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Why go now?
Now that the Hogmanay party is over and the hordes have left the Scottish capital, this is the ideal time for sightseeing. The city's museums and galleries are an excellent place to take shelter from the frosty weather, and in the next few weeks you'll have them almost to yourself. January and February are also the months when Edinburgh reveals its cosier side, with plenty of snug pubs and cafés to dip into as you explore this brooding, atmospheric city.
Edinburgh's Waverley station (1) is right in the city centre, with rail services rolling in from across Britain. The main line, run by National Express East Coast, takes around four hours 30 minutes from London's King's Cross via Peterborough, York and Newcastle. The most civilised way to arrive from London, though, is on the overnight Caledonian Sleeper from Euston. Cross-Country Trains run from Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds and many other towns and cities, while First Transpennine Express has a new link from Manchester via Preston and Carlisle. For information on times and fares, call National Rail Inquiries on 08457 48 49 50, or see www.nationalrail.co.uk.
You can fly to Edinburgh from airports across the UK. The airport is about seven miles west of the city centre. Airlink 100 airport buses (0131 555 6363; www.flybybus.com) depart frequently for Waverley station (1), for a fare of £5 return and a journey time of around half an hour; the economy option is local bus 35 (£1 each way), though this route takes up to 90 minutes (0131 555 6363; www.lothianbuses.co.uk). A taxi to the centre costs around £20.
Get your bearings
The heart of Edinburgh is split between the Old Town and the (actually quite old) New Town, with Princes Street Gardens and the National Gallery (2) taking up the space left between the two. The Old Town is dominated by the Royal Mile, which runs from the castle (3) down to the new Scottish parliament building (4) and Holyrood Palace (5). Sightseeing apart, much of the city's real action goes on elsewhere – in the shops and bars of the New Town, in the city's tightest constellation of Michelin-starred restaurants in Leith, Edinburgh's regenerated docklands area, and in the chichi, but also rather studenty, "south side". The main tourist information office (6) is at 3 Princes Street (0845 2255 121; www.edinburgh.org).
For luxury and location, the Balmoral Hotel (7) on Princes Street (0131 556 2414; www.roccofortehotels.com) is hard to beat. It is so close to Waverley station that one of the porters will, if required, collect your bags from the platform. Double rooms here start at £145, room only.
A good mid-range option close to the city centre is Ardmor House (8), at 74 Pilrig Street (0131 554 4944; www.ardmorhouse.com). This chic four-star B&B has double rooms from £65, including breakfast.
For visitors on a budget, there's the recently opened five-star Edinburgh Central youth hostel (9), at 9 Haddington Place (0131 524 2090; www.edinburghcentral.org). Comfortable, en-suite twin rooms start at a bargain £49 per night, room only.
Take a view
It doesn't take long to clamber up Calton Hill, on the eastern edge of the city centre, and you'll be rewarded with almost 360-degree views of the city, the sea, and across to Fife. It's a great place to take in the lie of the land before you start exploring the rest of the city.
For an even better view, pay £3 to climb the 143 steps to the top of the Nelson Monument (10), built, of course, to commemorate Nelson's victory, and death, at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. It's open from 10am to 3pm, daily except Sunday (and between April and September 10am-6pm Tuesday-Saturday, 1-6pm Monday; www.cac.org.uk).
Take a hike
The Water of Leith Walkway (0131 455 7367; www.waterofleith.org.uk) is much-loved among Edinburgh's residents, but relatively few tourists find their way here. This 12-mile, wildlife-rich riverside path slips quietly around the western edge of the city centre. The prettiest section runs from Stockbridge (11), south through fairy dell-like Dean Village where, from the 12th to the 19th centuries, water mills ground grain for the area. The stretch ends at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (12). This elegant collection (0131 624 6200; www.nationalgalleries.org) is well worth discovering; it opens 10am-4pm daily, admission free.
Lunch on the run
For healthy, tasty food in a cosy neighbourhood setting, look no further than Café Renroc (13), at 91 Montgomery Street (0131 556 0432; www.renroc.co.uk). A café and alternative-therapy centre during the day and a bistro in the evening, it's actually more glamorous than it sounds, and the menu is very good value, with soups from £2.50 and sandwiches from £2.95.
These days, Princes Street has lost its crown as Edinburgh's prime shopping street, with everything from Harvey Nichols to Space NK setting up shop on George Street and Multrees Walk (14). For quirkier bargain-hunting grounds and one-off boutiques, try Victoria Street, William Street and Broughton Street; at Concrete Wardrobe (15), 50a Broughton Street (0131 558 7130), you can find contemporary Scottish crafts and fashion. Alternatively, head straight to MoletaMunro (16), at 4 Jeffrey Street (0131 557 4800; www.moletamunro.com) for interior decorations and gifts.
The must-see in Edinburgh at this time of year is the display of Turner watercolours at the National Gallery (2), on The Mound (0131 624 6200; www.nationalgalleries.org). This extraordinary collection spans the artist's career. It was bequeathed on the condition that the paintings would be shown only in January, when the daylight is weak. The gallery opens 10am-5pm daily, until 7pm Thursday; admission is free.
Other winter exhibitions include a social history of drinking in Edinburgh at the Museum of Edinburgh (17), at 142 Canongate (0131 529 4143; www.cac.org.uk). Running until 3 March, it outlines Edinburgh's intoxicating history, from the brewing industry to the temperance movement. The gallery opens 10am-5pm Monday-Saturday, admission free.
George Street is the place for serious bar-hopping, with an endless choice of stylish bars to stagger your way along. For something a little more "shabby chic", head down the hill to Joseph Pearce's (18), at 23 Elm Row (0131 556 4140). This is the latest opening from the Swedish team behind the cult Edinburgh favourites Bar Boda, Sofi's and Victoria's. Decked out in "Swedish Granny" style (with upholstered armchairs, flickering candles and proper dining-room tables for bar food), this pub serves an unusually good range of drinks, as well as coffees and a small Swedish-influenced menu. Between 11am and 5pm, there's also a children's corner set up, complete with wooden toys.
Dining with the locals
The Kitchin (19), at 78 Commercial Quay in Leith (0131 555 1755; www.thekitchin.com) is the star of the show in Edinburgh. Housed in a converted warehouse, this Michelin-starred restaurant serves up local, seasonal produce and big flavours. Count on paying around £45 per head for dinner, without wine.
Also inventive but much less pricey is Roseleaf (20), a new Australian-owned café-pub just around the corner at 23-24 Sandport Place (0131 476 5268; www.roseleaf.co.uk). Freshly made burgers (£6.50) and pastas are dished out on pretty china plates. Fruit juices, leaf teas and homemade ginger beer are served alongside the stronger stuff. It's also great for breakfasts.
Sunday morning: go to church
Greyfriars Kirk (21) was the first to be built in Edinburgh after the Reformation; its minister organised the National Covenant in 1638, sparking violent conflict.
Another of the kirk's claims to fame is its connection with Greyfriars Bobby, a legendary Skye terrier who, in 1858, followed the remains of his master to the church graveyard and then stayed loyally there for the next 14 years. A plaque also marks the burial site of William McGonagall, who was given the dubious honour of being dubbed the world's worst poet.
Morning service is at 11am on Sundays (0131 226 5429; www.greyfriarskirk.com). At other times, the church can be visited on Thursdays from 1.30-3.30pm. From April to October, it is open on Saturdays 10.30am-2.30pm, and on weekdays 10.30am-4.30pm.
A walk in the park
No visit to Edinburgh would be complete without a bracing walk around Holyrood Park and a wind-blown clamber up Arthur's Seat, an extinct volcano to the south-east of the city centre. From St Margaret's Well (22), the climb to the top is less arduous than it initially looks, taking around 40 minutes. Once at the top, you will be rewarded with some jaw-dropping views across the whole of the Scottish capital.
Out to brunch
For a real blowout, head to Channings (23), at 12-16 South Learmonth Gardens (0131 315 2225; ). Every Saturday and Sunday, the restaurant at this luxurious hotel offers a "Boozy Snoozy" lunch deal, whereby £65 buys you a three-course meal for four, with two bottles of wine. It is served from 12.30pm-3pm on Sundays (midday-2.30pm on Saturdays).
For brunch on the go, fuel up for the day the Scottish way with a fresh fruit juice (£2.10) and a bowl of delicious Stoats Cranachan porridge (raspberries, toasted oats and cream, £1.95) at Juice Almighty (24), which is at 7a Castle Street (0131 220 6879; www.juicealmighty.co.uk). It is open from 10am on Sundays.
Take a ride
For a different take on Edinburgh, try a trip on a recumbent bike. A company called Laid Back Bikes (07981 430159; www.laid-back-bikes.co.uk) offers tours for £22 per person, including bike hire, guide and coffee. One of its most scenic tours is an 18-mile (three-hour) ride out past the Gallery of Modern Art (12) to the pretty coastal village of Cramond, north-west of the city.
Icing on the cake
To help keep the chill out during an Edinburgh winter you need calories. Forget deep-fried Mars bars, though, and get stuck into a better class of sweet stuff. Two of the best hunting grounds are Falko Konditorei (25), at 7 Bruntsfield Place (0131 656 0763; www.falko.co.uk), which whips up the best cakes in town, German-style; and The Manna House (26), an elegant patisserie and café at 22-24 Easter Road (0131 652 2349; www.manna-house-edinburgh.co.uk).
Additional research by Claire LloydReuse content