Old Town in Edinburgh.
Edinburgh's Waverley train station looks much like other train stations in the UK — the slightly twiddly Victorian-era iron supports, the crowd bustling toward an array of platforms. But after this very common beginning, when you walk up the ramp and come out onto Waverley Bridge and look to your left, when you see the Old Town, perched along the spine of a mountain, dark and medieval and moody, culminating in a castle, well that's when you realize that Edinburgh is truly a city like no other.
The Old Town was shaped by a geography that has since changed — in medieval times, Waverley Station would have been in the middle of a lake. Hemmed in by water and other factors, the city could only grow in one direction — up — and so the stone skyscrapers went up alongside the main drag, the Royal Mile. Extending out perpendicular to this line of skyscrapers were smaller multi-story dwellings, accessed by narrow alleys called closes. The surrounding landscape may have changed, and a Georgian-era New Town may have been added, but there's no denying the dramatic impact of the Old Town.
I spent my first hour in Edinburgh just wandering around, taking pictures and peering down closes. The history is so blatant on the Royal Mile that it's not difficult to imagine women walking along with their long skirts swishing, men struggling to coax horses up the steep streets. I would have enjoyed far more time to explore, but even with the time I gained by taking the sleeper train, I still only had about seven hours to spend there, and I had a castle to see.
Edinburgh Castle is at the very top of the mountain, and when I hiked up there, I was very glad I'd bought my ticket online already, because there was a huge line at opening time (and it only seemed to get longer as the day went on). I glided in and headed to the tour waiting area. The tour was short, probably only a half hour, but it covered a lot of history and gave me an idea of what I wanted to spend more time on later. The history of Edinburgh Castle is in many ways the intertwining history of Scotland and England — Mary, Queen of Scots, James VI/I, the Jacobite rising — but the castle also has plenty of its own stories. There's Mons Meg, the siege gun with cannonballs the size of beach balls, unceremoniously thrown over the side when she split while being fired (eventually she was restored). And there's the one o'clock gun, traditionally fired so that mariners may set their timepieces, but fired in anger during World War I during a zeppelin attack on the city.
I spent about two hours at the castle and could easily have spent an entire day there. In quick succession after the tour, I visited the Scottish National War Memorial, the Great Hall, the Royal Palace (home of the royal apartments and Scottish crown jewels), an exhibit on prisoners of war in a space restored to look like an 18th-century jail, the 12th-century St. Margaret's Chapel, and the remains of the 16th-century David's Tower. Eventually, though, I tore myself away, bought a little single malt scotch from the gift shop, and headed back down the Royal Mile for some lunch.
Before the trip, I'd managed to talk myself into trying haggis, the Scottish dish made of offal meat and a variety of other interesting bits including oats, and traditionally cooked in a a sheep's stomach. It sounds disgusting, and I'd always thought it sounded disgusting. But in most pub reviews I read, people (even tourists) praised the haggis. If that many tourists thought it was good, I figured, maybe it was one of those things that sounded disgusting but was actually good. So I decided I'd try it, and although there was a point immediately post-food poisoning where I thought I'd back out, by the time I got to Edinburgh I was ready for a little haggis sampling.
I went to The World's End, a pub in the middle of the Royal Mile that had the distinct advantage of an appetizer-sized haggis. I ordered it with a bowl of soup and figured if it was terrible and I still had an appetite, I could order something else. Turns out, it was neither particularly disgusting or particularly good. It was rich and salty, and the oats gave it a strange texture. I'm glad I tried it, because it shows that sometimes intimidating foods are intimidating for no reason. But I'm not about to say I enjoyed it as much as the Ship Anson's fish and chips, or even that I enjoyed it at all.
I'd booked a tour of The Real Mary King's Close after lunch, and I'm very glad I fit both this and the castle in, even if it meant I felt rushed. Hundreds of years ago, The Real Mary King's Close was like any of the other closes in Edinburgh, open to the air. But when a city building was planned for the site in the 17th century, the buildings lining Mary King's and several other closes were lopped off, and their lower floors used to form the foundations for the new building. In essence, Mary King's close was sealed off, to be rediscovered later, a time capsule on a much larger scale.
Unfortunately, they don't allow photography on the tour because it's below a city building. But it would be impossible to forget that first look down the dimly lit close. Someone's had the foresight to hang faux laundry on a line across the close, and it's this detail that makes it goosebump-worthy, like you're looking back in time. The tour winds through old rooms of the close, some of more prosperous people, some tiny places that would have been packed full of families. There are ghost stories and a sense that you're wandering through some strange otherworld, completely disconnected from the city above. This is one of the things I love about Europe — from the Roman ruins in the basement at Guildhall Art Gallery to the forgotten-then-found surgical theatre in the roof of a church, to chilly spaces of Mary King's close, this is a place where so many things have been around long enough to be lost, forgotten, and then rediscovered.
After The Real Mary King's Close, I had just the briefest time to check out the National Museum of Scotland before I had to head back to the train station. It was another extensive place that I could have spent far more time in, filled with artifacts from every era on Scottish history, and a particularly interesting and extensive section on the industrial revolution.
As I left Edinburgh, I was tempted to feel short-changed on my time there, wondering if I should have cut something else on my trip short, knowing that I could easily have filled three days there. But there was nothing else I would have wanted to shorten (perhaps, in hindsight, more Edinburgh and less Dublin would have been good, but I did feel compelled to see Dublin). I decided that seven hours of beautiful, dramatic Edinburgh was certainly better than no Edinburgh at all. I'll be back, someday, and then I'll set aside more time.