Views over Edinburgh city (Dreamstime)
Article Words : Robin McKelvie | 24 July

First 24 hours in Edinburgh, Scotland

The Scottish capital may already be gearing up for the climax of festival season, but those walkable, historic streets are always up for a party...

Before you arrive

Edinburgh is known as the ‘Festival City’ with good reason. We are not just talking about the world-famous Edinburgh Festival in August – actually a string of concurrent, multi-faceted festivals – but a string of parties year round, including the fireworks of Hogmanay (Scottish New Year) and the Edinburgh Science Festival in April. As such, you’ll need to book transport and rooms well ahead of your arrival.

Fresh arrivals to the Scottish capital should be aware that since the Independence Referendum was announced back in 2012, politics has never been far from the forefront of people’s minds. Showing a genuine interest in the complex issues involved (when the conversation is initiated by a local) may help win you new friends. Re-hashing things you’ve only read in the UK media won’t.

If you’re flying in, sit on the right-hand side of the plane to stand the best chance of catching a glorious view of the famous trio of Forth bridges; for city views, sit on the left.

At the airport

All flights land at Edinburgh Airport (EDI, edinburghairport.com), which lies 12km west of the city. The single terminal is well-equipped, with all the trappings that you would expect of the country’s busiest airport and one that is rapidly expanding.

Getting into town

The airport is now handily connected with a tram link that takes you to the heart of the city and which normally operates at intervals of less than ten minutes during the day. It may be more comfortable, but the tram is normally slightly slower than the main bus route operated by Lothian Buses into the centre, the Airlink 100. The tram, though, is less prone to traffic delays. Taxis from the convenient rank are expensive.

Other ways to arrive

A glorious way to arrive is on the Caledonian Sleeper. This overnight rail service leaves London Euston – a wee dram nightcap in the bar car is optional – and serves you up one of Europe’s great cities for breakfast. Swish new carriages are due in autumn 2018.

With trains from England and southern Scotland, the East Coast Mainline offers a more spectacular coastal approach than the West Coast Mainline. All long-distance train services arrive in Edinburgh Waverley, in the city centre, with some trains also calling at Haymarket a few miles to the west. ScotRail operate most train routes within Scotland, with Edinburgh a key rail hub.

Royal Mile, Edinburgh (Dreamstime)

Royal Mile, Edinburgh (Dreamstime)

First day's tour

Start in the Old Town at the heights of Edinburgh Castle, whose ramparts and museums offer an ideal introduction to the drama of this city of volcanoes, hills, sweeping water and remarkable architecture and history.

Descend to the ‘Royal Mile’, which Daniel Defoe once hailed as the finest street in the world. It’s a medieval timewarp that flows seawards in a flourish of palaces, a cathedral (St Giles), the Scotch Whisky Experience and many a historic inn.

The denouement of this thoroughfare comes at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. This swirls in Hanoverian history, but also the stormy reigns of the Stuarts. The nearby Scottish Parliament offers an insight into the workings of the nation.

Don’t ignore New Town’s boulevards and buildings, which hail from the 18th and 19th centuries. Its main thoroughfare of Princes Street affords views of the Old Town, as do its eponymous gardens. Further north still is the city’s favourite green lung – the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. End the day back on the Royal Mile for a spot of shucking at the White Horse Oyster & Seafood Bar.

Top tip: If you fancy a drink, head to the Oxford Bar in the New Town. Housed in a 200-year-old building on Young Street, the pub’s famous for being fictional detective Inspector Rebus’ favourite boozer.

The Balmoral hotel (Dreamstime)

The Balmoral hotel (Dreamstime)

Where to stay

Top end: The Balmoral is the city’s top five-star stay, a grand old railway hotel dating back to 1902. It attracts the visiting glitterati and sports a central location, Michelin-star restaurant and health spa. Make sure to snare a castle-view room or suite.

Mid range: Handily tucked opposite the airport tram terminus, the Hotel Indigo’s spacious and light rooms are backed up by a similarly bright and friendly reception staff. A neat extra are the complimentary Polaroid cameras.

Budget: The Haymarket Hub has comfortable beds and powerful showers. What you save in cost, you lose in space though, as rooms are tiny – make sure to at least book one with a window. It lies slightly west of the centre but overlooks Haymarket Railway Station and its tram stop.

Stay or go?

Definitely stay, but delve deeper. For another side of Edinburgh, eke down to the ‘Port of Leith’. It may be integrated into the city proper, but it retains a fiery independent spirit; this interweaves with the hipsters, restaurateurs and new media businesses that have also moved in over the last couple of decades.

Push out west through Edinburgh’s green belt to reach the remarkable waterfront royal burgh of Queensferry, known across the rest of Scotland as South Queensferry, and in this spirited town simply as ‘The Ferry’. The best way of appreciating the triple Forth bridges, including the UNESCO-listed Forth Bridge (pictured) and brand-new Queensferry Crossing, is on the Maid of the Forth boat tour. Drop by the interesting local museum (free), while Scotland’s Versailles, Hopetoun House, awaits to the west – unmissable for history buffs or fans of cult TV show Outlander.

The UNESCO-lised Forth Bridge (Dreamstime)

The UNESCO-lised Forth Bridge (Dreamstime)

Essential info

Population: 507,170 (2016)

Languages: English, Scots and Scottish Gaelic.

Timezone: GMT

International Dialling Code: +44

Visas: Not required by UK citizens.

Currency: Sterling £ (GDP).

Highest Viewpoint: Arthur’s Seat stands at a towering 251m, with views from the top gazing out across Edinburgh. It’s easily walkable from the city centre and makes for either a bracing start to a morning in the capital or a good spot to watch the sun set over the horizon.

Health issues: Same as rest of the UK.

Recommended guidebook: Lonely Planet Edinburgh (2017) is a relatively up-to-date resource; free local monthly magazine The List provides more current information about what’s on. For wider tourist information, the author of this guide brought along the second edition of his National Geographic Scotland guide, which was published early in 2018.

Web resources: Visitscotland.com is the official tourism site; for festival info, go to edinburghfestivalcity.com.

Phone app: Welcome to Scotland is available for free (iOS and Android) – an app that handily works both on and offline.

Climate: Due to the influence of the Gulf Stream, the climate is much milder than it should be given the latitude; though snow can briefly lie in winter. The warmest months are June, July and August, with often very pleasant conditions in May and September when the city is also quieter than in summer.