Established in 1875, Bennet’s Bar in South Edinburgh has managed to hang on to many of its beautiful Victorian fittings. (Lonely Planet/Getty)
The city known as the Athens of the North and, more colloquially, Auld Reekie has more howffs – or drinking dens – per inhabitant than almost anywhere else in the UK, making it a fantastic destination for a wee dram.
Literary hauntsA plaque outside a cosy pub in the city centre proclaims: ‘In the White Hart Inn Robert Burns stayed during his last visit to Edinburgh, 1791.’ Claiming to be the city’s oldest pub in continuous use – it’s been in business since 1516 – the White Hart Inn is also hosted William Wordsworth. There are live music sessions here every evening (0131 226 2806; 34 Grassmarket; pints of Bellhaven IPA £3.30).
The Oxford is a rare thing these days: a real pub for real people, with no theme, no music, no frills and no pretensions. ‘The Ox’ has been immortalised by Ian Rankin, author of the Inspector Rebus novels, who, along with his fictional detective, is a regular drinker here. Sean Connery has also been a patron. The bar stocks a regularly changing selection of cask ales from small Scottish brewers rather than the usual big brands (8 Young St; pints of ale from £3.40).
Edinburgh resident Alexander McCall Smith made New Town’sCumberland Bar a protagonist in his serialised novel 44 Scotland Street. It has a traditional wood, brass and mirrors style of décor, despite being relatively new (it opened in the 1970s). You’ll find cask-conditioned ales and a wide range of malt whiskies on offer here, and there’s a charming little beer garden at the back (1–3 Cumberland St; pint of Deuchars IPA £3.40).
Best for whiskyBusy Bow Bar, a traditional-style pub in the Old Town, is unspoilt by the ‘plastic Edinburgh’ trappings of some of the Royal Mile’s more touristy drinking dens. You’ll find 200 single malts here, including independent labels such as Cadenhead’s and Duncan Taylor. Grab a spot in a snug window seat if you can – it’s often standing room only (0131 226 7667; 80 West Bow, whiskies from £3).
Situated on the curved street that links Edinburgh’s New Town to the Old, The Malt Shovel is a handsome Victorian boozer, all dark wood and subdued tartanry. It offers a fine range of real ales and more than 30 malt whiskies from the Highlands, islands and Lowlands of Scotland. It’s also rightly renowned for its regular music sessions – there is jazz on most Tuesday evenings (0131 225 6843; 11–15 Cockburn St; whiskies from £3.20).
Bennet’s, in the south of the city, has managed to hang on to most of its beautiful Victorian fittings, from the leaded, stained-glass windows and ornate mirrors to the wooden gantry and brass taps on the bar. Whisky lovers rejoice: there are 100 malts to choose from, including a Glenburgie single malt and a pretty special 30-year-old Highland Park that will set you back £30 for a single measure (0131 229 5143; 8 Leven St; whiskies from £2.70).
Best for foodHoused in a former winemerchant’s office, Kay’s Bar is kitted out with red leather benches, a gleaming mahogany bar and a cast-iron fireplace. Lunch is served in its tiny back room and features classics such as mince and tatties, and Scotch pie with beans and chips. Only three of the seven tables are bookable (39 Jamaica St; lunch mains from £4).
A traditional Victorian pub that’s been given a new lease of life by its Swedish owners, Joseph Pearce’s has become a hub of the local community, with its relaxed atmosphere and Scandinavian events, such as crayfish parties. The menu includes hasselback potatoes with parmesan and truffle oil mayonnaise, and sea bass on puy lentils with lemon and tarragon (23 Elm Row; mains from £7.90).
The elegant and convivial Royal Mile Tavern works its charms well, with polished wood, brass and mirrors. It serves real ale, good wines and great grub: Highland chicken and the Royal Mile burger – a quarterpounder with cheese and bacon – feature prominently on the menu. From 9.30pm, musicians take to the tables for acoustic music sessions that can last ’til the wee hours (127 High St; mains from £8).
Where to stayArdmor House is a stylishly renovated Victorian property with five bedrooms and those little touches that make a place special: an open fire, thick towels, crisp white bed linen and newspapers at breakfast (74 Pilrig St; from £85).
In Hotel Missoni, the Italian fashion house has established a style icon in the heart of the Old Town. The hotel has Modernist architecture, black-and-white décor with well-judged splashes of colour, impeccably mannered staff and very comfortable rooms (1 George IV Bridge; Missoni Room from £125).
The splendid Witchery by the Castle is set in a 16th-century townhouse in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. Its eight lavish suites are furnished with antiques, tapestries, open fires and roll-top baths, and are supplied with flowers, chocolates and champagne (Castlehill; suites from £325).
TransportEdinburgh is 4½ hours from London King’s Cross on the East Coast train line’s fastest service, which calls at York, Darlington and Newcastle (King’s Cross from £70). Trains from Manchester take 3¼ hours (from £39). Edinburgh airport is served by BA, easyJet and Flybe, from Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Birmingham and Manchester, among others (Stansted from £75). The city has a good bus service (from £1.40).