A Savage Pub Crawl Around the Royal Mile

by Keith Savage · 26 comments

West Bow aka Victoria St. - the start of the pub crawl

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.

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.

Jolly Judge

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.

Halfway House

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.

The Doric

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…

JordanNo Gravatar October 22, 2015 at 12:09 PM

Just back from Edinburgh in the beginning of October and went to every single one of these places based on your recommendation. We did scatter them throughout 3 nights, however. Thanks for the hearty advice and for helping shape our drunken adventures.
The Doric was great for our first taste of Haggis, while Bow Bar and the Halfway House were some of our favorite memories! The Scotch and real ales were on point. Cheers!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar October 22, 2015 at 1:11 PM

Hey Jordan, that’s awesome to hear! Glad you enjoyed the pubs as much as I did πŸ™‚

Jennifer JensenNo Gravatar January 9, 2014 at 7:18 PM

What great information – a map even! Thanks for sharing. We head over in June for our first visit and I cannot wait. I am reading through your posts with eagerness.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 9, 2014 at 8:39 PM

You’ll love it!

Suzanne SnyderNo Gravatar December 27, 2013 at 1:08 PM

Sounds like a great way to dance and drink through the royal mile.
Cannot wait till May

lara dunstonNo Gravatar March 20, 2011 at 4:37 AM

Great post! We’re going to have to follow this guide of yours next time we return to Edinburgh. Being winter, we did more eating that drinking when we were there in January. We’re heading back in the warmer months, so we’ve got a good excuse to down some lagers.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 20, 2011 at 5:13 AM

Good idea – Edinburgh in May/June/July is even more gorgeous. One thing: skip the lagers and go for the real ales!

lara dunstonNo Gravatar March 20, 2011 at 5:35 AM

Absolutely. Sampled plenty of real ales when we were there in January. They had some stunning drops. I’m just using ‘lagers’ as a generic term – replace with beers/ales, as you like πŸ™‚

Lindsay aka @_thetraveller_No Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 10:12 AM

This post is awesome! I’m so impressed because I usually would not remember enough by the end of the night to write such descriptions about the places I had been. Kudos to you Traveling Savage πŸ™‚

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 5:47 PM

Well, I can’t take too much credit. I scoped out most of these places during the day when I had my wits about me πŸ™‚

Maiah @ Cotswold CottagesNo Gravatar March 11, 2011 at 10:27 AM

I’m always so fascinated with Edinburgh! Went their last year exploring Loch Ness and Inverness. I can’t wait to visit the place again.

Very useful post Keith, I love it πŸ™‚

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 20, 2011 at 5:12 AM

Glad you liked it, Maiah. Expect more to come.

Sofia - As We TravelNo Gravatar March 10, 2011 at 7:12 PM

Nice guide. I’m not much for the backpacker pub crawl thing, so the places you write about seem really nice!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 11, 2011 at 3:57 AM

You and Nathan would like this jaunt. Have you been to Scotland?

joshywashingtonNo Gravatar March 10, 2011 at 1:31 PM

Pub crawlers anonymous: Hi, my name is Josh. I love double bocks and IPA’s. My favorite local brew is Elysian Field’s Avatar Jasmin IPA. I am even known to sneak a 40oz of Old E when I am feeling especially ganster or on a camping trip!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 10, 2011 at 1:47 PM

Old E was about all I drank during my freshman year of college. Sounds like you enjoy your beer – ever had a real ale?

EricaNo Gravatar March 10, 2011 at 5:52 AM

Yes! Yes! YES! This is exactly the info I need for my beer obsession.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 10, 2011 at 12:53 PM

Edinburgh–Scotland really–is a dangerous place to bring a beer obsession to.

PoiNo Gravatar March 10, 2011 at 3:06 AM

How desperate I am to drink some proper ale is beyond belief – I miss pubs.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 10, 2011 at 12:51 PM

I miss them too, when I’m in the States. We have pubs, but most aren’t real pubs.

Candice WalshNo Gravatar March 9, 2011 at 10:10 PM

Must go back…

Also, when did you get so good at photography?

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 10, 2011 at 2:52 AM

Ever since I started using Adobe Lightroom. Well, that’s part of it. I’ve just been trying a bit harder, working the old photography muscles. When I traveled with my wife pre-Traveling Savage she would take all of the pics and I’d be fine with that. That mindset won’t fly anymore.

NichelleNo Gravatar March 9, 2011 at 9:31 PM

Stunning site.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 20, 2011 at 5:11 AM

Thanks Nichelle, hope to see you around again.

MattNo Gravatar March 9, 2011 at 5:19 PM

Love, love, LOVE that you made it to the Halfway House! I hope you tried more than one of their ales on offer?! Great write-up and fantastic idea adding the Google Map. Would love to get back to this city.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 10, 2011 at 2:51 AM

I’ve had a couple there. I love where the Halfway House is situated. Very cool spot. Thanks for recommending it to me!

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