The Eternal City. The City of Lights. Auld Reekie.
Sure, Edinburgh might not have come out on top of the capital city nickname lottery, but there is a lot going for this atmospheric Scottish city. The brooding architecture’s so stunning the entire place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s a raft of incredible bars and restaurants to tick off your bucket list. And every summer the city gets overrun with actors, musicians, comics and cabaret performers for the world’s biggest arts festival, the Edinburgh Fringe.
Edinburgh’s been the Scottish capital since at least the 15th century, so, like London, there are a lot of grand stately buildings about. It’s where you’ll find the proud home of Scottish democracy, the parliament at Holyrood, next door to the monarchy’s home-from-home, Holyrood Palace. You’ve also got the national museum, library and galleries in town, plus the 450 year-old university. Overlooking the city centre is the historic castle, sat majestically on its mound, and when you want to escape from it all, you can climb Arthur’s Seat, an ancient volcano with soul-soothing views.
While you could join the WILLIEs (Work in London, Live in Edinburgh) on the sleeper trains between the cities, much better to make a weekend of it and take in the capital’s best bits at your leisure, with a stay in one of Edinburgh’s loveliest hotels in between.
HOW TO GET TO EDINBURGH
You’re looking at a five hour train from London King’s Cross to Edinburgh Waverley (right in the centre of the city). Make sure you look out the window as you approach Berwick-upon-Tweed; the east coast views get really spectacular. Tickets start at £20 return if you’re really organised, but can get pricey if you’re booking with short notice, or planning to go up during the Fringe. Have a look at Lumo‘s fully electric trains for the best value spontaneous trips. Otherwise, flights take around 80 minutes, and start from about £30 return.
Assuming you’ve trained up, you’ll emerge from Waverley to that distinctive ham sandwich smell (apparently wafting downwind from a nearby brewery). Welcome to Edinburgh. You can leave your bags at the station if you don’t fancy checking in yet, or if you’re staying at our recommended hotel, you can take a five minute or so detour to check in (and come back via The Milkman on the famously pretty Cockburn Street for a little post-travel coffee break).
From the station, take stroll down Princes Street to start getting your bearings. This is Edinburgh’s historic main shopping street, where – aside from indulging in a little retail therapy – you can clock some impressive views of Edinburgh Castle (which you can also have a nose around for £20).
Halfway along, duck down into the sunken gardens that run between Princes Street and the railway tracks, built on the site of an old loch. You can admire the sculpture memorial to Wojtek, the Polish bear who helped out in WWII; kick back on the grassy lawns; check out the 1930s Ross Bandstand (which occasionally stages open-air gigs); and take in the views from the top of the gothic monument to one of the country’s literary national treasures, Sir Walter Scott.
Come back up to ground level at the far end, and head down Queensferry Street, carrying on until it peels off to the left as Lynedoch Place. From here, you can join the Water of Leith walk – a ridiculously pretty riverside stroll that’s basically Edinburgh’s answer to Regent’s Canal. Take in the fairytale views of Dean Village from Bells Brae Bridge, then continue right along the walk to end up in the exceptionally charming neighbourhood of Stockbridge.
Come up at the Deanhaugh Street bridge – don’t be alarmed by the figure standing in the middle of the river, it’s just an Anthony Gormley – and head up the hill along Kerr Street. It’s quite possible you’ll get sidetracked by some of the shops along the way; Kestin does great menswear, Golden Hare Books for
hares books, and Edinburgh Mercantile is the stuff of artisanal homeware legend. Press on until you reach The Pantry, one of our favourite Edinburgh cafés and the perfect spot for a quick bite – all day breakfast dishes like the gooseberry fool french toast, or the braised lamb couscous, will set you up for the rest of the day.
From here it’s a 15 minute walk up to the picturesque Royal Botanic Garden, but if you’re short on time (or it’s threatening to rain), make a brief detour down Circus Lane, a little cobbled mews lined with overgrown cottages and old-fashioned lanterns. At the end, turn right onto St Vincent Street and – aside from stopping in at grow urban for plants that are totally unfeasible to take back home (but you’ll want to anyway) – head straight down until you arrive back on Princes Street, soaking up the elegant greyscale architecture as you stroll along. This area, New Town, was built in spurts between 1767 and 1850, which gives the neighbourhood the distinctive Georgian aesthetic that’s contributed to the city’s UNESCO heritage status.
As you rejoin Princes Street, swing a left and then a right after the gardens to find two of Edinburgh’s major galleries, both works of art in their own right before you’ve even seen what’s inside. On the left, the Royal Scottish Academy (which houses rotating exhibitions of contemporary works by the academy’s artists); on the right, the National Gallery. As with some of our own beloved London art galleries, the latter comes in National, Modern and Portrait flavours; the one standing in front of you is the National collection, housing masterpieces by some of the Western world’s most renowned painters (Titian, Rembrandt, Constable), as well as a few Scottish masters you might be less familiar with, like Traquair and Raeburn. It’s open daily, and is free to visit, so well worth popping in for a quick whip-around.
Return to Princes Street and walk in the other direction this time, passing the Scott monument again and continuing all the way up Calton Hill. The 20 minute ascent is decidedly worth it: known as Edinburgh’s Acropolis, the hill rewards you with romantically dilapidated classical architecture – the City Observatory, the incomplete National Monument (inspired by the Parthenon) and the Nelson Monument – set against vast, glittering panoramas of the city below and (if it’s dark, and if you’re very, very lucky) a glimpse of the Northern Lights above.
Wending your way down the other side of the hill, take a left, right and left again to find yourself outside Spry Wines on Haddington Place. In a city known for its whisky and cocktails, Spry stands out as one of Edinburgh’s best bars for natural wines. A gorgeously sophisticated couple-run affair, the bottles on offer here are all hand-selected, and can be drunk in or taken away. Stop in for a glass or two before retracing your steps along Gayfield Place and turning right onto Broughton Street, ducking into the inconspicuous frontage of Fhior on the corner.
‘Fine dining done differently’ is becoming so popular that it’s actually… not that different any more. But it speaks to the joy of enjoying top-quality produce handled by exceptionally talented chefs in a setting that doesn’t make every muscle clench in fear of dropping a fork. Fhior is one of those places, with its understated Scandi interiors; miniature framed sketches; and distinct lack of napery. It’s also Scottish to the core, making it an unmissable dining experience while in Edinburgh: seven- and ten-course tasting menus feature eel, turnips and scurvy grass, with Japanese visitors in the form of koji and umeboshi.
If you’ve got a second wind, head right out of Fhior down Albany Street, carry on along Abercromby Place and take a left down Dundas Street. On the corner you’ll find Bramble, a basement cocktail den that, in the vein of Satan’s Whiskers, has been turning out inventive cocktails to a hip-hop soundtrack since 2006. From here you can head stottin’ back in the direction of your hotel, a mere 17 minute walk (or 8 minute cab ride, if necessary).
“Beige is blasphemy” in the House of Gods, a gothic bolthole featuring 22 boutique rooms dripping with velvet swags, Gucci wallpaper and House of Hackney upholstery. There’s milk and cookies at bedtime, and a bottle of Moet chilling in your nightstand. And in the morning, luxury breakfast hampers await…
If, by some chance, the luxury breakfast hamper has but whet your appetite for decent morning scran, head right out of the hotel and take a left up Blackfriars Street in search of The Edinburgh Larder. It’s everything you could want from a great brunch spot: easy-going interiors, fantastic coffee, and a bookings system (although the Little Larder next door takes walk-ins only if you want to keep your plans flexible). The all-day breakfast menu features Full Breakfasts in meaty, veggie and vegan varieties, groaning with poached eggs, magical house beans and (veggie) haggis; cheesy beans on toast; a choice of buttery baps and, naturally, porridge.
Fully set up for the day, carry on up the brae to hit Edinburgh’s other famous thoroughfare, the Royal Mile. This is to the Old Town what Princes Street is to the New Town; a long-trodden boulevard that runs between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace and was historically used for royal processions. It takes about 25 minutes to walk its length – much, much longer during Fringe season when performers will be there stuffing flyers into your hand at every step – but it’s worth spending at least a little time strolling along to take in more architectural marvels like St. Giles’ Cathedral (just down to your left), and endearing touristy shops like Thistle Do Nicely. Head right up the Royal Mile (towards Holyrood Palace), turning right up Horse Wynd at the roundabout standing between the buildings of crown and state. Following it onto Queen’s Drive, you’ll then be able to start your ascent of Arthur’s Seat.
This ancient (and extinct) volcano sits amid 640 acres of royal parkland, and is a more generous climb than you might think. The easiest ascent is from the east, but this route gives you stellar views of the city as you climb to the summit, sitting 187m above. (If you’re after a more rigorous climb, make for the Pentland Hills, 14 heather-carpeted peaks just outside the city – and end with dinner at The Free Company).
Take the route down aiming for the Innocent Railway Tunnel, emerging onto Holyrood Park Road. At the end of the street head right, then left onto Bernard Terrace and carry on for ten minutes or so until you come to Victor Hugo Deli. The specialty here is pastrami sandwiches (with plenty of baguette-shaped alternatives), so pick up some lunch and take it to the Meadows opposite, a sprawling patch of glorious greenery.
From here, you can follow the Middle Meadow Walk onto Forrest Road, after which the National Museum of Scotland will spring into view on your right. It’s vast, obviously, with literally thousands of fascinating objects spanning everything from fashion to natural history. They run daily hour-long tours of the collection’s Scottish highlights at 11am and 2pm, but if you’d rather dash round yourself you can follow their curated trails or take in their top 10 picks, which include a prayer book covered in doodles by Mary, Queen of Scots, the Lewis Chessmen, and Dolly, the cloned sheep (stuffed).
From the museum, head right up Chambers Street and snake along Guthrie St. to come back to Cowgate, and pick up your bags. Heading left up Stevenlaw Street and then Fleshmarket Close takes you back to the station in six minutes (along one last, deeply atmospheric medieval alley – though be warned, there are steps).
All that remains is to buy 20 tam o’shanter hats for all your friends and family, and head back home.
After all, you are a WILLIL.
Looking for more inspiration? Find all our recommendations within our Edinburgh Guide.