At long last the trams are coming, but the old port is already displaying a wealth of hot spots to enjoy, food, drink, music, arts and shopping. Robin McKelvie is your guide to all there is to love about Leith

When I stayed at Leith’s Malmaison Hotel – the very first Mal – the year it opened in 1994 on the site of the old Fishermen’s Mission on the waterfront, the certain conviction that it would be the catalyst for a Leith rebirth that would sweep south up to the Leith boundary and beyond to the top of Leith Walk echoed in my ears. There were ripples and successes, but no cultural, creative or tourist tsunami. It was the same in 2003 when I attended the MTV Awards in Leith, another supposed turning point. Even Pink and Justin Timberlake strutting around Leith couldn’t kick off a real renaissance.

It is fitting then that the new arrival that finally looks set to cement Leith and Leith Walk on the cultural and tourist map, going some way to justifying Time Out’s breathless proclamation of Leith in 2021 as the UK’s coolest neighbourhood (and the world’s fifth coolest), is one that has had an excruciatingly painful birth. I recommend you secure a pint before you risk asking a Leither their thoughts on the tram construction – both traumatic decade-long tracts of it. But the trams are finally coming. The tracks are laid as far as the terminus at Newhaven, the power lines are up and stations now pepper Leith Walk with a regularity that must be turning Princes Street Hibernian FC green with envy.

Leith’s motto is ‘Persevere’ and it resoundingly has. The reward is the coming in a tram line that will reconnect Leith to a city its citizens voted resoundingly in 1920 not to become part of. To be even more grandiose the trams will also connect Leith to the world, re-establishing connections lost as the fortunes of what was one of the British Empire’s principal ports dwindled. It is long-awaited as Leith was ignored again in 2016 when Leith had the highest level of Remain support of anywhere in Edinburgh in the EU referendum.

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The tram does not even start running until late spring, but already Leith and Leith Walk are palpably changing. Just turn on the TV and you’ll find Netflix and Amazon embracing Leith’s First Stage Studios, including with Martin Compston in The Rig. The Young Fathers returned to Leith to record their new album, as did Hamish Hawk, who recorded at the Post Electric Studio, a collaborative co-owned by Idlewild’s Rod Jones. Current hot Edinburgh tip Redolent record here too. And multi-instrumentalist Callum Easter is a Leith resident trumpeted for big things.

Even through it is increasingly flushed with success, Leith is still Leith, not yet gentrified at the expense of its heart. Yes, there are chic new bakeries that you won’t get much change out of fiver for a slice of cake at, but others too where you could still snare three for fiver. 

Who knows where Leith is headed and false prophets – including me – have proclaimed dawns that never rose on the banks of the Forth before. One thing is for sure – with Leith the ride is always a rollicking, life-affirming one in a community that has always been determined to retain its sense of self.

The National:

Five Leith restaurants that aren’t The Kitchin


This relaxed fine dining newcomer peers through massive windows down the Water of Leith like a ship’s bridge. Talented young joint head chefs Tomás Gormley and Sam Yorke, along with pastry chef Edgar Lumsden-Morris, work wonders with fine local produce such as hand-dived scallops and Arbroath Smokies; tasting menus too. Sublime wines tempt, including a declassified Meursault at half the price of Burgundy’s finest. Nominated in the ‘Best Breakthrough’ category in the 2022 GQ Food and Drink Awards.

2. The Little Chartroom

Thriving in its new home (since September 2022) on Bonnington Road. Always a buzz and always creative with the likes of game broth and kofta, with salsify, brussels sprouts, and confit egg yolk.

3. Borough

Who needs Tony Borthwick’s Plumed Horse when the same premises have been lovingly looked after since 2018 by a young, but experienced couple who brilliantly craft their dishes using seasonal Scottish produce? Deservedly awarded the Michelin Travellers’ Choice 2022. 

4. Eleanore

In 2022 named the ‘Restaurant of the Year’ at the Edinburgh Restaurant Awards. Run by chef patron Roberta Hall-McCaron and her partner Shaun, who also own The Little Chartroom. Head chef Roberta appeared as a finalist on the BBC’s Great British Menu 2020. Think the likes of Spenwood gougere with wild garlic, pork belly fritter and pickled quince.

5. Martin Wishart

This once pioneering Michelin-starred gastronomic temple on The Shore may now be part of the Leith old guard, but it offers Edinburgh’s finest homage to all things Francophile; rarely anything but flawless.

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Five great bars

1. Kings Wark

An old timer architecturally – soaring back to the 1400s – but also on Leith’s bar scene as it morphed into a gastropub when that was still a dirty word in Scotland. Always solid food; always good beers too.

2. Spry Wines

So much more than just a wine bar. They only serve (and sell off licence) ‘natural wines’. They are not just a gimmick, with real effort and thought invested in an impressive selection that the smart staff are always happy to talk you through. They work with the acclaimed new Ante bakery below – taste their superb sourdough, before rarebit Leith Walk style, enriched with Leith’s Newbarns ale and St Andrews Farmhouse Cheese Company cheddar.

3. Central Bar

Gloriously part of Leith’s old Central Station, a proper old school Leith drinking den, blessed with mosaic flooring and stained glass windows. Do enjoy a wallet-friendly beer in jovial surrounds; don’t wax lyrical about the exquisiteness of the Jacobean-style detailing in the ceiling, or ask for their Instagram handle.  

4. Old Eastway Tap

It’s all about the craft beer here on Easter Road, with 16 draught lines and four cask ale lines spread across an eclectic sweep of craft beers, lagers, and ciders.

5. Nauticus

This Duke Street bolthole by Leith Links has been on a mission to only use produce from Scotland or owned by a Scottish company since 2018. A rich vein of history ripples through, too, with Leith’s historical ties with the shipping and trade sailing through their menu.  


The National:

Five music venues

1. Leith Depot

The local community came together to save this venue from being turned into flats. And we can all be grateful they did as it’s the place to take Leith’s musical pulse. Look out for Vic Galloway’s new monthly residential Vitamin C, with his famously fine tastes soaring from the decks alongside guest DJs and carefully curated bands. Good food and drinks too. 

2. Biscuit Factory

Pulsating arts and events space housed in the old Crawfords Biscuits factory that is home to over 30 creative businesses and an ever-changing roster of happenings. Redolent do a bi-monthly residency with a fluid circular set. 

3. Leith Theatre

“This could become Edinburgh’s Barrowlands,” declares Lynn Morrison, the Chief Executive. It really could be with more investment. A quite staggering split level 1930s dame that survived WW2 bombing to become a venue you must attend if you get half a chance. 

4. Edinburgh Playhouse

No less than Lou Reed declared the UK’s largest working theatre his favourite venue in the world. The Playhouse at the very southern extremities of Leith Walk has certainly got pedigree with The Cure, U2 and Springsteen all gracing the stage; John Peel has worked the decks too. 

5. Leith Arches

Pop into the Under the Arch Bar, Under the Arch Café or their Wellness Hub to hear all about the latest happenings in this community hub with its split-level events venue. 

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Five Leith breweries and distilleries

1. Lind & Lime Gin

The creative duo behind the superb London Dry Gin (childhood friends Paddy Fletcher and Ian Stirling) certainly don’t rest on their laurels. They’ve launched a Port of Leith port, and sherries, ranging from bone dry manzanilla, through to a newbie this spring, a gorgeously syrupy Pedro Ximenez. Come for a tour and you’ll leave with several bottles. 

2. Port of Leith Distillery

The Lind & Lime guys are back with a quite staggering ‘vertical distillery’, clearly like no other. Opening in June, this Darth Vader-esque tower already soars high above Leith’s waterfront and is currently being kitted out with bars, eating spaces and two stills.

3. Newbarns Brewery

Loved in Leith as much for their Taproom as their fine brews. Their regular quiz nights attract the great and the creative good of Leith. They like to mix things up – who else dares create a ‘Turbo Shandy’? 

4. Campervan Brewery

This energetic brewery have emerged from family trauma to become a much-loved Leith firmament with their ‘Lost In Leith’ Bar & Fermentaria. Their Taproom sports 10 draught beers, showcasing Campervan’s classics alongside other Scottish craft beers. 

5. Pilot Beer

The lovely lads behind this innovative brewery worked with the local community to battle through the Lockdowns. Not content with brewing their crisp Leith Lager and a porter, stout and pale ale, they’ve gone seriously fruity too. Leith booze emporium Cornelius has shifted a whopping 10,000 cans of their Peach Melba Sour. Cans are designed by a Leith artist with hip merch too.

The National:

Five independent Leith shops

1. It Started in the North

Box fresh owner Brett Rowden stocks lines inspired where “the non-violent sides of Mod, Casual and Skinhead subcultures converge”. We’re talking 60s-style knitwear, through to 80s-style track tops. Their own brand ‘Away Days’ t shirts with the old British Rail logo are instant cult classics. You can pair your trim new look with a trim in the barber’s chair.

2. Vinyl Villains

A legend in its own 12-inch single sleeve, this Leith institution has been selling unique and rare vinyl since before it went first out of fashion. Great t-shirts and they’ll buy your vinyl. 

3. Polentoni

An Italian deli driven by a passion and authenticity that may even impress mama. The best arancini this side of Roma. Fusion food too – how about Cullen Skink calzone?  polentonideli

4. Edinburgh Honey Co.

Their honey hails from bees throughout Scotland and the owner’s native Poland. They are not afraid to experiment with honey infused with coriander a winner. There is a ‘medicinal’ cold-bursting whisky-infused hot toddy honey too.

5. Maria’s Kitchen

Italy comes to Leith with lip-smacking imported produce alongside homemade pasta. They conjure up dramatic and delicious cakes too.

The National:

Five cafes and bakeries

1. Plant Bae

The UK’s only vegan and vegetarian brownie delivery service sets the tone for these plant-based pioneers. Their mission is to “help everyone introduce more plant based foods into their diet”. It’s easy when their cakes taste this good. 

2. Roseleaf

Once The Shore’s undisputed coolest café, there is competition these days. Gin cocktails come in vintage crockery at this bar cum café. Vegan dishes sit alongside spot on Eggs Benedict. 

3. The Sicilian Pastry Shop

Serving superb cannoli and risqué rum baba to an adoring clientele since 1979. Owner Francesco Asiatico keeps prices low; quality remains high. 

4. Hobz Bakery

Specialise in naturally-fermented sourdough bread using only UK grown grains, where possible Scottish and freshly milled in-house. Ace pastries and coffee too from Edinburgh’s Machina Coffee. 

5. Laila

Instantly Instagrammable, but there is real substance too: signature offerings like rose buttermilk pancakes topped with candyfloss, Chantilly Cream, rose syrup and fresh berries are backed up with great coffee and delicious savoury dishes. The Aleppo Eggs – poached free range eggs with herbed yoghurt, Aleppo butter and pitta bread – are a local favourite.