St. Andrews, Scotland
A Fairy Tale Town
It is a sight straight out of a fairy tale. Towering church steeples line the few streets with cobbled stone pathways and tunneling alleys with architecture dating back to the 8th century. With a coastline that wraps the entire town and castles that line the beaches, you truly do find a sense of awe and wonder when you walk these tiny Scottish streets.
I was lucky to call this beautiful spot Home for 18 years, and now I want to take you on a trip there, through the eyes of a local, so you can see the wonders missed by the flocking tourists.
St.Andrews is home to many things. This tiny town holds an average of 16,000 people but is also the home of Golf, and the sport attracts some 1 million visitors each year. A hefty amount for such a small place. Also, St.Andrews is home to the third oldest university in Britain.
This delightful little nook and cranny brings warmth to the heart, and true Scottish spirit. It is one of the most popular locations to visit in Scotland and I am here to tell you why it should be a "must-see" spot for your next big trip.
The video below will be able to give you a good idea of how beautiful this coastline is. I filmed this in December 2020 at around 8 am with a Mavic Air Drone. It was windy and wild but absolutely worth every second. In the video, you can see St.Andrews Castle and West Sands beach far in the distance. As the video ends you see the harbor along with the East Sands beach and St.Andrews Cathedral.
A history Older than the Romans
It gets a little difficult to determine when things began. Just like for most of Europe, nomadic people were littering the area since as far back as 10,000 BCE and as late as 4,500 BCE, when the first farmers are thought to have cleared out the area and built monuments. St.Andrews hosts one of the oldest churches in Britain dating back to AD 747 and was the ecclesiastical capital of the church in Scotland until the infamous Scottish Reformation back in the 1500s. The ruins of the church still sit within the town center and are surrounded by an ancient graveyard and magnificent stone walls.
You can't go to St.Andrews without going to the churches. Whether you are religious or not, the architecture alone of these ancient buildings is worth your time. Some 17 or more of these centers sit within the confines of the town, some more beautiful than others. My recommendations would be to visit the St.Andrews church itself and if you want something a little more "Harry Potter" then drop by the St.Salvators Church on Sunday at 11 am, where gowns and/or robes are encouraged.
If you are so daring to stand under the St.Rules tower on October 31st, you might catch a glimpse of the white lady. A ghost story like so many others in the area, but what else would you expect from a place with a history so rich.
If ghost stories are your thing, then you wouldn't want to miss a trip to the witch's cross. In the center of the city lies a cross of red cobbled stone below a towering clock attached to a church. In this grand courtyard, 400 years ago, witches would be burned for their crimes against humanity. If you want to know a true locals secret, stand on the cross and look up at the church tower, see if you can spot the face buried into the stone that folklore tells us are the souls of the many witches that were murdered here. Be warned that those that stand on the cross are said to be cursed with 50 years of bad luck.
White, Sandy Beaches and Coastline
Scotland, white sandy beaches, wait, what? Doesn't sound like the Scotland you hear so much about? Well, St.Andrews is a little different. A coastal town, with miles of sandy beaches to meander and stroll. Sandy dunes run the length of the entire West Sands Beach, a common place for families to relax with their children and watch the waves come crashing in.
From one of these majestic little sandy bunkers, you can watch the world unravel around you as golfers make their way to the infamous Old Course, the most notable golf course in world history.
On the opposite side of the town, following the water's edge, you pass by St.Andrews Castle, a spectacular sight built 800 years ago. A small admission fee allows entry through the gates where you can explore the dungeons and the castle grounds at your own pace.
Locals Top Tip - You can go after hours, or before they open if you like the sunrise, and climb over the small fence to the left of the admissions hut. This will grant you free access to the castle, on your own, with a sight you will remember for life.
Continue along the coastline and you find yourself at another of St.Andrews sandy beaches. This one sits behind the grand cathedral and the quaint little harbor that hosts the many fishermen's boats that leave bright and early each day to gather their catch from the rugged Scottish seas.
A long stone pier runs out and away from the harbor to calm the violent seas, and is a fantastic place to have a picnic on a nice day. Something to note, the wind in Scotland is wild and St.Andrews being a coastal town is no different. It is common for 60mph winds to ravage the coastline, so be prepared and dress up warm.
Locals Top Tip - If you want to try your hand at catching crab for dinner then the small ice cream shack next to the harbor will sell you a crab trap and some frozen squid. Drop the trap down near the harbor bridge and see if you have what it takes to snatch a delicious crustacean. If you can't bring yourself to catch one yourself then don't worry, the fish and chip shops of Scotland are famous for the daily fresh catch and St.Andrews is no different.
Many towns and cities boast botanical gardens and St.Andrews is no different. Just a 15-minute stroll from the town center and you find yourself at the gates of the beautiful gardens that so many people visit each year.
When I was around 12 years old, my brothers, our friends, and I would sneak into the gardens at night and play Hide & Seek. It was always a terrifying experience, never knowing if we would get caught by the night groundskeeper, but it was always great fun. I specifically remember a sharp cactus that I slipped and fell on one year, I screamed out loud and got caught immediately. It's safe to say I was more careful where I stepped on following visits.
The garden is impressive with over 8,000 plant species from biomes around the world. My favorite was always the greenhouse that stored turtles. It was always so warm and smelled like fresh flowers inside.
Home of Golf
I was never a fan of golf. Every year my uncles would try harder and harder to make me into the golf prodigy they hoped I would one day become. The issue is, I can't hit a ball straight to save myself. However, as I grew older and my friends became caddies to some of the golf courses around the area, my interest began to peak.
Golfers across the world flock to St.Andrews every year to play the famous courses that exist there. Specifically, the Old Course of the Links St.Andrews but many other courses are sought out by the partakers of such a sport.
Golf originated here back in the 15th century and the courses are still revered as some of the greatest in the world. Entry to these prestigious courses is not an easy feat. Usually involving being at the registration desk at 4 am to book a slot amongst other golf raving maniacs, unless of course, you are a local.
St.Andrews also hosts the Open Championship which is the oldest golf tournament in the world. The championship is held every five years here and it is not uncommon for students to be evicted from their apartments for the entire month so that landlords can make 20x the profit renting out their homes to rich golfers.
For me, golf meant free entry to the world's greatest golf course with your friends as caddies and some alcoholic ginger beer. As an homage to Old Tom Morris, We would drive the carts across the neatly trimmed lawns and revel in our VIP access. Legend has it he enjoyed a ginger beer on the 18th hole over 100 years ago.
Locals Top Tip - Visit one of the pubs below and make friends with a local, ask around for people that can help you get on the golf courses without the long wait times. Often all you need is a helping hand from a young Scottish lad.
A Dark Secret
It should not be news that a lot of Scotland lives in poverty and St.Andrews is no different. Although the country boasts free health care and many benefits, there is also a dark past that bubbles up throughout the back alleys and dark unwelcoming streets.
Violence is natural in this landscape. After all, the Scottish were a wild bunch back in their hay day, scaring off even the Vikings with their insane tendencies. That violence carries through till today. You can feel it in the streets from time to time. So a warning for all of you that choose to visit this wonderful land, be wary of which street you walk down late at night, and never go it alone.
At the same time, the Scottish are some of the kindest and most thoughtful community-oriented people I've ever met. They go above and beyond to make anyone feel welcome in their town. Don't miss out on chatting to the locals in the pubs, they have stories and tales from long ago that I could never give justice to and that are worth your weight in gold.
For us locals, we often call St.Andrews a university town. Why? Because the school owns over half of the buildings within the area, and, due to the size of the town, has a very big part to play in its economical success. This is also partly due to the numbers, some 10,000 students live in the town throughout the year and study. Over 30% of the population is studying. This creates a strange social dynamic that allows for some breaking of laws and rules.
I managed the most popular bar in the town and let me tell you, these kids get crazy. They run the town. They do what they want when they want and because of the money their parents spend on the university, the police usually turn a blind eye. It is a strange area of contention between locals and students and often ends up in a negative, violent space.
I have been to some of the wildest parties of my whole life in this tiny little town. Think "Project x" meets "Harry Potter". Developed some of my greatest friendships and also made some of my biggest mistakes.
Locals Top Tip - Try and get involved with some nice students and ask about Raisin Weekend. Get ready to have your mind blown.
Pubs & Restaurants
Old man pubs are a staple of streets here, and that is exactly where you want to head after a long day. Order a pint of room temperature ale from one of the many taps, grab a pickled egg and a bag of crackers and sink into the atmosphere.
These places haven't changed for a few hundred years. If fine food is your fancy then do not worry, you have more than you could ever need. From Michelin star restaurants to family-run fish and chip shops, there really is something for everyone.
My list of places to visit are below;
Aikmans Pub was always the location of choice after a long hard shift behind the bar. Grab a pew downstairs, order a pint of wheat beer and a dram of whiskey and chat the local's ears off. If you can understand the language that is.
Tailend Restaurant is where you need to go for quick, delicious fresh seafood. A classic, award-winning fish and chip shop to blow your brains. Don't say no to those mushy peas.
The Adamson has a special place in my heart and always will. It was here, within these walls I developed my cocktail craft to competition winning standards. A bar and bistro with flavors that will make you melt. Ask for the "The Smoked Webb" cocktail, a special drink I developed here for the New York Times Conde Naste Travel team.
The Criterion is an old man's pub with a splash of new age heart. This is where you sit at the bar, ask the tender to pour you their favorite, and order a meat pie. Trust me.
The Seafood Restaurant is your dose of fancy. Surrounded by 360 degrees of glass provides breathtaking panoramic views of the craggy Scottish coast. Expect fine dining with an Italian twist.
The Rule is halfway between an old man's pub and a new age bar. It is worth a visit to feel out the heartbeat of the town. A pint of Tennents should be on the cards or a Caledonian Ale.
Bibi's Cafe is a delightful little family-owned cafe in the heart of the town that represents the best of warm and welcoming Scottish love. Grab yourself a seat and a bowl of hot soup and watch the rainfall through the windows.
Locals Top Tip - You can quote my name in almost every place in the town and you will be welcomed in with warmth and love, and maybe even a free pint if you're lucky. If you don't know my name check out my profile.
St.Andrews is a quiet coastal getaway steeped in Scottish history. There is something for everything in this little gem of a town and it is always sure to please the visitors that seek it out.
Now go forth, with your new knowledge in hand, and enjoy your trip.