Once dubbed the ‘Athens of the North’, Edinburgh is my kind of city. Steeped in history, philosophy, awe-inspiring architecture and plenty of malt whiskey, it’s the sort of place that welcomes its visitors with crackling fires and fog-shrouded landscapes. Indeed, I’ve not met anyone who doesn’t like Edinburgh – its cobbled streets or Tolkienesque pubs. It’s that sort of city that everyone loves and everyone has visited.
Everyone, that is, except for me.
I’m not sure why Edinburgh and I have failed to meet, but the fact we haven’t was fast becoming my dirty, travel-blogging little secret. Something had to be done.
Consequently, when the opportunity arose to spend 48-hours in the city, I decided the time had come: I would make my inaugural journey to the (apparent) birthplace of my great-grandmother. The city didn’t disappoint. My two days exploring the stony nooks and crannies of Edinburgh offered a tantalising taste of what this rugged Scottish institution has to offer. Glimpses of its infamous castle framed against a deep blue sky, picture-perfect former villages and plenty of hearty food confirmed that this city is one that I’ll continue to return to again and again.
For those looking to explore the city over a weekend, below is a summary of my whistle-stop 48-hours in Edinburgh. Enjoy!
Getting to Edinburgh from London is a quick and financially painless process. With budget airlines such as easyJet flying for less than £100 return (from London Luton airport), this is an affordable city break. Alternatively, for those looking to travel to the city at a more relaxed pace, hop on the train from Kings Cross station (London North Eastern Railway) for a scenic 4.5 hour journey across the Scottish Borders.
Nestled on the quiet cobbled streets of the affluent Stockbridge district of Edinburgh is the Nira Caledonia Hotel. A small slice of boutique luxury housed within two Georgian townhouses, this is less a hotel and more a home-away-from-home (albeit a much fancier version). Drawing up to its entrance on a dark blustery night, the hotel’s lamps flickered on and a warm glow flooded the pavement. “Good evening”, a cheery voice called from the entrance; the doorman quickly collecting our suitcases and ushering us inside.
A member of Small Luxury Hotels, the Nira Caledonia is an independent hotel that prides itself on offering more than just the standard cookie-cutter hotel experience. Designed to make guests feel instantly at home, the Nira Caledonia is ideal for those looking for a little more warmth and personality from their hotel stay.
Making our way up the building’s winding staircase, we found our executive room housed within the creaking eves of the Georgian townhouse. Classical music greeted us as we padded inside, the blinds already drawn and the lamps illuminating the ceiling’s many coves. I sunk into the room’s sofa with a sigh of relief: I was finally here, a windswept Edinburgh visible from my bedroom window. Running an indulgent jacuzzi bath as the autumn winds howled outside, I prepared for my first night in this beloved Scottish city.
Gazing out of Nira Caledonia’s large sash windows over breakfast the next morning, my usual travel-induced daydream began. The hotel – the former home of Scottish writer and philosopher, Christopher North – was warm and quiet, and I imagined what life might be like living here. With a mahogany desk set against one of the building’s grand windows, I decided that imaginary Claire would spend her imaginary mornings writing in this sunny spot, before taking a daily walk into Stockbridge for lunch. My imaginary life in Edinburgh already seemed incredibly appealing.
“Here’s your Scottish smoked salmon”, a gentle voice came, interrupting my daydream. Turning my attention back to the bustling Georgian dining room, I poured myself a steaming pot of tea and tucked into a mouth-watering breakfast. Tearing ourselves away from our new home (and my new imaginary life) was going to be difficult.
Settling down in the hotel’s cosy bar later that evening, we were joined by the hotel’s Manager, Chris Lynch. My first ever glass of malt whiskey in hand, we chatted about the history of Nira Caledonia, as Chris very politely ignored my coughs and splutters. Explaining the importance of sourcing independent, locally produced products – from the malt whiskey to the hotel’s many mattresses, the smoked salmon to even the coffee capsules – it seemed that each and every product found within the Nira Caledonia had been painstakingly selected.
More passionate about furnishing the hotel than perhaps his own home, it was clear that Chris and his team had a genuine passion for the Nira Caledonia, regarding it as much their home as their workplace.
Having suffered a fire in August 2017 – which saw the hotel close for nine months – the Nira Caledonia underwent a £1.4 million refurbishment. Looking around at the bright walls of the bar and the tastefully selected ornaments fillings its corners, the hotel had clearly been rebuilt with love and care. It is a genuinely warm and incredibly comfortable place to stay, and a fantastic base from which to explore Edinburgh. Prices start at £148 for bed and breakfast.
A short walk along the Water of Leith (a short distance from Stockbridge), sits the historical Dean Village. Once a water milling village located on the outskirts of Edinburgh’s city boundaries, Dean Village is now an affluent part of the city. For those with money to spend, you’ll find some of the priciest homes here. Somewhat off the beaten track, pretty Dean Village proved to be a pleasant surprise as we wandered towards it; the babbling river behind us.
A cobbled oasis, far from the crowds of the city’s Old Town, Dean Village is a place for those looking to explore in peace and quiet. With the original miller’s buildings still beautifully preserved and hidden mill stones engraved with baked beans and pies (indicating what used to be produced in each building), this is a fascinating spot to explore. In particular, visit the heart of the village where you’ll find Well Court; an impressive redbrick building originally constructed in the 1800s for the water mill workers.
For picture-perfect views of Dean Village, walk to the bottom of Hawthorn Bank Lane and cross the small metal bridge over the river. With autumn creeping in, this scene – filled with orange leaves and red berries – was perhaps my favourite from the entire city.
Located to the north of Edinburgh city centre sits Stockbridge – a district that’s proudly carved out a strong and independent identity. Boasting streets bursting with quirky cafes, restaurants and shops, Stockbridge is more than worthy of an afternoon wander. As our hotel, Nira Caledonia, was located in Stockbridge, we spent more time than most in this peaceful neighbourhood. My enthusiasm for it was due (in part) to the discovery of the brilliant Lovecrumbs cafe. Offering an array of freshly baked cakes and excellent coffee, this was a cafe that I immediately included in my Edinburgh daydream. It would be one that I’d visit on rainy afternoons with a good book or for a catch-up with friends.
Within Stockbridge also sits one of Edinburgh’s prettiest streets: Circus Lane. Handily located just a few minutes’ walk from our hotel, Circus Lane was a joy to amble down as the autumnal sun began to set. If this lane seems familiar, it’s likely to have cropped up on your Instagram feed once or twice, having been dubbed one of the most ‘instagrammable’ spots in Edinburgh. Framed by a church spire and with flower-filled stone cottages lining it, Circus Lane was immediately added to my (now elaborate) Edinburgh daydream.
Postcard worthy scenes aside, Stockbridge is also home to a number of other interesting sites, including the Stockbridge Market. Pass through its grand iron gates on a Sunday for a feast of artisan foods and produce. For foodies looking for a place to sit, head to the infamous Scran & Scallie, a Michelin starred Gastro Pub. ‘Scran’ meaning food and ‘Scallie’ meaning ‘scallywag’ (perhaps another phrase non-Brits might need to look up), this relaxed pub offers steaming plates of traditional meals, including fish and chips, and the interestingly named Sheep’s Heid Scotch Broth.
The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is also just a short walk from Stockbridge. We decided to power-walk here before our flight home; the warm, autumnal afternoon offering the ideal time to make the most of the great outdoors. A whopping 350 years old, the Botanic Garden is a landmark within the city, boasting 70 acres and 100,000 plants. Free to enter for those simply looking to explore its gardens, a visit to its ten glasshouses comes with an additional charge, but is well worth the price. With a chill starting to creep in, we lingered in the Victorian tropical glasshouses, before strolling through the Chinese Hillside Garden; the golden leaves decorating the delicate lily pond.
No visit to Edinburgh would be complete without a walk down the Royal Mile, regardless of its throngs of tourists. On a blue skies morning, our walk from Edinburgh Castle down the Mile – scattered with bagpipe players and shops selling colourful tartan – was nothing short of picturesque.
Forming the main street through Old Town Edinburgh, the Royal Mile is marked at one end by Edinburgh Castle, and at the other by Holyrood Palace. Both attractions are now reserved for my return to the city (when I have a more time to give them the attention they deserve), given that both are perhaps the crowning jewels of this handsome city.
“I feel like a bit of fresh air”, were the fateful words I uttered before embarking on our hike up to the city’s infamous Arthur’s Seat. Located a mere 251m above Edinburgh, Arthur’s Seat is situated on a rocky peak overlooking both the city and the surrounding sea. Abruptly deciding that this was the perfect way to get ‘a little air’ – and with the weather now turning unusually warm – we began our ascent to the top.
“I need to sit down”, I panted, 25 minutes into our climb. My woolly jumper now prickling under the afternoon sun, I scurried for shade. As it transpires, the 45-minute hike isn’t as leisurely as I had anticipated. In fact, the hike up to Arthur’s Seat requires a little preparation – water and appropriate shoes strongly advised.
An undisclosed amount of time later, we reached the peak – promptly sitting down on one of Arthur’s rocky stones. An extinct volcano, Arthur’s Seat serves as both the towering backdrop to the city, whilst also offering some curious myths and legends. One such story, told to us by our friends Hand Luggage Only, concerns the small wooden coffins that are said to have been found in the hill in 1836. Indeed, seventeen miniature coffins were uncovered, each housing – rather eerily – small wooden figures. Although each figure was found wearing distinct clothing, the reasons for these miniature coffins remains a mystery. It’s a strange little tale that I found strangely thrilling.
The city that inspired Harry Potter, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Edinburgh is a treasure trove of wizarding treats for Harry Potter fans. Walk in the steps of J.K Rowling by stopping at The Elephant House for a cup of tea – the cafe where Rowling is said to have written her early novels. Before you leave, also make sure that you take a peek inside the cafe’s toilets to see previous guests’ Harry Potter related scribbles. It’s said that the cafe used to paint over the graffiti but gave up in 2016 – the correct decision, in my opinion, having now seen the layers of fantastical wizarding scribbles.
For those looking to experience the original Diagon Alley, a walk through Victoria Street is essential. A curved, cobbled street of colourful houses, Victoria Street bares many parallels to London’s Diagon Alley. Crowded with mismatched independent stores (many now selling Harry Potter related paraphernalia), Victoria Street is the ideal spot for those looking to recreate a little wizarding magic.
My 48 hours in Edinburgh had passed impossibly quickly. Pulling my suitcase along the quiet streets of Stockbridge, the gentle clink of Nira Caledonia’s malt whiskey audible inside, I reluctantly held out my hand to wave down the airport-bound bus. My two days exploring Edinburgh had passed too fast, and I left knowing that there is much more of this windswept city left to explore.
A place that offers a little something for each of its visitors, from cosy pubs and soaring castles, to quirky independent shops and eateries, Edinburgh is an ideal city break – even for those in a hurry.
Thank you to Small Luxury Hotels and Nira Caledonia for hosting us!
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