You might be in Edinburgh for only a day and looking for a little guidance for where to lift a pint or two. Maybe you’re someone with a raging thirst that can’t be felled by the offerings of a single pub. You might be a history buff intent on learning about Scotland’s liquid past. Hell, you might just be looking for good places to duck into and get out of the freezing wind and rain. Sometimes you need a pub to provide a good thaw.
I’ve played each of these roles on my various visits to Edinburgh. I get it. But for every pub in which I’ve lamented my departure like it was my expulsion from Eden, there are two other pubs trying a bit too hard. The tartans look a tad forced, the woods a little plastic. They smell like McDonald’s, blast Rhianna, and kill the atmosphere with a score of mounted TVs. Did I mention puggies yet? There must be hundreds of pubs in Edinburgh, and scads look onto the Royal Mile and hide in its closes and crannies.
This little guide will help you skip the duds and toast the studs, all visited by yours truly. I’ve even made you this simple handy Google map because you really can’t trust Google’s Royal Mile landmarks.
A caveat: This isn’t your standard backpackers’ pub crawl; if you’re looking for that just go down to the Grassmarket and you’ll be all set. Rather, this jaunt gives you a taste of rich, characterful pubs with excellent real ale and whisky selections around the Castle Hill and Lawnmarket sections of the Royal Mile. Thirsty yet?
Start: Victoria St./West Bow
My favorite street in Edinburgh (so far). This beauty curves down from George IV Bridge to the Grassmarket and provides a convenient stair that connects to the Royal Mile. Just about every shop on this street is worth popping into, from Oink to The Whisky Shop to the Old Edinburgh Bookshop. Later. Right now, you’re looking for the Bow Bar.
The Bow’s bright blue frontage holds large windows that light up the small interior. The scuffed chestnut floorboards and gleaming gold founts drew me to the bar where an army of whisky bottles marched on the shelves behind. A comforting smell of beer-soaked wood floats above the quiet conversation and clinking of glassware. You won’t hear music in this traditional pub. Old clocks, beer mirrors, and matted posters reflect light and extend the space. An ornate red tin ceiling watches over patrons quaffing their drinks. You can’t go wrong with their “Malt of the Moment” selections. That’s how I met my love, Laphroaig. Give the real ales a shot. The Timothy Taylor Landlord has a buttery bitter flavor and nice hoppy tang at the end. I like to sit by the little heating stove or watch people drift down the street. Finish your drink because it’s time to move.
Exit the Bow, cross the street, and dart up the Upper Bow steps. Continue up to the Royal Mile, turn right and cross the street, and duck into James Court where you see the sign for the red-nosed “jolly” judge. Follow the close to a small set of descending steps and enter the Jolly Judge. This low-ceilinged joint has a real coal fire and a lot of locals. The tartan carpet has seen more than its share of visitors. The ceiling’s wood beams and exposed stone walls add to the cozy subterranean feel. The real ale and whisky selections are decent but nothing to write home about – you’re here for the ambiance. It’s the perfect place to catch a breather and enjoy a chat with friends. Sit by the coal fire and check out the flow of patrons. We’re only half done.
Return to the Royal Mile and go left. Merge with the flow of pedestrians and admire St. Giles Cathedral as you pass. Just before you reach Cockburn Street, turn left and slide down Fleshmarket Close. Follow it across Cockburn Street and halfway down to Market Street you’ll find the Halfway House. It took me ages to find this place. It’s one of Edinburgh’s smallest – and finest – pubs as it’s routinely recognized by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). What it lacks for in space it provides double in camaraderie. The pub is warm, bright, and tight with some tunes and TV playing once in awhile. Rich greens, browns, and salmon colors dominate the furniture and floor. Slither up to the bar and you could do worse than a pint of Hebridean Gold. If you’re feeling peckish, the Cullen Skink (a traditional fish chowder) is excellent. Last stop, here you come.
Follow Fleshmarket Close down to Market Street and head left. You’re hundreds of feet below the Royal Mile now but still beneath open skies. The Doric Bar is just on your left, on the northern front of Old Town. Inside you’ll find a spotless pub with a passion for real ales. The rare Aitken founts yield ales with no unwanted gas and no waste. Whiskies decorate the back gantry like weapons on the wall of some castle’s entry hall. The Doric is historic – over a hundred years old and Edinburgh’s first gastropub. If you managed to hold off eating until now, go upstairs and take the edge off this perfect crawl. Say hello to the Doric’s owner while you’re there. His passion for real ale and whisky translates into a good time for you.
Finish: Playfair Steps
You might be a little woozy at this point, but if you manage to find the door, cross the street, and walk a block to the left you’ll be at the top of Playfair Steps. This handy and steep (careful!) stairway cuts across Princes Street gardens directly to New Town and its wealth of gorgeous, ornate pubs. Admire the view and turn back.
We’ll live to fight that fight another day…