Edinburgh is a fantastic city break destination at any time of year, although the guidebooks often tell you to visit in summer for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival or at New Year for Hogmanay. But let’s face it, Scotland’s capital is packed at those times, so if you’d like to enjoy all the top sights and world class culture, but have them pretty much to yourself, I can recommend Edinburgh in winter for a short break.
I visited for a couple of days in January and found a fantastic range of things to do in Edinburgh, from art galleries and theatre, to photogenic architecture and scenic views of the castle. I was lucky to have bright, clear days, but if the weather does turn against you, you’re never far from one of Edinburgh’s free museums to entertain you with a dose of Scottish culture. Read on to discover the places to visit in Edinburgh that would make an ideal itinerary for a long weekend or short break.
Day 1 – let’s explore Edinburgh West End and New Town
1. Edinburgh’s West End – for elegant architecture, boutiques and cafes
I spent my first morning exploring Edinburgh’s West End, a mainly residential area with some charming boutiques and cafes that you’ll find down the smaller cobbled streets. From the main thoroughfare of Prince’s Street, a 5 minute walk along Shandwick Place will bring you to the imposing Gladstone memorial. It’s set in the green space of Coates Crescent backed by elegant 19th century houses, including several embassies that are located in this neighbourhood.
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I continued my stroll north from the crescent, with fine sandstone houses and green squares that are partly residential and partly used for offices. Look out for Stafford Street and William Street which are charmingly cobbled, with a row of cute boutiques, galleries and cafes where you can do some shopping and stop for morning coffee. I popped into the Roots Deli for a cup of warming soup to ward off the cold. Their rainbow salads and cakes looked very tempting, but it was not long since I’d had breakfast, so I mentally earmarked this for lunch on another occasion.
2. Dean Village – pretty as a picture by the Water of Leith
From the West End I recommend you walk down to Edinburgh’s Dean Village, a scenic spot set by the river that goes by the equally picturesque name of the Water of Leith. This area was once a hub of industry full of woollen mills and at its heart is Well Court, the Victorian sandstone building that was created as model housing for the mill workers and has recently been restored.
Most people visit to take lots of photos from the two footbridges that cross the river, but you can also follow the Water of Leith Walkway as far as the port of Leith on the Firth of Forth. I headed in the opposite direction towards the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art but a landslip on the path meant that I had to divert onto the road, which was not quite so scenic. Even so I’d try the river walk to the museum if you visit in the future as it may have been repaired.
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3. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh West End
While you’re in Edinburgh’s West End, it makes sense to combine your walk to Dean Village with a look at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, which is in the same area and one of the less well known Edinburgh attractions. In fact there are two separate art galleries known as Modern One and Modern Two, which are on opposite sides of the road and very close to each other. Between them they house Scotland’s collection of modern and contemporary art, with most of the permanent collections and outdoor sculptures being in Modern One, while Modern Two mainly hosts special exhibitions.
Had I realised the difference between the two galleries, I probably would have headed first to Modern One to see the free galleries, but as I happened to arrive first at Modern Two, I took a look at the exhibition by Portuguese artist, Paula Rego Obedience and Defiance (until 19 April 2020 £11.50).
This exhibition includes 80 prints and paintings, with a film about the work of Paula Rego who was born in 1935 and grew up under the Portuguese Salazar dictatorship. The paintings are colourful and striking but also extremely thought provoking, since they deal with difficult topics like political tyranny, abortion and gender inequality, often with hidden messages and underlying menace.
The art at Modern Two is not just confined to the galleries and I enjoyed the stairwell transformed into an artwork by Richard Wright and a towering robot like metal figure, taking up all the double height of the museum cafe. There’s a handy museum bus (£1 donation) that shuttles every hour between the three National Galleries that are in different parts of Edinburgh, so you can easily get a ride between the Modern and the National Gallery.
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4. Wander through Edinburgh New Town
Old Town, New Town, what’s the difference in Edinburgh? Well, the Old Town is the Medieval quarter around Edinburgh Castle that includes the Royal Mile and tends to be where most tourists head first. It can get pretty busy in summer as visitors spill out from the castle to be caught up in the tartan shops and whisky bars.
The New Town is actually not that new, since it was laid out in the mid 18th century, to enable the wealthy classes to escape the narrow streets, overcrowding and stinky smells of the Medieval Old Town (don’t worry it’s quite clean today!).
Laid out in a grid pattern, New Town is an early example of town planning, with classic Georgian architecture, grand townhouses and wide boulevards and forms part of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Edinburgh. Along Prince’s Street and George Street you’ll find all the major high street fashion brands, but in between these there are some smaller streets and lanes, that are interesting to explore.
I especially enjoyed my walk along Rose street which is pedestrianised, formerly the back entrance of the grand houses on the parallel streets, but now full of interesting pubs and bars where you can try anything from the local beer to a Scottish Whisky tasting.
As well as being one of the best places for shopping and eating out in Edinburgh, culture lovers will enjoy climbing the Scott Monument dedicated to Sir Walter Scott, visiting the National Scottish Portrait Gallery or catching a show at the Rose Theatre, with the Gilded Balloon comedy club in its basement. For more of what’s on in the New Town area check out the Edinburgh City Centre website who have their own gift card that you can spend in 90 city centre shops, bars and restaurants.
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5. Scottish National Portrait Gallery in New Town Edinburgh
If you have spent the morning exploring some of the places I’ve already mentioned, you might like to squeeze in an afternoon visit to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street. The Gallery was purpose built in the late 19th century in the fashionable neo-Gothic style of the time and was designed to house portraits of well known Scottish heros. The entrance hall is an artwork in itself, with colourful murals around the atrium and a frieze that runs at first floor level, depicting famous Scots over the centuries.
I bypassed the main galleries that house portraits of notable Scots like Mary Queen of Scots or Rabbie Burns, deciding instead to focus on the contemporary portraits that I found much more interesting, in the BP Portrait Awards 2019 Exhibition.
In the past portraits seemed to be designed to flatter the subject and enhance their importance, but these days the subject can be an everyday person, with the job of the artist being to give some insight into their personality or situation.
I found it fascinating to read the explanations beside each portrait, such as the Three Oncologists by Ken Currie, who at first glance seem spooky figures, until you understand that their job as perceived by the artist, is about going into the darkness of cancer to rescue patients and bring them into the light.
6. Catch a show at Gilded Balloon – at the Rose Theatre Edinburgh
If you’re looking for some evening entertainment in the New Town, check out the Rose Theatre for a mixture of music and drama and a range of different size performance spaces. Their basement theatre space is mainly used by the Gilded Balloon as a comedy club, but I stopped by for a performance that was part of the Burns and Beyond programme running up to Burns night, when the birthday of Scotland’s national poet Rabbie Burns is celebrated.
There’s no shortage of recognition for male Scottish icons, but the performance of Armour: A Herstory of the Scottish Bard reset the balance in telling the story of Rabbie Burns from a women’s point of view. In the intimate theatre space, with tables laid out cabaret style, the female cast of three were completely transfixing as they told their stories as the wife, mistress and granddaughter of the poet Robert Burns.
They wove in poetry and song to tell how life went on, while the great bard was off doing his important work of writing Scotland’s favourite poems and how his legacy continued in their lives after his death. This performance was for one night only but it’s typical of the kind of thing you might see at the Edinburgh Fringe, proving that you can find great theatre in Edinburgh all year round, not just in summer!
7. Cocktails at Tiger Lily, Edinburgh
Looking for a quick bite to eat before the theatre I spotted Tiger Lily on George Street and popped in for a pre-theatre drink and light dinner. Behind the Georgian facade, it’s a large bar and restaurant with a buzzing atmosphere and a series of colourful, contemporary spaces created like individual rooms.
As I didn’t have too much time, I sat at the bar and watched the bartenders creating cocktails (mine was a non-alcoholic mojito ) while I ate my starter of tuna tartare with avocado cream, roasted aubergine and straw potatoes, which was very moreish.
The restaurant clearly has been decorated with instagram in mind, with mirrored walls, hanging greenery, coloured lighting and a quirky, Alice in Wonderland quality. Tiger Lily is also a boutique hotel with 33 rooms and suites offering the same mixture of contemporary and colourful decor, which I think would be a fun place to stay.
8. Stay at The Angel’s Share Edinburgh
I stayed in two different hotels during my short break in Edinburgh, the first being The Angel’s Share, a smart boutique hotel that’s just off Charlotte Square that sits between the West End and New Town neighbourhoods of Edinburgh. The hotel feels a world away from the touristy hub of the Royal Mile and has a much more local feel in its celebration of the contemporary Scottish culture.
Each of the 31 rooms is decorated for a different Scottish icon of stage, screen, sport or music with black and white photos, granite grey walls and punches of warm colour in the cushions and furnishings. I must have lucked out, as I got to spend the night with actor Ewan McGregor, looking splendid in his kilt above my bed, with film posters from his Trainspotting movie around the walls.
I loved the Scottish touches in the room, such as the sparkling chandeliers and the Tunnock’s tea cakes with chocolate marshmallow, which are a Scottish icon in their own right!
The next morning I had a chance to look around a bit more at the downstairs reception, which doubles as a bar and sitting area, with its mirrors, chandeliers and the photos of all the Scottish icons around the walls, making a good guessing game on who they all are. Downstairs was a ‘secret’ Prohibition style bar, The Devil’s Cut, which is a fun place to hold a party or book for a private event.
9. Whisky tasting in Edinburgh at The Angel’s Share
The next morning I took breakfast in the bar of the Angel’s Share, with brick walls, polished wood and plenty of mirrors to create a bit of sparkle and light if you enter from the cold outside. There’s no breakfast buffet here, but ordering from the menu, I decided against the Full Scottish (with black pudding, haggis sausage, tattie scone) and went instead for my usual Eggs Royale with Scottish smoked salmon.
I couldn’t help noticing the fine array of Scottish whisky and other spirits at the bar and realised what a great place The Angel’s Share would be if you’re looking for an informal whisky tasting, which is one of the most popular things to do in Edinburgh. Not only did I count around 80 different Scottish whiskies on the drinks menu, but they offer six different whisky flights to allow you to taste a selection, from the well rounded Scotland’s softies, to the smooth and well matured Old Geezers. It would be a fun place to come with a few friends to do a bit of whisky tasting, especially on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, when they also have live music in the bar.
Day 2 – exploring Edinburgh’s culture near the castle and Old Town
10. Visit the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh
On the second day of my short winter break in Edinburgh, I decided to focus on some of the museums and galleries that cluster around the castle mound and the Old Town of Edinburgh. One of the greatest Scottish art institutions and showcases of Edinburgh culture has to be the Scottish National Gallery, one of the three national galleries you’ll find in Edinburgh, the others being the Modern and Portrait Gallery.
The National Gallery houses the Scottish collection of art masterpieces from the likes of Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Monet, with a sizable collection of Scottish painters. The collections are actually housed in two different buildings which are connected by a lower level passage and I was there to see the Turner in January exhibition.
Joseph Turner was a celebrated English painter of the 19th century, best known for his watercolours that were made on his travels throughout England, Scotland and Europe, especially his romantic and awe inspiring mountain landscapes. The collection of Turner watercolours on show was made by art collector Henry Vaughan, who bequeathed it to the Scottish National Galleries, specifying that it should be shown free to the public once a year in January.
Although this exhibition was just for the month of January, the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh holds different exhibitions throughout the year with numerous tours, musical events and drop-in drawing classes – and entrance is free so it’s well worth checking what’s on.
11. Lunch at Scottish Cafe – National Gallery of Scotland
If you’re looking for a good cafe in Edinburgh to meet a friend, I can recommend the Scottish Cafe at the National Gallery of Scotland. It’s in one of the modern wings of the National Gallery, in a light and airy space with full length windows looking out towards the Edinburgh castle mound. The decor at the Scottish National Gallery cafe is warm and colourful and it’s run by the Contini company, founded by an Italian Scottish family who have other restaurants around the city.
This is a cafe restaurant, with table service, but the prices are quite reasonable. I ordered the leek tart with celeriac puree, which I thought would be a bit like a quiche, but soon realised that it was a starter sized portion and also ordered the warm winter vegetable salad with hummus which was very tasty.
12. National Museum of Scotland
In the afternoon, a good place to while away a few hours is the National Museum of Scotland, which is close to Edinburgh Castle in the Old Town and one of the top things to see in Edinburgh. This is deservedly the second most popular visitor attraction in Edinburgh after the castle and incorporates science, natural history, arts and fashion – a blend of all the South Kensington museums in London under one roof.
Anyone with an eye for a photograph will head first to the Grand Gallery, a glass roofed gallery held up by slender metal columns which soars three stories high, with many of the other galleries radiating off it. I was intrigued by the Window on the World collections that are displayed on the walls of the gallery, showing a eclectic mix of different items from the collections.
As I used to work in fashion I made a beeline for the fashion galleries, with striking examples of contemporary fashion arranged catwalk style, and cabinets around the walls showing the evolution of fashion design through the decades. Next door in the Explore Gallery was Dolly the Sheep, who apparently is one of the most visited personalities in the museum, being the first mammal to be created by cloning.
The Scottish Galleries are also well worth a look, with a different architectural feel, as the building was designed with stairways and narrow spaces to look a bit like a Scottish Castle. It was here that I tracked down Mary Queen of Scots (at least a replica of her tomb) and took a look at some of her beautiful lockets intricately decorated in gold and jewels. Heading up to the 7th floor (take a lift in the Scottish Gallery), you’ll reach a roof terrace which has great views of Edinburgh Castle and a 360 degree panorama over the city.
If you are looking for lunch or a quick bite, there are a number of different cafes in the National Museum, including the Balcony Cafe that overlooks the Grand Gallery and the more cosy Brasserie in the basement. They had a tempting display of cakes laid out here, including some that were decorated for the Chinese New Year and Burns Night theme, which coincided this year on the same day, and a tasty seared salmon with Asian stir fry vegetables which I tried.
There are a number of other fascinating Edinburgh Museums to visit, so check out the National Museums of Scotland website for more on the Museum of Flight, Museum of Rural Life or National War Museum.
14. Calton Hill – for views over Edinburgh
Although I didn’t visit Edinburgh Castle on this trip, it is the number one visitor attraction in the city, but one that you can also enjoy it from a distance from several locations including Calton Hill. From Prince’s Street you may look up and spot what looks like a Greek temple on the hill, but it’s actually quite easy to get there on foot if you head eastward on Prince’s Street and then take the short walk up to the top of the mound.
As you walk around the grassy park on the top of Calton Hill you can get views not just towards Edinburgh Castle but also in the other direction towards Arthur’s Seat and as far as the port of Leith on the Firth of Forth. Buildings at the top of the hill include the City Observatory with its metal dome that is now an arts space, The Nelson Monument that can be climbed for even better views and the National Monument inspired by the Parthenon, built to commemorate Scottish servicemen who died in the Napoleonic wars.
Calton Hill is also a good spot to take photos of the castle and city at sunset, although I was a little early and as I headed back down the hill at dusk, I passed lots of people arriving, who no doubt had that perfect sunset photo in mind.
13. St Giles Cathedral Edinburgh – glowing Chinese lanterns and Rabbie Burns
On my way back from Calton Hill I stopped at St Giles Cathedral, which was hosting a special experience while I was there as part of the Burns and Beyond programme to celebrate Burns Night and the work of Robert Burns. Within the cathedral there’s a stained glass window that was added in 1985 to commemorate Scotland’s favourite poet, but in honour of Chinese New Year there was also an illuminated display of Chinese lanterns which were lit up for evening visits.
The lanterns glowed red amid the stone pillars and arched ceiling of the cathedral, lit up with colours of pink and purple and accompanied by ethereal Chinese music wafting around the space. On the chairs that would normally be laid out for services, you could sit and read some of the best known poems of Rabbie Burns, hanging down on banners against the columns. There was a charge of £5 for this special event but you can visit St Giles Cathedral at other times without charge.
15. Theatre in Edinburgh – at The Lyceum
My final stop that evening was at The Lyceum, a classic Victorian theatre built in the 1880s, with the plush seats and gilded decoration that makes theatre in Edinburgh such a great night out. I was there to see Pride and Prejudice (sort of), a feelgood reinvention of Jane Austen’s classic romance, interpreted for a new feminist generation.
I learned that the romances of Jane and Mr Bingley and of Elizabeth and Mr Darcy were not just the happy ending we all crave, but saved the Bennett family from a penniless future as a result of archaic property laws that prevented the girls from inheriting the family estate!
The dazzlingly talented all female cast of five proceeded to act, sing and dance their way through the story, playing all the characters including the men and the servants and naturally came out on top. With lots of comedy and a few pop songs thrown in (not to mention the accordion, guitar, keyboard and trumpet that all made an appearance) this was a top performance that left me laughing and wanting to recommend it to all my friends!
While you may not be able to catch this particular show, it’s just one example of all the great theatre in Edinburgh that’s available at numerous venues like the Lyceum Edinburgh, Festival Theatre, King’s Theatre and Traverse Theatre.
16. Stay: Kimpton Charlotte Square
If you want to treat yourself to a luxury hotel in Edinburgh, the Kimpton Charlotte Square has your name written all over it! Set in a row of elegant Georgian townhouses on Charlotte Square, just a stone’s throw from Prince’s Street, this was where I checked in for the second night of my short break in Edinburgh. I fell in love with Kimpton Hotels when I stayed at the gorgeous Kimpton Seafire in the Cayman Islands, as each of their hotels are individually designed to be luxurious and elegant, yet with a great sense of place that nods to their location.
My suite at Kimpton Charlotte Square was a beautiful oval room that must once have been the dining room or drawing room of a grand mansion, complete with the original curved doors. The luxurious furnishings and finishes and soft tartan throw made me feel like a cosmopolitan world traveller yet reflected the atmosphere of Edinburgh perfectly.
From the moment I entered the classic Georgian entrance hall, I was given a warm welcome, shown to my room and spoiled by the lovely toiletries in the bathroom, the complimentary mini bar and the Tunnock’s caramel wafers – a totally Scottish touch.
If I’d had more time I would have definitely been making full use of their heated pool and spa, dining in their Middle Eastern BABA restaurant or having breakfast in the light and airy Greenhouse Conservatory restaurant (which I sadly missed due to my early start back to Bristol).
The next morning I was on the Airlink bus to the airport and my flight back to Bristol after a whirlwind two days exploring the best of Edinburgh’s cultural scene. Short and sweet it was, but certainly long enough to realise that Edinburgh is a city that beguiles and entertains at any time of year.
So when you read the guidebook that tells you to go to Edinburgh in August for the fringe, when the city is overflowing and every hotel bed’s taken, you can smile and know better. Edinburgh in winter has plenty to recommend it, with room to breathe, better hotel rates, cosy bars and restaurants, all the same historic sites and world class art, theatre and culture – what’s not to love?
Visitor information for visiting Edinburgh
You’ll find more information to plan your trip on the Edinburgh Wows website, which is dedicated to all the fantastic museums, galleries, theatres, music venues and sights of Edinburgh that will make up your perfect short break.
How to get to Edinburgh
If you are flying into Edinburgh Airport, check out Easyjet which I used for my quick flight from Bristol Airport as well as other airlines like Ryanair, Flybe, British Airways, Loganair. We recommend Skyscanner to plan flight routes and find the best prices.
From the airport – Once you arrive at the airport, you can take the Airlink 100 bus for £7.50 return, which runs very regularly and will bring you in 30 minutes into the heart of Edinburgh. Another option is to take the Airport tram which follows a similar route and is just a little more expensive at £9 return.
Around Edinburgh – Once you are in Edinburgh, the main sites are are very walkable, but you can also use the local tram, bus or call a taxi which is not too expensive.
Guidebooks – If you are looking for a guidebook for your visit to Edinburgh , we recommend the Lonely Planet Pocket Guide to Edinburgh
Follow my 2 day Edinburgh itinerary for culture lovers
- Morning – Explore Edinburgh West End on foot to enjoy the architecture, boutiques and cafes
- Walk to Dean Village to take some photos of the picturesque old mill houses
- Walk on the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (free) where there’s a nice cafe and restaurant
- Afternoon – walk or take a taxi back to Edinburgh New Town for excellent shopping on Prince’s Street and George Street
- Take a look around the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (free)
- Evening – Drinks and dinner at Tiger Lily or check out the many bars and restaurants on Rose Street or George Street
- Take in a show – check out the Rose Theatre, Gilded Balloon or other venues
- Stay – at Angel’s Share or Kimpton Charlotte Square
- Morning – Walk to the Scottish National Gallery (free) with coffee or lunch in the gallery’s Scottish Cafe
- Lunch / Afternoon – Walk on to the National Museum of Scotland (free) which has a couple of nice museum cafes for lunch
- Visit St Giles Cathedral – check if there are any special event
- Walk on to Calton Hill to visit the monuments (free) and catch the late afternoon or sunset views of Edinburgh castle
- Evening – A Whisky flight or Whisky cocktail at Angel’s Share
- Take in a show – check out the Lyceum Theatre or other venues
- Stay – at Angel’s Share or Kimpton Charlotte Square
What my trip cost
To help you plan for your own trip to Edinburgh I’ve provide details of the costs below for 1 person. Where this was provided as part of my press trip I’ve estimated what it would cost you.
Transport – £121
- £108 Return flight from Bristol with Easyjet
- £7.50 Airbus Airport Transfer return trip to Princes Street
- £5.50 Uber from West End to Old Town (only because I was running late for a lunch appointment)
- Otherwise I walked everywhere – Edinburgh is totally walkable!
Hotels – £333 for 2 nights
- £115 Angel’s Share – 1 night in Deluxe Double room Flexible room only rate in February (rooms from £56)
- £218 Kimpton Charlotte Square – 1 night in Deluxe Room in February (rooms from £152)
Attractions and Theatre – £65
- £11.50 Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art – Paula Rego Exhibition (permanent galleries free)
- Scottish National Portrait Gallery – free
- Scottish National Gallery – free
- National Museum of Scotland – free
- £5 Burns and Beyond Chinese Lanterns at St Giles Cathedral (free to visit cathedral during the day)
- £12 Burns and Beyond – Armour performance at Gilded Balloon
- £37 Lyceum Theatre – Pride and Prejudice (sort of) – Adult tickets £16-£37
Food – £87
- £11 Breakfast at Angel’s Share (if not included in room rate)
- £3 Soup to take away at Roots Deli
- £21 Lunch at Scottish Cafe at National Gallery (leek tart + winter veg salad)
- £18 Lunch at Brasserie – National Museum of Scotland (soft drink + salmon stir fry)
- £19 Cocktail and starter at Tiger Lily
- £15 – various snacks and drinks from local shops
This article was sponsored* by Edinburgh Wows who provided the hotel stay and experiences mentioned.
* More info on my policies page
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