The Skinny guide to Edinburgh's Southside

Home to Edinburgh University and much of the Edinburgh Fringe, the Southside is where to find cheap eats, green spaces and a laidback air

Article by Anahit Behrooz | 18 Aug 2021
  • Southside

Bounded in the north by the Old Town and in the east by the looming slopes of Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh’s Southside is right in the thick of the action; a buzzing, central neighbourhood that nevertheless feels local rather than touristed. Home to the main campus of Edinburgh University, this is where the students hang out, and while some of the buildings may be grand and stuffy, the vibe is anything but.

There’s a wealth of diverse and notably cheap eateries dotted around the libraries and some excellent cafes perfect for bunking down with a good book or two from the various bookshops. The Southside is also the traditional home of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, as the typically peaceful green expanses of The Meadows and George Square Gardens are transformed into a veritable carnival of performance tents and street food stalls.

Getting there, and getting away

The Southside is a short walk away from, well, pretty much anywhere central, and almost every bus route passes along its main artery, the confusingly named North Bridge/South Bridge/Nicolson Street/South Clerk Street (it’s all one road, we’re just quirky that way).

By the same logic, it’s also easy to leave, although if you’re looking for a more interesting exit, try grabbing a Just Eat Bike (the city's by-the-hour hire bikes) and sailing down the Innocent Railway Tunnel, once home to Scotland’s first railway station. Not only does the Tunnel feature a rotating gallery of street art and Gaelic graffiti, but it also leads to a cycle path round the back of Arthur’s Seat that can take you to the beaches at Musselburgh or Portobello, or to Rosslyn Chapel of Da Vinci Code fame.

Drinks

The drinking landscape in the Southside is – thanks to its high student density – pretty laid-back, but this is by no means code for boring. The area boasts some of the city’s artsiest, quirkiest, and honestly plain weirdest bars, revealing a side to Edinburgh that is far removed from the polish of the New Town or the charming cobbles of the Old.

As the name suggests, Paradise Palms (41 Lothian St) has a tropical dive bar feel, with Hawaiian shirts and stuffed animals sagging from the ceiling and an excellent array of spirits crowding its neon bar. There are similar vibes at the chaotic Dog House (18 Clerk St), while The Royal Dick bar in the Summerhall arts complex (1 Summerhall Pl) marries eclectic decor inspired by Summerhall’s previous life as the university’s veterinary school with a cosy, welcoming pub atmosphere. Also of note is subversive pub Brass Monkey, with actual beds to lounge in (14 Drummond St), and the ever-reliable Dagda (93 Buccleuch St) and The Auld Hoose (23 St Leonards St) for a solid pint.

For a less boozy day, there's many a cafe to while away a drizzly afternoon. Thomas J Walls (35 Forrest Rd) and Kilimanjaro (104 Nicolson St) both offer a great brunch menu and relaxed atmosphere, while coffee enthusiasts with a taste for the industrial should head to Union Brew Lab (6 S College St) and Cult Espresso (104 Buccleuch St).

Shops

There’s not a ton of shopping to be found in the Southside, but there are a few cute indie places worth poking your head in en route to the next cafe. Edinburgh’s radical, queer bookshop Lighthouse Books (43 W Nicolson St) is a veritable haven of excellent reads and community spirit. Five minutes away is Tills Bookshop (1 Hope Park Cres), with a great secondhand collection that often includes new releases. There are also two Armstrong’s vintage shops filled with retro gems (14 Teviot Pl, 64 Clerk St), while the Great Grog Bottle Shop (2 Dalkeith Rd) and Jordan Valley (8 Nicolson St) are must-stops for foodies.

Things to do

The Southside is typically the heart of the Fringe, and some of its best venues are located here. Summerhall boasts one of the festival’s best programmes as well as regular exhibitions, while Assembly Roxy (2 Roxburgh Pl), Queen’s Hall (85 Clerk St), and the Festival Theatre (13 Nicolson St) are all within a short stroll of each other.

The National Museum of Scotland (Chambers St), Dovecot Studios (10 Infirmary St), Talbot Rice Gallery (South Bridge), and Surgeons' Hall (Nicolson St) span everything from avant-garde art to gruesome human remains (for more info, see our gallery guide). Booking is currently essential for the Museum, in line with COVID guidelines. This is where you will find the city's dinosaur bones and historical artefacts. And finally, in the age of outdoor socialising, the tree-lined expanse of The Meadows and the crags of Arthur’s Seat have been transformed into some of the city’s key hangout spots.

Food

The Sudanese Nile Valley Cafe (6 Chapel St) offers freshly-made falafel wraps piled high with grilled aubergine and special peanut sauce, while The Shawarma House (119 Nicolson St) does exactly what it says on the tin. Popular with students are Sister Bao (32 S Clerk St), with steamed buns for as little as a pound and change; The Original Mosque Kitchen & Cafe (50 Potterrow), whose plates piled high with homemade curry come to a fiver; pizza slices at Civerinos Slice (49 Forrest Rd); and the modern take on Thai food at Ting Thai Caravan (8 Teviot Pl).

For something a little more sit-down (but still very cheap), Syrian restaurant Erbil (55 W Nicolson St) offers an incredibly friendly atmosphere and some of the best Middle Eastern food in the city. Kim’s Mini Meals (5 Buccleuch St), meanwhile, is one of Edinburgh’s hidden gems, whose innocuous front hides a renowned family restaurant widely considered one of the best in the city. El Cartel (15 Teviot Pl) crafts its tacos like little works of art, with great attention paid to unique flavours and details.

The newly opened Paolozzi Restaurant & Bar (59-61 Forrest Rd) showcases Scottish-Italian food alongside freshly brewed beer from the team behind Edinburgh Beer Factory. The local brewery also offers tours of their facilities out west, although they are currently on pause due to the pandemic.