Edinburgh teems with tourists during most of the year, but the atmosphere in Scotland's capital becomes supercharged every August as hundreds of thousands throng the city during the biggest arts gathering in the world. The Edinburgh Festival is actually an umbrella term for several independent but simultaneous groups of events. The International Festival (eif.co.uk), now in its 65th year and running from Aug. 9 to Sept. 2, is the centerpiece, drawing big international names in music, theater, opera and dance. But it is dwarfed by the Fringe (edfringe.com), which has nearly 2,700 shows spread over 270 venues this year, often concentrating on comedy and performed by everyone from students to household names. There are also art exhibitions, a military tattoo at Edinburgh Castle and programs centered on books and jazz.
Despite the festival's popularity, visitors have had two big gripes in the past: the lack of decent hotels and the fact that Edinburgh was a culinary desert with little besides pub food, takeaways and the odd Indian or Italian eatery. Happily, however, the city has shifted gears on both fronts.
The past couple of years have seen the opening of the snazzy Missoni design hotel (hotelmissoni.com), easily the most fashionable place in town, with one of Edinburgh's best Italian restaurants and a buzzy bar; the major refurbishment of the Sheraton Grand (sheratonedinburgh.co.uk); the opening of the boutique Nira Caledonia hotel (niracaledonia.com); and a long-overdue overhaul for the venerable Caledonian (caledonianhiltonedinburgh.co.uk).
The improvement in Edinburgh's restaurants has been even more spectacular, fueled not only by the need to be more responsive to tourists but also by the once burgeoning local financial-services sector and the increasing sophistication of Scottish taste buds. A city that had no Michelin stars until 2001 now has five restaurants boasting the accolade the biggest concentration in Britain outside London. The charge was led by chef Martin Wishart (martin-wishart.co.uk) in the dock area of Leith. His eponymous restaurant, with its unfussy modern cuisine, is rated the city's best and heading for a second star. Last year, Wishart opened a brasserie, the Honours (thehonours.co.uk), in the city center.
Leith gained more kudos with the opening of the Kitchin (thekitchin.com) in an old whisky distillery in 2006. It gained a star the following year. Run by Tom Kitchin, popular on British TV cookery shows, it's a lower-key operation than Wishart's but nonetheless booked months in advance.
Wishart's success was followed by that of Number One (restaurantnumberone.com) at the luxury Balmoral hotel, where chef Jeff Bland has held a Michelin star since 2003. The tables are well spaced, the atmosphere mellow and the menu short. The chef may be called Bland, but his food is anything but, with ingredients taking center stage in dishes such as wild salmon with fennel and oysters or deer with beetroot, blackberries and pea puree.
In 2009 came the opening of 21212 (21212restaurant.co.uk) in an elegant Georgian house. It had a star within months. The name relates to the number of menu choices for each course on the set menu. Chef Paul Kitching's concept is to produce adventurous dishes that combine ingredients and flavors in complex layers. The restaurant also has four luxe guest rooms for overnight visitors.
Edinburgh's latest hot spot is Castle Terrace (castleterracerestaurant.com), which gained a Michelin star last year. Helmed by Dominic Jack, it's a sister restaurant of the Kitchin, with a similar approach. It's a telling sign of how bad the food used to be that Jack felt he had to leave his native city to learn his craft "because there was nowhere to train in Edinburgh."
There has been a welcome trickle-down effect from all this high-end culinary activity, so that it's now possible to get a decent meal in all price ranges. In the middle bracket, you could try Café St. Honoré (cafesthonore.com), a passable brasserie in the center of town. The cuisine at Angels with Bagpipes (angelswithbagpipes.co.uk), on the Royal Mile, is more inventive with fresh takes on Scottish food. Wildfire (wildfirerestaurant.co.uk), near Charlotte Square, is a cozy spot claiming to offer the best steak in town.
A good, even cheaper option is Iglu (theiglu.com), a bar-restaurant serving local seasonal food. Or you could try the Albanach (albanachedinburgh.co.uk), on the High Street, for haggis and whisky, and toast the fact that Edinburgh is no longer a gastronomic Gobi but a culinary oasis, enhancing the experience of festival visitors with great food as well as artistic nourishment.