If you’re planning to visit Edinburgh, Scotland for the first time – or for the first time in a long while – perhaps for a summer arts festival, a destination wedding, a babymoon or a romantic getaway over a long weekend, you’ve got questions. When is the best time to visit? Where’s the best place to stay? What are the must-do activities and the best secret places for a wonderful meal? We’ve done the work, and we’ve got answers. Here’s our report from an insider with tips on the best first luxury vacation trip to Edinburgh, Scotland, including when to go, where to stay, top restaurants and essential activities (plus the real story on which ones to skip).
our insider itinerary series
Insider Itinerary is an occasional series here at Dandelion Chandelier that shines a light on the best places to see, stay, and dine in some of the hottest travel destinations worldwide. Our far-flung correspondents are sharing their inside tips on how to best experience their chosen cities, especially if you’re visiting for the first time. Consider it your local luxury GPS. You’re welcome!
We began this series with Cape Town. Since then, we’ve shared insider itineraries for Ljubljana, Reykjavik, Copenhagen, Oslo, Porto, Nantucket and East Hampton, among others. Next up? We share our tips and insider information on the best luxury vacation to Edinburgh, Scotland. We visited recently at the invitation of a friend, and we’ve got lots of ideas to share.
insider itinerary for the best first luxury vacation trip to Edinburgh, Scotland
1. Why Edinburgh? Why should we go?
Sometimes you’re in the mood for a vacation in the largest possible city. New York, London and Paris remain at or near the top of luxury travel wish lists the world over. Including ours!
But sometimes the vacation vibe you seek is just a bit more relaxed. Like a nice city in a small country. A place with culture, history, good food and drink and a lovely 5-star hotel. A place where there’s direct flight from your home airport. ‘Cause no one wants to transfer at the airport for a vacation trip that’s supposed to be stress-free.
Should the latter mood strike you, we strongly urge you to consider a trip to Edinburgh, Scotland. It meets all of these criteria. And it’s a fantastic spot for a luxurious vacation, especially if you go when we did, in early Spring. Pretty much anytime between late March and the end of October would be perfect.
2. How long is the ideal first visit?
On our recent visit, we flew overnight and arrived in Edinburgh the following morning. That gave us the entire day to get settled and explore. We stayed three additional days and that felt exactly right. So we’d say that 3-4 days would be the perfect duration for a first visit.
3. What hotel(s) do you recommend? Or should we rent an apartment/house/villa?
We always vote for a grand dame hotel when we visit a city in Europe. They’re always right in the center of town, meaning there’s easy access to public transportation, short walks to some of the major sites, and usually a great hotel restaurant for the days when we’re too tired to go in search of a good eatery.
In Edinburgh, if you agree with that logic, there’s only one place: The Balmoral. It’s a Rocco Forte 5-star hotel on Princes Street, a short walk away from many of the must-see sites, the best luxury shopping and the city’s light rail system.
The Balmoral was originally built as the North British (Railway Station) Hotel, and many locals still refer to it as “the NB.” With that rich history, there’s a feeling of something special and authentic the moment you step into the ornate lobby.
The property has everything on our priority list: suites with working fireplaces and wonderful views. A first-rate spa; a couple of good restaurants; a bar; a knowledgeable and friendly staff. And excellent soundproofing, so that when you’re ready to take a break from a buzzing city, you can retreat to a serene room (complete with Asprey Purple Water soaps and other products).
4. What are the 5 most important “must see” sights – natural wonders, museums and the like?
Top Must-See Areas in Edinburgh, Scotland: The Palace of Holyroodhouse.
Holyroodhouse is the palace where members of the British Royal Family stay whenever they visit Edinburgh. As such, it’s part of the crown’s property portfolio, the Royal Collection Trust. And it’s filled with treasures. The café here makes for a good stop for refreshments before you head out for your next adventure. Just note: it’s currently closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Top Must-See Areas in Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh Castle.
While it’s called a castle, Edinburgh Castle is actually an extensive array of historic buildings, museum spaces, a memorial and a working military installation (it feels very much like The Tower of London). The castle sits high on a hill overlooking the city, and you can easily spend an entire day here. From the Crown Jewels to the Military Memorial there are treasures from every era of Scottish history on view. And there’s an incredible 180-degree panoramic view of the city.
Top Must-See Areas in Edinburgh, Scotland: the Scottish National Portrait Gallery
You may think that the Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square in London is the first one of its kind in the Western world. But you’d be wrong, dear reader. The one in Edinburgh is the first purpose-built portrait gallery in the United Kingdom. And it’s marvelous.
The entry gallery is a stunning two-tiered space. An mural with notable figures from Scottish history beginning with the ancient Romans rings the top of the first floor. The upper level is also encased by art, this time a series of oil paintings on canvas.
The ceiling is decorated with over 2,000 individually hand-painted gold stars. The overall effect is magical. And that’s before you enter any of the other galleries.
One of the most fun elements of a visit to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is the chance to ponder exactly what makes a portrait. Of course, there are traditional paintings. But there are also busts, stained glass windows – even a glass sphere molded in the shape of a racing helmet as a “portrait” of Scottish race car driver Susie Wolff.
Top Must-See Areas in Edinburgh, Scotland: the Grassmarket and Victoria Street in Old Town.
This charming area of the city is one of the most beloved, in no small part because of its history. The cobblestoned plaza and winding street were once the site of a market where cows were sold (thus the name “Grassmarket”). It was also the site of numerous hangings. A slate outline marks the grim shadow of where the gallows once stood.
Maggie Dickson’s revenge
While the Grassmarket was the site of many terrible events, it also offers a ray of hope. One of most entertaining stories we heard on our entire visit was the one about Maggie Dickson. She was hung on the gallows in Greenmarket after being convicted of infanticide. But on the way to the burial ground, the coachman driving the carriage heard a knocking sound. It was emanating from inside the coffin. Once it was pried open, Maggie Dickson sat upright. Turns out she was still alive!
The authorities debated whether they should hang her again – for real this time. But they concluded that it must be the Lord’s will that she live. So her life was spared. And she opened a pub that bears her name on the very square where she was hanged, and lived a long life as a successful entrepreneur. Is this story true? Who cares? If it isn’t, it should be.
Victoria Street winds in an elegant spiral up a neighboring hill, and since the pandemic, the street has largely been open to pedestrians only. Making it a great place to stroll, window-shop, take a Harry Potter tour – whatever your fancy. The two-tiered streetscape has a vibrant and energetic vibe, and it’s one of the prettiest streets in all of Edinburgh.
Top Must-See Areas in Edinburgh, Scotland: the Scottish Borders.
It would be a shame to visit Edinburgh without getting into the nearby countryside. In about 40 minutes’ drive, the suburban neighborhoods fall away, and the magnificent landscapes of The Scottish Borders (with England) await. There are several historical sites of interest, and you can see at least two of them in an easy day trip.
We visited Traquair House, the oldest continuously occupied home in all of Scotland. Built in 1107 as a hunting lodge, the house has been visited by 27 Scottish Kings and Queens over the centuries.
Twenty-one “Lairds” have lived on and governed the property. The current one is the first female Laird. There’s a wealth of insight into Scottish history to be found here. Including secret hidey-holes, hidden staircases, glasses engraved with secret codes and two magnificent libraries.
The home was a pivotal site in the 18th century during the second Jacobite Rebellion, in which Bonnie Prince Charlie tried to defeat the British – led by the Protestant Prince William Augustus – and restore a Catholic Stuart to the throne. While his efforts failed and he escaped the country to live the rest of his life in exile, he became a Scottish national hero.
Meanwhile, the residents of Traquair House were staunch Jacobites, and they promised that the famous “Bear Gates” leading to the home would never be opened again until a Stuart sat on the throne of England. Suffice it to say, these gates been closed for centuries, leaving a broad swath of greensward where once there was a formal entrance to the grounds.
Traquair House was also the family home of one of the few prisoners ever to escape from the Tower of London. The wife of a Jacobite rebel foiled the British on the eve of her husband’s planned execution, successfully smuggling him out and away to freedom in France.
There’s a working brewery in the wing of Traquair House directly underneath the Chapel that perfumes the air and produces three exceptional craft beers (one using a secret family recipe).
In addition to being a marvelous museum, the property also serves as a bed-and-breakfast. There are three charming rooms, and guests have the run of the property. It’s an enchanting way to travel back in time to the reign of Mary Queen of Scots.
5. Is there good shopping? If so, where?
The Royal Mile, which runs from Holyroodhouse Palace to Edinburgh Castle, is home to a multitude of shops selling Scottish wares. Our top pick is Nicolson’s, where we found the tartan plaid from our clan (Graham) and ordered a custom-fitted and handmade kilt. They also offer custom-made scarves in the family tartan of your choice, and their selection of ancient and modern tartan plaids is unparalleled.
There’s a relatively new luxury shopping mall near the city center called St. James Place. Multrees Walk is adjacent to it, and between the two you’ll find Louis Vuitton, Johnstons of Elgin, Burberry and more. The mall is partially covered, and a great way to spend some time if there’s inclement weather during your stay. Or anytime the itch to shop arises.
By the way, if you’re shopping for Scotch whiskey, stop at the new Johnny Walker emporium and tasting room.
6. Which restaurants do you love?
Edinburgh is a legitimate foodie destination, boasting three Michelin-star restaurants — more than anywhere else in Scotland. The list includes Condita, The Kitchin and Restaurant Martin Wishart. (the latter two are in Leith, the hip up-and-coming neighborhood of Edinburgh). Timberyard, near the Grassmarket, also gets rave reviews.
We were fortunate enough to be invited to our friend’s home and his private club for a couple of our meals. But we also had a lovely and simple supper at the French brasserie Côte Edinburgh.
The Brasserie Prince in the Balmoral Hotel is great for breakfast, cocktails or a casual meal. Pro tip: the pastry shop at Edinburgh Castle has outstanding cakes and cookies.
7. Of everything one could do on a first visit, what’s the one most memorable thing to do?
Our advice? Head for the hills. You really should explore Edinburgh Castle, which towers over the city and is a marvelous place to learn and explore. But if you want some fresh air and exercise, you should climb Arthur’s Seat, located in Holyrood Park near the Royal Palace. It takes about 45 minutes to hike to the top on clearly-marked paths. Your reward is an incredible panoramic view of the city. And bragging rights, of course.
8. What would you advise first-timers to take a pass on? Said another way, what’s popular but a bit over-hyped?
While there are stretches of The Royal Mile that are charming, it’s also filled with touristy shops selling disposable souvenirs. There are delightful little secret “closes” that are fun to explore, but with a couple of exceptions like Nicholson’s the shopping is meh. And the narrow sidewalks can get really crowded. You should definitely see it – just be judicious in how much time you spend. You totally do not need to walk its entire length.
9. What’s a good stop for return visitors, who have already done all the “first timer” recommendations?
Leith is an up-and-coming neighborhood in Edinburgh that people talk about the way New Yorkers talk about Brooklyn. It’s edgier and younger in feeling, and two of the best restaurants in town happen to be there. We definitely want to go there on our next visit.
If you haven’t seen the bridges over the waterway the Firth of Forth, it’s worth the 15-minute drive from the city center to see them. We heard that soon you’ll be able to climb to the top of the most historic one, the Forth Bridge, just as you can climb the Harbor Bridge in Sydney, Australia.
If you can get tickets to a sporting event, definitely go. We attended a rugby match between Ireland and Scotland at Murrayfield Stadium, and it was seriously good fun.
10. Is this a good vacation for families with kids? Teenagers? Romantic partner? Solo traveler? Any or all of the above?
Because Edinburgh is vibrant city, it’s pretty easy to find whatever kind of vacation experience you really want. There are parks and museums that kids will love. Teenagers can explore the city by bike, light rail or on foot, and the hike up Arthur’s Seat is perfect for them.
For couples, a weekend escape to Edinburgh could be similar to a trip to Paris, minus the weight of expectations. There are beautiful and romantic walks, museums to explore and excellent bars and restaurants. Foodies will love the whiskey tasting opportunities, as well as the hot dining scene.
Our sense of the city is that it is safe enough for a solo traveler to enjoy without trepidation. Solo travelers might also love the experience of having a private guide with whom to tour the city. Dream Escape is the one we used, and we highly recommend them.
Describe Edinburgh in three words.
Cultured, charming and chill.
tips on having the best first luxury vacation trip to Edinburgh, Scotland
Those are our insider tips on how to have the best first luxury vacation trip to Edinburgh, Scotland, including when to go, where to stay, top restaurants and activities. We enjoyed our first trip so much that we’re already planning our return. We think you’ll love it, too.