do a tour, I started looking into options and stumbled upon Rabbie’s Tours. Rabbie’s has a bunch of tours throughout Scotland and all tours are a maximum of 16 people. The reviews were great, so I decided to schedule a tour with them. I wanted to do a several-day trip, but my dates weren’t working out, so I ended up just doing a 2-day tour to the Highlands and two separate day trips with them. I highly recommend their tours!

Forth Bridge
Forth Bridges

Our tour departed early in the morning, with our first stop of the day at Queensferry Crossing and the Forth Bridges. There are three bridges that cross the Forth River just outside of Edinburgh. The oldest (and prettiest) bridge, built in 1882, is a railway bridge built with 54,000 tons of steel and 194,000 cubic yards of granite. It is majestic and impressive, and our tour guide, Stefan, commented he believes it will last forever. The other two bridges are road bridges built in 1964 and 2017.

Dunkeld
Dunkeld
Dunkeld
Dunkeld
Dunkeld

From there we headed to Dunkeld, a picturesque village with an old cathedral. The cathedral is partly ruin and partly still in use. We were let loose to explore on our own, so I walked along a path to the cathedral, took in views of the stunning fall foliage, and walked along the bridge for views of the river.

Pitlochry
Pitlochry
Pitlochry

Our next stop was at Pitlochry, a slightly more busy town. Our tour guide recommended walking to the dam since the foliage was so incredible. When the dam was built, the fish couldn’t make it to their usual spawning location, so a fish bridge was built, which is visible from the dam. It was a beautiful walk. This was also our lunch stop, and there were several restaurants and cafes to choose from (I had a panini at Cafe Calluna).

Loch Morlich
Loch Morlich
Loch Morlich

From Pitlochry we continued on to Loch Morlich. Scotland has more than 31,000 lochs (or lakes), so you can’t visit Scotland without seeing several. We had time to relax or walk along a quiet beach near Glenmore. It was sunny but cold and windy.

Tomatin Whisky Distillery

After an hour or so here, we had a surprise stop with a free whisky tasting at Tomatin Whisky Distillery. We were only there for about half an hour, during which time we had a small taste single malt Scotch whisky and watched a short video about how the whisky is made.

Clava Cairns
Clava Cairns (while not where Outlander was filmed or set, it is believed to be the inspiration)
Clava Cairns

Our final stop before Inverness, where we were staying for the night, was just outside the city. Clava Cairns, a series of stone circles and piles, date from prehistoric times. They are full of mysteries and history. After some time exploring, we were dropped at our lodging for the night. I walked through the city center, then grabbed a bite to eat before having a relaxing night in at my B&B.

Not a sponsored post, I just really enjoyed my Rabbie’s Tour. Check out their website here, and the Loch Ness, Inverness & the Highlands Tour here

Scotland: Edinburgh (Part 1)

Edinburgh Castle
Princes Street

On the second day of my trip, I took the train from Glasgow to Edinburgh. It’s about an hour-long trip and the train was fairly comfortable. Still being a bit jet-lagged, I may have napped a bit on the way. Upon arriving in Edinburgh, I dropped my bags off at the hostel I had booked. I couldn’t check in yet since it was still morning, but they agreed to store my suitcase for me until check-in. I had cut it a little close for the bus tour I had scheduled at 12:00, so I grabbed a very quick bite to eat at a cafe before heading to the bus stop for the Rabbie’s City Tour of Edinburgh. Although the tour can be up to 16 people, it was just me and a couple from England. The tour was about 2 hours long and drove us through the various parts of Edinburgh, providing history and interesting tidbits.

Calton Burial Grounds
President Abraham Lincoln at Calton Burial Grounds
Stewart Monument from below
Nelson Monument
Stewart Monument
Stewart Monument
Princes Street from above
Nelson Monument and National Monument

The bus tour started and ended along Princes Street, and when I got off the bus, there was an old cemetery right by the stop, so I decided to check it out. From there, I walked a short while to the hill where Stewart Monument, Nelson Monument, and the National Monument. The Stewart Monument was built as a memorial to Dugald Stewart, who was a Scottish philosopher. The monument overlooks the historic part of the city and the views are absolutely stunning. The Nelson Monument is a tall tower built to commemorate Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. You can pay to walk up to the top, but I chose just to view it from the bottom. The National Monument was meant to be modeled after the Parthenon in Greece, but was never completed due to lack of money.

Scott Monument
Scott Monument
Scott Monument

From there, I walked back down Princes Street, which is the main road in Edinburgh, and walked past the Princes Street Gardens and the Scott Monument. This monument was built as a memorial to the writer Sir Walter Scott, and is referred to by locals as the “gothic rocket” because it does, indeed, look like a rocket built during the Gothic architectural period. It’s a stunning memorial, and the largest memorial in the world dedicated to a writer. There’s the option to pay admission to walk the 287 steps to the top, but I chose not to.

St. Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile (built 12th century)
The Royal Mile
Canongate Tolbooth along the Royal Mile (built 1591)

I headed over to the Royal Mile, which is the road that stretches between Edinburgh Castle on the hill and the Palace of Holyrood down below. It’s actually longer than a mile and is the main street of the “Old Town”. This is the oldest part of Edinburgh, and the first buildings in this section of the city were built beginning in the 12th century. The buildings are built side-by-side, with “closes” between them. Closes are small alleyways between the buildings that functioned as small streets for those that lived in the buildings. The world’s first buildings above 4-5 stories were built here, and by 1645 there were buildings as tall as 14 stories and over 70,000 people lived within the royal mile.

The Royal Mile
John Knox House (built 1490) and Moubray House (built 1477) along the Royal Mile

After walking up and down the royal mile for a while, I decided to see if I could get a ticket for Real Mary King’s Close. This tourist attraction takes groups underground to see where Mary King’s Close once was. The buildings above where the tour goes were rebuilt for government buildings, but the underground parts were kept intact. The closes along the Royal Mile were named for various prominent individuals. What makes Mary King’s Close so unique is that it is named after a woman. Mary King, following her husband’s death, became a prominent businesswoman in the 1630s. The tour gives a glimpse into what life was like along the Royal Mile in the 1600s. Photos aren’t allowed, but it really was an interesting tour!

Sunset over Edinburgh

I had dinner along the Royal Mile, and admired the sunset over the buildings of both the Old and New Towns.

Scotland: Glasgow

Buchanan Street

Despite flying to Edinburgh Airport, I started my time in Scotland in Glasgow. I wasn’t originally going to go to Glasgow, but when I was considering doing a road trip (and renting a car), I read that it was better to start in Glasgow rather than Edinburgh and booked my first night there. I later changed my mind about the road trip, but since I had already booked a place to stay, decided to start there anyway. Although Edinburgh is a more popular tourist attraction, I really enjoyed Glasgow! I arrived mid-morning and got some food before setting out to explore the city on foot. It was a rainy overcast day, but it didn’t really damper the day much.

George Square
Gallery of Modern Art
Old bank
City Chambers
City Chambers

Glasgow was an industrial city and this is evident as you walk through the city. Despite this, there is a lot of interesting architecture, plenty of (generally free) museums, lots of large murals, and large parks. I actually didn’t manage to fit in everything I wanted to see and could have easily spent 2 days here. After walking down Buchanan Street, which is the main attraction for shoppers, I headed to George Square. From there I walked toward Merchant City, hoping to find Tolbooth Tower/Steeple.

The People’s Palace
The People’s Palace
The People’s Palace
The People’s Palace
The People’s Palace

However, I got a bit lost, and realized I had walked almost to Glasgow Green, so I continued walking in order to visit the People’s Palace. My cousin studied in Glasgow for a semester and had recommended this museum, and I really enjoyed it! Admission is free and there are plenty of exhibitions that show what life was like in Glasgow at various points in the past.

St. Andrews in the Square
Tolbooth Steeple
Tron Steeple at Glasgow Cross
Tron Steeple

After a couple of hours at the People’s Palace, I headed back to Trongate Street and finally found the Tolbooth Steeple. After, I walked to The Lighthouse and climbed to the top for views overlooking the city. At this point, I was tired, so I headed to my Airbnb and stayed in for the night. If I had more time, I really wanted to walk around the University of Glasgow and visit the Glasgow Cathedral and Necropolis.

View from The Lighthouse
View from The Lighthouse
Street Mural
Street Mural

Although very different than Edinburgh, Glasgow is a cool city! If you visit Scotland and have more than a couple of days, I highly encourage you to visit Glasgow as well.

Scotland & Ireland!

Royal Mile, Edinburgh

I just got back from a 12-day trip to Scotland and Ireland. It was a fantastic trip and I have to say, Scotland is one of my favorite destinations so far! It was also my first trip as a solo traveler, and though I was a bit nervous to travel on my own, I mostly really enjoyed it! Here are the general details:

Length of Trip: One week in Scotland, then 4 days in Dublin (where I met up with my sister)

Destinations: Scotland: Glasgow, Edinburgh, 2-day tour to Inverness, Loch Ness, and the Highlands, day trip to St. Andrews and the fishing villages of Fife, day trip to Loch Lomond, Stirling Castle, and the Kelpies; Ireland: Dublin

Lodging: In Glasgow and Dublin (1 night) I stayed in Airbnbs, in Edinburgh I stayed at Haystack Hostel (1 night) and The Baxter Hostel (several nights); in Inverness (1 night- part of 2 day tour) I stayed at a traditional B&B; and in Dublin I shared a hotel room with my sister (3 nights)

Tours: I have never thought I would like going on a bus tour, but also really didn’t want to rent a car (and because I’m under 25, it would have been insanely expensive). I knew I really wanted to go into the Highlands in Scotland, but the train schedules were limited since October is the off-season. So, I looked into maybe doing a tour, and found Rabbie’s Tours. These tours are a maximum of 16 people and the reviews were excellent. I ended up doing 3 tours with them, and really enjoyed them! I’ll share more later about the tours and my trip in more detail.

Transportation: I flew into Edinburgh Airport, then took a bus to Glasgow. I took the train from Glasgow to Edinburgh, and a bus from Edinburgh city center to the airport at the end of my time in Scotland. I flew from Edinburgh to Dublin, then again from Dublin back to the USA. In Dublin, my sister and I traveled by bus or by foot.

Itinerary:

Day 1: Arrive Edinburgh Airport, Glasgow: Buchanan Street, George Square, Trongate Street, Merchant City, Tollbooth Tower, Glasgow Green and The People’s Palace, The Lighthouse

Day 2: Edinburgh: Rabbie’s City Tour, Nelson Monument, Stewart Monument, Scott’s Monument, Royal Mile, Real Mary King’s Close

Day 3: Departed on Rabbie’s Loch Ness & Inverness Highlands 2-Day Tour: Forth Bridge, Dunkeld, Pitlochry, Loch Morlich, Tomatin Whisky Distillery, Clava Cairns, Inverness

Day 4: Day 2 of Loch Ness & Inverness Highlands Tour: Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle, Fort William, Glencoe, the Trossachs, Doune Castle

Day 5: Rabbie’s St. Andrews & Fishing Villages of Fife Day Tour: Anstruther, St. Andrews Castle, St. Andrews Cathedral, The Old Green at St. Andrews, Falkland and Falkland Palace, the Forth Bridges

Day 6: Rabbie’s Loch Lomond & Stirling Castle Day Tour: Stirling Castle from below, Loch Lomond, Aberfoyle, Duke’s Pass, Highland cows!, Stirling Castle, the Kelpies

Day 7: Edinburgh: Edinburgh Castle, Royal Mile, Palace of Holyrood, Elephant House, Greyfriar’s Bobby

Day 8: Edinburgh: Princes Street Gardens, Farmer’s Market; Flew to Dublin

Day 9: Dublin: reunited with my sister, Jameson Whiskey Distillery, walked around central Dublin

Day 10: Dublin: Kayak tour on the River Liffey, St. Stephen’s Green, Grafton Street

Day 11: Dublin: National Botanical Gardens, Chester Beatty Library

Day 12: Flew home.

Stay tuned for more!

Iceland: Westman Islands and Reykjavik

(See my of my posts about Iceland here)

After spending the night in our favorite Airbnb of the trip on Westman Islands, we decided to spend some time exploring the island.

Westman Islands

The Westman Islands are a group of islands off the southern coast of Iceland. The main island, which is inhabited, is called Hiemaey, and this is the island we were staying on. After breakfast and a nice conversation with a French couple at our Airbnb, we hiked from there up a small hill, which afforded us views of two of the volcanoes as well as the coast. It was a particularly cold, rainy day, but the beginning of our hike up was a bit milder. The island is quite small, so from this vantage point we could see most of it. We walked a bit farther on, and looked across the way to a couple of smaller islands, which each appeared to have a single house or building.

After this short hike, we got in our car and drove to the tip of the island, called Storhofdi. We had been told this was the best place to see the puffins. When we arrived, it was unclear where the paths were and it was also extremely windy and pouring freezing cold rain. My dad, mom, and brother decided to brave the elements in search of the puffins, but I didn’t have any other warm clothes to change into after, so I remained in the car, nice and warm.

After seeing the puffins, everyone was cold and wet so we drove around the downtown area of Heimaey, trying to find something to do (we had purchased return tickets for later in the afternoon). We saw a museum on the map and decided that would be a good activity for a rainy day, though it did take us a while to actually find the location (the signage wasn’t very clear). We spent a couple of hours at the Sagnheimar Folk Museum, which told about the history of the island and several historic events that took place there. Some of the exhibits included the Algerian pirate raid of 1627 during which over 200 islanders were kidnapped and sold into slavery, the volcanic eruption on Heimaey in 1973, the importance of women on the island, The Festival, an annual celebration that has been held nearly every year since 1874, and a large exhibit about the fishing industry. I thought the exhibit about fishing was very interesting as well as informative.

Reykjavik:

After taking the ferry back over from Westman Islands, we headed to Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland. While many visitors spend at least a day in Reykjavik, we were more interested in seeing the rest of Iceland, so we only spent a couple of hours in the city. It was dinner time by this point, so we walked along Laugavegur Street, which is full of interesting shops and restaurants. It is a gorgeous street, and there were many places to eat, but we settled on a pizza place since it was one of the less expensive options.

After we ate, we visited Hallgrimskirkja Church, which is visible from nearly everywhere in the city. Its design was inspired by the shapes and forms created when lava cools into basalt rock and it was built from 1945 to 1986. Inside, it has an enormous organ and in front of the church is a large statue of Leifur Eiriksson (970-1020 AD), who was the first European to discover America in the year 1000 AD. We walked around outside and then sat inside for a while. The organist was practicing, so we were able to listen to the organ being played.

Before heading out, we drove by the Sun Voyager sculpture, which is called Solfar in Icelandic. This massive steel sculpture is found along the coast with views of the ocean beyond, and was revealed in 1990. The artist, Jon Gunnar Arnason, said that is both a dream boat and an ode to the sun. It is certainly a gorgeous sculpture.

Where we stayed: Ace B&B (Airbnb)

Costs: The Sagnheimar Museum was 1000 ISK per person (it’s free for anyone under 18). I think our meal in Reykjavik was around $40 USD for two pizzas. All other meals we packed.

Tips:

  • As with anywhere in Icleand, come prepared with warm and water-proof clothes. This was the rainiest part of our trip, but Storhofdi, the tip of Heimaey Island, is also one of the windiest places in the northern hemisphere, so be aware of that.
  • While you can certainly spend a day or two in Reykjavik, we saw most of the things we really wanted to see in a matter of a couple of hours. I would have liked to explore a bit more, but my family wasn’t as interested.
  • Lower costs dramatically when in Iceland by making your own meals and packing simple lunches. We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every single lunch of our trip, and while not the most appetizing meal to eat so many times in a row, it helped bring the cost of our trip down significantly. Food, especially at restaurants, is extremely expensive in Iceland!

So that wraps up our time in Iceland! We flew out the following day after a lazy morning and short walk along the coastline. We really enjoyed our trip (though my mom thought it was rather cold and rainy)!