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How to spend a day in Portobello, Edinburgh’s swinging seaside suburb

The charm of the coast is just a few miles from Edinburgh’s city centre  (Getty Images)
The charm of the coast is just a few miles from Edinburgh’s city centre (Getty Images)

Three miles from the tourist-trodden Old Town of Edinburgh, Portobello has a completely different feel from the medieval spires and haunted snickleways the Scottish capital is famous for. The shoreline here has been on a rickety wooden rollercoaster of rebrands over the centuries, from a thriving industrial base in the 18th century to an upmarket seaside destination for the Victorians and then a slightly neglected suburb of faded grandeur at the turn of the millennium. Slowly and quietly since, indie shops have sprung up along the high street and street food stalls have replaced the Wimpy fast food joint, which stubbornly clung to the side of the promenade’s arcades for decades.

These days, if it’s sunny – “taps aff” weather, as they’d say here – you’ll be hard-pressed to find a spot of sand at the long sweep of beach that doesn’t already have a rainbow windbreaker or disposable barbecue occupying it. Tables and chairs spill out from brunch spots on the promenade offering avocado toast and eggs Benedict with a sea view, and you’re never more than a few feet from an artisan ice cream hatch.

Here’s how to spend your time in Portobello.

Do

Portobello Beach

A day at Portobello Beach is sure to blow away the cobwebs (Vault City Brewing)
A day at Portobello Beach is sure to blow away the cobwebs (Vault City Brewing)

The main draw to this Edinburgh suburb is its long stretch of sandy beach. On a clear day, the sea is denim blue, with clear shallows lapping quietly at the shore and, closing your eyes, you could be on a Greek island save for the obnoxious squawk of seagulls fighting for chips The west end of the beach is popular with dog walkers, strolling along the sand with a view all the way to Bass Rock in the distance. For those with limited mobility, beach wheelchairs are available.

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Art Walk Porty

Year-round, you can see the evidence of Portobello’s artistic community in the seaside-themed street murals and pop-up installations that appear in parks and on the promenade. The view out towards the East Lothian headland from the latter attracts sketch artists, which might explain the “Portobello pencil sharpening project” – sharpeners glued to the beach walls that went viral in 2020. September sees 10 days of eco-art projects pop up around Portobello and beyond during the Art Walk Porty Festival.

Portobello Swim Centre

It may seem odd to visit the beach only to head to the indoor swimming pool but the Portobello Swim Centre is home to the only public Victorian Turkish baths in Scotland. The double-height main pool, with its rose skylight, is a sight in itself, but the hidden heated pools and hydrotherapy spots are the real surprises behind these doors.

Eat

Shrimp Wreck

This casual spot serves up sea-fresh street food with a bit of friendly patter on the side. It’s a step up from the old-school fish and chip vans on the promenade, with Pittenweem lobster, fat juicy buffalo prawns from the west coast and crab-topped mac ‘n’ cheese on the menu. Despite being mostly outdoors, Shrimp Wreck is open year-round, come rain or shine. If the sky turns steely grey and the wind whips at the coast, you can huddle in the shelter with your crispy squid.

Bross Bagels

Mama Bross has an empire of bagel shops across Edinburgh, but Portobello is where it began. In a grand, old building on Portobello High Street, you can watch the bagels baking before they’re shipped out to the numerous Bross branches across the capital. Founder Larah Bross hails from Montreal and the menu embraces her Jewish-Canadian background, combined with locally sourced Scottish produce.

Passey’s

It may say coffee house on the exterior, but this LGBT+-friendly spot on the High Street is definitely a food-first establishment fit for evening meals. The menu changes by season, trend and whim, while towering wagyu burgers mean there’s no danger of leaving hungry. The kitsch decor is a delight and there are plenty of local craft beers on tap, plus they do a mean Sunday roast.

The Beach House

Bright and bunting-strewn, the interior of The Beach House feels like an ode to The Great British Bake Off. Salad greens and herbs come straight from the kitchen garden, naturally seasoned by the salty sea air, and the wildflower table arrangements are done locally, too. Crunchy sourdough and wholemeal loaves are made fresh daily, topped with creamy avocado and runny poached eggs.

Drink

Porty Vault

Taproom to Portobello’s own Vault City Brewery just around the corner, the Porty Vault specialises in sour beers. A positively pun-tastic chalkboard menu shows off the team’s creativity in fiddling with flavours such as New York cheesecake and lemon drizzle. There’s usually a trendy pop-up on the go in the open kitchen, so you might find El Perro Negro’s award-winning burgers to accompany your Strawberry Sundae sour.

Unusual brews go down a storm at Porty Vault (Vault City Brewing)
Unusual brews go down a storm at Porty Vault (Vault City Brewing)

Smith & Gertrude

Peruse the walls lined with bottles for sale or settle in for a glass and some small plates at this stylish wine bar on the High Street. The menu is very much cheese-based with tasting notes to match the crisp picpouls or light chenin blancs. The best spots are by the big windows overlooking the street, or on the squashy sofas in the back where you get a sneak peek of Portobello’s back gardens.

Tanifiki

Exposed stone walls, a warehouse-sized interior, and plenty of fernickety coffee paraphernalia tells you this place is serious about a cup of Joe. Fairtrade coffee beans come from Rwanda but are roasted in-house. In summer, the iced latte topped with coconut milk is perfect for sunny days by the sea.

Shop

Till’s Bookshop

It’s a delight to simply browse the shelves and shelves of second-hand books at Till’s. You might find a vintage cookbook, a well-thumbed paperback with the previous owner’s scribblings in the margins or a pristine copy of a bestseller for a bargain price. There’s a coffee shop attached to fuel your perusing.

Books, books and more books at Till’s (Vault City Brewing)
Books, books and more books at Till’s (Vault City Brewing)

Cove Scotland

Knick-knacks and treasures by local artisans and artists are on offer in this shop on the High Street. Sure, tartan prints and Scotty dog pieces tick the “you’re in Scotland” box, but old maps and retro prints of Portobello keep it feeling ultra-local.

Harry’s Gourmet Treats

For the four-legged friend in your life, this dog shop specialises in handmade treats for hounds. Treats, such as gourmet venison and apple slices, or chicken and turmeric, sound like they belong on a chef’s tasting menu, and there are even “woofins” – muffins for dogs – to truly spoil your pooch.

The Fine Wine Company

The choice is immense at The Fine Wine Company, where the bottle-filled shelves graze the ceiling. The collection showcases over 5,000 small producers from across the globe. It’s a great spot to pick up a bottle of whisky and they offer a selection of artisan IJ Mellis cheeses to accompany your tipple.

Stay

Georgian Guest House

Bedrooms with big sash windows overlooking manicured gardens and a sweeping old staircase for Scarlet O’Hara moments await at this family-run spot. The rooms are delightfully kitsch with huge beds and thick curtains. A continental breakfast is served in the grand dining room.

Abercorn Guest House

Boasting some beautiful communal spaces, Abercorn Guest House dates back to the 1870s. Each en-suite room is an ode to Victorian charm and the plant-filled sunroom is the perfect place to kick back with a good book – perhaps something you’ve picked up earlier from Till’s, just around the corner.

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