Why go to Edinburgh now?
It's Burns Night! And what better way to celebrate the life and poetry of Robert Burns than in his native Scotland, complete with toasts, songs and an address to the haggis. There are countless places to enjoy a Burns Supper in Edinburgh, including many events that have a ceilidh as part of the festivities.
Get your bearings
Edinburgh is built on seven hills, and divided into the winding streets of the medieval Old Town, and the New Town’s grid-like Georgian architecture. Flanking the city is Edinburgh Castle (1) to the west, and in the east, the grassy nose of Arthur’s Seat (2) in Holyrood Park (3) – you’re never far from the wind-whipped countryside. The New Town marks the start of a slope leading past the Botanic Gardens (4) towards Leith (5); the regenerated riverside area that’s now home to the Scottish capital’s so-called “Michelin mile”.
The Edinburgh Icentre tourist office (6) (visitscotland.com/info/services/edinburgh-icentre; 0131 473 3868) is on Princes Street (7).
Take a view
From Waverley station (8), head east and follow signs for Calton Hill (9). As you ascend, keep an eye out for the brick Dugald Stewart monument (10), built in honour of the Scottish philosopher, then scramble up the vast stone steps to the Nelson Monument (11), before you reach the hill’s peak: the Grecian columns of the National Monument (12), which sits eerily half-finished. It’s all failsafe selfie territory.
Take a hike
Follow Calton Road (13) until you reach the Palace of Holyroodhouse (14), where Her Majesty resides when she’s in town, then amble down Edinburgh’s most famous street, the Royal Mile (15). If you’re feeling bold, join in with the local tradition of spitting on the Heart of Midlothian (16), a pattern designed into the cobbles to mark the site of the historically unpopular Old Tolbooth prison – it’s said to bring good luck. Carry on until you reach St Giles’ Cathedral (17).
Lunch on the run
The Elephant House (18) (elephanthouse.biz) was made famous by JK Rowling, who wrote the first Harry Potter novels there – Hogwarts fans should check out the wizard-themed loos.
For something more substantial, Outsider (19) (theoutsiderrestaurant.com) uses the best of Scotland’s larder – mussels, Isle of Mull cheddar and venison – in its regularly changing menu. Ask for a window seat for views of Edinburgh Castle.
Walk through the Grassmarket (20) to browse for vintage treasures at W Armstrong and Son (21) (armstrongsvintage.co.uk), quirky gifts at Museum Context (22) (contextinteriors.co.uk), and design-led finds from Scottish makers at Red Door Gallery (23) (edinburghart.com). Next, squeeze between the tenements of 15th-century Milne’s Court (24) and follow the path up the Mound until you reach Princes Street Gardens (25). Around Christmastime, rows of wooden chalets at the bustling market sell crafty presents and mulled wine.
Heads and Tales (26) (headsandtalesbar.com) is a hole-in-the-wall spot run by Edinburgh Gin Distillery (spot the two huge copper stills behind the bar). Whisky lovers should opt for The Bow Bar (27) (thebowbar.co.uk), where crinkly-faced gents and bearded hipsters choose a dram from the 310 single malts on sale.
Dine with the locals
At the end of a gravel path lies the 19th-century Gardener’s Cottage (28) (thegardenerscottage.co). Sit at the communal wooden tables and enjoy a feast of Scottish game, house-fermented pickles and delicate vegetable small plates – the tasting menu changes often, but it’s unfalteringly delicious.
In a vast brick warehouse, Timberyard (29) (timberyard.co) also puts Scottish produce, including sea herbs and foraged mushrooms, at the fore. Start with an inventive cocktail – think fermented squash with whisky, birch sap and caraway.
Out to brunch
A short walk from the centre, hidden gem Manna House Bakery (30) (facebook.com/themannahousebakery) sells house-baked butteries (rich bread rolls hailing from Aberdeen) and giant almond croissants.
Edinburgh Larder (31) (edinburghlarder.co.uk) is an airy café just off the Royal Mile that’s popular for its fill-your-boots breakfasts made with local goodies: porridge is drizzled with Scottish honey; locally sourced fish is flaked through kedgeree; and Ayrshire bacon is used to fill brioche sandwiches.
Gaze at works by the likes of Monet and Van Gogh plus plenty of Scottish artists (Ramsay, Raeburn and Wilkie) at the Scottish National Gallery (32) (nationalgalleries.org) on The Mound. If you’re willing to venture a little further, the two Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (33) buildings sit opposite in a dramatic sculpture park. Running until February 2018, the immersive NOW exhibition brings together Scottish and international contemporary artists. Both galleries are open daily, 10am-5pm, free entry.
A warren of 17th-century vaults lie beneath your feet in Edinburgh. Explore them – and learn about the city’s history – with a tour from The Real Mary King’s Close (34) (realmarykingsclose.com). Tours run Sunday to Thursday, 10am-5pm, Friday and Saturday until 9pm; £14.95.
Take a ride
It’s easy enough to get around on foot, but frequent buses and trams are helpful for weary legs. Just be sure to have the correct coins, as bus drivers don’t give change. Single journeys (any distance) £1.60, unlimited day ticket £4. Walk a couple of minutes from The Real Mary King’s Close to the Mound Place bus stop (35) and hop on the 41 bus. Travel six stops and alight at Drumsheugh Place (36); a three-minute walk brings you to Dean Village.
A walk in the park
Dean Village (37) is a leafy corner in the north-west of the city that feels miles from the crowds of shoppers on nearby Princes Street. Take a frosty walk along the water of Leith (look out for the original watermills) and stop for a photo on Dean Bridge (38).
The icing on the cake
On Sundays, the pretty suburb of Stockbridge is home to a charming food market (39) (stockbridgemarket.com). Stock up on handcrafted cakes for the journey home, unusual cheeses for Christmas dinner, and jewellery and gifts made by independent traders. Open 10am-5pm.
Fast, frequent train services arrive in Edinburgh from all over the country – Virgin Trains East Coast (virgintrainseastcoast.com) departs from London, Leeds and Newcastle. Single fares from London start from £25, one way. Easyjet (easyjet.com) flights from London start from £31.99 one way. A 25-minute airport transfer from City Cabs (citycabs.co.uk; 0131 228 1211) costs around £23, while the 30-minute Airlink 100 (lothianbuses.co.uk/airport) bus departs every 10 minutes, 24 hours a day. Adult singles £4.
Open for over 100 years, The Balmoral (0131 556 2414) is next to Waverly station and has all the five-star bells and whistles (the whisky bar is worth a visit, even if you’re not staying here). Doubles from £280, room only.
Old Town Chambers Serviced Apartments (0131 510 5499) promise original features and high-spec design, plus a great location close to The Royal Mile. Double one-bed apartments from £129, room only.
A stone’s throw from Princes Street, Code Hostel (01316599883) is a hipster-friendly hostel offering excellent-value dorm pod rooms with comfy beds, plus penthouse doubles with private kitchenettes. Breakfast includes waffles and Nutella. Pods from £28, doubles from £65, B&B.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies