Strolling up the spectacularly evocative Royal Mile towards our superbly positioned hotel, we passed a bearded dandy negotiating his way expertly across the cobbles on a unicycle.
A short distance away a busking bagpiper entertained a small collection of gleefully snap-happy Japanese tourists.
We’d well and truly arrived in Edinburgh, a city where the arts, architecture, history and Scottish heritage (albeit in some cases the tourist-friendly stereotype) combine to beguile visitors from all over the world.
Our journey north was a relaxed affair, enjoyed in the comfortable surroundings of the East Coast rail company’s first class service. The trip takes a little over three hours (with a change at York) and takes in the rugged Northumberland coastline on its way over the border.
Our boutique hotel, the Fraser Suites, was a matter of minutes from Edinburgh Waverley station. If you can find accommodation that enjoys a better location in this city I’ll eat my Tam o’Shanter. A mere caber-toss from the Royal Mile, a five-minute walk from Edinburgh Castle and little more to the high street shops of Princes Street, its position is enough to have others cursing with envy.
Built in the 1750s, it retains much of its period charm. Our suite had wonderfully high ceilings and sash windows and was luxuriously appointed, with a small lounge area containing a comfy sofa, and a bed that was so pliant that, once in it, it was difficult to escape.
The bathroom had a fabulous shower and came with the customary top-end toiletries. Each suite contains some self-catering facilities.
After a gentle wander to Calton Hill – which offers a spectacular view over the city from one of its highest points – and a bite to eat, we bedded in for the night.
The following day began with a visit to the castle, Scotland’s most-visited tourist attraction. For the uninitiated, the castle is a network of fascinating buildings of which the oldest dates back to the 12th century. Highlights include the compelling story of the Honours of Scotland – known as the country’s Crown Jewels – the 16th century Great Hall and the spine-tingling Scottish National War Memorial. It’s impossible to escape the castle’s prominence – geographically and historically – in the landscape of Edinburgh. Any visitor should be compelled to experience it at least once.
Entry to the castle is one of the activities you’re entitled to with the Royal Edinburgh Ticket, which also provides unlimited travel on any one of a selection of open-top bus tours plus admission to the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the Royal Yacht Britannia. The bus routes vary slightly, but all take in the pre-eminent locations of both the old and new towns.
During our journey from the castle to Holyroodhouse we passed through West Port – synonymous with the murders carried out by the infamous duo William Burke and William Hare.
Holyroodhouse itself is a must-see. Entry comes with an audio tour that allows exploration of its near-900-year history at a pace of the visitor’s choosing. Walking through the bedroom and audience chamber once belonging to Mary Queen of Scots while listening to her tragic story is particularly enthralling.
Back on the bus and our journey through Edinburgh’s new town incorporated the likes of Queen Victoria, Alex Salmond and Ian Rankin.
The open-top tours, manned by guides with an encyclopedic knowledge of Edinburgh’s famous people and events, provide a fascinating whistle-stop introduction to the city’s history.
Having digested as much of it as we could manage we returned to the hotel, via a wander through buzzing Grassmarket, hungry for something to satisfy our growling stomachs. The hotel’s Broadsheet Bistro was the ideal location to find it.
Having dodged the haggis at breakfast, I decided I could avoid it no longer. I was glad I did – the modern twist on haggis, neeps and tatties that I had as a starter was delicious.
The restaurant specialises in modern British cuisine. The pan fried fillet of North Sea Cod, with a ratatouille and lettuce puree, and the butter roasted chicken (complete with haggis croquette) that we had were both excellent.
It had already been a packed weekend, but its surreal and enjoyably disconcerting denoument was still ahead. For reasons that I don’t have time to go into, within five minutes of entering Edinburgh Dungeons I was being harangued in front of a school party for allegedly being a cross-dresser. One teenager of a particularly nervous disposition was already whimpering with fear (the two things were unconnected, I hasten to add).
More of an accessible Horrible Histories-style experience than a studied exercise in criminology, the dungeons tour offers a grisly and at times genuinely spooky journey through some of the darkest chapters in Edinburgh’s past. A cast of enthusiastic actors really bring what is a largely morbid 80 minutes to life for an experience that’s enough to keep anyone with an unhealthy interest in the macabre interested.
Having begun our trip at Edinburgh’s pinnacle, it seemed appropriate that we ended it in its hidden depths. From top to bottom, this is a city that John Betjeman had every reason to call the most beautiful capital in Europe.
Hotel: Standard double rooms at the Fraser Suites are from £118. Visit www.frasershospitality.com
rail travel: Standard advance returns from Leeds with East Coast trains from £30.30. Visit www.eastcoast.co.uk or call 08457 225225
Activities: The Royal Edinburgh Ticket (tour bus travel plus entry to Edinburgh Castle, Holyroodehouse and the Royal Yacht Britannia) is £45 per adult; Edinburgh Dungeons entry from £9.50