Nightlife in Edinburgh: traditional bars, music and dancing

by Alison Craig

Real bars. No themes. No DJs. Just locals chatting with great beer, some live Scottish music and wild Scottish dancing.

Traditional Edinburgh pubs untouched by the hand of the theme bar fairies.

No music thumping out, or 50” flatscreen TV pumping out rolling sport and news. No tourist stuff here, just locals chatting, drinking and doing what they have done for a long, long time. These are bars which are busy all year, come rain or shine. The local. The Cheers of Edinburgh. Possibly with slightly less glamorous landlords than Ted Danson – if you know otherwise, do let me know.

The following are groups of pubs in specific areas. You can just choose any pub, but if you want the "pub crawl" experience, these are laid out so they run from one to the next in a logical progressive route. Start at any of them and there is a natural progression to the next. Being traditional, most of them don’t have a website. so you will have to take my word for it.

The Royal Mile/Grassmarket

Start at the top of The Royal Mile. First stop: The Jolly Judge, located in James Court, one of the tiny vennels  off to the left. After your pint, the only pub which might be called a tourist trap further down The Royal Mile is a landmark pub, Deacon Brodies, which is on the corner of The Mile and The Mound. Deacon Brodie was a burgler by night and upstanding businessman by day and the man who inspired Robert Louis Stephenson to write Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Next, out the door, across the Royal Mile and straight on, this street is called George IV Bridge. Take the next right, onto Victoria Street and The Bow Bar is halfway down on your left; an unassuming entrance to a cracking pub. Its close proximity to the law courts makes this a favourite place for lawyers and barristers to have a swift half. The pub is known for its real ale.

When you leave The Bow Bar head left down the hill to The Grassmarket. The Grassmarket is packed with pubs. Two worth a visit are The White Hart, which is steeped in history. Said to be Scotland's oldest pub, parts of it date back as far as 1516. Robert Burns allegedly stayed here, and it is believed to be haunted. Regular live music in here too. A little further along the same side of the road you will find The Beehive - more ghosts reputedly in this bar and a good policy of no stag and hen parties so you and the spirits may appreciate that. Oh, and they have nice beer garden. Three of my favourite restaurants are a minutes walk away they are the cheap Petit Paris, the mid-range The Outsider or the top-end Ondine.

Leith

Port O’Leith in Leith at 50 Constitution Street is a good starting point. Landlady Mary Moriarty was a larger than life character who put this place on the map; she's sadly no longer around but her legacy lives on and you will see it all here. Originally a seafarers' pub it is packed with real characters, eccentrics and those who like a drink. Pop in, you will love it or run out quickly.

Take a left and first left, you are now on Bernard Street where you will find Carriers Quarters on your right. It's Leith’s oldest unaltered watering-house, created in 1785. It has atmosphere, cheer and it’s a real man’s pub: no-nonsense and simple. There is a TV in here actually, but usually good chat anyway. Out and right you will clock Kings Wark, at 36 The Shore, originally an armoury for the first King of Scotland in 1494 so more history, beer and great food. Then head out of the Kings Wark and cross the road towards the water where you will find The Shore on your right: drink, food and music here are great too.

New Town

Start off at Kays’ Bar. Just off India Street this tiny pub is like walking into someone's front room. Tiny and unique. Oh and my husband proposed to me in here. Out of here, head to the bottom of India Street, you will see stone steps on your left; these will take you down a street level to Stockbridge. Cross the road and 20 paces along, on the corner of St Stephen Street, you will see The Baillie and then a little further along the same road, The Antiquiry. At the end of the street take a left, then right onto Henderson Row, at the lights take a right. You are now on Dundas Street and on your right about five yards up you will find Clarks Bar and quite possibly my pal Diane.

Central

Going from east to west. From The Balmoral on Princes Street you will see a wee lane right opposite, up there about 50 yards on you will find The Café Royal. It's been part of the Edinburgh scene for hundreds of years and the team pours a great pint. Ask them to point you in the direction of The Abbotsford on Rose Street, about a two minute walk away; there's a real fire and their own ale, 4.1% Abbotsford Ale. Once refreshed, then you're off to The Oxford Bar in Thistle Street – Rebus's haunt – it is a great wee bar whether you are a Rankin reader or not. If you are, then eyes peeled. Is that him at the bar?

The Cambridge, one minute further along the same road on the same side, offers good pub grub.

Broughton Street

Mather's Bar at the top of Broughton Street. Not that long ago Mather's Bar still operated an honesty bar policy, not now sadly, but this is just a good straightforward Edinburgh pub. They do show football in here so if it's a Saturday afternoon be warned. Next The Barony Bar, 81 Barony Street, 100 yards down Broughton Street on same side of the road It's just a great wooden emporium of booze. 

Next, cross the road, down the hill, take first left at London Road, pass Dublin Street on the left, next left turn up and you will spot The Starbar at 1 Northumberland Place tucked in on the left. When you bail out of there go back down the hill, but rather than retrace your steps, keep going down the left hand side of the street, cross over Great King Street then first left. This is Cumberland Street and here is The Cumberland Bar,   always loads of beer-drinking blokes in here, good chat and a nice beer garden.

If you are in the mood for carrying on, then Clark's Bar is just around the corner, which you can read all about in the New Town pub guide above. This could be like the Bermuda Triangle, just going round and round all the pubs forever. Still, I can think of worse things.

One pub that is not in the main centre but is worth going for the experience is The Canny Man in Morningside. Packed with antiques, the eccentric owner keeps an eye on things. You'll find objects hanging off the ceiling, a crowd at the bar and a TV in the back room, where people gather to watch big sporting events. There's a long menu of open sandwiches, which are tasty,plus dark wood and an eclectic mix of things in a completely charming dining room. The Landlord has some draconian rules, which cause great amusement - but don't laugh out loud, you might be chucked out!

Live Scottish music sessions

Central

White Hart Inn, Grassmarket; Mon, Wed and Thurs 
Sandy Bell's Bar, Forrest Road; every night from 9pm, Sat and Sun from 4.30pm
WHISKI Bar, The Royal Mile; every night from 9.30/10pm 

Leith

The Shore; Wednesday 9pm - midnight

Check The Edinburgh Folk Club website too, which always have a list of what's on: www.edinburghfolkclub.co.uk.

A real Scots party!

The Burly Ceildh Club 

The Scots word for party is ceilidh, pronounced kay-lay; it consists of traditional music played at volume as large groups of people hurl and swirl around doing a variety of dances. We learn them at school but it's great fun learning on a Friday night with like-minded people after a lager. Ghillie Dhu (Gilly doo) is a new addition to the Edinburgh scene and they do it well. It's right in the west end of Princes Street. The Eightsome Reel, the Dashing White Sergeant, Strip the Willow and The Gay Gordon's are all names of dances and they are more effective at burning calories than any aerobics class I have ever been to. You can go for dinner and the whole evening at 7.30pm for £25 or just for a late ceilidh - it's only a fiver if you arrive after midnight. It's open til 3am. Good luck! (www.ghillie-dhu.co.uk).

I have attached a YouTube video below, which is a clip of a real ceilidh. It gives you a sense of what to expect  - the music and the chance to see locals. And this is the real McCoy not the homogenised version that can be seen in hundreds of other videos. It's clearly not filmed by Steven Spielberg, but you can sense the atmosphere, which is what it is all really about. Enjoy!

You can also read advice on Nightlife in Edinburgh: clubs, cocktail bars and live music. or visit Edinburgh nightlife.

Where to stay

You can see my full list of recommendations here – Edinburgh Hotels – Award winning expert hotel reviews, from cheap to luxury hotels in Edinburgh.

Alison Craig

I am a writer and broadcaster from Scotland. I have been lucky enough to live and work in Edinburgh for most of my adult life and I love it. Aesthetically I believe it to be the most beautiful city in Europe. Culturally rich, it is buzzing with great restaurants, bars and lively venues. Music, art, history and architecture are everywhere and, frankly, shopping is a joy. The choice is dazzling from the local cheesemonger, antique jewellery shop and hidden boutiques to the high-end world-renowned designer shops. It’s all here and what’s more I’ve made it my business and passion to know where you can find the Edinburgh that interests and excites you. You can enjoy Edinburgh on a shoestring or a Platinum card once you have the information...it’s entirely up to you. http://alisonsdiary.com is my daily blog, all about Edinburgh Scotland and life!

My Edinburgh

Where I always grab a hot drink: There are endless choices but for a top skinny latte with homemade cakes my favourite is Cent Otre on George Street. Situated in a converted bank building, it has a sense of grandeur as well as some remarkably tasty cupcakes and a zingy atmosphere thanks to the warm Italian hospitality that abounds.

My favourite stroll: If the weather allows, I love to walk along the Water of Leith, starting at Stockbridge and heading towards the Modern Art Gallery - you could be in the middle of the countryside. Keep an eye out for the Antony Gormley sculptures en route and the resident heron.

If it’s too darn cold and wet, The National Gallery on the mound in the centre of Princes Street has a permanent stunning collection of art with a top class coffee shop and gallery shop to browse too. When the weather clears, you are in the heart of everything.

Where to be seen: In Harvey Nichols' cocktail bar all year round. On warm days, on Oloroso roof terrace and dancing in Lulu.

The most breathtaking view: From Edinburgh Castle ramparts, the top of Calton Hill or Arthur's Seat. Both Calton Hill and Arthur's Seat take a bit of puff to get to and if time is tight then head for the Castle from where the city of Edinburgh is laid out at your feet.

The best spot for some peace and quiet: The Royal Botanic Gardens are stunning and are a lovely place to sit and watch the world go by. There are several vantage points from where you can look out over the city if gazing at your navel becomes tedious.

Shopaholics beware: So many shops, so little time! If you are restricted to one day, go along Thistle Street from end to end, back along George Street, along Rose Street and finish on Princes Street. Phew! End to end shops, all in a square mile - great.

Don’t leave without...walking top to bottom or bottom to top of The Royal Mile with Edinburgh Castle at one end and Holyrood Palace at the other. Right along this street you will find myriad treasures architecturally and culturally as well as some eccentric quirky little shops for this and that.