With its sudden stunning vistas, rich history and welcoming people, it’s easy to see why the Scottish capital has been ground zero for some of the world’s most famous books, poets and authors.
There is a duality to Edinburgh, not just from the separation of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ town and science and arts scenes, but also from the large stretches of countryside that sit within and alongside the city. One moment you feel very much in a bustling cosmopolitan centre and the next you can be walking up Arthur’s Seat, totally immersed in the exhilarating beauty of the Scottish countryside. It’s no wonder that Edinburgh born Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde was thought to be heavily inspired by the city.
Not so large as to swamp you, or too slow as to be boring, Edinburgh is the perfect in between for those that like a bit of everything. If you have a weekend to spare, here is what to get up to:
How to Get there
Hop on the LNER from London King’s Cross and arrive at Edinburgh Waverley station 4 hours and 22 minutes later. A journey that is much more comfortable than taking the plane, the LNER have also just updated most of their fleet that travels between London and Edinburgh to their new, smoother and quieter AZUMA trains.
There’s wifi (that actually works) and if you’re in First Class all food and drink is free. A nice touch when during the final hour of the journey you can sip on some wine or a gin and tonic, while looking out over the rolling hills of the lowlands and the rocky seas along the east coast.
It’s the most green way to travel (LNER have a carbon calculator so you can see just how friendly it is), and perhaps the cheapest too with tickets that start at £27. It also takes you straight into central Edinburgh so you don’t have to worry about a transfer from the airport, and delivers you practically to the steps of one of Edinburgh’s best known hotels.
Where to stay
Open since 1902 with rooms looking out to the castle, lush beds and impeccable service, The Balmoral is Edinburgh’s most famous and beloved hotel. It’s iconic clock tower has for over a century been set three minutes fast (so that people don’t miss their trains) and was the place of choice for JK Rowling when she hid herself away to finish Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (you can now also stay in the suite she used, which has been renamed the J.K Rowling Suite for good measure).
If you’re travelling up to Edinburgh via rail, the convenience of The Balmoral is unmatchable. The Hotel, being Edinburgh’s original Railway hotel, is situated at 1 Princes St. right next to Waverley Station. As soon as you come out of the station turn right, take approximately ten steps and you’ve arrived.
The Balmoral possesses all the charm of a grand Victorian station hotel with none of the old and cold drawbacks. The interiors have been tastefully done to reflect its Scottish heritage in a calming and contemporary way, and even though it boasts just under 200 rooms and suites, with the help of great service from the staff it feels cosy and homely. With a Michelin star restaurant, Number One, and Alain Roux’s positively French Brasserie Prince you’re well catered for and do make sure to pop your head into Scotch, the whisky bar, which houses over 500 varieties of Scottish whisky from each of the five main regions.
What to do
There are a couple things to do in Edinburgh that almost feel a little compulsory. One is walking up Arthur’s Seat – the extinct volcano that gives you views over the city and which, depending on your preference, is also a great place to watch the sunrise or set. The other is of course Edinburgh Castle.
Instead of going straight to the fortress, head to the Grassmarket first. An area dating back to the 14th century where a lot of cattle trade and executions used to occur, it now has some eclectic shops and cafés, including W. Armstrong & Son, one of the UK’s oldest vintage clothing stores. Turn left up the gentle curve of Victoria Street with store fronts that add pops of bright colour to Edinburgh’s almost uniform grey, and walk uphill to reach the Royal Mile, the street the connects Holyrood Palace with Edinburgh Castle.
Book a visit to the Castle online and in advance so you don’t have to queue and carb up beforehand because you can easily spend three hours or more taking in the stories and history of Edinburgh’s looming landmark. (See where to eat below).
Ambling down the Royal Mile is worth it, and make sure to pop your head into the beautiful St Giles’ Cathedral with its magnificent stained glass windows and neo-gothic Thistle Chapel that houses some exquisite wood carvings. If you’re looking for some art head instead towards the city centre and you’ll find the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the Scottish National Gallery (which currently has a fantastic exhibition of Turner’s work) and the National Portrait Gallery – all within walking distance of each other and with free admission.
For a market on Sunday and plenty of independent shops head to Stockbridge, which feels like a village within a city, and also has The Royal Botanic Gardens conveniently close by. And if you want yet another photo opportunity or a view that will also help you get your bearings walk up Calton Hill. You’ll pass the National Monument, inspired by the Parthenon in Athens (although it’s unfinished), the Nelson Monument which is shaped like an upturned telescope and eventually the City Observatory, my favourite building on the hill, where in 1834 the Astronomer Royal Thomas Henderson discovered how to measure the distance between the stars.
Where to eat
Edinburgh’s food scene is bursting, and has a multitude of little gems for foodies to discover.
Sit at long wooden communal tables and enjoy a variety of small plates at The Gardeners Cottage, or head to its cousin The Lookout by The Gardeners Cottage at the City Observatory (mentioned above) for a touch of romance and delicious food alongside panoramic views. Alternatively, pick up some fish and chips from The Fishmarket in Newhaven (who aim to have the best fish and chips in the UK) or add a touch of heat to your day with some Thai and Vietnamese street food from Ting Thai Caravan.
If you’re feeling fancy, walk towards the Michelin stars in Leith where you’ll find Restaurant Martin Wishart and Tom Kitchin’s eponymous The Kitchin. A chef who seems to be slowly taking over Edinburgh, Tom Kitchin’s third and latest venture in the city is Southside Scran, a French bistro style restaurant with a focus on rotisserie, that is quite literally, positioned in the middle of the teal and bronze adorned space.
Like all Tom Kitchin’s creations, Southside Scran also has the ‘From Nature To Plate’ ethos. The benefits of this approach is easy to taste in the simple dishes, like the rotisserie vegetables which were wonderful little bombs of flavour, the buttery Queenie scallops served in their shell and the soft sea bream, that not only delicious was also very well portioned. The roasting theme continued in the dessert section with a scrumptious rotisserie pineapple that comes accompanied by an indulgent rum and caramel sauce, which was incredibly welcome and warming on a cold winters night.
Aside from the relaxed atmosphere of the bistro, I was also delighted by one particular wine on the menu, the Fendant du Valais by Les Deux Cimes, which is Swiss. For those not in the know, Switzerland is one of the wine world’s best kept secrets. Swiss wine is notoriously hard to get a hold of because most is produced by various independent wineries that don’t produce enough to export. Fortunately in this case Edinburgh born Jamie McCulloch is behind the Les Deux Cimes winery, and has no qualms about sharing it, especially with his home city.