UK – Recommendations & Tips

If you are planning a trip to England or Scotland, we hope some of these thoughts and tips will help your planning!

Rail Travel in the UK

Train travel in the UK, as in most of Europe, is easy, reliable and quite economical. In the UK, there are a number of railcards available that can result in savings if you plan on taking a few trains. We chose the Two Together card – for £30, it provides savings for two people for a year, providing that they are travelling together. Fares are at least 1/3 less than normal. There are a number of other types of railcards available as well.

We determined that it is easiest to purchase the railcard after arriving in the UK. Although you can purchase on-line and obtain an electronic pass, you need a UK address to do so. We purchased our’s easily at the Kings Cross station in London. For the two together card, you need a passport size photo – but these photos are somewhat differently sized than those in Canada, and we found it easiest to get them at the self-serve Photo Me booth right in the station – quick, easy & economical.

You can prebook your train tickets on-line – there is a savings for advance bookings. Even if you haven’t yet purchased your railcard, you can indicate this fare in your booking. Just be sure to purchase the card before you actually take the train (and carry it with you) as the conductor may ask to see it. Most advance tickets are to be picked up at the easy to use machines in the train stations, although some may be printed at home. Check the confirmation information that is emailed to you.

Some of the bookings can be used on a number of journeys (for instance, any off-peak train between London and Cambridge) within a specific time frame. This is handy when you aren’t sure of your exact timing. Others are for exact dates, times and trains and some include the opportunity to reserve specific seats for no charge. Your tickets will indicate which car your seats are in.

If you happen to have a large piece of luggage, I would recommend being on the platform waiting as soon as the train arrives so you can be one of the first to board and find a place to store your bag.

London

London is one of the world’s great cities – you could visit many times and always find something new to do (as well as revisiting your favourites).

Our favourite sights on this trip:

  • The British Library: This was a pleasant surprise that we just wandered into. Very interesting exhibits and historical documents, including the Magna Carta. And of course, free to visit.
  • The British Museum: A massive museum, with exhibits of countries and cultures from around the world, I would suggest multiple visits to take it all in. This is facilitated by the fact that it too is free to visit.
  • Fun neighbourhoods – Covent Gardens, the South Bank, Seven Dials, Bloomsbury, Westminster, etc., etc. Just wander and you will find fun things to see around every corner.

Hotels & Restaurants:

  • Hotels at Heathrow Airport: There are two sides to the choice to stay at a Heathrow hotel, rather than in the city itself. The hotels are much less expensive – or if you are using loyalty points as we were, it requires redemption of many less points. The downside is that you have a 45-60 minute tube ride into the city – but if you don’t mind that, it’s a great way to save some money. As well, it’s nice to arrive at the airport and be able to check-in, freshen up and get rid of your luggage before heading in. And it’s very convenient if you have a morning flight out. The Terminal 4 hotels that we stayed in are just a brief walk from the terminal – with a quick train shuttle to the other terminals, such as T2 which Air Canada flights use.
  • Holiday Inn Express London Heathrow T4: This is a new hotel, with rooms that are a good size, have modern amenities and an excellent breakfast included in the room rate.  We certainly would recommend it.
  • Hilton London Heathrow Airport: We had a very spacious room in this modern hotel, again with great amenities. We didn’t book the breakfast rate, but tried room service for dinner and were very pleased with the service and food. Again, would definitely recommend it.
  • Bread Street Kitchen: This is one of Gordon Ramsay’s fleet of London restaurants, located close to St Paul’s Cathedral. More casual and reasonably priced than some of his upscale offerings, we found the decor, service and food to be excellent, as we would expect from Gordon.
  • Burroughs Market: There are lots of food choices at this market and it’s a fun place to visit for lunch.

Cambridge

Cambridge is a lovely city and wandering around the town centre (i.e., the ‘gown’ area) is a delight.

Our favourite sights on this trip:

  • King’s College and the King’s College Chapel: The magnificent architecture make this a must-see when in Cambridge. We were fortunate to have a Cambridge student 🙂 who was able to take us in as guests, but the general public can purchase tickets for admission and we would highly recommend a visit!
  • Trinity and St John’s Colleges: These two colleges also welcome the public and are lovely to see!
  • Fitzwilliam Museum: The Fitzwilliam is a great museum – a smaller version of the British Museum and we found it more enjoyable as it was manageable to visit in a few hours.
  • Little St Mary’s Church cemetery: If you like a picturesque old cemetery as I do, this is an excellent one to visit.
  • Punting on the River Cam: This is the quintessential Cambridge activity. The tours with a professional punter are excellent and offer interesting information. However, if you are brave and have good balance, you may wish to rent your own punt – don’t worry, the Cam isn’t too deep so you shouldn’t drown if you fall in!
  • Ely Cathedral: This cathedral is just a 15 minute train ride from Cambridge. It is a spectacular cathedral! We thoroughly enjoyed the Octagon Tower Tour.
  • Walk to Grantchester: Located just 2 miles south of Cambridge, a walk through the meadow to this delightful English village is a fun activity.

Hotels & Restaurants:

  • Ibis Cambridge Central Station Hotel: We have stayed twice at this hotel. It is very convenient to the train station and about a 20 minute walk from the central town. The rooms are very small – but clean, modern and well-equipped. We purchased breakfast in the lobby restaurant one morning and it was very good. A tip – don’t look for a front desk when you arrive – look for one of the staff with a tablet or phone.
  • University Arms Hotel: We spent two nights at this Marriott Autograph Collection hotel and it was wonderful! The room was extremely spacious with top notch amenities, including a lovely tea service. We had drinks and dinner one evening at Parker’s Tavern in the hotel and it was excellent.
  • We revisited some of our favourite pubs – the Anchor, the Mill – as well as some new ones – the Free Press, the Punter – all great!
  • Some of our favourite breakfast places include Fitzbillies, Abantu and Indigo.
  • Dinner at Bedouin, a North African restaurant, was great.
  • We have now had high tea twice at Six in the Varsity Hotel. The food, service and view make this a memorable activity.

York

We are very happy that we stopped for a couple of nights in York. This historic city offers great sights! Just wander and you will see interesting architecture around every corner.

Some of the sights:

  • The York Minster is of course the quintessential attraction in York. It is magnificent!
  • Walk the wall: the entire loop is 3.4 km long and offers lovely views of the city and the York Minster.
  • National Railway Museum: This museum is a must for any train fan, but also very enjoyable for those that are not!
  • The York Castle Museum: This eclectic museum is interesting – but odd. If you are looking for a way to spend a couple of hours, it is ok, but not a must-see.
  • St Mary’s Abbey: Free to wander about in the York Museum Gardens, this is a great place to stop by.

Hotels & Restaurants:

  • York Principal Hotel: The hotel (a member of the IHG group) is just steps from the train station. This registered historic building is beautiful, the rooms are spacious, and very well appointed with excellent amenities. The breakfast provided with the room was very good! We would highly recommend this hotel.
  • The Hop: Excellent pizza & beer.
  • Carluccio’s: Part of a major UK chain, the Italian food was authentic and very tasty. Excellent service.

Scotland

  • If you plan on seeing a number of historic sights in Scotland, we would recommend the Explorer Pass. It provides free admission to over 70 attractions and even if you only visit a few, it should provide savings. It includes admission to Edinburgh and Stirling Castles and allows you to skip the ticket lines. This wasn’t an issue when we visited in May, but we have heard that summer line-ups can be taxing! You can purchase the pass on-line, just entering the days you will be visiting (we went for the 14 day pass), print at home and activate the pass at your first site.
  • Rental car for Scotland: To see many of the sights in the highlands, a car is the way to go. Although the cities are linked by train or bus, much of the scenery and many of the castles, etc. are only accessible by car. Be ready for driving on the left side of the road and for roundabouts at every corner. Also, as described below, there are several areas where you will encounter single-track roads. Be sure to investigate your car rental well before booking – there are many differences in rates and insurance coverage. What seems like a good insurance rate may have a very large deductible (called excess in the UK).

Edinburgh

Edinburgh is the Royal City, with the castle, palace and cathedral, as well as the broad Royal Mile. While tourism abounds, we enjoyed the city and its many things to do and see.

Our favourite sights:

  • The Royal Mile: Lined with souvenir shops, you still must walk the mile just to take in ambiance and craziness that abounds.
  • Edinburgh Castle: At the top of the mile sit Edinburgh Castle. This historic fortress is a must-see when in Edinburgh. A couple of tips – go in the afternoon as the crowds will be less than in the morning. Also, take part in one of the free walking tours of the castle – this provides you with a great deal of interesting information.
  • Palace of Holyroodhouse: At the other end of the Royal Mile, we would definitely recommend visiting this palace which is the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. The audioguide provided with your admission is excellent. Also, if there is any chance that you will be returning within a year, have your ticket stamped before you leave and admission will be free upon your return.
  • National Museum of Scotland: This free museum has a very diverse and interesting collection. We spent a couple of hours and definitely did not see all of the exhibits, and would return on a future visit.
  • Princes Street Gardens: Sitting between old and new towns, this is a lovely place for a stroll and to watch the local enjoying the outdoors.
  • Rose Street: This is a great little street in the new town – pubs, restaurants and shops to visit as you wander about.
  • Edinburgh Gin Distillery: The tour at this distillery is most interesting and includes a refreshment at its conclusion.
  • Calton Hill: If you, like us, don’t have the enthusiasm and/or stamina to climb the Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat, Calton Hill offers some great views of the city.

Hotels & Restaurants:

  • 94DR: We cannot say enough good things about this boutique guest house and the hosts, John and Paul. While our room wasn’t huge, it was a good size and very well equipped. The breakfasts, freshly made each day by chef Paul, were imaginative, varied and absolutely delicious. Definitely recommend the 94DR!!
  • Courtyard Edinburgh by Marriott: The 94DR was booked when we returned to Edinburgh (we considered asking if we could drop by for breakfast), so we stayed at this hotel, conveniently located close to the train station. The hotel was excellent with a large room and excellent amenities.
  • Aizle: This restaurant deserves superlative reviews (and possibly a Michelin star). Their set 6-course (we counted 9) tasting menu is based on seasonal locally-sourced ingredients, presented in an imaginative and delicious way. We also enjoyed the wine pairing and the fact that it wasn’t over-poured so that we could still stand at the end of the meal!
  • Theater Royal Bar: We wandered into this unassuming bar just because it was next to the Courtyard hotel and were pleased with our dinner – we even returned for a second day. If you are in the neighbourhood, stop in for a drink, snacks or dinner.

Inverness

Inverness itself did not impress us – but perhaps we didn’t give the city its proper due as we really didn’t explore it to any degree. But the trip from Edinburgh and touring the area surrounding Inverness are worth the journey north.

Sights between Edinburgh and Inverness:

  • Culross & Falkland: These two Scottish villages are fun to wander about. They both were filming locations for Outlander if you happen to be a fan.
  • Aberdour Castle: Built in the 1100s, this is an interesting castle to visit.

Sights around Inverness:

  • Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre: This is a must-see. The visitor centre presents the history of the Battle of Culloden in an interesting and interactive way. Take part in the free guided tour of the centre and spend the extra £2 for the battlefield tour. Both provide you with an excellent historic overview.
  • Clava Cairns: This prehistoric burial ground, with cairns and stone circles, is just down the road from Culloden and free to visit. It is very interesting – and somewhat eerie!
  • Fort George: This fortification has served the British military for 250 years. For those interested in military history, the included audioguide is very detailed and informative. Perhaps, we were just in history overload, but we didn’t find this sight to be overly interesting.
  • Dallas Dhu Historic Distillery: This distillery is no longer operating but provides a great overview of a historic whiskey distillery, with an excellent audioguide, and a wee dram at the end of the tour. Fun to visit!
  • Elgin Cathedral: The ruins of the grand cathedral, begun in the 1200s, are very picturesque.

Hotels & Restaurants:

  • North Kessock Hotel: This hotel was the most expensive of our month long trip – and my least favourite. The somewhat dated room had a kingsize bed – which left very little room for anything else. It was clean and adequate – just no pizzaz. The included breakfast was good – we didn’t do the full Scottish breakfast that is offered but found everything we tried to be tasty.
  • We really didn’t try any restaurants of note on our two days in Inverness – McDonalds one night and a chain restaurant the other. I’m sure there must be good food to be had – we just took a break from looking for it.

The Isle of Skye

The drive from Inverness to the Isle of Skye is enjoyable with wonderful scenery along the way. The island itself was a delight to visit!

Sights between Inverness and Portree:

  • Loch Ness: A picturesque lake to drive alongside, but without a monster sighting, its main offering is a photo-op. We didn’t stop at the visitor centres as we had read that they are really just tourist traps.
  • Urquhart Castle: The ruins of this castle sit on a promontory overlooking Loch Ness. We enjoyed wandering about, snapping photos.
  • Eileen Donan Castle: This 13th century castle is the most photographed castle in Scotland and it’s easy to see why. Built on a small island, with a connecting bridge, it is a fairy-tale sight. We had heard from a number of sources that the interior is stark and not too impressive, so we shot the exterior photos and didn’t visit the interior.

Sights on the Isle of Skye:

  • Portree: The largest town on the island, Portree has a photogenic harbour and numerous restaurants. It also has a very economical launderette, located in the basement of the Portree Independent Hostel (enter around the back of the building).
  • The Trotternish Peninsula Drive: An 80 km drive around the Trotternish Peninsula is the best way to see the wonderful scenery that abounds on the Isle of Skye. Stop along the way at Lealt Gorge, Kilt Rock, the ruins of Duntulum Castle and any of the other numerous viewpoints to enjoy (and photograph) the gorgeous land and seascapes! A couple of tips:
    • If you want a picture of the Old Man of the Storr (without climbing up the hill), stop before you get to it as the views are best at that point.
    • Don’t expect to do this 80 km in an hour!! Give yourself at least half a day, although you may want more time if you stop often or want to hike a bit.
    • Parts of the road are single track with two way traffic. There are  multiple ‘passing places’ – the vehicle closest to a passing place should stop in a passing place on the left or opposite a passing place on the right and allow oncoming vehicles to pass and traffic behind to pass by you if you are traveling at a slower pace. Do not park in the passing places and always wave at stopped vehicles to show your appreciation. A vehicle flashing their headlights is indicating that they are stopped to allow you to pass.
  • Dunvegan Castle: This was one of our favourite castles. The interior is interesting and the gardens are lovely.
  • Fairy Pools: If you are up to a walk (about 2.4 km from the car park to the pools), the scenery is great.

Hotels & Restaurants:

  • Beul na Maraa Airbnb: Located about 6 miles outside of Portree, Beul na Mara was a gem! Located on the banks of Loch Snizort Beag, this beautiful suite is attached to the end of the home of the proprietors, Rosie & Tim. It includes a lovely sitting area, with a second floor loft with a spacious bedroom and ensuite bathroom. A wonderful enhancement is the breakfast that Rosie left each day for us to enjoy the next morning – not only did it provide us with a great start to the day, but there was enough for us to take for snacks and picnic lunch for the day!
  • West Pier Restaurant, Skeabost Hotel: The Skeabost Hotel is a short walk from Beul na Mara and the restaurant is excellent!
  • Caledonian Hotel, Portree: We had dinner one evening at this casual restaurant in Portree. The food was good.

Oban

Oban is a lovely little town – a great place to relax and re-energize during your trip around the highlands.

Sights between Portree and Oban:

  • Glencoe Valley: The scenery in the Glencoe Valley is quite grand and if you have an hour to take a drive, it’s a nice diversion.

Sights in and around Oban:

  • Three Island Tour: We loved the tour of the islands of Mull, Staffa and Iona. You could arrange individual transportation to each of the islands, but we booked a tour with West Coast Tours and found it to be great. All transportation (ferry, bus, boat, ferry, bus, ferry) was excellent, with entertaining drivers/guides on the buses and boat, and transfers were timely and seamless. The highlight for us was the puffin viewing on Staffa. The abbey on Iona was also very interesting.
  • Oban Distillery: The tour of the Oban Distillery was enjoyable and included a tasting at the end.
  • McCaig’s Tower: Climb the hill to McCaig’s Tower for beautiful views of Oban and the harbour.

Hotels & Restaurants:

  • The Scot Hotel: This family-owned hotel in Oban was fully refurbished in 2019 and is excellent – the room was a good size and the included breakfast was great.
  • Ee’usk: On the waterfront, the halibut at this seafood restaurant was very good.
  • Cuan Mor: We enjoyed our dinner in this casual, but noisy, restaurant.
  • Oban Fish and Chip Shop: Touted to be the best fish and chips in Oban, this small 40 seat restaurant did not disappoint. It was excellent – portions were huge!
  • Oban Seafood Hut: The green shack on the pier has wonderful seafood. Try the mussels and be prepared for a huge plate of them for only £4!

Glasgow

Glasgow is sometimes the forgotten city in Scotland, but we were very glad we visited. We found it to be a comfortable city, not too overrun with tourists, and with lots to see and explore. We enjoyed just wandering the streets in the central area and seeking out some of the many murals. We found the people to be very friendly and we would certainly recommending spending some time in Glasgow.

Sights between Oban and Glasgow:

  • Inveraray Castle: The home of Clan Campbell, this castle is lovely and the gardens are fabulous! For Downton Abbey fans, this was the home of ‘Uncle Shrimpy’.
  • Loch Lomand: A beautiful lake to drive alongside. We stopped at a roadside park for some photos and fresh air.

Sights in Glasgow:

  • Hop-on, Hop-off Bus: We found this to be an informative tour and also, a handy way to get around the city. Note that the 2 day ticket for seniors is the same price as a 1 day ticket (and only £1 more for regular adult rates).
  • Riverside Museum: This award-winning transportation museum is excellent – even if you aren’t a huge transportation fan (ie, Bev as opposed to Harvey). Admission is free and it is a stop on the hop-on hop-off route. Also free to have a look at is the Glenlee tall ship behind the museum.
  • Glasgow Cathedral: A very nice cathedral to stroll through.
  • Glasgow Necropolis: If you are in the cathedral area, be sure to wander about this huge burial ground and take a look at the impressive monuments and tombstones.
  • University of Glasgow: The university buildings surrounding the main quadrangles are very interesting to view and explore and the neo-gothic cloisters separating the east and west quads are quite impressive.

Hotels & Restaurants:

  • Ibis Styles Glasgow West: This hotel is highly rated by Trip Advisor and we were pleased with it. The room was larger than the Ibis Cambridge, with a king size bed. The hotel is music themed and the decor was quite fun. The breakfast included the usual cold items (cereal, granola, fruit, toast, pastries, etc), as well as oatmeal and cold meats, cheese and hard boiled eggs – and of course, the ever present crock pot of beans.
  • Ingram & Wynd: We enjoyed the Sunday Roast at this restaurant, although we have had better Yorkshire pudding.
  • Zizzi Royal Exchange Square: Zizzi is a chain in the UK, but the building for this location is quite unique. We enjoyed the pizza and salad. Tip – pizzas are large so you probably want to share!
  • The Grill on the Corner: Just a couple of blocks from the Ibis or from the train station in the other direction, this restaurant looks upscale from the outside, but actually was quite casual. We enjoyed our dinner although we found the service to be a bit lacking – I think the waitstaff were too busy.

Glasgow to Edinburgh:

There are an abundance of sights to see between Glasgow and Edinburgh – notably, many castles. We rented a car for the day to travel between the two cities and stopped in at just a few of the sights. A tip – you may think that you will have time to visit many of the castles, but although the distances are short, the time to travel as well visiting the sights is such that you will need to come up with a short list and then see how it goes!

  • Stirling Castle: One of the largest and most historically significant castles in Scotland, Stirling is well worth a visit. Be sure to take in one of the free guided tours.
  • Doune Castle: We enjoyed visiting this excellent example of a medieval castle that has been used a filming location for Monty Python, Game of Thrones and Outlander. It is just a short drive from Stirling and the audioguide is very informative.
  • Falkirk Wheel: A stop to view this engineering oddity that connects two canals is worthwhile. It is free to visit.
  • The Kelpies: Across the town of Falkirk from the wheel, these large equine statues are impressive to view. There is a small charge for parking but viewing the statues is free. There is the option of an inside tour (with an admission charge), but we didn’t take it.

That’s it for this trip! We hope some of our recommendations help you out in your trip planning.

Cheers & happy travelling,

Bev & Harv

Inverness – the heart of the Highlands

After leaving York, we took a train journey to Edinburgh, where we spent 3 nights. However, we will be returning to Edinburgh for 2 more nights later in our trip so I am going to hold off blogging about our … Continue reading

Back in the UK

Here we are back in the UK for a month. We are of course most excited to visit with our girl Kristin, but also looking forward to a journey to Scotland.

We spent the first two nights in London – or to be more specific, at the Heathrow Airport Holiday Inn Express. This was a great hotel – brand new and we could redeem our IHG points at a much more reasonable rate than in London proper. The Piccadilly underground line runs directly from the airport into the city so out came our Oyster cards.

After the overnight flight from Calgary, we arrived at Heathrow, checked into the hotel and decided that taking a rest would not be the best way to conquer jet lag. So off we went on the tube to Kings Cross Station. At the station we needed to purchase our “Two Together Railcard”. We had booked all of our rail transit in the UK using the two together rate. This railcard cost only 30 pounds and provides a significant discount (at least 30%) for two people traveling together. I would recommend that anyone planning UK rail travel look into the various railcards that are offered. We accomplished this task (including having pictures taken in a photo booth for the pass), picked up our reserved tickets to Cambridge, got a little cash from an ATM and all our required tasks were done.

Wandering down the street, we came upon the British Library and stopped in for a visit. I just love that the majority of British Museums have no fee for entry. British citizens must find it quite annoying when they visit museums in other countries.

The historical documents housed in the library were quite fascinating. Everything from the earliest evidence of the written word to John Lennon’s scribbling of the lyrics for “Help” – on the back of his son Julian’s birthday card. And most amazing – the Magna Carta! Of course no pictures were allowed in the galleries to protect the documents.

After the library, we wandered through the Bloomsbury neighbourhood (which is where our hotel was when we visited in December) and stopped at a pub, the Marquis of Cornwall, for an early dinner. Quite a traditional meal – fish & chips for Harv and chicken & mushroom pot pie for Bev – and our first pints of the trip!

We then strolled down Oxford & Regent Streets (sadly more dreary than December with the Christmas decorations gone – but on the upside, not as ridiculously busy) to Piccadilly Circus. We reminisced about our first visit to Piccadilly in 1983, when we so intrigued by the first pink & spiked hair youth that we had ever seen. We then caught the tube back to the hotel – with both of us nodding off on the journey.

After a bit of a sleep-in and hotel breakfast on Wednesday, we hopped back on the tube and headed to the British Museum. We had walked by it many times in December but hadn’t stopped in. Not having any specific plans for the day, we thought this would be an interesting activity. And it most certainly was. There was only a short line up for bag inspection and the museum was busy but not overly crowded.

The museum is a huge building that houses a vast array of antiquities. Items spanning the ages from 1000 years BC to current days chronicle the journey of civilization. Featured are Egyptian mummies, Assyrian lions, and a large hall featuring the best parts of the frieze that once ran around the exterior of Athens’ Parthenon.

Other exhibits include artifacts from all corners of the globe, including an African cloth made from soda bottle caps, a seal gut parka from the Canadian Arctic, gold from the Rothschild collection and an intricate two-headed snake from Mexico.

One of the premier exhibits is the Rosetta Stone. Found in 1799, the Stone proved to be the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs, thereby opening a window into ancient Egyptian history.

After spending about 3.5 hours in the museum, I declared that I had seen enough artifacts for one day and we made our exit. It was an amazing place to visit and I can only imagine how fascinating it must be for a true historian.

We wandered from the museum through the Covent Garden and Seven Dials areas and stopped for tea and a pastry at a delightful little bakery. We then continued on through Holburn to the area around St Paul’s Cathedral.

For an early dinner, we chose the Bread Street Kitchen, one of Gordon Ramsey’s 15 London restaurants. It lived up to the standards that we would expect from Gordon, in service and food taste and presentation. We shared a Caesar salad, Harv had a burger & chips and Bev enjoyed the grilled Skrie cod with artichokes and mashed potatoes. For dessert, we shared a delicious custard tart, topped with rhubarb and passion fruit sorbet.

To settle our dinner, we strolled back along the Thames, up to Trafalger Square and across to Piccadilly Circus where we once again caught the tube.

Two great days in London (over 20,000 steps each day). Now off to Cambridge and our girl!!

Cheers,

Bev & Harv