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For today’s Destination of the Week, TPG contributor Adee Braun takes us to a city that hosts one of the biggest arts festivals in the world, where a brooding medieval castle looms above the streets and the verdant lowland hills are never too far away. We’re headed to Edinburgh, Scotland.
Edinburgh is perhaps the only city where rain actually enhances the ambiance. That’s a lucky thing because in this northern city wedged between the sea and the craggy hills, it rains a lot.
Edinburgh is an enchanting place where medieval lanes crawl up to a forbidding castle on one side of town, and on the other neat neo-classical rowhouses exude a sense of prim decorum. It is tempting to romanticize such a place, but Edinburgh is not trapped by its long history. Rather, it parlays its heritage into the world’s largest arts festival. Every August Edinburgh welcomes thousands of visitors for a celebration of art and literature. The Edinburgh Festival is a catchall term for the Fringe, International, Art and Books Festivals and Military Tattoo that last all month long at venues across the city. Although the other 11 months of the year are sleepier (with the exception of the New Year’s celebrations of Hogmanay), they do provide more opportunities to experience the city itself (and with more accommodation options).
WHAT DO TO
It is said that Edinburgh was built on seven hills, an allusion to Rome. It is also known as the “Athens of the North” for the classical style of its buildings and its intellectual heritage. Despite these lofty claims, appreciating Edinburgh’s charms on its own merit is perfectly easy. For starters, well-preserved central Edinburgh has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995. It is a city in two parts: the Old Town and the New. These titles can be deceiving as the New Town is not so new anymore (18th century) and much of the Old Town is not so old anymore (19th century). The dramatic contrast between the two towns and the energy of its inhabitants is what makes Edinburgh a truly unique city.
Edinburgh’s Old Town is a maze of medieval streets dominated by the iconic Edinburgh Castle on one end and the Palace of Holyroodhouse on the other. The two are connect by The Royal Mile, the main thoroughfare approximately the length of a Scots Mile (about 1.12 English miles). Officially, The Royal Mile is five different main streets that flow into one another: Castlehill, Lawnmarket, High Street, Canongate and Abbey Strand. Many of the medieval buildings in the Old Town were destroyed in the fire of 1824, but the neighborhood retains its medieval street plan and moody feel with its cobblestone streets and sturdy masonry. When setting out to discover the Old Town, best start at the top near the Castle.
Edinburgh Castle sits atop Castle Rock—a volcanic plug and a naturally strategic location that dominates the city skyline and acts as a handy navigation device for tourists. The fortification of this hill dates back to at least the 10th century and probably well before recorded history. Today the brooding Castle is made up of various structures pieced together over the centuries, the Royal Palace among them. Here you’ll find the Royal Apartments and the Honours of Scotland—the Scottish Regalia and Crown Jewels dating from the 15th and 16th centuries. The Kingdom of Scotland was independent until 1707 when it unified with England to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. Also within the castle compound is the National War Museum and the Stone of Destiny (also known as the Stone of Scone), a block of sandstone upon which Scottish kings were crowned for centuries. Officially the castle is also the headquarters of the Royal Regiment of Scotland. Each year the Castle acts as the backdrop for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo during which the British Armed Forces and commonwealth military bands perform as part of the larger Edinburgh Festival.
Conveniently located at the head of The Royal Mile is the touristy Scotch Whisky Experience, an interactive exhibition of whisky history and production, plus a barrel ride through a distillery replica. A ticket to the experience includes the barrel ride as well as a whisky tasting. The museum shop is generously stocked with a wide selection of blended and single malts. Across the street is the Camera Obscura and the World of Illusion. The Camera Obscura was created in 1850 and is essentially a walk-in camera—an optical device that projects a periscope image of the streets below onto a screen. This technology led to the invention of the camera. Victorian visitors were amazed, modern visitors perhaps less so, but it is still an oddity. Three floors of exhibitions make up the World of Illusions part of this venture with distorting mirrors, holograms and other visual and interactive features.
Stroll down the Royal Mile to Gladstone’s Land, a museum in one of the city’s old tenement buildings that depicts day-to-day life in the 17th century, then continue your historical tour by stopping in at The Real Mary King’s Close, a 16th-century alley where characters in period costume will lead you through a creepy tour of the old neighborhood that has remained largely intact because it was sealed beneath what is now Edinburgh’s City Chambers.
Along your way down the Mile, stop to see the majestic stone edifice and crown of St. Giles Cathedral where one of Scotland’s best-known intellectual figures, John Knox, was buried. His tomb now lies under one of the spaces in the small parking lot adjacent to the iconic “Heart of Midlothian” paving stone that marks the entrance to a notorious prison that was formerly located here.
At the opposite end of The Royal Mile lies the new Scottish Parliament building, a dynamic modern structure completed in 2004. 45-minute tours are available to the public, but even just getting up close to the building itself and the surrounding gardens is worthwhile. Down the street is the austere Palace of the Holyroodhouse. Originally the Abbey of Holyrood, today it is the official residence of the Queen of England when she visits Edinburgh. While she’s away, the palace is open to the masses. The palace was also home to Mary, Queen of Scots for six turbulent years during which time her secretary and favorite, David Rizzio, was murdered at the behest of her husband. Some say that the oddly-shaped discoloration in the flooring is the stain from his bloody body. For a less macabre experience, Holyrood Park offers 650 acres of rugged windswept hills just behind the palace.
The New Town is a stark contrast—as airy and organized as the Old Town is dark and mysterious. The New Town was first developed in 1767 as a high-end planned community for the nobility, providing a welcomed respite from the overcrowded Old Town. Today it still retains a remarkable concentration of Georgian structures, from perfectly linear townhomes to grand public buildings. For a taste of period living, the Georgian House offers visitors a look at a restored home with period furnishings.
Princes Street is the main thoroughfare of the New Town and was once the city’s main shopping street. These days the high-end chains are mostly on parallel George Street. Princes Street stretches roughly one mile long with shops, restaurants and hotels lining the north side, and the lovely Princes Street Gardens on the south side acting as the bucolic border between the two sections of town. The Scott Monument looms over the eastern end of Princes Street, a forbidding neo-Gothic tribute to Sir Walter Scott decorated with characters from his novels. A fantastic city view awaits determined visitors at the end of the 287-step climb to the top. Inside is a museum dedicated to Scott’s life and work.
Edinburgh has several other notable museums including the Scottish National Gallery with art by Scottish and other Western artists from the Middle Ages through today and more modern art at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Galleries and boutiques line bustling St. Stephen Street in the Stockbridge neighborhood. There are many music and theater venues throughout the city. The St. Stephen’s Center hosts performances throughout the year including during the International and Fringe Festival. Large productions and concerts come to The Playhouse.
WHERE TO EAT
Edinburgh offers more than haggis and meat pies. The city center packs in top-end restaurants and low-key spots alike. Restaurants along Princes Street and The Royal Mile cater more to tourists, with the expectation of some high-end establishments. Stockbridge offers cozy, neighborhoody joints and farther afield in the waterside district of Leith are some first-rate seafood restaurants. But even by sticking to the Old Town, seafood lovers can get their fill at Ondine, a high-end and slightly funky establishment run by local born chef, Roy Brett. The menu is accessible yet classy, highlighting local catches.
At L’Escargot Bleu classic French bistro fare is highlighted by Scottish ingredients like duck confit with Scottish wild mushrooms. If you have a hankering for haggis but don’t want to commit entirely, why not try the veggie haggis at Larder, a friendly spot just off the Royal Mile with a menu featuring local ale and produce. There’s no more elegant way to take a sightseeing break than with a proper afternoon tea at the Balmoral Hotel’s Palm Court.
Chef Paul Wedgewood takes locavore cuisine to the next level by foraging for many of the ingredients in the imaginative dishes he serves at his eponymous restaurant on the Royal Mile, while over in New Town, Michelin-starred chef Paul Kitching serves up some of the most inventive plates in the city – many of which change nearly every evening – at his restaurant (and gorgeous B&B), 21212.
As might be expected, the city has an abundance of pubs, but many have become tourist traps. The Last Drop attracts students, locals and tourists alike to its moody, wood-beamed barroom. Under the Stairs is a relaxed basement bar with seasonal cocktails and refined pub fare like pita strips with beetroot and walnut hummus and burgers with gorgonzola and sweet potato fries.
Destination of the Week pieces are not meant to be comprehensive guides to destinations since we don’t have the time or funds to visit all these places in person and report back to you. Nor are they endorsements of all the hotels we mention. They are simply roundups of top destinations that we have specifically pinpointed for the opportunity they present to use your miles and points to get to and stay there. As always, we welcome your comments to help enrich the content here, provide opinions and first-hand experiences of these destinations.
The Edinburgh Airport (EDI) is located about eight miles from the city center. There are a few public transport options to get into the city. Any one of the ubiquitous black taxis can be hailed outside the terminal or you can reserve a taxi ahead of time, like with ECPH. The cost is about 18 GBP ($27) and the trip takes about 20-25 minutes.
The Airlink 100 express bus runs from the airport to Waverley Bridge near Princes Street every 10 minutes, 3.50 GBP one-way. Several local buses also service the city center for slightly less money and a lot more time. There are no trains that run to the city, but a new tramline is in the works scheduled to be completed in 2014. Low cost carries EasyJet and Ryanair dominate the airport.
Star Alliance: United Airlines flies direct to Edinburgh from Newark. Air Canada also serves Edinburgh via Toronto, and Brussels Airlines via Brussels.
Oneworld: The major airline in this alliance serving Edinburgh is, of course, British Airways, which connects to flights with American Airlines, Qantas, Finnair, Cathay Pacific Airways, JAL, airberlin and Iberia via London from various points in Europe, Asia and Australia.
Skyteam: You can get to Edinburgh via Paris and Amsterdam on Skyteam partners Air France and KLM, or you could fly Delta or new partner (not part of Skyteam) Virgin Atlantic to London and connect to Virgin’s Little Red up to Edinburgh.
Radisson Blu Hotel, Edinburgh: Located right on the Royal Mile, this 238-room hotel boasts a 16th century edifice of rough stone with dramatic turrets. Despite the austere facade, the hotel’s interior is bright and contemporary. Standard guest rooms are 260 sq ft with free WiFi, coffee and tea and Anne Semonin bath products. The two on-site restaurants include the Itchycoo Bar and Kitchen offering seafood and Scottish cuisine and The Restaurant where guests enjoy the Super Breakfast Buffet each morning. A gym in the health club helps guests burn off breakfast, or relax in the sauna or pool, or choose from a menu of spa treatments. Room rates start at 210 GBP ($316) in September or 44,000 Gold Points.
The Caledonian, A Waldorf Astoria Hotel: The imposing red sandstone former railway hotel is located right on Princes Street. The hotel used to be part of the Princes Street Railway Station that was closed in the 1960s. It recently joined the Waldorf Astoria family after completing a $36-million renovation this year. The 241 guest rooms are appointed with a mix of classic and contemporary furnishings, however some standard rooms are a tight squeeze at 215 square feet. All rooms are equipped with WiFi (for a fee), flatscreen TVs, bathrobes, slippers and coffee and tea makers. Facilities include a gym, pool and a Guerlain Spa offering a wide selection of treatments. The hotel is entirely smoke-free. The two hotel restaurants are run by Chris and Jeff Galvin, the Michelin-starred chef/restaurateur brothers. The elegant dining room of The Pompadour by Galvin reimagines the original 1925 The Pompadour Restaurant that catered to the luxury railroad crowd. Today the menu features classic French dishes was local flavors. The Galvin Brasserie de Luxe is a more casual option offering French bistro classics for lunch and dinner. The Caley Bar offers a cozy place for a post-sightseeing drink. Peacock Alley was originally the station concourse and ticket office and today is the hotel’s atmospheric lounge. This is a Category 8 property with room rates starting at 143 GBP ($215) in September or 50,000 HHonors Points (40,000-70,000 seasonally).
Other Hilton options include the Hilton Edinburgh Grosvenor Hotel located in a stylish Georgian townhouse in the New Town and the Hilton Edinburgh Airport Hotel, a two minute shuttle ride from the airport. In December, 2013 the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Edinburgh City Centre is slated to open, providing another New Town option.
The Glasshouse, Autograph Collection: Re-opened in July after renovations, this hotel is located at the foot of Calton Hill in the New Town next to the Playhouse Theater. The striking entryway merges a delicate modern glass front with the solid 1846 sandstone facade of the Lady Glenorchy Church. With just 65 rooms, the hotel has an intimate and quirky vibe. The decor is retro 70s meets Scottish Victorian at a nightclub. Graphic print area rugs and boxy sofas decorate the public spaces. Most guest rooms are located on the top floor with direct access to two acres of rooftop garden with views of the city and Calton Hill. Standard rooms are a comfortable 301 square feet, featuring warm wood floors and modern furnishings. Bathrooms are retro sleek with aquamarine glass fixtures and heated floors. WiFi is free both in the rooms and public areas. The entire hotel is smoke-free. Dinner options are limited to in-room service, a garden picnic or in the lounge. Only breakfast is served at The Observatory dining room, offering continental or made to order meals. The hotel does not have a fitness facility on-site but guests receive complimentary access to the Virgin Active Health Club at the Omni Center a couple of blocks away. Back at the hotel, guests can relax and warm up with a Scotch at the Honesty Bar whose focal point is a gas fire bowl. This is a Category 7 property, with room rates in September starting at 140 GBP ($210) or 35,00 Rewards Points.
Other Marriott properties include the contemporary Residence Inn Edinburgh in Old Town, the Edinburgh Marriott Hotel located two miles from the airport and the Marriott Dalmahoy Hotel & Country Club, a former manor house on a sprawling estate seven miles from the city center.
Priority Club/IHG Rewards
Hotel Indigo Edinburgh: The classic facades of the row of Georgian townhouses that the Hotel Indigo Edinburgh occupies reveal nothing of the eclectic mix of styles found inside. Colorful area rugs, funky lamps and fluorescent accent walls decorate the hotel’s public spaces, highlighted by a few original interior features such as decorative mantels and tall deep-set windows. The guest rooms, although snug, pack in a lot of style with bright damask and floral wallpaper, stacked tubular headboards and murals of Edinburgh streetscapes. All rooms are equipped with coffee and tea makers, robes, rainfall showers and WiFi. There is a small fitness center with some basic equipment. The Turquoise Thistle lounge/bar and restaurant offers afternoon tea, whisky and cocktails and serves meals and snacks throughout the day featuring Scottish specialties with modern touches. Room rates in September start at 153 GPB ($230) or 35,000 IHG Reward Club Points.
There are many other Priority Club options in Edinburgh. The stylish Crowne Plaza Edinburgh – The Roxburghe is located on the New Town, as is the Crowne Plaza Edinburgh – Royal Terrace. The Holiday Inn Express Edinburgh City Centre offers more basic accommodations in a New Town Georgian townhouse. In the Old Town, the Holiday Inn Express Edinburgh – Royal Mile occupies a modern building right on The Royal Mile. Farther afield are the Holiday Inn Edinburgh City-West two miles from city center, the Holiday Inn Express Edinburgh-Waterfront three miles away and the Holiday Inn Edinburgh four miles from the city center and down the road from the Edinburgh Zoo.
Sheraton Grand Hotel & Spa, Edinburgh: This large contemporary hotel in the New Town offers guests comfortable accommodations with 269 guest rooms. The hotel interior is a stylish blend of Scottish and modern designs—tartan carpets line the hallways and colorful mid-century inspired furnishings dot the public spaces. But the real draw of this property is the 34,000 square-foot One Edinburgh Spa. This sprawling spa includes a lap pool, a sizable gym offering fitness classes, 17 treatment rooms, aromatherapy baths and herbal steam rooms. The Classic guest rooms are a decent size (280 square feet) with wood floors, walnut paneling, neutral tones, mirrored walls and tartan throw blankets. Bathrooms are sleek with contemporary fixtures. Some rooms have castle views and all rooms have WiFi access for a fee. This is a smoke-free hotel. Sheraton Club guests can enjoy complimentary breakfast, afternoon snacks and drinks at the Club Lounge. Dining options for all guests include regional cuisine at One Square and a health inspired menu at One Spa Cafe. This is a Category 5 property with room rates starting at 185 GBP ($278) or 12,000 Starpoints per night in September. Also check out TPG’s Review of this hotel when he stayed here last year.
Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts
Fine Hotels & Resorts is a loyalty program for Amex Platinum cardholders who receive special benefits at participating hotels such as early check-in and late check-out, complimentary breakfast, room upgrades, and other perks.
Rocco Forte The Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh: This landmark hotel with its unmistakable clock tower is a dominant sight on Princes Street. The hotel’s 188 understated rooms and suites are appointed with light Scottish motifs (tartan drapes, Sean Connery movie stills, a suite named for J.K. Rowling) and offer views of Edinburgh Castle and the Old Town. Classic double rooms measure 230 square feet with contemporary furnishings, spacious marble bathrooms, bathrobes and Ren toiletries. In-room WiFi access is available for a charge, but free with reservations made on the hotel website. Fitness facilities include The Balmoral Spa, a pool, sauna, steam room, gym and exercise room. Number One is the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant with a menu favoring local ingredients. Other dining and drink options include Hadrian’s for less formal brasserie style dining, and classy The Bollinger Bar at Palm Court for afternoon tea or cocktails and the Balmoral Bar for a late night Scotch. Room rates start at 200 GBP ($300) in September.
When cardholders use a Visa Signature credit card to book a room through the Visa Signature Hotels program, they are eligible to receive extra perks such as discounted room rates, room upgrades, free breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more. Visa Signature cards include the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire, British Airways Visa, the Hyatt card, the Marriott Rewards Premier and Marriott Rewards cards, the Southwest Plus card, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines cards, Capital One Venture, Citi Hilton HHonors and Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve, US Bank FlexPerks, Citi AAdvantage Visa Signature, and many more, so chances are you’re carrying at least one of them in your wallet.
Hotel Missoni: This designer hotel brings the colorful Italian mid-century aesthetic of Missoni to the Old Town. Located just off the Royal Mile, this 136-room hotel outfitted in bold colors, contrast patterns and frenzied graphics is not one for the style fainthearted (or migraine-prone). The appropriately named Piccolo Rooms (236 square feet) are more understated than the public areas, with only a few neon pops of colors and patterns—a bright yellow chair here, a zigzag sham there. Guest rooms are equipped with Missoni bathrobes, slippers, sheets and toiletries, complimentary non-alcoholic minibar and WiFi (also throughout the hotel) and rainshower. The spa features Eve Lom and Natura Bisse treatments and products and there is also a small fitness center. At Cucina, guests can dine on Missoni zigzag patterned plates and sip from stripped classes at this seasonal Italian restaurant. At the lunar-themed Bar Missoni, lighter Italian dishes can be procured along with afternoon tea and drinks. This property is part of the Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, however Gold Points are not accepted. Room rates start at 203 GBP ($302 USD) in September. There’s no telling how much longer these cards will be around and available for new applications because of the Marriott takeover, so now might just be the perfect time to apply. Apart from hotel redemptions, you can transfer Starpoints to over 30 airline partners, and now also transfer points from Starwood to Marriott Rewards at a 1:3 ratio, opening up even more redemption options.
There’s no telling how much longer these cards will be around and available for new applications because of the Marriott takeover, so now might just be the perfect time to apply. Apart from hotel redemptions, you can transfer Starpoints to over 30 airline partners, and now also transfer points from Starwood to Marriott Rewards at a 1:3 ratio, opening up even more redemption options.