The Balmoral in Edinburgh is a five-star Italian love letter to Scotland – Hotel Insider

At 122 years old, this stalwart city stay is a long-time celebrity favourite and one of the world's great railway hotels

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For more than 100 years, The Balmoral has stood proudly on Edinburgh's Princes Street, its lofty clock tower a prominent part of the capital's skyline.

Dating back to 1902, when it was known as The North British Station Hotel, the imposing structure stands adjacent to Waverley Train Station and remains the only residential building on the south side of the capital's famous Princes Street, part of a Unesco-listed heritage site.

The first hotel in Scotland to receive a five-star award from Forbes Travel Guide, The Balmoral has been a favourite with celebrities over the decades. It has welcomed comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Paul and Linda McCartney and former hotel patron, the Queen Mother.

In 1996, Sir Rocco Forte purchased the property with the intention of making it the first in his now prestigious Rocce Forte Collection, which spans 14 hotels in prestigious destinations around the world.

Blending friendly Scottish hospitality with Italian passion and a hint of French flair, the hotel – whose name means majestic dwelling in Scottish Gaelic – is one of the most famous in Scotland, so The National checks in to find out what it's like to stay at the famous spot.

The welcome

Stepping off the train at Waverley station in Scotland’s capital, we climb the stairway leading out of the station, turn to our right and immediately find the stone-stepped entrance to The Balmoral.

A sharply dressed doorman ushers us inside where – on our December visit – we’re greeted by what looks like a scene straight out of a Christmas card, with a beautifully decorated tree in front of a roaring fireplace laden with stockings. At the reception desk to the left of the lobby, the process is quick and efficient and it’s a nice touch when the receptionist comes out from behind the desk to personally hand over our key card and show us to the lifts. He assures us the lobby is as impressive year-round thanks to its ever-changing floral displays and magnificent balustrade balcony.

The neighbourhood

If location is what’s important, then you couldn't pick a better hotel than The Balmoral on a visit to Scotland's capital city. It’s in the very heart of Edinburgh's New Town – which isn't that new given it was constructed between 1767 and 1890. Stepping outside the front door lands you on Princes Street – the city’s main thoroughfare that's lined with historic monuments, flower-filled parks, museums, shops, bars and restaurants.

Just across the road is the St James Quarter – perhaps the best shopping mall in the country – and the city’s atmospheric Old Town, dating to medieval times, is just behind you across Waverley Bridge.

A few minutes from the hotel is Princes Street Gardens, a vast area of manicured gardens dating back to 1820 that bloom beautifully in summertime and are transformed into a winter wonderland in December. And the crowning gem in the neighbourhood is the towering Edinburgh Castle, peering down on the city from the craggy volcanic mound that is Castle Rock.

The scene

With 167 rooms and 20 suites, The Balmoral is large enough to have an energetic buzz but not quite so mammoth that it's overwhelming. During our visit, it's busy with tourists, well-heeled locals and a few families.

Wandering through the hotel feels like venturing through history – especially if you take the wide spiralling staircases with their thick carpets, candelabra-style lights and ornamental ceilings. Nods to the hotel's past and famous former guests are dotted around the corridors, making for fascinating viewing as you wait for the lift or stroll to your room.

The underground health spa is a good place to retreat to when you want to escape the city, it has an exclusive members programme for local residents and is free to access for hotel guests. It has an indoor swimming pool, loungers, sauna and steam room, as well as a small gym.

By evening, the hotel gets busy and buzzy as the bars and restaurants fill with external guests – something that is always a good sign that a hotel is getting things right on the hospitality front. The bar, Scotch, throngs with tourists, while Bar Prince buzzes with holidaymakers, shoppers, couples and post-work crews.

Word seems to have got out in the US about this hotel, as during our stay it is busy with American tourists.

The room

Rocco Forte's Italian finesse is unmistakable in the room that my husband and I are staying in. Decor is elegant and understated, but entirely interesting with ecological-inspired art complementing soothing pastel green tones. Scottish art adorns the walls in our Deluxe Castle View room, which comes with unrivalled vistas of Edinburgh Castle and the Scott Monument.

But it’s not all elegance – in the bathroom there's a hint of Rocco Forte's Italian playfulness via sectional black-and-white acrylic prints of Sean Connery – dressed in a pair of swimming short and holding the legs of hand-standing actor Ursula Andress. It's a scene taken during the filming of the 1962 Bond film Dr No and is a nod to the Edinburgh native actor, who was the star of the hotel's ribbon-cutting ceremony in 1991.

Suites in the hotel are beautifully furnished and a few are extra special such as the JK Rowling Suite, where the author finished writing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; the Bowes-Lyon Suite, inspired by the Queen Mother, a former patron of the hotel; and the Scone and Crombie suite, named after a legendary Scottish castle and a palace.

The food

With three restaurants to choose from, there are plenty of options at The Balmoral. Number One serves fine-dining contemporary dishes with Scottish ingredients while Palm Court is an opulent afternoon tea spot set under a dazzling skylight and exuding old-world opulence.

We dine at Brasserie Prince, where French cuisine is married with Scottish produce. It has Parisian vibes thanks to gleaming mirrors, leather furnishings and brass accents but a laid-back atmosphere and views of Edinburgh's Unesco-listed New Town remind you that you're in Scotland's capital.

Opting for the locally sourced oysters to start is highly recommended – the Tobermory oysters are freshly shucked and perhaps the best I've ever tasted. Classically dressed, they are served in a bowl of crushed ice with two glasses of French bubbles (£49, or $60), the perfect sharing start. For mains, we try the roast lamb loin and belly (£31), which is served with beautifully smoky mashed potato and perfectly cooked with rich flavours. The north sea stone bass is served with caramelised celeriac puree and ratatouille and is a nice combination of flavours (£32) but perhaps lacks a certain punch. Too stuffed for dessert, we order coffee instead and are pleasantly surprised to receive a creamy piece of home-made fudge on the side, perfect as a desert alternative if you're feeling full.

The service

From the minute we walk into the hotel until check-out, service is friendly and faultless. There’s a lovely level of banter (Scottish for chit chat) but not so much that it overshadow's staff’s professionalism.

Housekeeping is discrete and efficient, check-in and check-out processes are smooth, and additional requests – such as storing luggage after check-out – are managed easily.

Highs and lows

Leave time to check out the swimming pool and health club. Buried below street level, the space here has been beautifully restored with original stained glass windows complementing the luxury facilities, it's an extravagant treat on a cold Scottish day. There aren’t too many lows but if we’re nitpicking, the bathroom is a little on the smaller side compared with the expanse of the bedroom.

The insider tip

Don't set your watch by the hotel clock unless it's Hogmanay – on all other days of the year it's deliberately set three minutes ahead, and has been for decades so that residents wouldn't miss their trains departing from the station next door.

The verdict

If you’re heading to Scotland, book a stay here. Not only does the hotel have the perfect location in the bustling capital, it comes with a fascinating history and friendly first-rate hospitality served with a side of European finesse.

The bottom line

Rates start from £450 ($557) per night; check-in at 3pm and check-out at noon;

This review was conducted at the invitation of the hotel and reflects standards during this time. Services may change in the future

Updated: April 22, 2024, 4:33 AM