After hours of rest stops, coffee breaks, refills of gas and getting a little lost, we ceremoniously crossed the Scottish border. So maybe it was pitch dark, we got nicked by the speeding camera and were bone tired, but we made it. The city of Edinburgh lies just one more hour north and we couldn’t wait to get our group getaway going.
Protip: Be wary of timing if you plan to drive to Edinburgh. While the city is close to the border, the drive from London is still more than seven hours without any stopping. It is doable in a long weekend, but there are other options for transport that can be quicker. For a little more of an investment, look into the Caledonian sleeper train that takes you overnight to Scotland, or several airlines that will fly you straight into Edinburgh from Gatwick, such as British Airways.
Head to the City Summit
Most people will venture downtown to begin their adventure in Edinburgh, but instead, consider a climb up Arthur’s Seat, especially if it’s a sunny day. Only a few minutes’ walk outside city center is a massive park full of rolling hills, greenery and rugged landscapes. You can take the pathways around for a long, leisurely stroll or go straight for the top up some steep steps. It takes roughly 30-45 minutes to make it to the summit – make sure you bring up some beer or a can of Irn Bru Scottish soda to cheers at the top!
After your climb, support a local mainstay with lunch at The Serenity Café. This is the city’s first establishment run by people in various stages of recovery from addictions and afflictions. They welcome all to enjoy a wallet-friendly meal or afternoon tea – the halloumi salad was a favorite our group.
All the good stuff is found a stone’s throw from downtown, so you’ll want to stay somewhere centrally located and easy to find. Our base was the bustling, yet cozy Mercure Hotel on Princes Street. We enjoyed two lovely rooms that shared a small, private doorway for the four us. It was just about perfect, as there was plenty of space to spread out in the rooms and have great views of the street and park below.
The beds are large for Europe, plush and surrounded by royal purple linens. Bathrooms are spacious too, with great water pressure in the shower and towel heaters. We were tempted to spend the trip relaxing in complimentary bathrobes the whole time!
Besides the accommodations, the hotel also offers other amenities to round out your urban stay. Breakfast is served daily in the main lounge area, with full English options and plenty of fresh baked goods. The space doubles as a restaurant and cocktail bar in the evenings, often throwing parties and special events for guest and locals alike. These can get rowdy in the lobby and common spaces, especially around the holidays, but our room was always quiet and secure. Wireless internet is complimentary throughout the hotel and works well.
It’s super easy to walk to all the hotspots from Princes Street, such as the castle, Royal Mile and marketplaces. There’s also a parking garage nearby for your car, or a large train station to get to other parts of the city and beyond. For value and location, the Mercure Hotel on Princes Street is a wonderful option.
The holiday season is a wonderful time to visit Edinburgh, because there’s plenty of delicious events in full swing. Although a little campy, the winter wonderland festival happening along Prices Street is ideal for grazing on fest food and hot, boozy drinks. We were lucky that our hotel was directly across the street from all the fun.
Further celebrating the wintery season, our crew headed to the Contini Cannonball restaurant for a traditional dinner, right outside the Edinburgh Castle in Old Town. This was my first foray into mystery-meat haggis, but I completely cheated by trying it deep fried first. It’s super tasty and goes great with chips. Mains included some perfectly baked lobster, game fowl and great cuts of steak, polished off with a shared knickerbocker glory sundae, because ice cream is ideal any time of year.
Of course, Edinburgh is not all haggis and beer. The cultural center offers discerning visitors a chance to imbibe and indulge in other great genres of cuisine any time of the year. Recently, the G & V Hotel has re-opened their lounge to reinvent it as the new Epicurean. Have a cocktail there before dinner from the innovative menu which features drinks inspired by Scottish painters who have a penchant for color. We sipped on new favorites including the Hunter’s Rose. Made with premium Scottish vodka and champagne, this selection is an homage to George Leslie Hunter’s bold landscape masterpieces. Garnishes and flavors are also brought forth from the hotel’s hydroponic herb garden on site.
Upstairs from Epicurean you can book a table at Cucina. The menu mostly features fresh Italian dishes that are hearty and appealing to the eye. Start with an authentic caprese salad before moving onto homemade tagliatelle with pork ragu. Don’t forget to leave room to have some cherry gelato with champagne foam and Scottish raspberries. The ambiance is styled well and staff is knowledgeable about sourced ingredients and specials of the day.
Shopping and Souvenirs
Before leaving the city, we did spend a little time poking around shops, as the prices seem to be more affordable than London overall, especially for Christmas presents. We were able to pick up some real lambswool scarfs and blanket throws at a steal when buying together, as many of the shops run specials for winter wear and accessories in traditional tartan patterns. Besides souvenir and curiosity stores, there’s also the normal large department stores and several artisan stands at the holiday festival to check out too.
On the drive back out of Edinburgh, we managed to explore one of the nicest rest stops I’ve seen in the UK, called the Tebay Services, just off the M6 between the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales. There we had a big fish and chips lunch, then grabbed some more stocking stuffers, including locally make chocolate bars and shortbread.
You can certainly do Edinburgh in 72 hours, but next time we’ll definitely want more time to immerse in this gorgeous city!