Love him or hate him, Richard Branson has made a name for himself in the travel world with his bold, tongue-in-cheek airline, hotels, cruises and space voyages.
This year, the billionaire brings his quirky hotels to Europe, with Virgin Hotels Edinburgh throwing open its bright red doors in June as the brand's first property outside North America.
Located at the listed One India Buildings in Scotland's picturesque capital, the hotel has an enviable spot at the top of Victoria Street — one of the most photographed streets in Edinburgh. A sister hotel is destined to open in Glasgow in early 2023, making Scotland the new European stronghold for fun-loving Virgin Hotels.
The National was invited to spend the night at Virgin Hotels Edinburgh, here's what we thought.
We call before arriving to find out where to park and are given detailed directions to a car park about 15 minutes’ walk from the hotel. It's at the foothills of Edinburgh Castle and on this eerie winter morning it's a picturesque place to start our trip. Sadly, the romance of the setting fades rather quickly as we embark on a journey that would be fitting training for an endurance event. Luggage in tow, we huff, puff and wheel our way uphill towards the castle, then back down the other side, on to a cobbled street, down some steps that take us through an underpass littered with the remnants of a big Saturday night, and across another cobblestone street until we finally reach the front door. As we arrive, it's obvious that there is enough space outside the building where you could stop for a few moments and offload luggage — something we wish we’d been told on the phone.
But once we're through the red double doors, the doorman is friendly and welcoming — kindly pretending not to notice our sweat-stained brows — and shows us to the check-in desk, where service is efficient and despite arriving very early, we’re told our room is ready and within 10 minutes we're settling in.
The hotel is at the very top of Victoria Street, which means travellers are just steps from the historic Royal Mile — home to several worth-a-visit churches, monuments, court buildings and museums — and the 15th-century Grassmarket, which throngs with independent merchants, booksellers, artisans and cosy pubs.
It’s about a 15-minute walk to Princess Street for high-street shopping and Edinburgh Castle is a mere four minutes away, ideal for early morning visits before the crowds roll in. The tourist-heavy neighbourhood comes with plenty to see and do, and the sound of a bagpiper is never far away. Construction is ongoing on the building opposite the hotel, but the noise does not affect our stay.
We’re staying in a Grand Chamber room just off the beautifully decorated Oculus atrium, opposite Sir Richard’s flat — a 73-square-metre retro-luxury apartment with a private in-room bar where Branson stays when he's in town. Our room isn't quite as lofty, but it certainly doesn't lack for space. There's a mammoth bed with a headboard that extends beyond the base to incorporate a seating nook at its side. Sash-style windows look out over colourful Victoria Street.
Rather cleverly, all the rooms in the hotel can be divided into two spaces via a curtain drawn across the middle to add privacy or just create a little drama. A well-lit dressing table and separate toilet and shower, loaded with Arran Aromatics products make up the vanity side of the room. There’s also plenty of wardrobe space and two luggage racks — something that so many hotels frustratingly provide only one of.
Interiors are a carefully curated blend of light-hearted glee — such as tartan-tinged urban photography — and sophisticated pieces, including the intricate textiles from Glasgow designer Iona Crawford. In keeping with the brand’s fondness for the colour red, a fire-engine-coloured Smeg fridge serves as the minibar, and is stocked with an assortment of Scottish products, including the ever-popular Tunnock's teacakes and Edinburgh rock.
Having been prompted to download Virgin Hotel’s dedicated room app "Lucy" before travelling, I’m able to easily use it to control the heating, unlock the door, turn lights on and off and send requests to hotel staff from my mobile phone.
The staff are a friendly bunch and happy to assist or stop for a chat. Guests are invited to take part in a daily Spirit hour — an aptly named soiree given Edinburgh's haunted past — that takes place in the quirky Funny Library and involves music, chatty bar staff and an hour of complimentary beverages. There’s no turndown service, which given our very early check-in, was a bit disappointing.
With more than 200 rooms over 10 storeys, the hotel is spread over three buildings in the Unesco World Heritage site of Edinburgh's Old Town. Of these, One India Buildings, which dates to 1864, is the most prominent. Transforming a listed building into a funky boutique hotel couldn’t have been an easy task so it’s refreshing to see many of the original features — such as floor tiles and alcoves — have not only been preserved, but incorporated into features of the design. You'd be forgiven for thinking such traditional elements wouldn't work alongside Virgin's out-there design with its fluffy red carpets, pink marble illuminated tunnel, velvet-lined snug lounge and vivid floor-to-ceiling murals — but somehow it does.
The Funny Library is an eclectic hideaway packed with games, books, a working fireplace, framed photographs and neon signs, ideal for an afternoon coffee, a quiet hour with a book, business meeting or a pre-dinner beverage. In the Curiosity Shop, wares from local businesses, each with sustainability kudos, are on display backed by Virgin StartUp — one of Branson's non-profit causes. There's no swimming pool, but there is a 24-hour gymnasium with Technogym cardio machines for those who don’t want to drop their fitness routine during a visit.
Guests are a mix of international tourists, business travellers and well-heeled locals checking out the hotel's new food and beverage concepts.
Pet owners can bring their dogs along and there's no restrictions on size or breeds. Beds, food and water dishes are provided for pups who are welcome in all areas of the hotel so long as they remain on a leash when in public spaces.
A wander around the hotel shows that it’s not quite fully dressed yet — with some corridors slick with wet paint and the rooftop terrace, which looks like it will have enviable views over the city's cobbles when complete, not open to the public during our stay.
The Commons Club Restaurant serves daily dinner and offers a contemporary menu of seasonal Scottish cuisine with a twist. The Commons Club Bar on Victoria Street seems popular with its 1920s glam vibes and wooden ladders that bar staff nimbly ascend to reach drinks on the highest of five illuminated and well-stocked shelves. Our own dining experience takes place in all-day dining venue Eve.
Walking into this ethereal restaurant with its pastel-coloured furniture and oversized vivid wall murals is a treat — it channels a clever mix of sophistication and playfulness. It would have been nice to see it come alive in the evening when the lights go down and the DJ turns up the tunes, but sadly we have a chance only to sample breakfast. Morning meals are served a la carte and the menu has plenty of local choices and vegan options. We go for an order of the freshly baked sourdough and smashed avocado (£12) served with tangy vine-ripened tomatoes, plus one Eve breakfast (£17) — a hearty choice that comes with Scottish stapes like square sausage and black pudding. A fresh baker's basket is served with warm fluffy pastries and our request for non-dairy milk in our coffee is easily fulfilled.
Highs and lows
The location is fantastic, in the heart of a Unesco-listed site and within easy walking distance of some of Edinburgh’s best attractions. The hotel's quirky design is playful and unpretentious, but at the same time has an air of sophistication. Bold design and artwork from local producers ensures that guests know they are in Scotland, while remaining a long way from being cliched.
Service could be a bit more attentive at times — such as during breakfast — and the check-in area is a bit small for busy periods — we have to stand in a queue snaking down the corridor with nowhere convenient to sit while we wait to check out.
The insider tip
If you don’t want to be up all night, request a room on the side of the building that overlooks Victoria Street. We had a silent night, but overheard more than one guest complaining about soundproofing on the opposite side of the hotel. Don't miss Spirit Hour — it's a great way to meet other guests. And if you’re arriving by car — drop your luggage at the hotel before you park to save yourself an epic journey across Edinburgh's hilly cobbled streets.
Richard Branson’s first foray across the pond brings something entirely different to Scotland’s capital. Its alluring design comes with a tasteful cheekiness that champions local female artists and designers. The playful vibe somehow works perfectly as a complement to the historic building, which gives guests a glimpse into the city's storied past. The restaurants and bars are already proving popular, including with local guests, which is always a promising sign, and if you're all about location — this hotel has one of the most desirable spots in all of Auld Reekie.
The bottom line
Stays at Virgin Hotels Edinburgh start from £195, including taxes; virginhotels.com.
This review was conducted at the invitation of the hotel