Capital attractions

Edinburgh reeks of history - and its hotels, galleries, restaurants and museums are not to be sniffed at either, says Rhiannon Batten
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The Independent Travel

ANCIENT AND MODERN

ANCIENT AND MODERN

With its steep streets, dark tenements and narrow wynds (alleys), the Old Town is Edinburgh's historic heart. Ever since the 7th century, when Celtic kings first settled on the area in which the city's famous castle at Castlehill (0131 225 9846; open 9.30am-6pm; entrance £9.50 adults, £2 children) now stands, this has been Scotland's ruling centre (if not technically becoming its capital until 1633).

Now sliced neatly in two by the shop-filled Royal Mile, the Old Town still lays claim to some of the city's most historic features, including the castle, the bar-and tenement-clogged Cowgate and brooding St Giles cathedral. Out to the east is Calton Hill, with its jumbled collection of Athenian monuments and ancient burial grounds; while to the north, over the grassy dip of Princes Street Gardens and Waverley station, is the New Town. Here the graceful cobbled streets and Georgian buildings first planned out by 21-year-old James Craig in 1766 are now home to art galleries, restaurants and Edinburgh's answer to Fifth Avenue: George Street.

The city's dramatic split-level topography means that one of the best ways to approach the city is from the lofty comfort of a rooftop perch: the "Forth floor" terrace bar of Harvey Nichols at 30-34 St Andrew Square (0131 524 8388), the stylish open-air patio of Oloroso restaurant at 33 Castle Street (0131 226 7614) or the more traditional viewpoint of the 287th soot-darkened step of the Scott Monument at East Princes Street Gardens (0131 529 4068; open 10am-6pm, entrance £2.50). "Auld Reekie" also has an approachably modern side, however, with late-opening pubs and, especially during August's Edinburgh Festival, a thriving cultural scene.

OLD-SCHOOL COMFORT OR URBAN COOL?

The Scotsman Hotel at 20 North Bridge (0131 556 5565; www.thescotsmanhotel.co.uk), which opened a few years ago in the old, marble-filled offices of the newspaper, remains one of the best hotels in the city. Right in the centre of the Old Town, with views out across the New too, its grand exterior hides a sensitive conversion. There's even a small, leather-seated cinema, where you can watch classic movies with a glass of champagne in hand. Doubles start from £160 without breakfast

More obviously contemporary is The Glasshouse at 2 Greenside Place (0131 525 8200; www.etontownhouse.com), set by a busy but well-hidden junction at the top of Leith Walk. Opened a year ago, its rooms boast big, comfy beds and access to a stunning roof garden. Doubles here start at £150 without breakfast.

PATHWAY TO THE PAST

Begin at Edinburgh's most famous landmark, the castle, and stroll straight down the Royal Mile, past the site of the controversial new parliament building, all the way to Holyrood Palace, the Queen's official residence when she's in town and a spectacular full-stop to this ancient street. Stop off next door to the palace at the Queen's Gallery, a fairly recent addition to Edinburgh's gallery scene, before continuing on to Holyrood Park and the enormous volcanic lump of Arthur's Seat.

Holyrood Palace (0131 556 5100; www.royal.gov.uk) is open 9.30am-6pm daily (when the Queen isn't in residence) and entrance costs £8 for adults or £4 for children. The Queen's Gallery is open at the same times and a joint palace and gallery ticket costs £11 for adults and £5.50 for children.

MUSEUM PIECES

As the city of body snatchers Burke and Hare and where Mary Shelley is thought to have sought inspiration for Frankenstein, Edinburgh boasts plenty of ghostly attractions. One of the best is Mary King's Close, a collection of underground streets and houses hidden beneath the foundations of the city chambers. These spooky passageways were once narrow, open-air streets but were blocked up, supposedly with their plague-infested inhabitants inside, in 1645. More tangible history is on offer at the Museum of Scotland which was purpose-built to house some of the country's most important artefacts in 1998. It's pretty much a one-stop shop for finding out about Scotland's past.

Tours of Mary King's Close at High Street (08702 430160; www.realmarykingsclose.com) run between 10am and 9pm and entrance costs £7 for adults or £5 for children. The Museum of Scotland at Chambers Street (0131 225 7534; www.nms.ac.uk) is open from 10am to 5pm daily (from noon on Sundays) and entrance is free.

LOCAL FLAVOUR

Fish is the thing in this coastal city. For the real, fresh variety not (usually) coated with batter, head to one of the restaurants along The Shore in Leith - the confusingly named The Shore at 3-4 The Shore (0131 553 5080), Fishers Bistro at 1 The Shore (0131 554 5666), or Michelin-starred Martin Wishart at 54 The Shore (0131 553 3557). The majestic buildings of this old port area have been wholeheartedly regenerated over the past few years and lunch or dinner here makes a good alternative to the more touristy city centre.

If all this exploring brings on a thirst, the Scottish Malt Whisky Society is just around the corner at 87 Giles Street, although you have to be a member (from £50) to access the society's clubby bar (0131 554 3451; www.smws.com). The society has also just launched a bar and restaurant at its swanky new city centre branch at 28 Queen Street (0131 220 2044).

If you just want a no-fuss pint of Deuchars, try either the cosy Cumberland Bar at 1 Cumberland Street (0131 558 3134), with its stock of real ales, or the Starbank Inn in a quiet waterside location just beyond Leith at 64 Laverockbank Road (0131 552 4141).

FUTURE PERFECT

Edinburgh's August festivals - international, fringe, film and books being the biggest components - remain the big event. Two new additions to look out for this year are the Fringe book festival and The Pod at the Odeon, a spanking new comedy venue in what was previously one of the city's favourite old cinemas (for more information see www.edinburghfestivals.co.uk). If that's not a big enough reason to visit, how about the opening of the new Scottish Parliament on 9 October - if it's finished in time... For more Edinburgh tourist information, see www.edinburgh.org or call 0845 2255 121.

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