Edinburgh's historic buildings belie a thoroughly modern city

Elegant Edinburgh is without doubt one of Europe’s most attractive cities: the captivating sight of the castle perched atop its craggy rock catches your eye the second you step out of Waverley station. The UNESCO-listed Old and New Towns vie for your attention, the former a tightly knit huddle of 16th- and 17th-century tenements and closes, the latter a meticulously planned streetscape of neoclassical buildings. While its heritage is an undeniable draw, Edinburgh is a thoroughly modern city too, boasting an award-winning 21st-century parliament building and a world-renowned annual international arts festival.


Arthur's SeatTackle Arthur's Seat early, before the rush
iStockphoto / Thinkstock
Grab some fresh air in your lungs and start your day with an exhilarating walk up Arthur’s Seat; this extinct volcano dominates Edinburgh’s skyline. Tradition has it that if you bathe your face in dew here at dawn on May Day, you’ll be beautiful (for the year at least).

Skirting the tops of the rugged Salisbury crags then climbing the peak affords spectacular views of the castle, Old and New Towns, Pentland Hills, Firth of Forth and beyond to the Kingdom of Fife.


Edinburgh Farmers MarketHit the farmer's market for artisanal breads
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You deserve the full works after exerting all that energy, so head to Urban Angel (121 Hanover Street) for some seriously Scottish breakfast specialities – try the Arbroath smokie with a poached egg, spinach and Hollandaise, maybe with a side of haggis and homemade tattie scones.

Alternatively, on Saturdays only, from 9am-2pm you can stop by the Edinburgh Farmers’ Market (Castle Terrace) and fill up on high-quality German-style rye bread, brioches and pretzels from Falko Konditormeister (185 Bruntsfield Place).


Better get some more exercise in now. From Urban Angel, cross Princes Street and walk up The Mound; from the farmers’ market climb Johnston Terrace beneath the castle. Both lead up to the Royal Mile, the main thoroughfare and heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town.

National Museum of ScotlandSee art and design exhibits at the new National Museum of Scotland
Creative Commons / fiomaha
A few minutes off the Royal Mile (or High Street) is the fantastic National Museum of Scotland (Chambers Street). The newly revamped museum opened in July 2011 after a £47 million transformation and is filled with over 8,000 objects encompassing Scotland's history, art and design as well as the natural world, global cultures and science and technology. Exhibits range from a 12m-long (39ft) Tyrannosaurus Rex cast and Bonnie Prince Charlie’s silver travelling canteen to Dolly the sheep, the world’s first cloned mammal. Admission is free.


On a sunny day, stay put and treat yourself to a posh lunch (at surprisingly affordable prices) on the terrace of the museum’s Tower Restaurant.

Porto & Fi restaurantRecharge your batteries with lunch at Porto & Fi
Porto & Fi
The mesmerising views of the city are matched by the exquisite food: you might tuck into Argyll oysters, Fife crab or succulent Angus beef. Reservations are recommended.

Otherwise wander back to The Mound and pop into Porto & Fi (9 North Bank Street). The ‘deli bistro café’ opened in early 2011, changes menu four times a year and has proved a hit with locals. There’s a tasty range of soups, pâtés and quiches, or you can go for the whole hog with haddock and chips or lamb rack with cassoulet.


Take the Playfair Steps back down to Princes Street, but skip the shops here and continue instead to George Street, one block north. Trendy boutiques line Edinburgh’s grandest street including Jack Wills, Joules and a flagship White Stuff store. Hollister, sister company of Abercrombie & Fitch, is set to open in 2012.

Royal Botanical Garden EdinburghStroll around the magnificent Royal Botanical Gardens
Creative Commons / Laura Suarez
Another block north, gaze into the eyes of Scots past and present, from Mary, Queen of Scots to 007 (aka Sean Connery), at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (1 Queen Street). The gallery reopened in November 2011 following a two-and-a-half-year renovation and offers a fascinating insight into the nation’s history through paintings and photographs, from the 16th century to the current day. Entry is free.

Work off the rest of your lunch and take a leisurely amble down the cobbled streets of the Georgian New Town to Stockbridge. This pretty neighbourhood by the Water of Leith is popular with professionals and young families, and packed with quirky gift shops, enticing delis and historic pubs. Immediately to the north is the Royal Botanic Garden (20A Inverleith Row), known affectionately as the ‘Botanics’. It’s free to wander among the 28 hectares (70 acres), whose highlights include conifers and monkey puzzles, a Chinese hillside, rock garden and Scottish heath garden. There’s a small charge to enter the wonderful glasshouses, representing different climatic zones, and a couple of great cafés for tea and cakes.

Royal Yacht BritanniaThe Royal Yacht Britannia has taken the Queen on 968 voyages
Royal Yacht Britannia
As an alternative to walking, the Majestic Tour hop-on, hop-off bus will take you to the garden too. From there you can continue by open-top bus to the Royal Yacht Britannia (Ocean Terminal) in Edinburgh’s historic port, Leith. Step aboard to explore five decks including the Queen’s lavish state quarters and an on-board garage containing a Rolls-Royce. If you have an extra day in the city, save money by buying the Royal Edinburgh Ticket, which allows admission to Britannia, the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Edinburgh Castle as well as two days’ unlimited travel on all three city bus tours.


Leith has undergone a dramatic metamorphosis in recent decades from shabby port to highly desirable neighbourhood. You have a choice of three Michelin-starred restaurants here (The Kitchin, Restaurant Martin Wishart and The Plumed Horse), but if you’re looking for something a little less pricey, try The Shore (3 Shore) for top-notch seafood dishes, venison and steak.

Back in town, beautifully decorated Café Andaluz (77B George Street) serves a mean selection of Spanish tapas and delicious paella. It’s also conveniently close to some of the city’s most fashionable bars – move on after dinner for cocktails at Le Monde (16 George Street) or Tigerlily (125 George Street).

Elephant House Cafe EdinburghJK Rowling wrote much of the first Harry Potter book at the Elephant House Cafe
Creative Commons / Dick Penn
And if traditional pubs are more your thing, there’s certainly no shortage in this city. The Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour takes you to some of the best and fills you in on the city’s rich literary tradition at the same time, covering such luminaries as Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Irvine Welsh. Meet at the Beehive Inn in the Grassmarket at 1930 (nightly in summer, Thursday to Sunday in spring/autumn and Fridays only in winter).

To find out more about Edinburgh, visit our Edinburgh travel guide

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