My travel partner: Shannon, a mom of three and experienced traveler from Minneapolis.
The route: London, then York, onto Edinburgh, and back to London for the final night.
The goal: adventure, relaxation, escape. In short: Momspringa.
Day 1: Hit the ground running
Shannon and I met up before leaving Heathrow Airport. We found the Heathrow Express—the easiest and quickest way to get to London from the airport, and took the tube to the London Bridge Hotel, a lovely place in a great central location. We then headed over to the Borough Market. Some hot mulled wine helped fortify my California-weak blood against the unfamiliar cold, and I also had an artisanal scotch egg, Asian duck wrap and a giant salted cookie. The verdict: Borough Market is the stuff of which dreams are made.
We wandered into a little pub called the Kings Arms for a drink, and over to a Pret a Manger for a fortifying tea. To cap off the evening, we saw a very cerebral play, called “Art,” at the historic Old Vic Theatre, featuring Rufus Sewell. Our long day of travel and touristing over, we were in need of a good night’s sleep.
Fitbit steps: 9,760 (4.13 miles)
Day 2: Tourists we are!
Our hotel included breakfast, which was fine, though I would not recommend it in such an awesome city as London, especially when located right across the street from Borough Market. We walked to the Tower of London for the classic Beefeater tour. It is a tourist destination, but also a legitimate historical gem. We next took the tube to Palm Court at the Langham for a traditional tea—the real deal. After that, we wandered around Carnaby Street, Soho; Picadilly Circus; Trafalgar Square and into the National Gallery. There we saw Monets, Manets, Seurats, Rubens, and more.
As night fell, we walked through the Admiralty Gate to see Buckingham Palace (too late for a tour). We caught dinner at a chain-owned pub (these are hard to completely avoid in London) called the Victoria, and then headed back in the direction of our hotel, but UP instead. The Shard, the tallest building in Western Europe, has a bar on the 52nd floor called GONG—we waited about a half an hour for a table, and maybe 15 minutes longer to be moved to the window—definitely worth the wait. What a view of London at night. And the drinks were nice too. Goodnight!
Fitbit steps: 23,835 (10.09 miles)
Day 3: Galentine’s Day!
We had another breakfast at the hotel, and then a quick stop back at Borough Market as it was opening to snag Pieminister meat pies and other treats before catching the train to York. We traveled via Kings Cross Station, which is always a thrill for this muggle. The train was packed to York, perhaps because it was a Monday. We made it uneventfully to that historic city, and then walked the short trek to our AirBnB, a clean and sunny little flat in an old converted wood mill on the River Ouse, called Woodsmill Quay. Then, we shambled around the Shambles—well-preserved medieval streets featuring buildings dating as far back as the 14th century. We scaled the hill and stormed Clifford’s Tower, though it was closed. We watched a street performer; roamed and shopped; and then had a lovely dinner at the purportedly haunted Black Swan. We moved from the dining room to the bar with a cozy fireplace. Our fellow patrons included a friendly Italian greyhound in a coat.
Fitbit steps: 15,886 (6.72 miles)
Day 4: A Platonic Valentine’s Day
If America runs on Dunkin Donuts, Great Britain runs on scones. Or maybe I just run on scones. We headed out to the Shambles to find sustenance, and wandered into the Flax and Twine, an adorable little downstairs antique shop, upstairs café, for bacon sandwiches, scones and coffee.
We learned along the way that if you don’t want industrial-strength coffee, us weakling Americans have to order lattes. Then we did more shambling, and toured the Yorkshire Museum and surrounding park. Local museums are awesome, featuring the history right where it happened. In the U.S., that means a 150-year-old sewing machine. In York, that’s the remains of a 2,000-year-old city and the nearby ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey. (I’ve come to realize that I like nothing more than abbey ruins. SO PICTURESQUE. Thanks, Henry VIII.)
That afternoon we took a pleasant bus ride out to Strensall to the Redmayne Lodge for massages. It was a quaint and sunny little space; no spa facilities but comfy couches to hang out on while we waited our turns, and Peace Massage did not disappoint. No table at a fancy restaurant to be found on V-Day, so we landed at a pub called Harkers in an old insurance building, and then a few other spots for drinks.
Fitbit steps: 12,714 (5.38 miles)
Day 5: Edinburgh-bound
We dropped our bags at York’s train station that morning and had a simple breakfast at a nondescript café. We did a bit of un-souvenir shopping at a paper goods store, and then walked the walls of York.
The city is surrounded by the longest medieval town walls in England, which offer a nice view of this beautiful city. We next caught our train to the lovely city of Edinburgh. Fun Fact: When you’re toting a suitcase in this city, every destination is uphill. But at the top that hill is MAGIC. No, literally. J.K. Rowling didn’t invent the Harry Potter saga in this city by accident.
Our AirBnB was an absolutely amazingly outfitted apartment in a beautiful 1800s building on the Royal Mile, about a block from Edinburgh Castle—even sharing a courtyard with the Writer’s Museum in the historic Lady Stair’s House. (No bloggers featured there yet.) Full of historic charm and yet, outfitted with all the modern conveniences including a rain shower, Bluetooth stereo and a gas fireplace, I almost didn’t want to leave to head out exploring. But explore we did (after eavesdropping on a ghost tour guide at a stop four floors down outside our window). We walked to the new town for dinner at a spot I had visited before—the Queen’s Arms, where we had haggis lollipops, scotch and other delectable foods. We stopped for dessert and another drink at the Dome, and then headed to a pub up the street from our apartment called the Ensign Ewart, for a final drink and live traditional Scottish music.
Fitbit steps: 20,387 (8.63 miles)
Day 6: Hello, Highlands
After a fabulous night’s sleep, we rose early to catch our Rabbie’s day tour of the Highlands at the Rabbie’s Café, where we also found a modest breakfast and coffee. We chose the West Highlands Lochs and Castles tour. Our charming guide gave us a comprehensive history tour while navigating our comfortable minibus through the increasingly mountainous terrain. Since we were there in the off-season, a few of the castles weren’t open to tourists, but it did not diminish our enjoyment.
- Stirling Castle (exterior only)
- Doune Castle (interior and exterior) – a popular filming location, I think because it’s kind of a castle blank slate. Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and more recently, Outlander.
- Inveraray and Inveraray Castle (exterior) – a great little town on a loch, next to a castle. The George Inn was cozy and magical for lunch. We also stopped at Loch Fyne Whiskies, where we sampled the Living Cask—a barrel of whisky continuously topped off with “carefully chosen whiskies,” which has been going since 1995. (They have a light cask and a dark cask).
- Kilchurn Castle (exterior) on Loch Awe
- Loch Lomond National Park
- Rest and Be Thankful Pass
It was also a treat to see the Firth of Forth, and the giant steel Kelpies sculpture as we drove out on the highway—purportedly the largest equine statues in the world. All in all, the terrain was beautiful and this was a great way to see a lot of it comfortably.
I’m not one for the full tour-guided trips, but a day tour along the way is a great way to knock out a bunch of locations in one day, without having to drive or track down public transportation. The good companies also seem to pride themselves in hiring knowledgeable, friendly and helpful tour guides.
After making it back to Edinburgh, we had just enough time to take in a slightly touristy attraction called the Real Mary King’s Close. This tour was part museum, part performance, part haunted house, and I loved it. The tour takes you through a real historic underground part of the city where people lived into the 1700s, hear tales of real folks and how they actually lived, enjoy tons of corny jokes and a few ghost stories, thank your lucky stars for modern plumbing, and then exit through the gift shop.
We had dinner at a place recommended by our AirBnB host as his favorite restaurant in the city, Angels With Bagpipes. It was a bit finer dining then I had expected—it was quite good. (It’s been my experience that when you ask a local for a restaurant recommendation, you don’t end up in a pub. Perhaps you have to ask for a pub recommendation to get that.) I had lamb, which was amazing, and not something I eat regularly.
After that, we headed to the Devil’s Advocate, a hip bar named for its location in Advocate’s Close, with very knowledgeable and helpful whisky experts. I tasted the “Wood Work” flight, and at first, thought I had met my match. After settling in, it became quite enjoyable, aside from the second sample—it’s name escapes me as it was a substitute to the regular flight, but it tasted like drinking a campfire. Our waiter helpfully gave us some recommendations for other places to visit—including a cocktail bar you’ll read about shortly.
Fitbit steps: 18,804 (7.96 miles)
Day 7: Digging into Edinburgh
We happened into the Thistle Stop Café, a small nearby no-frills place that made a fabulous bacon sandwich. (Bacon in England: a bit like Canadian bacon, but better, or American bacon but good in a totally different way.) Then we headed to the Writers’ Museum, which is a shrine dedicated two three great Scottish male writers—Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Robert Burns (Scotland’s most famous poet, of “Auld Lang Syne” fame), and Sir Walter Scott (Ivanhoe, Rob Roy). The museum has yet to devote any permanent space to the city’s most famous and successful writer, J.K. Rowling, though there was a small case in the entry and we apparently just missed an exhibit of a rare first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
After this spot, we wandered up to Edinburgh Castle, though we didn’t take the tour this time. I take an unhealthy pleasure from wondering around official gift shops, so we stopped off there as well. Next we simply explored Edinburgh. We shopped, snacked, and made a stop in the Museum of Scotland to visit its most precious artifacts, the Lewis Chessmen, and to poke around at some of the country’s other great historical finds. Then we had tea at a comfortable and hip little basement restaurant, appropriately called Under the Stairs.
We ate a wonderful dinner at a locally sourced, modern spot called the Outsider. The shop girl who had recommended it to us told us to keep an eye out for the bicycle out front, and sure enough, that was how we found it. I had a delicious lobster and fries; Shannon had venison. After that we made our way to a hip bar called Bramble in the New Town. Our waiter the night before had recommended it as “one of the best cocktail bars in Europe.” We were literally standing on top of it for 5 minutes before we realized it was in a basement. (Scotland seems to have no problem putting really awesome stuff in basements.) Cramped, with low ceilings, a loud DJ and a slightly stuffy air, the place did have a sort of electricity to it. I wouldn’t say it was the best cocktail bar, but damn, that was a good cocktail. I had the Bramble, following a friend’s mantra of always ordering the thing named after the restaurant. It was fresh and drinkable and well balanced, and I had another. Then we rolled home, full and happy.
Fitbit steps: 17,745
Day 8: On the road again
After a long train ride to London, we hopped on the tube to our Bed and Breakfast in Notting Hill Gate area. Our ground floor room was very small, without any room for luggage; the accommodations were less than comfortable, though they tried their best. The staff were nice and brought us tea when we arrived and took our order for coffee and breakfast in the morning. But the location was great—a picturesque little street not too far from Portobello Road, which was buzzing with activity on a Saturday. We strolled the stores and street vendors, where I purchased a vintage teacup and saucer; a page of old-style mensural notation sheet music dated by the vendor to approx. 1740 as a gift for my husband; and a fabulous shoulder messenger bag from Stumper and Fielding. We also ate potato chips on a stick, and Indian food so good that I decided I like Indian food after all.
We walked to Kensington Palace and through Kensington Gardens, and over to the Prince Albert Memorial. That was quite a towering, gilded site; having recently immersed myself in Masterpiece’s Victoria series, it was clear the love and respect Queen Victoria felt for her husband the Prince. With our legs about to fall off, we finally stumbled into Granger and Co., the restaurant of English celebrity chef Bill Granger—it was yummy and unique; I loved the soft-shell crab fried rice; but we were still a bit hungry. (Glutinous Americans.) Our appetites were somewhat sated with an unexpected celebrity sighting—Will Ferrell dining there with friends. (It’s funny, because he lives in L.A.—I sat six rows behind him at a hockey game a few months earlier.) And that wasn’t even the oddest thing we saw that night.
On our way back to an old favorite of my travel buddy’s, the Sun and Splendour, a fox wondered nonchalantly across the street, not toward us, but not avoiding us either. We were flabbergasted. We asked our waitress at the next spot, though, and she said they were all over the place—and terribly noisy at night. So which is weirder? Will Ferrell or a fox?
It seems to be my last-night-in-country tradition to watch a movie before going to bed, so we watched the HILARIOUSLY TERRIBLE “Knight and Day,” inexplicably featuring Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. Zzzzzzz …
Fitbit steps: 22,334 (9.45 miles)
Day 9: Cheers, UK!
We enjoyed the breakfast part of our bed and breakfast, packed up, and headed to the tube to catch the Heathrow Express. I decided to add a bit of excitement to the morning by leaving my backpack on that train. Though I don’t recommend it, if it had to happen anywhere, this was probably the best possible place. Saying a hurried final farewell to Shannon, I ran back down to the platform, having already checked my suitcase in at the terminal. Helpful staff radioed other helpful staff, and I had my bag back within 15 minutes. (Who knows, maybe it had been seconds from incineration, but it seemed like a calm and easy process to get it back.) I thanked the Lord, and then explored the small city that is Heathrow airport. (I had about 3 hours to kill as my flight left that much later than Shannon’s.) I ate a hamburger. I got a leg massage at their full-service spa. I had coffee. I poked around the duty-free shops for whisky (nothing worth lugging home this time). I wrote a blog post. (There are worse airports in which to kill time.) Then I wandered onto the plane and found I had the whole center row to myself. All in all, a fabulous end to a nice little English adventure.
Fitbit steps: 10,112 (4.28 miles)