Step inside one of Edinburgh’s traditional pubs, grab a pint and get cosy, because it’s here where the city’s true soul shines through.
Edinburgh is a city steeped in history, lined with medieval alleyways and overlooked by a castle. Every twist tells a story, and every turn leads in the direction of 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. During the Middle Ages, these once dingy taverns brought merriment to the poor, with flagons of ale pumped out of oak barrels. Following the industrial revolution, more upmarket establishments popped up in the city, catering to businessmen and serving as informal meeting spaces. Nothing if not ubiquitous, Scotland’s pubs lend an ear to life’s celebrations and misfortunes.
Local pubs (or ‘locals’) in particular play an important role in Edinburgh’s communities, serving as default venues for after-work drinks, spectator sports and Sunday lunches. In a culture of Instagram filters and competitive perfection, the humble pub evokes a deep-rooted comfort that’s quite simply timeless.
The Jolly Judge
Pub, Pub Grub, Beer
Interior of The Jolly Judge pub | Courtesy of The Jolly Judge
A roaring log fire, low-beamed ceilings and an off-duty piper or two characterise this stalwart on the Edinburgh pub scene. It’s easy to miss, perched at the bottom of one of the Royal Mile’s famous alleyways. It serves as a hang-out for the local busking community (who enjoy a pint between shifts). 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 may be this pub’s official title, but to locals it goes by ‘The Diggers’. Located between two graveyards, it historically served as a watering hole for Edinburgh’s gravediggers after long shifts amongst the tombs. Despite these morbid connections, The Diggers provides a warm welcome, a bar stool and a 250-strong whisky collection.
Situated along the trendy Leith waterfront, the King’s Wark earns its title from its past as the royal residency and armoury of King James I (dating back over 600 years). Not only does this small venue ooze olde worlde charm (think dark wood, open fires and thick stone walls), it is also well known for its award-winning menu, featuring delicious seasonal Scottish produce.
The Sheep Heid is rumoured to be Scotland’s oldest pub, established way back in 1360. It is as famous for its royal connections (Mary Queen of Scots was a regular five centuries ago) as its old-fashioned skittle alley (which is still open for business). After a thirst-inducing walk up Arthur’s Seat, a well-worn pathway will lead you down to Duddingston and the narrow street leading to this pub. The Sheep Heid Inn is best utilised in the summer, when you can enjoy the lesser-known beer garden round the back.
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 features of ornate dark wood, stained glass windows and a tiered, alcoved bar remain intact, lending it a distinctly classy feel.
‘Canny’ is Scots for careful – a quality you’ll need to circumnavigate this pub’s famously frosty sign, which says: “No smoking, no credit cards, no cameras, no backpackers.” Once inside, it graciously warms up. Dim lighting and old-fashioned furnishings accentuate the bizarre interiors. In the front room, a fur-clad mannequin hangs from the ceiling, while the wall of stopped clocks offers a discombobulating feeling of entering a time warp.
This unassuming little pub in Edinburgh’s Old Town is the go-to venue for lovers of Scottish and Irish folk music. It’s known for its legendary ‘sessions’: raucous, foot-stomping parties which began in the early 1940s and have continued to this day. Pass by Sandy Bell’s on any given evening and you’ll see musicians coming together to share a dram.
Famous for its pot-tails (that’s a cocktail in a teapot) and succulent Sunday roasts, Roseleaf is one of Leith’s best-loved pubs. ‘Wee bowls of soup’, ‘a pair o’ poached eggs’ 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 – and indeed a pot-tail or two!
This historic inn at the heart of Cramond village has been pulling pints for over 300 years. Away from the hustle and bustle of Edinburgh’s city centre, it provides a welcome (and slightly cheaper) resting stop after a walk along Cramond beach. With its bountiful booze selection, a roaring fire and beer garden, this is a strong bet all year round.
The Last Drop is located in the heart of Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, deriving its name not from booze but from a rather morbid piece of local history. The last ‘drop’ in question refers to the the last hanging in the area, which took place just outside the pub’s doors back in 1784. Inside there are classic pub hallmarks of low ceilings, booths and buttoned leather benches. Some say, the ghost of a little girl haunts its halls. For a no-frills, central boozer with standard pub grub, a cosy atmosphere and consistently good chat, this makes for a great option.
Mathers is up there among Edinburgh’s most salt-of-the-earth bars. Void of airs and graces and unapologetically itself, this pub is a melting pot of Edinburgh society, having served everyone from businessmen to chimney sweeps. Though a little less polished compared to some of its upwardly mobile West End neighbours, it offers a good range of beers at out-of-town prices, a warm welcome and steak pies so good they’ve become local legend.
The Guildford Arms dates back to 1896 | Courtesy of The Guildford Arms
One of the great appeals of The Guildford Arms is its diverse selection of real ales, which change regularly and are often sourced from local microbreweries. Family owned and operated since 1896, it has an impressive interior with an ornate ceiling, large arched windows, heavy plush velvet curtains and an upstairs gallery restaurant. A stone’s throw from Waverley Station, it would make an excellent first (or final) venue for any decent Edinburgh pub crawl.
Interior of The Café Royal | Courtesy of The Café Royal
A few steps (or perhaps a stagger) from The Guildford Arms lies The Café Royal. This pub oozes old-school luxury, with polished brass, a marble bar, sparkling shelves of spirits and elaborate paintings. If you can get past the bustling crowds, try for a seat in one of the leather booths, which give a welcome slice of privacy. A pub that evokes classy, old-school Edinburgh at its very best.
Surrounded by trendy gastropubs on Edinburgh’s fast-developing Broughton street, The Barony’s more unassuming exterior remains a welcome constant. But don’t be fooled; the pub very much gives its modern neighbours a run for their money. A minimalist interior of dark wood and fairy lights offers a welcoming atmosphere. The food and drinks menu tastes far beyond its price margin – including what may well be the best brownie in Edinburgh.
The decor of Nobles strongly echoes the historic port of Leith, where the pub was established in 1896. Model ships sit along the back of the bar, while nautical paintings and stained glass windows make you feel as if you’re out at sea. If owner Niall had to describe the pub, he’d use its name. “Noble” indeed, the venue boasts an award-winning menu to enjoy alongside its extensive array of spirits and wines.