St Andrews is the home of golf, Scotland’s first University, and one of the centres of the Scottish Reformation.
It is also a beautiful, safe, seaside resort with Blue Flag beaches, award-winning restaurants and a fantastic array of independent shops. For a small town on the East coast of Fife, in Scotland, St Andrews has more to offer to visitors than you might expect.
Having lived in St Andrews for several years, it’s very difficult to list only five things to see and do on a visit here, when there’s more than enough to fill a long weekend.
However, here’s my unofficial pick of the five top things to do in St Andrews.
St Andrews Cathedral
Buy a joint ticket to enter both St Andrews Cathedral and St Andrews Castle. Most of the Cathedral grounds are free to enter, but the paid ticket offers entrance to a exhibition of stone carvings (more interesting than it sounds) and a trip up St Rule’s Tower. St Rule’s Tower is one of the only surviving sections of the Cathedral ruins, and if you can face climbing nearly 200 steps to the top, you will be rewarded with a fantastic view of St Andrews’ town, the beaches and the North Sea.
While you are in the Cathedral grounds, see if you can spot the graves of some famous golfing characters buried here, including both Old and Young Tom Morris, and Allan Robertson.
Once you’ve finished browsing the beautiful St Andrews Cathedral ruins, reward yourself with an ice-cream from St Andrews’ favourite gelaterie B. Jannettas. They boast 52 varieties, including such Scottish flavours as Irn Bru and Scottish tablet. B. Jannettas can be found at the Cathedral end of South Street.
St Andrews Castle
St Andrews Castle is also now in ruins, but there is a wonderful illustrated history of St Andrews and the Castle in the visitors’ centre. It’s both engaging and informative, so great for all the family. The Castle itself hides some harrowing sights from more dangerous times in history.
Firstly, don’t miss the bottle dungeon. Don’t mistake this for a wine cellar; this underground room is shaped like a bottle and was used for keeping castle prisoners in isolation. George Wishart - one of the key figures in the Protestant Reformation – was kept here.
Even scarier to visit is the mine and counter-mine. When the Castle was besieged, soldiers tried to dig their way under the moat and defensive walls. When the troops defending the Castle saw this, they also started to dig, planning to intercept the other tunnel and stop the covert attack. You can enter and explore these tiny underground tunnels. They’re well worth a look, but beware: they can make you feel very claustrophobic.
West Sands Beach
Next, grab a ‘fish supper’ – battered and deep-fried fish with a portion of chips - from the Tail End Fish Bar on Market Street and walk down onto West Sands beach. With a prestigious Blue Flag Award, this is one of the cleanest beaches in the world, and probably one of the most diverse. Horse riders share the sands with power-kiters, and the West Sands is one of the most popular surfing beaches in Scotland.
However, you are most likely to recognize this beach from the iconic opening scene of the film ‘Chariots of Fire’. Why not have a little jog along the West Sands to re-enact this powerful moment?
The Old Course and the Himalayas Putting Green
St Andrews is the world famous home of golf, and no trip would be complete without a walk down the 1st and 18th greens. Right next to the West Sands and running into the centre of town, these greens are open to the public. Why not take a group picture on the Swilcan Bridge?
If you’re a golfer I’d strongly recommend you play one of the many courses in the St Andrews area while you’re visiting. If not, the best place to get a feel for the town’s favourite sport is to play a round on the Himalayas Putting Green. Walk along the road that runs parallel to West Sands beach, away from the town, until you reach the St Andrews Links Trust Clubhouse. No need to book in advance, just turn up and pay a few pounds per person to enjoy the very first ‘mini-golf’ course in the world.
Afterwards, take refreshment in one of the several wonderful hotels with views of the Old Course. Head to the 4th floor of the Old Course Hotel for drinks in their plush whisky bar, or to stay in the centre of town we recommend the wonderful Rocca Bar, part of the Macdonalds Rusacks Hotel. This is where the joggers in ‘Chariots of Fire’ go to eat breakfast after their run, so it’s a great place to relive the film, with unrivalled views of the Old Course.
St Salvator’s Chapel
The beautiful St Salvator’s Chapel is found in St Salvator’s College. One of the oldest surviving colleges of the University of St Andrews, St Salvator’s College is most recently famous for being the home of Prince William in his first year of study in St Andrews.
The chapel has many other claims to fame. Catholic forces used St Salvator’s Chapel tower to fire upon St Andrews Castle to reclaim it from Protestant control during the Scottish Reformation. St Salvator’s Chapel also holds the pulpit from which John Knox preached a three-day sermon. This sermon caused the congregation to riot, permanently damaging both Blackfriar’s Chapel (ruins on South Street) and St Andrews Cathedral.
Just down an alleyway from St Salvator’s Chapel - on The Scores – is the wonderful Museum of the University of St Andrews. Free to enter, this museum is another fantastic way to get a feel for the rich history of the University and its relationship with the town of St Andrews. Kids’ fun packs are available to complement the exhibits.
After your full day in St Andrews, stay and have a meal in one of the fantastic local restaurants. Japanese and Thai establishment Nahm Jim was recently featured on UK TV in the series ‘Ramsay’s Best Restaurants’ but there are also several family friendly eateries, cosy pubs, and some fantastic restaurants boasting one, two or even three AA rosettes.
Then, why not see if anything’s happening at the Byre Theatre? This five-star arts venue hosts travelling productions of every sort, and the bistro bar area runs free live entertainment every evening.
If you’ve made it this far, why not stay the night in St Andrews and explore some more? There are more museums - including the excellent British Golf Museum – attractions such as the Aquarium, other beaches and wonderful shops, and that’s just within walking distance of the town centre.