Peter and I recently hosted our first visitor since the start of the pandemic.
My sister, Tessa, arrived on August 25th and spent six nights with us. It was a hectic week that included a mystery of her checked bag’s whereabouts, a super short trip to Scotland, and a couple of days exploring London.
Tessa arrived at 11am on a Wednesday and I met her at Heathrow via the Tube. That was the first time I’d been on public transportation since March 13, 2020. There were more people on the Tube than I anticipated, the Victoria line was sweltering hot, and the trains looked like the last time they’d been deep cleaned was decades ago.
After 18 months of the pandemic, it appears nothing has changed with the Tube with the exception of the added risk of it being a covid petri dish. Masks are currently required on public transportation but mask-wearing adherence ranged from 40-60 percent. The Mayor of London says that that the Tube is clean and covid-safe but I certainly did not feel that way.
Our reunion at Heathrow was marred by the sad news that her checked bag had gone rogue and no one could tell her where it was or when it would turn up. Long story short, I received a call from British Airways four days later (five days after she departed the US) letting me (aka imposter Tessa) know that her bag had just arrived at Heathrow.
It was Sunday afternoon and we were just about to leave Green Park and board a bus back to my flat for a couple of hours of much-needed downtime. The British Airways representative told me that their couriers were extremely busy and there was no possibility that her bag would be delivered to our flat before she departed for the US on Tuesday.
I asked if we could collect the bag at Heathrow and he said yes.
I said, “Great! See you in an hour!” and we boarded the Tube to Heathrow. Our experience at Heathrow was a nightmare but we eventually left Heathrow with her bag in tow – all thanks to the BA representative giving me his personal mobile number to call if we “ran into any problems.” I suppose this is the extra level of service a passenger gets when the airline has lost your bag for five days.
Tessa’s first day in the UK was all about taking care of business. The first item on the agenda was for her to complete her Day 2 covid test. Next, we went shopping for what I’ll call “essential clothing” and then it was an early bedtime.
Fun fact: Tessa never napped nor did she nod off in the early evening hours nor did she have issues getting out of bed in the morning. I’ve never seen anyone handle jet lag as professionally as she did which is really quite something since this was her first time traveling across more than two time zones.
The following morning, we transited to London Kings Cross station and boarded a train to Edinburgh. The train was packed with festival-goers. I didn’t think it was possible for long-distance trains to sell more tickets than seats but I believe this was the case with our train.
The journey time was just under five hours but it felt like 25 hours. The last time I took a train to/from Edinburgh was on January 2, 2015, and apparently, six-and-a-half years is a long enough gap to forget how long that train journey feels.
We arrived at Edinburgh Waverley at 2pm and walked the short distance to our hotel.
We stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott Edinburgh and it was one of my favorite hotel stays. The hotel is located less than 10 minutes (walking) from Edinburgh Waverley station. It’s worth noting that the walk from the station to the hotel is downhill and, of course, it’s uphill on the walk to the station so add a few minutes of time if you are towing heavy luggage to the station.
Based on photos of the hotel, I was concerned that there would be a lot of noise from the main road in front of the hotel, however, we had no noise at all. In fact, we slept with the sliding glass door of our room open and it was still super quiet.
Note: The hotel has air conditioning and it works well. We chose to open the sliding door thinking it would give an immediate “cold blast” to cool our room more quickly.
The following day, we hiked Calton Hill and had a birds’ eye view of the hotel and we realized that the hotel has old and new sections. The old section of the hotel is the section that runs along the main road. The new section is an annex connected by a glass skyway/bridge to the backside of the old section. The old section insulates the new section from the road noise, etc.
There are tons of restaurants and pubs near the hotel and the hotel bar was moderately priced with a good selection of wines, beers, and cocktails.
Overall 5/5 stars.
The first stop on our whistle-stop tour (after eating a very late lunch) was to Dean Village.
My first impression of Edinburgh as we walked to-and-fro was the massive number of tourists. There were so many people. I’d not been around that many people since the start of the pandemic so it was shocking to me.
Note: We visited Edinburgh at the beginning of a holiday weekend (“late summer bank holiday”).
I realized that I’d been living in an alternate world thinking everyone had been living like us and staying within a two-thirds mile radius to their homes, with the odd exception here-and-there. The reality was that life outside of my world was in full swing.
Google Maps did a good job of getting us to the vicinity of Dean Village but we weren’t quite sure where to go once we got there and with the hilly nature of the city, I didn’t want to start heading downhill if there was a chance that it was the wrong direction.
I knew that the village ran along the Water of Leith (pronounced “leeth”) so we descended Lynedoch Place and went from there.
Here’s the route we walked and the two best photo spots.
The photo below was taken at photo spot 1.
The photo below was taken at photo spot 2, the best photo spot in my opinion.
It was a long walk from our hotel to Dean Village but it was worth the visit. If I could do it over again, I’d take a few minutes to figure out the bus and light rail systems and consider utilizing those services, though, who knows if public transportation would have saved us time given you can sometimes wait for a bus to arrive longer than the bus journey itself.
New Town / Princes Street
Still reeling from the lost bag debacle, we decided to go shopping to get Tessa a couple more pieces of clothing. We walked from Dean Village to an area of Edinburgh called New Town (near Princes Street).
Princes Street was once known for its big brand stores and was the main shopping street in the city but times have changed. A few big brands went bankrupt during the pandemic and this, among other reasons, has taken its toll on Princes Street.
Princes Street is no longer the crème de la crème of shopping. It’s kinda depressing now, like urban decay. I estimated that 50 percent of the stores did not have tenants and some of those stores are huge flagship-size stores.
The good news is that there is still plenty of shopping in New Town. There were several new mall-style developments just off of Princes Street with high tenant occupancy.
New Town is also home to many pubs and restaurants. The following day, we ate breakfast at Lowdown. Later that day, we returned to this area and spent a couple of hours in a speakeasy called Never Really Here. Admittedly, I was intrigued by the name.
Never Really Here describes itself as an “Intimate secret drinking den, hidden in the heart of Edinburgh city.”
And that is exactly what it was.
Google Maps once again got us within about 20 feet of NRH but there was no signage and the narrow alley that it is located on looked a little sleepy, possibly creepy (when dark). I was questioning if Google had led us astray when I noticed a battered door with a gold lion door knocker and I said, “I think we’ve won the battle.”
I gave the knocker a couple of solid bangs and a few seconds later, the door opened and the owner welcomed us in. We were the first drinkers of the day.
We spent about 1.5 hours in the bar which equated to a total of four cocktails. The cocktails were strong and did not contain any sweeteners or sugars. They are the kind of cocktails that will grow hair on your chest which are totally not my kind of cocktails but the atmosphere and conversation kept us there.
As soon as the bar started to fill up, we exited. I am covid-adverse for many reasons but at that particular time, we needed to keep Tessa covid-negative to get her back to the US and I needed to remain covid-negative so that I could go to Croatia two weeks later.
Protip: Never Really Here only accepts cash or bank transfer from a UK bank. We did not have cash and I somehow managed to conduct a bank transfer on my phone after two extremely strong cocktails. If I can do it, so can you!
We left Never Really Here in search of food but a pub called The Black Cat got in our way. My sister is a self-described cat lady so the pub was a must-do.
The rest of that evening was a blur but we made it back to our hotel without any injuries and we weren’t hungover for our journey back to London the following day.
The timeline of this post is a bit all over the place and that’s exactly how our ~36 hours in Edinburgh felt – all over the place. We walked ~18 miles during our 1.5 days in Edinburgh. We were totally slaying “traveling like Americans.”
|Thursday afternoon||Arrive Edinburgh 2pm, Dean Village, shopping in New Town|
|Friday morning||Edinburgh Castle, Royal Mile, Grassmarket, Calton Hill|
|Friday afternoon/evening||Never Really Here, The Black Cat|
|Saturday morning||Depart Edinburgh 9am|
Prior to our Never Really Here and The Black Cat drinking adventure, we spent the day failing at tourist life.
Due to covid, visits to Edinburgh Castle are by appointment only. Appointments can be easily booked online and when I looked at the availability of appointments/tickets earlier in the week, there were thousands of tickets available so I did not pre-book.
Not pre-booking was a mistake, one reminiscent of when I did not pre-book Alcatraz for my Route 66/Pacific Coast Highway trip with my dad a few years earlier. I’ve learned nothing.
We attempted to buy castle tickets on the spot but were told that they were sold out. There was no chance of us getting into the castle so we pouted in the large parking lot area in front of the castle and took a couple of photos in-between tears rolling out of our eyes. I’m joking but it was disappointing.
We left Edinburgh Castle defeated and took a couple of photos of the Royal Mile – the mile-long road leading to Edinburgh Castle – but none of them turned out. It was incredibly crowded and I wanted nothing to do with the people or with the covid those people may have shared with us.
At one point during our adventures, Tessa said that I was scared of covid. It’s true. I was scared that covid was going to take Croatia away from me and put us both in a mandatory 10-day quarantine in our 1,200 sq ft flat.
From somewhere in the middle of the Royal Mile, we walked down to the Grassmarket area where I’d hoped to surprise Tessa with an early holiday gift by taking her to a cat cafe. There was nothing more that I wanted than a photo of Tessa in her cat mask surrounded by cats in a cat cafe. I wanted this so badly that I even studied up on the cats and their personalities.
Similar to my Edinburgh Castle ticket research, when I looked at appointments for the cat cafe earlier in the week, availability was wide open so I did not pre-book appointments/tickets.
I totally underestimated how many cat people there are in this world.
We arrived at the cafe around 11am and I expected to be able to get into the cafe with no problems whatsoever but they were fully booked until 4pm or 5pm, maybe even 6pm. I can’t remember because I was in a state of shock.
Whatever it was, it was ridiculous. I wondered how my life had gone so off the rails, being denied entry into a cat cafe.
We found ourselves at a crossroads. It was approaching lunchtime and we also wanted to hike Arthur’s Seat (far away from where we were) but now we were faced with the option to return to the cat cafe later in the day.
All of these things were too much for the amount of time we had so we decided to do none of them.
Instead, we grabbed a quick bite to eat and then hiked Calton Hill which is the super wimpy version of Arthur’s Seat. The view from Calton Hill was disappointing and, in retrospect, we should have stayed in the Grassmarket area and visited the cat cafe later that day.
After Calton Hill, we re-grouped at our hotel, stopped at a few more clothing stores, and later found ourselves knocking on the door to Never Really Here. See, we’ve come full circle with our whirlwind tour of Edinburgh.
I learned/re-learned the following during my fourth visit to Edinburgh.
- The weather in Edinburgh is more pleasant in late August than in the months of my prior visits: November, December/January, and early May
- The train journey from London to Edinburgh is too long for a 36 hour visit
- Edinburgh is hilly and not necessarily walkable
- Edinburgh is very windy
- Edinburgh is spread out and it takes a long time to get from point A to point B
- When calculating “feels like” temperatures in Edinburgh, deduct 20° for Fahrenheit temperatures and 7° for Celsius temperatures
I would visit Edinburgh again only if:
- a family member or friend really wanted to visit the city AND
- only if it was for a four-night stay, minimum
Tessa and I had many things on our sightseeing/doing list and we knew that we had no chance of seeing and doing them all but it felt like all we did was walk and walk and walk.
We wanted to hike Arthur’s Seat and tour Edinburgh Castle. Further afield, we considered a tour of the Highlands but any tour to the Highlands is an all-day commitment.
I wanted to visit the Leith area of the city, participate in a gin tasting, watch Tessa participate in a whisky tasting, and visit a couple of breweries.
Sightseeing in this hilly and windy city takes time and we simply did not have the time. Honestly, it sorta feels like we were Never Really There.