Edinburgh + the Highlands, Trespassing Tips

Mary Shiraef
11 min readApr 4, 2024

I made a new friend by happenstance. Recently I accidentally destroyed an old, precious book of mine, and April Smith, owner of Booksmith Conservation, restores them for a living (beautifully, I might add). She also completed an archaeological dig at the Macedonia-Greece border in the 1990s (!!🤓) — one of the places I will expand my research to in the coming years. Plus, her job is so cool; I was friendly-jealous and mesmerized by the process of book preservation. She’s taking a trip to Scotland this summer, and I remembered that I have a list of spots and tips I curated a while back for friends visiting the Highlands and Edinburgh I haven’t shared here yet. I wrote this quickly, soon after my last trip there (pre-COVID), but I imagine many of the same general things still apply. So it’s a bit hodge-podge in style, structure, and content, but that’s because Scotland trips don’t really need to be planned — Scotland plans you.

Highlands Lodging:

One thing to keep in mind is that most bed and breakfasts in the Highlands are not yet online (weirdly) — so we thought Portree was all booked up before arriving, but you really can show up, and all the hundreds of B&Bs you pass will have either a “vacancy” sign or a “no vacancy” sign. It’s a nice system if you want to walk around a bit and meet the (very kind) owners, who are always willing to let you glance at the room and see if it’s charming enough to suit your needs before locking in the (very affordable) deal.

Basically, this is my way of saying don’t pre-book anything in the Highlands. Just follow your intuition and let yourself be guided by the lovely locals.

A Scottish cemetery, 2018

Highlands Info:

Oban is spectacular. It won’t be difficult, but be sure you catch the sunset there. It’s life changing. And if possible, have fish ‘n chips from a place that has fresh catches every day.

The Isle of Skye is also gorgeous —even if you have gray weather (like we did), it comes in spurts and doesn’t really rain that hard, so don’t let it keep you inside. Bring a billed rain jacket if you have one—it’s what everyone wears.

I don’t know where you’re planning to stay, but I strongly suggest having dinner in Portree at least once. There is such an impressive collection of high-end seafood restaurants concentrated there. We found a new one we recommend the highest — but I’m sure they are all good. There are several fish ‘n chips places, too — but I had the best fish ‘n chips I’ve ever had in the little take-it-to-go place in the center if Portree. You’ll notice it just by walking around for five minutes because Portree is small. They definitely have fresh fish every day, most often from only an hour ago. Add the salt and vinegar and order a side of any of the homemade sauces that you tend to like elsewhere (like tartar sauce or curry sauce).

If you want to do a tour of Talisker, you’ll have to book it in advance — our way of seeing the distilleries was actually to just go to the bar and order a flight. Talisker’s bar wasn’t finished yet, but if you’re interested in buying a bottle, they will give you a taste. Talisker is the famous one, though, so it's a bit touristy (still worth a stop!). I enjoyed the smaller distilleries better — they were friendlier and felt more Scottish.

In general, when driving, don’t be afraid to make unplanned stops along the way! We found several little hiking paths that were well-marked and let you choose via signposts “waterfall versus lair,” etc. all along the way. We also made an unplanned stop in the (very small) town of Sligachan on Skye where we could try any whisky our heart desired for very cheap. The town is basically a little rest stop close to Talisker, but worth spending some time in if you don’t get to do a tour of Talisker (we skipped it). In short, the Highlands are perfect for exploring.

I’m sure you will learn this when you arrive, but just to give you a taste of the mantra: “There are no trespassing laws in Scotland” — so you can literally walk anywhere, go through any gate, and explore wherever your heart desires. The farmers you meet encourage it — and seem to be proud of this aspect of Scotland. They will tell you if the bulls are out (and still, you can go through), but otherwise, they truly don’t mind you taking hikes through their incredible properties, which, together, make up Scotland. :)

Portree Restaurants:

I was told the best ones are №1 and Scorrybreac restaurants, but we didn’t book in advance, and in the summertime, they tend to be full, so we didn’t get to try them.

There are several restaurants nearby of a similar caliber, which we just walked past and begged for a reservation at dinner time (most were full).

We ended up trying Dulce and Brose with reservations one evening. It was overhyped but still tasty. We also tried another one by waiting in the bar area until they gave us a table — and it was so good that we added it to Google Maps and gave it its first 5-star review. It was seriously amazing. The name is Caroy House (it’s in cursive and super nondescript, so easy to miss, but worth finding!!). I recommend the smoked haddock risotto, the hake, the white wines they offer, and any of the desserts, really. It was spectacular. (Update from 2024: looks like it might be closed, thanks COVID).

Also, try the bakeries in Portree — and the little sandwich shops and savory pie places (anywhere, really, if you see a nice-looking pie).

EDINBURGH (EDI)

Italian:

1. For a very fancy night, you could try for a reservation at Locanda De Gusti (102 Dalry Rd). The food is top-notch homemade Italian; but it’s a small place so I’d guess that they are full already for the dates you’re there. Still worth a try!

2. For a very close second, make a reservation at a place Divino Enoteca (5 Merchant St). This place is large, so it almost always can fit you in for a same-night reservation, but it still has low, gorgeous lighting and punch-you-in-the-face, delicious food.

3. Finally, if you haven’t had a chance to try one of Jaimie Oliver’s restaurants elsewhere in the UK, it’s always a decent option. Jaimie’s Italian (54 George Street) is technically a chain, but it still serves pretty remarkable and creative Italian food. It’s a good lunch option if you’re staying nearby, but it's not worth trekking to.

Indian:

There is incredible Indian options all over Edinburgh, and I’m yet to try a bad one.. but these are the ones I’ve tried and would highly recommend. Regardless of whether you’re into spicy food or not, these places are a life experience:

1. Dishoom Edinburgh (3a St Andrew Square): This place started in London but has a few more now because of how perfect it is. Small plates, try-everything sort of style + delicious and seriously amazing cocktails. Matt and I decided to eat here twice in one week once, and I would have eaten there again. Tip — ask to eat downstairs if they will let you! The vibe of the bar seating is cooler (both metaphorically and literally) than the upstairs, which gets very hot in the summertime.

2. Tuk Tuk Indian Street Food: a hipster-style BYOB place that is quick, easy, and delicious.

3. Kamasutra Indo Tapas Restaurant (16 Drummond St) — this place is a little further out (and by further out, it’s like a 20 min. walk from George Street versus everything else), but that might turn out to be a good thing if other places are fully booked. It’s strikingly good and affordable too.

4. Ghurka Cafe (27 Cockburn St) is the first Indian place I discovered, so it has a very special place in my heart. I’ve taken every guest who visited me in Edi, and it was always a crowd pleaser. It’s a no frills kind of place (for instance, I think they only serve beer and average quality wine), but the flavors of the food are so good it will make you want to lick your plate clean (my not-so-new friend Mary’s son memorably did this). And it’s actually Nepalese so the dishes are really close to northern Indian dishes, very rich and pleasing. The location is super central and usually quite full, but somehow, they have always managed to fit me in without a reservation. (Still, make one if you can!)

Scottish:

1. Arcade Bar, Haggis & Whisky House (48 Cockburn St): This is a delicious lunch spot. For an easy entrance into the world of haggis, try the haggis nachos. If you are all-in, order the traditional style full plate haggis. Grab a dram of whisky here, too, if you’re feeling it — they have everything. The service is a little slow as they are often understaffed, but it’s such a pleasant atmosphere inside + perfect food that you won’t mind. :)

2. Fish n’ Chips: You’ll have plenty of opportunities for fresh fish n’ chips in the Highlands, so you might not want it in Edinburgh in lieu of other options, but if you do, my only advice is to get it from a small, low-key sort of place you notice somewhere that clearly gets fresh fish every day and not from a pub.

3. The Edinburgh Larder (15 Blackfriars St): simple but locally-sourced, delicious breakfast cafe/deli.

4. Oink (34 Victoria St): This place roasts an entire pig every day and makes these delicious (reasonably sized) sandwiches with various homemade toppings such as sweet potato mash, cranberry sauce, apple sauce, haggis, etc. It’s Matt’s favorite “snack” in Edinburgh.

5. Indigo Yard (7 Charlotte Ln): This place has delicious beers on tap and really impressive food. I guess it’s called a gastropub? The atmosphere is really nice — make a reservation if you can, and if you just show up, they might be able to squeeze you into the garden/bar area.

EDI Cocktails:

There is an underground cocktail place in Edinburgh called Panda & Sons — the outside looks like an old-style barber shop, but if the door’s not already open, just open it and go downstairs (Update: I later learned this is called a Speakeasy 😂) . I’ll let the rest be a surprise. It was recently rated in the top ten for good cocktails in Europe. Weekends can be really packed, but the cocktail will still be perfect every time, and the vibes are always great.

EDI Sweets:

Mary’s Milk Bar. I’m not big on sweets, and I initially thought I was just noticing this place because it has my name on it. But one day, I tried it, and now, I can confidently say it’s one of the few sweet places I would wait in line for — each flavor is a masterpiece! I saw only after I’d been that it made it onto Somebody Feed Phil’s Scotland episode. 💁‍♀️ (Thanks for recommending that show incidentally, sister Ellen!)

EDI Tourist spots:

1. The Castle: You can walk to see the entrance of the castle without paying the fee to get in ($18). It is worth it to go in if you have a free afternoon. It’s not a pop-in experience though. If you go, I would recommend touring half of it, taking a good long break in the cafe, and then touring the rest. There’s just so much to see; it’s all so remarkable; and it’s much more enjoyable at a leisurely pace.

2. Holyrood Palace: I’ve never been inside, but I have been told it is epic.

3. Royal Yacht Britannia: If you have an extra day, I would recommend this option highly. Especially if you are even vaguely swayed by the drama of the royal family (isn’t everyone when it gets right down to it?). If you’ve watched the Crown, book your tickets NOW. It is a big thing to get there if I remember correctly — I think we split a taxi?? — I don’t remember. But if you have the time, I definitely recommend it. If you’re days are limited, it’s not worth missing a day in EDI for though.

4. Calton Hill (at day or night) + graveyards + Arthur’s seat: This is my top recommendation for Edinburgh. Just put on some comfortable shoes and walk around Edinburgh.. follow windy stone streets.. especially the little alleys (which are called “closes”). Get lost. You’re allowed to follow any of the closes that catch your eye. Read about the history of closes if you’re interested. And if you think the history of closes is fascinating…

5. …take a guided tour of the famous, the real, Mary King’s Close. You’ll get the full history of the original design of the city and be able to see it underground, fully preserved from ancient times. (This is the only guided tour I’d recommend, but I’m not really that into guided tours.. I’m sure there are other great ones in Edinburgh, and probably even free ones with various themes.)

6. The Royal Mile: This could be absolutely packed with people in the summertime, so it may be hard to get perspective on the layout with the crowds, but it’s pretty remarkable to see nonetheless. Both amazing and average street performers congregate there, practicing for Fringe season, and there will be hundreds of free shows every day.

7. Live music will be abundant.

8. Grassmarket is a good neighborhood as well for seeing street performers and will be slightly less crowded than the touristy spots of EDI. I also like the Queen Street Gardens neighborhood. The museums close to Queen Street Gardens are both free and have a very impressive art collection.

9. Fringe: If you’re going in August, you will run into the chaos that is the Fringe Festival. Most people from EDI leave for the festival but if you brave it, but you should definitely get ahold of a Fringe magazine when you arrive, even just to see the enormity of the event. I find it pretty overwhelming, actually and ended up just choosing a few highly recommended shows — such as some of the acrobatic ones, comedy shows, burlesque, etc. and then leaving the rest of my time open for walking in and out of free shows. Basically, every single venue in Edinburgh will have a show of some sort. It’s fun for a day or two, but like Vegas, the feeling of awe wears off almost as quickly as it comes.

In general, I’d recommend visiting EDI literally any month besides August.

EDI Lodging:

I would suggest booking a place in EDI in advance — just to be sure you get to stay in a comfortable spot in the center.

My favorite place to stay is actually a hostel called Kickass Hostel. If you’re there with 2–3 people, ask to book a private room with a view of the castle. It’s really amazing — especially if you don’t mind a basic room and shared bathrooms (Update: I’m kind of past the point of sharing bathrooms). But either way, they have a comfy cafe where you can hang out and plan your EDI day.

Or not. Because plans, like the land, are made to be trespassed through in Scotland.

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Final tips: take a few pics and write down some of the places you fall in love with unexpectedly (share with me) — and most of all, enjoy!

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Mary Shiraef

Everyday Researcher, Occasional Teacher. I write here about the people, experiences, and businesses that bring me joy and occasionally, the politics that don't.