Just a 2-hour jaunt on the X59 bus out of Edinburgh, the small university town of St Andrews had been at my fingertips for months. Yet each and every time a commitment-free weekend rolled around, the weather forecast was abysmal. Want to know how many different icons your favorite weather app has for various classifications of rain? Move to Scotland.
Finally I stopped looking at my phone and chose April 30th into May 1st to see St Andrews, rain or shine. That date turned out to be fortuitous for a few reasons.
First, Saturday was a full-blown sunny day. St Andrews’ beauty comes from its architecture, ruins, and beaches; all of which go from sweetly pretty to absolutely stunning with a bit of sunlight. The town is tiny by all accounts, and the center sits inside a loose grid of cobblestone streets hemmed in by the sea on two sides and old stone walls on two others. North Street and Market Street are jammed with restaurants, pubs, cafes and churches to accommodate a population that is overwhelmingly students. The buildings are old. The people are young.
Here’s another surprise of choosing to explore St Andrews on May Day weekend:
On May 1st, in the first light of dawn, hundreds of students from St Andrews University carry forward the tradition of the “May Dip”. In this case, “dip” is a euphemism for “half-naked plunge into the frigid North Sea”. After a night of heavy drinking to prepare them for the task, students gather at East Sands Beach to run shrieking into the icy water from which no amount of whiskey can insulate them. As the superstition goes, one must bathe in the sea to wash away any “sins” committed during the academic year. It’s also supposed to be the antidote to the curse of Patrick Hamilton, a Protestant reformer who was burned at the stake on North Street in 1528. The spot where he died is marked with his initials and any unsuspecting student who steps on them will be doomed to fail their courses unless they bathe in the sea at dawn on May Day.
I did not get up at dawn to watch this, but the town was noticeably more lively on the evening of the 30th as students built themselves up with barbecues and liquor. I know my American readers are imagining frat row in a football-obsessed college town during homecoming weekend, but I assure you the town was not trashed. The pubs were fuller and rowdier as they closed and the streets were virtually deserted the next morning.
The nice thing about St Andrews is that it still has a pulse when the university isn’t in session. That’s mostly thanks to golf. The Old Course, established in 1552 and frequent site of the Open Championship, is just a twenty minute walk from the medieval center. Unless you count mini golf (no one counts mini golf), I have no experience with the sport whatsoever. But I still went down to the course to check out Swilcan Bridge, a simple stone arch built 700 years ago by shepherds that has since become an iconic and very photogenic St Andrews landmark.
In medieval Scotland, St Andrews was an important center of religious pilgrimage. Nowadays, the students, golfers and tourists all combine forces to keep the town on the map.
The drawback of its liveliness when compared to its size is that accommodation is expensive as hell. I decided to go all in and spend the night in a bed and breakfast just outside the city walls. It wasn’t cheap, but it was classic. The retired proprietors were golfing nuts and master chefs of the Full
English Scottish Breakfast. I was also in luck. The other guests that night were a British couple currently living in rural Hungary, which opened up an afternoon’s worth of conversation topics. Checkout time came and went and they basically had to kick us out.
St Andrews Cathedral
A ruined cathedral built in 1158 that was once the center of the Catholic Church in Scotland. It fell into disuse after Catholic mass was outlawed during the Scottish (Protestant) Reformation and eventually collapsed. It’s a huge and spectacular ruin that contains a large cemetery and offers views of the coastline.
St Andrews Castle
Another picturesque ruin on the sea, the castle has been sacked, burned, and surrendered so many times I lost track of the story, though they do distill it and illustrate it for you in the visitor’s center. Castle Sands, the beach below it, is unique for its finger-like jetties and tide pools during low tide.
Breakfast at Northpoint
Everyone loves this place because Prince William and Kate M… met here? Dated here? Ordered coffee-to-go here?
I love this place because their scone game is strong and they have huge, savory inexpensive breakfasts at all hours.
The beach that also serves as a trailhead for the northernmost leg of the Fife Coastal Path.