With its perfect location, luxurious service, and rich history, the Balmoral Hotel has long been the hotel of choice for celebrities, prime ministers, and royalty alike.
As you wander the streets of Edinburgh you can't help but feel a sense of wonder. From the castle perched high on a hill overlooking the city, to the elegant buildings of the Royal Mile, a trip to Edinburgh leaves you feeling like you've been transported 300 years. But amongst all of the history and beauty that the capital of Scotland offers, there is one place who’s reputation precedes itself and which has become an Edinburgh landmark in its own right – The Balmoral Hotel.
The Balmoral Hotel occupies one of Edinburgh’s most prestigious addresses, Princes Street. Designed to be the show piece of the New Town when it was built between 1760 and 1830. It runs parallel to both the drained loch which separates it from the Old Town, and the Royal Mile – traditionally the most important street in the city – and this gives it privileged views of the much of the city center. The street is also home to the best shopping in Scotland as well as the Royal Scottish Academy. Being housed at number 1 Princes Street, the Balmoral couldn’t really be in a more prominent place.
It is fair to say the Balmoral justifies its position as well. The building itself is very grand and can definitely rival the others around it. It has plenty of history too, having been built in 1902 and originally being known as the North British Station Hotel. The now empty loch, on one edge of which the hotel sits, is now home to Edinburgh’s main station, and so people would only have to take a short walk once they arrived by train. The first thing you notice about the hotel is the clock tower which can be seen from almost everywhere in the city, and interestingly, the clock runs three minutes fast. This is actually deliberate, and dates back to its time as the station hotel – the idea was to help the guests ensure that they didn’t miss their trains.
The hotel was reopened as the Balmoral in 1991, and retains all of its former class and elegance. Over the years it has gained many famous fans including Elizabeth Taylor, Paul McCartney, Michael Palin, and Sophia Loren. Several Prime Ministers have stayed here, and J K Rowling even wrote the final chapters of Harry Potter in room 552. As if that wasn’t enough, the restaurant was rumored to be the Queen mother’s favorite lunch spot.
As you enter the hotel, you are greeted warmly by the doormen (wearing the hotel’s own specially designed tartan). Once inside, it feels like a palace thanks to the chandeliers, stained glass windows, and grand piano. Everything is orchestrated by the grand master of ceremonies, who spends his time attending to guests and making sure spirits are always kept high.
The Balmoral is quite a big hotel, and it has a variety of different rooms. We went for one of the better ones, a ‘superior deluxe suite’ and lucked out with the view from the window. We could see both up to the castle and the royal mile, as well as across Princes Street and the New Town – we couldn’t really ask for better! Every night we watched the sun set over this picturesque scene, and when we woke up, the city would be bathed in morning sunlight. Make sure to ask for a castle view, if they have one available they will most likely be happy to give it to you, and it really added to our overall experience.
The room itself was very nice, and it felt modern and spacious. The decoration was a mix of traditional Scottish landscapes and quirky elements such as the photos of Sean Connery (in his James Bond persona), or the brightly colored bedding. It all meshed together well though and made for a relaxing place to spend time. The bathroom was huge and the sink was made of attractive marbled stonework, and best of all, there was a massive shower head which was very welcome after wandering around in the cold Scottish winter.
Dining & Drinks
When it comes to food and drink, you are spoiled for choice at The Balmoral. They have a space for every occasion. Whether you want Michelin starred dining, afternoon tea in the tea rooms, or a specialist whisky bar, you will not be disappointed. We ended up spending quite a lot of time in ‘Scotch’ the whisky bar, but with over 500 different malts, blends, and vintages on offer from every corner of Scotland, we never ran out of things to try. If you area fan of the drink, you will be in heaven, and even if you’ve been put off by scotches in the past (like me) it’s fun to learn about the different varieties.
The bartenders are very knowledgeable and can help you find a scotch that you would like – I was impressed and even found a few I liked! If you would prefer a cocktail however, you can visit the Balmoral Bar, which serves a range of interesting concoctions, as well as beer, wine, and bar snacks.
We were looking forward to eating at Number One – the restaurant with the Michelin star, but unfortunately it was closed while we were there. It did matter too much though as Hadrian’s Brasserie was outstanding and we enjoyed eating there. It offers a less formal experience than Number One, although the quality still remains high. The menu showcases the best of Scottish produce and recipes – and has a particularly good range of seafood and meats. The Balmoral smoked salmon is not to be missed and steak lovers should go with the chateaubriand served with hand cut roosters and St Andrews jus. We loved the beet salad, roasted chicken (which was so juicy) and I went with a wonderful steak which was cooked to perfection.
Hadrian’s is also where breakfast is served and there is a large choice of continental buffet options. One of Scotland’s culinary highlights are their breakfasts however, and I highly recommend ordering one of their traditional dishes from the menu. You can go for the full Balmoral breakfast (which includes bacon, sausage, egg, mushroom, tomato, baked beans, black pudding and a few other bits), or you can could try smoked haddock or kedgeree. If you want something lighter, go for the Scottish pancakes, or the traditional staple – porridge.
As you would expect from a hotel of this size and pedigree, there is no shortage of facilities at the Balmoral. They offer guided experiences including a whisky tasting, as well as trips to learn about the fascinating history of Scottish tartans, and to see its production in a traditional mill. They also have a variety of function rooms which can be used for everything from business meetings, to weddings.
Perhaps the best amenity however is the spa. We had heard great things about the spa, so we decided to check it out during our stay. Imagine our surprise when we ran into the same spa director we worked with several years ago in the Maldives. The temperature outside was strikingly different (from tropical islands to snowy Britain) but the effects of Christelle (the spa director) were apparent. She brings a holistic approach to the Balmoral Spa, and overall you get a sense of great well being from her treatments. Chris and I both had a combination facial/massage (Chris is such a trooper trying out all these spas with me!). I was so impressed by the local products that were used, and our skin came out fresh and looking good! There is also a gym, pool, sauna, and stream room to help you relax. Even if you don’t feel like a treatment, an hour or so in the heated pool will work wonders for your body, especially if it’s snowing outside!
Thanks to its great location, you are just minutes from many of Edinburgh’s attractions. The old town (with the castle and the Royal Mile) are just over the bridge, while the New Town and all its shops, bars, and restaurants is literally outside the door. There are plenty of pubs nearby, as well as several museums, and if you want to get some great views of the city, Carlton Hill is a few hundred meters away. One more uniquely Scottish experience you should try is the deep fried mars bar. Go into any fish and chip shop, and they will probably have it on the menu. Yes, it is a battered and deep fried chocolate bar, and yes, Scotland does have the highest rate of heart disease in Europe - but give it a go, it’s traditional!
You might want to plan your trip so that it coincides with one of Edinburgh’s many events but if you do, make sure you book well in advance. Hogmanay (or new years) is a massive street party, The festival (and the linked fringe festival) will appeal to lovers of the arts, and the tattoo is a unique occasion that showcases the best of the British Commonwealth’s army musicians.
If you like the idea of staying in a landmark (and not just looking at them), then this is the hotel for you. Similarly, if you appreciate the finer things in life and take your celebrity endorsements seriously (you can’t really get a more impressive recommendation than the Queen mother), then you will also enjoy staying here. Its location, and quality service however, mean that I think it would be a struggle to find anyone who didn’t like the Balmoral.
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