City break: 48 hours in the life of Edinburgh

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The Independent Online
Hamish Scott provides a shortcut to the soul of Scotland's capital.

Why go now?

Because the world's biggest New Year bash takes place in the city centre. And this year, with a whiff of independence in the air, the Scots are really going to celebrate, with concerts, ceilidhs and a vast Hogmanay street party. In the hope of keeping numbers below 200,000, passes will be needed to reach the city centre after 8pm on 31 December. These have now all been allocated, but for more information about Edinburgh Hogmanay events call 0131 473 1998.

Beaming down

Scotland's capital is, in theory, splendidly accessible from all over the UK, with flights from Belfast, Birmingham, Bournemouth, Cardiff, East Midlands, Leeds/Bradford, Manchester, Norwich, Plymouth, Southampton, and all five London airports; trains from as far away as Brighton and Penzance; buses racing up the A1. But around Christmas demand encounters supply and gives it a hell of a beating. Britain's train operators have suspended SuperSavers for the entire festive season, which means you must travel on the more expensive Saver tickets: pounds 73.50 return from London, pounds 71.80 from Birmingham and pounds 63 from Manchester. After 4 January, fares subside to much more sensible levels.

Get your bearings

Edinburgh is really two distinctive cities divided by a deep, steep-sided valley that was formerly a loch. If you arrive by train at Waverley station, you emerge on to a bridge that overlooks this still miraculously open space. Turn left and you're in the Old Town, a medieval maze of streets and narrow alleys clinging to a ridge along the Royal Mile between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace. Turn right and you're in the New Town, a grid of Georgian terraces and squares that remains the best example of 18th- century town planning to be seen in Britain.

Check in

The Balmoral (0131 556 2414) and the Caledonian (0131 459 9988), at either end of Princes Street, are the grandest hotels in town. The "Cally" has a touch more character than the ornate THF flagship, but the suite that Sean Connery stays in will cost you pounds 595 before you've even had a croissant, while standard doubles are pounds 209. A more economical alternative on Princes Street is the Royal Overseas League (0131 225 1501), where a double room costs pounds 90 including breakfast. Ten minutes' taxi-ride away in Leith, the Malmaison (0131 555 6868) is currently the trendy place to stay, with double rooms from pounds 90.

Take a ride

Face up to the truth that you really are a tourist, wrap up warm and view all the famous sights from the top deck of an open bus. They leave from Waverley every 30 minutes and the hour-long tour costs pounds 7.

Take a hike

One of the delights of Edinburgh is that the city is small enough to be explored on foot. The ideal starting point is Calton Hill, a windswept summit scattered with extraordinary follies, with panoramic views across the city. From here, armed with a street map, you can plot your intended route. You might begin in Princes Street before heading right and over Queen Street into the New Town's exclusive residential heart, where cobbled streets of stately old town houses will lead you down towards the rather more Bohemian area of Stockbridge. You can then take a path back to the centre along the Water of Leith, following a wooded gorge 100ft below the busy streets. From the west end of Princes Street, you could continue with your exploration by turning down King's Stables and skirting the sheer cliffs of Castle Rock. This will take you to Lawnmarket and the Royal Mile, the capital's medieval artery. If you're feeling energetic you might carry on to Holyrood, otherwise turn left across North Bridge for a scenic short-cut back to Princes Street. Walking briskly you could do this circuit in an hour, but there's enough to see and a sufficient number of good bars, restaurants and cafes to spin the expedition out all day.

Lunch on the run

Indigo Yard in Charlotte Lane off the western end of Princes Street is a lively cafe-bar with good snacks and a buzzing atmosphere. The Dome in George Street is almost overwhelmingly palatial - a former banking hall the size of a cathedral with porticos and columns that soar above the tables. In either place a modest lunch with a glass of wine will cost about pounds 10. Valvona & Crolla in Elm Row off Leith Walk is the ultimate Italian deli where you will have to fight your way through caverns of salami, fungi and exotic oils to reach the cafe at the rear. Here you'll find bruschetta, crostini, panetella and other specialities at about pounds 4 a dish.

Cultural afternoon

The National Gallery of Scotland on the Mound off Princes Street has an exhibition during January of Turner watercolours but the collection is worth a visit anyway, just to see Rembrandt's haunting self-portrait. The Gallery of Modern Art in Belford Road (which can be reached from the Water of Leith path) contains magnificent examples of the Scottish Colourists such as People and Cadell. The National Portrait Gallery in Queen Street gives an intriguing insight into national character. Why do so many famous Scots, from James I to Bill Forsyth, wear expressions that suggest they're sitting on a sharp claymore?

Window shopping

Jenners is the only store worth visiting in Princes Street; an old-fashioned family emporium with perfect service and a food hall full of Scottish specialities from shortbread to smoked venison. George Street is far smarter, with tailors, bookshops and wine-merchants alongside fashionable boutiques. Howe Street and Dundas Street are good for art and crafts, antiques and junk. In the Royal Mile avoid the tartan tat along the High Street in favour of unique small businesses in Canongate. Where else could you hope to find a sporran-maker or a business dealing in old playing-cards, let alone a whisky shop where a single bottle can cost pounds 7,000?

An aperitif

Broughton Street is lined with pubs and bars, ranging from the traditional and cosy Barony to the hi-tech post-modernism of Baroque, where steel furniture and ice-cold lager reign supreme. Or, for "real" Edinburgh, head north up Leith Walk to the mirrored splendour of the Central Bar or even on to Constitution Street to brave Russian sailors, drunken songs and other louche excitements in the Port O'Leith.

Demure dinner

The Atrium (0131 228 8882) in Cambridge Street behind the Traverse Theatre is currently the most exclusive spot in town, with new-style Scottish cooking in elegant surroundings at the sort of prices that one might expect. Stac Polly (0131 556 2231) in Dublin Street also has a Scottish flavour but at about pounds 60 for two is rather more affordable. Around the waterfront in Leith new restaurants are opening almost every week. (Fitz)Henry - a brasserie (0131 555 6625) in Shore Place - is as trendy as its name suggests but has a Michelin Red M and a set-price dinner for pounds 24.50. Within five minutes' walk you'll pass a score of other places, many specialising in sea food and the majority far cheaper, that draw knowing diners from the city centre every evening.

Go to church

For Calvinistic penitence go to St Giles Cathedral in the High Street. The spirit of John Knox himself seems to flicker in the gloomy shadows of the ancient church where he preached his fiery sermons. St Andrews in George Street is, by contrast, a church of the enlightenment - airy, open and exquisitely designed.

Bracing brunch

Champagne and a dozen oysters are the perfect cure for any slight hangover and the Cafe Royal (0131 556 4124) in West Register Street will be serving them on New Year's Day (as well as Sundays) in the astonishingly ornate surroundings of this famous bar. Those suffering more seriously from the night before might prefer a bracing walk across Arthur's Seat to Duddingstone, where the old Sheep's Heid Inn (0131 656 6952) offers a massive Scottish brunch of everything your heart could possibly desire, from haggis to fried eggs.

A walk in the park

Few cities have an extinct volcano within a mile of their centre. Arthur's Seat rises to almost 1,000ft, with cliffs and lochs and wild glens that mimic Highland scenery. There's a footpath by the quiet little road, or tougher routes across the crags. For the truly energetic, the views from the summit are breathtaking, stretching from the borders and the North Sea to the foothills of the Trossachs, with the city far below.

Icing on the cake

The castle's tiers of battlements have stood guard over the city for 1,000 years. On a winter afternoon, when its towers cast long shadows over cobbled courts and wind is whistling through the dungeons, this is Edinburgh's dark basalt heart, and no visit is complete without a glimpse into its splendid horrors.

Another view of Edinburgh appears in tomorrow's Independent on Sunday.