The Edinburgh Food Heritage Trail offers a way to experience the city’s World Heritage Site, revealing some of the hidden links between the city’s unique built heritage and its food traditions.
Starting Point: Edinburgh New Town Cookery School
Number of stops: 7
Distance: 1.9 miles
Explore on map
The Edinburgh Food Heritage Trail offers a new way to experience the city’s World Heritage Site, revealing some of the hidden links between the city’s unique built heritage and its food traditions.
Use this trail to explore the nooks and crannies of the Old and New Towns, discover the city’s food history, experience Edinburgh’s culinary traditions and dine in some of its historic locations. This trail was supported by the VisitScotland Year of Food and Drink Growth Fund.
Visit Gladstone’s Land in the Old Town and the Georgian House in the New Town, both run by the National Trust for Scotland, to see how cookery and dining changed with architecture over the centuries.
The kitchen in the 17th century merchant’s apartment at Gladstone’s Land has a cosy and domestic feel. Simple cookery was possible such as boiling meat, grilling fish, and baking such oatcakes on a girdle over the fire. Eating out in the many inns and taverns of the Old Town would have been commonplace.
A New Town building such as the Georgian House would have transformed how the middle-classes dined. The grand kitchens here are capable of producing a dinner for many guests, enabling much more elaborate dishes and making private dining increasingly popular.
For hundreds of years city residents bought their food at street markets, a tradition kept alive today in the Edinburgh Farmers’ Market.The markets have left their mark in many of the names you can still see in the Old Town, in places such as Fishmarket and Fleshmarket Close. In the Grassmarket cattle were bought and sold, with fruit and vegetable stalls associated with the area around the Tron Kirk.
The High Street would also have resounded with the distinctive cries of street sellers, advertising everything from ‘wall-cresses an’ purpey’, to ‘green-kail and leeks, come buy in heaps’. The cries of the Newhaven fishwives, were immortalised in the folk song ‘Caller Herrin’: ‘Wha’ll buy my caller herrin, They’re bonnie fish and halesome farin’.
Today the award-winning Edinburgh Farmers’ Market takes place on Castle Terrace under the spectacular backdrop of Edinburgh Castle. The market offers a huge variety of fresh local produce from over 50 specialist producers, and takes place every Saturday 9am – 2pm.
Seafood has always been important in Edinburgh, and in the past oysters were particularly plentiful.
The Firth of Forth was once famed for its oyster beds, which provided such a bountiful supply for the city that they were eaten as cheap snack food. If you look closely at many historic buildings in the Old Town, you can still see oyster shells embedded in the walls, used by the masons as a handy way of packing joints in the stonework.
In the 18th century there were even ’oyster cellars’, a form of entertainment peculiar to Edinburgh. A English visitor once described the scene at one of these basement parties as ‘…a large and brilliant company of both sexes’, with a large table in the centre, ‘covered with dishes full of oysters and pots of porter’, all followed by a large bowl of punch and some wild dancing. The visitor found it odd to be ‘regaling in a cellar’, but was impressed at the cost – a mere two shillings a head.
Today visitors can still enjoy the best seafood at the award-winning Ondine restaurant in the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town. The emphasis is on the freshest and most sustainable fish and shellfish cooked and served with great skill.
Edinburgh has a tradition of cookery schools stretching back to the Georgian period, which continues today with the Edinburgh New Town Cookery School.
In the 1750s Elizabeth Cleland set up a cookery school in her house in the Luckenbooths, which once stood next to St Giles’ Cathedral. Following on was Susanna MacIver, who started her own school in Steven Law’s Close near the Tron Kirk. In 1774 she too brought out a book of her recipes entitled ‘Cookery and Pastry’, which has the distinction today of including the first Scottish printed recipe for haggis.
These writers were followed in the Edwardian period by Miss Florence B. Jack, a passionate campaigner for women’s rights and principal of the Edinburgh School for Cookery and Domestic Economy. She was a prolific writer, but perhaps her best known work is the ‘Good Housekeeping Cookery Book,’ first written by her in 1925 and now regarded by many as the ultimate cook’s bible.
The Edinburgh New Town Cookery School follows in this tradition, and offers something for every level of ability. The school spans five floors of their Queen Street base, and offers panoramic views across the Firth of Forth, with a fully equipped teaching kitchen and demonstration theatre.
Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site has over 1,600 listed buildings, so there are many opportunities to eat in stunning historic surroundings.
Cannonball House is a good example, a seventeenth century townhouse now opened as an award winning restaurant, cafe and ice cream parlour by Victor & Carina Contini. The building dates back to 1630, and look out for the initials of the original owners Alexander Mure and his wife Margaret Niellems, above one of the upper windows. The menu is designed around locally sourced produce from over 70 artisan suppliers. Produce from their own one acre kitchen garden features strongly on the menu.
The Contini’s restaurant on George Street provides a contrasting setting in the Georgian New Town. It was designed in 1883 for the Bank of Scotland, in the flamboyant style of an Italian Renaissance palace. The bank’s coat of arms can still be seen over the main entrance portico, and following the style of architecture, the restaurant specialises in classic Italian dishes with imports of produce from markets around Italy arriving direct every week.
This fascinating snippet from the archives of the National Library of Scotland shows that the country’s love of curry has a long history.
Scots returning from India brought back with them a taste for more exotic food, and the first recipes for curry appear in cookery books of this period.
The National Library of Scotland is Scotland’s largest library and a leading centre for the study of Scotland and the Scots. Delve into the Library’s archives to discover the history of Scotland’s food and drink over the centuries.
Eating within the World Heritage Site can be great opportunity to soak in some of the city’s historic sights. With over 1,600 listed buildings in the World Heritage Site, many cafes and restaurants will have an interesting tale to tell about its past. Because of the the extraordinary topography of the site, you can also find many places with a fine view across the city’s rooftops and skyline.
For an exclusive private dining experience organise a party in the bank vault of the former Caledonian Insurance Company, and now a part of Amarone at the corner of George Street and St Andrew’s Square. Look out for the heavy metal doors of ‘The Vault’.
Take breakfast, light lunch, or afternoon tea in one of the finest buildings of Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site. Colonnades is located within the Signet Library in West Parliament Square and dates back to 1812. Look out for lavish Corinthian columns, the war memorials and several pieces of antique library furniture.
An in-store café with a touch of Victorian opulence, Debenham’s first floor café in Princes Street was once part of the Scottish Conservative Club. It features lavish Corinthian columns, a beautiful curved staircase and three eye catching stained glass windows constructed in 1884, dedicated to the memory of the Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.
On the same floor, look out for an oak panelled Victorian library featuring antique books and a bust of Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone, Disraeli’s great rival, which is a remnant of the Liberal Club which also used to be on this site.
Songkran Thai restaurant, at 8 Gloucester Street, offers an interesting combination of Old Town and New Town in the one building. Built in the 1790s as part of the expanding New Town, the building stones were salvaged from Old Town demolitions at the top of the Mound, where Bank Street now stands.
The Old Town lintel above the north door inscribed ‘Fear God Only 1605’ was part of the salvage. Also look out for a plaque commemorating the birth here, in 1796, of the landscape painter David Roberts RA.
Snack at the Deacon’s House Café at 304, Lawnmarket on the Royal Mile, and you will be dining in the workshop of the infamous Deacon Brodie who was executed in 1788 on a gallows of his own design. Look out for 14th century stonework in the kitchen, and a mural depicting Brodie’s tale, said to be the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’.
To enjoy a delicious patisserie at Mimi’s Bakehouse in the Canongate you must first pass through the original entrance of an old Edinburgh lane called Gibb’s Close. This close was named after coachbuilder Robert Gibb, an eighteenth century resident, but gained notoriety in 1828 when it was the scene of one of seventeen murders by serial killers William Burke and William Hare who sold their victims’ bodies for dissection at surgical lectures.
The Café Royal is a stylish Victorian Baroque establishment built in 1861. Look out for its Royal Doulton ‘Faience’ tile panels depicting famous inventors. The panels were originally exhibited in 1886 at Edinburgh’s International Exhibition of Industry, Science and Art held in the Meadows.
There is fine Canongate dining at Wedgwood in the heart of the World Heritage Site. Look out for the sculpture outside, said to represent the Emperor of Morocco. In the 17th century, Andrew Gray was accused of assaulting the unpopular Provost of Edinburgh, but fled the country before his execution. He became a slave of the Moroccan Emperor, but rose through the ranks of the Emperor’s court. It is said that he returned to Edinburgh as a wealthy man, cured the Provost’s daughter of plague, married her and they set up home here in the Canongate.
Dining in the rooftop Tower Restaurant, above the National Museum of Scotland in Chambers Street, is enhanced by views of the World Heritage Site over Greyfriars and Castlehill. Look out for an aerial view of the statue of Greyfriars’ Bobby, the wee 19th-century Skye Terrier who is famous for keeping vigil at his owner’s grave for 14 years.
Enjoy a slice of the World Heritage Site at the Elephant House on George IV Bridge, with an unusual view of Greyfriars Kirkyard and Edinburgh Castle.
The branch of Zizzi in Roxburgh Court, down Warriston’s Close off the Royal Mile, offers high level views over to the Georgian New Town. Look out for glimpses of the towering Scott Monument and the Balmoral Hotel.
Several upstairs dining establishments in Princes Street from the Mound to the West End offer uninterrupted views of Edinburgh Castle – Waterstones’ cafeteria, Debenhams’s restaurant, Starbucks, the Royal Overseas Club, the restaurants of the Old Waverley Hotel, Jenners department store, and the Mercure Hotel.
The Scottish Café and Restaurant at the Scottish National Gallery on the Mound, takes pride in offering freshly prepared ‘slow food’. As you take a leisurely meal, you can take time to enjoy spectacular views of Princes Street Gardens and the Old Town. Look out for the imposing landmark of the Bank of Scotland building.