48 Hours In Edinburgh

Scotland's capital comes alive in summer when the city is gripped by festival fever. Cathy Packe explores
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The Independent Travel

WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

Scotland's capital is hyperactive in August. The Edinburgh Festival begins on 15 August and continues to 5 September; tickets are available from the Hub, a handsome former church on the Royal Mile (0131 473 2001; www.eif.co.uk). Performances will be staged in many of the city's concert halls and theatres. Any venues not being used will be taken over by the even larger Fringe festival, which runs from 8-30 August. The box office is also on the Royal Mile, at 180 High Street (0131 226 0026; www.edfringe.com). Other events taking place during the summer include a jazz and blues, and a book and film festival. And just in case you need another excuse, the Edinburgh Tattoo will be staged from 6-28 August; tickets are available from the Tattoo office at 33-34 Market Street (08707 555 1188; www.edinburgh-tattoo.co.uk).

TOUCH DOWN

British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Birmingham, Bristol, Gatwick, Heathrow, Inverness, London City, Manchester, Southampton, Stornaway and Wick. BMI (0870 607 0555; www.flybmi.com) flies from Heathrow, Jersey, Leeds-Bradford and Manchester, while its no-frills offshoot bmibaby (0870 2642229; www.bmibaby.com) flies from Cardiff and Nottingham. easyJet (0871 7500100; www.easyJet.com) flies from Nottingham, Bristol, Gatwick, Luton and Stansted. From the airport, in theory the LothianBus Airlink service (0131 555 6363) runs to Waverley Bridge every ten minutes during peak times but reliability is sometimes a problem. Fares cost £3 single or £5 for an open return, or you can catch a taxi for around £15. Waverley station, the city's main rail terminal, is served from dozens of places across Britain. The main tourist office is nearby at 3 Princes Street (0845 2255 121; www.edinburgh.org); it opens Monday-Saturday 9am-8pm, Sunday 10am-8pm in season.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Edinburgh is dominated by the castle, perched on a volcanic plug at the top end of the Royal Mile. This long thoroughfare changes its name several times on its way down, from the Esplanade to Castlehill, The Lawnmarket, the High Street and Canongate. It finishes at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Edinburgh's Old Town sits astride the Royal Mile, while to the north lies the 18th-century New Town. The newly regenerated port area of Leith is a few miles north-east of the city centre.

CHECK IN

If you arrive by train, one of the handiest hotels is the Balmoral at 1 Princes Street (0131 556 2414; www.roccofortehotels.com); double rooms start at £290, singles at £240; breakfast is an extra £17. On a smaller scale is the Bonham at 35 Drumsheugh Gardens (0131 623 9301; www.thebonham.com), once a university hall of residence, now a leading boutique hotel. Double rooms here start at £245 including breakfast. A trendy alternative is the Malmaison at 1 Tower Place, Leith (0131 468 5000; www.malmaison.com), where rooms start at £159; breakfast £9.75 per person. Edinburgh becomes very crowded at festival time, so it is possible that almost every hotel room in the city will be fully booked by now, although the Scotland Tourist Board (0845 2255 121; www.visitscotland.com) should be able to help with accommodation. And don't forget that there are plenty of hotels in Glasgow, which is only 45 minutes away by train. Room rates are lower outside the festival period.

TAKE A HIKE

Start along the Royal Mile at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the official Scottish residence of the Queen. You can visit the ceremonial apartments and the chambers used by Holyrood's most famous resident, Mary, Queen of Scots. The palace (0131 556 5100; www.royal.gov.uk) opens 9.30am-6pm daily, admission £8. On each side of the Royal Mile is a jumble of buildings in a mixture of architectural styles. Many are now private apartments over shops, cafés and kilt-makers. Look out for the small "closes" that open off the main drag into hidden courtyards and gardens. One of the most fascinating is the Real Mary King's Close, an extraordinary network of streets underneath the Royal Mile that were inhabited until the 19th century before being buried beneath the City Chambers. The site (0870 243 0160; www.realmarykingsclose.com) opens 10am-9pm daily. Tours take place every 20 minutes and last an hour; tickets cost £7. Visitors are taken through the dark alleys by a guide, whose character is based on a historic inhabitant. Further up the Royal Mile is Gladstone's Land at 477b The Lawnmarket (0131 226 5856; www.nts.org.uk), a typical 17th-century tenement and the home of a merchant. It opens 10am-5pm daily (Sundays from 2pm) until the end of October, admission £5. The Royal Mile ends at the dramatic Edinburgh Castle, whose royal apartments contain the Scottish crown jewels and the Stone of Destiny. A new exhibition which opened this spring looks at the castle's role as a prison. The castle (0131 225 9846; www.historic-scotland.gov.uk) opens 9.30am-6pm daily, admission £9.50.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Just down from the castle is the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre at 354 Castlehill, whose restaurant, Amber (0131 477 8477; www.amber-restaurant.co.uk), has some reasonably-priced Scottish dishes that are good for a light lunch, all of which can be washed down with one of 280 different types of whisky.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

The Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street (0131 247 4422; www.nms.ac.uk) would be worth visiting for its stunning modern architecture alone. Happily, the exhibits are also excellent. They cover every aspect of the country's history, from its geological origins to its modern art and culture. The top floor contains a selection of items chosen to illustrate our times for future generations. The museum opens 10am-5pm daily (Sunday from midday, Tuesday until 8pm), admission free.

AN APERITIF

George Street is the location for one of the main Fringe venues, the Assembly Rooms at number 54, and for plenty of bars. The Dome at number 14 has enough different bar areas to appeal to drinkers of any age, while the trendy Opal Lounge at number 51a is great for an early evening drink or if you want some late-night music.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

Book ahead to have any chance of a Saturday night dinner at Oloroso at 33 Castle Street (0131 226 7614; www.oloroso.co.uk). The main menu reflects what is available in the local markets from day to day, while the grill menu concentrates on beef. A less formal alternative is The Outsider at 15-16 George IV Bridge (0131 226 3131). There is no division of starters and mains; instead the menu has sections of "fish things" and "other things", as well as salads and stir-fries.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

A church has stood on the site of St Giles' Cathedral (0131 225 9442; www.stgiles.net) for 900 years, and the current cathedral has already undergone several restorations. The next project is to restore the stained glass: look out for the window celebrating Robert Burns, and another that shows a bagpipe-playing angel.

A WALK IN THE PARK

The Royal Botanic Garden, established in 1670, is the most important garden in Scotland. Dazzling displays make the gardens a fine place for a stroll at any time of year. Besides the 10 glasshouses there is a Chinese hillside, planted with specimens originating in the Far East. The garden (0131 552 7171; www.rbge.org.uk) opens 10am-7pm daily, and admission is free.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Head for Leith, which you can reach on bus 16, 22 or 35 from the city centre. An excellent spot is Skippers at 1a Dock Place (0131 554 1018; www.skippers.co.uk), a restaurant renowned for its fish. A two-course brunch costs £12.50.

WINDOW SHOPPING

The Ocean Terminal complex by the waterfront in Leith offers all the usual high street favourites, plus a retail outlet for Baxters' soups. The shopping centre (0131 555 8888; www.oceanterminal.com) also sells a selection of Scottish goods including smoked salmon, haggis and shortbread. It opens 10am-8pm from Monday to Friday, 10am-7pm on Saturday and 11am-6pm on Sunday.

WRITE A POSTCARD...

... from the Royal Yacht Britannia, which has been moored in Leith since it was decommissioned in 1997. A tour of the ship (0131 555 5566; www.royalyachtbritannia.co.uk) offers a fascinating glimpse of royal life at sea. Visitors can wander along the decks where a Rolls Royce is garaged, past the royal apartments, and into the quarters occupied by the yacht's large crew. Britannia opens 9.30am-4.30pm daily, to 3.30pm in winter, admission £8.50.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

Back in the city, take the opportunity to visit the newly refurbished Royal Scottish Academy on the Mound (0131 225 6671; http://www.royalscottishacademy.org/) and the neighbouring National Gallery of Scotland (0131 624 6200; www.natgalscot.ac.uk). From 5 August the two galleries will be joined by an underground link. Starting on the same date, and continuing until 5 December, the RSA will house a major new exhibition, "The Age of Titian". The National Gallery and RSA are open daily from 10am-5pm, until 7pm on Thursday, and longer hours during the festival. Entrance is free, but tickets for the Titian exhibition cost £7.

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