UK spotlight: Edinburgh

1 Dec 2023 by Hannah Brandler
Edinburgh skyline (Credit visitscotland/kenny lam)

New developments are careful to preserve the charms of this historic city while keeping it fresh and expanding its appeal throughout the year.

A notification from my pedometer flashed up on my phone, congratulating me on completing more flights of steps in the last two days than in the past month. The tech was largely redundant in this case, with my aching thighs proof of the fact I’d been marching up and down Edinburgh’s dramatic topography.

Thankfully I was visiting between peak seasons, avoiding the crowds that come for Edinburgh’s internationally renowned summer festivals, and who brave the icy weather for raucous Hogmanay parties. But VisitScotland, the country’s national marketing organisation, is keen to make Edinburgh a year-round destination, spreading its appeal beyond fairytale winters and lively summers. “In years gone by there was quite a gulf between February and August, but we want visitors to have a high-quality experience throughout the year,” explains Neil Christison, regional director at VisitScotland.

That’s not to say the city is devoid of attractions outside of peak times. My visit in autumn, encompassing the city’s gothic architecture, gold-hued foliage and hidden passageways, offered a delightfully cosy stay. While in spring, Murrayfield Stadium hosted Bruce Springsteen, Harry Styles and Beyonce in May 2023 alone.

“Edinburgh’s in a great position. It has a strong business events sector, festivals across the whole calendar and then major sporting and music events. It’s a good problem to have when it comes to [explaining] the city’s proposition,” says Christison.

But there’s no denying the huge economic impact of Edinburgh Festivals, which puts the city on a global stage every year. In 2022, the festivals generated £492 million for Edinburgh in gross impact and supported more than 7,000 full-time equivalent jobs in the city. Additionally, there were 3.2 million attendances generated by 700,000 attendees, with a roughly 50/50 split of international and regional visitors.

Making it modern

Much of Edinburgh’s magic lies in its enchanting appearance, with its Old and New Towns holding UNESCO World Heritage Status for the winding cobbled streets, ancient monuments and dramatic hills.

At the same time, the city is updating its compelling offering with modern facilities to draw in a different demographic. “What’s been done relatively sensitively is making Edinburgh a contemporary, high-quality city that blends the old and the new. We need to meet the expectations of visitors but not lose sight of the importance of retaining the city’s cultural heritage and identity,” says Christison.

Bridging this gap is St James Quarter, a £1 billion mixed-use development which spans 158,000 sqm of New Town, located across the road from Waverley station. “It’s slap bang in the middle of a World Heritage Site so we had to design something that integrated fully with the physical nature of the city,” explains Martin Perry, managing director, development Europe at Nuveen, the owner and developer of St James Quarter. At first glance it appears to be a glossy shopping centre, but it also comprises restaurants, residential apartments, entertainment facilities (such as the city’s first Everyman cinema) and hotel accommodation, plus a rich events calendar.

St James Quarter (credit Nick Caville)

In keeping with Edinburgh’s topography, visitors can access the scheme at three different levels and use the naturally ventilated, canopy-roofed galleria as a passage to other parts of the city. “We didn’t want it to be anything other than a natural extension of the city,” explains Perry. That’s why you won’t see any signposts for St James Quarter, nor doors to the galleria. People simply fall into the quarter, flow through the space and continue their experience of the city.

The project was a bold move considering the decline of the retail sector since the pandemic, with a rise in online shopping leading to quieter high streets and store closures. Thankfully, the gamble paid off. “We’re growing our footfall by around 15 per cent each week on the same week in 2022, and our trade by about 25 per cent,” states Perry. The area previously attracted 7-10 million people per year, but St James Quarter will comfortably see 20 million visitors in 2023 according to Perry. “The city is flying, it’s going from strength to strength,” he enthuses.

What will come of the former retail areas in Edinburgh, however? Perry says that surrounding areas are benefitting from the scheme, with restaurants, bars and hotels filling the space of former retail spots. Christison agrees: “Aside from the creation of jobs, the night-time economy will benefit because you have a reason to be there after retail closes. Princes Street is revitalised.”

Hot on hotels

At the heart of St James Quarter is the new W Edinburgh hotel, which debuted in November some seven years after plans were first announced. While there are plenty of traditional hotels across the city, W Edinburgh offers something more modern – though its ribbon design is intended to resemble paper unspooling as a nod to the printing scene in New Town in the 18th and 19th centuries.

“The Balmoral hotel is what I refer to as a tartan and shortbread offer, what you expect from Edinburgh. What you don’t expect is the W hotel, which is appealing to a much younger demographic with a culture around fashion, nightlife, food and cocktails – and rammed full of Instagrammable backdrops. They work beautifully hand in hand,” says Perry. In addition to its 244 rooms, the hotel has the Japanese-Brazilian-Peruvian fusion restaurant SUSHISAMBA, picked for its global appeal, as well as a free-to-access rooftop deck with 360-degree views of the city.

W Edinburgh is just the latest addition to the city, with a number of high-profile openings in recent years. Among these is the jazzy Virgin Hotels Edinburgh in the city’s Old Town (see our review), which opened in June 2022 as the first property under the brand in Europe, followed by a Glasgow outpost in August 2023.

The same month saw the arrival of the glamorous Gleneagles Townhouse on St Andrew Square – the first city outpost of the revered country estate. The 33-room hotel and members club lives up to its luxury label, occupying the former Bank of Scotland with refurbished interiors offering plush rooms, mesmerising public spaces with soaring ceilings, a buzzy members-only lounge and an expansive wellness space in the original vaults complete with a cryotherapy chamber.

Still to come is 100 Princes Street in spring 2024, the first Edinburgh property from Red Carnation Hotels, set within a historic former private members’ club. Further ahead, Dalata Hotel Group has announced plans to open a 153-room Clayton property on St Andrew Square in mid-2026 – the group’s first hotel to operate with zero on-site carbon emissions.

St James Quarter featuring W Edinburgh

Ramping up airlift

Is the demand for the hotel pipeline there? Visits to Scotland were down 7 per cent in 2022 compared to 2019, but the number of nights and visitor spending exceeded pre-pandemic levels by 9 per cent and 24 per cent respectively, according to the International Passenger Survey. A total of 3.2 million visits were made to Scotland by internationals in 2022, with a spend of £3,151 million.

International connectivity is key to maintaining and growing this demand, particularly from the US, which represents Scotland’s biggest inbound market. Direct routes between Edinburgh and the US include New York Newark, Chicago and Washington DC with United, while Delta serves routes from New York JFK, Boston and Atlanta. And there’s more to come, with JetBlue launching a daily service from New York JFK to Edinburgh between May and September 2024.

Hainan Airlines also resumed its twice-weekly Beijing-Edinburgh service in June, marking the only direct flight connecting Scotland and China – the service was previously a triangular one which included Dublin. Gordon Dewar, CEO of Edinburgh airport, described the relaunch as a “real show of faith in the market” that will boost the city’s tourism industry and “open up a wealth of new business opportunities”.

Edinburgh is also the gateway to Scotland, with international visitors encouraged to extend their trip and visit the country’s ample other attractions, which include championship golf courses, historic ruins and whisky distilleries. Regional connectivity, too, has been improved. Edinburgh’s tram services, which begin at the airport, were extended three miles to Leith, Ocean Terminal and Newhaven in June 2023, prompting visits to these neighbourhoods.

Plus, it’s a very manageable city by foot. My final climb took place at Calton Hill, where I chose to bid farewell to the city. A fiery sunset glimmered across spires, steeples and sandstone buildings, before bouncing off the modern bronze-toned steel W Edinburgh, a striking addition to the skyline. Granted, it’s not to everyone’s taste, appropriately labelled by Perry as a “Marmite building”, but it’s a testament to the fact there’s something for everyone in this magical city.

Gleneagles Townhouse


For a glamorous dinner: The Spence

Gleneagles Townhouse dazzles with this spectacular all-day dining space, located in a former banking hall with an ornate glass-domed ceiling. Scottish-inspired cuisine includes starters of West Coast crab crumpet or the lighter Japanese-style scallop crudo with ponzu, followed by mains of East Coast cod on a bed of sea greens, sharing-style Tweed Valley Chateaubriand with thick-cut chips and burnt butter hollandaise, and generous sides of dukkah-coated harissa carrots served with labneh. Save room for the mouth-watering dessert trolley, which is wheeled around the restaurant to entice guests late into the night. The last weekend of every month includes a highly popular, lavish buffet brunch, with reservations for January live from 1 December, 2023. gleneagles.com/townhouse/eat-drink/the-spence

For lunch between meetings: Bonnie & Wild

This food hall on the fourth floor of the galleria at St James Quarter showcases Scotland’s independent restaurants and local produce. Pick from three bars and 12 food stalls – from Sri Lankan street food to Chinese fine dining with a Scottish twist – and keep an eye on the events programme, which includes masterclasses, book launches and a free ceilidh on the last Thursday of every month. Recommended is deli Soup & Caboodle, which offers great Scottish produce in the form of soups, sandwiches and salads. Note that it’s cashless and walk-in only. Open daily 9am-9pm (9.30pm Fri-Sat); bonnieandwildmarket.com

For the train ride home: Lannan

Brace yourself for queues round the block for this popular bakery in Stockbridge, which opened in July 2023. Named after the Scottish Gaelic for ‘house’, this solo venture from inventive baker Darcie Maher is excellent, with a cosy counter offering indulgent pastries ranging from nduja, fermented honey and Murcia Al Vino buns to doughy cardamom buns, plus a window into the kitchen so you can get a glimpse of the action. Open Thursday-Sunday from 8am-4pm. @lannanbakery.

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