Observatory House, Edinburgh – a unique and enchanting retreat - Scotland on Sunday Travel

There is no shortage of impressive vantage points in Edinburgh to ponder the views of a city which has inspired writers and artists for centuries. But I’m not sure there is anywhere quite like the recently reopened Observatory House for taking in Edinburgh’s full majesty. The birthplace of both astronomy and timekeeping in the Scottish capital, it’s a place to live out your own fairytale.

Observatory House, on Edinburgh's Calton Hill, dates back to 1776. Picture: Anna Henly
Observatory House, on Edinburgh's Calton Hill, dates back to 1776. Picture: Anna Henly

The history of the city’s new hilltop holiday retreat, the oldest building on Calton Hill, is almost as impressive as the views it boasts. Its circular gothic tower dates back nearly 250 years when Leith optician and instrument-maker Thomas Short first attempted to create an astronomy centre on the hill, by. Designed by James Craig, the planner behind the New Town, it ran into financial trouble after another architect Robert Adam suggested it should resemble an imposing fortress.

Initially used by Short as a home and run as an observatory by his family after he died, it was used as a gunpowder store by the city militia in the early 19th century.

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It was reopened as an observatory in 1812 by the Edinburgh Astronomical Institution, who instigated a new temple-style building, designed by Willian Henry Playfair.

Craig’s creation was used to accommodate observatory staff from the mid-19th century until 2009, when the last stargazers left Calton Hill, then run as a holiday let until its operators ceased trading.

Now the 18th-century landmark has been reborn as stylish new self-catering accommodation under the final phase of a project by arts organisation Collective to transform the former observatory buildings around Calton Hill. Revived with contemporary styling and new artworks by some of Scotland’s most exciting current artists, it is an enchanting place to stay.

Room service

Visitors were swarming around Calton Hill when we arrived, but with both the Collective’s own gallery and The Lookout restaurant closed on a Monday, we had the grounds of the site to ourselves.

The Astronomer's Suite in Observatory House. Picture: Scott Clark

However, we couldn’t wait to take in the views from the oldest and highest part of the building, in the surprisingly spacious “astronomer’s suite.” There we couldn’t resist lying out on the super king-sized four poster bed to take in the striking tie-dye domed ceiling work created by Rachel Adams, one of four artists to work with Collective on the restoration.

Despite the close proximity of Calton Hill sightseers and the buzz of the city below, it’s a wonderfully calming environment.

Budget or boutique?

The refurbished building can sleep eight in total in the the main house – where we stayed – and apartment on the lower ground floor. The same number can also be seated in the gothic tower’s dining room, where artist Christian Newby’s painted harlequins, fruit and flowers adorn the walls.

Observatory House, on Edinburgh's Calton House, has some of the best views in the city. Picture: Scott Clark

Since Observatory House is no ordinary location, it felt like the perfect destination for an unforgettable special gathering or intimate celebration with family or friends.

Wining and dining

We decided to eat in to make the most of our time in the house and enjoy the fully-fitted kitchen, a work of art in itself, with impressive bespoke cabinets inspired by the nearby National Monument on Calton Hill and designed by artist Thomas Aitchison.

We foraged for wine and foodie treats from two local institutions, the grocery store Broughton Market, an expansion and rebranding of the 67-year-old butchers Crombies, and delicatessen Valvona and Crolla, which dates back to 1934.

Observatory House's kitchen, which was designed by artist and cabinet maker Thomas Aitchison. Picture: Anna Henly

There are countless restaurants within easy reach but the one to try to secure a booking for is The Lookout, within the grounds of Collective site, which has been a huge draw thanks to its unbeatable location and floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The restaurant can also organise private dining for groups of up to eight staying at the house.

On checking out, we savoured a lazy brunch encompassing rye and spelt sourdough, yoghurt and Edinburgh honey, boiled egg and smoked salmon, meats from charcuterie East Coast Cured and cheeses from IJ Mellis.

Worth getting out of bed for

It is almost impossible to pass by the windows in Observatory House– each invites you to gaze across Edinburgh skylines, spotting the landmarks and enjoying the bird’s eye view as crowds below hunt for the perfect selfie spot. The best view in the house is from the stunning top floor bathroom, created with an understated palette of honed marble and brass. Here you can have a soak in an inviting freestanding bathtub. It surely must be Edinburgh’s best bath with a view.

Little extras

Complimentary prosecco chilling in the fridge and some breakfast treats. Eye masks and ear plugs beside the bed, perhaps essential on Edinburgh festival nights. Plenty of coffee table art books to browse.

Observatory House's living room. Picture: Scott Clark

Guestbook comments

A unique and enchanting retreat, Observatory House is a haven of artistic tranquility.

Three nights’ self-catering for four costs from £1,050; three nights’ self-catering for two in the one-bedroom basement apartment will cost from £390. https://www.observatory-house.art/ City Observatory, Collective, Edinburgh EH7 5AA, 0131 556 1264.

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