As an American, I find a certain comfort traveling in countries that share my native language. English may not be as romantic as French, as melodic as Italian, or as passionate as Spanish, but it still holds a special place in my heart. Therefore, when I was planning my first solo trip in the spring of 2017, I figured the UK would be the perfect place to dip my toes into the solo travel waters. In the past year, I’ve taken three separate trips to the British Isles, and I definitely plan to visit at least one more time before crossing back over the Atlantic for the last time (in the foreseeable near future) at the end of July. I’ve visited four major cities in the UK and Ireland—London, Edinburgh, Dublin, and Glasgow— and here I’ve ranked them from it’s-nice-but-I-don’t-need-to-go-back-immediately to oh-my-gosh-golly-goodness-I-never-want-to-leave-this-place.
Perhaps I didn’t give London a fair chance when I visited in February of last year. First off, I was only in London for 2 days, a short weekend stay before leaving on my spring break trip to Southern Spain with my girlfriends (I’m still wondering how my university considers a week off in mid-February “spring,” but that’s a topic for another day). Secondly, one of these 2 days was dedicated to a job interview from about 8am to 3pm, so in the end I had about a day and a half to see as much of this culture-filled metropolis as I could. Highlights included: the extremely easy navigation of the tube (sorry, Paris metro), afternoon tea (Moroccan mint, my favorite), a Harry Potter walking tour (I just couldn’t resist), and getting my picture taken standing in the doorway of a red telephone booth (#basic).
I guess the reason that London is at the bottom of my list is that I felt very much like a tourist there, whereas in general I try to feel like a traveler. What’s the difference you ask? I would define a tourist as someone who arrives in a city with a list of “Top Ten” places to see and feels accomplished once they’ve checked off all the sites. A traveler, on the other hand, is a person who really immerses themselves in the culture and the spirit of a city. A traveler makes an attempt to learn about a city’s mode de vie, rather than simply knocking off an item on their bucket list.
With this distinction in mind, while I was able during my 1.5 days to stroll through Hyde Park, see the London Tower by night, have a self-guided history lesson at the British Museum, and peer into the London Eye, all of these experiences had been budgeted into my carefully planned-out time table. I should get across, however, that although London places 4/4 on my list, I certainly plan to return in the future for a longer duration of time (and hopefully at a warmer time of the year), so my opinion is completely malleable.
When my older brother told me of his plans to study abroad at the university of Glasgow in Fall 2017, I immediately started looking at ticket prices. For the past few years, I have sort of been obsessed with Scotland (more on that later), so I would almost take any excuse to visit the land of lochs, fairies, and hairy coos. I had not considered that the weather in late October would be less than ideal (I’m talking rain so heavy and winds so powerful there would have been hurricane warnings in any other city in the world). However, in spite of this, I managed to have quite a memorable time. I simply had to keep my hair in a braid the entire trip, so that the frizz level wouldn’t get out of control.
It turned out that one of my best friends from my internship in Vietnam the summer before (I’ll write a separate post on that experience) was also attending the University of Glasgow, so I was able to spend a full day with my brother and another full day with my friend. This brother-sister bonding time was actually not spent in Glasgow, but rather on a day trip to the Isle of Arran (an island in the South-West corner of Scotland). This day trip was spectacular, full of marvelous rainbows (more than I can count on one hand), lush nature, family picnickers, and coastal views.
Back in Glasgow, I was able to see Our House (a musical based on the music of the band Madness, highly recommend), the University of Glasgow (those arches tho), the Glasgow Botanic Gardens (more beautiful than words can describe), the Tchai-Ovna House of Tea (cosy vibes, perfect for a rainy Sunday), George Square, and last but not least Cineworld (the Kingsman: Golden Circle had just come out, no judgement).
As I visited Dublin immediately following my visit to the number one city on this list, it started off at a slight disadvantage. However, I placed it as the first runner up for several reasons: 1) The walkability 2) The day trips 3) The music
Whenever I visit a new city, I always look into the transportation options. For example, in large cities like Paris or London, the metro/tube is your best bet to get around quickly and relatively cheaply. However, in Dublin, I found that pretty much all of the must-see spots were within about a 20 min radius walking distance from my very nicely located hostel. Walking has always been my favorite mode of transport when it’s an option, because it allows you to best immerse yourself in a city. Buses, trams, and metros may be a more efficient use of time, but they always put a sheet of glass between you and the city around you. When you walk, you can take in the smells of the street, feel the sunlight on your skin, and hear the conversations (whether you understand them or not) around you.
I only took one day trip on my visit to Dublin, but it was one I won’t soon forget. In my experience, pre-arranged trips led by a tourism company can be very hit or miss when traveling solo. Their success depends on two things: the guide and the group. During my day trip to the Cliffs of Moher, I had an incredibly engaging and knowledgeable tour guide, and my bus buddy quickly became my friend. She was about fifty years my senior, but she was one of the best storytellers I’ve ever met. Also, coming from a country that’s only a couple of centuries old, I found the history behind the dozens of castles we drove past to be truly incredible. The fact that these buildings have lived through war, famine, epic love stories, and more generations than I can count on my fingers was kind of hard to wrap my head around.
When I talk about the music of Dublin, I don’t just mean the literal music I listened to while there (pretty much just the Once soundtrack). Rather, what struck me about Edinburgh was the natural melody of the city. Perhaps this will sound strange, but I believe that every place has a sort of natural playlist of sounds that come together to form its ambiance, a city’s heartbeat if you will. For New York, this melody includes the whistles of cat callers, the honking of cab drivers, and the whoosh of air as a bike delivery person passes by. For Dublin, this playlist is made up of the percussion of street performers, the lilting of Irish accents, and the bustling footsteps of people on a mission. Typically, when I travel I am constantly blasting a tune through my earbuds. However, I found that strolling through the streets of Dublin, the city itself provided the best kind of soundtrack.
Every time I go home and tell regaling stories of my travels, one question always works itself into the conversation: What’s my favorite place I’ve ever traveled to? My answer for the past year has not wavered — Edinburgh. Of course, I reserve the right to change my answer at any point in time, but there is just something about Edinburgh that, of any city I’ve ever been to, makes me feel an overwhelming sense of comfort. Having lived in France for about a year and a half now, many people assume that if I were to settle in Europe some day, I would look toward the lights of Paris. I used to be of this same mindset. Yet, after just one week in Edinburgh, I started considering what a life would look like there.
I will attribute my head-over-heels love for Edinburgh partly to the magic of the city itself and partly to timing. My trip to Edinburgh (and Dublin afterward) was my way of motivating myself to finish off my first semester of college strong. It was the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, as within the first week of May I had seven exams to take. Edinburgh had been near the top of my travel bucket list for a couple years, and it rose to the number one position once I had discovered the book series Outlander. Therefore, when I finally arrived, the city was facing rather inflated expectations. I’m happy to report that it met every single one.
The number one reason I will remember my trip to Edinburgh is the people I met. I arrived at my hostel around 7pm in the evening, and after dropping off my luggage in my room, I headed straight for the lounge — the free coffee was calling my caffeine-deprived name. Within a couple minutes, I had struck up a conversation with a group of Canadian travelers (yes, we North Americans do tend to flock together like birds) and their Australian friend. After a quick chat, they were quick to invite me along on their quest for dinner. We ended up grabbing burritos from a Mexican restaurant around the corner, and as we walked they told me about their favorite parts of their trip so far. I was proud of myself for finding friends so quickly, and although my new companions were leaving the next morning, I would meet back up with the Australian a couple nights later. From this first encounter over mediocre instant coffee, I made acquaintances with whom I would dance at my first ceilidh, play my first game of Ring of Fire (yes, I somehow made it through a year of uni having never played before), and sing karaoke (publicly) for the first time. I was solo traveling, but I wasn’t alone.
The second major reason for my love of Edinburgh was the city itself. The smoke stains at the tops of the buildings, the cobble-stone streets, the slightly gimmicky bag pipe players on sidewalks — everything about the city felt lived in, in the best way possible. It’s difficult to describe, but I felt a sense of belonging from the second I stepped off my airport shuttle bus. I’m not sure if it was the welcoming nature of the people or the unrushed atmosphere or the smiles whose brightness made the heavy clouds seem obsolete. There was no sense of urgency as in New York, no cultural stuffiness as in Paris, and no sense of being an outsider as comes with travel to most other foreign cities. I was at ease.
As for what I actually did in my five days there, the highlights included: hiking up Arthur’s seat, viewing the city from the top of the Scot monument, exploring Dean Village, taking a day trip to the Highlands, going on an (amazing) pub crawl, dining at The World’s End bar, walking the Royal Mile, shopping on Victoria Street, checking out the view from the top floor of the National Museum of Scotland, and of course visiting the Edinburgh Castle.
All in all, I find that my trips to the British Isles have always left me with three things — photos of dramatic landscapes, the perspective of how small I am on the timeline of human history, and the conviction to return and experience even more.