Edinburgh’s Old Town captures the lion’s share of visitors’ attention, and for good reason: it’s a living slice of medieval Europe so evocative even our fantasies struggle to match it (read: Harry Potter). One of the beautiful aspects of Edinburgh is that while the Old Town makes an immediate impact other neighborhoods ooze with interest and grow to rival the heart of Auld Reekie. If you give them the chance, that is. Edinburgh’s Southside is the perfect example.
A pub crawl is the best way to get the lay of the land. The crawl gives you a chance to walk the neighborhood, check out the local drinking holes, and pick up on the ambient vibe. Edinburgh’s Southside feels drastically overlooked – if it’s not the Old Town people are clambering over, then it’s the New Town – and it has a very laid-back studenty feel. It’s not all utopian learning and happy hippies, however. You’ll notice some of the grunge for which many people avoid South Bridge and the region around Lothian Road (there’s a section known as the “Pubic Triangle” – use your imagination), which is another reason I’ve put together this can’t-miss pub crawl replete with a handy Google map.
A caveat: I use the term “southside” to refer to the areas of Edinburgh around The Meadows, Edinburgh University, South Bridge/Clerk St., and Newington. I just didn’t want you to think we were heading down to Blackford or Morningside on this crawl. Bottoms up!
Start: The Meadows
The Meadows is a giant park separating southern Old Town from Marchmont, and it’s always full of university students playing soccer, napping, or enjoying a picnic. Back in the 17th century this wide, grassy expanse was a loch from which the city obtained most of its drinking water. These days it’s one of my favorite green spaces in the city, and its got a free pitch and putt golf course known as the Bruntsfield Links. It’s also central to the pub crawl, so let’s get started.
Follow Melville Drive to the northwest corner of The Meadows, and just a block or two outside the park stands Cloisters Bar. Cloisters, as the name indicates, is situated in an old church in the area of Edinburgh known as Tolcross, and it’s under the same outstanding ownership as the Bow Bar and the Stockbridge Tap. The bright interior is accentuated by rich wooden beams and polished tables beneath a high ceiling. You’ll find a friendly university crowd enjoying Cloisters’ wide array of real ales (I counted nine on my visit). Try Stewart Brewery’s Holy Grale if you see it – they brew it only for Cloisters. The traditional pub atmosphere means no music but lots of conversation, but don’t be surprised if all the talk is interspersed with the clatter of forks and knives. Cloisters makes mean pub lunches and some unexpectedly good vegetarian dishes. Bathrooms are at the bottom of a spiral wrought-iron stairwell; best to visit it before you get too loopy. Beer and church really go well together, but it’s time to genuflect and hit the road to our next pub.
Head back to the park and skirt its northern edge as you walk east. Shoot north up the main artery here, Middle Meadow Walk, passing some great flats, and cross Lauriston Place en route to blue and red Sandy Bell’s. This is the perfect pub to catch some traditional Scottish folk music with a pint or dram in hand. The pleasantly dim atmosphere is packed every night while musicians play in the back. Check out their guest ales and malts of the moment – they pour large 35 ml drams while other pubs pour only 25 and 30 ml. I give Sandy Bell’s high marks for its convivial atmosphere and excellent location. If you like what you hear, why not buy the musicians a round before you leave? Because yep, it is time to leave and head off to our next stop.
The Royal Oak
Follow Forrest Road north to Chambers Street and go right. You’ll pass the National Museum of Scotland and several impressive Georgian buildings, and when you reach South Bridge take a right and then a quick left onto Infirmary Street. “The Royal Oak” must be one of the most common pub names in Scotland, but this particular one is uncommonly excellent. Another folk music sanctuary, the interior is brightly lit with warm yellow light and patronized by scads of local alehounds who pack the wooden benches and gather round the fireplace on damp days. It’s an unpretentious place to sip a dram and meet some new friends. Be sure to go down the tight flights of stairs and check out the lounge underneath the main public bar. Never mind the stories that the establishment goes even deeper underground to tunnels once used by body snatchers…
Let that spooky thought propel you down South Bridge/Nicholson Street to West Nicholson, past loads of quirky thrift shops, where you’ll turn right. Walk a block and turn left on Chapel Street, which turns into Buccleuch Street. Three blocks later you’ll spot the Dagda Bar just off the eastern end of The Meadows. The bar is named after the high king of the Tuatha Dé Danann in Irish mythology, who is known for his unkempt appearance and bottomless cauldron. These are important details for what might become of you if you visit this excellent spot too frequently. A sturdy square bar, tin ceiling, and barrel-tables kit out this cozy pub, and the Dagda draws a solid crowd of friendly locals and students. I must have spent an hour chatting with a guy from England who gave me enough recommendations to triple this pub crawl. Bid señor Dagda adieu and finish up – you’ve got one more stop and it’s only a few blocks away.
The Cask & Barrel (Southside)
Go south on Buccleuch Street, cross Melville Drive, and turn left on West Preston Street. Just before Newington Road sits our final stop: The Cask & Barrel (Southside). This is the younger brother of The Cask & Barrel in New Town, and it’s already a staple of the Southside pub scene. Despite being new, it doesn’t give off the faux feeling you might expect. Instead it’s a beautiful, bright pub with high ceilings, loads of seating, and little architectural flourishes. You can expect a raucous time here at night, but it also makes a great stop during the day if a hike up Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags is in the cards. Take your time here. It is, after all, the last stop on the crawl.
Finish: View of Arthur’s Seat
Step out into the fresh air and look east down East Preston Street to Holyrood Park. You’ll spot the massive girth of Arthur’s Seat rising above the city.
You’ve crossed The Meadows and ambled through Edinburgh University. You’ve scrolled past thrift shops and gift shops, listened to Scottish trad and struck up conversations with Scottish lads (and lassies). A pint or three, a dram or two, and now this view. Ah, Edinburgh.