Its iconic medieval buildings, love for tartan or spectacular surrounding scenery. What makes Edinburgh so special? The answer is well, all of them. This, along with its selection of top-notch restaurants and boutique hotels, make Edinburgh perfect city break material. But at this time of year, Scotland’s capital city takes centre stage for hosting the largest arts festivals in the world.
With 12 different festivals and 2,500 different events taking place across July to September, this naturally spacious city can waver between a hub of creative energy, to chaos, not dissimilar to Oxford Circus at rush hour. With this in mind, we squeezed in a visit just before the festival peaks during August.
After a scenic journey enjoying East Coast Rail’s first class breakfast service, we emerged out of Waverly Station and were struck by the blazing summer sun. Seven years on, after living here as a student, I was still awe-struck by the familiar yet beautiful vista of Edinburgh’s giant castle ‘Rock’. I’d forgotten how beautiful this city was. We dragged our bags up the cobbled ‘Mound’ and weaved our way past ambling tourists to reach Bristo Place in Edinburgh’s old town. We were staying at the luxury boutique Hotel du Vin. It promised us homely yet chic surroundings and is walking distance to the Old Town’s main attractions.
Hotel du Vin
Dark wooden beams, tartan carpets and a plate of freshly baked cookies greeted us on arrival. On closer inspection you’ll notice the Hotel du Vin’s two key themes. Its first is its quirky past, illustrated through private dining rooms dubbed ‘Burke & Hare’ and ‘Bedlam’ which hark back to the infamous body snatchers and the hotel’s days as a mental asylum. You’ll notice its second, wine, when you spot the impressive glass wine cellar that overlooks the hotel’s bistro.
Carry on up the stairs and their aptly-named guestrooms are in keeping with the wine theme too. Ours – ‘Veuve Clicquot’ – impressed us with a beautiful wooden sleigh bed and an elevated roll top bath. Not quite a castle view, but peering out across the rooftops from a tub full of bubbles was more than suffice. A separate loft-style bathroom with square Victorian-style his ‘n’ her’s basins and a walk-in monsoon shower with Terre du Vin bath products was equally impressive. Add in the crisp white Egyptian cotton sheets, tartan accents through the cushions, and a Nespresso machine for our morning coffee fix, and this was suitable Scottish luxe.
Explore this hotel properly and you’ll discover the Laroche Tasting room, a fully stocked humidor and ‘Cigar Bothy’ for cigar aficionados (if you’re that way inclined). There’s also a chef’s table where diners have front row seats into the bistro kitchen. By morning it’s filled with the breakfast buffet. But we recommend ordering off the menu. The quirkily presented boiled eggs are worth getting out of bed for.
Hotel du Vin’s other selling point is having Edinburgh’s old town on your doorstep. A left turn out of the hotel leads you to the infamous Grey Friars Bobby statue and tranquil Grey Friars church. And within minutes you can be perusing vintage stores and gift shops in the infamous Grassmarket.
Passing street performers and kilt-clad bagpipers and you’re at Edinburgh’s most famous street, the Royal Mile. Here on the castle’s esplanade, workmen were constructing a gigantic spectator stand in time for August’s prestigious Military Tattoo. So instead, we explored the underground ‘village’ that is The Real Mary King’s Close.
The Real Mary King’s Close
This network of 18th Century lanes has been preserved ever since plague victims were evacuated and it was covered by Edinburgh’s chambers. Not for faint-hearted Belles but a fascinating insight into Edinburgh’s past. We also hear they’re running one-off, more chilling tours in time for August’s festivities.
A two-minute walk from here the five-star restaurant, The Witchery, attracts dozens to its luxury gothic restaurant and ‘secret garden’. But opting to escape the city for a few hours, we headed to The Witchery’s sister hotel, set in the tranquil grounds of The Prestonfield house.
Afternoon Tea at The Prestonfield
The grandeur of this baroque stately home greets you before you even step foot into its impressive lobby. A long gravel driveway lined with manicured lawns is overlooked by the majestic Arthurs Seat. In summer, guests can order lunch and afternoon tea al fresco, from the Prestonfield rose gardens, or from the gothic teahouse where peacocks freely roam. Instead we chose to indulge in Champagne afternoon tea from the opulence of the upstairs tapestry room.
With bubbles in full flow, we enjoyed dainty Ayrshire ham and egg finger sandwiches before making our way through dangerously tasty baked scones with jam and cream, incredibly indulgent coconut bonbons, lemon drizzle cakes and dazzlingly pink cherry and caramel macarons.
In the company of throne-like chairs, medieval-like furniture and antiques, I felt like the king had invited us for tea. Regal red colours, ceiling cupids and incredibly ornate cornicing all justify Prestonfield’s A-list clientele. And for girly Belles out there, the uber glam fuchsia pink powder rooms are worth the visit alone.
Dine at the Tower restaurant
That evening, we dined in the Prestonfield’s other sibling restaurant – the Tower. A mere two-minute walk from our hotel, we took an elevator from the new Museum of Scotland’s foyer, to this rooftop establishment. As we seated ourselves by the floor to ceiling windows, the low sunset beamed onto our table. As I sipped from a delicious peach bellini, we had front-row rooftop seats to the most spectacular views of the castle.
Forget stuffy, overly formal fine-dining. The Tower’s chic yet friendly approach made for a comfortable yet memorable visit. The beautifully presented ‘Hand dived Guy Grieve’s’ scallops with crispy chicken wings were mouth-wateringly delicious. The chicken liver parfait with sour dough crostinis was equally flavoursome and served on a beautiful grey slate.
For mains, the fairly ordinary sounding pan-fried salmon proved to be out-of-this-world delicious. The delicate combination of fennel cooked three ways and crispiness of the salmon in seaweed butter created a flavour combination I’ll still remember weeks after. The Chateaubriand 8oz with creamy, buttery mash also delivered some delicious flavours. And we were suitably impressed with the juicy Australian Shiraz and gooseberry-like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. After a pre-dessert stroll onto the restaurant terrace to take in the panoramic skyline, we enjoyed a light and tangy rhubarb and ginger cheesecake.
In answer to what makes Edinburgh so special, top notch food served in beautiful surrounds is definitely one of them and the Tower restaurant delivers exactly that. But for Belles who also want to immerse themselves in an exciting mix of history, culture and art, get ready to brave the crowds, because the Edinburgh Festival is one of the most amazing you’ll ever experience. Just make sure you do it in style.
Hotel du Vin, 11 Bristo Place, Edinburgh, EH1 1EZ, (0131) 247 4900, Rooms at the Hotel du Vin, Edinburgh start from £125. www.hotelduvin.com
The Prestonfield’s champagne Afternoon tea is served daily from 2-7pm, £29, Prestonfield House, Priestfield Road, Edinburgh, EH16 5UT, 0131 225 7800 www.Prestonfield.com
The Tower, National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1JF, 0131 225 3003 www.tower-restaurant.com
We travelled via East Coast rail, from London Kings Cross to Edinburgh Waverley. Online Booking: www.eastcoast.co.uk
by Lucy McGuire