Spectacular views, a diverse arts scene and the Scottish capital's lively back streets are best enjoyed now before the Festival hordes descend. Simon Calder reports
Why go now?
July is arguably the perfect month to see the Scottish capital: the days seem to last forever, revealing the spectacular contours and architecture of this multi-faceted city. The chances of fine weather are high, enabling you to make the most of open spaces. And the August crowds that converge for the Fringe festival have yet to arrive.
Edinburgh's Waverley station is where rail services roll in from across Britain. East Coast Trains take around four hours and 20 minutes from London King's Cross, via Peterborough, York and Newcastle. The other big operators are CrossCountry from Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds and many other towns and cities, and ScotRail from across Scotland. The most civilised way to arrive from London is aboard the ScotRail Caledonian Sleeper. For times and fares, call National Rail Enquiries, tel: 08457 48 49 50 or seenationalrail.co.uk.
Numerous airlines fly from airports across the UK to Edinburgh airport, seven miles west of the city centre. Airlink 100 airport buses (0131 555 6363; flybybus.com) depart at least every 10 minutes for Waverley station via Haymarket, price £3.50 single/£6 return, taking around half an hour. A taxi to the centre costs around £25.
Get your bearings
Edinburgh is a collection of villages that cling to the skirts of the Castle, perched atop a volcanic plug. The ancient centre is the Old Town, around the spine of the Royal Mile — which changes its name several times as it runs down from the castle. The south side is a mix of student haunts and grand institutions, while north — beyond Princes Street Gardens — stands the venerable New Town with Stockbridge beyond it and Leith farther still, on the Firth of Forth.
The main tourist information office is at 3 Princes Street (0845 2255 121; edinburgh.org), though it is incredibly difficult to find while the refurbishment work is going on at Waverley station, which it stands above. In July and August it opens 9am-7pm daily (Sundays from 10am).
Le Monde at 16 George Street (0131 270 3900; lemondehotel.co.uk) brings the world to Edinburgh, with individually designed and named rooms from Paris and Milan to Havana and Shanghai. The exterior location is as appealing as the interior colour and comfort. Rack rate for as standard as the rooms get is £135 (including a welcome drink, but not breakfast), though all manner of deals are available if you book in advance.
The best-located budget hotel is the Ibis Edinburgh Centre, which lives up to its name with the address of 6 Hunter Square, just off the Royal Mile (0131 240 7000; ibishotel.com). Rates for rooms that are unlikely to startle you vary widely according to demand: £78 per double, excluding breakfast, is typical.
Edinburgh is firmly on the international backpacker circuit, so it is no surprise that there are plenty of hostels. One of the most central and convivial is the Art Roch Hostel at 2 West Port, Grassmarket (0131 228 9981; artrochhostel.com). The interior feels comfortably gothic, and the room rates vary from £10 for a bed in a dorm for a dozen or two, to £55 for a private double room. Unusually for a hostel, the Art Roch also offers ‘Executive Rooms’ with workspaces and wired broadband.
Take a hike
Start a stroll along the Royal Mile from the Queen's official residence when she is in Scotland, the baroque Palace of Holyroodhouse, also the former home of Mary, Queen of Scots. Presently, visits are not allowed (though they will be from July 9 to 26, and again from August; £10.50), but you can still admire the façade.
The extraordinary Scottish Parliament offers free guided tours of its labyrinthine interior on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays (and others during recess; open 11am-5.30pm; 0131 348 5200; scottish.parliament.uk).
Next, you might wander in to a couple of city collections: the Museum of Edinburgh in historic Huntly House, and Canongate Tolbooth opposite, with its recreations of city life in the People's Story museum. Continue up past St Giles' Cathedral and dip into one or two of the Closes — the lanes that straggle down from either side of the spine of the Royal Mile. Lady Stair's House is occupied by the Writers' Museum, where you are reminded that “the happiest lot on earth is to be born a Scotsman”. All three of those small museums are open 10am-5pm (Sundays from noon during the festival only), admission free.
Finish your hike at Edinburgh Castle, though the grandeur of the location is diminished by the clutter accompanying the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which takes place this year from August 5-27.
Take a view
On a fine day, the Camera Obscura offers an optical feast: the city and its skyline projected on to a concave dish, on which you can pick out (and even pick up) pedestrians on the Royal Mile. And even on a dull day, this warren of illusions is worth exploring (0131 226 3709; camera-obscura.co.uk; 9.30am-7.30pm daily; £9.95).
Out to lunch
The café in the crypt of St Giles’ Cathedral is the ideal location on the Royal Mile, with fresh soups (£3.25) and salads (£4.95); afterwards, take the shortcut into the handsome body of the church (0131 225 9442; stgilescathedral.org.uk; free).
The National Museum of Scotland, on Chambers Street in the heart of the city's Old Town, is a collection in waiting; while the modern structure contains an excellent background to Scottish history, on July 29 the original (and much more grand) Royal Museum of Scotland, adjacent, opens with a richer range of exhibits (0300 123 6789; nmns.ac. uk; open 10am-5pm daily; free; ‘Highlights Tour’ at 11.30am and 1.30pm daily).
To follow the money, aim for the Mus£um on the Mound, where you can see what £1m looks like — and learn about Scotland's mostly successful financial services industry (0131 243 5464; museumonthemound.com; 1-5pm at weekends, 10am-5pm Tuesday-Friday; free).
Conserve your energy for the marvellous National Gallery, a multi-dimensional location in many senses. The neo-classical original is complemented by a modern area opening on to Princes Street Gardens. Artistic highlights include works by Rubens, Gauguin and Cézanne, and the museum's motif, Sir Henry Raeburn's ‘Skating Minister’ (0131 624 6200; nationalgalleries.org; 10am-5pm daily, Thursday to 7pm; free).
For a pair of traditional pubs, look no further than Young Street, where you'll find the|
Oxford Bar and, a short way west, the Cambridge Bar.
Dining with the locals
A miracle in marble: that is the shorthand for the Dome at 14 George Street (0131 624 8624; thedomeedinburgh.com). This splendid Victorian confection was formerly the Commercial Bank of Scotland and now the arena for The Grill Room — serving starters such as haggis wrapped in filo pastry (£7.50) followed by fillet of venison (£27.50) or Scottish beef (£29.50).
Sunday morning:go to church
Princes Street Gardens is at its best early on a Sunday morning. Enter near the West End of Princes Street and descend to the atmospheric old churchyard of St Cuthbert’s.
Cross the footbridge over the railway and follow the path that winds around Castle Rock. Descend by Granny Green’s Steps: diagonally across the former execution site of Grassmarket is the northern entrance to Greyfriars Kirk. This was the city's first post-Reformation church, and its minister organised the National Covenant in 1638. The churchyard is full of dramatic memorials, while the Kirk itself (0131 226 5429; greyfriarskirk.com) has an elegant, austere interior; 10.30am-4.30pm daily (Saturdays to 2pm), with an 11am Sunday service.
Out to brunch
‘The birthplace of Harry Potter’, as The Elephant House bills itself, trades heavily on the fact that JK Rowling wrote some of her early work here. Service can be slack, but the rambling café at 21 George IV Bridge (0131 220 5355; elephanthouse.biz) is still well worth a visit on a bright Sunday morning when, from the big windows in the back room, you can enjoy the same view of the city as the writer, while sipping a mug of coffee and tucking into a full Scottish breakfast.
Edinburgh sustains a remarkable range of independent shops, from the galleries and whisky stores of Victoria Street to the boutiques of St Stephen Street in Stockbridge. The city's centre of retail gravity, though, spreads east from Harvey Nichols on St Andrew Square (visit the Forth Floor café for views of the Firth) to the St James Shopping Centre. For an antidote to modern chain stores, descend to Leith Walk and walk along to Valvona & Crolla, a venerable delicatessen selling cheeses, whisky and wine that opens 10.30am-4.30pm on Sundays|(0131 556 6066; valvonacrolla.co.uk).
Take a ride
Continue down Leith Walk to Edinburgh's port, which has undergone a transformation and now presents a pretty waterside aspect to the city — especially on the curve of the Water of Leith running inland from the docks.
A walk in the park
Castle Rock's geological sibling is Calton Hill, a grassy rise 450ft above sea level that is strewn with strange structures. Here, the National Monument comprises a dozen Doric columns; an overambitious attempt to replicate the Parthenon in the ‘Athens of the North’. The Nelson Monument was built in 1807 to replicate the vice-admiral's spyglass. Climb the 170 steps (open 10am-6pm daily; from 1pm on Mondays; £3) for fine views across the city.
The icing on the cake
If you dined elsewhere last night, visit the Dome on George Street for Edinburgh's greatest indulgence — afternoon tea. Between 2pm and 5pm, a couple can enjoy sandwiches, scones, cakes and tea or coffee for £23 for two — or, for an extra £18 for two, upgrade to champagne.