You are in the capital of Scotland, home of the brave and many festivals, and you’re wondering whether you will find a pub that suits your ever-changing moods. Fear not – Edinburgh has achieved what some cities rarely do: mix the trendy and contemporary with the authentically traditional. So, yes, there are cocktail bars to be seen in, but there are also old-style pubs you’ll want to be hidden in. The city is particularly good for lovers of craft and local brews, so our advice is this: dive in, but pace yourselves.
Joseph Pearce’s, 23 Elm Row
Operated by Swedish couple Anna and Mike Christopherson, Joseph Pearce’s opened in 2008 (in a late Victorian building), and immediately became a big hit. As you relax amidst its Scandi-bohemian décor, you can be safe in the knowledge that your tastes will be effortlessly catered for. Edinburgh being 56-degree north, fleece blankets are offered for those that want to imbibe and smoke outside, but if you’re a smarty-pants you’ll much prefer the inside warmth and the bar’s legendary Hot Björn Borg cocktail (aquavit, chillies, lychee, lime, sugar).
The Café Royal Circle Bar, 19 West Register Street
First thoughts: what a beautiful, old-fashioned bar to relax in. Second thoughts: exactly the same as the first. Established in 1863, and housed in a Parisian building regarded as a fine example of Victorian Baroque, expect to walk back in time as you become surrounded by Doulton ceramic murals – depicting famous inventors – that date from 1886. The house food speciality is the not so humble oyster, which is match-perfect with the walnut screens and bevelled mirrors. In a word? Classy.
The Jolly Judge, 7 James Court, 493 Lawnmarket
Now you’re talking: low-beamed ceilings, a log fire, a wide array of malt whiskies and real ales, and award-winning (Scottish & NI CAMRA Official Cider Pub 2019). Located about two minutes from Edinburgh Castle, this is a classic small basement pub. There’s no music blaring out, either, which means you can talk to people without having to shout. We like that. We also like the Jolly Judge’s Wi-Fi policy – although they prefer to call it “pintware”: it’s free, providing you buy a drink. Good call, judge!
The Hanging Bat, 133 Lothian Road
With over 20 keg and cask taps and a mind-boggling choice of over 100 bottled beers, The Hanging Bat is the bona fide beer destination in Edinburgh. Trendy? A bit, but you have very knowledgeable bar staff eager to help you out if you’re not sure what to drink. The curve ball? No pints are served here, just schooners and halves. And gents, just so you know, the urinals are made out of cut-out beer kegs. As if you didn’t need reminding what you’re doing with your money.
The Bow Bar, 80 West Bow
This relatively contemporary pub (it’s about 30 years old) is beer geek-fan heaven. From new UK breweries to Scottish (we recommend a pint of Loch Lomond Silkie Stout), and bottled beers from Belgium, Germany, Iceland, Ireland (the brilliantly named Farmageddon Mosaic IPA), Sweden, and America, this dog-friendly bar has been recently named, for the second year in a row, the Best Bar in Scotland. Frankly, we’re not surprised. The lunch menu consists solely of handmade artisanal pies – the fare includes Pork & Blue Cheese, Pheasant & Pancetta, and Moroccan Lamb.
Heads & Tales, 1a Rutland Place
Located in the city’s West End, and something of a refuge for gin lovers, this chic spot has two on-site gin stills (it’s a shared space with Edinburgh Gin Distillery) as well as terrific bar snacks and a sharing-board menu that includes meat (chorizo iberico, jamon teruel), fish (smoked sea trout, salmon), and cheese (Strathdon blue, Waterloo). The exceptionally good news for insomniacs is the weekend 3am licence. Our advice? Relax, sit back, enjoy.
The Cumberland Bar, 1-3 Cumberland Street
The phrase ‘a proper pub’ is rarely uttered these days, for various and sometimes obvious reasons, but that is exactly what The Cumberland Bar is. A purveyor of what you can safely bet are fine drink and comfort gastro (that is, unfussy) food, what we have here is a refurbished traditional pub with a vibrant atmosphere and staff that know what ales you (apologies). One doesn’t like to point out anything that takes you away from the primary reason you walk into a pub, but this place has haggis and whisky jam! Frankly, we’d travel to Edinburgh just for that.
Cloisters Bar, 26 Brougham Street
Cloisters Bar is so named because it is housed in the former parsonage of an Episcopalian church, and, in truth, the bareness of ecclesiastical life is reflected in the décor: untouched stone walls, sturdy but basic seating options and tables. The selection of beers, however, is the opposite of sparse and because what’s on offer is decidedly native, it is also hugely instructive for the craft beer enthusiast. Feast upon the likes of local IPA (from Stewart Brewing) as well as Orkney Porter, a vigorous brew from much further north.
The Sheep Heid Inn, 43-45 The Causeway, Duddingston
If you want to experience the feeling of being in a rural pub while remaining (relatively) city-based, then this tavern – reconditioned from the original 16th-century hostelry – will do the trick. This noted, you will need to walk/hike over three miles from Edinburgh Castle to the village of Duddingston, but it’s worth it. On arrival, you will be instantly cosseted by dark wood interiors, weathered leather armchairs, and shelves groaning with the weight of many books. In other words, make yourself at home in a pub that claims to be the oldest in Scotland, and tell them we sent you.
Malt & Hops, 45 Shore, Leith
Don’t be fooled by the antique bar mirrors – this traditional pub (dating from around 1750) is a one-room affair. Admittedly, the room is brilliant: hundreds of pump clips from long-forgotten distilleries and breweries hang from the ceiling, brewery memorabilia is everywhere, and the choice of beers from many of the country’s nooks and crannies is beyond admirable (and thirst-quenching). Also, the beer selection rotates on a regular basis. Interesting fact: while children are allowed on the premises until 6pm, the pub makes no excuses about not being “family-friendly.” Fair enough.
WRITTEN BY TONY CLAYTON-LEA