If you think Edinburgh is only worth visiting during festival time, you're missing out. In fact - whisper it - those in the know think you only get under the skin of the city outside the madness of its summer festivals. In autumn and winter it's less crowded, hotels are cheaper and you can appreciate its handsome looks. Plus, with the famous Hogmanay celebrations at New Year and Burns Night on 25 January, it's a great time to see the city in party mode...

Stand on North Bridge above Waverley Station and the Castle, in the medieval Old Town, looms down from its rocky perch on the left. Princes Street Gardens lie below you, overlooked by the gothic Scott Monument; to the right is the Georgian splendour of the New Town. Wander the New Town's elegant streets and squares to get a feel for the area - there are plenty of good coffee stops, such as Urban Angel on Hanover Street - before taking in a culture hit.

The good news is that many of the city's galleries and museums are free. At the Scottish National Gallery on The Mound, you can get up close and personal to the greats, including Titian, Rembrandt, Raphael, Botticelli and a sweep of Impressionists, while the recently reopened National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street is home to famous faces - Bonnie Prince Charlie, Robert Burns, Billy Connolly - as well as Scotland's National Photography Collection.

Also recently revamped is the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street, which tells the nation's story from earliest man to the 21st century and has 16 new galleries, including the soaring Grand Gallery with its Window on the World display of 800 intriguing curiosities.

For a blast of modern architecture, head to the bottom of the Royal Mile to take in the Scottish Parliament building, a wave-like mass of granite, steel and oak. Or, for a dose of colour and fresh air, stroll around the Royal Botanic Garden on Inverleith Row, which has the UK's tallest Palm House. Both are free, with a small entrance fee for the latter's impressive glasshouses. 

The city is not short of the quirky. As well as whisky and medical museums, at Mary King's Close you can dive underground with costumed actors who will lead you through the highs and lows of the city's 16th- and 17th-century everyday life. Anyone with kids should head to Camera Obscura, also on the Royal Mile, to get lost in a crazy world of holograms, or visit the zoo and its giant pandas, a 10-minute bus ride from the station.

Fancy the royal life? Head down to the Royal Yacht Britannia in Leith, where you can get a voyeuristic thrill peering at the Queen's single bed, the Duke's hidden cocktail cabinet, the crew's cramped quarters and the 1950s operating theatre.

Leith is also home to two of the city's five Michelin-starred restaurants: Martin Wishart and The Kitchin. But you don't have to go glittery to eat well in Edinburgh. Wishart has a more accessible brasserie-style restaurant, The Honours, on North Castle Street. Its marbled and mirrored décor is as gorgeous as its food. Equally sumptuous is The Witchery - all romantic candles and painted ceilings - on the Royal Mile, while seafood restaurant Ondine, on George IV Bridge, is understatedly glam. Nearby, the slick and sharp Outsider serves up contemporary Mediterranean dishes, while for great-value food with a nostalgic twist, The Dogs in Hanover Street is a noisy, fun, no-frills hangout.

Now fortified, you'll be ready to tackle the shops. You'll find designer names (Vuitton, Armani and Harvey Nichols) on or near St Andrew Square, while upmarket stores, such as Jo Malone and The Kooples, stretch along handsome George Street. Check out the basements of George Street, too, for interesting one-off jewellers. For something unique, head to Stockbridge and its laidback galleries, delis and vintage jewellery shops, plus a branch of Mary Portas's Living & Giving charity stores.

Back in the Old Town, avoid the touristy-tack of the Royal Mile and wander the areas around Grassmarket for something truly individual, such as Armstrong's vintage clothing, Ian Mellis's tiny slip of a cheese shop and Demijohn, which offers a staggering range of whiskies, spirits and oils. Scottish bramble whisky, perhaps, or maybe some raspberry vinegar?

Saturday mornings mean the farmers' market on Castle Terrace, where more than 60 stalls sell everything from wild mushrooms to smoked salmon and piping-hot porridge for a quick snack. The festive season brings a daily German Christmas Market, a Highland Village and a big wheel, among other attractions, clustered around Princes Street Gardens from the end of November.

To do the city justice, you need to stay over. There are many excellent big-name hotels, some with seriously good spas - The Scotsman, The Sheraton and The Balmoral, for starters - but the smaller independents are worth checking out, too. The Rutland is stylish, intimate and retro, Tigerlily is ridiculously pink and flirty, and Ten Hill Place has good-value, modern rooms.

Save time for some aimless wandering. The great thing about the city is that banquette-and-bar-stool pubs happily mingle with uber-cool bars. Check out the area around Grassmarket - Dragonfly bar and The Last Drop pub, for example - or around George Street - laidback Bon Vivant or the classic Victorian polish of the Café Royal. As you nurse your pint or sip your cocktail, there's a good chance you'll be planning your return visit.


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Edinburgh's best cityscapes

Arthur's Seat

At 251 metres, the city's highest point gives the most far-reaching views, stretching to the coast and north across the Firth of Forth into Fife. Start from Holyrood Park.


Harvey Nichols Forth Floor

Gaze down on the buzz of the New Town through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Forth Floor restaurant. Dine alfresco if the weather is kind or just chill with a champagne cocktail at the bar.



Nelson Monument

This telescope-shaped monument on Calton Hill commemorates the Admiral's Trafalgar victory (and death) in 1805. It gazes over the city, Pentland Hills and Firth of Forth.
Info: edinburghmuseums.org.uk


Camera Obscura

Spy on the city's comings and goings from this rooftop periscope, Edinburgh's first purpose-built tourist attraction. Lenses and mirrors let you secretly watch the city from afar.



Scott Monument

The world's largest monument to a writer, the 61-metre high Scott Monument, built to commemorate Sir Walter Scott, towers over Princes Street Gardens and gives great views.



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