The Best Traditional Pubs in Edinburgh

Cobbled Rose Street in Edinburgh is home to no less than 12 of the citys finest pubs, including The Kenilworth
Cobbled Rose Street in Edinburgh is home to no less than 12 of the city's finest pubs, including The Kenilworth | © eye35.pix / Alamy Stock Photo
Charlotte Barbour

Contributor

Wherever you go in Edinburgh, you’re not far from a pub, and as pubs are among the city’s most important buildings – bar none – here is Culture Trip’s guide to the very best.

Edinburgh is a city steeped in history, lined with medieval alleyways and overlooked by a castle. Every twist tells a story, and every turn seems to lead to one of its many pubs. When a twist meets a turn? That’s when you know you’ve walked into a good one. Pubs have been a cornerstone of Scottish society for centuries, and local establishments (or ‘locals’) in particular play a crucial role in communities, serving as default venues for after-work drinks, spectator sports and Sunday lunches.

Ghillie Dhu

Near one end of castle-topped Princes Street gardens, this upcycled Victorian church with its ornate plasterwork and oak panels is now a restaurant, bar and cultural venue. From crispy ox cheek and black pudding to ice cream from the Isle of Arran, the menu is full of the finest Scottish scran and just reading the list of whiskies makes your head spin and you feet dance. Enjoy it all in a cosy-benched snug off the main bar or outside on the cobbled street in summer.

Teuchters

In a dog-friendly dockside beer garden, pub grub meets Scottish gourmet: beer-battered Shetland scallops in a big, soft roll with hand-cut chips, or a mug of haggis stovies with oatcakes. Match them with a fruity draught of Pilot IPA, brewed just down the road, Edinburgh gin or even intense, peat-smoky 16-year-old Lagavulin whisky, richest of the Islay Single Malts. Its Highland founders were insulted as “just a couple of teuchters” when they set up their Edinburgh bistros, so they embraced the derogatory Lowlanders’ word for Northern Scots by using it for their characterful pub on Leith docks and their whitewashed bar in the West End. The joke encapsulates the Teuchters’ relaxed style, showcasing Scotland’s fabulous food and drink, without too much song and dance.

Kilderkin

At the foot of the Royal Mile, with the Palace of Holyroodhouse and craggy Arthur’s Seat just steps away, the Kilderkin might have ended up being strictly tourists-only. But somehow operators James and Jacqueline Nisbet manage to keep things real at this old-school wood and stained-glass joint with its leather sofas and bar stools. Cask beers, fresh pizzas, a long list of rums and a charity quiz every Tuesday lure in locals, including MSPs from the parliament building just over the road.

The Kenilworth

No cars are allowed on cobbled Rose Street, just pedestrians strolling from pub to pub, sampling the hand-pulled beers. Edinburgh students by tradition try to drink in every pub on the street in one night. We suggest you linger in The Kenilworth’s Victorian wood-panelled bar, or outside the petunia-festooned façade in summer, for a glass of elderflower Thistly Cross cider or a shot of spicy Aberdour whisky, with its whiff of cinnamon and toffee. From fish and chips to ribeye steak with onion rings, the Kenilworth serves classic pub food, and with an extra Scottish twist if you opt for the pheasant, venison, partridge and root veg pie.

The Dagda Bar

The Dagda is a powerful Celtic god, but you might easily walk past this cosy blue-painted bar on Buccleuch Street. If you do, you’ll miss out on its authentic, homely vibe with a dark-wood bar and embossed ceiling fringed by a row of beer mats. The friendly staff really know their stuff when it comes to the long list of malt whiskies and ever-changing guest beers, among them Edinburgh Gold from Stewart Brewing, south of the city. Dog-loving and music-free, it’s all barrels and scuffed tables, green leather benches and good old-fashioned chat.

The Jolly Judge

A log fire, low-beamed ceilings, a lack of distracting music and an off-duty piper or two characterise this stalwart on the Edinburgh pub scene. It’s easy to miss, semi-underground and tucked away at the end of one of the Royal Mile’s famous alleyways. It serves as a hangout for the local busking community (who roll up for a pint or two between shifts). One of them, Tam, who has busked around the corner for nearly 20 years, describes the Jolly Judge as “a braw wee place with bags of character”. And he’s bang on the money.

The Athletic Arms

The Athletic Arms may be this pub’s official title, but to regulars it is known as The Diggers: located between two graveyards, founded in 1897, it served historically as a watering hole for Edinburgh’s gravediggers after long, back-breaking shifts among the tombs. Despite these morbid connections, it always extends a warm welcome. Position yourself on one of the stools set around the central bar and order yourself a dram from the 250-strong whisky collection.

The King’s Wark

On the trendy waterfront at Leith – the port area of Edinburgh – the blue-fronted King’s Wark owes its title to a former incarnation as the royal residency and armoury of King James I (dating back over 600 years). Not only does this small venue flow with traditional charm (possessed of time-honoured features including dark wood, open fires and thick stone walls), it is also well known for its prize-winning menu. This features delicious seasonal local produce in dishes such as Scottish seafood chowder and vegetarian haggis Wellington with whisky sauce.

The Sheep Heid Inn

Established way back in 1360, this is rumoured to be Scotland’s oldest pub. It is certainly as famous for its royal connections (>Mary Queen of Scots was a regular five centuries ago) as for its old-fashioned skittle alley (which is still open for business). After you’ve walked up Arthur’s Seat, a well-worn pathway will lead you down to Duddingston and the narrow street to this pub, where you can slake your thirst with a pint of Hawkes Urban Orchard cider. The pub comes into its own in summer, when you can settle in at the lesser-known beer garden round the back.

Bennets Bar

Neighbouring the King’s Theatre in the Tollcross area of the city, Bennets has been serving characters from both the stage and the street since opening its doors in 1839. The pub’s original Victorian interiors remain intact, featuring ornate dark wood, stained glass windows and a tiered, alcoved bar, lending it a distinctly classy feel. Look out for the tiny jug bar: separated by a timber and leaded-glass panel, it was created for guests who wanted to drink in private, without being seen.

Canny Man’s

“Canny” is Scots for careful – a quality you’ll need if you’re to circumnavigate the infamous sign outside this Morningside pub, which states: “No smoking, no credit cards, no cameras, no backpackers.” Once you’ve stepped inside, though, things soon warm up graciously. The place has been run by the Kerry family for generations, and it brims with individual character: dim lighting and old-fashioned furnishings accentuate the original interiors. In the front room, a fur-clad mannequin hangs from the ceiling, while the wall of stopped clocks gives you the discombobulating sense of entering a time warp.

Sandy Bell’s

This unassuming little pub in Edinburgh’s Old Town is the go-to venue for lovers of Scottish and Irish folk music. Beginning life as a shop, it was a bar by the 1920s, and has, since the 1940s, been known for its legendary “sessions” – raucous, foot-stomping parties. Pass by Sandy Bell’s on any given evening and you’ll find musicians mingling together over rounds of drinks. It is best known for its selection of whiskies, including light, sweet, single-malt Speyside numbers as well as Amrut Fusion (incorporating Himalayan barley) from India and Togouchi 12 Years Blended from Japan.

Roseleaf

Famous for its pot-tails (that’s a cocktail in a teapot) and succulent Sunday roast, Roseleaf is one of Leith’s best-loved watering holes. “Wee bowls of soup” and “The Big Yin” feature on the colloquial Scots menu, accentuating the distinctly homey feel. It’s easy to while away an afternoon on the mismatched furniture, soaking up the atmosphere with a pot-tail or two. There’s also a great brunch menu with tasty vegetarian options, including eggs benedict, holy guacamole and “fancy fungi” (assorted wild mushrooms sauteed in garlic and parsley olive oil).

The Last Drop

The Last Drop, in the heart of Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, derives its name not from alcohol but from a morbid item of local history. The last “drop” in question refers to the final death by hanging to have taken place in the area, just outside the pub’s doors, in 1784. On a separate note, some say the ghost of a little girl haunts its halls. Step inside and the welcome couldn’t be nicer, with all the hallmarks of the classic pub present and correct: low ceilings, booths and button-back leather benches. With a good range of craft beers and ciders, cocktails, champagne and wine, this is a no-frills winner.

Mathers Bar

Mathers is up there among Edinburgh’s most salt-of-the-earth bars. Having served everyone from business travellers to chimney sweeps, it is devoid of airs and graces and unapologetically itself – a wonderful mingling swirl of Edinburgh society. Listed on the Pub Heritage website as “A historic pub interior of national importance”, it presents a good range of beers at out-of-town prices, a warm welcome, and steak pies so delicious they are now the stuff of local legend.

The Guildford Arms

Key to The Guildford Arms’ tremendous appeal is its diverse selection of real ales, which change regularly and are sourced routinely from local microbreweries. Family owned and operated since 1896, it has an impressive interior with an ornate ceiling, large arched windows, plush velvet curtains and an upstairs gallery restaurant doing fantastic steak and ale pie (using Orkney Dark Island ale and Aberdeen Angus steak). A matter of minutes from Waverley Station, it makes an excellent first – or final – venue for a decent Edinburgh pub crawl.

The Café Royal

Here’s a pub that evokes classy, old-school Edinburgh at its very best: oozing old-school luxury, with polished brass, a marble bar, sparkling shelves of spirits and elaborate paintings. If you manage to squeeze past the milling crowds, try to nab a seat in one of the leather booths – they deliver welcome peace and privacy as you tuck in to mushroom Wellington, lamb rump with rosemary potatoes, or roast monkfish cooked with mussels, clams, samphire, tarragon and white wine.

The Barony Bar

Surrounded by trendy gastropubs on Edinburgh’s fast-developing Broughton Street, The Barony has an unassuming exterior that remains a welcome constant. But don’t be fooled by first impressions; this place very much gives its modern neighbours a run for their money, with its minimalist interior of dark wood and the welcome glow of draped fairy lights. The food and drinks menu presents flavours and quality far beyond its price margin – including a warm chocolate brownie, served with pistachio ice-cream, which may well be the best in Edinburgh.

Nobles

The decor inside this gastro-pub makes strong references to the historic port of Leith, where it was established in 1896. There are model ships lined up along the back of the bar, while nautical paintings and stained-glass windows create the impression of being on the ocean waves. The menus, however, are anything but all at sea, including some real brunch beauties: fried free-range buttermilk chicken with waffles, for instance, or a winning wild-mushroom and smoked-cheddar sandwich, on charred sourdough, with hazelnut and rocket pesto.

This article is an updated version of an earlier piece by Tori Chalmers. Phoebe Taplin also contributed additional reporting.

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