Dine at the Witchery, dig up the truth about the bodysnatchers, and discover the city's ghoulish history...

Why go now?

Scotland's most famous son (apart from Mel Gibson, of course) is Robert Burns, the 18th-century poet whose life and work is celebrated around the world every year on 25 January, when his "Address To A Haggis" is traditionally declaimed before a celebratory Burns Night supper. Among the hundreds of other poems and songs written by this one-time resident of Edinburgh is "Tam O' Shanter", a dark and gruesome rhyme telling of witches, warlocks, murder and "auld Nick". So why not forgo the tartan-and-shortbread approach for once, and take this lesser-known work as your inspiration for a tour of the city's more macabre side.

Beam down

There are plenty of rail services to Edinburgh's Waverley station; trains from Newcastle take 90 minutes (from £23 return), Birmingham five-and-a-half hours (from £29 return) and London King's Cross four-and-a-half hours (from £29 return). For more information, call National Rail Enquiries on 08457 48 49 50 ( www.thetrainline.com). National Express (08705 808080; www.gobycoach.com) runs buses from across the UK, including Manchester (from £20.50 return, six-and-a-half hours) and London (from £28, eight hours). Then there are flights: BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.com), British Airways (0845 77 333 77; www.ba.com), British European (08705 67 66 76; www.flybe.com), easyJet (0870 6 000 000; www.easyjet.com) and Scot Airways (0870 606 0707; www.scotairways.com) fly to Edinburgh from various UK airports. Airlink buses take half an hour from the airport to Waverley stationfor £5 return (0131-555 6363; www.lothianbuses.co.uk). A taxi isaround £16.

Get your bearings

With its steep streets, brooding tenements and narrow lanes or wynds, Edinburgh's Old Town is ideal territory for any horror film or ghost story. It's easy to understand why Robert Louis Stevenson used it as a literary backdrop for The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and why, after Mary Shelley visited the city in 1820, she referred to it in her novel, Frankenstein. To get to grips with the ghoulish geography, locate the Old Town's Royal Mile, the New Town's Princes Street and, in the dip between the two, Waverley station and Princes Street Gardens. With the volcanic lump known as Arthur's Seat soaring up at one end of the city and the towering Castle at the other, it's unlikely you'll get lost. For a free map and other information, visit Edinburgh's main Tourist Information Centre at 3 Princes Street (0131-473 3800; www.edinburgh.org).

Check in

For a city that prides itself on its historic connections, Edinburgh's hoteliers are surprisingly reticent about admitting to resident ghosts. For a sound and very luxurious night's sleep, book into the Scotsman Hotel in the newspaper's old offices at 20 North Bridge (0131-556 5565; www.thescotsmanhotel.co.uk; doubles from £180). If that's a bit beyond your budget, the friendly Town House at 65 Gilmore Place has doubles from £60 (0131-229 1985; www.thetownhouse.com). Or, if you want to make sure there's at least a chance of something going bump in the night, book a lower bunk at St Christopher's hostel, 9-13 Market Street (0131-226 1446; www.st-christophers.co.uk; dorm beds from £12 per night).

Take a view

Looking out across the city's turrets and tenements from the top of Calton Hillis spectacular at any time, but it is never more eerie than on a quiet moonlit night in winter (best not to wander up here alone). Without the crowds that flood here to watch fireworks at Hogmanay – or naked dancers during the spring's Beltane festival – it takes on a chilling hush.

Take a hike

If there's one thing Edinburgh excels at, it's walking tours. Companies running organised ghost tours include Mercat Tours (0131-557 6464; www.mercattours.com; daily at 7pm, 8pm and 9.30pm; £6 adults, £4 children), Auld Reekie Tours (0131-557 4700; www.auldreekietours.co.uk; daily at 7pm, 8pm, 9pm and 10pm; £6 adults, £4 children), Blackhart (0131-225 9044; www.blackhart.uk.com; daily 7.30pm and 8.30pm; £6 adults, £4 children) and Witchery Tours (0131-225 6745; www.witcherytours.com; times vary from day to day; £7 per person). The spookiest spot is Mary King's Close, an alleyway buried beneath the City Chambers, which was blocked up during the 1645 plague, its residents left to die. It's supposedly one of the most haunted places in the country. The location is closed until April, when it's set to reopen as a one-stop attraction, re-named the Real Mary King's Close and including reconstructions of 16th to 19th-century life.

Lunch on the run

Opt for lunch on the dark (but tasty) side, with a sweet chilli and ham panini (£3.50) at Black Medicine, 2 Nicolson Street (0131-622 7209).

Take a ride

Whether you want to dig up the truth about the city's infamous bodysnatchers, Burke and Hare, or sit back and enjoy some reconstructed torture, the stormy Witchfynder boat ride at the Edinburgh Dungeon, 31 Market Street, is probably a good place to start. Currently open from 11am to 4pm Monday to Friday and from 10.30am to 4.30pm at weekends, entrance costs £8.50 for adults and £5.50 for children (0131-240 1000; www.thedungeons.com).

Cultural afternoon

Stroll down the Royal Mile through the Old Town to Holyrood Palace , the Queen's official residence when she's in town. In 1576 Mary, Queen of Scots was forced to watch her secretary, David Rizzio, being murdered here. The palace is said to be haunted by the ghost of an unknown woman, though not in the apartments open to visitors (0131-556 7371; www.royal.gov.uk). Entrance is £6.50 for adults, £3.30 for children and it's open from 9.30am to 3.45pm. The newly opened Queen's Gallery is on the same site (0131-556 5100; £4 adults, £2 children; open 9.30am to 4.30pm daily).

An aperitif

If you like your pubs themed, head for Maggie Dickson's, 92 Grassmarket (0131-225 6601), where you can sip away while pondering Maggie's gruesome story (hanged in 1742 for hiding a pregnancy, she miraculously survived and was later set free). Or try the spookily subterranean Nicol Edwards, 29-35 Niddry Street, which calls itself Scotland's most haunted pub (0131-556 8642). If it's just a decent pint you're after, try either the Cumberland Bar, 1 Cumberland Street (0131-558 3134), with its stock of real ales, or the lively Barony Bar, 81-85 Broughton Street (0131-557 0546).

Dining with the locals

With its flickering candles and low-ceilinged stonework, The Witchery by the Castle, 352 Castlehill (0131-225 5613) may have a whiff of an upmarket theme diner about it but don't let that put you off. It offers some of the best food in the city – and one of the longest wine lists. If you prefer wizards to witches, keep an eye out for the imminent reopening of Nicolsons, 6a Nicolson St, the café turned restaurant where JK Rowling scribbled down the first Harry Potter books. Or book a table with a skyward view at the excellent Tower restaurant, Museum of Scotland, Chambers St (0131-225 3003).

Sunday morning: go to church

Pagan origins, Masonic connections, a mysterious history and apparently the largest number of green men carved into any medieval building, Rosslyn Chapel has them all. The chapel (0131-440 2159; www.rosslyn-chapel.com) is eight miles from the city centre in the village of Roslin. It's currently open from 10am to 5pm from Monday to Saturday, 12 noon to 4.45pm on Sundays; admission £4 for adults, £1 for children. To get there, take bus 37 from Charlotte Square to Loanhead and change to the 141 from there to Roslin (around £3.20 return) or hop in a taxi (around 20 minutes, £15).

Out to brunch

There's nothing sinister about The Shore (unless you count venturing into the Trainspottingterritory of Leith), but it's one of the city's best places to eat. Go for the fish cakes and fresh vegetables, followed by an enormous chocolate mousse (£14 for two courses) and eat either off white tablecloths in the tiny restaurant or at a cosy wooden table in the pub (3-4 The Shore; 0131-553 5080). The number 22 bus runs nearby from the city centre (80p) or a taxi will cost around £4.

A walk in the park

The huge, leafy sprawl known as The Meadows is definitely big enough to lose the city crowds, especially at this time of year. Local rumour has it that the humps in the adjacent short-hole golf course are old graves but, although it's likely that plague victims would have been buried in the area, you can rest assured that the bumps here hide only rock.

Write a postcard

Entertain your friends with the scary reality of Scotland with jokey postcards by the Caravan Gallery. They cost 55p each at Beyond Words (42-44 Cockburn Street, 0131-226 6636).

Window shopping

To buy your own broomstick, make your way to the cavernous Brush Shop at 40 Victoria St (0131-225 2181). Then carry on downhill to Ha Ha Ha costume shop, 99 West Bow, and gear yourself up with a clutch of plastic rats or a set of vampire teeth (0131-220 5252).

The icing on the cake

Perched on its rocky peak, Edinburgh Castle is as dark and brooding as it gets, which is very in Edinburgh. Look out for the small water fountain to the left of the exit. This marks the sinister site where hundreds of women were burned as witches between the 15th and 18th centuries. If that's not spooky enough, keep an ear out for unexpected music; the castle is also said to be home to both a phantom piper and a headless drummer. Entrance costs £8.50 for adults and £2 for children. The castle opens daily from 9.30am to 5pm (0131-225 9846).