In this program we explore the cultural heart of Scotland. After rambling through Edinburgh Castle, we experience Scottish literature and Scotch whisky, savor the new Scottish cuisine with a local friend, stow away on Her Majesty's yacht, Britannia, and check out the groundbreaking Scottish Parliament.
This imposing symbol of Edinburgh, the home of Scotland's kings and queens for centuries, has witnessed royal births, medieval pageantry, and bloody sieges. Today it's a complex of various buildings, some dating from the 12th century, linked by cobbled roads that survive from its more recent use as a military garrison. The castle — with expansive views, plenty of history, and the stunning crown jewels of Scotland — is a fascinating and multifaceted sight that deserves several hours of your time.
This somber spot within the walls of Edinburgh Castle commemorates the 149,000 Scottish soldiers lost in World War I, the 58,000 who died in World War II, and the nearly 800 (and counting) lost in British battles since.
The New Bell Restaurant is no longer open, but downstairs the Old Bell Inn remains, where they serve affordable pub meals amid an old-time sports-bar ambience — fishing, golf, horses, etc. This is a classic "snug pub" — all dark woods and brass beer taps, littered with evocative knickknacks. It comes with sidewalk seating and a mixed-age crowd.
This huge museum has amassed more historic artifacts than every other place I've seen in Scotland combined. It's all wonderfully displayed, with fine descriptions offering a best-anywhere hike through the history of Scotland. One wing houses a popular natural history collection, with everything from kid-friendly T.rex skeletons to Egyptian mummies; the other sweeps you through Scottish history covering Roman and Viking times, Edinburgh's witch-burning craze and clan massacres, the struggle for Scottish independence, the Industrial Revolution, and right up to Scotland in the 21st century.
Since 1896, this Victorian classic has been appreciated for both its real ales and its huge selection of fine whiskies (listed on a lengthy menu). Dive into the whisky mosh pit, and let them show you how whisky can become "a very good friend."
This aristocrat's house, built in 1622, is filled with well-described manuscripts and knickknacks of Scotland's three greatest literary figures: Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Sir Walter Scott. If you'd like to see Scott's pipe and Burns' snuffboxes, you'll love this little museum, where you can wind up steep staircases through a maze of rooms as you peruse first editions and keepsakes of these celebrated writers.
When Scott died in 1832, it was said that "Scotland never owed so much to one man." The 200-foot monument shelters a marble statue of Scott and his favorite pet. They're surrounded by busts of 16 great Scottish poets and 64 characters from his books. Climbing the tight, stony spiral staircase of 287 steps earns you a peek at a tiny museum midway, a fine city view at the top, and intimate encounters going up and down.
This two-hour walk is interesting and a worthwhile way to spend an evening — even if you can't stand "Auld Lang Syne." Think of it as a walking theatrical performance, where you follow the witty dialogue of two actors as they debate the great literature of Scotland. You'll cover a lot of ground, wandering from the Grassmarket over the Old Town and New Town, with stops in three to four pubs as your guides share their takes on Scotland's literary greats.
This is Scotland's most important church. Its ornate spire — the Scottish crown steeple from 1495 — is a proud part of Edinburgh's skyline. The fascinating interior contains nearly 200 memorials honoring distinguished Scots through the ages. And its busy concert schedule includes organ recitals and visiting choirs.
The Scotch Whisky Experience (formerly the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre)
This gimmicky attraction — consisting of a "Malt Disney" whisky-barrel ride through the whisky production process followed by an explanation of Scotland's four main whisky regions — seems designed only to distill money out of your pocket. It does succeed in providing an entertaining yet informative orientation to the creation of Scottish firewater (things get pretty psychedelic when you hit the yeast stage). The 50-minute experience includes sampling a wee dram and the chance to stand amid the world's largest Scotch whisky collection (almost 3,500 bottles). At the end, you'll find yourself in the bar, with a fascinating wall of unusually shaped whisky bottles. Serious connoisseurs should stick with the more substantial shops in town, but this place can be worthwhile for beginners — particularly those who won't take a more serious Scotland distillery tour elsewhere.
The shop is not a tourist sight. Founded in 1842, this firm prides itself on bottling good whisky straight from casks at the distilleries, without all the compromises that come with profitable mass production. The staff explains the sometimes-complex whisky storyboard and talks you through flavor profiles. Buy the right bottle to enjoy in your hotel room night after night.
This much-revered vessel, which transported Britain's royal family for more than 40 years on 900 voyages before being retired in 1997, is permanently moored in Edinburgh's port of Leith. Today it's open to the curious public, who have access to its many decks — from engine rooms to drawing rooms — and offers a fascinating time-warp to the late-20th-century lifestyles of the rich and royal.
For a peek at this innovative, people-oriented structure and a lesson in how the Scottish parliament works, drop in, pass through security, and find the visitors' desk. You're welcome in the public parts of the building, including a small ground-floor exhibit on the parliament's history and function and, up the stairs, a viewing gallery overlooking the impressive Debating Chambers.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're exploring a city with a distinctive culture…and a flair for fashion: Edinburgh.
Edinburgh is the cultural heart of Scotland. Once a medieval powerhouse stretching below its mighty castle, today it's one of Europe's most festive and entertaining cities. Vibrant, well-organized, and friendly as can be, it's a traveler's delight.
After rambling through a castle, we experience Scotch literature…and Scotch whisky…savor the new Scottish cuisine with a local friend, stow away on Her Majesty's yacht, and check out the new parliament.
Edinburgh has two distinct halves: its medieval Old Town and its 18th-century New Town. It's all split by a grand park. Its Royal Mile, which leads from the castle through the old town down to the palace, is one of Europe's great walks.
We start our visit where the city did: at the Edinburgh Castle, the fortified birthplace of the city over a thousand years ago. This imposing symbol of Edinburgh sits boldly on a rock high above the city. While the castle has been both a fort and a royal residence since the 11th century, most of the buildings today are from its more recent use as a military garrison.
Crowds gather as, traditionally, each day at one o'clock, the big gun is fired, giving the ships in the port something to set their clocks by. Why one o'clock and not noon? It costs the frugal Scots eleven fewer rounds.
Your admission comes with a fine guided tour.
Guide: Welcome to the castle, ladies and gentlemen. It takes roughly about 20–25 minutes from the time we leave here to the time we get to the top. You'll all have climbed 414 feet. It's easy! I've done it 10 times a day already. Come on.
…and once you got through gate number 5 — or if you got through gate number 5 — we still had a surprise for you, 'cause we had gate number 6. And once you'd knocked down all these gates you were basically in the lower defenses, which means in the bottom half of the castle and you have plenty of room to fight. The castle has never been taken by force; it has only been taken under siege. Now you see how much trouble we went to keep the English out. We're a bit more diplomatic now…we charge them money to come in.
This is Mons Meg. It was given to James II by his uncle William the Duke of Burgundy as a present in 1457 and the reason why he gave us it is because we were fighting the English. He was fighting the English so it was a common bond. The cannon itself weighs 7 tons; it took 150 lbs. of gunpowder to fire that 300-pound stone cannon ball less than a mile and three quarters. They sent the Scots many a time to go and pick the cannon balls up, bring them back, and fire them again.
This will be the last stop, ladies and gentlemen, and what you want to see in the square now is the Great Hall, Mary Queen of Scots' apartments, the Crown Jewels, and of course the Scottish National War Memorial. Thank you for listening.
The Scottish National War Memorial commemorates Scottish soldiers lost in World War I and in British wars since. To fathom the importance of this place to Scottish people, consider that one out of every three adult Scottish men died in World War I. Each bay is dedicated to a particular Scottish regiment. Books of remembrance list the names of that regiment's fallen. The main shrine, featuring the original WWI rolls of honor, sits on an exposed chunk of the castle rock — at the highest point of this sacred hill.
Within these same castle walls, the National War Museum thoughtfully covers four centuries of Scottish military history. It tells the story of how the fierce kilted Scottish warrior changed from being a symbol of resistance against Britain to being a champion of that same empire.
Even when fighting with, rather than against, England, Scottish regiments promoted the romantic kilted warrior image. This was fueled through the 19th century by Queen Victoria's infatuation with the Scottish Highlands and that culture's untamed and rustic mystique. Highland soldiers, especially officers, went to great personal expense to sport all their elaborate regalia.
And the men in kilts fought best to the tune of their beloved bagpipes. For centuries the stirring drone of bagpipes has accompanied Highland soldiers into battle — raising their spirits and announcing to the enemy that they were about to meet a brave and mighty foe.
Scottish soldiers did more than their share of dying for Britain. They fought with valor and were well-decorated. The museum shows the human side of war.
And it shows how clever government sponsored ad campaigns kept lads enlisting. Two centuries of recruiting posters all make the same pitch that still works today: a hefty signing bonus, steady pay, and job security with the promise of a manly and adventurous life — all spiked with a mix of Scottish pride and British patriotism.
As you leave the castle, turn around and look up. Remember two 14th-century champions of Scottish liberty: King Robert the Bruce and William Wallace (a.k.a. "Braveheart").
Wallace rallied his nation, fighting long and hard against English domination. He was executed in London — hung, drawn, and quartered, with parts of his body paraded through all parts of England. Robert the Bruce beat the English at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 — it was the last great Scottish victory.
Bruce and Wallace still defend the spirit of Scotland. The Latin inscription declares, more or less, "What you do to us…we will do to you."
Traveling here, you can get the feeling that Scotland and England are comfortably joined in a union no one seriously questions. But history is seen through different filters. Visit a British-run museum, like the one we just did, and the story is told in a "happy union" kind of way. Talk to a local… you might get a different spin.
My friend and fellow tour guide, Ken Hanley, is joining me for dinner — and perhaps a better insight into Scottish/English relations. Above the Old Bell Pub, the New Bell Restaurant serves up fine food in an inviting living-room ambience. In researching my guidebooks, I find that, throughout Europe, the small husband-and-wife-run places — especially if one of them is a talented chef — serve the best meals for the best prices.
Rick: So this really is contemporary Scottish cuisine, you'd say?
Ken: Absolutely, yes. I think that it sort of boils down to people not being aware that we have this old alliance with the French. We have natural produce, you know, from seafood to beef and vegetables and that, but because of that old alliance, we have the French je ne sais quoi with Scottish local "goodies" and the end product is something that really surprises people from the States.
Rick: A pleasant surprise when you…
Ken: It's more than a pleasant surprise, absolutely.
Rick: It's a delightful surprise.
Rick: The duck, I'm having the duck. Oh, it looks nice, thank you.
Ken: Thank you very much, dear.
Rick: So why are you wearing a kilt?
Ken: I wear a kilt because I'm proud to be Scottish and it shows my natural culture and my natural history and that I'm Scottish, and not British.
Rick: Are you Scottish first or British first?
Rick: Scottish first? British second.
Ken: Second Scottish.
Rick: Scottish second also, huh?
Rick: So is the Scottish spirit alive and well?
Ken: I'll tell you what, Rick, the Scottish spirit is alive, vibrant, and the lion is ready to roar.
Rick: Really? And there's no doubt in your mind?
Ken: No doubt at all.
Both: Slàinte mhath!
Old Edinburgh's main drag — nicknamed the "Royal Mile" — leads from the castle downhill through the Old Town to the palace. This colorful jumble is the tourist's Edinburgh — a dense tangle of historic buildings, fun museums, and cultural clichés on sale.
Edinburgh was a wonder in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was famed for its skyscrapers — they say the first anywhere — but also for its filth. It was once the most congested city in Europe. Its most wretched couldn't even afford candles. They lived in darkness. It's said they knew each other not by how they looked…but by how they smelled.
Medieval skyscrapers towered 10 stories and higher. Frontage on High Street was so limited that the buildings were narrow and tall — crammed shoulder to shoulder — with little courtyards called "closes" branching off. These closes were connected to the main drag by skinny lanes, or even tunnels. Four hundred years ago, Edinburgh was nicknamed "Auld Reekie." The entire city was a black-stained mess of chimneys and "reeked" of smoke.
The Royal Mile ends at the gates of Holyrood Palace — for 500 years the official royal residence here in Edinburgh.
Rather than living in a blustery castle up on the rock, Scotland's royalty built this fine palace. Even today, when royalty is in town, you'll find them here.
The best way to learn about Scottish history is nearby in the [National] Museum of Scotland. It's amassed more historic artifacts than everything else I've seen in Scotland combined. This museum offers the best-anywhere hike through the history of Scotland.
The Kingdom of the Scots exhibit shows evidence of a vibrant early nation. While isolated by hostilities with England, Scotland managed to connect with the rest of Europe. How? Through trade, the Church, and their Renaissance monarch: Mary Queen of Scots.
Scotland's long underdog struggle with England found inspiration from romantic and almost legendary Scottish leaders. Mary Queen of Scots — educated and raised in France during the Renaissance — brought refinement to the Scottish throne. While she was imprisoned and executed by the English, her memory stoked the irrepressible Scottish spirit.
Two centuries later, another Scottish hero, Bonnie Prince Charlie, led the last hurrah in Scotland's long struggle for independence. This fan — showing Charlie in the company of classical gods — was an accessory at a grand party celebrating a short-lived Scottish victory over the English in the 1740s.
Eventually the Scots were quelled and united with England. Enjoying peace, stability, and English investment as the Industrial Revolution swept Britain, many hardworking Scots prospered. Cast iron and foundries were huge as Scotland became one of the most industrialized places in all of Europe.
With the dawn of the modern age came leisure time, the concept of "healthful sports," and…golf — a Scottish invention. These golf balls — from around 1820 — were leather stuffed with feathers.
For a different kind of leisure activity, I'm meeting Ken for a break at his local pub, Leslie.
Sitting between a working-class and an upper-class neighborhood, it has two sides: Traditionally, the lads gather on the right around a great hardwood bar…and the more genteel folks would slip in on the left, with its velvet settees, discreet ordering windows, and what they call a "snob screen."
The pub has a century of fun stained into its ambience. More than just a palace for drinking, it's a palace for conviviality.
Scotland is also known for great literature. The Writers' Museum details the lives of Scotland's three greatest literary figures: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
Robert Burns was Scotland's bard. Even though Rabbie, as he's lovingly called even today, dared to speak up for the common man and attack social rank, he was a favorite of 18th-century Edinburgh's high society. They'd gather in fine homes like this to hear the national poet read.
Recording: Edina! Scotia's darling seat!
All hail thy palaces and towers.
Where once beneath a monarch's feet
Sat Legislation's sovereign powers.
A century later, Robert Louis Stevenson also stirred the Scottish soul with his pen. An avid traveler, who always packed his notepad, Stevenson's settings are vivid and filled with wonder. Traveling through Scotland, Europe, and around the world, he distilled his adventures into evocative classics like Kidnapped and Treasure Island.
Sir Walter Scott — who wrote the Waverly novels, including Ivanhoe and Rob Roy — is considered the father of the Romantic historical novel. Through his writing, he generated a world-wide interest in Scotland, and re-awakened his countrymen's pride in their heritage.
Scott is so revered in Edinburgh that his towering Neo-Gothic monument dominates the city center. With his favorite hound, Sir Walter Scott overlooks the city that he inspired and that inspired him.
Tour guide: Good evening ladies and gentlemen!
To enliven all this literary history, take the Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour.
Actor: I do think you're getting completely the wrong impression!
You'll follow the witty dialogue of two actors as they debate whether the great literature of Scotland was high art…or the creative recreation of fun-loving louts fueled by a love of whisky.
Female Actor: …Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde. It was on the moral side and in my own person that I learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man. My devil had been long caged and it came out roaring.
Male Actor: Easy tiger, you're getting a little bit carried away there. I thought you were going to pole dance there!
St. Giles' Cathedral is Scotland's most important church. While its ornate spire is designed to look like the Crown of Thorns, most locals also see in it the Scottish crown. The church was ground zero as Scotland debated whether to stick with the Roman Catholic Church or break away with the Protestant movement.
Look into the eyes of John Knox's statue and think of the Reformation struggles of the 16th century. Knox, the great reformer and founder of austere Scottish Presbyterianism, first preached here in 1559.
Knox's insistence that every person be able to read the word of God gave Scotland an education system centuries ahead of the rest of Europe. Thanks partly to Knox, it was Scottish minds that led the way in math, science, engineering, and medicine. Voltaire called Scotland "the intellectual capital of Europe."
Cathedral guides are stationed around the church ready to answer your questions.
Guide: When Knox took over as minister of this church following the Reformation, he whitewashed the interior, he broke the stained glass. He emphasized the pulpit, the Word of God preached to the congregation as the most important, fundamental part of his religion. Knox's theology, of course, led to the process of work ethic, that wonderful combination of education, hard work, and thrift. Because after all, we Scots are very thrifty.
Rick: You're famous for that, aren't you?
Guide: Oh very much so. We do suffer from short arms and deep pockets.
This Neo-Gothic Chapel — also from the Victorian age — is the private chapel of the Knights of the Thistle. It's used about once a year when Scotland bestows knighthood on one of its leading citizens. The Queen presides over the ritual from her ornate stall, marked by her Scottish coat of arms — a heraldic zoo of symbolism. Are there bagpipes in heaven? Apparently, yes.
Rick: Excuse me, sir, do you know where John Knox is buried?
Man: Ahm, yes…
By the way, John Knox, Scotland's great reformer, is buried just out back — with appropriate austerity.
Rick: …buried under this little…
Man: I think it's either…
Rick: 23 or 22.
Man: It's one of these.
Rick: OK, thank you. Yeah, it's right under there, a little plaque, yeah.
While Knox probably didn't think much of Scotch whisky, it's high on the list of many visitors. The Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre gives visitors an introduction to the world of whisky.
Guide: …If the whisky could swirl like this…
The tour comes with a wee dram to taste…and finishes in the gift shop.
Serious connoisseurs of the Scottish spirit will want to pop into Cadenhead's Whisky Shop. Founded in 1842, Cadenhead's prides itself on bottling fine whisky from casks straight from the best distilleries, without all the compromises that come with more profitable mass production.
Rick: So this is whisky from the source?
Shopkeeper: Yes, this is like coming to the farmer to get your milk rather than a supermarket. It's warts and all, and we like the warts.
Rick: So can a whisky novice like me actually taste the difference?
Shopkeeper: Well I would like to think so. I don't know classical music, but if I went to a bad orchestra I think I would notice a difference if I went to a good orchestra.
Shopkeeper: Now if I pour for you something directly from the cask, and you try that, without water at first, that's "cask strength," straight from the bottle — well that's like a very hot bath. You don't get in there, you put your big toe in. So just take a little sip.
Rick: Oh that is, it's much more, um…vibrant.
Shopkeeper: Yes. This is just water, the secret ingredient. This is going to open our whisky up for us. Just like on a dry day after the rain has fallen, your garden's so much more aromatic. Never ice; ice will close it down. OK now — try that.
Rick: Oh, it's fresher.
Shopkeeper: Yes. Adding water to whisky is essential. I can't tell people if they put pineapple juice in their whisky that they're not enjoying it. If they are, they are, but they're wasting quality whisky if they are. Water is all you need.
In the center of Edinburgh, you'll find everything a traveler needs. The Waverly Bridge connects the Old and New towns. It's a practical hub with the train station, tourist office, and departure points for tour buses as well as public buses.
So far everything we've seen has been within walking distance. But our next destination is a short bus ride away, in the port of Leith.
This much-revered vessel, which Britain's royal family enjoyed on over 900 voyages, was retired in 1997. It's permanently moored here in Scotland — where it was built — and now welcomes visitors.
This was the last in a line of royal yachts that stretched back to 1660. With all its royal functions, it took a crew of 200 to run the Britannia. The bridge is almost exactly as it was the day she was launched in 1953.
Queen Elizabeth, who enjoyed the ship for 40 years, said, "This is the only place I can truly relax." This sunny lounge was the Queen's favorite. It had teak from Burma, the same phone system she was used to in Buckingham Palace, and it was just off the Veranda Deck.
This deck was the favorite spot for outdoor entertainment. Ronald Reagan, Boris Yeltsin, Clinton, Nelson Mandela — they all sipped their champagne with the Queen right here. Now when the Queen wasn't entertaining, she liked it quiet. The crew wore sneakers, they communicated with hand signals and — at least on this part of the ship — they were required to get their work done by 8:00 a.m.
The dining room, decorated with gifts given by the ship's many illustrious guests, enabled the Queen to entertain a sizable crowd. Her silver pantry was just down the hall.
The drawing room, while rather simple, is perfect for casual relaxing among royals. The piano — bolted to the deck — was played by Princess Diana. Royal family photos evoke fine times the Windsors enjoyed on the good ship Britannia.
Back downtown, the masses relax in the Princes Street Gardens. Once a lake called the "Nor' Loch," its water was drained creating a park — now a favorite among locals.
The draining of the lake was part of a huge expansion of Edinburgh back in the late 18th century. This was a classic early example of urban flight, with the rich leaving an unlivably congested old town and building a magnificent new one.
Edinburgh's upper class now had a respectable district in which to promenade. The street plan was a logical, checkerboard grid plan — in tune with the age of Enlightenment.
Back when the 13 American colonies were fighting King George III, a new revolutionary style of architecture was popular all across Europe. On the Continent they called it "Neoclassical." Britain named it "Georgian" after her king. Edinburgh built an entire new town based on this style.
Georgian Edinburgh was a parade of elegant symmetry and classical ornamentation. The shiny new Edinburgh was also part of a PR campaign designed to promote the notion that Scotland was a respected and integral part of the United Kingdom.
The streets and squares are named after the British royalty. George Street — 20 feet wider than the others (so a four-horse carriage could make a U-turn) — was the main drag. Between Queen and Princes Street, Thistle and Rose streets were named for the emblems of the two supposedly happily paired nations.
While the Georgian city celebrated the union of Scotland and England, "devolution" — that's more autonomy for Scotland — is the new direction. For several centuries, Scotland was ruled from London. Parliament had not met here since 1707. Recently the Scots voted to bring their parliament home, and London didn't object. In the year 2000, Edinburgh resumed its position as home of Scotland's parliament.
Scotland's strikingly modern parliament building opened in 2004. The Catalan architect Enric Miralles mixed bold windows, wild angles, and organic themes into a startling complex that would, as he envisioned, "surge from out of the rock and into the city."
A short hike from the parliament building up Salisbury Crag leads to Arthur's Seat. This pint-sized volcanic mountain breaking through the cityscape is a breathtaking — literally — way to cap our visit. From its summit, we can survey and remember all we've discovered in this vibrant town.
I hope you've enjoyed our look at welcoming and dynamic Edinburgh — a city with a great story and a knack for telling it. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.
Rick: And a flair for fashion, Edinburgh!
Rick: The Battle of Bannockburn in 1413, or 1314, it doesn't really matter cause it was a long time ago.
Guide: Take 3 line 4 You've got a clapper board there, Kenny?
Rick: …can't take you out.