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A neighbourhood guide to Edinburgh

While still renowned for its grand, imposing aesthetic, the Scottish capital has been busy sprucing up once-gritty parts of town into happening new neighbourhoods.

Published 27 Jan 2021, 06:11 GMT, Updated 10 Sept 2021, 12:51 BST
Colourful buildings along West Bow/Victoria Street, in the heart of Edinburgh's Old Town.

Colourful buildings along West Bow/Victoria Street, in the heart of Edinburgh's Old Town.

Photograph by AWL Images

It’s impossible to ignore Edinburgh’s assets: the clifftop castle, Princes Street Gardens, the duelling architectural styles of the UNESCO-endorsed Old and New Towns. It’s little wonder the city, which is home to many of the country’s best restaurants and hotels, receives almost as many tourists every year as Scotland has residents. The city’s old Trainspotting-tinged reputation has long been blown away by a polish of its centuries-old magnificence, and out of the centre, formerly rundown neighbourhoods have benefitted too, while still maintaining their character and charm. Historically known as ‘Auld Reekie’ (literally ‘Old Smokey’), today Edinburgh’s atmosphere is as clear as its ambition. 

Leith

In the decades since Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting was released (the novel is largely set here and its streets appear in the film), the once-notorious neighbourhood of Leith has blossomed into something very different. It hasn’t simply improved or been mildly gentrified, it’s — whisper it — become just a wee bit posh, too. 

To walk around, it’s clear the transition hasn’t been wholesale: parts of the port are still in use and, while the harbour has been rejuvenated, there are still tower blocks looming in the distance. In the end, there’s no getting away from the neighbourhood’s reputational challenges, right?

“That’s nonsense — I’ve only ever seen a couple of fights,” says Darren Murray, chef and co-owner of Borough, in the heart of Leith. “Maybe it was different here in the 1970s and ’80s, but really we’ve had nae trouble, we’ve always gone out with nae fear.”

“We live across from the famous Banana Flats,” adds co-owner and wife Aleks, referring to Cables Wynd House, the austere but enduring housing block, which also featured in Trainspotting. “People are friendly. We hear the parties and, to be honest, it sounds kind of fun.”

Borough itself could hardly be more different from those grim icons. A small corner restaurant resplendent in white, it has a modern Scottish menu that’s so seasonal it tends to change from day to day. Today’s roast North Sea coley will be long gone by the time you read this.

These days, there are two Michelin-starred restaurants in Leith (Martin Wishart and Kitchin), and it’s not unreasonable to believe Borough could soon join them. “If we got one, it’d be an ego boost, but we’d try not to change our price point,” says Darren. “But it’d be very satisfying and really help the business,” adds Aleks quickly.

A short walk from Borough, cottage industry gin distillers have also been born, leaning into Leith’s past as a port. “We’re in an area that has incredible distilling and industrial heritage,” says Ian Stirling, founder of the Port of Leith Distillery. “Leith was once the epicentre of the Scottish whisky industry.” 

Next year, Stirling will open his own whisky distillery in Leith, but for the time being he’s sharing a unit with James Porteous’s Electric Spirit Co. Neither are originally from here, but neither would want to be anywhere else. “We embrace the fact that Leith is a really cool place to be as a producer,” says Porteous. “But equally, we don’t want to see it turn into Disney World — we want it to keep its identity.”

Darren and Aleks Murray, owners of Borough, in Leith.

Photograph by Till Britze Photography

Stockbridge

If Leith is up-and-coming, then Stockbridge has up-and-come. Only a 10-minute walk from Edinburgh’s most prominent retail artery, Princes Street, Stockbridge feels like a town of its own, a ferociously well-to-do island in the midst of the wider city.

To walk through its centre is to see that this is no ordinary Scottish high street. There’s George Mewes Cheese; there are cakemakers and furniture restorers; art galleries and picture framers; wine shops and wine bars; an almost preposterous number of delis and bakeries; even more restaurants; I.J. Mellis, another cheesemonger; and, tucked just off the high street, a cricket ground — as rare in Scotland as snow in Arabia.

The Stockbridge farmers’ market is one of the nation’s largest and, once you’ve gorged yourself on freshly made pies and washed it down with a locally brewed IPA, the 200-year-old Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh has more than 13,000 plant species to contemplate and admire.

That’s assuming you aren’t content to just contemplate and admire the loveliness of Stockbridge itself, a place unashamed by its affluence, confident without seeming cocky — a fine place to visit or live, so long as you can afford to do so.

“The whole vibe of Stockbridge is something you fall in love with,” says chef Tom Kitchin, just as a lunch service begins at his excellently named gastropub, The Scran & Scallie. “When we started up, this was sort of the wrong end of Stockbridge, which is crazy now you think about it. It’s an incredible area, a really nice neighbourhood.”

Kitchin’s eponymous restaurant, with its cherished Michelin star, is located in Leith, and has a very different feel to this former pizzeria. Here, the brickwork has been left exposed and the wooden furniture clearly doesn’t come from a single set. “It’s much more home-cooking style, much more pubby,” says the chef. “We call it our ‘happy place’ because people are so relaxed here. We have things like ham and chips, the fish pie. We can’t take them off the menu because locals will be like: ‘Hey, where’s my fish pie?’”

Kitchin tells me it’s not unusual to see his staff running along the street from Bowers (the fancy butcher a few doors down) with fresh produce slung over their shoulders. The result is that, as well as the menu’s popular perennials, seasonal recommendations come along that are equally irresistible. During my visit, I follow the chef’s advice and have some of the early season grouse. It’s not exactly pub grub, but it’s probably the finest game bird I’ve ever eaten — and very Stockbridge.

Shopfronts along Dundas Street, in the well-to-do neighbourhood of Stockbridge.

Photograph by 4Corners Images

The historic centre

There’s an inevitability to visiting both Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns that makes the distinction between them seem increasingly unimportant. What to say about these spectacular neighbourhoods, which preserve the city’s Reformation-era and Georgian history so perfectly? New properties pop up occasionally, like Cheval The Edinburgh Grand, which offers high-end serviced apartments as an alternative to the increasingly controversial influence of Airbnb, but building new, from scratch, is very difficult in this part of the city.

It’s to every Edinburgher’s relief that enemy planes passed over their city en route to bombing Glasgow into an uglier future during the Second World War. That mercy means some of Britain’s finest architecture is still here, piled in such an overwhelming abundance as to seem to defy easy navigation, never mind understanding. 

So how to look at all this now? “Through a new lens,” suggests Lisa Williams, as we sit on a bench beneath the Melville Monument in the centre of St Andrew’s Square. We met at the usual starting point of her Black History Walking Tour, beneath a likeness of the politician Henry Dundas, a contentious figure at the centre of a controversy in the late 18th century over the manner in which Britain should abolish the slave trade. His imposing statue won’t be removed, but a plaque detailing a fuller history of his life has been commissioned. Even this, though, has been met with resistance. 

Since the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, Williams’ tour has been getting more attention. Moving through the city, it lays bare what some people have long known, if not fully reconciled: that many of Edinburgh’s beautiful buildings were paid for with suffering of others.

Of the dozens of walking tours on offer around the Scottish capital — ghosts! Harry Potter! — this is doubtless one of the more serious. It’s also one of the most informative, too. It’s not just about bashing British imperial history, but crucially, about better understanding.   

Five things to do in Edinburgh


1. Have afternoon tea at Fingal
A one-time lighthouse service vessel, today Fingal is a floating hotel that invokes the golden age of ocean cruising. Visited by the Queen and frequented by celebrities, its restaurant offers a spectacular afternoon tea. 

2. Head to Portobello
Long since swallowed by the wider city, Portobello still has the feel of a seaside town. There’s everything you’d expect: long promenades, ice cream and, at St Andrews Restaurant, what some insist is the best fish and chips in Scotland. 

3. Hike to Arthur’s Seat
The hike to the top of the city’s most prominent peak makes for an ideal half-day trip, especially as Visit Scotland now provides a free audio guide in the form of a podcast. 

4. Explore the Royal Yacht Britannia
Decommissioned in 1997, HMY Britannia is now permanently berthed in Leith and each year draws more than 300,000 people, who come to wonder about what life must have been like on board. 

5. Have a cocktail at House of Gods
Having opened at the end of 2019 in the Old Town, this boutique hotel is something special. It also has one of the coolest cocktail bars in the city and just 22 super-stylish rooms.

How to do it

Edinburgh is one of the best-connected cities in the UK, with direct trains and domestic flights to major cities around the country. The serviced apartments of Cheval The Edinburgh Grand are ideal for longer stays. From £112. 

For information on events around the city, visit The Skinny.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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