Edinburgh has over 700 pubs that caters for all tastes and budgets, although trying to find 5 that I am happy to recommend and put my name to has been more difficult than it should be simply because of the low standards of the bar staff that these pubs employ.
One pet hate of mine is bar staff idly eating salty snacks in between serving customers without washing their hands and picking up clean glasses, or even eating peanuts while drying glasses and using the same tea-towel to wipe their hands on. I have seen this in pubs with so much history and heritage that would be worth a mention if it wasn’t for these filthy practices that are prevalent across many pubs here in Edinburgh.
So, having saying that, these are my 5 pubs that I am happy to recommend to anyone visiting Edinburgh.
The Jolly Judge
Where: 7 James Court, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh EH1 2PB
When: 12:00 – 00:00 every day
‘The Judge’ is on the Royal Mile a few hundred yards from Edinburgh Castle. This pub has it all. Low oak beams, a crackling log fire, a good selection of gins and whiskies, real ales on tap and draught Scottish beers and ciders. It’s cosy and welcoming with good pub food. What more could you ask for?
The staff here are friendly and know everything you need to know about whiskies and local events. After all, whisky is Gaelic for ‘water of life’ and is Scotland’s national drink.
Tip: You are likely to find a bagpiper in full regalia from Princes Street having a drink here after 9pm. Try the whiskies and quiz each Monday night at 8.30pm. The décor is traditional and cosy and the beers are well-kept. I know because I have tried them all.
The Sheep Heid Inn
Where: 43-45 The Causeway, Edinburgh EH15 3QA
When: 11:00 – 23:00 (midnight Friday and Saturday)
The Sheep Heid Inn is Scotland’s oldest pub dating back to 1360. It has a skittles alley where you can have a game while you’re having a drink. The Queen dined here in July 2016, although she didn’t have a game of skittles afterwards!
You can expect real ales, good food and an outdoor space to enjoy it all weather permitting.
If it’s good enough for the Queen, who am I to argue?
Tip: Pop in after a stroll around Holyrood Park and Arthur’s Seat on a fine day to take some spectacular panoramic photos of Edinburgh that will be the envy of your Instagram followers.
It is thought that the pub got its name from sheep being reared nearby in Holyrood Park. They were slaughtered before being taken to the Fleshmarket on the Royal Mile. There was no demand for the sheep’s heads (heids), so they were used to make broth and other dishes by nearby residents.
Another version is that King James VI of Scotland gifted the landlord an ornate ram’s head snuff box. This was given as a mark of gratitude for the landlord’s hospitality. It is believed that he and his Mother, Mary Queen of Scots stopped by many times to play skittles in the Courtyard.
Advance booking is recommended if you wish to play a game of skittles (it’s not free).
Where: 521-523 Lawnmarket, Edinburgh EH1 2PE
When: 11:00 – 23:00 Sunday – Thursday (1am Friday and Saturday)
The Ensign Ewart is the nearest pub to Edinburgh Castle.
This cosy pub dates back to 1690 and offers everything a tourist would look for and enjoy. This is the closest pub to Edinburgh Castle and the highest pub in Edinburgh. You will find live folk music here most nights, good locally sourced pub food, real ales and a wide selection of gins and whiskies.
Tip: The Ensign Ewart is named after Charles Ewart, who, single-handedly captured the standard of the famous French Invincibles at the Battle of Waterloo. You are likely to find a bagpiper here enjoying a drink after playing nearby at the Castle each night. Try the venison casserole – it is legendary.
The Guildford Arms
Where: 1 West Register Street, Edinburgh EH2 2AA
When: 11:00 – 00:00 every day
The Guildford Arms is opposite The Balmoral Hotel tucked behind Princes Street and close to Waverley Train Station. This Victorian bar is something of an institution and is popular with locals and tourists alike.
This pub harks back to an era that time forgot. Think ornate decorated windows, large crystal chandeliers, floor to ceiling wooden décor, table service, a selection of newspapers and smartly dressed staff.
Real ales are a speciality with a wide variety of whiskies and traditional pub grub.
Tip: This pub has been owned by the same family since 1896. Princes Street nearby has virtually no buildings on the south side, so you can enjoy panoramic views across Princes Street Gardens and the Castle skyline. This is protected by a Parliamentary Order. Try the haggis, neeps and tatties with a whisky sauce – it is divine.
Where: 25 Forrest Road, Edinburgh EH1 2QH
When: 12:00 – 01:00 Monday – Saturday (12.30pm – 00:00 Sunday)
Sandy Bell’s is something of an institution with a rich musical history. It is a hub for live folk music and is popular with musicians, students, creative types, tourists and locals from all walks of life. Scottish and Celtic folk music is a speciality in this casual and traditional pub.
You can expect a galley-style bar, a small stove fire, real ales, a wide selection of whiskies and hot pies with unusual combinations such as lamb curry and mango and steak and Stornoway black pudding.
Folk music sessions are held every night and some afternoons with accordions, fiddles, flutes, guitars, ukuleles and mandolins being played with abandon.
Tip: This pub is just a stone’s throw from Edinburgh’s smallest Monument, namely Greyfriars Bobby. This pub was once a shop and has been a pub since at least the 1920s. Folk music has been played here since the 1940s. A wedding was held here on the day of the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014.
These are my 5 favourite pubs. You can read about my 5 favourite dives here