The Scottish capital knows how to get into the festive spirit, but there’s plenty to recommend a visit outside the peak season, from rousing rambles to artisan ice cream, writes Chris Green.
When to go
Peak times are during the Edinburgh Festival in August and at Christmas and New Year. Both can be wonderful times to see the city, but the population soars and so do the prices. Festive celebrations get under way in mid-November, with ice skating, fairgrounds, a giant Advent calendar, Christmas tree maze and Christmas markets (edinburghschristmas.com).
For a quieter time, try September-November or April-May. The weather is pot luck, but there are plenty of crisp and clear days at this time of year.
How to get there
Edinburgh’s main railway station is Waverley (1), in the centre of town. Virgin Trains operates frequent services up and down the East Coast Main Line, with London King’s Cross reachable in four hours 20 minutes; its West Coast branch runs from London Euston via Birmingham and Manchester and takes about 20 minutes longer. ScotRail also operates services to Glasgow (50 minutes) and other parts of Scotland.
Edinburgh Airport (2), about eight miles west of the city centre, is served by plenty of domestic routes. From here, hop on the regular Airlink 100 bus to get into town, which takes around 30 minutes and costs £4.50. Other options are the tram (£5.50, also 30 minutes) or a taxi.
Where to stay
The German low-budget hotel chain Motel One has two very central locations, on Market Street (3) and just off Princes Street (4). Doubles from £74. Weekends tend to fill up months in advance, so plan ahead (motel-one.com).
The boutique Kildonan Lodge Hotel (5) is located 1.5 miles south of the city centre in the suburb of Newington, but public transport is frequent. Doubles from £109 (kildonanlodgehotel.co.uk).
Located on Charlotte Square in the oh-so-pretty New Town, the Principal Edinburgh (6) provides an ideal base from which to explore. Made up of seven inter-connecting Georgian townhouses, it has just been refurbished and a new spa and restaurant are due to open this month. Doubles from £150, but expect to pay more at popular times (phcompany.com).
Start the day
To get an immediate sense of the city, make a beeline for Edinburgh Castle (7), perched imperiously on a volcanic outcrop. From the esplanade, there are fine views over the New Town, which you can drink in for free before wandering down the atmospheric, if slightly touristy, Royal Mile (8) towards Holyrood Palace (9). Nip down one of the many closes on the left or right to leave the crowds behind. Ticket prices for the castle are steep at £17 per adult, but worth it if you have the time. A decent tour will take around two hours (edinburghcastle.gov.uk).
Hit the shops
If you’re after something a bit classier than the tartan-bedecked tourist shops of the Royal Mile (8), head over to Princes Street (4) and George Street (10), the city’s main shopping area. Pop into Jenners (11), the department store which has been a must-visit for Edinburgh shoppers since 1838.
If you decided to skip the Castle and can spare the time, head to Leith for a tour of the Royal Yacht Britannia (12, pictured above right), used by the Queen for more than 40 years until it was retired in 1997. Visitors can gawp at the state apartments and sun lounge where dignitaries including Sir Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela once relaxed with royalty. A floating hotel will open alongside it next spring. Tickets £15.50 (royalyachtbritannia.co.uk).
Located on a quiet cobbled street in the New Town, The Bon Vivant (13) is the perfect place for a pre-dinner drink. Warm and inviting, it has an excellent cocktail menu as well as a good selection of craft beers and single-malt whiskys. Reservations are recommended, unless you don’t mind propping up the bar (bonvivantedinburgh.co.uk).
It remains a mystery why Castle Terrace (14), one of Edinburgh’s finest dining experiences, is without a Michelin star. Chef Dominic Jack’s modern twists on classic dishes showcase the best of Scottish produce and are a delight from beginning to end. The service is impeccable but relaxed,
the atmosphere quiet without being stuffy. Try the surprise tasting menu for £80 (castleterracerestaurant.com).
Go for a stroll
Walking in Edinburgh is a pleasure. If you don’t mind hills, that is. For a strenuous outing, venture along Salisbury Crags (15) and up Arthur’s Seat (16) for majestic views of the city and the Kingdom of Fife in the distance. If hills aren’t your thing, take a Sunday amble through the New Town before rewarding yourself with a coffee at one of the area’s numerous cafés.
The trendy neighbourhood of Stockbridge (17) is bursting with places for a fine Sunday lunch. If you’re after a traditional roast or a hearty burger, head to The Raeburn (18) (theraeburn.com), which has a fine brasserie. Or, for a fusion feast, try Rollo (19) (barrollo.com), which is loved by locals.
Time to relax
Get away from it all in the delightful surroundings of the Royal Botanic Garden (20), a 70-acre network of interlinked gardens and ponds with a famous Victorian palm house. Entry to the gardens are free, but the glasshouse exhibit costs £6.50 (rbge.org.uk).
Have a treat
Despite not being renowned for its tropical weather, Edinburgh has a tradition of good ice cream. (It’s said the 99 cone was invented in the seaside suburb of Portobello.) At Affogato (21), 18 tasty varieties are made fresh on the premises and cheerfully dished up alongside coffee, cakes and waffles (affogatogelato.co.uk).
“Edinburgh is a great city for families. We live in Leith and enjoy trying all the different pubs and restaurants by the Shore and Constitution Street. Teuchters Landing is a perennial favourite, not least for its beer garden. Other particular recommendations for family outings would be Gorgie City Farm and the National Museum of Scotland, where our daughter loves the new interactive science galleries and animal displays.”