St Andrews is not only the birthplace of golf and home to the country’s oldest university, it is also one of these places that you simply have to add to your Scotland itinerary. I had spent a rainy day here last November, but sadly I did not see much besides the Byre Theatre conference rooms as I was there to attend a workshop. So, when my mum came over for a road trip around north east Scotland and my boyfriend suggested to spend a few days in his family’s caravan just outside St Andrews I was immediately hooked on the idea.
We managed to squeeze in two nights towards the end of my mum’s holiday and it turns out that that was the perfect duration for a wee taster of St Andrews. Here is a quick guide to the town and its surroundings to give you the basics for visiting St Andrews.
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How to get here
While we had a rental car to get us around north-east Scotland as quickly and comfortably as possible, you can reach St Andrews by public transport.
The town itself does not have a train station, but you can conveniently board a bus from the closest train station in Leuchars which will get you to St Andrews in as little as 10 minutes! Busses are crisscrossing the country and it’s easy to get here by bus from all the major cities in Scotland as well. Traveline Scotland is a good platform to look up bus schedules for different services.
Where to Stay
Of course there are many hotels and bed & breakfasts smack bang in the middle of St Andrews, but I actually enjoyed the view we had from the caravan site just outside of town. St Andrews Holiday Park is just south-east of St Andrews and you can rent a caravan from 3 nights. They usually have 2-3 bedrooms and are a great solution if you travel in a group.
Walking into town took about half an hour and lead us first down the hill with below view, then along East Sands Beach and past St Andrews Cathedral into the historical centre of town. What a way to start and end your day of exploring!
If you’re on a shoestring budget, check out the only hostel in St Andrews!
Note, that St Andrews also makes for a great day trip from Edinburgh!
Where to Eat
The caravan comes with the benefit of being able to make your own breakfast, so I’m afraid I can’t make any recommendations for that here… although there is a fantastic butcher in town to buy your sausages, black pudding or bacon from – if you fancy meat!
We decided to focus on the big meals instead and had two lovely dinners in different parts of the town centre. On the first night we went for Italian pizzas at Zizzi’s, which is a chain yes, but the creative pizza creations really make up for is and I can highly recommend it. The next night we went for a bit more traditional Scottish cuisine and dined at the Doll’s House just behind the Parish Church of the Holy Trinity. While I had a veggie burger myself my mum tried the obligatory fish & chips which you must not miss on your trip to Scotland!
If you are a sweet tooth like me – guilty as charged – you will be delighted to hear that there is not only t fantastic bakery in town (just around the corner from the Doll’s House) but also a famous ice-cream shop with delicious ice-cream in all sorts of flavours. Make sure to try the fudge donut from the Fisher & Donaldson bakery and stop by Janetta’s for a cone with a flake at least once – or maybe twice.
Getting a drink
St Andrews might be small, but it is still a student town, has a thriving local community and attracts many tourists throughout the year – it comes as no surprise that there are various pubs and bars to choose from in the evenings. One of my favourite is Keys Bar on Market Street which I expected to be a very touristy place, but was positively surprised. Yes, there were tourists inside, and yes, the bar staff was incredibly friendly and happy to give lengthy explanations about the art of whisky drinking, but there were also loads of locals and the atmosphere was proper authentic. Definitely put this pub in your list and try the local Eden Mills beer which is available all over town.
Things to do & see in St Andrews
There really is not a shortage of things to see and do in St Andrews, and even if two days is not exactly a long time, you can fit in an incredible amount as everything lies within walking distance from each other.
St Andrews Cathedral
St Andrews Cathedral is one of these places that is almost more impressive due to the fact that most of it is left to your imagination. The old ruin lies at the edge of St Andrews between the town centre and the beach. It was built in the 12th century when St Andrews was the religious centre of the Roman Catholic church of Scotland, but left to decay after Catholic practice was outlawed in the 16th century. Walking among the remaining arches and towers it is barely possible to imagine how it was even possible to built such a massive structure almost 800 years ago. From the distance it becomes even more impressive to picture how big the cathedral would have been in relation to the surrounding buildings.
On the grounds of the cathedral is an even older tower, St Rule’s Tower, which dates back to the 11th century – and surprisingly, you can climb it! The steps are steep and a bit claustrophobic, but the view from the top is worth it! To access the tower you need to buy a token from the visitor’s shop behind the cloisters.
St Andrews Castle
At first glance St Andrews Castle looked like there was not much to it. Like the cathedral the castle lies also in ruins, but unlike Dunnottar Castle further north along the coast, St Andrews Castle is tucked away almost down the hill behind the town centre. As we had purchased a combo-ticket for St Rule’s Tower and the castle though (£8), we decided to check it out anyway.
Before heading down to the castle you walk through an exhibition giving you some background on the various sieges, religious conspiracies and political crises that went on in St Andrews back in the day. The castle itself has several preserved structures to explore and you can still see the different layers that have been added for its protection over time.
The most impressive part of the castle site are certainly the mine and counter mine, two connected tunnel systems that were carved into the rock underlying the castle from two different directions during a siege – one to get out and one to get in respectively. Regardless of what the chances are for this to happen, the mines actually meet somewhere behind the castle walls, and both parts are accessible by a steep and slightly slippery ladder. The mine part leading out of the castle is very narrow – you can tell how desperately people must have wanted to get out – you can’t even stand up straight. The counter-mine leading into the castle ground is much taller and you can conveniently stroll over the the other end and peek out towards the road through a grid in the ceiling.
The historic golf course
While golf is certainly not my sport and the mere thought of the costs of playing a game at the historic gold course of St Andrews makes me shiver, its location so close to the aquarium is so convenient that it would have been a crime to go to St Andrews and not even take a look at what it’s all about.
A walk along the beach
Much more to my taste was walking along the East Sands Beach every day to and from the caravan site, watching dogs play in the tides and collecting a few shells for my little collection.
A trip to Anstruther
Anstruther really deserves a special mention here, even though it is technically not St Andrews, but a small fishing town just south of it. Rumour has it that the traditional Anstruther Fish Bar in the harbour serves the best fish & chips in Scotland and ave though the ones at the Doll’s House were very good, my mum and boyfriend had to try that. While I munched away on the biggest bowl of mac&cheese I have ever attacked, the two of them had their minds blown by the locally caught haddock and our trip to St Andrews ended with a proper feast.
While I munched away on the biggest bowl of mac&cheese I have ever attacked, the two of them had their minds blown by the locally caught haddock and our trip to St Andrews ended with a proper feast and a walk around the harbour of Anstruther.
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.