A guide to some of Edinburgh's better hotels, plus tips on how to make the most of your visit. Edinburgh is compact & walkable, and an ideal long-weekend destination. See the video!
Edinburgh packs a whole lot into its small, compact and sometimes hilly centre, and part of the attraction is being able to walk almost everywhere (don a pair of comfy shoes) and ditch the car. It matters not a jot whether you stay in the old or new town as they are so close. When I say 'ditch the car' I don't mean park it at the hotel at great expense and forget about it; I mean preferably don't bring it at all! Car parking in this small historic city was not part of the design plan when the cobbled Old Town was laid out. The New Town doesn't fare much better, having been built not recently as the name suggests, but largely in Georgian times. A handful of hotels in the centre have car parking.
I head to Edinburgh about 4 times a year, it being my favourite city for a weekend getaway. The highlight for me is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival during August where the city is wall-to-wall people, theatre, comedy, music and famous faces. Booking accommodation early for the Festival season is essential. Fringe tickets here: http://www.edfringe.com/
Below are some of my favourite hotels, all of which are well positioned to make the most out of a stay in Edinburgh.
Staying in Edinburgh
Hotel Missoni (from £160 per room per night) is a modern upmarket hotel in the heart of the Old Town. It sits in a enviable position on the Royal Mile just a short stroll down the hill from the iconic Edinburgh Castle. Opened just a few years ago to great fanfare, the Missoni's restaurant has developed an enviable reputation for superb food.
SAS Radisson (from £95 per room per night) on the Royal Mile has a large car park that usually has plenty of space. It also has one of the best locations in the city and an excellent bar that can be a haven of peace when the festival means the pubs are packed with crowds. A few hundred yards down the hill on the left is Clarinda's Tea Rooms, decorated like a victorian parlour they serve a very reasonably priced breakfast, much cheaper than the hotel, and excellent afternoon tea. Down the lane alongside the hotel is the famous Whistlebinkies, a popular pub that has live music most evenings. It's a great place to discover new bands as well as listen to traditional fiddle or folk music. Many of Edinburgh's ghost/walking tours depart from Mercat Cross just up the hill from the hotel.
Apex International (from £95 per room per night) in the Grassmarket has parking facilities, though it does tend to fill up later in the day. The Apex also boasts a 2 AA Rosette restaurant upstairs with stunning views of the castle, and a small swimming pool with equally stunning views as you do the backstroke. The Grassmarket has a lively pub scene, with many historic Inns. A short stroll will get you to some excellent Scottish restaurants: Amber Restaurant at the Whisky Heritage Centre, Secret Garden in the Witchery - top of Royal Mile , Howies - Victoria Street. Just down the road towards the Cowgate is the large and lively pub the Three Sisters which has a large outdoor area with barbeques in the summer and live music in the evenings. It's historic cobbled courtyard offers an excellent spot to eat and drink al fresco.
The Glasshouse Hotel (from £120 per room per night) sits below Calton Hill just along the road from Princes Street. A 5 star boutique hotel, it is one of Conde Naste Travellers 'Top 50 Hottest Hotels in the World' and once visited, never forgotten. Located alongside the Playhouse Theatre and the Omni Centre where hotel guests can park, it is an excellent location for exploring the city and for evening entertainment. Valvona and Crolla the famous Edinburgh Italian foodie company has their original deli/cafe just down the road and is well worth a visit, as are their sister restaurants Vittoria and La Favorita both on Leith walk.
Apex Waterloo (from £95 per room per night ) A well appointed and newly opened hotel, the Apex Waterloo is at the eastern tip of Princes Street and a good location for exploring the city. It is particularly convenient for anyone arriving via Waverley Station and has a very good branch of Howies Restaurant next door. A few minutes walk will get you to two of my favourite pubs in Edinburgh; The Guildford bar (packed with character and top class real ales) and Cafe Royal bar next door with it's Oyster Bar, excellent pub food and stunning historic woodwork and tiled walls.
The Balmoral Hotel (from £125 per room per night) never fails to impress on arrival as the doorman in full livery welcomes you into it's hallowed 5 star walls. Despite it's status as a top notch hotel, informality and relaxed atmosphere are the order of the day. Michelin star dining and afternoon tea are highlights of any stay here. JK Rowling may have started her Harry Potter writings in a modest cafe in the Old Town, but she famously completed writing the adventures in some style at the Balmoral Hotel. Right next door to Waveley station and on busy Princes Street there is inevitably some noise, but you can trade the view for a quieter internal facing room is that's your preference. An excellent way to get your bearings is to jump on one of the Hop-on Hop-Off buses that start at Waverley bridge. Children have the option of taking the fun 'Horrible Histories' commentary whilst the adults can take the regular commentary. Get a live guide if you can.
Arriving by plane, train or bus is by far the best option. Waverley railway station is bang in the centre of Edinburgh and the bus station is fairly central in the New Town. Shuttle buses run every ten minutes from the airport to the city centre and take around half an hour, traffic willing. Edinburgh is the ultimate walkable city, but if you wish to venture a little further then a Lothian all day bus ticket will cost you just £3.00 (£2.40 child).
I won't make a list of 'must sees', I just recommend you try and see as much as possible without feeling rushed, and save the rest for another visit. As for accommodation location, I am equally happy staying in the Old Town as staying the New Town. They as so close together as to make little difference, but if I am feeling in the need for lots of history and a plentiful supply of olde worlde pubs then the Old Town gets my vote. If, on the other hand, my priority is shopping, picnicking in the park, Art Galleries and a plentiful supply of olde worlde pubs (again) then the New Town gets my vote.
What to do/see:
Walk the historic Royal Mile with Edinburgh Castle at the top and the Palace of Holyrood House at the bottom. There's a fair smattering of touristy shops on the Mile, but there are plenty of gems among them, and some of the historic pubs are well worth a visit (http://www.edinburgh-royalmile.com).
The Museum of Scotland (free) has the huge fantasy inspired millennium clock and some intriguing displays which relate to Edinburgh's dark history. There are fabulous views of the city rooftops from the modern tower so head to the top with a camera. There is a highly-rated restaurant in the tower (http://www.nms.ac.uk/our_museums/national_museum.aspx).
Ghost Tours or Historical/Literary Tours. These are so much fun as the guides tend to get into character and know how to entertain and involve the crowd. Try and go after dusk for a more atmospheric experience (http://www.mercattours.com/home.asp http://www.blackhart.uk.com/ http://www.witcherytours.com). Tickets from: Adult £8.50, Children £5, family ticket/concessions available.
Hop-on Hop-off tour buses depart outside Waverley station. Tickets are good for 24 hours so you can make use of them over two days. There is a mix of live guides and recorded commentary. A highlight for children is the Horrible Histories Tour, which is a handset commentary with a version of the tour suitable for adults (http://www.edinburghtour.com). Tickets: Adult £12 Child £5 Family (2 adults & up to 3 children) £28.
Dynamic Earth hands-on science centre at the bottom of the Royal Mile opposite the Scottish Parliament. We went with the children when they were younger and found that the grown-ups enjoyed it just as much (http://www.dynamicearth.co.uk) Tickets: Adults £9.50, Child £5.95, under 3s free, concessions available.
Edinburgh Zoo, a highly rated attraction is located to the west of the city just a fifteen minute bus/taxi ride. Watch out for the delightful march of the penguins. It's set on a hillside with stunning views (http://www.edinburghzoo.org.uk). Tickets: Adult £14, Children £9.50. family tickets/concessions available.
Edinburgh Castle is the iconic symbol of the city sits atop an extinct volcano. Try and make it for the firing of the one o'clock gun. It's a brief little ceremony, but fun to watch (http://www.edinburghcastle.gov.uk). Tickets: Adult £11, Child £5.50, concessions available. NB Huge savings can be made if you are planning on seeing a few historic sites in the country during your stay by purchasing a British Heritage Pass. Available to overseas visitors only: http://www.britishheritagepass.com/Prices
The Palace of Holyrood House at the bottom of the Royal Mile is the Queen's residence in Edinburgh. She tends to visit mostly during the summer months. Hear all about the untimely end of Rizzio, lover of Mary Queen of Scots. There's no escaping tales of dark deeds and murder in Edinburgh (http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/default.asp?action=article&ID=83).
Royal Yacht Britannia is moored in Leith. A cheap all-day bus ticket will get there in around 20 minutes. Once in Leith there is a large shopping mall at Ocean Terminal and a selection of some of the best restaurants to be found in Scotland. I was fairly ambivalent about visiting this ship, but it turned out to be a big hit with all the family (http://www.royalyachtbritannia.co.uk).
The Scotch Whisky Experience; top of the Royal Mile. Whether or not you take the whisky barrel tour, it's well worth a visit. Their shop has an extensive selection of malt whiskies and whisky related products. Downstairs is Amber, a well-hidden restaurant popular with the locals. It is a highly rated and modestly prices eatery which also boasts a whisky bar. Try the haggis with subtly flavoured whisky sauce. There's a vegetarian haggis for the faint hearted (http://www.scotchwhiskyexperience.co.uk).
Jim Garrahy's Fudge Kitchen. Another mecca on the Royal Mile that I defy anyone to walk past without looking in. Watch the fudge being made and take a deep breath, the smell is divine. Free samples are available at the counter (http://www.fudgekitchen.co.uk).
The city has restaurants for all budgets and tastes and vegetarians have great choice. Afternoon tea ( £21) is popular and can be a grand affair with champagne at the Balmoral Hotel's Bollinger Bar complete with harpist (http://www.thebalmoralhotel.com/dining/menu3.htm) or an altogether more modest affair at Eteaket in the New Town (http://www.eteaket.co.uk) or Clarinda's Tea Shop (breakfast for less than £5) styled like a quaint Victorian parlour and found on the lower half of the Royal Mile.
Pubs of note include the stunning Cafe Royal pub (http://www.caferoyal.org.uk) and the Guildford Arms next door which is highly rated for its excellent selection of real ales (http://www.guildfordarms.com). Above them in the same block is the Voodoo Rooms, an elegant lounge bar specialising in cocktails. All three pubs serve reasonably priced lunches and dinners and are conveniently located just across the road from the Balmoral Hotel.
That's just a small selection of what Edinburgh can offer. It's a vibrant city full of tourists, students and locals, and is a year-round tourist destination. The busiest times are August during the Festival and Fringe Festival season when hotel prices shoot up, and over the festive season when hoards arrive for Edinburgh's Hogmanay street party and celebrations.
There is so much more to Edinburgh, but I'll leave some for you to discover.