Stock up on delicious local produce at the farmers’ market before admiring the architecture, boutiques and hilltop castle that crowns the historic streets of Edinburgh
The city certainly lives up to its reputation for lavish architecture, a buzzing nightlife and top-notch cultural scene. In the heart of the metropolis you’ll discover romantic cobbled wynds and tall tenements in the medieval old town, grand Georgian planning at its finest in the new town and award-winning contemporary architecture in between – check out Enric Miralles’ opinion-dividing Scottish Parliament building. Edinburgh is also home to some of the best art galleries in the world, more restaurants per person than any other city in the UK and the world’s oldest department store, Jenners.
What to do
Climb to Edinburgh Castle for views of Gothic spires, dark turrets and the Pentland Hills beyond. Highlights here include the stunning crown jewels; tranquil 12th-century St Margaret’s Chapel; and the Great Hall with its medieval hammerbeam roof. On the stroll back down divert to Victoria Street, which leads to the open and part-cobbled boulevard, Grassmarket. The pretty shops, restaurants and cafés belie the area’s gory past; it was once the site for public executions.
At the end of the Royal Mile there’s more history to be uncovered at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. To learn more about the country’s past and its ancient traditions, head to the National Museum of Scotland (www.nms.ac.uk) on Chambers Street.
Walking tours are a great way to get under the city’s skin – listen to ghost stories and descend into the vaults beneath South Bridge for an eerie experience (www.mercattours.com). Get an art fix at the centrally located National Gallery; Canova’s sculpture, 'The Three Graces', is a must-see. After the obligatory visit to Jenners on Princes Street, soak up the charms of the city’s antique shops and specialist boutiques.
Where to stay
For one of the best addresses in town, book a room at The Balmoral. It opened in 1902 as the North British Station Hotel, and the landmark building’s clock is still set two minutes early so travellers don’t miss their train at nearby Waverley Station. If you plan far enough in advance (you’ll need to if you intend to be there during the festival or Hogmanay), the National Trust for Scotland rent out self-catering apartments in Gladstone's Land, a 17th-century townhouse. Or opt for a sophisticated boutique hotel, and check in to 10-room Rick's, located in the centre of the new town. Rooms feature super-comfy beds with cable TVs, CD and DVD libraries.
Where to eat and drink
You’ll discover a lot more than haggis and deep-fried Mars Bars here. On Saturday mornings over 70 local specialist producers congregate at the award-winning Edinburgh farmers’ market on Castle Terrace. It’s a great place to find Arbroath smokies, hog roasts and heather honey. Local produce appears everywhere – Restaurant Martin Wishart (0131 553 3557; www.martin-wishart.co.uk) serves whatever fish has been caught that day, while at Number One (0131 557 6727; www.thebalmoralhotel.com/dining) Firth of Forth lobster appears on the menu. These Michelin-starred establishments are joined by The Kitchin (0131 555 1755; www.thekitchin.com), whose head chef is the youngest ever to gain a star.
There are numerous smart cafés and enticing delis – Valvona & Crolla (0131 556 6066; www.valvonacrolla.co.uk) is perhaps the most famous, with hams hanging from the ceiling and Italian specialities lining the walls. Cheese-lovers should follow their noses to one of the Iain J Mellis shops (www.mellischeese.co.uk).
No visit is complete without trying the Scots’ favourite tipple, whisky. Cadenhead’s (0131 556 5864), on Canongate, runs tasting sessions at a nearby pub, or head to the Scotch Whisky Experience (0131 220 0441; www.whisky-heritage.co.uk) to learn more about the historic dram. Finally, get dressed up for cocktails at Tigerlily (0131 225 5005; www.tigerlilyedinburgh.co.uk).
Time running out?
Climb the steps from Waterloo Place up to the monument-studded Calton Hill for great views of the city.
Upgrade your Edinburgh Castle ticket for an Explorer Pass at the tourist information centre, giving you unlimited access to over 75 of Scotland’s historic properties.
Edinburgh is a one-hour 20-minute flight, or a four-hour 30-minute train journey, from London.
Bmi (www.flybmi.com) and easyJet (www.easyjet.com) have regular flights to Edinburgh departing from a number of UK airports.
National Express Trains (08457 225 333; www.nationalexpresseastcoast.com) operate services from London King’s Cross, while ScotRail’s (08457 550 033; www.scotrail.co.uk) Caledonian Sleeper travels overnight from London Euston.
Edinburgh Tourist Board: 3 Princes Street (0845 225 5121; www.edinburgh.org). See the website for opening hours.
Eat Scotland (www.eatscotland): an online gourmet guide to the country, with restaurant listings and information on local producers.
This guide first appeared in Food and Travel magazine.