Why the New Town?
Edinburgh’s higgledy-piggledy Old Town has most of the things that people come to Edinburgh for: the Castle, many of the major museums and the legions of bagpipes-and-tartan stereotypes are found up the hill on the Royal Mile.
While the Old Town’s glories have come about mainly by accident, the New Town’s splendour is almost entirely by design. In the late 18th century, Edinburgh desperately needed to expand. The city’s prosperity meant that an awful lot was built at the same time – and in the same style.
The result looks remarkable. Streets, crescents and circles of grand town houses, put together in a honey-coloured sandstone, exude an imposing majesty.
It’s not all about the look, though. The New Town has a very different energy to the Old Town. Small basement restaurants, galleries and independent shops make it feel like real-life Edinburgh, rather than the often-tourist-only pastiche on the hill.
A comfortable bed
The most daring place to stay in the New Town is Le Monde (www.lemondehotel.co.uk; 0044 131 270 3900), where every room is themed on a different city around the world. Expect to be surrounded by moody black-and-white shots of Parisian landmarks or photos of Hollywood stars. Double rooms cost from £165 (Dh948).
Channings (www.channings.co.uk; 0044 131 315 2226), just to the west of the New Town, is made up of a series of sandstone town houses, and was once the home of the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. There's plenty of character and a heritage look about the place. Doubles cost from £49 (Dh282).
The Balmoral (www.roccofortehotels.com; 0044 131 556 2414) is a classic grand-dame railway hotel, a place for lavish afternoon teas and a marble overdose. Doubles cost from £225 (Dh1,293).
Find your feet
Charlotte Square is regarded as the New Town’s architectural zenith, with the whole square designed as a single entity. Scotland’s First Minister lives here, and the grossly disproportionate dome of the former church that’s now used to house part of Scotland’s National Records collection is one of many key monuments across the New Town.
While there, nip into the Georgian House (www.nts.org.uk; 0044 131 226 3318), where the interiors and furnishings have been restored to how it would have looked in the late 18th- and early-19th-century.
Take one of three parallel streets from here. Queen Street has the most emblematic architecture; George Street the most compelling set-piece buildings; and Rose Street the most life, with its wall-to-wall restaurants and cafes.
Finish at the huge Scottish National Gallery (www.nationalgalleries.org; 0044 131 624 6200), which has a very impressive collection, including works by Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Rubens.
Meet the locals
Calton Hill at the eastern edge of the New Town is dotted with absurd monuments – some of which were never finished. The classical Greek style of many of them led to Edinburgh being nicknamed “The Athens of the North”. But the real reason to head up there is the splendid 360-degree views over the city and out to the Firth of Forth. It’s where locals come to clear their heads.
Book a table
At the base of Calton Hill, the Michelin-starred 21212 (www.21212restaurant.co.uk; 0044 131 523 1030) leans towards a contemporary French style, although the menu changes every week. Expect to pay £69 (Dh396) for the five-course dinner, although the £22 (Dh126), two-course weekday lunch menu is a comparative bargain.
The Café Royal (www.caferoyaledinburgh.co.uk; 0044 131 556 1884) is in a gorgeous building, all wood-panelling and ceramic tile art on the walls, but it's also a great in-the-know oyster bar. Half a dozen will set you back £11 (Dh63), but the fresh langoustines and king scallops for £22 (Dh126) are a good bet, too.
Princes Street is always dubbed Edinburgh’s main shopping street, and it’s the place to find flagship department stores. But Thistle Street is far more interesting, with hip kiltmakers and independent women’s fashion boutiques lining either side of the cobblestones.
What to avoid
One quirk of the New Town’s planning is the gardens that lie in the middle of some of the most prestigious streets. Unfortunately for visitors, they’re private and to be accessed only by the people who live there – so don’t go blundering in before looking for the signs by the (probably locked) entrance gate.
Between all the handsome Georgian terraces is a gully through which the Water of Leith river runs. This is also where you'll find the Dean Village, arguably the most picturesque hidey-hole in Edinburgh. Once used for milling, it's the serene home of photogenic housing provided by wealthy philanthropists and cheeringly gorgeous views of the elegant Dean Bridge. Context Travel (www.contexttravel.com; 0044 20 3514 1780) runs highly informative walking tours there for £70 (Dh390).
Etihad (www.etihad.com; 02 599 0000) launched direct flights from Abu Dhabi to Edinburgh in June. Returns cost from Dh3,555.
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