The Royal Mile forms the backbone of the Old Town. It’s a place for ducking down narrow lanes, discovering tiny one-off shops and foodie goodies. On the southwestern side, the Grassmarket — once the site of public executions — is a boisterous pub hub. Head south west and you’ll find the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh University and a lot of likeable, unpretentious and affordable bars and cafes. Come August, this area descends into bedlam — it’s the beating heart of the Fringe Festival.
We recommend: Hotel du Vin
Despite the activity going on around it, the Hotel du Vin feels very much like a retreat. There’s a sense of smugly satisfied peace once inside — similar to that of a private country club. The rooms have a cosy, timeless elegance about them — they’re not trying to be ultra-modern, and aren’t going all out to be a pastiche of a certain era either. Nespresso machines with free capsules and bars of Green and Black’s chocolate left on the bed are among the freebies thrown in. The Hotel du Vin’s real charm, though, is in the building itself. Formerly a lunatic asylum, it’s a warren-like collection of little hidey-holes. Nose around and you’ll find a wine tasting area, a private dining room with a big mural of notorious body-snatchers Burke and Hare, plus the Whisky Snug — all comfy leather chairs, fireplace and aged single malts — is a nightcap aficionado’s dream.
■ Rooms: Doubles from £115. hotelduvin.com
Best for families: The Knight Residence
On the southwestern cusp of the Old Town, these serviced apartments pull in corporate guests on longer stays. Furnishings are solidly Debenhams-y and space is in plentiful supply. They’re a godsend if travelling with kids too, with a DVD library, rentable PlayStations and full kitchens including washer-dryers and dishwashers. High chairs, cots and buggies are available if needed, colourfully kiddy plastic bowls and cutlery are in the cupboards, and baskets of breakfast goodies are thoughtfully supplied.
■ Rooms: Apartments from £99. theknightresidence.co.uk
Best for the festivals: Ten Hill Place
Owned by the Royal College of Surgeons, there’s the vague air of a Novotel attempting to be hip in the decor here. But rates are relatively cheap, and there’s very little to complain about — free water, free wi-fi, plugs and switches in the right places and so on. It’s during the festival, however, the location comes into its own — the hotel is within spitting distance of key venues such as the Underbelly, Pleasance and Gilded Balloon, but it’s also on a quiet side street should an escape from the mayhem be in order.
■ Rooms: Doubles from £59. tenhillplace.com
Edinburgh’s 18th-century expansion is arguably even more impressive than higgledy-piggledy hilltop Old Town. No one superstar grabs the limelight — the New Town’s masterful power lies in the uniformity of its monolithic Georgian sandstone buildings. Princes Street is the city’s main shopping strip — familiar names line up with views out to the castle — while Rose Street has a long history of keeping bar-hoppers deliriously happy.
We recommend: Le Monde
Themed rooms aren’t for everyone, but Le Monde does the job so well only the grouchiest will fail to be charmed. As the name suggests, all of the rooms are kitted out in honour of a different city, so the Atlantis room has a fishtank behind the bed, and the LA suite has a huge, rock-star-friendly circular bathtub and portraits of Hollywood idols staring down from all angles. It doesn’t feel tacky — and that’s partly because there’s a clear commitment to high quality. Little things like cupboard doors with dozens of fake handles stand out as quirkily cool, but what’s really appealing is the fact the staff genuinely seem to love working here. The function room downstairs, meanwhile, regularly turns into a live jazz venue and is a great night spot.
■ Rooms: Doubles from £165. lemondehotel.co.uk
Best for parties: Tigerlily
There’s a girl’s weekend vibe here, but it’s done in a knowingly sexy way, with mood lighting controlled from the bed and preloaded iPods. Guests all receive complimentary VIP entry to the Lulu nightclub downstairs — Tigerlily is somewhere you come to play rather than chill out.
■ Rooms: Doubles from £195. tigerlilyedinburgh.com
Best for pampering: The Balmoral
A landmark in its own right, locals come here for afternoon tea in Palm Court or dinner at the Michelin-starred Number One restaurant. Guests feel special too — castle views, marble bathrooms — and the spa is hands down the best in town.
■ Rooms: Doubles from £225. thebalmoralhotel.com
The Royal Mile
The traditional procession route between the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the castle is Edinburgh at its most unashamedly touristy. The deluge of bagpipers, shortbread and tartan shops reaches epidemic proportions on the approach. But there’s a reason it’s popular — many of Edinburgh’s most appealing attractions are either along the route or near it. That includes the High Kirk of St Giles, the Museum of Edinburgh and the wonderfully unstately Scottish Parliament Building.
We recommend: The Witchery By The Castle
Romantic doesn’t seem adequate to describe this extraordinary vision of flamboyant Gothic bravado. The suites at The Witchery, accessed via stone spiral staircases, look like the decadent seduction dens of horny vampires. Walls are covered in lush fabrics, as if by one giant 360-degree tapestry. Wooden choir stalls stand behind giant freestanding baths. Reds, burgundies and golds monopolise every available space, whether in the form of thick tasselled curtains or backlit stained glass. Gothic wooden fittings have been foraged from antique stores and churches — a lot has been purloined from St Giles — to heighten the sense of sin, while the restaurant is regarded as one of the finest in the country, aided by a phenomenal wine list. Unsurprisingly, The Witchery gets a lot of repeat visitors wanting to work their way through the suites. The overall vibe may be similar, but each has its own juicy litany of outrageous details.
■ Rooms: Suites from £325. thewitchery.com
Best for style: Hotel Missoni
Edinburgh was perhaps an odd choice for the Italian fashion label’s first hotel, but it hasn’t ducked out by playing safe. Porters clad in garish kilts take your cases and the downstairs bar/restaurant area has an afternoon-tea-gone-sexy buzz. The free minibars and a perfect location justify the hype.
■ Rooms: Doubles from £116. hotelmissoni.com
Best for backpackers: Castle Rock Hostel
A few steps from the Royal Mile, this popular hostel plays up the city’s medieval heritage, with suits of armour on the staircase. In the dorms, everyone has their own private locker, but it’s the social areas that make the place, with a gigantic communal kitchen, a movie room and three separate lounges.
■ Rooms: Beds from £11, private doubles from £45. castlerockedinburgh.com
The northern part of Edinburgh’s West End feels like an extension of the New Town as the handsome Georgian terraces continue their relentless march, albeit with a more residential feel. Amble south, and something changes, however. Around the Haymarket train station, it becomes more down to earth, with unflashy restaurants and takeaways representing most corners of the planet. Tucked in the middle is the heavily promoted, but not quite embraced, Exchange Financial District.
We recommend: B+B Edinburgh
The city has no shortage of grand townhouses converted into small but classy guesthouses. But this recent addition doesn’t just stand out with its pricing — architect Sydney Mitchell has added a glorious neo-gothic twist to the Georgian surroundings. The Grade II-listed interiors are wood panelled to the hilt, while the rooms have a more contemporary feel. The guest lounge and library is extraordinary — you’re entirely surrounded by glass cabinets, stuffed full of books, soaring up to the high ceiling. Wi-fi, UK phone calls and bike hire are all free, and it’s good for families — the sofa beds fold out with plenty of space to spare.
■ Rooms: Doubles from £95. bb-edinburgh.com
Best for budget: Tune Hotel Haymarket
If the business model is a little Ryanair-esque — small charges are made for web access, towels and watching TV — the standard veers towards premium economy. The meticulously clean rooms are small but smart, with high quality beds, air-con and the modern necessities often missing from grottier budget hotels.
■ Rooms: Windowless doubles from £25, normal doubles from £40. tunehotels.com
Best for business: Fountain Court Grove Executive
Fountain Court has a number of serviced apartments in the city, but Grove Executive’s are a notch above the others. Proximity to the conference centre will be the prime draw, but the liveability factor is high, with lots of space, a full kitchen and a proper lounge area.
■ Rooms: Doubles from £75. fountaincourtapartments.com
Published in the March 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)