The humble pub holds a significant place at the heart of Scottish culture: as well as simply being somewhere to consume alcohol, they're also convivial, communal places where people meet up, hang out and exchange ideas (the plethora of pubs in Edinburgh's Old Town is regarded as one of the reasons the eighteenth century Scottish Enlightenment took off here). In Edinburgh there are loads of pubs, a fair few bars, and even pubs solely dedicated to craft beer, but we'd argue that only the following places have succeeded in creating the perfect pub atmosphere.
Edinburgh's best pubs
The Bow nestles in the Old Town and is among Edinburgh’s finest whisky destinations – claiming more than 300 on its list from familiar names to real rarities – although it does a fine line in cask ales and craft keg too. It dates to the 1980s and has the look of a traditional Scottish pub: one room simply furnished with wooden fixtures and fittings, old bar memorabilia on the walls.
One room, dried hops hanging from the ceiling beams, eight ales on tap from all over the British Isles, one working fireplace, no frills and the Water of Leith flowing by outside. And crisps. If you’re looking for hipsterism, schooners, pulled pork on brioche or tasting paddles you are very much in the wrong place. The Malt & Hops sits in the historic centre of Leith, still a working port, where quality has been a watchword in terms of food and drink since the area’s 1980s renaissance.
For more than 20 years Cloisters has been a haven of quality beer and decent pub grub, perched in the short stretch between Tollcross and the rolling green space of the Meadows. The beer choice is legendary – nine cask taps and 10 keg – with eight of those rotating constantly. You could find anything here from a local IPA to a trenchant Orkney Porter – and others from much further afield. Whenever you go, there will be something new to try.
Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson was a 19th century Glaswegian architect now celebrated for sustainable building methods and his Graeco-Egyptian aesthetic. The interior at Thomson’s in Morrison Street is a modern homage to the man and his style. With warm oak panelling, a beautifully detailed oak gantry, black and white checked floor, old-school pub chairs and bar memorabilia it certainly looks the part – very Victorian – although the venue itself opened in 2000.
From the hanging baskets and beer garden outside to the warren of rooms inside with their simple, traditional décor, you can tell this is a highly civilised pub. But given that the neighbourhood is one of Edinburgh’s swankiest and forms part of a World Heritage Site it’s no more than you would expect. The beer is good, the wine list is decent and the food menu offers everything from sandwiches and burgers to pan-fried hake fillet and caesar salad, with roast beef on Sundays.
A traditional pub at the foot of Broughton Street, the choice of cask ale here is impressive with examples from all over the British Isles: from Highland Brewing on Orkney to Dark Star in West Sussex. This is the kind of place where if you ask bar staff to remove the sparkler from the tap before they pour your pint, they know what you're talking about. Basic bar meals available; popular for football and rugby.
An ornate drinking palace dating to 1863, the Café Royal Circle Bar is among the city’s most beautiful places to stop for a beer. Despite its longevity the venue has been very well maintained so its stained glass, decorated ceiling and cornicing all look good as new. There are usually a few cask ales available, a reasonable whisky selection and one of the most elevated bar menus in Edinburgh.
Once a shop – which explains the distinctly unpubby dimensions of the interior – this place has been a bar since at least the 1920s, there has been folk music here since the 1940s and in the 1960s it played a key role in the Scottish folk music revival. There are still sessions every night, and some afternoons, where musicians play together not so much as a public performance but for the sheer hell of it.
This village pub by Duddingston Loch used to be ‘a firm favourite among past monarchs and poets’ according to its website. Now it’s a firm favourite among climbers of Arthur’s Seat in need of refreshment, students keen on Scotland’s oldest skittle alley and Sunday roast-hunters.
Taking over the premises of popular but slightly dusty boozer Jenny Ha’s, which hailed from the 1960s, The Kilderkin changed hands in 2011 and now draws a new crowd of rum lovers, pizza fans and pub quiz regulars, who sit alongside the remaining hardcore punters propping up the bar from the old days.
Bennett's more eye-catching Victorian features – curved dark wood shelves and large mirrored panels – have been tastefully merged with modern touches like rounded red leather banquettes and Ordnance Survey maps of Edinburgh and Scotland under glass-topped round tables. It’s earned a good reputation for its selection of craft beers and real ales, and also stocks a large range of single malt whiskies.
Hector’s has been helping well-heeled shoppers put their feet up, and dishing out hair-of-the-dog to locals for almost 25 years now. Although it’s open every day, for many people, it’s filed in the part of their brain under ‘places to flop about on a Sunday’ – they mix a good bloody mary, they have a tall stack of board games, and they do a good roast too.
A big presence on the New Town pub scene, the Cumberland is rightly loved by its local regulars for its old-school charm. Still fending off competition from the neighbouring Stockbridge area and the bars currently opening in and around Queen Street, the Cumberland remains dedicated to offering good real ales on tap, a decent wine list and a sizeable whisky menu.