Why a short break in Edinburgh is the best way to find your festive flair this holiday season

By Sam Bradley | 22 Dec 2021 | Culture, Indulge, Travel

Sam Bradley heads to Edinburgh for a weekend of festive markets, decadent afternoon teas, colourful lights, mulled wine and all things Christmassy in an attempt to find his holiday spirit

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I have a confession to make: I’m not the world’s biggest Christmas enthusiast. I like it, don’t get me wrong – I just don’t love it in quite the same way my children do. Whereas they believe Christmas should be celebrated every week, I’ve always strongly advocated keeping the tinsel in the box until at least the first of December. And so it was with a profound sense of irony that I found myself in Edinburgh (in late November no less, before my self-imposed Christmas D-Day) with the aim of enjoying a weekend celebrating all things festive. 

In many ways Edinburgh provides the perfect setting for some Christmas cheer. Being within the UK meant less covid-related travel stress, and being able to travel by train rather than plane ticked all the environmentally friendly boxes. Once in the city it doesn’t take long to feel festive: every street seems to be adorned with historic stone buildings, ancient cobbled streets and an abundance of delightfully warm and cosy pubs and restaurants. The cold temperatures and 4pm sunsets only add to the atmosphere, and there’s also a decent chance of snowfall adding to the sense of magic. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the city goes all out to get into the festive spirit, with an abundance of artfully decorated Christmas trees strategically placed in every available nook and cranny. Within hours of arriving I could feel my inner Christmas grinch already beginning to lose its grip on me. 

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In terms of accommodation, the Cheval Old Town Chambers are ideally located right on the Royal Mile and less than three hundred metres from the castle. The first and lasting impression of the 24 new apartments (as well as the existing 50) is their size: expect decadently large living rooms, and bedrooms accompanied by spacious en-suite bathrooms (perfect for travelling in covid times). The luxurious feel of the apartments also leaves an unforgettable impression: not in the form of snobby butlers crowding your space, but rather in the funky artwork, contemporary furnishings and eclectic designs that make each apartment feel unique, contemporary and modern, and yet still reflect the impressive history of the building.

Each apartment'ss well-equipped kitchen makes self-catering hassle free, but the Luckenbooths restaurant on the ground floor is also always available as a tempting option. Named after the historical commercial buildings that once existed across the street (‘luckenbooth’ is short for ‘lock-up booth’) the restaurant serves delicious meals throughout the day (the Full Scottish breakfast and the Campbell’s haggis and beef shin bon bons starter for dinner are particularly recommended). Further down the Royal Mile, the Cheval Abbey Strand apartments at Holyrood, (renovated from a historic 15th century building) also contains nine beautiful apartments of various sizes and layouts. And guests will be pleased to know that both properties are pet friendly. 

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If you can tear yourself away from the delightfully cosy fireplace on the ground floor, the Edinburgh Christmas market on East Princes Street Gardens is well worth a visit. There’s something for everyone to enjoy, from shopping for quirky gifts such as historic maps, Christmas tree decorations and wind spinners, to eating and drinking (everyone needs a mulled wine or hot chocolate to keep the chill away) to feeling the adrenaline of a Big Wheel ride. For the little ones there’s also Santa Land,  bumper cars, a Christmas tree maze and Santa’s grotto (as well as an ice rink on nearby George Street).  

For those seeking a more sedate build up to Christmas, Edinburgh has a fascinating history just waiting to be explored. The Royal Mile is bordered by Edinburgh Castle on one end and The Palace of Holyroodhouse on the other, both well worth a tour. While Holyroodhouse is the Her Majesty The Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh (and guests can visit her state apartments), for me the most memorable part of the tour was visiting the chambers of Mary Queen of Scots, especially the room where her secretary was gruesomely murdered by a group of power-hungry Scottish lords.

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For those planning a tour of Edinburgh Castle, it may be worth combining it with the ‘Castle of Light: Hidden Treasures’ show currently running each evening. Equally fascinating was our Mercat Tours visit to the South Bridge Vaults, which transported us deep underground and also back into the city’s Georgian past. Our guide explained how and why the Old Town expanded, as well as what happened to those who remained in the dark and damp world below (with a few ghost stories thrown in for free). 

Scotland is the land of whisky, so those interested in a wee dram and a tour don’t have to look far. The Johnnie Walker experience on Princes Street provides an interactive way to learn about the countries national drink, including shows, demos and (best of all) the chance to make your own drinks at the end. Holyrood Distillery is another that provides a fascinating tour of their whisky and gin making distillery, led by passionate guides and interspersed with generous tastings throughout the tour.  

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Exploring is a good way to build up a healthy appetite, so it’s fortunate Edinburgh boasts a wide array of outstanding pubs and restaurants. One of those is The Sheep Heid Inn, established in 1360 and Scotland’s oldest surviving public house. The menu is exciting and the food is substantial and satisfying, and while you eat you can roll a few balls in the beautifully restored Victorian-era ten-pin bowling alley (although you’ll need to manually restack the pins yourself).

Over on The New Town side, for those tired out from shopping at St James Square, the afternoon tea at The Register Club (on the fourth floor of Cheval The Edinburgh Grand) is a treat not to be missed - and be sure to try some of head mixologist Rueben’s delicious cocktails. And if you happen to indulge in a few too many and need to stay a little longer, there are 50 stylish apartments right there to choose from.  Sitting next to an exquisitely decorated Christmas tree, champagne in one hand and a tasty chocolate treat in the other, my resistance to all things Christmassy had all but faded. 

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Sadly all good things must come to an end. Thankfully, however, the end of this trip left me feeling historically knowledgeable, wonderfully cultured, blissfully relaxed, and at least a few stone heavier. More importantly, I felt as festive as one of Santa’s reindeers after a few glasses of eggnog. Merry Christmas to one and all, and if you need a helping hand getting into the festive spirit then an Edinburgh Christmas break comes highly recommended. 

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Know before you go: 

Accommodation: Cheval Old Town Chambers are running a Christmas special for those considering a last-minute break. When booking a stay of at least two nights between 19th and 28th December, guests will receive 20% off selected apartments as well as a Christmas hamper of goodies including crackers, candy, travel games and a hot chocolate bomb.

Travel: Visit Scotland are doing everything possible to promote responsible travel. This includes encouraging visitors to travel by train or coach where possible, support accredited green tourism businesses and support local communities.