The days of Leith being nothing more than a scrappy working port, home only to the docks and a few dodgy pubs are long gone. Today Leith is the place for Edinburgh creatives, Michelin-star chefs and anyone looking to explore an alternative side to the historic Scottish capital.
First, a passing note: I use the word ‘alternative’ sparingly. All too often I read city guides which describe parts of my home city as ‘alternative’ when all they really mean is ‘not on George Street’ or more than a 15 minute walk from the Royal Mile. But, having lived in Leith for a year I can say that it’s a part of the city that’s changing. I guess Leith is Edinburgh’s answer to London’s Shoreditch – once a working-class neighbourhood, turned fashionable hang-out and artistic hub, undergoing some serious gentrification.
The area has retained a lot of its old Port o’ Leith rough and ready character, and some parts are still not a million miles away from a set off Trainspotting (the 1996 cult-classic was actually filmed in Leith). But this is still Edinburgh: as long as you’re sensible, you’re safe. You’ll have no trouble finding exciting places to eat, drink, catch a gig or spot some of Edinburgh’s freshest artistic talent. There are plenty of high-ceiling Georgian townhouses and it’s here that the Water of Leith meets the Firth of Forth, making it a great place for a romantic walk along the Shore – Scottish weather permitting!
So, if you fancy exploring more of Edinburgh’s maritime history and really stepping off the tourist trail, spend a day in Leith – and this is how to do it…
How do I get to Leith?
From Waverley train station turn on to Princes Street and head towards the east end of the high street, towards Carlton Hill. Walk past the Omni Centre, down Elm Row and eventually this turns into Leith Walk. This walk takes 15 minutes max, and continuing straight down Leith Walk you’ll hit the Shore in another 25. Alternatively, jump on the number 12, 16 or 22 bus and ride it all the way from Princes Street to Ocean Dive, right on the water’s edge.
Where to stay in Leith?
There are a number of fantastic B&Bs just off of Leith Walk, on Pilrig Street, if you want the best of both worlds, with both Edinburgh city centre and the Shore at Leith just a short stretch in either direction. If you want more from your B&B than a full Scottish breakfast and tartan carpet, consider a stay at Wallace’s Arthouse & bed and breakfast (41/4 Constitution Street). You can sleep in the nineteenth century Grade ‘A’ listed former Assembly Rooms, admire the quirky art hanging on the walls or tickle the ivory on Wallace’s baby grand. If you prefer hotels then how about one of Edinburgh’s most luxurious accommodations, Malmaison (1 Tower Place). Part of the UK chain, you can expect the same high standards and polished service, but what makes Leith’s Malmaison stand out from the others is its location, overlooking the water. Even if you’re not staying the night I recommend you at least stop by for a drink on a sunny day and plot yourself up on their waterfront terrace for superb people watching!
What does a day in Leith look like?
TL:DR: walking along the water, coffee beside the water, visiting famous boats on the water. Are you seeing a pattern yet?
Grab something on your way down Leith Walk: the Word of Mouth cafe is always a good shout, with an all-day breakfast menu including eggs benedict and a full Scottish fry up. For a full review of this local Leither hangout, take a look at my review of the best brunch spots in Edinburgh. If you want something on the go then stick your head into Twelve Triangles (Brunswick St, just off of Elm Row). Yes they have croissants, yes they have coffee, but they also have some of the tastiest doughnuts I’ve ever eaten – forget boring ol’jam and sink your teeth into a ball of sugary pistachio cream heaven.
Once you’ve picked up breakfast work off all those calories by trawling the charity shops along Leith Walk. There’s about ten of them, ranging from furniture Bethany stores to Barnados piled high with paperbacks and bric-a-brac waiting to be given another loving home. My best buy? The complete series of The Wire on DVD for a £5.
Another place that rarely gets a mention in Edinburgh city guide books but deserves more visitors is the Out of the Blue Drill Hall, on Dalmeny St. Run by an arts and education trust, this old military building is now a vibrant creative hub in the heart of the Leith community, regularly hosting art exhibitions, vintage clothes fairs and music gigs in support of local artists. Check their listings before you go. Cruise the entire length of the walk, reaching the big Wetherspoons pub an the bottom – helpfully it’s called The Foot of Leith Walk, so you’ll know you’ve arrived. Keep heading straight, along Constitution Street, turning left onto Bernard Street and eventually you’ll hit the Shore, the old Port of Leith – from the foot of the walk it’s only a 10 minute walk to here.
After your morning of bargain hunting, you’ll be starving again, and there’s no short supply of cafés for you to refuel in. Along Constitution Street there’s a parade of pubs and cafés. My recommendation would be a light bite in Rocksalt Deli as their salads are fresh and they always have a tempting selection of naughty but brilliant baked goods. If you want to look out over the Water of Leith while you grab lunch then The Granary Bar and Restaurant has tables on the cobbled docks overlooking the water. It’s the perfect spot to take it all in, indulge in a Scottish steak and enjoy a glass of wine with lunch (like classy folk). If a little lunchtime tipple is what you’re after then I love Roseleaf, located across the water on Sandport Place. The walls are lined with old hats and vintage teapots (think mad hatter’s tea party) and this tiny bar serves the most delicious pot-tails – yes that is a teapot full of cocktail! But you can’t sink a teapot of In the Ghetto (prosecco, amaretto, raspberries and mint leaves) without washing it down with something, and afternoon teas are just the ticket. Make sure to reserve (0131 476 5268) because Roseleaf is a wee place and it’s mighty popular.
Once you get down to Leith Shore then take time to learn about Edinburgh’s maritime history and heritage. Fan or not of the British monarchy, a trip to the Royal Yacht Britannia reveals a more personable side to our Royal Family. They loved this ship and holidayed all over the world on it, and after spending an afternoon here you’ll see why: it’s not just about the ritzy glitzy interiors (although they aren’t actually that grand, as the Queen apparently preferred a more laid-back, country style). As you tour the vessel you’ll hear about young Prince William and Harry playing on deck, the raucous crew parties that Prince Charles and Princess Diana attended, plus the stories of the crewmen themselves and where they came from. Collect your audio guide and start your tour from the visitor’s centre inside Ocean Terminal shopping centre – for those who really aren’t interested and didn’t quite get their retail therapy hit on Leith Walk, there’s more high street brands for you to browse in here.
Back to food – hurrah! You’re not going to go hungry in Leith and there’s options for every budget, so let’s start at the top end. For fine dining here are a couple of options:
- Martin Wishart’s, right on Leith Shore, serving award-winning French cuisine prepared with only the best Scottish produce. Sample menu; Orkney scallops, roast turbot and chocolate cremeux. Four courses for £85
- The Kitchin (78 Commercial St) with their ‘from nature to plate’ concept focuses on fresh Scottish ingredients and seasonal menus. Sample menu; Isle of Cumbrae oysters, Highland lamb and Knockraich crowdie cheesecake. Three courses for £70
Still want Scottish food but perhaps something a little more informal (and cheaper)? Pull a stool up beside the fire and dine at The King’s Wark, a Leith Shore inn-stitution (sorry) – pints have been pulled here for weary sailors and shopped out tourists since 1432. Set right on the shore front, you can enjoy the view over a bowl of steaming mussels or a Sunday roast with all the trimmings. Want something spicier? Then Tapa (19 Shore Pl) dishes up fiery Spanish tapas (who’d have thought it?!) including firm-favourites like grilled chorizo and calamares, plus plenty of vegetarian options too. It’s casual and great if you’ve got big groups.
Round off your day exploring lovely Leith with a nightcap in the Port O’Leith (58 Constitution St), another much-loved by locals pub that has survived Leith’s transformation from hard-working harbour to artistic hub. You won’t be able to miss its bright red front and although it doesn’t look like much from the outside, come Saturday night you’ll be hard pushed to find anywhere else with as much party. If you’re looking for something a bit quieter then Noble’s (next door) is a beautiful Victorian gastropub with a great whiskey selection. Constitution Street is in fact lined with lots of great drinking holes – try a pint in each! Alternatively, if you’re staying in the city centre then turn your walk home into a pub crawl along Leith Walk: there are lots of great drinking options on this stretch, including Woodland Creatures, The Brass Monkey and The Joker and The Thief.
There’s so much to see (and so many bars to eat and drink in), I can’t possibly fit it all into this one article – if I’ve missed any places out that you think deserve a mention then please leave a comment below. Hopefully you find this selection of my favourites helpful, and I would encourage anyone visiting Edinburgh to get down to the Water and explore Leith for an alternative take on the traditional city tour.
*And thanks to the few folk whose instas I’ve used!