Backpacking in Scotland: Edinburgh, the Highlands, and much more!
The benefit of being in one country in Europe is that every other place that seems far from here is actually so close to you. And one must always make optimum use of such geographical proximity between different countries in Europe. Having spent the initial days of my first solo trip in England, my next and most obvious destination was England’s gorgeous neighbor, Scotland.
To start my trip, I had the option of flying out of London to Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland. Surely, it would have saved me a couple of not so important leisure hours but I chose the other option- rail route. And if you’ll do what I did, I’m sure you will not regret it. I booked my train ticket with Virgin Trains East Coast, which cost me almost the same as would a flight with Ryanair or Easyjet. These are the low-cost airlines that can be used if you’re not traveling with much baggage. They charge extra (and that’s a lot compared to the ticket price) if you exceed their cabin baggage allowance. Travelling on a train allowed me to carry all that I wanted to carry without worrying about shelling extra money. Countryside views and mesmerizing landscapes en route was just a cherry on the top. Additionally, if you’re a Potterhead, you may get to see King’s Cross station if your chosen train starts from there. Yes, King’s Cross station has a platform 9 3/4 as well as an extremely tempting Harry Potter souvenir and merchandise store. My train was supposed to start at 9:30 AM from a different platform and the store opened at 9 AM. I was still inside the store at 9:25 AM. That was close! Poof! Be careful and don’t miss the train.
An important thing to keep in mind is the unpredictable weather in Scotland in summers. It may rain or become windy or you may see a sun- all in a day. So keep a windcheater jacket, umbrella, and a stole handy.
The breathtaking views made the journey worth it. Another interesting part was the Indian family I met on the train and the finger-licking Rajma Rice that they so generously offered me. The company and the food made my journey really interesting.
It took me four and a half hour to reach Edinburgh Waverley railway station. I was under the impression that I would need the public transport to explore Edinburgh later in the day, so I bought a full-day bus ticket from the railway station to reach my hostel. You don’t need that. Most parts of the city can be accessed by foot very easily if you don’t mind walking a bit.
I always thought traveling alone in a new city would be scary and what if I get lost. Don’t worry, Edinburgh folks are the sweetest, always ready to help. A young girl on my bus helped me with the directions of my hostel, like which stop to get down at and where to head next from there. With her help and the GPS, I managed to reach Light House Hostel, the hostel that I booked for my first night in Edinburgh. The hostel culture there is so prevalent and interesting and safe. I dropped off my suitcase in the locker that was assigned to me with the dorm bed and started my city exploration. I always love to get out early and absorb everything a place has to offer.
One of the must-sees in Edinburgh is the Edinburgh Castle, from where one gets to see a bird-eye view of the city. The Castle is huge, would take roughly an hour and a half if you’re traveling solo and closes by 5:30 PM, so time your visit accordingly.
After the Castle, I came out to see one of the most vibrant streets in Edinburgh, the Royal Mile- a street full of fancy restaurants, mischievous alleyways, haunted places of interest, street artists and much more. The Castle is on one end of the Royal Mile.
The next thing on my itinerary was the famous ghost tours of the city. The city of Edinburgh is considered to be the most haunted one in Europe with a rich history of witches, ghosts, and other paranormal phenomena. Oh, the excitement to see those haunted vaults under the roads, the hidden wynds, and the secret courtyards. I booked my ghost tour with City of Edinburgh tours. You can find their booking kiosk outside Starbucks on the Royal Mile and my review here.
The ghost tour stretched almost an hour where I met an awful lot of interesting people. From the stories of Deacon Brodie and the haunted underground vaults to Greyfriars Churchyard, the tour was overloaded with interesting, horror stories from the past. Our tour guide Cassandra did quite an amazing job. We even saw the Elephant House, a restaurant where J.K.Rowling began writing Harry Potter books and the school that became the inspiration for Hogwarts. There’s a bit of Potter magic everywhere.
Since the summers are long there, I wandered around the city, absorbing it all in. One can spend some time in Princes Street Gardens for it had such friendly, warm vibes. Since I had something big planned for the next few days here, I ended the day with dinner at Tuk Tuk Indian Street Food, an Indian restaurant near my hostel. Well, a little bit of butter chicken every now and then doesn’t hurt! Ha-ha.
Scotland is vast and every part is beautiful in its own way. And for someone traveling on a budget with limited time, the best way to see the best of Scotland is using a group coach tour. After a lot of research on the internet about different tour agencies like Macbackpackers and Haggis Adventures, I finally decided to go with Macbackpackers and did not regret it at all. I booked their 3-day Isle of Skye tour included all the important places of Scottish Highlands that one needed to see. The Isle of Skye is known to have inspired countless artists and creators.
The tour group had 23 people including the tour guide, which meant I got to meet 23 amazing travelers from across the world. I’m still in touch with a few of them. We started from Edinburgh in the morning around 8 and our tour guide Neil made sure that our morning blues did not ruin our spirit of traveling. He took matters in his own hand and involved all of us into his ice-breaking sessions. A brief introduction by us about us made us more familiar with each other. We soon started sharing our stories with each other, roam around together and above all have fun together.
En route our destination Klyeakin in the Isle of Skye, we visited and crossed several places like Forth Bridges, Pitlochry, Glen Shiel, Ruthven Barracks, Culloden battlefield and the Loch Ness. The Scottish Highlands are gorgeous. Neil told us dozens of interesting stories about Jacobite rising, myths, and facts about clan rivalries and monsters. He even played some good old Scottish bagpipe music. We saw the Eilean Donan Castle on our way to Klyeakin, the same spot that was used as a filming location for Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’s title track. We do love exotic filming locations.
Neil was wonderfully sweet, hilarious, equipped with a gift of the gab and the one with best recommendations to give- be it the places to eat or shop. He had quite a unique and interesting way of interacting with people on the tour.
We reached Klyeakin in the evening after crossing the Skye Bridge. The hostel accommodation, provided by Macbackpackers, was a cozy, little comfortable house. The dinner for the night was at King Hakkon Bar that served great food and good, cheap beer. The late sunset allowed us to go for a stroll to the Skye Bridge and Castle Moil.
We started early in the morning to witness the stunning landscapes amidst the enchanting tales of warriors, monsters, and faeries. The sunny day began with the quaint little town of Portree. Portree has become one of my favorite places in Skye. The colorful harbor, the cozy coffee shops (do check out Café Arriba for awesome coffee) and a small population (means a lot when you come from a populated country like ours) made Portree quite an interesting place to visit when in Skye.
Our next stop was a hike to Old Man of Storr. By that time, it had started raining a bit which upped the adventure quotient of the hike. The topmost point of the hike made it all worth the while- the breathtaking views, the wind, the rain and the contentment level after hiking to the top.
Next, we visited the Kilt Rock and the Lealt valley. On our way back to Kyleakin, we stopped at Sligachan to see the Cuillin and the Sligachan Bridge.
Neil offered everyone the best of recommendations and suggestions. Knowing that I hailed from India, he recommended me to try the food at Taste of India. It was great.
Scotland has so much to offer and so did our tour guide. We took off early so that we could reach back Edinburgh on time. We bid adieu to the beautiful Skye and headed south to see Britain’s highest mountain Ben Nevis in the Nevis range. We got off the bus and went for a stroll in the area. The grandeur of the Nevis range was overwhelming.
The journey continued through Glen Coe and Rannoch Moor with the ever interesting tales of clan massacres by Neil. The last stop of the trip before we hit Edinburgh was the Wallace Monument overlooking the city of Stirling.
That feeling of seeing so many new places, meeting so many different people from across the globe and the different cultures was absolutely amazing. And Neil made sure that we remember the trip for a long time by treating us with whiskey as the farewell drink on the bus.
When you are traveling solo, the odds of finding a dull moment are low. At every new turn, you get to deal with something new, something challenging, and something to look forward to. After bidding adieu to the group, I made my way to Royal Mile Backpackers, the hostel for the last night in Edinburgh. After refreshing, I stepped out again. I had to see the Princes Street, which had tons of places to shop from. It was an absolute delight. Haha.
The past few days were so amazing and full of so many things but one thing on my list was still to strike out. The most exciting thing to do in Edinburgh- having random drinks with fellow travelers at different places. It was the fun that only a Pub Crawl could give you.
I wandered along the Royal Mile to find a tour company with whom I could go for a pub crawl. After some initial disappointment of being unable to find any, I found some luck when I met my ghost tour guide Cassandra (Remmy) from the other day. Remmy solved my biggest problem at that time and introduced me to Carlos, a fellow pub crawl tour guide. Fortunately for me, nobody else turned up for the pub crawl which meant I got an exclusive, private pub crawl. Remmy joined us and the fun was unlimited. I played bagpipes. We went to five different pubs, drank different types of spirits, and played many drinking games. It’s difficult to remember the names of all the pubs but the final one was worth remembering. The place was called Stramash and had live Scottish music. We actually participated in the Scottish dance on the floor. Dancing to the tunes of exotic music with random people, with steps that absolutely did not match the steps of everyone, I surely made memories that are going to stay with me forever. The night was long and full of adventure and fun.
I barely slept that night as I had to catch an early morning flight to my next destination. But it was all worth it. Stay tuned for my next travel story.