48 Hours In: Edinburgh

As the city's iconic arts festival draws to a close, now's the time to enjoy the Scottish capital's quieter charms, writes Harriet O'Brien

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Travel essentials

Why go now?

Early autumn is a glorious time to explore the Scottish capital's townscapes. With this year's International Festival just ending, the crowds are departing and you can once again see Edinburgh for what it is: a wonderfully atmospheric medieval Old Town with a Georgian extension that is one of the world's most elegant and influential feats of urban planning. The party, though, is by no means over: during the autumn and winter, Scotland continues to mark Homecoming 2009, a year-long celebration of Scottish culture and heritage ( homecomingscot-land2009.com).

Touch down

Take a train to Waverley station (1) and you arrive in the heart of Scotland's capital. The East Coast main line service from London King's Cross, Peterborough, York and Newcastle is operated by National Express (08457 225 225; nationalexpresseastcoast.com), with the fastest journey from London under four-and-a-half hours and fares from £33 return. Many other English and Scottish cities have direct links; more details from National Rail Enquiries: 08457 484 950; nationalrail.co.uk.

Edinburgh Airport is five miles west of the centre, and has links from airports across the UK on Bmibaby (0905 828 2828; bmibaby.com); British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com); Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com); and easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com). The 25-minute bus journey to Waverley station (1) costs £3.50 (0131-555 6363; flybybus.com); a taxi to the centre costs around £25.

Get your bearings

Between the Firth of Forth to the north and the volcanic outcrop of the Salisbury Crags to the east, Scotland's capital is spread across a series of hills. Edinburgh Castle (2), brooding atop a cliff, dominates the west end. Stretching down from it eastwards is the medieval thoroughfare of the Royal Mile, an ancient spine of turrets and gables. Immediately to the north is the Georgian New Town. To the west is Calton Hill, topped with a dramatic array of monuments, from a copy of the Parthenon to a castellated memorial to Nelson.

North again is Leith, Edinburgh's regenerated docklands now buzzing with some of the city's best restaurants. Be warned, though: a new tram service from the old docks area to the airport via the centre is being developed. Its over-running construction work has turned much of the main artery, Princes Street, into a building site.

The main tourist office (3) is in the heart of Edinburgh at 3 Princes Street (9am-5pm daily, Sundays from 10am). Staff can advise on special autumn break offers (0845 225 5121; visitscotland.com/autumn).

Check in

Last December, Hotel du Vin (4) opened an Edinburgh branch that occupies a previously intriguing-yet-undervalued site: Bedlam Asylum. The new hotel offers 47 rooms restfully decorated in taupe and mauve with discreet tartan touches, as well as a whisky bar and a bistro (a big hit locally). Located at 11 Bristo Place (0131-247 4900; hotelduvin.com), the building is a stone's throw from the University of Edinburgh and five minutes' walk south of the Royal Mile. Doubles from £125, without breakfast.

Nearby is another recent opening. Hotel Missoni (5) at 1 George IV Bridge (0131-220 6666; hotelmissoni.com) was completed in June. The look here is retro-chic, the entrance dominated by a cocktail bar flanked by polka-dotted booths. Set in a former government office overlooking the Royal Mile, the hotel has 136 rooms clad in bold colours and fabrics. Doubles from £175, without breakfast.

In the New Town, Davenport House (6) at 58 Great King Street (0131-558 8495; davenport-house.com) offers elegance on a budget. This Georgian town house has six spacious rooms and is a 10-minute (hilly) walk from the centre's shops and bars. Doubles from £85, including breakfast.

Day one

Take a hike

To take in some of the glories of the New Town, start from the tourist office (3) and head up St Andrew Street to St Andrew Square (7), its neat north side still looking roughly as it would have when built around 1772. Walk west along grand George Street, laid out from 1767. On the right, you pass the oval Church of St Andrew and St George (8), still containing its original box pews – but it opens only 10am-3pm from Monday to Friday, admission free. Cross Hanover Street and walk past the leading Fringe venue the Assembly Rooms (9).

Turn right down Frederick Street, with views of the Firth of Forth, and right into Queen Street. Bordered by the greenery of private gardens, this long terrace has altered very little since the 1770s. Number 8 (10) is the work of Robert Adam, and became a model for New Town terrace houses. Continue past the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (11) (closed for refurbishment until late 2011) and turn left down Dublin Street. You are now in a later phase of the New Town, constructed from 1820, with streets more embellished and flamboyant. Turn right into Abercromby Place (12), which was the city's first curving street and drew crowds as it was built. Continue along the older, gracious Heriot Row (13): number 17 was the childhood home of Robert Louis Stevenson in the 1850s. Then follow Darnaway Street into the great circle of Moray Place (14). Fabulously pedimented and pilastered, it was built for the Earl of Moray between 1822 and 1855. Turn left and then left again up Forres Street and follow the road into one of Edinburgh's finest sights – Charlotte Square (15), with palace-style façades by Robert Adam. The results were groundbreaking, but Adam never saw the finished work: he died in 1792, 28 years before the square was eventually completed.

Lunch on the run

Head for the Grassmarket in the Old Town, a trading centre since the 14th century and once the site of the city's gallows. On the northern corner with West Bow, Hula (16) (0131-220 1121) is a lively juice bar and café with a good choice of bagels and wraps from £2.60.

Window shopping

The Grassmarket presents a colourful mix of independent outlets: Armstrongs vintage clothes shop at number 83, for example; Bill Baber mohair designs at number 66. Edinburgh's main shopping street was for years Princes Street, but well before the mayhem of the tram works it was eclipsed by the more stylish George Street – where you'll find The White Company, Hobbs, LK Bennett and more – and by Multrees Walk. This new development around Harvey Nichols on the eastern side of St Andrew Square (7) offers branches of Louis Vuitton, Mulberry, Armani and the like.

Take a ride...

... in a whisky barrel. The Scotch Whisky Experience (17) at 354 Castlehill (0131-220 0441; scotchwhiskyexperience.co.uk; daily 10am-6pm; adults £11) opened an entertaining new tour this spring. You clamber into a barrel-car that takes you on a trip through the whisky-making process, with accompanying smells and commentary, and end the tour with a whisky-tasting session.

An aperitif

Tucked away behind Princes Street is one of Edinburgh's finest pubs. Café Royal (18) at 19 West Register Street (0131-556 1884; caferoyal.org.uk) is a wonderfully panelled and mirrored 1860s establishment complete with a choice of at least 15 malt whiskies.

Dining with the locals

From the city centre, catch bus 22 – or walk along Leith Walk – to Leith. Here Restaurant Martin Wishart (19) at 54 The Shore (0131-553 3557; martin-wishart.co.uk) won the city its first Michelin star, in 2001 – an award it retains. Expect to pay around £55 (without wine) for two courses of exquisitely presented modern French cuisine. Or book a table at Skippers Bistro (20), 1a Dock Place (0131-554 1018; skippers.co.uk) for excellent-value seafood in a more informal setting.

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

St John's (21) at 140 Princes Street (0131-229 7565; stjohns-edinburgh.org.uk; daily 8am-4.45pm) has one of Edinburgh's leading church choirs – and attending Choral Matins here is a treat (11.15am except on the first Sunday of the month, when Sung Eucharist is at 10.30am). Come, too, to see the jewel-box effect of the stained-glass windows in this fine Gothic Revival building.

Out to brunch

At 103 George Street, Centotre (22) (0131-225 1550; centotre.com) is a former bank now offering funky lighting and decor. It offers formal (Italian) dining downstairs and a bright ground-floor café whose extensive breakfast menu includes organic porridge (£3.50) and scrambled free-range eggs with spinach (£4.95). It opens on Sundays at 11am.

Take a view

Two in one: you can learn about the life of Sir Walter Scott and take in terrific panoramas of the city at the Scott Monument (23) on Princes Street Gardens (0131-529 4068; daily 10am-7pm; adults £3). There are 287 steps to the top of this Victorian Gothic memorial, with viewing galleries on four levels and a small museum to the author of Rob Roy, Ivanhoe and more after the first 94 steps.

Cultural afternoon

The National Trust for Scotland offers an intriguing insight into both Old and New Towns at two remarkable properties. Start at Gladstone's Land (24), the tenement building of a wealthy merchant, set above the Royal Mile at 477B Lawnmarket (0844 493 2120; nts.org.uk; daily 10am-5pm; adults £5.50). In the six rooms you explore here you get a sense of how cramped and insanitary conditions were in the 16th and 17th centuries, even though one of the tenants was rich enough to have wall panels decorated with painted flowers. Then move on to The Georgian House (0844 493 2118; nts.org.uk; daily 10am-5pm, adults £5.50) at 7 Charlotte Square (15), with its gracious high-ceiled rooms and its chandeliers. Upstairs is all elegance, but perhaps more absorbing is the kitchen, where you learn, for instance, that the house acquired its first water pump only in 1819.

A walk in the park

Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Garden (25) at 20A Inverleith Row (0131-552 7171; rbge.org.uk; daily 10am-7pm, April to September, 10am-6pm, March and October, 10am-4pm, November to February; admission free) comprise 70 acres of landscaped grounds. Highlights range from the soaring Victorian palmhouses to the Scottish Heather Garden – now offering early autumn colour.

The icing on the cake

The National Gallery of Scotland (26) at The Mound (0131-624 6200; nationalgalleries.org; daily 10am-5pm; Thursdays until 7pm; admission free) has a small but fabulous collection. Must-sees include Rembrandt's Self-Portrait aged 51; Raphael's Bridgewater Madonna and Gauguin's Vision of the Sermon, as well as the Ramsays and Raeburns of the Scottish section.