While Edinburgh receives the majority of its visitors either during August for the world-famous festivals or in December for the Hogmanay festivities, any local will tell you that the best time to visit their city is in the autumn, when the days are bright and crisp and the darkening evenings lend an air of mystery to the medieval turrets and rugged scenery.
Edinburgh perches somewhat precariously atop a landscape of rocky hills and cliffs, but the views from the top make it well worth the climb. Whilst navigating the winding alleys and narrow stone staircases of the medieval city, any corner you turn may bring you to an unexpected vista of green hills, blue seas or rust-coloured rock face.
Despite bursting at the seams with history and culture, Edinburgh is a modern, dynamic capital. Among the beautiful old buildings you can find haute couture, gourmet cuisine and world-class entertainment. The 4 universities contribute a total of over one hundred thousand students to the city's population and there is an almost-tangible air of vibrancy and creativity, best witnessed during the Festival Fringe in August but easily found at any time of year.
Whether gazing out from the battlements of Edinburgh Castle, walking in the shadow of the Royal Mile's towering spires or scurrying through the vaults on an underground ghost tour, the atmosphere is always uniquely Edinburgh.
Things to do in Edinburgh
- • Edinburgh Castle Set on Castle Rock, the rocky remains of an ancient volcano, Edinburgh Castle has been a keystone of Scottish history, both as a royal residence and as a military stronghold. Boasting a 16th-century portcullis gate, a Romanesque chapel, the Royal Palace, the Castle Vaults, the National War Museum of Scotland and plenty more, the castle is one of Edinburgh and Scotland's most popular attractions.
- • The Royal Mile A compact city, Edinburgh packs in the sights, nowhere more so than on the Royal Mile, a mile-long street once used by the king to travel from the castle to Holyroodhouse. Make sure you leave some time to stop and absorb the historic atmosphere, as well as stopping at attractions like the Scottish Whisky Heritage Centre, Highland Tolbooth Kirk (Edinburgh's tallest spire), Lawnmarket, the City Chambers and the Museum of Edinburgh.
- • Holyrood Palace The Palace of Holyroodhouse is the official Scottish residence of the British royal family, but is better known as the home of the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots. Next to the palace are the ruins of the 12th-century Holyrood Abbey and the extensive grounds of Holyrood Park, the former hunting ground of Scottish monarchs and home to Arthur's Seat, a 251m peak which offers panoramic views of the city.
- • Edinburgh Vaults and Mary King's Close Both of these underground locations play a grim role in Edinburgh's history, and hold the distinction of being the city's most haunted sites. The vaults were originally used as simple storerooms and workshops but were taken over as slums in the 19th century, as waves of Highlanders and Irish refugees filled Edinburgh, living and dying in the dark chambers. Mary King's Close was a lane on the northern side of the Royal Mile whose inhabitants were walled into their houses and left to perish during the plague of 1645. The Royal Exchange was later constructed over the close, sealing off the buildings and their ghostly inhabitants for tourists to discover centuries later.
- • Princes Street With stunning views over the beautiful Princes Street Gardens and out to Edinburgh Castle and the Old Town, Princes Street is far more impressive than your average shopping street. All the favourite high street shops can be found among the elegant 18th- and 19th-century buildings, as well as several interesting churches.
Edinburgh's most famous event is, of course, the Edinburgh Festival (actually a collective term for several festivals running throughout August), but there's plenty going on at any time of year. Here are a few favourites:
- • Edinburgh International Science Festival (April)
- • Scottish International Children's Festival (May)
- • Caledonian Beer Festival (June)
- • Royal Highland Show (June)
- • Edinburgh International Jazz & Blues Festival (July)
- • Edinburgh Arts Festival (July - September)
- • Edinburgh Military Tattoo (August)
- • Edinburgh International Festival (August - September)
- • Edinburgh Festival Fringe (August)
- • Edinburgh International Book Festival (August)
- • Edinburgh International Film Festival (August)
- • Edinburgh's Capital Christmas (December)
- • Hogmanay (December - January)
Set in an elegant detached Victorian townhouse, family-run Aynetree Guest House is home to 5 homely and well-appointed guestrooms, each featuring a private bathroom and all the amenities you would expect of a top-quality B&B. The friendly hosts provide personalized service and excellent attention to detail. A traditional Scottish breakfast (black pudding and haggis included!) is served up in the cosy dining room, made even cosier on chilly mornings by the open fire.
Just a few minutes from the centre of Edinburgh, The Ben Doran offers warm Scottish hospitality and comfortable, four-star accommodation. Housed in a traditional Georgian townhouse, each room enjoys excellent views of Edinburgh's fine architecture and is equipped with TV, WiFi, tea/coffee-making facilities and complimentary Molton Brown toiletries. In the morning, a full Scottish breakfast sets you up for a day's exploring.
Greater Edinburgh and Around
- • Cramond A cosy cluster of whitewashed houses overlooking the water at the mouth of the River Almond, where regal swans swim lazily between drifting yachts, making Cramond not only Scotland's most historic village but also one of its prettiest. As well as a 17th-century church, a 15th-century tower house and a collection of Roman remains, recent excavations at Cramond have revealed evidence of a Bronze age settlement, dating the village back to 8500 BC. • Edinburgh Zoo Opened in 1913, Edinburgh's zoo is one of the top conservation zoos in the world, and their breeding programme has saved numerous endangered species including pygmy hippos, red pandas and Siberian tigers. A top attraction is the world's largest penguin pool.
- • Royal Botanic Garden Twenty-eight hectares of beautifully landscaped gardens include a fossil garden, a Chinese Pavilion, a Scottish heath garden, an alpine house and an arboretum.
- • Inchcolm Less than a mile off the coast of Fife is the island of Inchcolm, home to the ruins of one of Scotland's best-preserved medieval abbeys (Inchcolm Abbey) as well as scores of grey seals and puffins. The Maid of the Forth ferry sails somewhat regularly to the island from the town of Queensferry.
- • Rosslyn Chapel Recent years have seen a tide of Dan Brown fans descend on Scotland's prettiest and most-intriguing chapel, thanks to its key role in the novel and film The Da Vinci Code. Built in the 15th-century for the third earl of Orkney, the chapel's intricately carved interior features a symbols and imagery associated with Christianity, paganism, Freemasonry and the Knight's Templar, as well as carvings of plants native to the America's which predate Columbus' landing.
- • Linlithgow Palace The main attraction of the historic town of Linlithgow, Linlithgow Palace dates back to the 15th century and was a favourite royal residence of the Stuarts, monarchs of England and Scotland. Highlights include the elaborate King's Fountain and the Gothic St. Michael's Church.
For travel information about the rest of Britain, go to VisitBritain.com.
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By Eleanor Brown