The Water of Leith river in Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh Is the Perfect Mix of Old and New — With Luxury Hotels, Gothic Architecture, and a Surprising Food Scene

Though the romance of Edinburgh has long been rooted in the past, the Scottish capital is now a destination for the modern age.

From the air, Edinburgh looks horizontally expansive and vertically modest. It blends greenly with the surrounding countryside, thanks to its profusion of parks and gardens. As my plane circled the city on a June morning, I could spot the famous hills — which look more like craggy eruptions — around which the Scottish capital was built. There are no skyscrapers of the kind you’ll find in London or New York City. Edinburgh’s tallest building, St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, measures 295 feet. 

I was all the more surprised, then, to discover that this is a city of panoramic vistas. Over the next five days, my husband, Caleb, and I repeatedly found ourselves surveying the Scottish capital from on high. We saw its full, broad sweep from the top of Arthur’s Seat, the massive (and extinct) volcano that dominates Holyrood Park. We descended the steep hillside staircase that links the medieval warren of Old Town with the neat Georgian grid of New Town. At the Lookout, a glass-box restaurant at the summit of Calton Hill, I ate a plate of late-spring asparagus, leeks, and cannellini beans while taking in a bird’s-eye view of the Firth of Forth, the estuary on which the city sits. 

Two photos from Edinburgh, Scotland, one showing a park and the skyline, and one showing detail of a kilt
From left: An afternoon picnic in Princes Street Gardens, in Edinburgh; a bagpiper in traditional Scottish dress.

Hayley Benoit

Still, for all their drama, none of these pinnacles is quite as plush as the rooftop lounge of the Gleneagles Townhouse. This hotel and members’ club, which opened only weeks before our visit, occupies a building that was, in the 19th century, the headquarters of the British Linen Bank, on the east side of St. Andrew Square. One evening I sat with Caleb and drank a frothy, citrusy mocktail while taking stock of the skyline from behind the robe-clad statues — allegorical figures representing Architecture, Science, Navigation, and other trades — that crown the hotel façade. The bar is open only to members and hotel guests, and is just subdued enough for conversation. 

Dessert is my love language, and at the Spence, it’s an occasion in itself. A waiter wheeled a multilayered cart to our table and invited us to choose from an array of cheeses, cookies, truffles, and other confections.

A week earlier, the 10-day forecast had predicted day upon day of the windy, rainy weather for which the region is famous — “one of the vilest climates under heaven,” according to the Edinburgh-born Robert Louis Stevenson. Now each of those days was turning out to be bright and balmy, and there seemed to be no better place to watch a mellow evening descend over the city than this cheerful, compact lounge — appropriately named Lamplighters, after Stevenson’s poem about the man who kindles the streetlamps when dusk falls. 

Two photos from Edinburgh, Scotland, one showing people waling on a riverside path, and one showing a freestanding tub in a hotel bathroom
From left: The Water of Leith walkway as it passes through Dean Village; a Victorian-style bathroom at Gleneagles Townhouse.

Hayley Benoit

If you’re at all familiar with Gleneagles, the century-old resort an hour’s drive from Edinburgh in rural Perthshire, you might associate the name with gundogs and golf clubs, hawks and hunter green. In 2015, Gleneagles was purchased by the English hospitality firm Ennismore, which gave the property a significant refresh. Gleneagles Townhouse takes one step further in the direction of urbanity. True, there was green tile and pointer-dog wallpaper in our bathroom — but they felt like a knowing wink as much as a bow to tradition. More characteristic of Gleneagles 2.0 were the blush-pink chairs and celadon banquettes at the Spence, the hotel’s all-day restaurant, and, in the conference room, a childlike painting of a pig perched on its hind legs by the absurdist artist David Shrigley.

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“I imagine that Gleneagles Townhouse is the younger sibling who left the country, went to New York City, did some traveling, and then moved back,” Mike Ellis, the property’s resident manager, told me when we met at the Spence one morning. Ellis used to work at London’s Soho House, and wants the Townhouse to attract a similarly diverse clientele. “We’re not going for middle-aged blokes in suits and ties,” he said. (Ellis himself was dressed neatly but casually in chinos and white sneakers.) The average age of the Townhouse staff, he pointed out, is 29. Indeed, a team of fresh-faced young women and men greeted Caleb and me whenever we returned from exploring the city, and were so friendly that I felt compelled to recount our day’s activities to them all. 

Two photos from Edinburgh, Scotland, one showing the interior of a bookstore, and one showing a dish of fish and beans in a restaurant
From left: The Edinburgh branch of Topping & Co., one of Scotland’s largest independent bookstores; mackerel with shrimp, coco beans, and shiitake mushrooms at Borough, a restaurant in the neighborhood of Leith.

Hayley Benoit

Our room was a cocoon, decorated with rich colors and plush upholstery, Persian rugs, and a deep bathtub. But the 33 guest rooms — and almost everything else about the hotel — can’t help taking a back seat to the Spence, which occupies what was the grand central hall of the original bank, earning it a place with the great dining rooms of the world. A glass cupola soars high overhead, while carved portraits protrude from the ceiling. Marble columns support wedding-cake layers of molding. The counter in the center of the room where tellers once doled out bills is now a large, canopied bar. 

As it happened, we planned to have dinner at the Spence on my birthday. Dessert is my love language, and at the Spence, it’s an occasion in itself. A waiter wheeled a multilayered cart to our table and invited us to choose from an array of cheeses, cookies, truffles, and other confections. But the menu’s Valrhona chocolate “Nemesis,” a wedge of dense, fudgy goodness, beckoned. I paired it with — did I mention it was my birthday? — a side of salted-caramel ice cream. (After this decadence I swore off sweets for the foreseeable future, my vow lasting until I was back at the Spence for breakfast the next morning and encountered a bostock — a slice of brioche topped with almond cream — that looked too good to pass up, and was.) 

Two photos from the Gleneagles Townhouse hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland, one showing a restaurant interior and one showing a table with a cocktail and snacks
From left: The Spence, the all-day restaurant at Gleneagles Townhouse; cocktail hour at the Lamplighter, the hotel’s rooftop bar.

Hayley Benoit

New places to stay are opening in Edinburgh all the time — this past year saw the arrival of a Virgin Hotel, and 100 Princes Street, part of the Red Carnation Hotel Collection, will open in spring 2023. But Gleneagles Townhouse has been something of an event. That’s partly because of the esteem in which the original Gleneagles is held, but it’s also, I think, due to the glamour and fizz it brings to this classical city. That said, we were traveling in June, and missed out on the spectacle that arrives each August, when the Edinburgh Festival Fringe all but takes over the streets.

Like English food, Scotland’s national cuisine has historically been ripe for parody. When we told friends about our trip, they jokingly asked if we were going to eat haggis, the legendary boiled pudding stuffed with sheep offal. Little did my inquisitors know, Edinburgh is a great dining city. Over five days, Caleb and I were presented with one creative dish after another, all showcasing local produce and seafood.

Related: How Fife Became Scotland's Most Exciting Food Destination

Hours after landing, we had a late lunch at Eleanore, two postage-stamp rooms on a relatively nondescript block of Leith Walk, the road that runs from the center of town to the waterfront. Eleanore is the overnight success story of Edinburgh restaurants; an offshoot of the beloved Little Chartroom, it opened last December and only months later won the city’s 2022 Restaurant of the Year Award. It was easy to see why as we revived ourselves with chunks of cured mackerel and yuzu wrapped in nasturtium leaves, fat Jersey Royal potatoes and king oyster mushrooms smothered in hollandaise sauce, and a slab of trout in a frothy crab bisque.

Two photos from Edinburgh, Scotland, one showing brightly colored storefronts, and one showing a dessert and cheese trolly at a hotel
From left: Victoria Street, in Edinburgh’s Old Town; the Spence’s dessert and cheese cart.

Hayley Benoit

Later in our trip, the warm, pub atmosphere of Tom Kitchin’s Scran & Scallie, in the neighborhood of Stockbridge, was the perfect backdrop for an exemplary pie: chunks of smoked haddock, salmon, and shrimp in a thick cream sauce, topped with a layer of mashed potatoes. At Fhior, a serene series of rooms on the ground floor of a town house, we ate a gut-busting 10-course tasting menu that delivered a particularly Scottish version of molecular gastronomy. While seafood was the focal point, my favorite part was a tiny cheese tart filled with custard and pickled onions. I could have put away a dozen. 

Holyrood is unlike any city park I’ve ever seen — one with ruins and cliffs and a mountain in the middle of it. I looked up to its peaks and felt like I had landed in Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

It must be said: parts of Edinburgh are touristy. The carnivalesque atmosphere of Old Town’s Royal Mile — the street that runs between Edinburgh Castle, an important military fortress and the city’s most famous landmark, and the Palace of Holyrood, the King’s residence in the city — can be headache-inducing, with pubs and souvenir shops and tour leaders shouting over one another. Down in New Town, Princes Street, a main shopping thoroughfare, is also crowded and hectic. (Like many major commercial streets these days, it has a lot of shuttered storefronts.) The new St. James Quarter, a grand mall complex behind Gleneagles Townhouse, includes a bright, bronze-colored, spiral-shaped building — soon to be a W Hotel — that has attracted unfavorable attention for its architecture, which critics have compared to something a dog might deposit on the sidewalk. 

Tea service in the dining room of a luxury hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland
Teatime at the Balmoral Hotel’s Palm Court.

Hayley Benoit

But it’s not difficult to step away from the scrum. The Balmoral, a Rocco Forte Hotel, is a grand Victorian with 187 rooms and suites that stands at the east end of Princes Street, a short distance from Calton Hill. Inside, all is cool and calm — an elegant counterpart to Gleneagles Townhouse’s buzzy fun. We stayed at the Balmoral for two nights, in a corner suite with windows that looked out over the activity of the main avenue but kept out all the sound. The hotel is full of crowd-pleasing nods to Scottish customs, from the doormen in their tartan uniforms to the plaid accents in our living room, including a couch so comfortable that I fell asleep every time I sat down on it. 

A short walk in almost any direction brings you to those green spaces that make the city look so inviting from the air. The Water of Leith is a meandering river that flows through Edinburgh, and one of the highlights of our stay was a walk along its shady banks. Starting west of the city, it runs for 22 miles. We bit off a more manageable chunk, slipping through a gate behind the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and into what looked like deep countryside. 

Two photos from the Balmoral hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland, one showing the hotel's bell tower at dusk, and one showing a staff member in a kilt
From left: The Balmoral Hotel clock tower; James Irvine, a staffer at the Balmoral.

Hayley Benoit

We followed the water through Dean Village, a quaint residential area with appealing Tudor-style architecture, and into Stockbridge. (It’s worth your while to hop off the path here for a pistachio mazarin — a marzipan pastry topped with pistachio icing — at Söderberg, a Swedish bakery.) Time your stroll just right and you can arrive in the waterfront neighborhood of Leith in time for dinner at Borough, a subdued restaurant that does everything right, from its pared-down décor to its unfussy dishes that highlight Scottish produce, like Musselburgh leeks and raspberries grown just across the Firth of Forth. 

With its sloping streets and lack of discrete bike lanes, Edinburgh is not an obviously cyclist-friendly city.

The Edinburgh skyline as seen from Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano in Holyrood Park
The Edinburgh skyline as seen from Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano in Holyrood Park.

Hayley Benoit

But the traffic is respectful enough that you’re unlikely to get mowed down, and there’s no easier way to cover short distances. One afternoon Caleb and I rented bikes and pedaled to the used bookstores that dot the streets around the University of Edinburgh; then on to the Meadows, the long, pretty park where the students cluster; and to the foot of Holyrood Park. Holyrood is unlike any city park I’ve ever seen — one with ruins and cliffs and a mountain in the middle of it. I looked up to its peaks and felt like I had landed in Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

The next day we returned to Arthur’s Seat, this time to hike to the top. Within minutes, the city fell away. The elevation requires a bit of stamina, so the main path wasn’t too crowded. About midway up, Caleb, a bird-watcher, wandered off to look for chaffinches and dunnocks. I found myself walking in a kind of hollow. The land gently rose around me, and all I could hear was the wind. Space and time took on new proportions.

A notification popped up on my phone — a DM from a friend back in the States. “Can I write you a little later?” I replied. “I’m cupped in the world’s palm right now.” 

Two photos from Edinburgh, Scotland, one showing tea being poured at a tea service, and one showing Edinburgh's skyline
From left: High tea at the Balmoral, a grand hotel in the heart of Edinburgh; an afternoon picnic in Princes Street Gardens, in Edinburgh.

Hayley Benoit

Where to Stay

The Balmoral: Edinburgh’s grande dame is celebrating its 120th anniversary. Don’t be put off by the busy location — inside, all is calm and collected.

Gleneagles Townhouse: This private club and plush 33-room hotel, the sister property of the original Gleneagles in Perthshire, brings urban panache to a historic brand.

Where to Eat

Borough: A low-key restaurant in Leith that confidently serves some of the best food in the city.

Eleanore: Shareable dishes that pack a wallop.

Fhior: Strap in for an adventurous multicourse meal that takes a creative approach to Scottish seafood.

The Lookout: The views are the only thing better than the food at this restaurant on top of Calton Hill.

Scran & Scallie: A cozy gastropub serving souped-up versions of traditional Anglo-Scottish fare, such as fish-and-chips and steak pie.

Söderberg: Pick up cardamom buns, almond tarts, and other treats at this Swedish coffee shop and bakery.

What to Do

Cycle Scotland: This shop rents sturdy mountain bikes and e-bikes by the day or week.

Holyrood Park: Climb to the top of the 823-foot Arthur’s Seat for the best view in the city.

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art: A superb collection of 20th-century works. Set aside time to wander the art-filled grounds.

Topping & Co.: Two comprehensively stocked floors, with tall wooden shelves and rolling ladders — what a bookstore should look like.

Water of Leith: Stroll the 13-mile walkway that runs through picturesque Dean Village and Stockbridge.

How to Book

T+L A-List advisor Jonathan Epstein can design a classic itinerary to Edinburgh and beyond. Email: jonathan@celebrated​

A version of this story first appeared in the December 2022/ January 2023 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "Great Scot."

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