Adele Goes to Edinburgh
Exploring one of the settings from my recent novella, “Las Vegas for Valentine’s Day”
In this post, I compare my recent trip to Edinburgh, Scotland to how I imagined it in my novella “Las Vegas for Valentine’s Day” and offer some travel tips.
Readers of “Las Vegas for Valentine’s Day” know that while the present moment of the story is set in the dry and dusty desert city of Las Vegas, some important back story takes place in the cold, drizzly streets of Edinburgh. When I wrote that novella, I had never been to the UK and everything I knew about Edinburgh was from the Outlander series.
I chose Edinburgh partly for its contrast to Las Vegas and partly because it was a place I really wanted to visit. Often in my fiction I explore places I wish I could go. Just as for many readers fiction is armchair travel, for me as a writer it can be a mental vacation.
This summer, however, my wish came true. In late June and early July, I had the great fortune of spending 15 days traveling in the UK, first in London, then, off the normal tourist track in Coventry, and finally Edinburgh.
So, did I get Auld Reekie right? When I stepped out of Waverly station, did I find myself in a world that resembled the fictional one I had created? Yes and no.
I definitely got the weather right. Although it was the last week of June, it was cold. It was cold and rainy. It was cold and rainy and windy. My first three purchases in Edinburgh: an umbrella, a fleece, and a raincoat. If this is summer in Scotland, I truly do not want to know what winter is. Locals were wandering around in shorts and T-shirts and sandals. Meanwhile, I was wearing two jackets and wishing I had a winter hat and gloves. That said, I think I would’ve been disappointed if I’d had nothing but warm, sunny weather, after all, I wanted to experience the reality of Edinburgh, and I think I did. I’m sure I’ll warm back up eventually.
As for the architecture and overall vibes, I would say I got it right and wrong. Edinburgh is an absolutely beautiful city. From the medieval Old Town to the Georgian New Town, it is an architectural marvel. But also, it’s rather foreboding, with all of those narrow passageways and winding stairs and dark stone buildings on cobbled streets. Old Town feels a bit like a set for Game of Thrones, especially when it’s cloudy and rainy. (Fun fact: Old town is full of medieval alleys called “closes,” which is pronounced like “stay close by” not like “close the door.”)
That mysterious dark and gloomy vibe is what I think I got right. but when the sun comes out and hits those sandstone buildings, everything changes and the true splendor is on display. That was a side of this amazing city I needed to see for myself to understand.
“In Las Vegas for Valentine’s Day,“ Tessa Finds Edinburgh lonely and depressing and frequently bemoans the climate, and this is definitely spot on. In summer when I visited, the days were long and there was plenty of daylight. In fact, it was light from around 4 am until almost midnight. But in the winter it must get dark by 3 o’clock in the afternoon, so as beautiful as Edinburgh is, I can see that this would be a tough place to live year-round. An American student like Tessa could easily get a bit depressed.
The other thing I missed in my imaginary depiction is just how hilly Edinburgh is. I knew the castle was at the top of a hill called the Royal Mile, but what I didn’t understand is that the rest of the city is pretty hilly too. Walking around Edinburgh is a workout! I think maybe when I was picturing the imaginary university buildings where Tessa was studying and living, I was probably picturing something like Oxford (But I’ve never been to Oxford so for all I know that’s hilly, too!).
Overall, I have to say, I think my depiction was not too shabby for someone who had never been there, and now that I have been there I’m sure I’ll find excuses to work Edinburgh into more of my stories. After all, that would be a great excuse to go back!
If you are thinking about planning a trip to Edinburgh, read on for my top travel tips!
Travel tip 1: You have to book your tour of the castle in advance.
In Covid times we all got used to booking timed tickets to everything, and a lot of places still let you book timed tickets even though theoretically Covid times are over. At home in Massachusetts I don’t really bother with timed tickets for anything anymore, I just show up to the things I want to do. I assumed I could do the same thing here. I was wrong. Edinburgh Castle sells out most days. You can’t expect to just show up, buy a ticket, and walk in. You have to go online to their website, which is not the most pleasant to navigate, and pre-book your tickets. I had no idea about any of this, and I didn’t make advance plans because I wanted to wait and see what the weather would be like on any given day. I showed up at the castle only to be turned away. I managed to book a timed ticket for the next afternoon and paid the extra few pounds for the audio guide.
When I went back the next day, I saw that they had once again sold out, so I was glad to have a ticket in hand, but I found the audio guide a bit frustrating and ultimately I really wished I was there with a proper tour guide. I saw a bunch of tour groups in the castle but I didn’t know how anyone had arranged that because it wasn’t an option when I bought my ticket. I only learned two days later that there are loads of walking tours of Edinburgh that will get you tickets to the castle and take you on a guided tour. And this is my strong recommendation. You usually can get same-day tickets to the castle through these tours, but you can also book them in advance. I did two different walking tours with the company Scotland City Tours, and both were fantastic. I highly recommend them. The tours were led by really knowledgeable guides who focused on actual historical facts and who were clear about telling you when they were describing a myth or legend or what we know from the historical record.
Other things to book in advance: tours of the Holyrood Palace (pronounced “Holly-rude.” Tours were not available while I was there because King Charles and Queen Consort Camilla were in residence in preparation for King Charles receiving the Honours of Scotland!) and tours of the Real Mary King’s Close.
Travel tip 2: Take a free walking tour of the Royal Mile.
As I mentioned in tip number one there are loads of walking tours in Edinburgh. The first one I did was a 10 AM tour of the Royal Mile with Scotland City Tours. Shout out to Jen Cresswell, who was an awesome tour guide. The tour lasted 2 1/2 hours, including a short stop for a cup of coffee at a cafe that supports the local community, and gave a great overview of the history of Old Town. You join the tour for free and at the end of the tour, you pay what you think is fair for the experience that you’ve had. I thought the experience was absolutely fantastic and didn’t mind at all paying 20 pounds. In fact, I enjoyed the tour so much, that I booked one for the Edinburgh Ghost Tour: Mysteries, Witchery, and Murder. My guide’s name was Ignas, and he took us on an excellent two-hour walk and gave us a ton of history of the dark side of Edinburgh’s past, giving us the true historical fact behind body snatchers and witch hunts and describing the legends in ghost stories that have grown up around them.
Travel tip 3: Use public transportation.
Edinburgh is definitely a city best seen on foot. While I was there, I was walking upwards of 20,000 steps per day. That said, if you want to see a part of town that’s a little further away and you don’t have the time to walk or your feet are tired or it’s pouring rain, don’t hesitate to use the bus or tram. These are very easy to navigate and are very affordable. I used the Moovit App to get around both London and Edinburgh and I found it reliable and straightforward. Many of the buses in Edinburgh are double-deckers so you can enjoy the view by riding upstairs. I used the bus to get from where I was staying near the University of Edinburgh over to the Royal Botanical Garden and then I also used the bus to get back from the National Gallery Modern Two. The tram will take you down to the ocean terminal where you can tour the royal yacht Britannia.
Travel tip 4: Dress for rain, you won’t be disappointed.
I packed like I would for spring weather in Massachusetts because when I looked at the weather apps that is what I thought I could expect. I was wrong. During a spring rain in Massachusetts, I might comfortably wear cotton pants and a cotton shirt with a little jacket over it. What we call humidity doesn’t begin to compare to a typical Scottish day. Upon arrival, I immediately wanted fast-drying synthetics. It would have been far more practical for me to pack like I was going on a hike than to bring cute summer clothes. As I mentioned before I actually ended up buying two jackets in Edinburgh. It’s worth overpacking to be prepared for this climate.
Travel tip 5: Ask locals for recommendations.
I was traveling alone, so when I had the chance to chat with strangers I took it. My favorite question was to ask people what they thought I should do in my time in Edinburgh. I got some great recommendations, including one to visit the little village of Stockbridge and another to follow the Water of the Leith Walkway from Stockbridge through Dean Village. Both of these were things I had read about in travel guides, but when locals confirmed that these would be great activities, I knew I had to do it. It was great to get out of the most touristy areas and explore some neighborhoods I might have otherwise skipped.
Have you ever been to Edinburgh? If so, what are your top tips? Share in the comments, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Also, if you want to hear more about this UK adventure, check out Diane’s new substack (officially launching August 1). The focus of this twice-monthly missive will be developing a sketchbook practice, and she’ll be featuring some of her own travel sketchbooks, so stay tuned!
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