How do you prefer to travel?
As the world is opening up again, people are venturing out to explore. There are so many ways to travel these days. My daughter is eleven-years-old now and it was the perfect time to reinvent what travel looks like to the two of us.
We are the gentle ones, the wanderers. Walking down the streets with smells and sights to enjoy at a leisurely pace. Stopping to look at a beautiful fountain, pick up a cool new book, or find secluded beaches to explore. Here’s how we traveled in Scotland.
Like most, I did my research, talked to friends, and made all kinds of lists. My daughter and I agreed on the most important things to do and see. From there, I looked at what was the most realistic to do this time. The Isle Skye and Oban for example were high on my list but not realistic for this trip so it stays at the top for next time.
Day-to-Day Scotland Itinerary:
Day 1-3: Edinburgh
Day 4-5: Inverness
Day 5-9: Edinburgh
Day 9-11: Fort William
Day 11-12: Edinburgh
Edinburgh is Calling
I used Edinburgh as our “home base”, moving around the city to capture some new views of this magical city and be central to different places like the Castle, and Greyfriars. We started off at St. Andrew’s Square a cute little area with a little park nestled in between some beautiful buildings. This spot was centrally located next to the tram and Waverly train station!
Right after we arrived, we wandered around the park and square. We met up with friends for dinner at the Printing Press Bar & Kitchen which is the former home of the writer Susan Ferrier. The ambiance pays homage to this illustrious writer creating an intimate setting to catch up with friends. The drinks were tasty and creative thanks to the fully stocked bar. The food was fresh and full of flavor and the desserts rounded out our delicious meal.
After dinner, we had a short walk back to our charming hotel Malmaison. We loved just wandering around the hotel looking at all the art and decor, eating at the restaurant and I even ventured down to the bar which was dark and fun even with my daughter in tow, with colored lights and vines dripping from the ceiling and dark walls adorned with eclectic art.
A step back in time
I was awestruck with the old-world magic of Edinburgh, I was sure we would round a corner and run into a woman in those huge dresses breezing past on her way to the castle. I loved touching the walls to the city or buildings as we walked past. Magic has an ethereal feeling to it and I wanted to soak it all up.
My daughter and I headed to the Aquarium in Fife to see seals, stingrays, sharks, and so much more all with a backdrop of cliffs and the bay.
With transit being so accessible, we took a train out of Waverly Station to Fife to check out the view and see the Aquarium. Albeit small, reasonably priced, and very cute. The walk from the station was steep and winding, with this beautiful view of Blackness Bay and the cliffs of Queensferry. The cobblestones and stone fences were darling and the architecture was charming. We leisurely walked there and back enjoying the smells of the sea.
Since Waverly Station is right next to Princes Street Gardens it was a perfect opportunity to enjoy a leisurely stroll down The Mound, stopping to marvel at the Scott Monument, walking the Playfair Steps, and taking a break at Makars Gourmet Mash Bar. This place was mouth-watering and worth a visit. They were able to seat us quickly, and the staff was so friendly. My daughter is a huge lover of mashed potatoes and sausage so this place was a huge hit! Honestly, I’m a little sad we couldn’t get back to eat there more than once but I’ll save it on one of my many lists for next time.
After our late lunch, we were full and happy so we wandered up all the closes or steep staircases and wound up at a popular ice cream shop! Mary’s Milk Bar was a little storefront its so worth it even on this chilly day!
All the foods to eat
This seems like a good time to address food allergies or sensitivities. For those wondering how challenging it will be, rest assured it is not! The food is clearly labeled in shops and markets and the staff everywhere I went were conscious to ask and offer up solutions. It’s easier to find gluten-free food in Scotland than it is in some of the places I’ve been in the US. If you’re Vegan or Vegetarian I also saw things clearly marked on food items and menus alike for you.
Off to Inverness to see Nessie
Four hours by train to listen to my daughter create stories about Nessie, imagine Nessie sightings, and wandering along the River Ness was a perfect moment!
So on advice from one of my best friends, I bought First Class Train tickets to Inverness. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect, knowing that movies over-glamorize things I was prepared to just enjoy the ride. I grabbed a plethora of gluten-free snacks, charged everything, and got us to Waverly Station with plenty of time to wander around and even grab a coffee. On the train we were seated next to a famous author, Diana Gabaldon is known for her epic Outlander Series! She was so kind and helpful. A happy surprise for a train companion. My daughter loved watching the landscape go by, I think she pointed out every animal we passed. When we arrived in Inverness it was colder, windier with a stronger kind of energy.. I can see what’s to love.
I’ve read a lot about the Scottish Highlands, about the history and the magic of Scotland. So I wasn’t surprised that Inverness had its own kind of energy. I was shocked at how vicious the wind was, it takes your breath away. Inverness is a great place to have that famous Scottish wool to keep you warm. When we arrived at the station we made the short walk to our hotel along the narrow cobblestone streets. Getting our first view of the River Ness churning along in all her glory. Our hotel was the quaint, Glenmoriston TownHouse Hotel located directly across from the River Ness. It housed a trendy restaurant with amazing food and a fully stocked bar with a specialty in Whisky and Gin!
Whisky Galore! An amber liquid that can be smokey or sweet, burns a little when it goes down and leaves your belly feeling warm, oh glorious Uisge Beatha!
At dinner we dined at the restaurant in the Hotel, The Contrast Restaurant where I asked the bartender for a local favorite to surprise me with! They also have Whisky flights for the novice to the connoisseur. If you’re a chocolate lover, don’t forget to ask for the whisky and chocolate pairing which is a delight. I loved how the restaurant and bar worked in tandem and how effortless they were able to pair food with drinks. If you’re ever in Inverness I highly recommend both the hotel, bar and restaurant. They have an afternoon tea with all kinds of fun and inventive themes too.
The next morning we wandered along the River Ness again. Lucia pointed out craggy rocks that could be Nessy, or disturbances in the flow of the river saying that could be Nessy too. “What does Nessy do all day?” I asked her.
“Well, she plays with her friends, she cleans her rocks, she goes to school, and sometimes she comes up and plays with the ducks in the water. Nessie is a nice sea monster, she’s my friend.”
And she gave her stuffed Nessie a big squeeze. Holding hands we cross a cute little bridge, and greeted a few friendly pups. We sat on one of the benches along the river and just enjoyed the sights on this gloomy overcast day. It was perfect just soaking up the energy.
If you’re looking for something more to do, this area has a variety of choices. . You can explore the Loch Ness on one of the many tours, the Loch Ness museum, dolphin excursions and more. The train ride really took it out of us. It was so windy, we decided to save the boat rides for another visit to Inverness. There are also a lot of castles in the area which were harder to reach without a car. Never fear the highlights were the stunning architecture, train ride and the River Ness for us.
Back in Edinburgh to explore the historic Grassmarket
Back in Edinburgh we stayed in the history Grassmarket district, which lays directly below Edinburgh Castle. This area dates back to 1477 and, was one of Edinbugh’s main markets, selling cattle and cows. Our hotel was right next to the GreyFriars Kirkyard which was a must see. Our room also had a spectacular view of the Castle which I enjoyed sitting with a cup of tea in the morning and seeing the fog lift and swirl around the castle and lower wall.
Just outside our hotel was the picturesque Victoria Street. A winding street with cute little, colorful shops and restaurants. Along the top of the buildings was another street also filled with shops and restaurants where patrons can sit and watch the street below. On Victoria Street we found several Harry Potter stores that we wandered through, and a magic shop we were delighted to find.
Further up the street was the famed Berties Fish & Chips with drinks that were a little too sweet for my liking but very popular and some tasty fish and chips! Even my picky 10 year old ate it and loved it. Berties was packed, so if you’re planning a visit make a reservation. I felt very fortunate that they were able to get us a table! Everyone was friendly and so kind.
Sundays are for brunch and shopping
On a dreary Sunday we went to brunch at Loundons Cafe & Bakery with friendly staff, delicious food and quirky decor. I got fancy coffee and a Bloody Mary. Lucia got a very fancy hot chocolate. From there, it only got better! Bacon and more bacon, fresh baked gluten free bread, the best breakfast potatoes andluten free french toast draped in bacon, covered in nuts and dripping in maple syrup. YUM!
After brunch, we meandered back towards the Grassmarket area. Stopping in a few shops was fun, including the cute little Armchair Bookstore and John Kay’s Shop where we got a few Scottish books and Scottish Fairy Tales. From there we went back to the Harry Potter shops. Lucia got a handcrafted wand from a local artisan which she carried around with her for the rest of the trip. Going into all the little shops was so fun, Lucia always had a look of wonder and curiosity on her face. She even tried to get me to buy this giant sheepskin rug in Inverness for 350 pounds, or the giant muc or highland cow we saw in another window. From there the list goes on of all the things Lucia tried to bring home.
Nothing rounds out vacation like visiting a local cemetery. Greyfriars Kirkyard was close by and rumored to be the place where JK Rowling visited and several familiar names are among the graves.
Greyfriars was established in 1561, named after the Grey Friary. It’s rumored the kirkyard was haunted, I mean aren’t they all? The monuments were amazing, the graves are hard to read at times but it was fun to wander about. We found Tom Riddles grave which was exciting and it was off the ground which I marveled at. There was stone tablets with long winded decrees on them. And, there were graves with bars over them to prevent grave robbers.
There are also different kinds of tours which take you all over Scotland. I met the owner of The Cadies & Witchery Tours at her shop on Victoria Street. Reading about the tours didn’t appeal to me but after talking with her, they sound like so much fun. You get to go underground, they have actors throughout the city to interact with you, and tours during the day and at night which are spookier.
The Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle
The Royal Mile is full of tourists, shops, restaurants, cafes and street performers. it’s busy on the weekends even off-peak travel time. I can only imagine what it’s like during high travel peak.. During the week, off-peak travel season it’s far less busy and in my opinion enjoyable. We loved seeing the bagpipers play, and we found a woman with an owl! I loved the close or staircases more than Lucia did. I think I liked them so much because it always led to something new, there was always an alcove or another set of stairs. We found the writers museum this way which was in the coolest building.
If you’re planning to do anything on the Royal Mile, make reservations! There is so much to do here it’s overwhelming to choose, that being said do not wait until you get there because you may not be able to get in.
I made reservations for the Castle, and we will have to do it again on another trip. The Castle had some spectacular views we got to enjoy and they had a lot of monuments to the fallen soldiers. It was too much for us to do in 1 visit and it was too crowded. The Witchery is a place that I wish I had made reservations at. They have an afternoon tea that looks amazing and so fun. Sadly they were fully booked for the entire time we were there. On the way out of the castle we paid homage at the Witching Well like many before us. This was the place they honored the witches of Scotland. .
Lions, tigers, and penguins? Animals and a view!
I found it amazing that everywhere we went in Edinburgh I always felt like I was on top of the world. The Edinburgh Zoo situated on 82 acres also had a stunning lookout point. Established in 1913 with a focus on animal conservation this was such a wonderful place to visit. Being able to see the penguins up close and personal, or catch the penguin parade. Entering the giraffe enclosure where you can see the giraffes cuddle or munch on food closer than I’ve been before. There was even a cute playground we took a pause to enjoy.
There were lots of places to take little breaks along the way and enjoy the scenery. Several restaurants, and even a food truck eating area surrounded by dinosaurs of course! Because most of the zoo is outside and up hills both ways, I kid, but seriously it’s got a lot of hills I would check your weather before making a reservation and wear very comfy shoes. You will do a lot of walking!
The Scottish Highlands and Harry Potter
The last leg of our trip was a four hour long train ride up to Fort William. Again Lucia pointed out every animal along the way. Thanks to a very friendly couple we sat on the side of the train so we could see the ocean seascape pass by. This helpful couple also helped us sort which compartment we needed to sit in so that we made it to Fort William and didn’t go to Oban.
The train at a certain place decouples. Part of it goes on to Fort William and the other part goes to Oban, so make sure you check where you need to sit, it was not obvious to me. The train’s wifi was spotty to nonexistent so I highly recommend bringing a book or something to pass the time.
Fort William is the gateway to the Highlands. As the train clickity-clacked along the track, I could imagine highlanders walking along the craggy rocks on their way from village to village.
The beauty of Fort William and Ben Nevis
I don’t know if there’s a word that can capture the beauty of the Highlands. It truly took my breath away. Fort William sits at the base of their mountain, Ben Nevis. This was a popular stopping place for day hikers year round. You can see how tourism has helped keep this charming area alive! From outdoor activities to distilleries and beaches Fort William does not disappoint. Some things we did were visit the Highlands Museum where we got to learn about the original Fort and history of the area. Next, we visited the shops, especially the Highland bookshop and the Highland Soap Company. Both are worth checking out.
There’s a little isolated beach near the original Fort William where a wall is all that remains. We loved the beach so much we spent hours wandering and finding little shells and pieces of porcelain and watching the sun set along the water. We felt truly revived after our walk along the water.
This felt like Christmas, giddy and excited the night before as we packed our suitcases up and went to bed early, to anxiously waiting for the train to arrive and allow us to board. ALL ABOARD the Hogwarts Express!
The Jacobite Steam Train or Hogwarts Express was worth making reservations in advance for. You can buy tickets the day of if they have any available, they only take cash and the line starts around 7am the day of. However tickets are not guaranteed so get them in advance. I felt transported to the past on this day long adventure, from the train travel, the stations and finally at Malliag the darling little fishing village where we took a break. Along the way we were lucky to have another friendly couple sit across from us to share the day with.
We saw some historic sites like Neptunes Staircase. It has lets that fill with water to walk the ships up the steps to cross the highlands. Glennfinnan Viaducts, for Harry Potter fans this is the iconic view of the train going to Hogwarts. Seeing this in person was truly breathtaking. We also passed some other iconic places from movies before reaching the fishing village Mallaig which is a popular summer spot. We found a cute little place to have a quick lunch after wandering around the city center. After lunch we get back on the Jacobite Train and head back to Fort William.
Getting the opportunity to take my daughter on the Jacobite steam train, through miles of the Scottish Highlands and seeing her pure joy and wonder, experiencing it on my own were invaluable. Scotland was always a place I have dreamed of visiting, and at times even living. The history and grit of the people have long held a special place for me.
Scotland in all its magical beauty is a place I could continue to visit and see something new each time. There’s something for everyone, this trip we did everything by train and it added to the charm. It also had its own kind of limitations. There are some places you just need a car to see. For us it’s important to have some rest days baked into to the travel. Then, have days where we can just wander with a few highlights to keep us excited. We also like to have options and see how we feel that day. I made reservations to help guide and shape the trip. But it was not so restrictive we couldn’t pick and choose which day we wanted to rest or do something else.
For reservations I bought our tickets to the Jacobite Train and zoo in advance, otherwise I would make reservations for things like the castle and aquarium a day or so before our visit. I would also recommend making reservations for meals as places seemed to be hit or miss with availability. I wish I had made a few more reservations like the Witchery or for an afternoon tea, sometimes you just don’t know. This was a journey that changed my daughter and I, and helped us define what traveling can look like. Our next destination is Belgium, Let the planning begin!