A collection of sandstone spires, tumbling over hills and long-dead volcanoes, spilling out onto the purple-blue Firth of Forth, Edinburgh, Scotland, is a rare beauty. Its streets tell of a long history, with tall medieval tenements and elegant Georgian townhouses tracing the contours of its many peaks and dips. From an unfinished acropolis to its rain-stained Gothic cathedrals, Edinburgh’s past is unmissable and it’s all worthy of a city break.
It’s a city of enormous variety, yet easily accessible by foot. In a day, two feet will take you to the tops of miniature mountains, through the halls of regal galleries and even beneath cobblestone alleys. Venture beyond the Royal Mile, and stumble upon obscure whisky bars and hidden hilltop views. Some of Edinburgh’s best bits are buried in its surrounding neighborhoods, well away from wailing bagpipes and busy crowds.
Whenever you come, whether you visit during its world-famous festival or for a short weekend break, you’ll find a city for all occasions, inhabited by open, convivial people. But don’t fret about packing it all into one trip – Edinburgh always deserves another visit.
With more restaurants per head than any other city in the United Kingdom, you’ll find plenty to eat in Edinburgh beyond haggis.
The Gardener’s Cottage, close to Calton Hill, is at the forefront of the city’s growing sustainable dining scene, with an ever-changing seasonal menu plucked straight from the allotments outside. Set within a cozy, 17th-century stone cottage, diners eat shoulder to shoulder on long, wooden tables. Anything not grown here is meticulously sourced from the finest local producers. Drop in for lunch and take advantage of the super reasonable set menus.
For dinner, trade sedate country life for the bustle of Delhi at Tuk Tuk on Leven Street. Simple, unpretentious and just the right amount of hectic, expect quality Indian street food served small plate style. The menu is stuffed with classics from all corners of the Subcontinent (think crispy pakoras and rich saag paneer), but it’s the little touches, such as the blaring Bollywood tunes, ramshackle decor and stainless-steel serving dishes, that make this place so popular. The BYOB policy helps keep things affordable, too.
Edinburgh is packed with convivial boozers and sleek cocktail bars for after-dinner drinks, but it just wouldn’t be a trip to Scotland without at least one whisky. Head over to Canny Man’s in Morningside for a dram. Walls plastered with Victorian memorabilia, this eccentric pub has a malt list long enough to keep Winston Churchill lubricated—its impressive, ancient gantry is crammed with 240 malts handpicked from the farthest corners of Scotland’s major whisky regions. Even if you’re not a big whisky drinker, it’s worth a visit for the décor and relaxed local atmosphere alone.
The Scottish capital is a living historic wonder, and even the most casual stroll through the twisting wynds of the Old Town will uncover something worth seeing and doing.
Delving down into the ancient bowels of old Edinburgh, the South Bridge Vaults tell a different side to the city’s story. Originally an ambitious feat of engineering designed to expand the city in 1788, these dank, underground caverns eventually became a magnet for poverty—illegal saloons, prostitution and gambling soon took hold. With strange tales aplenty—from Romanian rugby players in hiding to the ghostly voices in the gloom—the vaults are a curious albeit creepy way to see the city’s past. For more macabre subterranean stories, head down to the tenements of Mary King’s Close, the site of a particularly devastating plague outbreak in 17th-century Edinburgh.
Theater, likewise, plays a huge part in the city’s identity. Even outside of festival season, Edinburgh is a hot bed of alternative performance and creativity. For a slice of the contemporary, book in a show at Traverse Theatre. It’s all about new writing, so expect challenging theater with a fresh Scottish perspective. For a more classic theater experience (“Lion King,” “Book of Mormon,” etc), head to the Edinburgh Playhouse.
Edinburgh has no shortage of excellent museums and galleries. Scratch your art itch at the Scottish National Gallery. Overlooked by the castle, the gallery houses greats both local and international, from Scotland’s own, such as Ramsay and McTaggart, to the likes of Rembrandt and Turner. Afterwards, pay Dolly (the first mammal ever cloned) a visit at the National Museum of Scotland. Its eclectic mishmash of natural history, science and culture, have made it one of the most popular museums in the world, but, somehow, its roof terrace—and the sweeping views out over central Edinburgh—has remained relatively unknown.
By this point, you’ll have done the obligatory stroll along the Royal Mile up to the castle and ticked off Arthur’s Seat. Both offer incredible views, but with just one catch: you have to stand on one to see the other. To see Edinburgh’s iconic pair together, you’ll have to work a little harder. Head out to Blackford Hill, just south of Morningside, for one of the city’s greatest views—both peaks, surrounded by all of Edinburgh with the sea and Scotland beyond.
There’s no lack of grandiose boutique accommodation in Edinburgh. Unfortunately, they usually come with a grand price to match. Much harder is finding a decent, affordable hotel in the city center.
Brooks ticks all three boxes, and then some. A handsome Victorian townhouse in Edinburgh’s West End, the hotel underwent a stylish refurb in 2013, playing to the building’s 19th-century history, minus the stuffiness. Expect a touch of Scottish Highlands, but not so much that it’s twee – leather-bound chairs and the odd antlered wall hanging are matched with one-off vintage furniture and fancy printed wallpaper. It’s boutique on a budget, but you can’t really argue for the rate and the location. Small touches, like affordable afternoon tea in its peaceful courtyard and the impressively stocked-honesty bar, add a few touches of luxury. Rooms are cozy but still quite spacious and breakfast is included.
Haymarket Hub Hotel
“Come for the location, stay for the free Wi-Fi,” should be the motto at Haymarket Hub Hotel, a modern combination of cool and comfort, also in the West End. Conveniently located opposite Haymarket train station, its simply furnished, two-tone rooms give a good base from which to explore the city. No guidebook? No problem. Spend your downtime tapping into what’s on in the city with the Hub’s handy app. Extra little perks include in-room Sky TV and USB charging points. There’s no breakfast, but Milk Café around the corner has loads of healthy, seasonal options.