21st July through 29th July 2018
This post reviews my experiences and tips for travelling to the historic United Kingdom for the first time. The 10-day trip included visiting the two popular capitals; Edinburgh in Scotland and London in England. Hope you enjoy my photography of this photogenic land while gathering the ‘Do’s and Don’t’s’ for your trip.
WHEN TO VISIT: Edinburgh in the month of July was very pleasant with highs in the 70s and low in the 60s with some wind and plenty of sunshine. However, if you are interested in visiting north of Scotland to the Highlands or the Cairngorms and wish to see some snow, the spring months from March to May, may be ideal.
London was very hot during our time there with the highs in the 90s and lows in the high 70s to 80s. However, I was told that this was an exception with the heat wave hitting the city and normal summer months are very pleasant with high in the mid-70s and lows in the 60s. The summer months in London do get extremely crowded with long waits everywhere and therefore visiting the city in the fall between September through November may prove to be a lot more enjoyable.
GETTING AROUND: We flew into Edinburgh from the US which was very convenient and reasonably priced. Edinburgh airport is systematic, clean and customs and immigration was easy and quick. The airport is about 25-30 mins from the city center and offers several means of transport to the city such as taxi, tram, train, and the airlink bus. Taxi costs about 20 pounds to the city center whereas the airlink bus costs about 4.50 pounds a person.
To best explore the city, I would suggest staying in the heart of the city as this would allow for easy access to most restaurants and attractions by walking or by using the hop-on hop-off (HOHO) buses. I would highly advice on buying the Royal Edinburgh Ticket which is a great and economic way to tour the city. The pass costs 55 pounds and includes unlimited access for 2 days, to the three HOHO sightseeing bus tours that take you around the entire city, free entry into some of the popular attractions such as the Edinburgh Castle, the Hollyrood Palace, the Royal Yacht Britannia and discounts to other attarctions and restaurants . The buses offer multi-language audio commentary of extensive information on the history, people and sights giving you a complete experience of the tour. More info on the ticket can be found here.
London Heathrow Airport is a massive airport and can be chaotic depending on the airlines you are travelling. I would not recommend flying American/British Airways to London as there are many cancellations and reschedules by the airlines and there is a high chance you might be stranded at the airport for hours. City center is 45 min to an hour from Heathrow airport and can be reached via the underground tube, the express train, local buses or calling an uber. While the express train is the quickest, uber or taxi is the most convenient for a charge of 50-70 pounds.
Like Edinburgh, London also offers a London pass to tour around the city. The pass includes free entry to more than 80 attractions around the city and unlimited access to HOHO bus for 1 day. It costs 69 to 147 pounds depending on the number of days you want the pass for. However, according to my experience, the pass is not as economic or useful as the Royal Edinburgh Ticket for the following reasons: 1) the HOHO bus is only included for 1 day which means you have to spend on commute the rest of the time. Besides, incase of high traffic conditions, one day may not be enough to finish even one tour out of the four tours available; 2) you really have to plan well to be able to save money with the pass. Some attractions are outside of the city center and commute can take long or due to long waits at each of the attractions, you may be able to only cover 1 or 2 attractions a day ; 3) Some popular attractions such as the London Eye, Buckingham Palace and the Houses of the Parliament are not included in the pass.
A commute pass that is a must to get around London is the Oyster card. It’s a ticket to use the underground tube, buses, tram and river cruises in the city. The tube is the quickest way of transport in London and is quite an efficient system.
Renting a car and driving in either of the two cities is not recommended due to traffic and significant delays. Although, if you plan on taking day trips to nearby towns a car can be rented for a day or two if you are comfortable driving on the right-hand side.
The railway system is an efficient and organized means of commute within the UK. The trains are clean and comfortable and the LNER trains even provide complimentary wifi throughout the journey. We took this train for our journey from Edinburgh to London. Alternatively, a flight can be taken, although the domestic Gatwick Airport in London is away from the city center as in Edinburgh airport, whereas the railway stations at both places are within the heart of the city. Prices are comparable for both means of transport as well the total travel time. Domestic travel in Scotland can be booked at scotrail.com, however, our experience revealed that booking tickets on the website can be a lot more expensive than personally booking your trip at the station.
ACCOMODATION: We stayed at three different hotels on our trip; one in Edinburgh and two in London.
Motel One Edinburgh Princess: We spent 4 nights at this hotel in Edinburgh. The hotel is very clean, well-maintained with very polite customer service. The hotel is located in the heart of Edinburgh, right across the Waverley railway station and was reasonably priced. The hotel features a bar and a restaurant. The rooms and bathrooms were spacious, the beds were very comfortable. Among amenities, wifi worked well and basic amenities were provided. However, hair conditioner wasn’t available, and Iron wasn’t provided in the rooms but was available at the front desk upon request. Overall, I would highly recommend this hotel for your Edinburgh trip.
Aloft Excel London: Due to my sister’s conference, we spent two nights at this hotel which is 45 mins away from the city center and attached to the convention center. The hotel offers a clean, contemporary and luxurious experience although is located at an inconvenient distance from the city. It is however very close to a train station for easy commute. The hotel features a restaurant, a cafe, a bar, a gym and a swimming pool. Buffet breakfast included an extensive and fresh spread of continental dishes. Rooms were spacious, clean and comfortable with sufficient amenities. WIFI worked well in the rooms and around the hotel.
Radisson Blu Edwardian Grafton Hotel. The hotel is located 2 miles north of central London and the tube station is right outside the hotel making it a very convenient location for touring the metropolitan city. Customer service is friendly, and the hotel is clean and well-maintained. Rooms were smaller than the other two hotels as it was closer to the city. However, the space was sufficient. Ameneties were good and wifi worked well.
PLACES OF INTEREST-EDINBURGH
Scott Monument: This magnificent Gothic monument built in the 1800s after Sir Walter Scott, stands tall right in the center of the city and cannot be missed. It’s the second largest monument to a writer and the works can be witnessed in the Museum Room on the first floor or the Writers room situated about 7 mins walk from the monument. Climbing the monument to the top will allow you to witness the panoramic Edinburgh with picturesque views.
Edinburgh Castle: The castle that was the royal residence of King Canmore as well as Queen Margaret, is iconic to Scottish history and therefore the most popular tourist attraction. Sitting on a Castle Rock above the city, the site offers spectacular views of the city from all around, charming exhibits in the different royal buildings and the famous One O’clock Gun. Some of the popular exhibits include the The Great Hall, The Royal Palace, The Crown Jewels, The Prisoner’s War and St. Margaret’s Chapel. The One O’clock gun is a WWII 25-pounder that fires a blaring signal everyday (Except Sundays, Christmas Day and Good Friday) at 1pm. Expect to spend at least 2 hours at the castle. Visiting it earlier in the morning will let you avoid dense crowds and long lines.
Holyrood Palace The palace was the official Scottish residence to Queen Elizabeth II. The present queen stays at this house for one week in the beginning of the summer and the remaining time, the royal house is open to public. The 2-hour tour includes visiting several rooms of the palace accompanied with an audio commentary of the history, architecture and design of each of the room and ending in walking through the serene palatial gardens that leads you to the popular hike to Arthur’s Seat.
Arthur Seat: This is a dormant volcano situated at the highest point of Holyrood Palace offering impressive panoramic views of the city. Beginning from the parking lot for Holyrood Palace, there are two hikes to choose from: one being the shorter 30 mins hike that may be a little steeper of a climb. The second can take 45min to an hour and is a moderate hike that is highly recommended. On the way you will pass the remains of St. Anthony’s Chapel and Loch Dunsapie. Photographers will enjoy the 360 views of the city at the top.
Royal Botanical Gardens: These gardens are a must see for an hour or two of tranquility and peace as well as for witnessing the vastness and surrealism of nature’s beauty. Spend your time learning about the infinite number of plants or getting immersed in a book or having a quaint walk among the lush green foliage, vegetation and shrubberies. The Glasshouses are exquisite pieces of botanic art that are a treasure to encounter.
The Royal Yacht Britannia: Now open to the public, this vessel was once the royal yacht of Queen Elizabeth II until 1997. This was by far my favorite attraction on the trip for witnessing the royal interior, history and lifestyle, all in one place. This was also a 2-hour tour of this multi-story vessel that takes you through the entire royal lifestyle from the traditional living rooms and bedrooms to antique telephones and giant laundry rooms to servant quarters, doctors clinic and the cruise engine, with Scottish waters as the backdrop.I highly recommend visiting this site.
Other Attractions of Edinburgh
Day Trip from Edinburgh We took a day trip to lock lomond on the fourth day of our Scotland Trip. Train rides in Scotland are very convenient and pleasant and took us about 2 hours to get to the nearby town of Balloch. Loch Lomond can be accessed via walking from this town and several activities such as hiking, a boat cruise or picnicking can be done here. Alternatively, we chose to take a local 15-min bus ride to go to nearby town of Luss, located on the west bank of Loch Lomond. The bus ride is very scenic and so is the village with several tourist-oriented shops, picturesque cottages lined up around the lush landscape. The town offers hiking, site-seeing cruise, boat rentals and a beach.
If you have extra days in Scotland, I would highly recommend the train ride upto the west highlands and the Jacobite steam train all the way to the Mallaig, located in northern Scotland. The train ride is considered to be the most scenic in the world. More info can be found here.
PLACES OF INTEREST- LONDON
London has over a 100 attractions. Many free of cost and others for a price. Expectedly the popular ones come with a cost. Many of the ones I list below are included in the London Pass. Planning well and avoiding the crowds and long lines, is the key to making the most of the London Pass. Many believe that picking the free attractions can still give you a pretty good experience of the city. Accordingly, I do want to point out that the paid attractions were not worthy of the price and in my experience, many were redundant and can be replaced with free attractions. Alternative to London pass, there are many combination tickets available that include 2-3 attractions where you may be able to save money without signing up for a London Pass.
London Eye: it’s Europe’s tallest Ferris Wheel situated in the city center on the banks of river Thames. The ride offers aerial views of the city. The ride isn’t included in the London pass and costs 25 pounds per ticket and hours of waiting in lines. The ticket also includes a 15-min 4D show that’s not very impressive. There are many attractions included in the London pass that gives city views from the height. If you have the London pass, you can easily skip this ride.
Buckingham Palace: No introduction needed here. The palace is open to public only in the summer months from July through September. Those interested in the tour must book tickets way in advance. Ticket prices are 24 pounds per adult. You can visit the outside of the palace to take pictures for free.
Hyde Park: A free attraction in the city center, the park is the largest of the royal parks. Located just 10 minutes from Buckingham palace, the park is a neat place to unwind, have a little jog or explore it end to end for a few hours in the day. There are a number of things to do within the park including taking a dip in the paddling pool of the Seprentine or rent a boat paddling through the lake accompanying the geese of the lake, dip your toes in the Princess Diana Fountain, visit the Kensington palace and gardens, play tennis or reserve a Horseback riding lesson or bike around the park.
Westminster Abbey: This is an enormous and magnificent Gothic 700-year old church. The place is a resting place for several kings, queens, poets, writers and heroes. The tour is included with the London pass. While the church’s history, architectures, sculptures and design is impressive, the experience obtained is significantly diminished with the massive crowd at all times inside of it. In a quiet environment, spending a couple hours in the church can be very peaceful, serene and mesmerizing.
Trafalgar and Leicester Square : Both public squares are within walking distance from each other, located within the city. The squares are a great hangout place for all types of crowds. The Trafalgar square is surrounded by museums, galleries, monuments and historic buildings. The National Gallery across from the Trafalgar square is worth at least one visit. The Leicester Square is centered around the Shakespeare Fountain and is a hub for cultural entertainment with several restauarnts, bars and shops to choose from.
View from the Shard: This is London’s tallest and a sophisticated skyscraper taking visitors upto 69th and 72nd Floor for a high-ended social with alcohol, snacks, ice cream and most importantly spectacular aerial views of the city. Tickets are included in the London Pass. During peak times, you will need to book the time slot ahead of time to secure your ride. Suggestion is to book a slot for nighttime views. The Shard is located at walking distance from the Tower of London and the London tower (both included with the London pass) and if started early enough, can be combined altogether for a day.
Other Popular Attractions of London
- Thames River cruise . Included in London Pass.
- Windsor Castle . Included in London Pass. Beautiful Castle but outside of the city.
- Houses of Parliament . Not Included in London Pass, located on the banks of the river and across from Westminster Abbey.
- British Museum
GOOD EATS: A variety of cuisines are available in Edinburgh and London and every restaurant I visited, offered really good food! European and Scottish food are a must try in Scotland. Some of the vegetarian specialties include polenta, haggis, neeps (turnips), tatties (potatoes), shortbread and Scottish tablet and toffee pudding. Meat delicacies include Scottish salmon, fish, grouse and black pudding. Haggis is traditionally made of sheep’s liver lungs and heart minced with spices, however vegetarian haggis is made of a mix of vegetables, pulses, oatmeal and spices. Restaurants worthy of mention in Edinburgh were David Bann , Wiski Bar and Restaurant and The Pakora Bar. An Indian Restaurant that is extremely popular is Dishoom that’s located in Edinburgh as well as in London.