23 September 2021

How To Spend a Long Weekend in Edinburgh

Earlier this month, I spent four days in Edinburgh with my parents, and although we only scratched the surface, we had a grand time and packed a lot in. We even had reasonable weather in that it didn't rain much and was occasionally sunny. A return was long overdue since my last visit on a rainy family road trip through Scotland, almost three decades ago. All I remember from the trip is the Scottish National Gallery, Greyfriars Kirkyard and an overexuberant walking tour guide shouting, "Gardyloo!" I had a lot of ground to make up! 


Old Town. Perched on an ancient hunk of volcanic rock, the site of Edinburgh Castle has origins dating back to the Iron Age and was the home of kings and queens for many hundreds of years. It's worth allowing a couple of hours to explore the castle as there's a lot to see, from the Stone of Destiny (used in coronation ceremonies) and the grand Great Hall, to the cannon Mons Meg and the National War Museum. There are also great panoramic views of the city, across New Town, over to Calton Hill and down to Leith. We went on a Saturday and booked our tickets in advance, which was lucky as there were no tickets left for walk-ins.

With its steep, narrow and winding streets, the Old Town, along with the New Town, maintains UNESCO World Heritage status. It's a popular area for tourists and you'll find plenty of shops selling tartans and other souvenirs, especially along the Royal Mile, which runs 1.12 miles (a Scots mile) downhill from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace. We enjoyed a brief visit to St Giles' Cathedral, although in these COVID times, I decided it was best not to spit on the Heart of Midlothian outside for luck.

We also visited Real Mary King's Close, where you can take an immersive social history tour of the preserved remains of a 17th century street. It reminded me of the excellent Tenement Museum in New York, although more theatrical and somewhat less informative. It's quite surreal to walk through a street that is now underground but whose cramped, high-rise buildings tower above. It's no wonder they needed to develop the New Town in the 18th century. 

Just south of the Royal Mile is Greyfriars Kirkyard, famed for Bobby, the 19th century terrier who loyally guarded his master's grave, and for its ghostly reputation. We also did a late-night ghost tour, which brought us here and to some 'haunted' vaults underneath South Bridge, but the tour was way too long and neither funny, scary nor informative enough, so I can't recommend it.

New Town. As my parents and I were staying in the New Town, we spent a lot of time walking its honeyed Georgian streets, which form a neat grid pattern, in contrast to their chaotic counterparts to the south. The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is well worth a visit, both for the portraits and for the neo-gothic building and impressive entrance hall. Just around the corner at 36 St Andrews Square, there's a branch of RBS that has a really stunning star-adorned ceiling, which is worth popping into even if you don't need an ATM.

Stockbridge. There was so much to see in central Edinburgh that it took me until my third day in the city to wander down the hill through the New Town to Stockbridge, a neighbourhood that retains a village-like feel with Georgian architecture, independent shops and eateries, and the Water of Leith, which gently winds its way through the middle. I first strolled down Circus Lane, with its lovely mews houses, and then came back down St Stephen Street, which has some great shops, as well as the Stockbridge Market (open on Sundays). I followed the Water of Leith south to Bernard's Well and then walked up Ann Street to Stockbridge's main drag, Raeburn Place, where there are plenty of shops and places to grab a bite (or more).

The Royal Botanic Garden is a short walk north. It's free to visit but they encourage you to make a £5 donation and as there's so much to see, from the gardens to the exhibitions inside, it's well worth it. On a clear day — and depending on the status of the trees and foliage — there's also a great view of the Old Town.

Calton Hill and Arthur's Seat. If you haven't had had your fill of Edinburgh views, fear not; I have a couple more options. Calton Hill rises 100 metres from its site at the eastern end of the New Town, just across from the Scottish Government on Regent Road. It's a short walk (or jog) to the summit, where there are a variety of monuments, including the Parthenon-like National Monument of Scotland, as well as 360-degree views of the city and the surrounding areas.

But if you still want more views, Arthur's Seat, the 250-metre ancient volcano in Holyrood Park, is the one for you. I was waiting for a fully sunny day before making the climb, to get the best views, but the forecast kept changing and I ended up ascending to the summit during a warm but overcast morning. Typically, the sun came out literally as I was walking out of Holyrood Park and stayed out for the rest of the day. Still, sun or no sun, the steep climb was well worth it, because the views were impressive. It took me just under 40 minutes to walk to the top from the southwest side, as I was coming from coffee stops in Newington and Bruntsfield. My favourite view was actually the cityscape I got just after passing Saint Anthony's Chapel Ruins on the way back to the city centre (the top photo in this post).

A trip to Portobello and Leith. When the sun came out unexpectedly on Sunday afternoon, we headed to the beach, opting for Portobello, which is only a one-hour walk or a 20-minute bus ride. We strolled along the sandy beach, dipped our toes in the sea and then ambled down Portobello High Street, where I'd already earmarked Bross Bagels as a potential lunch venue.

With more time, I'd have liked to spend more time in Leith, Edinburgh's port district, which has undergone a lot of regeneration in recent years but still retains a lot of character. Instead, I settled for a quick pit stop and coffee break around Customs Wharf and a failed attempt to find the place where Mary, Queen of Scots, landed on her return from France in 1561. I'll have to Leith the rest of the area for my next trip.


I’ve already published my guide to Edinburgh's best speciality coffee shops, but here are some of the other food and drink spots I enjoyed during my stay.

Number One (New Town). We wanted a 'signature' meal during our stay and the Michelin-starred Number One restaurant, hidden away under the Balmoral Hotel, seemed like a very good way to do so. The seven-course tasting menu took us around the UK, from the Orkney scallop to the smoked Exmoor sturgeon, while later on, celeriac risotto buried under truffle and then immaculately cooked halibut were followed by lamb, and two separate puddings — one featuring maple, chestnut and pumpkin, and the other a deconstructed baked Alaska. The flavours were delicious and the service very good.

Scotch at The Balmoral (New Town). My parents were staying at the Balmoral so I went back several times, including for a whisky tasting in the hotel's signature Scotch bar, where there are over 500 different whiskies on offer. The bartender gave us three very different drams to try: one light, one fruity and one smoky.

Noto (New Town). On my last night, I had a lovely solo dinner at Noto, which combines pan-Asian cuisine with New York vibes in a tempting sharing-plates menu. I had no one with whom to share but managed two smaller dishes and a larger one. The potato dauphine was the standout: impossibly light potato beignets filled with umami miso mustard goodness. With warm service and fab cocktails, it was an enjoyable evening.

Café Royal (New Town). The characterful and historic Café Royal has been around for almost 100 years and has Scotland's oldest oyster bar and some interesting stained glass mosaics. We went for a pre-ghost-tour supper, and my lobster was very good. I also got to try my first haggis, in deep-fried form.

The Devil's Advocate (Old Town). When researching this trip I flagged a lot of places to eat all over the city in my Google Map, and so when we needed somewhere in the Old Town after our castle visit, I suggested The Devil's Advocate, a gastropub on the steep alleyway Advocate's Close. I had a bacon cheeseburger that was so good I forgot to photograph it and my first whisky cocktail of the trip.

The Scran & Scallie (Stockbridge). Speaking of gastropubs, over in Stockbridge, the Scran & Scrallie was where I had my last lunch before taking the train home. The three-course set lunch, with a venison burger as the main, was good value, although having seen the fish and chips on someone else's table, I did have food envy.

The Pantry (Stockbridge). Also in Stockbridge, The Pantry is a bustling neighbourhood brunch and lunch spot on Circus Place. The brunch menu looked fab but I went for the sandwich of the day: slow-cooked pulled pork haggis braised in Irn Bru with Monster Munch mayo. It was as epic as it sounds!

Bross Bagels (Portobello, and other locations). This branch of the purveyor of Montreal-style bagels (smaller and thinner than their New York cousins) was a great place to stop for a bite after a stroll on Portobello beach. The fillings are creative and varied and the bagels themselves very tasty.

Unfortunately, I didn't manage to go for cocktails at any of Bramble, Lucky Liquor Co and Nightcap, all of which were on my to-do list; they're closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, like a lot of spots in the New Town. I'll need to plan better next time.


New Town. George Street and the surrounding blocks have a big selection of both the usual chains and more interesting independent shops. I enjoyed shopping at Meander (lifestyle goods and gifts with a Scottish focus), Scottish Design Exchange (an emporium showcasing gifts and homewares from independent designers) and Topping & Co (a fab bookstore). The sleek St James Quarter, which opened earlier this year at the eastern end of the New Town has even more shops, including a John Lewis.

Stockbridge, with its village-like feel, also has some wonderful independent shops, especially around Raeburn Place and St Stephen Street. Shops that caught my eye included: Dick's (clothes and accessories), Ginger and Pickle (children's books), Golden Hare Books (a fantastic independent bookstore) and Rare Birds (female-authored books).


For packing tips, check out my recommendations of tried-and-tested products for travel.


After so long without a proper holiday, I wanted to treat myself to a stay at a nice boutique hotel, preferably with a pool and/or spa. The Kimpton Charlotte Square, on a lovely Georgian square at the western end of the New Town, fit the bill. I often stay at Kimptons when I'm travelling on business in the US and like the good facilities and quirky details. My room was spacious, comfortable and funky, and I made good use of the small pool, steam room, sauna and gym in the basement. I didn't have time to eat there but Noto's acclaimed sister restaurant Aizle is located there too.

My parents were staying at the other end of the New Town at the iconic Balmoral Hotel. It's a little less funky and a fair bit pricier but my parents' large room had a great view of the Old Town and Arthur's Seat. I can also recommend the breakfast there (apart from 'those potato things' (scones), and the cocktails.

Arriving and getting around:

I took the train up from London, which took just over four hours — longer on the way because it was a sunny Friday and of course there were problems on the rails. I booked the two tickets separately to keep my plans flexible. My train fare was about £50 on the way up, although I nabbed a £12 upgrade to first class through Seatfrog and enjoyed the free food and drinks, but especially the space. The return journey cost me £35; no upgrade, sadly, but I got a double seat to myself for the whole journey. For the best views of the coastline, sit on the right going north and the left going south.

The train arrives at the grand Victorian Waverley Station, which is a short walk from most New Town and Old Town hotels. Edinburgh Airport is about eight miles west of the city centre, a short journey by tram, train or bus. The best way to explore the city centre is on foot, but there's a good bus and tram network for journeys slightly further afield.

COVID-related information:

Edinburgh had fully reopened during our visit in September 2021 and felt busy. Face masks were required to be worn in shops, on public transport (including the GNER train north of the border) and in pubs and restaurants when not seated, and it felt reassuring to see staff politely but firmly asking people to put their masks on. In most venues, we needed to fill in our details online at NHS Scotland for contact tracing (separate, of course, from the NHS England app). There were some distancing measures in place at some of the coffee shops, eateries and attractions, but for the most part, happily, COVID didn't interfere with our holiday too much.

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