One of the perks of living abroad is having our kids attend an international school. The education is top notch and they have so many opportunities that they wouldn’t have back home. One of these opportunities is one I am happy to get onboard with too; school world travel. Oh, my son needs to perform in a choir festival in Berlin? Well, I guess I should go too. You know, just in case he might need me. 😉 So, a couple of months ago my friend, Diane and I boarded a plane to Berlin. Because you know, I couldn’t go to “supervise” my son on my own. I needed a travel companion to supervise ME. Haha! After all, why should I be the only one who benefits from my child’s success? So, Berlin-bound we were and with only 4 full days to take in the city, we had a lot of ground to cover in a short amount of time. Oh, and we also had a choir concert to attend which was, after all the entire reason we were there.
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Don’t even begin to talk to me about Scotland.
What I mean is, don’t even begin to talk to me about Scotland unless you are trying to fill an hour or two. I have a tendency to go on and on about the things I experienced in this beautiful land. On more than one occasion, I have launched into a discussion (ok, more like a monologue) about my trip only to snap back into reality and see the person’s eyes across from me glazed over. So I have learned for the most part, when people ask me about my trip to Scotland to reply with the simple answer of, “it was awesome!”.
I will admit I have been putting off writing this post. After all, how do you put into words a place you have come to love so much? Sometime if you are lucky enough, you may take a journey to a place that will speak to you. It’s almost magical and difficult to describe simply to someone who just wants to know the basics of your trip. How do I paint a picture of the emerald green rolling hills of the Highlands or the intricacy of the University of Glasgow? The rich history and melodic Scottish accent that still rings in my ears? The bagpipes and kilts, sweeping, windswept hilltop views. Shoot, I even loved the cows. You see? It is very difficult to summarize your magical place into a few mere words. I suppose your best bet is to take your own trip to Scotland in order to understand its full richness and beauty. And hey, if you ever need someone to go with you, I’m your girl!
So here goes…whew…where to begin?
I had the privilege of spending nine days in Scotland with my best friend, a.k.a, my Mom. Although I am a bit ashamed to admit this, we planned a tour. Now when I say we planned a tour, we didn’t just plan any old “hit the highlights of Scotland” tour. We planned an Outlander, Mary Queen of Scots tour. There, I said it. I know I shouldn’t be afraid to admit I am a freaky Outlander fan, but I know I need to be careful admitting certain things out of fear of scaring people off. However, confessions being made, I am a die-hard fan. I’ve watched all the show’s seasons on tv, read most of the books (give me a break, I’m trying to get through them but at 1,300 pages a piece they are quite a commitment), own the mugs, mousepads, memorabilia, etc. And as for Mary Queen of Scots, her story is simply fascinating. And yes, I was also introduced to her through a show (Reign), but really, who wouldn’t want to see first-hand where all of her drama went down? And truth be told, my mom is just as much of an Outlander nerd as me (sorry mom, if I’m going down, you’re going down with me). So we planned a Thelma and Louise-style trip in search of Jaime, Claire and the standing stones of Scotland.
How we did it
We looked into booking tours with many different tour guides. Most were group tours and we ultimately decided that if we were going to take this once-in-a-lifetime trip, we were going to do it right. So we booked a private tour through Edinburgh Tour Guides. Sam, the owner, was our guide. She drove, booked our lodging, and is just as much an Outlander fan as us. Yay! We could all be geeked out together! After a lot of research and going back and forth, we agreed on an itinerary that would keep us pretty busy. Don’t worry, I won’t give you a list of the 38 stops on our tour with commentary on how they may or may not relate to Outlander. But, if you are a fan, you can always check out my Facebook page. Just click this link: All things Outlander to see photos of the show and book locations.
How we got there
We flew in and out of Glasgow. At the time, the flights were cheaper than Edinburgh. The two airports are only about 45 minutes apart so really either would be fine to use as a home base.
Where we stayed
Night 1: Glasgow. The Argyll Hotel. We had a super cute plaid room that was just big enough for us to sleep. But it was plaid (and did I mention super cute?) so I was very forgiving about the size. The bathroom was also small. Breakfast was provided and it was good. The location of the Argyll was very central and we were able to walk to most places.
Nights 2-5: Edinburgh. Alba House Bed and Breakfast. A charming old house that has been converted into a B&B. Our room was large, clean, and had a decent-sized bathroom. Breakfast was good, but I was disappointed there was no option for porridge after all isn’t that what you are supposed to eat when you are in Scotland? Cath, the host, was very kind. We felt relaxed and at home. I would highly recommend Alba House. The only drawback is, it is a bit of a hike to The Royal Mile. Perhaps a mile each way.
Nights 6-8: Inverness. St. Ann’s House Bed and Breakfast. I’ll give this location a 6 out of 10 rating. It was just ok. The room was large and clean. Funny story. My mom and I could not figure out how to turn on the water in the shower. We tried everything. The only thing left was to push a red button outside the bathroom door. We figured it would either turn on the water or signal the fire department so, with one eye open, we tentatively pushed it. Voila! No sirens, only water. Woo hoo! And I’m glad too since my mom was wearing nothing but a towel.
What we ate
If you like steak and ale pie or fish and chips, you will love the food in Scotland. We typically opted for more Western fair and for the most part, it was pretty good. Of course, I stuffed myself with scones and clotted cream every chance I got. They were so good! Make sure you try some whiskey, but I would avoid the haggis and blood pudding. Gag!
It is sooooo hard to choose which things will make the cut!
We only had one day to explore the city and I wish we had more time as the city itself was very pretty.
The Botanic gardens. Have an afternoon cup of tea and scone with clotted cream. Mmmmm!
The University of Glasgow. The architecture alone is stunning.
The Glasgow Necropolis. Who knew a graveyard could be so cool? The author of Wee Willie Winkie is buried here
The Glasgow Cathedral. This building will take your breath away. As a bonus, when we were there we saw Chris Pine!! I still can’t believe it! We may or may not have stalked him for about an hour until he left the cathedral, but I’ll never tell.
This is my favorite city in the world! I could easily spend a week wandering up and down the Royal Mile and enjoying a pint in a local pub.
Edinburgh Castle. Walk the cobblestone steps where Mary Queen of Scots spent much of her reign.
The Palace of Holyroodhouse. This is where the Queen of England stays when she visits Scotland. Take the audio tour and listen to the fascinating story of the murder of Rizzio, Mary Queen of Scot’s secretary. Don’t miss walking the grounds through the beautiful Holyrood Abbey.
The Royal Mile. Shop, shop, shop! Make sure you buy some sort of plaid and some shortbread!
World’s End Tavern. Stop in for a pint at this iconic pub.
I had high expectations for this city. Thoughts of old buildings tucked into the hills of the Highlands were not exactly what we found in this city. Still, it was a nice central location for exploring the Highlands which were incredible!
Here you will find picture-perfect Scottish scenery. Bring a camera! I could not believe the expansive beauty before me was real. Loch Ness. Try to spot Nessie while enjoying a dram of whiskey.
Culloden Battlefield. A sobering place. Walk the field where the battle took place that changed the history of Scotland forever.
Clava Cairns. An old Druid burial ground. The standing stones are quite impressive! Try as we might, we couldn’t time travel through the stones. Sigh.
Urquhart Castle. The site where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised the Standard and began the Jacobite Rebellion. Plus you can hike a bit and see the train tracks from Harry Potter.
Doune Castle. A pretty impressive castle and film location for some pretty important shows and movies. Outlander, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Game of Thrones.
The Isle of Skye. It is possible to take a day trip to Skye, but I wish we had longer. This island was my favorite place in Scotland and there is a lot to see. We spent much of the day in the car and I would have preferred to get out and explore.
Highland cows. They are just so darn cute!
The Fairy Glen. I looked, but didn’t find any little magical creatures 😦
The Quiraing. Sweeping views of the island. A great place to take a hike and really take in the beauty of Skye.
Portree. Stunning seaside cliffs and waterfall.
Other places to see
Culross. A charming little town. If I could pick anywhere in Scotland to live, it would be here. It is just so stinking cute! Cobblestone streets, old buildings, and small shops richly add to its character. Walk through the gardens of Dunfermline. It is stunning.
Drummond Castle Gardens. I would call this the Versailles of Scotland with beautiful manicured formal gardens.
Midhope Castle. For all you Outlander fans out there, this is Lallybroch. And we were the ONLY people there!
Thoughts and Things
- Currency: British Pound
- 220v currency. Check the plugs and bring adapters.
- No visa required for U.S. citizens
- Tipping is customary
- Weather: Chilly. Can you say layers? You will become an expert on them by the time you leave. And who doesn’t love layers? They allow you to get away with eating more scones! Often times rainy but the weather can change in the blink of an eye.
- We were there in June and the locals were in a tizzy because they were having a heat wave. It was 70 degrees.
- Driving. Scots drive on the left (or as I say, wrong) side of the road. Something to consider if thinking about renting a car. I certainly would have killed us if I attempted to drive!
- Midgies. Little biting flies, or as I like to call them, hell on earth. Do your research, and bring bug spray. These little guys are nasty, especially in the highlands.
Other trip ideas…for my subsequent visits 😉
- Take a tour of a whiskey distillery. It is fascinating to see how the delectable amber drink is made.
- Visit a castle, or 100. The choice is yours and you have literally thousands to choose from. Pace yourself!
- Take a ghost tour. Trust me, with a history like Scotland’s there are plenty of ghost stories.
- Spend a week in the Hebrides. This will be included in my next trip to Scotland. The quiet beauty of the islands looks unparalleled to anywhere else in the country.
- Plan a themed tour. Some possibilities could include: Harry Potter, Jacobite Rebellion, Clans and Castles, etc. The choices are endless. And don’t worry if you are a woman traveling with her husband who wants to go on an Outlander tour. There is enough cool history and sites to entertain even the manliest of men. So you are free to get your Jaime fix at the same time he is learning about some war, whiskey, or whatever else floats his boat.
I hope at this point your eyes haven’t glazed over! As you can see, we made the most of our 9-day tour, and still only scratched the surface of all this lovely country has to offer. My mom had to drag me onto the plane when it was time to leave. Scotland is my magical place. It has become my dream destination (for a vacation, or to live) You can take your tropical island and white sandy beaches. I will take the windy hills of the Highlands over any other place on earth, and am already planning my next trip back!
Sightseeing is great and all. Museums are interesting, monuments are cool… But let’s be honest. I’m really here for the food. Do I believe it’s the best way to learn about a culture? Nah, but it is the tastiest way.
And Budapest, you did not disappoint. No sir. Not only was the food fantastic but it was unbelievably cheap. I don’t know how they keep restaurant prices so low and I’m not entirely sure I want to find out.
We ate exclusively in the Jewish Quarter and did not even come close to fully exploring our options. Restaurants in the Jewish Quarter are as unique as they are affordable, ranging from traditional Hungarian dishes to collaborative kitchens where the customers get a cooking less by preparing their own meals.
A fair warning about the list compiled here: we ate no goulash and nothing all that traditional during our time in Budapest. It’s just not really our thing. However, that did not stop us from finding tons of fantastic cheap eats. All the restaurants listed below had employees who spoke English. We had no communication problems anywhere we went.
A note on tipping: Check your receipt to see if a service charge was included in your bill or not (it’s usually easy to tell either way). It’s considered rude to leave a tip on the table, so if paying in cash make sure you include your tip (usually 10 to 15%) with the bill.
High-quality Middle Eastern food in a cool, open space. Lots of string lights, plants, and exposed brick makes this place absolutely beautiful. This is the most expensive place we went, but the portions are good and the atmosphere made up for the few extra dollars. They serve classic dishes like falafel, shawarma, and shakshuka along with modern twists on old favorites. Their desserts didn’t look half bad either. Our waiter wasn’t the best… But we had no issues with being ignorant Americans who spoke one language and knew nothing of Hungarian customs.
A more casual, cheaper option to Mazel Tov. The falafel sandwiches were filling and tasty (lots of pickles though, which was strange). The menu has plenty of authentic options to choose from without being too adventurous for us uncultured foodies. They were helpful and kind and clearly care about the product they serve you. Also, they have excellent fries. The fries are big enough to split, but why would you?!
Jackson liked this place so much, we went twice. It’s like Noodles and Co, but with noodle stir-fry. The ordering system is easy and streamlined. Choose a noodle, choose a sauce, choose add-ins. Super tasty, cheap, and easy. They also have fruit teas to choose from that looked like an awesome addition to the meal.
We stopped by this place on the way back from the thermal baths. We were ridiculously hungry (okay, I was ridiculously hungry) so many things were ordered. We each ordered a panini, I ordered a side of potato wedges and Jackson got the cinnamon churros with dipping sauce. Turns out “side” actually means enough to feed a small army. The sandwich selection was plentiful, the potato wedges were well-seasoned and crispy, and the churros were crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside. I enjoyed every bite of the meal then happily slipped into a food coma.
This place was so good that we also went here twice! It’s this little pasta shop in an alley filled with restaurants aimed at tourists. The restaurant is incredibly simple. You point to the pasta you want, tell them the sauce you want, say yes or no to the, “do you want parmesan?” question, then a few minutes later you have your dinner. So simple, but so so good. Everything is fresh, the portions are just right (for us Americans), and the employees are wonderful.
This place was my personal favorite. Giant bowls of ramen. The ingredients were fresh, the atmosphere was simple but cool, and the dish spoke for itself. Best ramen I have ever had. Plus I love giant bowls of food so that helped too. Oh, and they had homemade popsicles for dessert. Perfect after a steamy bowl of ramen.
My one regret I had after visiting Budapest: I totally forgot to play that George Ezra song while I was there.
I believe in magic in this world, and I am blessed enough to say that I’ve had the opportunity to visit places that prove my theory right. Places like the Paradise hike in Mt Rainier National Park and Halong Bay in Vietnam. And yeah, even Disney World (I don’t care what you say, that place is bursting with magic). After my first trip to Europe, I am happy to say I have another destination to add to my List of Magical Places: Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Finding a magical place isn’t something you uncover, it’s something you feel as soon as you step into it. I knew we were in a magical place as soon as we stepped off the bus at 5 AM. Maybe it had something to do with being relieved we made it here alive after a sketchy bus stop incident hours before, but I knew this place was going to be special.
We walked a mile from the bus station to the old town. The streets we took were warmly lit, sleepy, and inviting. We wandered the cobblestone avenues of the old town, the place completely to ourselves and didn’t once feel like we were about to get robbed or become victims of gruesome murder (two big pluses).
We watched the city wake up with the sunrise and this is how magical it was: I hadn’t eaten or slept in 12 hours, yet the city awoke in me some hidden source of happiness so I could actually enjoy that freaking sunrise over the growls of my stomach.
We hunted for food as soon as the cafes opened (where people were enjoying both beer and coffee at 7 AM… ) and nearly wept with relief when people spoke English. We nearly wept again when we saw how affordable the food was, then again when we finally ate. We were hot messes, my husband and I.
Anyway, that was just the beginning of our magical journey to Ljubljana. If I’ve convinced you to go, let me know so I can give myself a pat on the back. At the very least, take a moment to read the handy travel guide.
Before you go
- If you’re a US citizen, no visa is required to visit Slovenia. All you’ll need is your passport.
- Slovenia uses the Euro
- Ljubljana was named Europe’s Greenest Capital in 2016
- Ljubljana was voted the eighth most bicycle-friendly city in the world in 2017
- Public transportation is big in Ljubljana, but the city is small enough to easily get around on foot.
- In every shop/restaurant we visited, we had no trouble finding English speakers. The city is very tourist friendly.
- You could honestly spend a lifetime here, but if you don’t have a lifetime to spare, 3 days should be plenty to experience the city.
- Ljubljana’s flag is literally a castle with a dragon on top of it. I feel like that is important for you to know.
- Although there’s a big vegan/vegetarian scene, you can also feast on a specialty of HORSE BURGERS. Yes, made with real horse. OMG. Also horse filets for you fancier folks.
Where to stay
My husband, Jackson and I stayed in an Airbnb apartment in the heart of the old town.
There were plenty of affordable and nice options on Airbnb, and we were certainly not disappointed with our choice! If you have to choose, I highly recommend Airbnb over a standard hotel when visiting a new city because you get the chance to interact with locals, ask for advice on what to see, where to eat, etc, and live like a local. We stayed at The Bouquet residence in the old Ljubljana, hosted by Sijan. He was incredibly helpful and kind and his apartment was perfect. It was not only affordable, but it added to the charm of Ljubljana and even ended up being the convincing factor to spend an extra day in the city. If you would rather stay in a hotel, there are plenty of options. However, you will be staying in the newer, less charming part of the city. The old town is still an easy walk away, you just won’t be staying in the heart of it.
We stayed at The Bouquet residence in the old Ljubljana, hosted by Sijan. He was incredibly helpful and kind and his apartment was perfect. It was not only affordable, but it added to the charm of Ljubljana and even ended up being the convincing factor to spend an extra day in the city. If you would rather stay in a hotel, there are plenty of options. However, you will be staying in the newer, less charming part of the city. The old town is still an easy walk away, you just won’t be staying in the heart of it.
What to see
Bridges: There are some pretty cool bridges in Ljubljana that are very easy to find. The coolest and most iconic: The Dragon Bridge. There are dragons on it! Super cool. There is also a bridge that is slowly collecting a fair share of locks (think Paris, but less impressive), and the triple bridge, which is three bridges in one!
Prešernov Trg: The central square connecting old town to the rest of the city. It’s beautiful, complete with a pink church, cool statues, and cobblestone streets.
Cathedral of St Nicholas: A beautiful cathedral right in the heart of old town. Lovely murals and lots of nuns.
Town Hall: Take a peek inside town hall to check out the crazy amount of awards Ljubljana has won for frankly just being an awesome city. It’s a cool chance to see how proud they are of what they’ve become, so much so you start to feel pretty proud yourself.
What to do
Ljubljana Castle: A castle overlooks the city, and it is so worth the climb. You can take
the funicular up the hill for a couple of bucks, or you can walk. The climb is steep but manageable. Just follow the signs leading towards the castle and once you start to feel your quads burning from the hill’s incline, you’ll know you’re almost there! Entry to the castle is free, but tours and a few interior parts of the castle cost money.
Jackson and I decided to take the Behind Bars tour that explored the castle’s evolution of prisoners/prisons throughout the years. The tickets we 10 euros each and SO worth it. We thought our tour guide was just going to read us a few facts about the castle, but the tour ended up involving some seriously talented actors who played the roles of prisoners throughout the years. It was shockingly un-cheesy and totally captivating. Our tickets also allowed us access to climb the castle’s highest tower, which offered an outstanding panorama of the city. The tickets also included access to a puppet museum, which we did not explore… Additionally, the castle is home to some highly rated restaurants that smelled awesome. I think everyone in the world would agree that it would be cool to eat in a castle.
Shopping: Ljubljana’s old town is home to rows and rows of adorable little shops. Sure, some are pretty touristy, but you are a tourist after all… You could spend a few hours ducking in and out of all the unique venues (also a perfect activity for a rainy afternoon, we found out) Note: It was extremely difficult for me not to purchase an adorable stuffed dragon that seemed to be in every shop.
Central Market: Every day (except Sundays where there is a craft fair instead), a large open-air market is open from approximately 8 AM to 3 PM. Vendors sell all sorts of fruits and vegetables, homemade items, tourist items, clothes, you name it. It’s a great place to visit if you want to cook for yourself for a night, or just to stroll through.
Walking Tours: Tours meet every few hours in front of city hall. They are affordable and hit all the city’s highlights. We didn’t get the chance to join one, but we saw them all around town. If you are interested in the city’s history (and trust me, there’s a lot of it) you’ll certainly want to take this tour.
Bike Tours: It’s like the walking tour, only on a bike! I am not a bike person, but even I considered taking this tour because the city is so bicycle friendly. Rain or shine, it’s a great, and surprisingly safe way to see the city.
River cruise: The adorable Ljubljanica river runs through Ljubljana, complete with river cruises! The boats are covered, protecting you from sun and rain. Great opportunity for pictures of the colorful shops and houses by the river. This is an opportunity to explore Ljubljana from a different angle (and a good chance to rest your feet!)
Tivoli City Park: Ljubljana has a giant city park complete with miles of trails, cool graffiti, and tons of room for sports of all kinds. A great way to spend the afternoon (and people watch!)
Museums/shows: Check out the conveniently located tourist center (across the triple bridge, you can’t miss it) for all the latest exhibits and shows going on. Ljubljana is home to the National Museum of Slovenia, Museum of Contemporary History, Museum of Modern Art, Slovene Ethnographic Museum, and so much more.
Stroll around old town at night: After the sun goes down, people flock to the pubs along the river, street performers/musicians come out, and gelato and street corn vendors are plentiful. It legitimately feels as cheerful and non-threatening as Disney’s EPCOT.
Day trip to Bled: Bled is ridiculously charming. If you’re into the outdoors, stay in Bled and visit Triglav National Park, go white water rafting, explore waterfalls, ski… You name the activity, you can do it around Bled. I will certainly be back one day to discover all that for myself. Bled is extremely easy to get to from Ljubljana since so many tourists visit. Busses leave every hour and you can purchase roundtrip tickets at the bus stop or from the bus driver himself. The busses can get a little crowded with peak time being around 9 AM. Make sure you get near the front of the line if you want a seat because they are not guaranteed!
We only went to Bled for a day trip to see the iconic Lake Bled. Even with the cloudy day and the Master’s Rowing World Championships going on, the lake was still stunning. An island with a church sits in the middle of the lake. You can take a boat out there and ring the wishing bell. I heard the whole thing was a bit overrated, so we just admired it from the shore. One thing that was definitely overrated: The castle. It was 10 euros each just to get inside and it was the most disorganized, unimpressive castle ever. If you want a good view, climb the hill and look outside the castle. It’s essentially the same view and it will save you some money.
Where/what to eat
We stuck to cheap eats in Ljubljana, and they did not disappoint. If you’re looking for awesome AND affordable food, this is the list for you. *Note: Tipping is not standard practice in Ljubljana.
Abi Falafel: THE BEST FALAFEL EVER. Seriously, though. Vegan, and oh so delicious. The
staff is incredibly nice and the food is even nicer. We went twice and certainly contemplated going a third time. The food is plentiful and affordable. I cannot say enough good things about this place, especially since it’s just making want their falafel even more… The classic falafel sandwich is great, but an even better choice was the special falafel sandwich. It had all the wonderful things of the falafel sandwich PLUS FRIES.
Street Food Valentin: Amazing fish and chips at this place. You have to be bold here, maybe even having to wave down the cook’s attention, but if you go when it isn’t very crowded you shouldn’t have a problem. Their fried fish is perfectly battered and too greasy at all. The fries are ridiculously crispy and dusted with flaky salt. You can’t go wrong.
Hood Burger: Jackson loved this place with all his heart. It has the feeling of an upscale
fast food restaurant. The whole ordering process is very familiar and very straight-forward. I heard the burgers were fantastic and I can vouch for the fries- very tasty. Jackson was also extremely pleased with the extra-large ketchup packets. He’s convinced every restaurant should follow suit.
Zaziv Vegan Bistro: I have never been so full after eating vegetables. I had heard good things about the veggie burger and the polenta pizza. I decided, what the heck, I’m on vacation and I doubt either item is very big, so I’ll order both. Oh, and a slice of vegan chocolate cake, please. Yeah, the portions are HUGE. The polenta pizza came with a gigantic side salad and it took me a good 10 minutes of eating the burger topping before reaching the patty. It was a super fun experience, and the food was awesome. And the chocolate cake: you could never tell it was vegan.
Organic Garden: Crazy veggie (and salmon!) burgers here. The burgers are named after
the color of their buns. I got the red burger, Jackson got the black burger. They were tasty, gigantic, and had unique, flavorful toppings. Also, the tasty pre-made salads made great lunches the next day during our bus ride to Budapest.
Cacao: Gelato!! So many flavors and such an extensive menu! Cacao had several locations across Europe, but they clearly take their gelato very seriously. Two major perks about this place: It’s open really early (around 7 I believe) which is good for early morning bus arrivals and there is plenty of indoor seating. So if you need a gelato fix but it’s pouring rain… head here.