A guide to the best pubs in Edinburgh

Helen Ochyra

written by
Helen Ochyra

updated 30.06.2020

From historic bars pouring the finest whiskies to gastropubs serving up gourmet burgers, when it comes to Edinburgh nightlife, there's has a drinking den to satisfy every craving. There are some world-class establishments in the city – but also plenty of duds. Follow our guide (and steer clear of the Grassmarket) for the best night out the Scottish capital has to offer.

Edinburgh Nightlife: the best pubs in the city

Best for beer: The Caley Sample Room, Haymarket

A more extensive drinks menu we challenge you to find! The Caley Sample Room, named after the Caledonian brewery just up the road, has dozens of craft beers by the bottle including the English Camden Pale, American Anchor Steam and Little Creatures from Australia, plus keg beers such as Guinness, Staropramen and Hoegaarden. And then there are the taps. There are nine in total: one cider, four for guest beers and four dedicated Scottish brewery taps – Caledonian’s Deuchars, William Brothers, Tempest and Black Isle. Ask the incredibly knowledgeable staff for advice if you don’t know where to start.

Best for pub games: The Sheep Heid Inn, Duddingston

Said by some to be the oldest pub in Scotland – and generally considered the oldest in Edinburgh – the Sheep Heid is a proper local’s pub in a village now subsumed into the city. Here you can drink real ales straight from the cask or revel in the wine list – more a book of well thought out recommendations and suggested wine flights, which coaxes you into trying something new with its tasting notes. But the real reason to make the journey out here is the skittles alley, again alleged to be Scotland’s oldest and built around 1870. You can hire the whole thing for just £2 per person per hour so why not settle in for a night of racking them up and knocking them down?

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Best for meeting the locals: Mathers, New Town

Old school, traditional and attracting a mixed local crowd, this is a no-nonsense boozer with not one whiff of pretension. The interior dates from the early 20th century and is quietly spectacular, with stained glass windows, green tiled walls, chandeliers and a proper wooden bar adorned with etched mirrors. Call in for a wee dram and you won’t be leaving for a while – there are more than 100 whiskies on offer here and once you try one you’ll want to explore the rest of the list, which runs the gamut from peaty Islay malts to easy drinking Juras. This is also a great place to watch the football, with numerous television screens dotted around the walls.

Best for food: The Holyrood 9A, Cowgate

This stylish modern pub serves up an all-day menu of what they call “two-handers” – gourmet burgers stuffed to the gills with everything from Swiss cheese and smoked bacon to pickled jalapeños. The meat is sourced locally and everything is customisable – you could swap your sourdough bun for brioche or switch your fries for sweet potato. There’s a fantastic range of drinks to wash it down with too, including house craft beers and a crowd-pleasing array of wines.

Best for atmosphere: The Café Royal Circle Bar, New Town

Unassuming from the outside, spectacular within, this fine Victorian pub is all about elegance, from the tip of its stained glass windows to the top of its ornate plasterwork. Step up to the central circular bar to order a glass of wine from the high quality list before settling in to one of the booths along the wall to guess the sports shown in the stained glass windows and check out the tiled Royal Doulton murals that depict great Scottish inventors.

Best for whisky: Whiski, Royal Mile

Yes, it’s on the Royal Mile and yes, it’s got an obvious name, but this is no tourist trap. Whiski specialises in – surprise – Scottish whisky, and has more than 270 of them on its books, including every brand name big and small and plenty of malts from distilleries we guarantee you’ve never heard of. Everything is available by the nip and including some whiskies from distilleries no longer in operation. You can even try a nip of the Black Bowmore – a toffee-tasting Islay distilled in 1964 – if you email in advance. This is the place to learn about Scottish whisky. Other drinks are available including draft beers, wine and cocktails – but why would you want them?

Best for cocktails: City Café, Old Town

Opened in the 1980s but harking back to the 1950s, this place was doing Americana – and doing it well – before most people even knew what it was. Open all day, it serves a good range of American food and drinks but the real draw is the cocktail list. Try a Southern-style mint julep, made with gin instead of bourbon, or knock back a bacon Mary – a bloody Mary mixed with homemade bacon vodka. The classics are also all available of course, and you can sit in an authentic American diner booth.

Edinburgh nightlife bonus: Electric Circus

If your exploration of the city's pubs ends with you deciding keep the night going, you can't go wrong at Electric Circus, a bar-cum-club-cum-karaoke joint. Hire a private karaoke room and belt out your favourite tunes for a couple of hours, join one of the regular club nights for a good old dance, or take in some live music if they have a band playing. The cocktails are good and the vibe is friendly.

When planning a trip to Edinburgh, don't forget to think about where to stay, and our guide to where to stay in Edinburgh has information on the most attractive options.

Explore more of Scotland and Edinburgh with the Rough Guide to Scotland and more.

Top image © Shutterstock

Helen Ochyra

written by
Helen Ochyra

updated 30.06.2020

Helen Ochyra is a Scotland-obsessed freelance travel writer and author of the critically acclaimed Scottish travel book "Scotland Beyond the Bagpipes", a Times Travel “book of the week” and one of Wanderlust’s “best travel books of 2020”. Helen specialises in British travel and is currently studying towards a Masters in British Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands. Helen's work has recently appeared in the Times, the Telegraph and Grazia among many others. She lives in London with her husband and two young daughters.

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