Architecture aficionado, fashion follower, cocktail connoisseur, foodie fanatic or activity addict: whether you’re one or all of the above, Scotland’s capital ticks the boxes. Edinburgh means narrow Old Town closes, grandiose Georgian crescents, effortlessly cool champagne bars, Michelin-starred eateries and cutting-edge local design, all amid an unbeatable natural setting. Festival frenzy takes over in August, when every nook and cranny transforms into a buzzing performance venue. Late spring or early autumn are quieter and more affordable. In December, the city sparkles with Christmas lights, a colourful German market, fairground rides and outdoor ice skating in the run-up to cracking Hogmanay celebrations.
The Edinburgh International Festival, Fringe and Tattoo may be the attention grabbers (August), but other big hitters include the Film Festival (June), Jazz and Blues Festival (July), Book Festival (August) and Art Festival (August). You could attend a star-studded movie premiere (past debuts have included Billy Elliott and Little Miss Sunshine), a Mardi Gras-style carnival or a masterclass in political cartooning, then check out a specially commissioned public artwork. For souvenirs of the non-tartan variety, the West End Fair (August) is crammed with over 100 craft producers selling intricate stained glass, one-off jewellery pieces, striking photography and numerous other handmade creations.
Edinburgh is a fantastic city to discover on foot, but if your legs need a rest, Lothian Buses is the city’s main bus operator. You can buy a single or a day ticket on board (with exact change). Alternatively, pick up a carnet of 20 tickets online or from a Travelshop. A new tram system opens in 2014 and will connect the airport with the city centre. Until then, the Airlink bus runs regularly between the two, taking 30 minutes. Leave your car at home – Edinburgh’s road system is baffling. It’s easy to hail a black cab on the street or from several ranks.
Top cultural sites
Meticulously made over in 2011, the outstanding National Museum of Scotland (Chambers Street) has it all: dinosaurs, mummies, Dolly the sheep and a terrific collection of Scottish historical and technological artefacts. On the menu at the world-class Scottish National Gallery (The Mound) are Botticelli, Constable and Rembrandt. Meander along a sweeping terraced outdoor grass sculpture at The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (75 Belford Road), or encounter Scotland’s own 007 at The Scottish National Portrait Gallery (1 Queen Street). Spot the dog cemetery at Edinburgh Castle (Castlehill) and peek into Mary, Queen of Scots’ boudoir at the Palace of Holyroodhouse (Canongate).
Best for families
Meet a penguin with a Norwegian knighthood at century-old Edinburgh Zoo (134 Corstorphine Road) and be sure to pre-book a slot to visit giant pandas Tian Tian and Yang Guang. Young children revel in the dressing-up zone and hands-on puppet theatre at the Museum of Childhood (42 High Street); its beautiful displays of dolls’ houses, Meccano and Dinky cars enchant grown-up kids too. If you’re travelling with tweens or teens, Our Dynamic Earth (Holyrood Road) takes you on a multi-sensory planetary discovery, where you can stand on an active volcano, fly over glaciers or set off on a 4D adventure from the Arctic to the rainforest.
Best for couples
Competitive? Grab a set of clubs each and challenge your other half to a round at Gullane or Muirfield golf courses in East Lothian. Both are private members’ clubs with limited slots available to visitors, so book well ahead. Genteel Edinburgh conceals a sinister past, and chilling tales unfold on Mercat Tours’ nightly (and adults-only) Hidden and Haunted walk, which leads you deep into the candlelit Blair Street Underground Vaults. Calm your nerves afterwards with a jug of ice-cold draught Prosecco and Italian nibbles at über-hip Bar Missoni (1 George IV Bridge).
If you love a thrill
Whizz offshore on a high-speed RIB from the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick and spy puffins and gannets around the distinctive Bass Rock. Across the water at the Scottish Gliding Centre in Portmoak, Fife, you can float high above Loch Leven in a two-seater glider; gaze out at the Forth and Tay Rivers and arresting beauty of the Ochil Hills and Grampian Mountains. On 1 May, climb extinct volcano Arthur’s Seat at dawn and wash your face in the dew – beauty is guaranteed apparently. Beauty regimens aside, it’s worth the hike any day of the year for glorious panoramic vistas.
Best hidden gems
Dip down to the Water of Leith, designated an urban wildlife site thanks to its abundance of wildflowers, woodland and birdlife. A 19km walkway from Balerno takes in Saughton Winter Gardens, picturesque Dean Village, the magnificent Royal Botanic Garden and trendy Stockbridge (a perfect pit stop for a pint). Finish off at Leith and tuck into fresh-from-the-sea dishes at Fishers (1 Shore). Broughton Street is fast becoming a destination for cool hunters seeking quirky independent stores and restaurants. Seek out classy furnishings, chic clothing and stylish stationery at Life Story (53 London Street, foot of Broughton Street) or stock up on Hebridean mohair at Kathy’s Knits (64A Broughton Street).