The Skinny guide to Edinburgh's Old Town
The Skinny's guide to the best of Edinburgh's Old Town, from the sights worth seeing to the best independent bars and restaurants
The Old Town is the dark heart of Edinburgh’s tourist industry, a medieval multi-level labyrinth which hosts the bulk of the city’s major attractions. It’s changed a lot since Muriel Spark described it as ‘a reeking network of slums’ – its winding alleyways are now mainly home to hi-octane tartan tat shops and Airbnbs, a fact demonstrated by the eerie silence that fell on its streets during lockdown.
The area is built around the Royal Mile, which is one Scots mile in length – approximately 200m longer than one of your English miles. At the top lies Edinburgh Castle, which you may have heard of. At the bottom sits the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Scottish Parliament and Holyrood Park – home of the city’s aspiring mountain, Arthur’s Seat.
The Old Town is also a focal point of the city’s late night scene, with the subterranean-feeling Cowgate providing a readymade pub crawl from Pleasance to stag party favourite the Grassmarket. Like any tourist hub, there are a lot of shit places to eat and drink. In amongst it, though, are some true hidden gems from dive bars to ice cream shops via casual fine dining and genuinely medieval hostelries.
There’s not a lot of green space in the Old Town – it is, after all, a medieval settlement. Seek out the Castle Esplanade for views across the city, to Fife, the Pentlands and beyond, and a meandering walk down to Princes St Gardens. Greyfriars Kirk graveyard is a spooky place to explore, and has some sort of Harry Potter connection. Fun fact – everywhere in Edinburgh now has some sort of fictitious Harry Potter connection.
When it comes to the food on offer in Edinburgh’s Old Town there is a lot to choose from. For when you’re on the go and trying to pack in as many of its attractions as possible, a loaded jacket potato from The Baked Potato Shop (56 Cockburn St), or a cheeky wee scotch pie from Piemaker (38 South Bridge) are a must. If it’s a sweet treat you’re after, MOO Pie Gelato (26 St Mary’s St) specialise in outrageous ice cream cookie sandwiches, and joining that queue you see in The Grassmarket outside Mary’s Milk Bar should be a top priority. Mary trained in gelato at the Carpigiani Gelato University in Bologna, Italy, so she knows a thing or two about making delicious ice cream, and she’s inventive with the flavours too – almond and miso caramel or peaches and olive oil, anyone?
Every Saturday The Grassmarket also plays host to the Grassmarket Market (10am-4pm), which as well as including an abundance of local crafts, design and makers stalls, offers a great foodie snapshot of the city with different food stalls on offer each week. Also on Saturdays, just a five minute walk away you’ll find the Edinburgh Farmers’ Market (9am-2pm) at the Castle Terrace Car Park, with local produce on offer as well as a hot food truck.
And if you’d rather not be eating on-the-go, or outdoors for that matter, then our favourite Old Town restaurants cover myriad styles and world cuisines. For a little taste of America, head to Bubba Q (209 High St) for some top notch barbecue, fill yourself up on chicken wings at Wings (5 Old Fishmarket Cl) or hit The City Cafe (19 Blair St) for an American-style diner complete with jukebox, burgers, pancakes, milkshakes and Coke floats aplenty.
Viva Mexico (41 Cockburn St) is where to head for tasty burritos, enchiladas, fish tacos and margaritas; Slurp at the Kirk (44 Candlemaker Row) have all your ramen needs under control; Hanam’s (3 Johnston Ter) is where to go for traditional Kurdish grill and Middle Eastern food; for an Indian ‘twist on tapas’, head to the inimitable Mother India (3 Infirmary St); the original Civerinos (5 Hunter Sq) have all your pizza needs covered, and for more classic fare, with a focus on local produce, The Outsider (15 George IV Br) is for you.
The Old Town is hilly, alley-tastic, and many of its bars and cafes are very small. Bow Bar (80 West Bow) is one of the best – great pints in a lovely cosy environment, with the classic Edinburgh pub dimensions (the size and shape of a large-ish classroom). Deacon Brodies (435 Lawnmarket) and The Waverley Bar (3 St Mary's St) are also great options if you’re after the textbook ‘pint in Edinburgh’ experience.
Want to modernise a little? Go for cocktails at The Devil’s Advocate (9 Advocate’s Cl) or Dragonfly (52 West Port). The former has a great outdoor patio; the latter is right in the shadow of the Castle. Diverse menus and a bit more space to breathe can be found at OX184 (184 Cowgate) and Under the Stairs (3A Merchant St), and fans of boundary-pushing beer should head to Salt Horse (57 Blackfriars St) for schooners from the UK’s best craft and small breweries.
For night owls, Sneaky Pete’s (73 Cowgate) is the place to be, whether in its current incarnation as a dive bar and pizza joint, or when its regular roster of gigs and club nights returns. Around the corner, The Banshee Labyrinth (29 Niddry St) is spooky, dingy, and loads of fun, and Bannermans (212 Cowgate) is a late-night haven with a gig room, decent drinks prices, and a mildly confusing two-sided bar.
Away from beer, Room and Rumours (25 East Market St) pair great coffee with delicious, Instagram-friendly doughnuts. Can’t get a spot in The Milkman (7 & 52 Cockburn St)? Just go to the other Milkman at the other end of the road; excellent espresso awaits. Need some fruit and veg? Hula (103 West Bow) have smoothies and juices to help you through the earliest mornings. Want a rest? Procaffeination (4 St Mary’s St) is an oasis of calm right in the middle of it all.
Some sections of the Old Town are an obstacle course of tartan and Princess Diana boutiques, but once you learn to navigate your way through, there’s a real treasure trove to be found. For Scottish memorabilia, head to Red Door Gallery (42 Victoria St): they have a selection of gorgeous prints by local artists, from unique takes on Edinburgh’s iconic cityscape to more abstract designs.
Looking for an even rarer find? Located on the other side of the Grassmarket is Armchair Books (72 West Port), a rickety antiquarian and second-hand bookshop, filled floor to ceiling with gems. There are plenty of old illustrated fairy tales (some incredibly reasonably priced), innumerable paperbacks crammed in corners, and an entire Scotland section including – if you’re very lucky – old Ordnance Survey maps of the city and surrounding landscape. For something a little edgier, dig into the Scottish and international music scene at indie record shop Underground Solu’shn (9 Cockburn St).
If you’re looking for more practical wares, there are plenty of indie boutiques dotted around. For a quirkier vibe, head to iconic Edinburgh vintage emporium Armstrong’s (81 Grassmarket) or sustainable boutique Godiva (9 West Port) for truly unique pieces. Visit Pieute (19 Candlemaker Row) and Pie in the Sky (47 Cockburn St) for graphic tees and printed dungarees, and if you’re feeling like something a little more refined, MYSA (31 Cockburn St) is your best bet, offering plants, home decor, and tchotchkes in a beautifully designed space.
Finally, if all of this seems to be playing it a little too safe, don’t be afraid to push the metaphorical boat out at Sauce, a hole-in-the-wall on ancient Candlemaker Row selling – of all things – all manner of marinades and spice blends. And practically opposite is Black Moon Botanica (50 Candlemaker Row), an eclectic, thoughtfully curated boutique perfect for picking up tarot cards, crystals and – appropriately – handmade candles.
Things to Do
With its Escheresque staircases, impossibly narrow alleyways and higgledy-piggledy street design, the Old Town is one giant, jaw-dropping visitor’s attraction in itself, but within it you’ll find lots to do. Most of the city's attractions currently require pre-booking for specific timeslots; you'll need to wear your mask and give your details for tracking and tracing as well.
You can have your mind warped in the halls of optical illusions at Camera Obscura (Castlehill) or by learning about the beginning of the cosmos at Dynamic Earth (Holyrood Rd). Explore Auld Reekie’s macabre history by taking one of its many Ghost Tours, venturing into the hidden streets beneath the city via The Real Mary King's Close (2 High St) or descending into The Edinburgh Dungeon (31 Market St), where the darkness is even more frightening than the actors dressed as Burke & Hare.
Or if you’re more interested in modern atrocities, there’s always a visit to the Scottish Parliament building (Canongate), where the avant-garde architecture splits the city even more vehemently than a Hibs v Hearts derby. Also worth a visit are St Giles' Cathedral on the High St (the Avengers fought there once), Holyroodhouse opposite the Parliament (one of Liz’s more humble palaces) and The Scotsman Steps, a gorgeous stairwell from artist Martin Creed made of myriad types of marble.
The Old Town is home, too, to a pair of the city’s most darling kirkyards, Canongate Kirk and the aforementioned Greyfriars. Standing sentinel at the entrance to the latter is a statue of much-loved wee dug, Greyfriars Bobby. But for the love of God, don’t rub his nose for luck – COVID, remember! Oh, we almost forgot. There’s the Castle too, but it’s hard to miss.
Illustrations by Max Machen