As the festival swings into action, Rhiannon Batten braves the crowds to hunt down the hottest haunts for the discerning visitor

TOUCH DOWN

Edinburgh's Waverley Station is served by trains from across Britain; 08457 48 49 50 or www.nationalrail.co.uk for information. You can also fly to Edinburgh from many UK airports. The easiest way into the city centre from the airport is by express shuttle bus (0131-555 6363; www.flybybus.com), for £5 return, taking 30 minutes and stopping several times en route to Waverley Station . Taxis cost around £15 one-way.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The centre of Edinburgh is divided into the Old Town and the New Town, with Princes Street Gardens and the newly revamped National Gallery running between the two. The Old Town is home to the Royal Mile, the castle and the new Scottish parliament while the New Town plays host to most of the shops and lots of graceful Georgian architecture.

CHECK IN

A good mid-range option close to the city centre is gay-owned, straight-friendly Ardmor House at 74 Pilrig Street (0131-554 4944; www.ardmorhouse.com). This ultra-chic four star B&B has doubles from £95 in August, including breakfast. Edinburgh's swishest backpacker hostel, the Globetrotter Inn , is set on the edge of the Forth at 46 Marine Drive (0131-336 1030, www.globetrotterinns.com). Beds start at £15 in a dorm, or £20 per person in an en-suite double. The most glamorous hotel in town is Prestonfield House on Priestfield Road (0131-225 7800; www.prestonfield.com). This is a luxury retreat set below Edinburgh's iconic grassy volcanic lump, Arthur's Seat. It has a pleasantly country feel aided by Highland cows grazing in an adjacent field. It was recently named the UK's most romantic hotel. Doubles start from £195, including breakfast.

TAKE A VIEW

The climb up Arthur's Seat isn't as tough as it looks. Start at Holyrood Park and you should be up at the top of this hill, enjoying the best views in the city, within a leisurely 40 minutes.

TAKE A RIDE

Cycling is a great way to see a different side of the city. One good local route is along the first three or four miles of the old "Innocent" railway line, a leafy, off-road track that includes a long tunnel section and starts from Holyrood Park.

If you'd rather join an organised trip, Adrian's Edinburgh City Cycle Tours start in the same area, take three hours and cost £15 per person (07966 447 206; www.edinburghcycletour.com).

Bike rental starts from £16 per day from Biketrax, which can also offer advice on local routes, and sells maps (7-11 Lochrin Place; 0131 228 6633, www.biketrax.co.uk).

WINDOW SHOPPING

The world's oldest independent, family-run department store, was Jenners at 48 Princes Street (0131-225 2442; www.jenners.com). It was sold to House of Fraser this year, but there are plenty of other good independent shops worth a browse in Edinburgh: Jane Davidson at 52 Thistle Street (0131-225 3280; www.janedavidson. co.uk) for designer threads, Concrete Wardrobe at 317-319 Cowgate (0131-558 7130) for clothes and accessories by local designers, Anta at 91-93 West Bow (0131-225 4616; www.anta.co.uk) for chic Scottish furnishings and Coco at 174 Bruntsfield Place (0131-228 4526; www.coco chocolate.co.uk), for organic chocolates.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Head to Urban Angel at 121 Hanover Street (0131-225 6215) for fair trade ingredients, organic soups, salads and bistro-style meals served in far sleeker surroundings than your average health-food cafe.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Over 30 galleries have signed up to collaborate on this year's city-wide Edinburgh Art Festival. Exhibitions range from Francis Bacon portraits to work by 12 contemporary African artists and three shows by Ian Hamilton Finlay. One of the most eye-catching displays will be Cai Guo-Qiang's explosion of coloured smoke shells, "black rainbow", set above the castle and run in conjunction with his show at the Fruitmarket Gallery (0131-225 2383; www.fruitmarket.co.uk).

TAKE A HIKE

The home town of Irvine Welsh, Alexander McCall Smith, Robert Louis Stevenson and JK Rowling is well-catered for in literary tours. The newest walk is the Original Edinburgh Medical Tour (0131-557 6970; www.edinburgh medicaltour.com). Starting from outside the Royal College of Surgeons , among other places it visits are the student lodgings of Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Darwin, both of whom studied medicine locally. Tours last 90 minutes and cost £8.50.

AN APERITIF

The cocktail scene is growing in Edinburgh, with the grooviest spots including Halo at 3 Melville Place (0131 539 8500), Dragonfly at 52 West Port (0131-228 4543) and the Bollinger bar at the Balmoral Hotel at 1 Princes Street (0131-556 2414). For an antidote to all that fizz, head down to the old port district of Leith for Czech lager and moose sausage at Swedish-owned Bar Boda at 229 Leith Walk (0131-553 5900).

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

Bigfish is the city's coolest new restaurant, in an unprepossessing building in Leith at 14 Bonnington Road (0131-555 6655; www.the commissary. co.uk). Despite its exterior, this is more New York than Edinburgh. Once inside, glitterball lights dance across white tablecloths and antique china is artfully mismatched. Current specials including whole parchment-baked sea bass. You need to be determined to eat here, though: it opens only every other weekend. Also getting rave reviews locally is the new Mussel and Steak Bar at 110 West Bow (0131-225 5028). The focus here is on simple, fresh seafood, steaks and home-made puddings.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Open from 9am to 5pm on Sundays, Circle at 1 Brandon Terrace (0131-624 4666) is the perfect New Town pit-stop. It has stylish surroundings; fresh pastries and gourmet teas and coffees for breakfast; and fresh soups, salads and posh bangers and mash for late-risers.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

Claims in Dan Brown's book, The Da Vinci Code, that the Holy Grail was once hidden at Rosslyn Chapel have seen visitor numbers rocket at this small, intricately carved chapel six miles south of Edinburgh. The main Sunday service is held at 10.30am; the church opens to visitors from 12pm-4.45pm on Sundays, on other days from 9.30am to 6pm; admission is £6. On top of this, you will need to pay for a cab out there; buses from St Andrews Square to the village of Roslin run only on weekdays (0870 608 2608; www.traveline.org).

A WALK IN THE PARK

Head up the road to the Royal Botanic Garden at 20A Inverleith Row; 0131-552 7171; www.rbge.org.uk). It opens 10am-7pm daily, admission free - unless you wander into the newly revamped Temperate Palm House (£3.50). This Grade A-listed structure is the tallest of its kind in the UK and home to plants from Australia, South Africa and the Canary Islands, as well as an underground aquarium.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

A walking tour called Discover the Taste (0131-453 1660; www.discover thetaste.com) takes place on alternate Saturdays. They are aimed at introducing visitors to the city's best independent food producers and delis. The two-hour tours cost £15 and start from Castle Terrace farmers' market .

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