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Travel: Exploring Edinburgh beyond the Fringe

As Edinburgh prepares for its annual arts festival, Ten Group's Alex Dalzell explores the finest places in Scotland’s first city to see and be seen in, as well as the best locations for securing that all-important wee dram…

Built on ancient volcanoes, Scotland’s capital is crowned by its castle, which looks down on the historic cobbled streets and Georgian rooftops. Culture is king here, with crowds set to descend on the city for the annual arts festival in August. If you’re heading north for a dose of theatre and comedy, or looking for a summer weekend getaway on UK shores, here’s where you should head to eat, drink, party and sleep it all off.

Eat

Scotland is revered by chefs worldwide for its rich abundance of high-quality native produce. The best restaurants in the capital make the most of nature’s bounty, and as Scotland celebrates its Year of Food and Drink throughout 2015, it’s a great time to dine out.

No chef embodies the ‘nature to plate’ philosophy more than curly-haired Tom Kitchin whose flagship restaurant makes brilliant use of an old whisky warehouse on the river Leith. Opt for the six-course Land and Sea Surprise tasting menu to get a sound understanding of his contemporary take on the nation’s cuisine.

The Kitchin has garnered a Michelin star, but visitors needn’t be hunting for accolades in Edinburgh – as places like The Gardener’s Cottage attest. Surrounded by herb and vegetable gardens, this small cottage restaurant has become a leading light in stripped-back seasonal food. The six-course menu changes each day but you can always expect the freshest and finest produce plucked from Scottish waters, foraged from Highland passes and bred at nearby farms.

Scotland is revered by chefs worldwide for its rich abundance of high-quality native produce

If you struggle to bag a place at one of the communal tables, the family-run Timberyard is a solid back-up. In summer, the warehouse’s south-facing courtyard is a sun-drenched lunch spot. The in-house smokehouse and butchery mean diners should opt for a fish starter followed by meat. Although, its seafood selection is rivalled by Ondine, close to the Royal Mile. This is overseen by Edinburgh-born Roy Brett who trained with Rick Stein and Mark Hix, and he does a mean shellfish platter.

If you stroll down to Leith overlooking the Firth of Forth, book into Mithas – a cutting-edge Indian restaurant that’s doing similar things to London’s much-lauded Gymkhana.

Drink

Walk through central Edinburgh on a Saturday night and you’d be forgiven for thinking the nightlife is all geared towards rowdy stag and hen parties and students. However, if you know where to go you’ll never have to lay eyes on the learner plates or blow-up dolls weaving their away along the ever-lively Grassmarket.

To start the evening, duck into Bramble Bar hidden in a Queen Street cellar. With some pretty unique mixes on offer, you’d be hard pushed to find a better drinks selection; however, you’d do well to stick to the classics – the negroni doesn’t get much better than this.

Whisky should play a heavy part in any night out and Bennets Bar has a remarkable range

All candle-lit nooks and crannies, it’s a romantic spot, while the larger Bon Vivant on Thistle Street is great for drinks with a group. Specialising in rare spirits, the well-priced cocktails include the hard-hitting Little Row, blending Jensen’s gin, Appleton V/X rum, Cocchi Americano and absinthe. Other fail-safe spots include the table-service-only Under the Stairs bar and Leith’s Bond No 9.

Of course, whisky should play a heavy part in any Scottish night out and the Edwardian Bennets Bar next to the King’s Theatre has a remarkable range of well-priced single malts, whilst the passionate staff at Bow Bar would be able to talk even the most ardent whisky hater into having a dram from one of the Highland’s little-known distilleries.

Party

Cowgate is the epicentre of Edinburgh’s clubbing scene and while the majority of venues are run-of-the-mill late night haunts, Cabaret Voltaire in the vaults beneath street level is the well worth hunting out. Open every night, it attracts a full spectrum of musical talent, from local bands to big-name DJs, and the sound system and arched ceilings give it a great atmosphere and the best sound in town.

Tucked away behind Waverley station, on the first floor above Café Royal oyster bar, the Voodoo Rooms cunningly blends traditional Edwardian decor with tiki-themed cocktails and fun times. Once dinner service has ended the music is ramped up and the party begins. With a number of rooms to explore, there can be live music, comedy and DJs on any given night and it’s the kind of place where you might want to dress up a little and let loose.

The Opal Lounge is similarly stylish and is one of very few places that offers a VIP area with bottle service – it even has a room devoted to Dom Pérignon for those on a serious blow-out. Be sure to book a booth in advance.

Stay

Edinburgh’s well-preserved Georgian townhouses make the ideal setting for a boutique hotel and the 21212 hotel has a small collection of rooms above its Michelin-starred restaurant. Of the four airy bedrooms, the two on the third floor have huge multi-head showers, egg-shaped bath tubs and views of the well-kept garden or the Forth of Firth. If you want to dine in the restaurant, book early, as guests don’t tend to have priority.

For another epicurean stay-over, there’s the Hotel du Vin. Housed in an 18th-century former asylum, padded cells have been replaced with modern guest rooms decorated in modish colours with flashes of tartan. Of course, wine is the order of the day and anyone dining in the main restaurant or popping to the mezzanine bar should spend time browsing the impressive list.

For something on a grander scale, Rocco Forte’s Balmoral hotel is setting the pace with 188 large guest rooms, an indoor pool and spa, two bars and three restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Number One. While those who’d prefer to go self-catered should opt for the Garden Rooms – a selection of modernist apartments backing onto private gardens that’d make Kevin McCloud weak at the knees.

Ten Lifestyle Concierge is the world’s leading lifestyle concierge provider, with professional lifestyle managers based across the globe – including teams of travel, restaurant and event ticket specialists. For more info on membership call 0845 020 5270 or visit tengroup.com

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