48 hours in Alternative Edinburgh

There's more than one way to enjoy Scotland's ancient capital


Why go now? Forget Hogmanay (and haggis, bagpipes and kilts for that matter), there's another, more gentle, side to Scotland's capital. If you prefer to get your thrills away from the throng, take a deep breath and discover some alternative attractions. From now until 24 December, you can do your exploring in festive style thanks to Capital Christmas, a series of music, theatre, comedy and children's events throughout the city. For details, contact the Edinburgh and Lothians Tourist Board at the Waverley Shopping Centre (0131-473 3800; www.edinburgh.org) or log on to: .

Why go now? Forget Hogmanay (and haggis, bagpipes and kilts for that matter), there's another, more gentle, side to Scotland's capital. If you prefer to get your thrills away from the throng, take a deep breath and discover some alternative attractions. From now until 24 December, you can do your exploring in festive style thanks to Capital Christmas, a series of music, theatre, comedy and children's events throughout the city. For details, contact the Edinburgh and Lothians Tourist Board at the Waverley Shopping Centre (0131-473 3800; www.edinburgh.org) or log on to: .

Beam down The current rail chaos makes train travel an unreliable way of reaching Edinburgh. I flew with ScotAirways (0870 6060707; www.visitscotland.comwww.visitscotland.com), which has return fares from £90.75 from London City airport. Edinburgh is also well served from elsewhere in the country: British Airways (0345 222111, www.britishairways.co.uk) flies direct from 14 UK airports, including Birmingham, Heathrow, Manchester and Bristol; British Midland (0870 607 0555, www.britishmidland.com) flies from four airports; easyJet (0870 600 0000, www.easyjet.com) from Luton; and Go (0845 605 4321, www.go-fly.com) from Stansted. The airport is about 25 minutes' drive from the city centre (£12 by taxi or £3.30 by bus).

Get your bearings The city's main attractions are all in easy walking distance, and the great thing about finding your way around Edinburgh is that there is a hulking great castle bang in its middle, providing a clear landmark. Running parallel, north-east from the castle, are Princes Street, Queen Street (north of which is the elegant new town), the High Street and Cowgate. At the end of those is Calton Hill, the site of the country's new parliament buildings beside Holyrood Palace and Arthur's Seat .

Check in If you want to splash out without drowning in tartan, strictly minimal suites at the Point Hotel (34 Bread Street, 0131-221 5555; www.point-hotel.co.uk) boast colourful neon lighting and baths made for two. They cost from £150 per night. The standard doubles here aren't really worth their £80 rate so, if you're looking for something cheaper, try the clean and central Hotel Ibis (6 Hunter Square, 0131-240 7000), which has doubles from £52; the excellent Lauderville Guest House (52 Mayfield Road, 0131-667 7788), which has doubles from £50, or the friendly High Street Hostel (8 Blackfriars Street, 0131-557 3984), which has beds for £10.

Take a hike For a wander by the water's edge, stroll up the Water of Leith, past the Botanical Gardens, towards the National Gallery of Modern Art, or take the number 26 bus from Princes Street out to the beach at Portobello for old-fashioned sand, sea, and fish and chips.

Window shopping Edinburgh has some excellent "alternative" shops. One of the best is Napier's Dispensary (1 Teviot Place, 0131-225 5542), a bright and well-stocked herbalists, with an adjacent clinic. For crystals, jewellery and related books, try Wildwood (16 High Street, 0131-557 4888). For health foods and Neals Yard toiletries, try Real Foods (37 Broughton Street, 0131-557 1911).

The icing on the cake Start early and beat the crowds to Arthur's Seat for a few moments of quiet contemplation, looking out over the whole of Edinburgh. The pathway up this extinct city-centre volcano starts between Holyrood Palace and Our Dynamic Earth, and it should take you about 40 minutes to get to the top. If you don't want to go all the way to the top, there are also great views from Salisbury Crags, a 20-minute hike up.

Bracing brunch At Helios Fountain (7 Grassmarket, 0131-229 7884), you can get a delicious slice of quiche, with masses of salad and a cup of tea for £4.50 and then stop at the gift shop for presents on your way out. If you want a slower, boozy brunch, try the cosy Blue Moon café (1 Barony Street, 0131-557 0911) for salads, home-made burgers and carrot cake.

A walk in the park You don't have to go very far at all to escape the bustle of Edinburgh's streets. Princes Street Gardens, in a big dip between the old town and the new, offers great swathes of grass, graceful old trees and fantastic views of the brooding grey-stone buildings.

Sunday morning, go to church Take bus number 315 (0131-225 3858 for times), from Waterloo Place (25) to Rosslyn Chapel (0131-440 2159, www.rosslynchapel.org.uk), 10km from Edinburgh. This spectacularly ornate chapel (entrance £4), is a dizzying mix of pagan, Celtic, Christian and Masonic symbolism, and, as it is currently under restoration, you can also wander around a walkway at roof-level. The site includes a tea-shop.

Demure dinner A Room In The Town (18 Howe Street, 0131-225 8204) has appealing, dark-blue walls, and is lit by oil lamps, but the main attraction is the food: a delicious, three-course Scottish-influenced meal will cost you just £21.95. Bann's (5 Hunter Square, 0131-226 1112) has ultra-modern (vegetarian) dishes in ultra-modern surroundings. For £8.50, you can tuck into plates of aubergine cannelloni or squash terrine.

Lunch on the run Between £1.25 and £2.65 will buy you a freshly made sandwich or salad from Henderson's (94 Hanover Street, 0131-225 2131). Or, munch your way down Victoria Street, stopping at La Sologne (number 32) for fancy French breads and pastries, and IJ Mellis (number 30a) for all manner of fantastically pongy cheeses.

Cultural afternoon Stroll down to Our Dynamic Earth, at 107 Holyrood Road (0131-550 7800; www.dynamicearth.co.uk). Open on Saturdays and Sundays, from 10am to 5pm, this thought-provoking attraction is £6.95 for adults and £3.95 for children. Although it's mainly aimed at children - there's a simulated volcanic eruption where the floor trembles, an "ocean" section which smells of the sea, and a cool blue "ice carving" exhibit which has a giant block of ice you can touch - stressed-out adults will enjoy the meditative films of flights over glaciers.

An aperitif Soft, white fairy-lights and a predominantly young clientele add to the atmosphere as much as the alcohol at Black Bo's (57-61 Blackfriars Street, 0131-557 6136), a down-to-earth alternative to the city's booming pubs. For somewhere even more low-key, try the tiny, art-strewn bar at the Cameo cinema (38 Home Street, 0131-228 2800).

Take a ride Lie back and think of nothing in particular during an hour's session (£22) at the Edinburgh Floatarium (29 North West Circus Place, 0131-225 3350). Provided you're not claustrophobic - and that you don't splash any salt water in your eyes - you should come out from the warm-water treatment feeling rested, rejuvenated and ready to do some serious shopping at the centre's boutique.

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