I hope that by now you’re familiar with my series of Savage Pub Crawls. So far I’ve taken you around Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and the Bohemian southside. Now it’s time to tackle one of Edinburgh’s most pub-rich areas: the New Town. There are so many drinking dens in the orderly Georgian New Town that I could devise a different pub crawl every day for a month, but there’s a handful of pubs here that are true highlights of any visit to Edinburgh.
The New Town is a fantastic neighborhood for a pub crawl. When the people of Edinburgh drained the Nor Loch and built the New Town they focused on geometrical precision and symmetry. Three primary streets run parallel to each other for the entire length of New Town, and cross streets run perpendicular to these at regular intervals. The result is a neighborhood where it’s easy to keep your bearings even after a pint or four. As usual, I’ve prepared a simple Google Map of the New Town pub crawl for your convenience. This one’s short and sweet and sure to quench your thirst.
Start: North Bridge and Princes Street
Begin the pub crawl where North Bridge meets Princes Street. This is a busy corner where buses and walkers from Old Town cross the chasm over Waverley Station and finally reach the edge of New Town. Directly in front of you stands the West Register House, one of Edinburgh’s primary records repositories. To the right looms Calton Hill while to the left Princes Streets runs off into the distance.
The Guildford Arms
Go left on Princes Street and take an immediate right on West Register Street. Follow the cobblestones up to where the street veers to the left and you’ll see the gorgeous first stop on the pub crawl: The Guildford Arms. The Guildford is one of the crown jewels of Edinburgh’s “Golden Age” of pubs built in the late nineteenth century. The exterior is smooth red stone with arched windows while the interior is sheer opulence with rich woods and golden scrollwork everywhere. This is a traditional pub serving up an excellent array of cask ales and whiskies, and upstairs you can grab a bite to eat (if you can get a table, that is). The Guildford manages to be both spacious and cozy, but above all transporting: The nineteenth century never seemed so accessible. Pay the man and move out. Our next stop is just around the corner.
The Café Royal Bar
The Café Royal is true pub royalty, but for some reason it can be very difficult to find. Allow me to help. Exit The Guildford Arms and go left following the pedestrian walk along the side of the bar. In approximately one minute you’ll be standing outside The Café Royal. Much like The Guildford Arms, The Café Royal is another “Golden Age” traditional pub with jaw-dropping decor and architectural embellishments. The ritzy interior is almost always packed because, really, it’s just a gorgeous place to sip a dram or enjoy a pint of local ale. It grew famous as an oyster bar and there’s still a thriving restaurant upstairs. While this is one of the most beautiful pubs in all of Scotland, don’t get too comfortable. There’s more to see.
Follow West Register Street after leaving The Café Royal until you reach St. Andrews Street. Go right and then immediately left so you’re following the southern edge of St. Andrews Square. At St. David Street, go left and then immediately right on to Rose Street. After 100 feet you’ll see The Abbotsford. This bar completes the trio of “Golden Age” traditional pubs to start the pub crawl, though each of them has its own unique twist. For The Abbotsford, it’s the incredible island bar in the center of the space. The bar takes its name from Sir Walter Scott’s mansion in Roxburghshire, and it’s one of the few places left in the city that still serves ale from the classic Aitken founts. Aficionados claim that ales taste better from these founts because they aren’t artificially aerated. Discernible or not, it’s one of my favorite places for a drink. By this point we’ve walked little more than three blocks, so it’s time to stretch the legs a bit and walk off some of the brew.
The Queen’s Arms
Say goodbye to The Abbotsford and head west down Rose Street. You’ll pass a number of other pubs and restaurants before you reach Frederick Street, where you’ll turn right. Follow this, crossing George Street and heading downhill toward Thistle Street. On your right, at the corner of Frederick Street and Thistle Street, is the subterranean The Queen’s Arms. It’s a dark, cozy place that feels like someone put a bar inside a library, and it’s actually much larger than I expected. Several different areas girded by bookcases and booths comprise the space, while bottles, pots, and other bits of culinary paraphernalia hang from the ceiling. It’s a quirky easy-to-like place that doesn’t disappoint with its drinks menu. This might be the best place to while away a rainy Scottish day. Climb from the depths – we’ve got one more stop. And it’s famous.
The Oxford Bar
Go west down Thistle Street, crossing Castle Street, until you reach The Oxford Bar. Unlike the “Golden Age” pubs, “The Ox,” as it’s affectionately known, is quite unobtrusive. A small, green sign hangs over the front of the whitewashed lower level. If you’ve read Ian Rankin’s crime novels, you should be well acquainted with The Ox – it’s the favorite drinking hole of Detective Inspector John Rebus. The interior is a simple affair with unassuming black furniture and the feeling of someone’s house. This gives the place a homey atmosphere and they do serve some of the best beer in the city. Who knows, you might just bump into Rebus’s creator while you’re here.
Finish: View of Edinburgh Castle
Exit The Ox and go west down Thistle Street to Charlotte Street. Turn left and gaze upon Edinburgh Castle hanging in the air above you. After a mix of five pints and drams it might seem even more magical than it normally does (and that’s saying something). Soak it in; it’s a rare view. Off to your right hides the neighborhood of Stockbridge, yet another area aching to be crawled…