Help me refine my Scotland plans
April 30, 2018 10:14 AM   Subscribe

Looking for semi-specific advice on a short Edinburgh trip.

My partner and I are leaving soon for a week-long trip to the UK. We are spending one night in Edinburgh, two nights in London, and the remaining three nights back in Edinburgh. We've got London more or less figured out, but could use some help with the specifics of the Edinburgh portions of the trip. (I visited for like a day and a half ten years ago, but basically assume we've seen and done nothing.)

We plan to spend that first most-of-a-day in Edinburgh just walking around and exploring, MAYBE doing Arthur's Seat if we haven't already passed out in a jet-lagged haze (we're flying overnight and arriving first thing in the morning). On the post-London side, we're planning on one full day for Edinburgh city stuff -- top contenders right now are the National Museum of Scotland, walking a stretch of the Waters of Leith, and finding a bar where we can drink/learn about some whisk(e?)y that isn't a complete tourist trap (recommendations on that front very welcome!). Is there anything else we should consider? Neither one of us is big on guided tours, so other stuff we could explore on our own would be preferred.

Our second full day, we're thinking of spending the morning in Glasgow and the afternoon at Loch Lomond/Trossachs National Park, but I'm having a difficult time sorting out the logistics of that plan. Some questions:

- Is half a day in Glasgow silly? Do we need more time?
- What's the deal with the train from Glasgow? The park website says you can either take a direct train to Balloch (which seems to be the main base area of the park) or take the West Highlands line to Arrochar & Tarbet (which seems to put you...somewhere else entirely). The West Highlands train sounds AMAZING, but I know that's only a very small portion of the overall route. Is the scenic payoff of that stretch worth it compared to the other train? If so, would that area of the park be fun to explore, or would we want to find a way to get back down to the Balloch area? And are any of those nearby towns worth spending time in (say, for dinner before we head back to Edinburgh)?
- Relatedly, is there a particular hike or trail within the park that is best/prettiest/most enjoyable? Again, the info I'm finding is sort of confusing since I don't have much context to go on.
- Is this even a good plan, or is there some other thing that's accessible as a day trip from Edinburgh that would be a better use of our limited time? We both love trains, pretty views, and being outside/hiking/hanging around bodies of water, so it certainly SOUNDS appealing! But I also know there's a lot of all of that stuff all over Scotland, so.

(I guess this entire ask can basically be condensed down to "HELP MAPS ARE CONFUSING")

We will also have basically a half day free before our evening flight on our final day. No clue yet what we'll do with that time. Oh, and we're staying in Old Town and our American asses will not be renting a car under any circumstances.

Thanks in advance! If it's not obvious, I am extremely excited and moderately overwhelmed...
posted by catoclock to Travel & Transportation around Scotland (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I'm in Edinburgh at least 1-2 nights per week for work as my client is based there. I recommend starting your day with a bacon naan roll (or the vegetarian equivalent) at Dishoom - they have one in London too but this one will be easier to find and the queue is shorter.

Do you have a hotel yet in Edinburgh? You probably do but if someone else is reading this question and wondering where to stay, save a little cash and stay at The Spires serviced apartments. If you get a studio it's usually about 30% cheaper than a budget hotel like Travelodge and much, much nicer. Ask for a room in the back - not much of a view but there are a couple of bars/clubs on the street that make the rooms on the front a bit noisy at night. You don't get breakfast but you'll be going to Dishoom anyway. It's in 'the flat bit' (new side of town) but Edinburgh is really small and it's quieter/cheaper on the new side. Hotel rooms tend to be bigger as well.
posted by cilantro at 10:24 AM on April 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

A day trip to Glasgow and Loch Lomond via train seems like a lot to try to tackle in a day. I think you could take the train to Glasgow and hang out at Kelvingrove park and museum and check out the university of Glasgow, then head back to the awesome train station in Glasgow and head back to Edinburgh. That said, if visiting art museums and parks and Hogwarts-looking universities isn't much your thing, you could go to the cathedral in Glasgow and check out the Necropolis, then head over to Monorail Music and eat a late lunch at Mono next door (check Mono's hours though...)

In Edinburgh, if you like coffee there's an artisan roast at 57 Broughton St that I totally adored. Plus the castle in Edinburgh, I mean, you kinda have'ta.
posted by Annika Cicada at 10:54 AM on April 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

If Arthur's Seat feels too much, then Calton Hill is worth a climb. And the residential bits of the New Town deserve some love, even if you'll quickly imagine yourself living there.
posted by holgate at 11:09 AM on April 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

Your time is going to be stretched super-thin with this plan. The Trossachs are lovely, and so's the West Highland Line, but... you're going to Edinburgh and spending practically no time there? You'll already be shattered from your flight, then as soon as you arrive in Edinburgh you're going to London, and then as soon as you get back you're going to Glasgow?

Do much less. You'll enjoy it more. If you want to go to Edinburgh, just go to Edinburgh. It's the easiest place in the world to enjoy yourself. Calton Hill and/or Arthur's Seat is quite enough hiking for the time you have available. For the rest of it - just hang out. It's easy and fun. It's literally impossible to have a bad time.

For the bar where you drink nine different single malts - try Sandy Bell's. It's around the corner from the National Museum.
posted by rd45 at 11:23 AM on April 30, 2018 [6 favorites]

Gladstone's Land is a cool house museum, it's a tenement on the Royal Mile with period furniture.

You won't have much time in Glasgow if you're going to get to Loch Lomond. Maybe go and look at one Rennie Mackintosh-related thing, like have coffee at the Willow Tea Rooms?

I know the Bow Room and Bennet's are good whisky bars, but don't know how they are for touristyness. Probably avoid the Whiski Bar.
posted by Shark Hat at 11:26 AM on April 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'd agree with do much less. There are sleeper trains between London and Edinburgh, apart from being an experience in itself it might optimize your scarce time a little. One problem is if you go to London you'll need to find somewhere to shower when you arrive.

There are plenty of organized whisky tastings here. Lookup on Google and pick one that is affordable and convenient.

A problem affecting Loch Lomond at some times of the year are midges. Take advice for when you go and get an appropriate insect repellent. I don't think May is bad but it will spoil your trip if you are about when they are active.

Days are long and the weather is nice, get up early one morning and walk around the old parts of town when few are up and about.
posted by epo at 12:38 PM on April 30, 2018

One more vote for do less. I was in Edinburgh for a short week, and really wanted to go to Glasgow for several reasons but ended up deciding against it, even though Edinburgh is a small city.
I loved the National Museum, but I know some people think it's too noisy and interactive. In a way I agree, but there is so much great stuff to see, I disregarded the dramatics.
We did Carlton hill instead of Arthurs Seat and it was fine for a short visit, specially as we combined it with walking along the Leith and then visiting the Gallery of Modern Art. I also enjoyed the Georgian House very much. It's full of nice and knowledgable pensioners volunteering to tell you the history.
Also, Edinburgh has great food, both traditional and less traditional and Indian food which is delicious. Eat something!
posted by mumimor at 1:11 PM on April 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

While I agree with doing a little less, I also think getting out of Edinburgh is a great idea - the countryside is gorgeous, and the west is very cool. We drove, but train should work.

For whiskey, I recommend Cadenhead's in Edinburgh. Prepare to be humbled by great whiskey you've never heard of, blends that are astoundingly tasty, etc.
posted by ldthomps at 1:57 PM on April 30, 2018

Please bear in mind that although the UK looks small, it actually takes quite a while to get to places, especially by public transport. Glasgow and Loch Lomond in a day is 'doable', if you spend half an hour in each place. That is a recipe for a long, stressful day on public transport. If you're determined to get out of Edinburgh I would find a tour company - there are tons who do one-day whistle stop tours of all kinds of places. Personally I can't imagine a worse way to spend holiday time, but each to their own.

Seconding Sandy Bell's for the whisky, although it's mainly known for being a music pub. There's normally a few fiddlers and such in the back corner playing in the afternoons and evening. It can be a touch touristy in the summer, but it's a good bar. Pretty much any bar in central Edinburgh will have a reasonable whisky selection behind the bar. Avoid most places on the Royal Mile itself or the Grassmarket - you're more likely than not to be in a tourist trap. The Old Town bars that are the best are the ones down side streets and closes.

If you want to go on a day hike from Edinburgh, I recommend checking out Walk Highlands - despite the name, it has a huge user-submitted database of walking trails and maps across Scotland, of all lengths and difficulties. Traveline Scotland will help if you want to go a bit further afield, but double-check times with each transport provider, as sometimes the transfer timings that the journey planners on Traveline give are ... optimistic.

If you can find any way to stretch your time out, you should. If you go somewhere like the Trossachs, stay overnight and spend a full day there. There are tons of glamping/cabin type places. I love Loch Tay for this, personally. Trust me, you don't want to spend your whole trip on our trains and buses. They are modern and (usually) on time in Scotland, but Scotland is a much better place to visit if you slow. down. a bit.

(Also I'd ditch London, but I lived there for six years so the charm has worn off).
posted by Happy Dave at 2:15 PM on April 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

Nthing everyone who says to slow down. As much as I think everyone would be better off spending their limited Scottish time in Glasgow, you might be wise to skip it this time, especially with your side trip to London.

Yes to Calton Hill over Arthur's Seat if you want something gentler, yes to wandering around the New Town as a contrast to the Old Town. The Scottish National Gallery is worth a look as it is so centrally located.

If you are looking for a nice day trip, you could do worse than Stirling. Lots of nice countryside walks, and IMO Stirling Castle is better than Edinburgh Castle, if you have to choose. If you do want to go farther afield, definitely check out a day tour. I know you said you don't like guided tours, but there really are tons of good tour companies who cater to every taste, and they will be able to get you around to more things than you can see by you can enjoy the scenery while someone else drives.

Also, again it sounds like the height of touristy cheese, but for your day in Edinburgh, get an all-day on-off tourist bus pass. It is a great way to quickly get your bearings in the city, take notes on what you want to go back to explore on your own, and then use it as your transport for the rest of the day.

Or, as Happy Dave so wisely suggests, ditch London and spend more time in Scotland.
posted by Preserver at 6:20 PM on April 30, 2018

I live in Glasgow and think it's great, but it's best points are the music scene, the friendly people, and the low cost of living, which you wouldn't really get to experience in one day, whereas I would say Edinburgh has more immediate and obvious attractions for someone visiting for a very short period. With that said, it might sound cheesy as hell, but I think you would get a very interesting taste of Glasgow doing the hop-on hop-off bus tour and stopping at maybe three places - yes you pay more but you don't have to worry about getting the wrong bus or staying on too long or getting lost, you just see the key places and pop back to the same bus stop you dropped off at. I would say a stop at Kelvingrove Museum and park was a must, the Riverside travel musuem is very good, and the People's Palace has a lot of things which specifically relate to what makes Glasgow unique. The Glasgow University building looks very nice I don't know if I'd stop there, but that's another possible. Along the way you get a very good commentary on the headphones.

I think Glasgow has a lot more cultural significance than Stirling, so although I went to Uni at Stirling I wouldn't recommend spending your limited time there. You might be a very different person from me and enjoy the busyness of doing both Glasgow and Loch Lomond in one day, me personally I would not want to be figuring out logistics and spending a lot of my day on public transport, I'd rather just do Glasgow properly and in a relaxed way and have a proper sit-down lunch with the time saved on public transport. Someone else mentioned Mono and the little record shop inside, Monorail, I don't eat in fancy places but that is an affordable place with a relaxed atmosphere, you can nearly always get a seat, and being able to look through the vinyl album artwork is a nice touch even if you don't recognise many of the indie bands. However if you have a slightly bigger budget I am sure TripAdvisor can recommend you somewhere a bit fancier/ nicer.

Whatever you end up doing, thanks for coming to visit our country. You might come across locals who are mystified as to why you'd want to visit Scotland on holiday, since it has a reputation for bad weather and unhealthy fast food. However there's a lot of history here which you'll see in the architecture and it has a nice combination of being quite different from home but still speaking English making it easier to get round. Have fun!
posted by AuroraSky at 10:40 PM on April 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

and finding a bar where we can drink/learn about some whisk(e?)y that isn't a complete tourist trap (recommendations on that front very welcome!)

In Scotland "Whisky" - AKA "Scotch" - is spelled without the e - you will delight Scots drinking nerds by knowing this! If you are contemplating a walk down the waters of Leith (which I'd recommend) - then one possibility would be to end your walk by The Shore area (lots of restaurants and different, less touristy vibe from the centre). Then try a visit to Teuchters Landing - they have about 90 malts. Don't overlook gins on your trip either - Scotland produces 70% of the gin in the UK - often via some interesting brands that you won't see abroad.

As a general rule, I'd try to keep trips out of Edinburgh limited on your second visit - and concentrate on maybe seeing some more unusual places in and around the city. Atlas Obscura's entry on Edinburgh provides some great ideas. If you wanted a taste of the highlands without having to make the (fairly long) trip to get there - then I would head to Flotterstone and go for a walk in the Pentland hills. You can get there by bus from the city centre - less than 15 miles.

If you would like be reminded that Edinburgh is a coastal city - then you could take a trip to South Queensferry and then catch a boat to the island of Inchcolm. Forthtours - who I have linked to - will pick you up on a bus from the centre. That way you will have visited a Scottish island.
posted by rongorongo at 12:22 AM on May 1, 2018

Agreed about Inchcolm. I enjoyed it and other people I took there loved it.

Another good short trip from Edinburgh is Rosslyn Chapel, which is interesting enough and has lovely and easy walks around it.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 1:50 AM on May 1, 2018

Thanks all! You've correctly zeroed in on my biggest traveling character flaw, which is that I want to do every possible thing and don't know how to chill out. We'll ditch the Glasgow + Loch Lomond plan and try to get it narrowed down to one Thing for that day. I do really want to get out and see some of the countryside/nature stuff, so it may be Glasgow that loses out on this one.

(Relatedly, I actually agree that London is a bit much and I'd happily skip it this time around EXCEPT we have tickets to a Premier League game and that's basically the most exciting possible thing. In other words, I know this is sort of a dumb plan and I do not care one bit.)

Thanks for all the miscellaneous Edinburgh recommendations as well! I am very excited to eat and drink stuff.
posted by catoclock at 12:21 PM on May 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you are headed out to Leith, consider a stop to see the Royal Yacht Britannia which is permanently berthed there. Britannia was featured in several episodes in season two of The Crown.
posted by John Borrowman at 12:38 PM on May 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

We just got back from a similar trip (though over a two-week period, with more time in London). Luckily for you, David Lebovitz just published a two-part Edinburgh trip report here and here--just what I wish we had had access to!

If you're there on a Sunday, I'd highly recommend a walk along the Water of Leith walkway and the Stockbridge Farmers Market--we had some of the best food of our trip there.

I'm not a tour person either, but I heard good things about the Hairy Coo tours and was tempted to book us on one of those, though we ended up not doing so.

We spent a day and a half in Glasgow and didn't consider it enough time; if I only had a half-day, I think I would ditch it, as you can't do it justice in that time.
posted by carrienation at 7:19 AM on May 2, 2018

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