Edinburgh is at its most atmospheric after sundown: old-time boozers prickle with low-key live folk music, locals chew the fat about sport and politics in standing-room-only whisky joints, and the trendy sip teapot cocktails in retro bars.
Below is a list of the finest places in the city for a tipple, while for further Edinburgh inspiration, see our guides to the city's best hotels, restaurants and cafes, nightlife, shopping, things to do, and things to do for free, plus how to spend a weekend in Edinburgh.
The Devil's Advocate
This bar and kitchen's stylish interiors sent the town’s Twitter mavens into paroxysms of joy when it first opened. It's found hidden down a narrow medieval close in a former Victorian pumphouse, and inside it ignores the current trend of bare-bones bar design for an industrial cathedral look. It’s a hymn to brick, timber and slate, with an airy, open space balanced by cosy booths and a mezzanine for dining. Have a Coughing Up Tweed cocktail (whisky, aquavit, and lemon), then order dinner – you know the food’s good when you see the chef strolling in with a bundle of dirty rhubarb tucked under his arm.
Getting in: Reserve a table if you want to eat
The Bow Bar
If you ever need to find an off-duty lawyer in Edinburgh, The Bow Bar is the place to look. Old-fashioned and unpretentious, it’s an insider favourite. There are more than 230 malt whiskies, eight cask ales and an impressive selection of bottled beers – even people who think they don’t drink beer will find something they like. Like all the best bars, it gets busy with standing room only after work when the briefs form circles round their cases. It’s a great place for a quiet Saturday morning; grab a pint and a Findlay’s of Portobello pie and settle in.
Under the Stairs
Is it a bar with a restaurant or a restaurant with a bar? Whichever it is, it’s utterly civilised, with table service only. The cocktail ingredients are a bit hipster (think beetroot and wasabi margaritas and green tea coolers), as is the décor of mismatched chairs and exposed stone walls. There's even three retro ducks flying up the wall. It’s small, medium and large plates now: a nibble of pomegranate and cumin cured sea bream, then some mussels marsala or go all out with a bone marrow burger and chips. Quiet, lamp-lit corners are a comfortable retreat for solo travellers.
Getting in: Not usually a problem; it’s a good place to swerve the Grassmarket hoards
The Royal Oak
This modest little pub on Infirmary Street is a friendly, traditional watering hole. It has neither airs, nor graces, nor pretensions to anything other than offering live folk music from local musicians every night of the week, as it has done for more than 35 years. The haunted cellars are said to have been used by murdering bodysnatchers Burke and Hare and are probably the only cellars in the Old Town not regularly invaded by ghost tours, although the wines here might give you the screaming heebie jeebies. You might want to stick to real spirits or beer.
Getting in: Reservations not possible so get there early
The jaw-dropping setting of The Dome is thanks to the fact that the building was formerly a very grand bank branch. Expect to see chandeliers, marble columns, lilies and gilt. Drinking here always feels like an occasion, so order a glamorous cocktail like a Mai Tai or a Singapore Sling. In the summer, the outdoor Garden Café is popular, and at Christmas time, the main space in The Dome is known for having the best decorations in the city. The bar also benefits from a central location, meaning it’s a favourite meeting place for locals, as well as every tourist in town.
Getting in: No table reservations on Sunday and it gets very busy at Christmas
This popular George Street party bar is all glitz and glitter: there's an entire wall covered in mirror tiles (all the better to see yourself in). Think lots of black, white and hot pink hues, as well as pop art, fake ferns and fairy lights. The cocktails are (unsurprisingly) sweet, and there are lots of fun fizzy things to drink along with food which is primarily designed to soak the alcohol up. Beware stampeding hen parties where you risk death by high heel, but if you want to dress up and party, this is still the place to be seen.
Getting in: Reservations not needed for the bar, but book a table if you want to eat at the weekend
This cocktail bar is hidden in a Queen Street cellar and is consistently named as one of the world’s top 50 bars. Its cocktails include retro classics as well as imaginative new inventions. Try a Campbeltown (single malt whisky, Cherry Heering and green chartreuse) or a Mint Choc Flip. Or get one of the bartenders to create a cocktail especially for you. There are lots of intimate corners for cosy conversations, but come on a Friday or Saturday night for the DJ sets – Nasty P and Scottie Boy are regulars – if you're looking for a party atmosphere.
Getting in: Get there early on DJ nights if you want a cosy corner
Café Royal Bar
If this High Victorian bar were a woman, it would be a belle époque Parisian courtesan: stylish, ornate and just the tiniest bit overblown. Look out for the Royal Doulton ceramic mural of great inventors, unusual stained glass and gilded plasterwork, then settle into the spacious leather booths and order a dozen oysters or a seafood platter. Pair the food with a glass of wine or champagne, and enjoy the sight of people thoroughly enjoying themselves, the same way they have since 1863 – only the fashions have changed.
Kaleidoscope Whisky Bar
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society – a private members’ club that takes the 'water of life' very seriously – has opened a whisky bar to the public at its Queen Street venue. The upper floors of this elegant Georgian townhouse are still for members only, but on the ground floor there’s a surprisingly contemporary bar – the only 'clubbish' thing about the room being the deep leather sofas and newspapers. There are single cask whiskies, a range of malts of the moment, or you can try one of several whisky flights. There’s a good restaurant on the first floor too.
This small, delightfully cosy pub is a bit like drinking in a red velvet and pine Victorian coffin – but in a good way. It's hidden in a former coach house dwarfed by the surrounding grand New Town tenements, and is well worth seeking out. Owner Fraser and his famous moustache preside over the bar, offering 50 malt whiskies (the Malt of the Moment is a steal) and seven real ales. There’s a library in the back room and on cold days you are likely to find customers playing Scrabble in front of the fire.
Getting in: Unless you’re a dedicated sports fan, avoid on rugby match days
The Cumberland Bar
If you have a problem with men in red corduroy trousers, this New Town local on a quiet residential street is probably not for you. It's an attractive pub with shining beer taps, dark wood and plump upholstery, and was immortalised in Alexander McCall Smith’s episodic novel 44 Scotland Street. With eight real ales on tap and a Sunday roast that regularly sells out, it’s a deservedly popular drinking spot. The real draw is the shady beer garden (heated in winter), which is one the nicest in Edinburgh. If the weather is fine, get the drinks in early – the outside tables fill quickly.
Getting in: Order your Sunday roast in advance
The Last Word Saloon
The forest green walls and double open fires of The Last Word Saloon create a dark and discreet atmosphere – it's the sort of place you can imagine Bogart and Bacall meeting for a drink. Cocktails like the Claret Colins (gin, Aperol and claret syrup) are deliciously inventive and even the house pours are interesting. The staff are friendly and obliging and there’s a great neighbourhood feel. Word of advice – bring a torch if your eyesight isn't what it used to be, or you might have trouble deciphering the menu.
The Oxford Bar
Somehow 'The Ox' has survived the Ian Rankin fans looking for Inspector Rebus unscathed, or at least managed to remain unaltered by its literary fame. The famous pie machine is still there and journalists still play dominoes in the back room. Just don’t give yourself away by sitting in Dead Man’s Corner, or get stuck in the Visitors' Paddock where first timers inevitably cluster, wide-eyed and uncomfortable. It is not a bar you go to for its looks, but to chase down a pint with a dram, eat a bridie or two, and keep your eyes peeled for a certain novelist.
Good Brothers Wine Bar
This little bar has the kind of unaffected laid-back charm that money usually doesn’t buy. It's tucked away down a Stockbridge side street and has simple white tongue and groove walls, drippy candles and worn wooden floors. There’s a good short lunch and evening menu, but the star is the intriguing wine list: light on the usual suspects, heavy on small producers, and (mostly) light on the bank account. You can indulge in a bottle of something delicious or explore wines by the glass – let the good brothers be your guides.
The Jolly Botanist
If gin is your thing, this is the place. The look embraces every hipster cliché, with exposed steel beams, bare stone and brick, faux faded wallpaper and peeling plaster enlivened with the occasional chandelier. But never mind all that – slip into a comfortable booth and concentrate on the 72 varieties of gin with suggested tonics and some unusual garnishes, or work your way through the list of gin-based cocktails (try an Edinburgh Fizz for a mix of gin, prosecco, raspberry, elderflower, rhubarb and ginger). There’s food too, but it can be a bit ho-hum – just stick to the mother’s ruin.
The Hanging Bat
Lothian Road used to be called 'Loathsome Road' by locals, but stylish places like this café/bar are upping the neighbourhood’s cool factor. There are six cask and 14 keg craft beers to choose from – ask the staff for advice, they know their stuff. There’s also more than 40 kinds of gin and comforting American-style things in buns to eat. Seating is spread over three levels, and the whole place has a definite sense of ease and good humour (don’t miss the beer-tap taps in the toilets). 'Happiness is measured in schooners' is the bar’s motto.
The Canny Man’s
If you like hanging baskets, nooks and crannies, mountains of memorabilia and drinking with the crème de la crème, this Morningside institution and spiritual home of Miss Jean Brodie is the bar for you. The staff can be as frosty as the champagne glasses, but they sell the fizzy stuff by the glass, have a humidor full of Cohibas and the bloody Marys are fantastic. Have a glass of vintage port – it’s that sort of place. Not everyone’s cup of Earl Grey, but an experience nevertheless.
Getting in: No backpacks, no photographs and 'an appropriate standard of dress is appreciated'
The Blackbird works the Shoreditch street-art vibe, and is bright, breezy and fun (look out for the blackbird-patterned wallpaper on the ceiling and the orange bicycle over the door). There’s a great terrace with tables for when it’s sunny and plenty of choice on the food front; there's also more than 30 cocktails to chose from. Service can be a bit patchy when it’s busy, but a Mai Tai on Steroids (rum, amaretto and apricot brandy) or a King of Scots (whisky, raspberry, and prosecco) will help keep you happy.
Getting in: Reservations recommended
This popular bar by the Water of Leith is thought to be where teuchters (Highland bumpkins) waited to get the ferry home to Aberdeen. It is much loved for its warren of cosy rooms and real fire in the winter, and its pontoon seating area in the summer. There are 18 (mostly Scottish) draft ales, stouts and lagers, 90 single malts and a wonderfully delicious Edinburgh Gin Fizz. There's a huge menu, with much of it served in mugs, but if you prefer your food on a plate (or just slightly more considered), the A Room in Leith bistro is across the way.
Getting in: Arrive early for a table outside on sunny, summer days; there’s a tube of sunscreen on the bar
The Mother Superior Bar
Its USP might be a bit confusing: a bar named after a Trainspotting drug-dealer that serves Cajun food but specialises in whisky, but that’s all part of the fun. This Leith Walk newcomer is putting some character back into the neighbourhood with beer taps made of scaffolding poles and themed toilets. But don’t let the frivolity fool you; there are hundreds of whiskeys available at the most reasonable prices in town. Perfect for learners – there’s a reduced rate whisky of the month and frozen whisky slushies for the timid. Good craft beers, too and a music venue downstairs – just turn up and see what’s happening. It’s hard to think of a better place to try your first dram.
Contact: 0131 554 5280; Facebook page
Getting in: Get there before everyone else
Roseleaf Bar Café
You could take your toddler, her cocktail-swilling godmother and your favourite retired admiral uncle to the Roseleaf and more or less guarantee everybody would be happy. This is a proper family bar, with its shabby-yet-cosy retro décor, cocktails in teapots, and menus in old copies of National Geographic. Go for the excellent breakfast and settle in with the papers, or come later for lunch or supper and a rhubarb and custard or Mad Hatter 'pot-tail' – that's what they call their cocktails in teapots – for two.
Getting in: It gets busy even on weeknights, so book ahead if you want to be sure of a table