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The Balmoral clock, seen from the terrace of the Edinburgh Grand.
A balcony over Edinburgh

A balcony over Edinburgh

The Scottish capital's skyline tells a story that spans almost a thousand years

Andrew Forbes

Friday, 5 October 2018, 09:04

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With some effort I slide open the heavy floor-to-ceiling glass doors, and I step out onto the terrace which was still damp from the light rain earlier in the day. The sky had cleared and before me was one of the most impressive urban landscapes in Scotland, The Edinburgh skyline.

My home-away-from-home afforded me a vast panorama that took in Arthur's Seat in the distance, the baronial-style Balmoral Hotel in the foreground, Waverley station and the gardens, the spires and towers of Old Town, the National Gallery and Princes Street, right across St Andrew Square with its imposing Melville monument, and then down over the neo-classical elegance of the New Town to the waters of the Firth of the Forth.

Landmark address

I'd checked in at The Edinburgh Grand, the latest icon of the capital's booming tourism sector. Edinburgh attracted over two million foreign visitors last year, driving ever-greater demand for new hotels, bars and restaurants. Now among the landmarks and spires are construction cranes, a testament to the growing city economy.

This is the era of Airbnb, and the notion of staying in a self-catering city apartment is more popular than ever for visitors. Yet the Edinburgh Grand has elevated the humble holiday flat to the standard of an exclusive residence, with hotel services. This landmark building on St Andrew Square is the hip place to stay. No longer dominated by office HQs, this is once again the best address in the city. That's just as it was when this elegant Georgian square was built in the late 18th century. It was the epicentre of the New Town, a sophisticated Georgian community for the well-heeled.

New Town, a Unesco World Heritage site, is the privileged place to live and stay. Some of the Georgian townhouses have been converted into chic boutique hotels like the Nira Caledonia, a favourite which captures the style and elegance of a bygone age. Think sweeping staircases, large sash windows overlooking quiet squares and high ceilings with ornate plasterwork.

Yet if you want to take in the skyline, then choose a serviced apartment on one of the top floors of The Edinburgh Grand. From here you can see it all, including Arthur's Seat, the rocky hill that rises out of Holyrood Park. When I say the skyline tells a story of almost a thousand years, maybe I should revise that, as this city centre hill is in fact an extinct volcano, hundreds of millions of years old. It's the place for an urban hike; and your reward is yes, more views, spectacular vistas across the capital and out beyond to the surrounding countryside.

Three minutes fast

The terrace of my holiday apartment is the perfect place to sit, enjoy a gin and tonic and soak up the panorama. Dominating the foreground, in front of Arthur's Seat, is the clock tower of The Balmoral Hotel. It's running three minutes fast, a tradition since 1902, a gesture intended to help make sure the city residents didn't miss trains departing from Waverley station below.

The property is now a luxury hotel, and it's hard to believe that in the 1980s, after decades of neglect, this architectural gem was left boarded up and falling apart. Thankfully it was later saved by investors and opened in the early 90s as The Balmoral.

Looking further south I catch sight of The Scotsman Building, at the end of North Bridge, one of the main arteries connecting Old and New Town. It was home, for almost a century, to The Scotsman broadsheet newspaper, with the printing presses in the basement and the journalists working above. Now, well as you might have guessed, thanks to the growing tourism, this landmark is also another luxury city hotel.

Urban myths abound of ghosts in the building and Old Town is certainly the place to enjoy a touristy 'ghost tour'. Once the sun sets, the medieval Old Town evokes memories of dark times in the city's history. Leading off north and south from The Royal Mile (the main street of Old Town that runs from the Scottish parliament and Holyrood palace in the east, to the castle in the west), are plenty of alleyways, known as closes. These narrow lanes, surrounded by tall residential buildings can feel dark and atmospheric - the perfect back drop for scary tales and urban legends.

Gothic ghosts

If you have a taste for the Gothic, then St Giles' Cathedral won't disappoint. Its remarkable steeple is like a crown on the Edinburgh skyline, while the stained-glass windows and chapels later added inside are impressively ornate.

For a more theatrical Gothic flavour I rather like The Witchery by the castle. It's a small hotel with nine unique suites, as well as a famous gothic-style, candlelit restaurant. It's theatrical but fun - and conveniently close to the top of the Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle.

The castle is understandably Edinburgh's top landmark, and the city's most popular tourist attraction. It can be seen from pretty much everywhere in Edinburgh since it is built atop Castle Rock, the city's other extinct volcano. Expect plenty for an entertaining family visit, likewise at the National War Museum of Scotland. And yes, there are more views from the there too.

For a truly unique perspective though, visit the Camera Obscura and World of Illusions, close to the entrance to the Castle Esplanade. This Victorian optical curiosity allows visitors to stand within the small 'camera' chamber at the top of the tower, and see the city captured in real time, on a white dish-like table below.

Nearby, in Lady Stair's Close one finds The Writers' Museum, a must for those interested in Scottish literature. The small museum, with free entry, celebrates the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. Edinburgh's iconic gothic monument to Scott is a little to the north, in Princes Street Gardens. From my terrace I could make out the elaborate 60-metre spire.

When walking through the gardens it is easy to be distracted but the monument is worth a closer look. In the autumn it is open from 10am to 4pm, and for £5 you can climb the claustrophobic spiral staircases to the viewing platforms. It is said that there are over 90 people depicted in the monument's carvings, including characters from Scott's works, as well as Scottish writers and poets. A statue of the author, carved out of white marble, sits at the base of the monument.

Hip Leith

To the east is Leith, home to Edinburgh's maritime heritage. It used to be the bad part of town, but after decades of regeneration the docklands have been transformed into the city's on-trend waterside area. Royal Yacht Britannia provides a tourist focal point, but most head to this corner of the city to enjoy the cool bars and restaurants. The Nauticus is Leith's latest opening and set to be the top choice for Scottish produce and Scottish drinks like Electric Spirit Company gin from Leith.

From my vantage point at The Edinburgh Grand I have the capital at my feet; centuries of history and culture just waiting to be enjoyed.

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