I’m standing in the middle of a closet-sized tomb, feet sunk into the muck of Canongate Kirk and the pale tremor of the supernatural upon my cheek. The tiny, stone room is crammed full of a dozen new friends from my hostel, and Olivia, our guide, beckons us to come closer. In the mud-thick dark of the new moon, she hisses, recounting the tale of the infamous Edinburgh serial killers, Burke and Hare. I take a sharp swig of whiskey out of my flask and gaze up at the beacon of stars through the cold, iron bars that crisscross above our heads, a relic to prevent corpse-stealing entrepreneurs in the 15th century. As the alcohol slowly begins to cloud my mind, I close my eyes, taking in the fuzzy damp of the graveyard through my nostrils. If ever there was a place to be a spirit, Edinburgh was it.
It’s no wonder that J. K. Rowling and George R. R. Martin were inspired by the haunted architecture of Europe’s most ghastly city. The old town of Edinburgh is one of the best preserved of any large, European city I’ve been to. Castles tower above your head as you meander your way through narrow, cobblestone alleys. In a way, Edinburgh is the perfect place to go if you’re venturing off on your first solo trip abroad – it’s affordable, walkable, historic, and everyone speaks English (except for a few bus drivers I had who were definitely speaking Scottish). In all my extensive travels through Europe, I’ve never found a city where you can grab a 3£ beer, run across the entire city in 10 minutes, and then catch a stellar walking tour or live folk music in a 500 year old pub for free. Edinburgh is alive with a rich history of paranoid royals, plague-soaked streets, artists waxing poetic, and centuries-old bars.
One of the first things I noticed when commencing my research (and something I wish the United States would do) was that loads of Scotland’s best museums and attractions are free, should you need to duck inside to warm up, peruse some art, or use the loo. The Scottish National Gallery, St. Giles Cathedral, The National Museum of Scotland, The Writer’s Museum, The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and so many others are all open to the public, just stroll right in. Pro tip – The Scottish National Portrait Gallery has death masks of the famous murderers, Burke and Hare, if you like a side of macabre with your culture. It’s a great idea to keep one or two of these as options in your back pocket, in case you get caught in the infamous Scottish rain.
While dreamily waltzing around Edinburgh for 4 days, I stayed in the Castle Rock Hostel, and I could not have picked a better spot to lay my head! The location is stellar, with eclectic chill-out rooms decked out in their finest bohemian hodge-podge. “The Posh Room” even features a piano for guests to play while sipping a pint! Like most hostels, it was a bit loud in the evenings with drunk travelers opening and closing bedroom doors a bit too loudly, but if you bring a pair of earplugs, you shouldn’t have an issue sleeping. I would especially recommend this guesthouse if you’re solo backpacking, as there are free activities and excursions literally every night that made it a breeze to meet other outgoing wanderers. The Ghost Tour was my favorite of the walking tours I did in Edinburgh, and I don’t think I’ll ever see the city in quite the same way after the stories I heard. Even if hostels aren’t really your thing, I would urge anyone visiting the Scottish capital to spend a few extra shillings and stay right in the center of Old Town. You’ll be breathing in antiquity with every step, and the nightly walk back to the hotel will be a welcome meander, rather than a dreaded march.
The City Explorers free tours are truly a gem when visiting Edinburgh on a budget, but be sure to book your space online in advance! I overheard a girl from Castle Rock gushing about how much she enjoyed her 7pm ghost tour, and I silently took notes with my mind to show up at the red phone booth outside The Royal Mile Coffee House that evening to see what the fuss was about. I did not book a spot online, however, so I spent the beginning of my evening traipsing around like a creepy stalker until I could safely assimilate into one of the groups and listen to the good stuff! Because the tours are free, the guides work only for tips, so they are usually quite excellent. I heard almost entirely different legends on this walking tour than the one from the hostel, so do not be afraid to jump into multiple tours if you’re like me and want to roam and listen to dark, gothic storytime.
During my budget-friendly stay in Scotland, I did choose to pay for two pricier attractions, though I would only recommend one of them – Edinburgh Castle. If you love Medieval and Renaissance history, give yourself 3-4 hours here to fully take in the many different aristocratic personalities that have inhabited the grounds. For only 3.5£ extra, you can snag an audio tour, which, let’s be honest, is a bit dry, but does help to enhance the experience so you don’t find yourself staring at the crumbled remains of a dining room and wondering what grim secrets it holds. If you’re only going to spend fifteen pounds on one big thing in Edinburgh, storm the castle, and skip Mary King’s Close. I found the close informative to see, in terms of how people actually used to live in the Middle Ages, but the tour itself was slow and did not include enough varied architecture and engaging narratives to hold my attention for the full hour. Visit the castle right when it opens for picturesque morning light and the shortest entry lines. Close your eyes as you pass and imagine the thousands of witches that Mary Queen of Scots burned in the very courtyard where you stand.
Down The Royal Mile and across Cowgate, after passing Greyfriar’s Bobby and giving the pup a customary good luck stroke, amble down the street to the bright blue façade of Sandy Bell’s pub. The moment you step inside, you’ll feel as though you were whisked away to the Scotland of a hundred years ago. Friendly bartenders will happily talk your ear off about their whiskey selection while locals and tourists alike casually mingle in the vintage interior. The music, however, is the real reason to come. Gathered around a mottled oak table, a different tribe of folk musicians plays every night, sipping pints of Belhaven and laughing with guests in-between numbers. The vibe is more living room hangout than on-stage showcase, which makes it feel timeless and intimate. I sat and listened for hours in the hazy, crowded room, letting the timbre of fiddles wash over me as I was transported to the mystical highlands of Scotland’s past.
If your idea of a vacation is following your wanderlust to a deeply historic city full of beautifully preserved architecture, world class whiskey, tales of gothic grave robbers, and spirits on every corner, then a jaunt through Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, should be high on your list. A visit to this age-old metropolis is like stepping through a vortex and into another time, and the morbid fascination I have with the underbelly of Medieval society was well fed.