Formerly Edinburgh’s main port area, Leith was down on its luck for many years. Irvine Welsh set Trainspotting there due to its uncompromising grittiness. But in the last couple of decades, big investment and regeneration projects have transformed Leith. Moving the executive arm of the Scottish government there brought jobs, and the waterside setting has proved an irresistible lure for leading chefs. An area once best associated with grotty fish and chips has now become the somewhat unlikely Michelin-starred gourmet capital of Scotland.
Today, Leith’s contradictions are what make it so interesting. The new and shiny rub shoulders with the old and weatherbeaten, while working- class stalwarts sit incongruously with high-end newcomers. It is never consistent, and never dull.
A comfortable bed
Many visitors to Leith visit from Edinburgh for a day or an evening rather than staying overnight, which means the hotel stock isn’t all that thrilling. The Holiday Inn Express (www.expressedinburgh.co.uk, 0044 131 555 4422) is a phenomenally unexciting but good value option from £34 (Dh190) a night in low season. Don’t expect any thrills – it’s basically the same as every other Holiday Inn Express in the world.
Much more fun is the Malmaison (www.malmaison.com, 0044 844 693 0652), which occupies the former Sailor’s Home. Check out the black and white photography that’s scattered around, showing zoomed-in details of Edinburgh landmarks. Doubles cost from £65 (Dh363).
Find your feet
There’s a lot to be said for aimless rambling around Leith. Cobblestones, old tramlines and canals all hark back to the port days, while the local authorities have put admirable investment into explanatory signs. The Shore is the most-appealing area, and it’s worth paying attention to the detail as you stroll along it. A mounted harpoon harks back to the days when one of the world’s largest whaling fleets was registered in Leith, and the Merchant Navy Memorial is covered in reliefs, symbolising everything from the Suez Canal to the perils of being attacked by enemy ships at sea.
From there, stroll over to the Ocean Terminal for Leith’s non-food highlight. The Royal Yacht Britannia (www.royalyachtbritannia.co.uk, 0044 131 555 5566), which sailed over a million miles during its 44 years of service, is now open to visitors. It offers a marvellous insight into the lives and tastes of Britain’s Royal Family – the Queen said it was the only place she could truly relax. And the relative austerity of furnishing comes as a big surprise.
Meet the locals
The Leith Links is the area’s main green space with children’s play areas, bowling greens and petanque courts to keep people occupied when the sun is out. The name comes from the former incarnation as a golf course, and golf lovers can regard this as the sport’s spiritual home. It’s widely believed that the rules of the sport were first written down here.
Book a table
Chances are you’re here to eat, and Fishers (www.fishersbistros.co.uk, 0044 131 554 5666) has a long-standing reputation for serving excellent seafood inside a 17th century watchtower. West coast king scallops in a fennel and smoked salmon dressing cost £21 (Dh117).
Tom Kitchin is arguably Edinburgh’s hottest chef, though, and The Kitchin (www.thekitchin.com, 0044 131 555 1755) is where he gets to show off what he can do. The concept is Scottish produce, with classical French techniques, and intricate tasting menus cost £75 (Dh418).
The new kid on the block is V Deep (www.vdeep.co.uk, 0044 131 563 5293), which offers hipsterised Indian food at long communal tables to encourage sharing. East meets west dishes include the £7.50 (Dh42) venison korma.
The Ocean Terminal is Leith’s premier shopping destination (and Edinburgh’s largest mall), but it’s hardly rocking the boat with anything daring. Expect mid-market chains such as Fat Face, Superdry, Debenhams and H&M. For art-buyers, a few galleries have cropped up. The Leith Gallery (www.the-leith-gallery.co.uk, 0044 131 553 5255) sells tasteful sculptures and paintings from a handy showroom on The Shore.
What to avoid
You probably don’t want to get the confusingly named Water of Leith Walkway and the Leith Walk muddled up. The former is a gorgeously tranquil route along the river into Central Edinburgh. The latter is a rather down-at-heel major thoroughfare lined with largely unappealing cheap-and-nasty shops.
The restaurant that really kicked Leith off on the road to being an unlikely dining hub was Martin Wishart. It was the first restaurant in Edinburgh to be awarded a Michelin star back in 2000, and has consistently maintained impeccable standards since. There’s a major emphasis on Scottish ingredients, and the six-course tasting menu costs £75 (Dh418). If on a relative budget, a three-course lunch costs £28.50 (Dh159).
Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies direct to Edinburgh from Abu Dhabi, with return fares from Dh3,555 including taxes.