Why Edinburgh is at its best – and cheapest – in ‘inbetweener’ season

Edinburgh is not an undiscovered gem or the “next big thing”. It has never been designated a European Capital or UK City of Culture, despite being one of the most cultured cities on the Continent – it doesn’t need that kind of spotlight. It’s no surprise that, according to the Office for National Statistics, it’s the most visited UK city outside London.

Since 1947 when the Edinburgh Fringe was launched as an alternative to the city’s big-budget International Festival, it’s been pulling in the crowds and now notches up around 4 million visitors each year – a strain on infrastructure that led to councillors voting in favour of a tourist tax in January.

Along with the two most famous summer shindigs, there’s an art, science, jazz and blues, book and film festival upping the cultural ante.

Unesco World Heritage Site status does no harm to its appeal either. Covering almost two square miles of the medieval Old Town and Georgian New Town – where tree-lined crescents are more Bridgerton than Braveheart – more than 75 per cent of the buildings are listed.

True, there were mutterings a few years back that Unesco was threatening to take away Edinburgh’s heritage site status because of a raft of contentious new building projects sullying the skyline. The ribbons of copper-coloured cladding swirling out of Jestico + Whiles’ £1bn revamp of the St James shopping centre – now dubbed a “Quarter” – has seen it nicknamed the Walnut Whip or Golden Turd by locals. However, for now at least, the Unesco heat is off.

The St James Quarter shopping centre (Photo: Anutr Tosirikul/Getty Images
The St James Quarter shopping centre (Photo: Anutr Tosirikul/Getty Images)

With an ever-escalating climate crisis another factor in Edinburgh’s favour is its leafiness. Its 38 parks have been awarded Green Flags, by 2030 it aims to become a Million Tree City, and according to Defra, it has clean air – it’s the least polluted of the UK’s 10 major cities.

Its people are also some of the happiest, particularly now that the troublesome tram extension down to Leith is finally finished.

The Meadows is one of the city's many green spaces (Photo: Carlos G. Lopez/Getty Images)
The Meadows is one of the city’s many green spaces (Photo: Carlos G. Lopez/Getty Images)

The city has good looks, glamorous hotels and gourmet restaurants – more restaurants, in fact, per head than anywhere else in the UK outside London, with five, following the culinary Oscars in Manchester earlier this month, awarded Michelin stars.

In terms of city break credentials you’d be hard-pressed to find a box it doesn’t tick. Until, that is, you try to book a room or a table. And there’s the rub.

With a year-long programme of concerts and cultural events blocking out much of the calendar, low season is a fleeting will-o-the-wisp. And this is it – although the clock’s ticking. Easter is early this year.

The city is renowned for its historic architecture, such as Circus Lane in Stockbridge (Photo: George Clerk/Getty Images)
The city is renowned for its historic architecture, such as Circus Lane in Stockbridge (Photo: George Clerk/Getty Images)

As an extra incentive, in March, the Eat out Edinburgh campaign returns for a third year and has grown to include 40 restaurants and bars. It’s also been extended from two weeks to a month-long meal-athon.

According to Essential Edinburgh spokesperson Emily Campbell Johnston, “2023’s Eat Out Edinburgh event was a huge success, with a fantastic turn out,” so much so that they decided it was “a great opportunity to make this year even bigger.”

Venues where you can dine with a discount include the just launched Rio Brazilian Steakhouse on George Street and decadent drinking den, Lady Libertine in the Edinburgh Grand on St Andrew Square (a 20 per cent discount on food Monday to Friday). Pull up a stool in the Art Deco-inspired upstairs bar Lady for a classic cocktail with a twist – ask for a negroni with smoky mezcal instead of gin, or dive down into the basement for mezze and more maverick mixology.

Other foodie incentives include the opening on 13 March of innovative young chef Tomas Gormley’s first solo venture, Cardinal. His other project, tiny hole-in-the-wall joint Skua in Stockbridge, launched in conjunction with another talented young chef Sam Yorke (whose restaurant Heron bagged one of those Michelin stars) is also one of the hottest tables in town with its deceptively simple, seasonal small plates.

Also getting rave reviews is Montrose (downstairs cosy wine bar, upstairs tasting menu), the Radford family’s new project; their restaurant Timberyard got its first Michelin star last year.

There’s a raft of cool cocktail bars from Hey Palu on Bread Street – where you can sip a yuzu margarita or take a negroni flight – to The Wildcat in Tollcross, “home of the £5 negroni” (other cocktails are available) and a growing number of pared-back neighbourhood wine bars and bottle shops, such as Spry and Mistral.

The Wildcat does £5 negronis (Photo: Supplied)
The Wildcat does £5 negronis (Photo: Supplied)

Whisky also has an added hip-factor now. For the first time in a century there are not one, but two distilleries in the heart of Edinburgh, both with mad scientist vibes (wild experimentation with yeasts – one dating back to the Black Death), young teams and cool bars. Towards the end of last year, the new wave Holyrood Distillery, which opened in 2019 in a listed 19th-century railway building, released its first malt, ‘Arrival’. At the same time the city’s first vertical distillery opened on the waterfront in Leith. The nine-storey Port of Leith Distillery has architectural wow-factor and a top floor whisky bar, with 360-degree views.

The new vertical Port of Leith distillery (Photo: AwAyeMedia)
The new vertical Port of Leith distillery (Photo: AwAyeMedia)

For a city that looks like a historic film set Edinburgh is not afraid of change and its accommodation scene is constantly evolving. The Walnut Whip houses the W hotel, which opened at the end of last year. In the summer the big news is that The Hoxton will, after a few delays, be shaking out the sheets.

It used to be a one-horse race at the luxury end of the market but in the past few years two stately old banks on St Andrew Square have been turned into sumptuous hotels giving the Balmoral a run for its money; the Edinburgh Grand and the Gleneagles Townhouse, the legendary Highland resort’s first urban outpost – which has a winter offer until the end of March if you want to splurge.

Finding affordable accommodation during the summer, even with the growing number of hip hostels and aparthotels is getting harder and harder. Right now, however, you can bag a bed at cool hangout Native Places for under £100. And its recent collaboration with plant-based chef Bettina Campolucci to create a series of recipes for guests who don’t want to splash out on a restaurant every night is an extra cost saving.

Native Places in Edinburgh (Photo: Rebecca Hope)
Native Places in Edinburgh (Photo: Rebecca Hope)

Adding to the wallet-friendly tally are all the free attractions. The castle might be eye-wateringly expensive, but most of the city’s museums and sites don’t cost a penny (although donations are encouraged) from the cultural smorgasbord that is the Museum of Scotland to the tiny Writers Museum which showcases the works of three literary greats: Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns.

You can walk the length of the Royal Mile for an open-air history lesson – dipping into candlelit grandeur of St Giles Cathedral, which celebrates its 900th anniversary this year.

Climb to the top of the extinct volcano Arthur’s Seat for wide-angled views or meander around the Royal Botanic Garden where the rhododendrons will be in blowsy bloom, the ground a blanket of spring bulbs. And the weather? An urban myth – it’s the west coast that’s wet. In fact, it rains more in New York and Rome.