When I landed in Edinburgh, the first thing I felt was relief to be on the ground and overwhelming gratefulness for having faced my fear of flying and actually gotten on the plane. The second thing I felt was a sharp jab of something like panic. An “Oh God, what have I done?” The adrenaline and tension that kept me awake and functioning (and pacing all night like a deranged person) through the flight faded fast, and the fear and anxiety flowed right in. What was I thinking? How could I have left? I can’t be gone this long. What if something terrible happens? How will I get back home? I’m stuck here. I’m stuck.
Luckily, I’d felt something like this before, so I was able to recognize it as just being a surge of anxiety. But it’s still a deeply disconcerting feeling—the immediate dissipation of excitement and the abrupt arrival of regret and guilt. I remember lying awake in Lisbon on my first night there nearly 3 years ago, feeling like my body was still swaying from the plane ride, wondering why I’d decided to take that trip, and feeling close to panic. That feeling was gone by the next morning. I worried that this time it would linger a bit longer. After all, this is a much bigger trip. And the truth is, there was a bit of guilt all along in leaving so soon after my mom’s cancer treatments and in leaving Chewie. (Though there would truthfully have been far more guilt about how fully I’d have broken my mom’s heart if I’d canceled the trip because of her.) When I talked to my family on the phone after landing, they all said, “Aren’t you so glad you got on the plane!?” And I told them the truth— that I feel too overwhelmed and anxious to be excited just yet, but I knew it would come.
After I arrived, I tried in my delirious state to get to the hostel by using public transit instead of Uber. Google maps took me through these tiny (and very steep) alleys until I emerged onto the main street looking shell-shocked and like I’d just arrived on Earth for the first time. A very kind street artist (whose beautiful painting I later purchased) pointed me in the right direction to my hostel. I always feel like it’s a throwaway statement when people say that “the people” in a certain city are kind. I always feel like, well sure, but there are kind people everywhere, so that’s not really a thing we can generalize. But truly, the people in Edinburgh felt collectively kind. A man sitting in front of me on one of the trains asked if I’d like for him to get me anything when he went to get coffee. I’d only spoken like 3 words to him—he just offered simply because I was there.
To be honest, I didn’t know a ton about Edinburgh before arriving. I knew it was a short trip across the Atlantic, English speaking for an easy transition into my journey, and cool in the midst of this horrific heatwave. I knew the sun would rise before 5:00am and set close to 10:00pm. Plus of course, there was the Harry Potter pilgrimage to prioritize. And I’d never met a person who visited Edinburgh and not liked it. I had my hostel booked and a day-tour to the Isle of Skye, but I hadn’t done much more research than that, and all I knew about the history of the country was what I read in Macbeth and that time I read the first Outlander book on an elliptical at the gym. The stakes were high for Edinburgh–I’d given it the steep task of pulling me out of my panic without knowing beforehand that it was up to the task.
I’m a person who generally likes to do a lot of preparation before traveling. I want to know a general history, idea of the culture, which attractions I want to prioritize, and what foods to try. I don’t want to plan every detail of my days, but I want some broad strokes and a good list to choose from once I’m there and pressed for time. But I also think there’s something to be said for not having any plans at all. Up until the actual moment of boarding the flight, I didn’t truly believe I’d be arriving in Scotland the next morning, and I deliberately didn’t dive into research beforehand because I didn’t want that to add to my devastation if I ended up bailing. I’d done that once already.
I did basically nothing on that first day except try to nap and then wander around in a fog for a while. I found a free walking tour the next day—something I like to do on my first day in new cities to get my physical bearings and learn a bit of broad historical context. And by the end of that tour, I felt the city working it’s magic and the first jolts of excitement coming back to me.
Edinburgh feels like time travel. You half expect knights to pop out of the alleys on their horses. The Old Town and castle are built on what scientist think is a 350-million year-old extinct volcano, and that seems like a history that’s sure to bestow a place with magical powers. It’s gothic and haunting and like you’ve stumbled into some secret and ancient magic. (It felt obvious that was the place where Harry Potter was created.) I love cities that have shaped themselves around their history instead of containing their history to designated and untouchable areas. I like when the past is there amidst regular life instead of only behind museum glass. Like how in Rome, history is there in every step you take, in how you pass the Pantheon on your way to grab lunch, how today you can watch an opera at the Baths of Caracalla, and how the locals use the Circus Maximus as a running track. Edinburgh felt like another perfect example of how to do this right. The Edinburgh Castle was literally across the street from my hostel (It’s still used today as a military base), and just down the hill, the old Grass Market is full of local restaurants. Everything is preserved even when it’s been repurposed and given new life. The Greyfriars Kirkyard, the cemetery where Rowling got so many of the names she used in Harry Potter, has been a cemetery for long before the graves were marked. They claim that it’s so much higher than street level today because the bodies continued to be piled higher and higher over the centuries. And that’s morbid for sure, but it’s also a peaceful place that people treat like a public park, where they have picnics and walk their dogs. I like that it continues to be part of life here.
I took the train from Edinburgh to Inverness in the Highlands to spend a couple of nights since my day tour to Skye would be leaving from there early in the morning. Inverness is Scotland’s most northern city and the farthest north I’d ever been. In the United States, New York City is considered “northern” and any city in Canada may as well be the Arctic Circle. I think because of this perception, it’s easy to assume that places like London and Paris must roughly be the same latitude as places like New York. But they are so much farther north than that. Edinburgh is about the same latitude as Moscow, and Inverness is about the same latitude as Anchorage. There are so very many hours of daylight. It was an odd place in that it’s where a lot of tourists stay as a base for other tours and daytrips and hikes, but it’s really not touristy itself. Because everyone goes on daytrips, it feels like there’s not much to do during the day, but then every restaurant is completely full for dinner. I had a fixed-price two course meal at the best-known (and rather fancy) restaurant in town for lunch (The Mustard Seed) that was only 16 pounds.
There are only two ways to see the Isle of Skye. You can either rent a car (which is exorbitantly expensive and truly not wise for a person who’s never driven on the left side of the road), or you can do an organized tour with a company. So I took a tour. It was a fascinating collection of people who all seem to do these sorts of things regularly. I didn’t even notice that I was the only person doing the tour alone until it was almost over.
Skye is otherworldly. I don’t know what I envisioned, but I was shocked by all the green. So much vibrant green everywhere. It felt ancient and mysterious, like a place that’s keeping a lot of secrets from you. We saw Old Man of Storr and waterfalls and the Trotternish Peninsula and porpoises swimming off the coast and the pretty town, Portree. We drove by Loch Ness, Eilean castle, and Urquhart Castle on the way. We stopped at the Fairy Glen which was supposed to be this ethereal and peaceful place, but a squall hit as soon as we got off the bus, and the wind, which was surely hurricane strength, was trying its best to knock us over. And still, I was delighted.
By the end of the week in Edinburgh, the anxiety was gone, and I felt more like myself than I have perhaps since the pandemic began. The city has curative powers, I’m sure of it. If you go to the UK, do not skip Scotland. In fact, if you must choose between Edinburgh and London, Edinburgh has my vote.
Things not to miss:
- If you’re traveling on a budget, Castle Rock Hostel is the place to stay. The location couldn’t be more perfect, and they do a good job of creating a community-feel.
- Do a ghost tour with Mercat tours. Edinburgh is kind of terrifying in the best way. I’m a ghost tour enthusiast, and this is the only tour I’ve ever done where I felt genuinely freaked out (in a good way).
- WOW Scotland tour of the Isle of Skye from Inverness. You want Gordon as a tour guide.
- The Mustard Seed restaurant in Inverness.
- Greyfriars Kirkyard (Cemetery) in Edinburgh.
- A Harry Potter tour, obviously.
- Climb Arthur’s Seat if you enjoy nature and taking longer-and-more-strenuous than you expected hikes walking-distance from the city.
- Leave yourself lots and lots of free time for wandering.