When I booked my trip to Iceland in October 2015, I was determined to tack on a trip to Europe as part of Iceland Air’s Stopover Fare. Their program allows you 7 nights in Scotland on your way to one of their international destinations. I decided to get my mom on board to do a stopover fare to Scotland.
Flash forward to booking our flights and we didn’t end up actually doing the stopover fare. We found that flying first class on Iceland Air wasn’t much more expensive than the regular fare so we said, “Why not!” and flew first class. However, first class cannot participate in the stopover fare so we ended up flying Easy Jet from Iceland to Edinburgh.
Note for anyone trying to do the stopover fare from Iceland to Scotland…they only go to Glasgow. Iceland Air does not fly into Edinburgh! But it’s only a little over an hour train ride between the cities.
When We Went: Oct 27 – Nov 1, 2015
Where We Stayed: Apex Grassmarket Hotel
Weather: Pants, light jacket, umbrella (!)
Day 1: Exploring Edinburgh
Our first day in Scotland was for getting our bearings in the city and planning for what we wanted to do while we were in Scotland.
But First: Coffee
Being a New Yorker, I have to start the day with coffee so our first stop was The Elephant House, a little cafe around the corner from our hotel. I did my research so I knew this was the cafe where JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter!! Come on, let me tourist for a second! I had to sneakily take some shots inside.
They sure do take advantage of that Harry Potter thing, huh? But it’s a really good cafe so even if you’re not a crazy HP fan like me, you should check it out.
Next Stop: Edinburgh Castle
Our hotel, Apex Grassmarket, was at the base of Edinburgh Castle so we had to climb A TON of stairs to get to the front gate. Edinburgh Castle is huge and took us about two hours to see it all. If you’re looking to save some money, honestly I would recommend skipping going inside. It was the least impressive of the castles we saw.
Pro Tip: Buy your tickets online! We waited in quite a long line when we arrived around 10 a.m.
After the castle, we walked down High Street which is the famous, and very touristy, street leading down from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyrood. This is also known as The Royal Mile. All of the pubs and shops on this street are very expensive. It’s the Times Square of Edinburgh. Every city has to have one, right?
We popped into some shops to look at the plaid scarves and how they make them. About halfway down High Street we popped into a pub called World’s End for some lunch and a beer. Again, it is the touristy district so our meal was pricey.
Day 2: The Viking Coast and Alnwick Castle
One must do on Mom’s list for Scotland was Alnwick Castle which is actually technically in England but easy to get to from Edinburgh.
We booked a nine hour tour called The Viking Coast and Alnwick Castle through Heart of Scotland tours. My ticket cost 40 Euros and Mom’s cost 37 Euros with the senior discount. Yay Mom for being just old enough to get that discount!
We left at 9 a.m. on a 16 passenger van traveling south of Edinburgh into England with our first stop at Holy Island. This is a tidal island where if you don’t get off the island before high tide comes in, you’re stuck there! Probably could’ve done without this stop but it was nice to break up the long drive to Alnwick.
The next stop was Alnwick Castle which is still used today by the Duke of Northumberland and his family. Although you don’t get to see any rooms where they actually live, it’s still cool to think that a family is really living inside those walls.
Alnwick Castle is also the home to MANY movies and TV shows including the first and second Harry Potter films and Downton Abbey. When we were there they had posters set up showing all the spots where Downton had been filmed. We also took a short, 30 minute free (!) tour where they told us what scenes of films and TV shows were filmed in specific spots around the castle.
The tour stopped at Alnwick for about three hours so we had plenty of time to tour the castle, walk the grounds, have lunch and do the tour. If you’re a big Harry Potter fan, they also have a photo area set up where you can take photos that look like you’re flying. This was closed when we were there so I had to just take photos of where certain scenes took place.
There were also massive gardens at Alnwick Castle which we walked through. Unfortunately, it was fall so nothing was really in bloom. I’m sure it’s beautiful in the summer though! Note that Alnwick Castle closes for the winter. We were there just at the end of the season.
There was also a really cool treehouse that had a bar in it! We didn’t have time for a drink but we did a quick walk through.
The price of admission to the castle was included in our tour price so we didn’t have to wait in line to buy tickets.
We had a long four hour drive back to Edinburgh and being late fall, it was almost completely dark by the time we left the castle at 4 p.m.
Despite the long day, we really enjoyed our tour with Heart of Scotland. Our guide was really funny and shared not only history of Scotland but fun current events and pop culture references as well. Definitely recommend using them if you’re looking for tours in Edinburgh!
Day 3: Loch Ness, Glencoe and The Highlands
My third grade self was adamant that I go to Loch Ness while in Scotland. But little did my third grade (and 25-year-old) self know, it’s not exactly close to Edinburgh.
But I told Mom that was on my life bucket list so we had to go. We booked a 12 hour tour through Rabbie’s Tours. The tour took us through the Scottish Highlands, the famous Glencoe and Loch Ness.
We departed Edinburgh at 8 a.m. on another 16 passenger van. I have to say, our tour guide for this day was painfully boring. He went through the ENTIRE HISTORY of Scotland dating back to like 1 A.D. My lord was he boring. I fell asleep way too many times. He was so terrible that I would not recommend Rabbie’s if that’s what their guides are like.
BUT the views on the drive were great. Our first stop was Loch Lubnaig where we stopped for a bathroom break and to grab a coffee. This was the perfect time of year for this tour because all of the trees were changing and the colors were just amazing.
Our next stop was Glencoe which Rabbie’s will tell you is the scene of the clan massacre of the MacDonalds by the Campbells in 1692. But for us pop culture freaks, it’s also where they’ve filmed a lot of movies including Harry Potter 3, Skyfall and Braveheart. We stopped very briefly to take some photos before continuing the long drive to Loch Ness.
Our final stop was Loch Ness in Fort Augustus. Our guide organized for those of us who wanted to do a boat cruise on the lake. We didn’t have a ton of time there so we had to get right in line for the one hour boat ride.
Unfortunately we didn’t see Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster. But our boat did have little Nessie’s on the windows for us to pretend. 😉 The guides on the boat tour were much more enjoyable than our Rabbie’s driver.
It was another very long drive back to Edinburgh after Loch Ness and again because it was late fall, it was pitch black so we slept most of the way.
When we arrived back in Edinburgh, we went to one of the pubs across from our hotel for dinner. They had a hilarious sign outside that pulled us in. There are tons of pubs with live music to choose from in the Grassmarket district.
Last Day in Edinburgh: The Royal Yacht and Palace of Holyrood
My mom and I are big royals fans. No, not the Kansas City baseball team. The Will and Kate royals. So while in Edinburgh we had to see the Royal Yacht and the Palace of Holyrood.
First Stop: The Royal Yacht
While Edinburgh is an easy city to walk everywhere, we had to take the bus to the harbor to visit the Royal Yacht. The bus system is very easy and I believe our trip was only 1 Euro each.
We purchased our tickets to the Royal Yacht beforehand online so we didn’t have to wait. We learned our lesson at Edinburgh Castle!
The Royal Yacht was home to the Queen and her family for more than 40 years before they retired it to Edinburgh to save money. And make money! My ticket cost 13.50 Euros and Mom’s with the discount was 12.15 Euros.
After our tour, which included a free audio guide, we had lunch on the Yacht in the Royal Deck Tea Room, which was really fun! We had amazing pumpkin soup and some champagne. You gotta pretend to be a royal while lunching on a yacht, right?
Second Stop: Palace of Holyrood
The Palace of Holyrood is the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland. We purchased tickets for the Palace and the Queen’s Art Gallery which honestly we could have skipped. Unless you’re a big art geek, I wouldn’t recommend it. We sort of walked through the Gallery quickly and left. Oops!
My ticket was 16.90 Euros and Mom’s was 15.40 Euros. Both came with a free audio guide. We did not book these ones in advance but there was no line.
We only got to see I think six or seven rooms of Holyrood and you were not allowed to take photos inside. So here are some photos of the grounds from after our tour!
My Scotland Advice
We definitely made the most of our time in Scotland. We really liked our hotel, Apex Grassmarket. It was in a great location, very accessible to anything you want to see. They also had a restaurant for breakfast where you could overlook Edinburgh Castle! But it’s not for budget travelers!
My advice…go during the summer when there’s more sunlight. Also, hop around, don’t stay in Edinburgh. I would’ve loved to see more of the sites in Northern Scotland, such as the Isle of Skye and famous Glenfinnan Viaduct, that we didn’t get a chance to see because there just honestly wasn’t enough time (or daylight) to get there from Edinburgh.