The city of Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital, really comes into its own twice a year. Firstly is August, when its streets are thronged with revelers and amateur PR types (“four stars in the Scotsman!”) promoting their wares at the world-famous performing arts festival. And then the second comes at the end of the year, during the New Year’s Eve period of Hogmanay, which sees anyone claiming long-distant Scots ancestry taking part in the revels for a day or two, just as it seems anyone in Boston on St. Patrick’s Day suddenly remembers their long-lost Uncle Padraig or Great-Aunt Shelagh.
In any case, Hogmanay in Edinburgh is a marvelous experience, freezing cold aside, and best experienced from the surroundings of somewhere comfortable. And Edinburgh, “Auld Reekie” itself, a name derived from the city’s past in which smoke from peat and coal fires would hang miasma-like over it, is not somewhere short of exceptionally nice places to stay… whether for New Year’s Eve, the festival — although good luck getting in anywhere at peak season — or any other time of year. The combination of Georgian architecture, world-class museums and galleries, some fine independent shops and top-notch restaurants and bars makes Edinburgh a seductive place to visit. And only the most hard-hearted could not wish to be seduced over a “wee dram” or a brisk walk up Arthur’s Seat, depending on inclination and general fitness.
Arriving in Edinburgh is best done by train, as the journey from London is a spectacular treat in fine weather; seeing everything from York Minster to Durham Cathedral, to say nothing of the giddy joy of traveling over one of the country’s finest railway bridges, the mighty Royal Border Bridge of Berwick-upon-Tweed. If you’re on board the LNER service and have splashed out on first-class tickets, then expect complimentary (and surprisingly decent) meals at your seat, a steady supply of free alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks served with smiley panache by the friendly staff (the whisky’s particularly good, although probably best taken in moderation) and comfortable seats; just as well, really, given that the trip takes just over four hours. It’s also by far the most environmentally friendly way to travel, with the new Azuma trains emitting a mere 4.3kg of carbon omissions per passenger over the journey — around 97 percent less than air travel, apparently.
When you finally arrive at Edinburgh’s Waverley station, the first question is where to stay. You’re not short of options, but the most talked-about hotel in the city at the moment is the Gleneagles Townhouse, a stone’s throw from the station on St. Andrew Square. It’s a members’ club outpost of the legendary luxury resort about an hour away from Edinburgh, but non-members can book in for the delectably comfortable Georgian-meets-Victorian styled rooms, rooftop Lamplighters bar and Spence restaurant, even if they can’t visit the exclusive, first-floor Note Burning Room, restricted to members.
Why the unusual name? Well, like a great many places in Edinburgh right now, the Gleneagles Townhouse is set in a converted bank, in this case the Bank of Scotland. This is seen to greatest effect in the awe-inspiring Spence, a restaurant where the excellent food and cocktails (highlights being sublime smoked salmon and the pork chop of your dreams) are matched by the grandest room imaginable, complete with a soaring dome, but it’s just as well that the service is considerably more down-to-earth; our waiter Callum, moonlighting for his day job studying at the city’s conservatoire, combined ineffable professionalism with wit and charm. Had we lived in Edinburgh, we would have eagerly attempted to befriend him.
If your tastes run to something more Scandi styled, the nearby Market Street hotel — the first member of Design Hotels in the city — perfectly combines cutting-edge minimalist chic with sumptuous comfort, and, from the seventh floor Nor’Loft, a combination of a wide variety of champagnes with carefully selected tapas-sized sharing bites, of which the best is the cola chicken with waffle. The whole place feels very grown up, with free minibars and the stunning views overlooking Princes Street and the station, and it’s a nice touch to be offered champagne at virtually every turn, from check-in to breakfast. It could almost become intoxicatingly habit-forming.
And if you’re in the market for the more predictable joys of an international group, the Kimpton Charlotte Square, set in a couple of converted eighteenth century buildings, is a notable change in pace and tone (“do you want to sign up to our rewards scheme?”), but offers high-class service, décor and generosity. Our enormous room had a skylight that had to be closed and opened by a Bond-style device, and there’s free wine and beer between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. every evening in the bar in the so-called “social hour.” The Lebanese restaurant Baba has a refreshingly independent and non-corporate feel to its food and drink offering, which even extends to its staff, who are unafraid of backchat if you order too much. Skip breakfast — it’s buffet-style, not great quality and service is distracted — but everything else here is top-notch.
Still, if you’ve come over from the States you might be forgiven for feeling homesick, and that’s where one of the city’s great enterprises comes in, in the form of the legendary steakhouse Hawksmoor. Part of a small group that originated in London, the Edinburgh outpost has the minutely detailed feel of a New York establishment, even down to the wood-and-chrome décor, the leather banquettes and eyebrow-raisingly strong drinks, of which the “fuller fat old fashioned” and “Shaky Pete’s Ginger Brew” come unreservedly recommended. The steaks, from nearby cattle (naturally), are some of the best that you’ll ever have, the staff are beautifully on point, and I’m still dreaming of the sticky toffee sundae, the kind of decadent treat that can’t be priced.
So a few days in Edinburgh, whether you’re here for Hogmanay, summer culture or just a sybaritic treat, is the sort of pleasure that everyone should experience at least once. Forget clichés of bagpipes, kilts and tam o’shanters — although they’re definitely there if you want to go looking for them — this is a vibrant city, with one foot in the past and the other (first) footing into the future, and it’s an utter pleasure to spend time here. Auld Reekie? Hardly.