So it looks like the phrase ‘city break’ has permanently entered our national conversation. Fuelled by the rise of cheap flights, innovative accommodation and the internet, European cities have never felt so accessible.
Suddenly everyone from my dad to my overly hands-on hairdresser Pierre is spending their spare weekends strutting down some glamorous shopping district in Milan, lounging in the faded backstreets of former imperial powerhouse Lisbon, swinging a selfie-stick around some charmingly offbeat hipsterish hideout like San Sebastian. Everyone’s planning their next bout of urban exploration.
But one of Europe’s most fascinating cities is much closer to hand. You don’t even have to leave the country to get there. Edinburgh is an unusual city: picturesque, cultured and yet completely untamed. It feels unquestionably civilized, reminiscent of Bath Spa with its distinctive and elegant architecture, and yet retains something antiquated and medieval about it. Maybe it’s because it’s built on a volcano. Or maybe it’s because over 75% of all the buildings in Edinburgh are listed – the highest proportion in the UK, by far. It all gives Edinburgh the essence of a fantasy citadel, heightened by the presence of an imposing castle right in the heart of the town. Edinburgh is a place where the past emerges compellingly intact.
It’s no surprise, then, that people flock to Edinburgh. The city receives over four million tourists annually. The city’s bursting with places to stay and eat out. So how to decide between them?
If you want to ‘get away from it all’, but still close enough to Edinburgh to explore it, Melville Castle is the standout choice. The eighteenth-century Gothic fortress is a mere twenty minutes from the city centre, making it an ideal hideaway from the bustling core – it’s so quiet out here, the air so fragrant and fresh. Set in over fifty acres of lush woodland and meadows, you can go clay pigeon shooting and axe throwing during your stay. The interior, all Sèvres and chandeliers, completes the fairy-tale aspect: there’s an enormous winding staircase, a roaring fireplace, and ceilings so high you could fly a kite inside. The staff are helpful without being intrusive, giving guests a generous berth of privacy. And it’s blessed with a rich history – there’s been all the bloodshed, betrayal and intrigue you’d expect a place this fabulous to have inspired.
Lodging at Melville Castle adds something special to your stay: genuine charm, a depth of history, and sheer beauty. Gloriously restored and impeccably comfortable, it’s the most memorable place on our visit in a city of unforgettable sights.
Though the four-poster beds are outrageously comfortable, try to get up in time for breakfast. The buffet is flanked by sun-facing floor-to-ceiling windows and crowned with a glorious chandelier. On a clear day, the shimmering effect of the sunlight on the chandelier crystals takes the breath away. More importantly, they serve a very decent array of eggs, bacon and – thankfully – haggis, which for the uninitiated tastes like a richer, more wholesome black pudding. No excuses – you have to try it.
If you’re eating in the town, the choices widen. Wedgwood, a family-run restaurant sitting on the Royal Mile, deserves its pride of place. It’s stylish, modern but still cosy, bearing that touch of quality you’d expect from a family-run restaurant of this calibre – husband and wife team Paul and Lisa Wedgwood have created a dining room full of warmth and care. The menu is compact and changes seasonably, giving the impression of refinement, as though each dish had to beat a host of contenders to make the cut. Those seeking more traditional fare will find rabbit and game on offer, modernised by quirky twists that bless each dish with a touch of originality and experimentation. Not that Wedgwood shy away from simple fare – my partner’s steak was formidably good. Wedgwood is referred to in discussions about the best restaurants in Edinburgh, and on this evidence it’s wholly deserved. Highly recommended.
Whisky has justly made the Scots world famous. Unsurprisingly, then, many pubs will try to lure you in with their fire water, but if you can only visit one make sure it’s The Queen’s Arms. Tucked into a cosy basement on a quaint residential street not five minutes from Edinburgh Waverley train station, it’s the kind of place that locals love and tourists envy. Not only do they stock over fifty types of whisky, they’re also very decently priced. As someone accustomed to the routine extortion of London, it’s a pleasant surprise to get a measure of high-quality single-malt for under £4. Leather chesterfields allow you to sink in and relax while enjoying your drink. The food upholds the high standard:haggis lollipops, goulash and an enormous portion of finely battered cod and chips makes for an excellent afternoon pick-me-up. And even if whisky’s not your thing, the selection of ales, lagers and stouts is truly formidable. The entire drinks menu could double up as an encyclopedia of good booze. You can imagine all of Edinburgh’s great literary figures enjoying a well-earned drink in such a plush, rustic den. An absolute gem.
Further out towards Inverleith Park is the quiet neighbourhood restaurant everyone wishes was at the bottom of their street: Stockbridge Restaurant take traditional dishes to new places with interesting tweaks, supplemented by an unusually varied gin selection. Striking impressionist art and a fireplace filled with the molten debris of a thousand candles add a memorably quirky touch. Best of all is the grilled halibut and quail egg, served with a heap of crispy pancetta, crushed potatoes and a coat of Arran mustard sauce. Delicate, complex and rejuvenating, it’s a celebration of a handful of great ingredients done justice. Warm and personal service adds to the clustered, intimate atmosphere that enlivens this little hideaway.
At the other end of town is another welcoming tavern – The Magnum is a fine example of a pub that manages to be both a great place for a drink and a top restaurant. Bright, airy and full of natural light, this is a great place to while away an afternoon. As you’d expect, the menu is mainly composed of pub classics, but with enough of a Scottish flavour to keep you interested. Cullen skink, a thick broth reminiscent of a good New England clam chowder, is rich and buttery -in other words, the perfect pick-me-up in the brisk Scottish winter. Venison with parsnip dauphinoise, breast of guinea fowl and an impressive beef burger complete a punchy, varied menu which aims well above your traditional pub fare. Again, haggis is given a new lease of life, this time in the form of spring rolls. It might sound like an unnecessary bastardisation, but they’re implausibly, addictively good, ably decorated with a light and crispy batter. Best of all is the apple assiette, a surprisingly intricate line-up featuring tarte tatin and a deliciously refreshing apple sorbet – the pick of a very decent menu.
For those seeking real peace and quiet, Ducks at Kilspindie House in Aberlady is perfect. A brisk twenty-minute hop on the train from Edinburgh, Ducks is an intimate, well-preserved guesthouse overlooking the moors of North Berwick. This is golf territory. For aficionados of the sport, there are two world class resorts within a ten-minute drive, and a further twenty in the surrounding area, revered by enthusiasts as the cradle of golf. Back at Ducks, Malcolm – whose father founded the guesthouse – brings the spirit of the sport to the lodge with a putting competition, where punters can try their skills on the bar.
Ducks has a cosy, lived-in feel, making it an attractive resting-spot after a long ramble over the surrounding hills and plains. It’s the kind of place where everybody quickly feels at home. On a quick drive around the area, you realize that there’s a surprising amount to do. A health spa, nature reserve and a motor museum are all within touching distance, and that’s without mentioning the sprawling golf resorts.
Not content with the stunning location and unparalleled access to Britain’s finest freeways, Duck’s restaurant has two AA rosettes. Just be sure to visit from Thursday to Saturday – I learned the hard way that the restaurant doesn’t open from Monday to Wednesdays. If the food from their bistro is anything to go by, though, you’re in very good hands. And as for drinks, Ducks is a member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, the world’s foremost malt whisky club, with a frankly enormous selection of over sixty whiskys on offer.
Stay at Ducks, and you’ll barely realize that you’re still in Britain. Few places can feel so remote, so peaceful and untouched, while also being less than half an hour from one of Europe’s most captivating cities.
North Berwick, further along the coast, is one of those picturesque towns where every building inspires you to take a photo, where the locals know each other by name and smile at strangers. With a coastline so breathtakingly unspoilt, I’m unsurprised to learn that this part of Scotland is the hushed-up getaway for celebrities looking to relax outside of the spotlight. If I was in their shoes, I’d do the same thing.
Escape to Edinburgh by Chris Zacharia