Thanks to a flurry of new chic boutique hotels and eateries, Edinburgh is emerging as one of Britain’s most stylish cities. Beverley Fearis takes a tour of the Scottish capital, and strolls through the city’s Botanic Garden
1. The Castle
Scotland’s most popular tourist attraction, Edinburgh’s hilltop castle is also the best vantage point to see the city, so it’s an ideal place to start. Grab an audio guide and work your way around the grounds, checking out the spectacular views as you go. The best views are from the Castle’s Middle and Upper Ward. On a clear day you can see across the Firth of Forth to Fife. If you’re short of time, make sure you see the oldest part, St Margaret’s Chapel, which dates from the 12th century, and the Great Hall, erected by James IV around 1510. If you time it right, you’ll be there for the one o’clock gun, which is fired from the battlements every day except Sunday. Now just a tourist attraction (and a way for locals to check their watches), once it was a means of giving an accurate time-check to the ships in Leith Harbour. Before you leave, pay your respects at the Pet Cemetery, where the faithful canine companions of the castle’s commanding officers were laid to rest. Open 0930-1800 (1700 in winter). Entry £11 for adults, visit edinburghcastle.biz.
2. Scotch Whisky Experience
Next it’s time for a tipple at the Scotch Whisky Experience on Castlehill. A one-hour tour (leaving every 15 minutes) will talk you through the origins of malt whisky distilling in Scotland, from the malting and mashing to the distillation and maturing. To get you in the mood, the tour kicks off with the chance to sample a “wee dram”. If you want to skip the tour and go straight for the tasting, take a pew at the bar in the centre’s Amber Restaurant, where you can choose from more than 270 different whiskies, whisky liqueurs and whisky cocktails. If you find one you like, you can buy it at the Gift and Whisky Shop. Open 0930-1830 (last tour 1730). Tours £9.25. Tel +44 (0)131 220 0441, whisky-heritage.co.uk.
3. National Gallery of Scotland
Head down The Mound and, just before you hit Princes Street, you’ll see the National Gallery of Scotland, housing a permanent collection of art by the likes of Titian, Rembrandt and Monet, as well as the world’s finest collection of Scottish painting, from Renaissance to Post-impressionism. Admission free (open daily 1000-1700, Thurs till 1900, natgalscot.co.uk). If you prefer contemporary art, turn right down Market Street to the Fruitmarket Gallery, once a fruit and veg market but now a light and airy space exhibiting emerging modern artists from Scotland and further afield. Admission free (Mon-Sat 1100-1800, Sun 1200-1700, fruitmarket.co.uk).
Continue to Princes Street, Edinburgh’s main shopping street and home to its famous Jenners department store. An impressive 169 years old, it’s the UK’s oldest department store but is now slightly overshadowed by the glamorous Harvey Nichols, which opened five years ago in the city’s New Town (30-40 St Andrews Square). At Christmas, the two compete to put on the most impressive festive displays.
5. Circle Café
It’s time to leave the city centre and take the mile or so walk to Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden (hail a taxi from Waverley Station if it’s raining). On the way, stop off at the Circle Café and Bakery (1 Brandon Terrace), a stylish but laidback eaterie run by Brysons Catering. Breakfast is daily till 11.30am and midday on Sundays; try the croissant with grilled bacon and brie or a mouth-watering pain au chocolat. If it’s lunchtime, go for homemade soups or meatballs with cherry tomato, basil and Worcestershire sauce dressing. Open Mon-Sat 0830-1700, Sun 0900-1630, tel +44 (0)131 624 4666.
6. Royal Botanic Garden
Once you’re refreshed, take a stroll through the Botanic Garden. Founded in 1670, this 72-acre garden is regarded one of the best in the world. If it’s a nice day, explore the serene Chinese Hillside and the magnificent giant redwood trees in the Woodland Garden. If the weather is bad, stick to the tropical glasshouses, which feature Britain’s tallest Palm House. Garden admission is free, but £3.50 for the glasshouses. Visit rbge.org.uk.
Head back the way you came to George Street, one of the city’s most prestigious streets. Once a rather neglected part of the city centre, investment has recently flooded in, transforming its Georgian buildings into stylish boutique hotels, restaurants, bars and designer stores. If you want to join the champagne crowd in designer opulence, head for Tigerlily (number 125). This five-storey restored Grade A Listed townhouse is now a 33-room hotel with two hip cocktail bars and a sumptuous restaurant. While you’re there, ask to see one of its the theatrical suites (one vibrant pink, the other a rich turquoise) or its unique loft-style “Black Room”, where even the toilet rolls live up to the name. Tel +44 (0)131 225 5005, tigerlilyedinburgh.co.uk.
8. Le Monde
Also on George Street is Le Monde (number 16), another glamorous hotel-cum-bar-cum-restaurant where, as the name suggests, you can drink your way around the world. Sip cocktails at the oh-so-chic Paris bar or enjoy a coffee in the elegant Milan café. Again, ask to check out the rooms if they’re not booked out – they’re all decked out in a city theme, from Cairo and Marrakech to Tokyo and Sydney. Tel +44 (0)131 270 3900, lemondehotel.co.uk.