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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.