Edinburgh is well-known for its meandering cobbled streets, its atmospheric old town lined with Gothic architecture and, in and amongst the history, a diverse cultural scene and a smattering of trendy shops and eateries. What the hilly hub is perhaps less associated with, is a thriving waterside scene – but Leith, to the north of the city, is home to dynamic creatives and longtime locals, helping to give the area a cool, ‘out of hours’ feel. Once the main trading port for the city in the 18th-century, the salty air and earthy feel remain but the crowd has decidedly upscaled, and so have the independent boutiques and eateries that pepper the shore. Dubbed the Shoreditch of Scotland’s capital, the port district is unpolished, spirited and authentic, a must for foodies and history buffs.
Here are 10 of the best things to do in Leith, Edinburgh, as picked by locals and those who know it well.
1.Grab a coffee at William and Johnson’s
Tucked away in a backstreet, this achingly cool coffee shop, roastery and art space at Custom’s Wharf offers those who visit more than just a good quality coffee and perfect crema, the flagship cafe invites visitors into its airy loft space to learn more about the entire bean to brew process as well as meander the gallery space and gift shop. Those sipping on their single-origin shots were adamant that the quality of the coffee and the knowledge of the microbrewers here alone merits a trip to Leith.
2. Stroll the famous Water of Leith
Running alongside the Water of Leith river, which stretches from the Pentland Hills and into the port of Leith, is a rustic, forest-clad pathway. The native herons and otters frolicking in the river come as somewhat of a surprise to unsuspecting visitors traversing the walkway for the first time – those who join the route are unlikely to expect such a rural backdrop so close to the bustle of the port. It’s a much-loved amble opportunity, and the locals who stroll here are likely to bestow their ode to the forested walkway upon you (as well as more local recommendations, if you ask).
3. Grab a bite at The Pitt street food market
Every neighborhood worth its salt is usually the proud stomping ground of a grassroots food market, and Leith is no different. Established in 2015, the street food hub injected a new lease of life into an old industrial yard and proved so popular that it was extended into a larger space in 2019 to accommodate the visitors in search of good food, live music and a boisterous atmosphere who flocked to the graffitied space sandwiched between two warehouses. Open Friday through to Sunday, grab a craft beer or a glass of organic wine and dig into the culture here. Ròst, Edinburgh’s street food royalty and Pitt resident since day one, is a particularly popular option, serving seasonal and local Scottish street food with a creative twist, including the iconic crispy pheasant burger.
4. Indulge in relaxed fine dining at Heron
Opened just last year, Heron is the brainchild of two of Scotland’s hottest chefs, Tomás Gormley and Sam Yorke. It’s the permanent successor of their popular at-home fine-dining pop-up Bad Seeds, which garnered a following when it launched during the lockdown. On The Shore in Leith, Heron offers farm-to-table fine dining with an a-la-carte menu that pivots every few weeks to showcase the best of Scotland’s seasonal produce, housed in a prominent Victoria corner building that surveys the river mouth. The setting is mellow with a permanent Friday feeling and the food is a beautifully balanced, considered smorgasbord of rich, smokey and fragrant dishes.
5. Live like royalty at Scotland’s only floating hotel
In its former life, this five-star Fingal hotel was a Northern Lighthouse supply ship, but a new, decidedly more decadent, life has been breathed into it in the form of 23 discreet cabins, a fine dining restaurant and a jaw-dropping ballroom . Alongside the working docks of Leith, this polished accommodation option is offbeat yet gloriously peaceful and draws on 1930s Hollywood influences and Art Deco touches, complete with stargazing decks, just off the cobbled shore. Each cabin is named after a lighthouse and bedecked in honey-hued wood, terrazzo-tiled bathrooms and a sea-green palette.
6. Tuck into fresh seafood at Fishers on the Shore
Ask a local Leith resident where to head for fish and chips and they’ll tell you ‘Fishers on the Shore’ without so much as a pause for breath. At the base of a 17th-century windmill, fortified during the Napoleonic Wars, this dockland seafood bistro is an enchanting mix of fresh seafood (oysters, fishcakes, fish soup and a chilled seafood platter including everything from smoked salmon and trout to oysters, prawns and crab claws) and maritime decor to set the scene. It’s one of those places that fronts as unfussy, relaxed and informal, yet back-of-house the cooking is ambitious and the flavors effortlessly memorable.
7. Enjoy at nightcap at Smoke & Mirrors
What’s a neighborhood without a quirky cocktail bar? Luckily visitors to Leith, Edinburgh need never find out as Smoke & Mirrors gallantly steps up to the plate here. Serving a range of locally brewed beers and cocktails in an enclave of biophilic decoration (that’s plants, in layman’s terms) and fairy lights, pull up a mismatched chair and settle in the evening, alongside some of the area’s trendiest locals and their dogs. And, as all digital nomads worth their salt will know, having a website is overrated, so DM the bar via Instagram to reserve a table and head to Eventbrite to check out their program of events instead.
8. Sample local wares at Leith Farmers Market
Right beside the Water of Leith, small, independent traders cluster together on a Saturday to give visitors a taste of street food, crafts, original artwork and other locally-sourced wares. From meats and cheeses to upcycled jewelery and watercolor portraits, this atmospheric gathering is an easy way to get a flavor for the area and stock up on souvenirs and snacks.
Every Saturday 10 am-4pm; stockbridgemarket.com
9. Board of the Royal Yacht Britannia
Back onto the water for this one, the Royal Yacht Britannia was home to the Queen and her family for over 40 years, sailing 1,000,000 miles around the world. Nowadays, it does precisely zero miles and so visitors, of which there are over 400,000 a year, flock to her instead. Leith’s most popular attraction, step onboard and discover what life was like in one of the world’s most exquisite Royal residences. See where Prince William and Prince Harry spent their summer holidays every year and explore where kings and queens, world leaders and celebrities were entertained, from Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor to Presidents Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton.
10. Get your culture fix at the Biscuit Factory
Built in 1947 as one of the two Crawford’s biscuit factories in the Leith area at the time, this sprawling space is now home to a host of creative businesses and the backdrop for Leith’s culture scene, with a varied program of events. As well as housing a gin distillery and ever-changing studio spa, art shows, exhibitions and immersive events often fill the versatile space, nestled between Anderson Place and Bonnington Road Lane, to the rafters. Still showcasing most of the original fixtures and fittings, the Biscuit Factory is one of those rare structures that encase history in its very walls while helping to craft a colorful future.