Hip, artsy Edinburgh perfect for girls' getaway

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Edinburgh's Old Town has preserved much of its medieval street plan and many Reformation-era buildings.
Edinburgh's Old Town has preserved much of its medieval street plan and many Reformation-era buildings. Photo Credit: Kristan Schiller

While boarding my recent flight from Newark to Edinburgh, Scotland, a friendly fellow passenger offered to help hoist my luggage into the crowded overhead bin. Seconds later, as he took his assigned seat next to me, I learned that he was Alex McKie, the director of the Scottish Tourism Alliance.

During the next six-plus hours, McKie proceeded to sell me on his hometown of Edinburgh, leaving no doubt in my mind as to why it was voted the world's best city to visit by the Time Out Index in 2022, topping the chart not only for its welcoming locals but also for its flourishing foodie scene and variety of visitor attractions.

"Edinburgh has always been a global city," said McKie, a former dishwasher who now runs Fusion, an Edinburgh-based hospitality management company. "And it's the people who make it what it is," he beamed.

I was soon to get firsthand confirmation of that statement.

The library at Virgin Hotels Edinburgh.
The library at Virgin Hotels Edinburgh. Photo Credit: Kristan Schiller

On arrival in Edinburgh, I checked in at the new, five-star Virgin Hotels Edinburgh in the city's Old Town and began my girls getaway together with my childhood friend Melinda, who flew in from Paris for the weekend to meet me.

Together we walked for miles across the ancient city's winding cobblestone streets, calling on galleries, shops and distilleries plus a handful of excellent new restaurants, assessing another feature highlighted in the Time Out survey: the city's walkability. 

On our first day, we set out along Edinburgh's Royal Mile, passing St. Giles Cathedral, where Queen Elizabeth II recently lied in state. We head toward the Fruitmarket Gallery, a former fruit market transformed into a world-renowned contemporary art gallery that decades ago held the first showing of Jean-Michel Basquiat's work in the U.K. 

Fruitmarket recently reopened after significant expansion; a nearby nightclub was masterfully turned into additional gallery space in response to increased demand from visitors.

New and soon-to-open hotels in the capital city
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Gleneagles

Opened in July, the 33-room Gleneagles Townhouse is located in a restored building overlooking St. Andrew Square.

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Next, Melinda and I made our way to the nearby St. James Quarter, a new shopping center on the east end of Edinburgh's New Town, situated at the top of Leith Walk, a pedestrian passageway. The impressive 850,000-square-foot galleria includes a John Lewis Department Store (where I splurged on a pair of wool gloves) and Scotland's first food hall, Bonnie & Wild, which features artisanal Scottish purveyors.

Decked out in sparkling, colored lights, the St. James Quarter felt like London's Oxford Street at Christmastime. To add to the glitz, next year the complex will house Scotland's first W Hotel, the W Edinburgh.

"There's been a range of new openings in the hotel space," said Neil Christison, regional director at VisitScotland. "These brands opening up in Edinburgh showcase the opportunity for tourism here as well as an obvious appetite for visitors to come and visit Scotland's bustling capital."

Our day wound down with a taxi ride to our buzzy new dinner spot, Eleanore, awarded Restaurant of the Year at the Edinburgh Restaurant Awards 2022.

Named after chef and co-owner Roberta Hall-McCarron's family sailboat, which she navigated as a girl along the Scottish coastline, Eleanore serves small plates such as oysters in tomato granita, cured mackerel with kumquat and barbecued cod that arrive as they're ready. The unpretentious wine bar-style space is decorated in minimalist blue and white to evoke the maritime theme, and everything is farm- and sea-to-table -- no haggis here.

After sleeping off our jet lag, Day 2 started with a late breakfast at Eve, one of three dining options at the Virgin Hotels Edinburgh, which brims with well-heeled guests of all ages (mostly European, from the sounds of it.)

Once awake, we briskly headed back to Leith for a hard-hat tour of Scotland's first vertical distillery, the Port of Leith Distillery, set to open in May. 

As we stood on the top floor of the nine-story building and gazed out over the city, Tamsin Job, spokesperson for the 28,000-square-foot colossus, told me the hope is that the distillery will become another landmark visitor attraction for Edinburgh. Following four rounds of private investment funding, founders Ian Stirling and Paddy Fletcher, both Edinburgh natives, recently raised nearly $15 million through a crowdfunding campaign to help complete construction of the impressive project. 

When the distillery opens this spring, tours of the whisky-making process accompanied by liberal tastings will be on offer, Job told us. 

Fingal is a 237-foot ship and floating luxury hotel operated by Royal Yacht Enterprises.
Fingal is a 237-foot ship and floating luxury hotel operated by Royal Yacht Enterprises. Photo Credit: Jeremy Rata

Back on ground level, Melinda and I strolled a few hundred yards along the water for tea at Fingal, a 237-foot ship and floating luxury hotel operated by Royal Yacht Enterprises. The last ship to be built by the Blythswood Shipbuilding Co. in Glasgow, Fingal has 23 cabins and beautifully appointed public spaces designed for fine dining and events. 

As we nibbled on dainty finger sandwiches from a three-tiered sterling silver tray and sipped Earl Gray tea with a backdrop of art deco interiors, it occurred to me that Fingal has come a long way from its previous life navigating rough waters to bring lighthouse keepers their supplies.

The new design shop, Bard, opened in Leith in late 2022.
The new design shop, Bard, opened in Leith in late 2022. Photo Credit: Edvinas Bruzas

A quick jaunt from Fingal took us to the new design shop, Bard, which had opened in Leith that very day. Helmed by Hugo Macdonald and James Stevens, Bard showcases the work of 35 contemporary Scottish artisans whom the couple met on their recent tour of Scotland, visiting dozens of homes, studios, workshops and factories.

Stevens draws on a design background, having created homes for actors Eddie Redmayne and Helena Bonham-Carter, while Macdonald draws on his experience as a design journalist for London-based publications such as Wallpaper and Monocle. 

The curated selection of interiors is displayed on two floors in what feels like a tastefully decorated Edinburgh home. While tempted to move in, Melinda and I moved on to explore further on foot.

A leisurely dinner at the delightful Heron, opened in July 2021, concluded Melinda's time in Edinburgh; she returned to Paris in the morning. I, on the other hand, had one more day to explore the city and be treated like royalty at the Spence restaurant at the newly opened Gleneagles Townhouse.

At the Heron, Melinda and I contemplated our trip over a meal of Jerusalem artichoke and Orkney scallops.

Edinburgh is the ideal city for a weekend escape, we concluded: compact, walkable and filled to the brim with historical landmarks, stylish galleries and shops, jaw-dropping views, mouthwatering restaurants and jazzy hotels.

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