Ancient rivals head for Europe, City joined by Spartans

Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game

Edinburgh is enjoying something of a football revival. Now with four clubs in the SPFL after the arrival of The Spartans in 2023, Scotland’s capital has seen its two historic city rivals reach several cup finals,  compete in Europe and, most of all, battle it out in the top tier since 2017.

All turned on the game-changing season of 2015-16, arguably the most dramatic in the long history of football in Edinburgh.

Returning to the Premiership as champions, Heart of Midlothian (‘Hearts’) won first their five games straight and finished in a European spot, two years after almost going out of business altogether.

Hibernian (‘Hibs’) won a first Scottish Cup for more than a century with a stoppage-game goal against Rangers that set Hampden alight, causing a mass pitch invasion and 100,000 to fill the streets of Edinburgh in the subsequent open-top bus parade. Hibs had not long lost the League Cup final, and a promotion play-off for the Premiership, both by last-minute goals.

Meanwhile, semi-professional outfit Edinburgh City became the first club to gain full League status through the newly established play-off system. Again, the decider was a late goal, a penalty that did for tenacious East Stirling.

So, from 2016-17 to 2023, Edinburgh had three representatives in the top four divisions. In 2022, the upstarts from the Lowland League gained promotion to League One, moving back into the Meadowbank Stadium and briefly rebranding themselves FC Edinburgh.

As concerns the Premiership, at least one – and usually both – of city’s twin rivals of Hearts and Hibs had enjoyed top-tier status for 124 years until 2014. Both teams were relegated, Hearts punished with a 15-point deduction for entering administration.

The last time a club from the capital, Hearts, lifted the title, Elvis had not long touched down in Scotland on his way home from the Army. Presley hadn’t yet stepped into the Sun studio when Hibs last won the league, in 1952. As for the cup, the Edinburgh rivals met in the final in 2012 –­ the first such clash since 1896.

A year after the so-called Edinburgh slam, when Hearts won the league, Hibs the Second Division and St Bernard’s the cup, the Scottish Cup Final of 1896 was the only time that the event left Glasgow. Played at the home of St Bernard’s, Logie Green, it drew 16,000 for the derby between the burgeoning rivals formed two decades earlier.

Just as Hearts had won the first ever derby at East Meadows on Christmas Day in 1875 – today a plaque marks the event – so they triumphed again in 1896. The club’s foundation date is commonly given as 1874, when members of a local dancing club opted for the rules of association football over a local code. Its name was taken from a Sir Walter Scott novel, set at Edinburgh’s former Old Tolbooth prison also known as: Heart of Midlothian.

Hearts have traditionally been based in Gorgie, west Edinburgh – and specifically the Tynecastle site since 1886. Though green-shirted Hibernian were formed by Irish immigrants in 1875, any sectarian element to the city rivalry is understated compared to Glasgow’s. Hibs draw their supporter based from Leith, and north and east Edinburgh.

St Bernard’s were originally the Third Edinburgh Rifle Volunteers, winners of the inaugural Edinburgh FA Cup, aka East of Scotland Shield, in 1876. Quickly dominated by Hearts and Hibs, it is still played for today, at youth level.

St Bernard’s folded in 1943, just when Ferranti electrical engineering company opened a factory in Edinburgh – and its workers formed a team, Ferranti Amateurs, later Ferranti Thistle. Taking advantage of a spare slot in the SFL and an underused Meadowbank Stadium, built for the Commonwealth Games of 1970, in 1974 the club became Meadowbank Thistle and gained full league status.

Running out in Ferranti’s traditional amber-and-black, in front of scant crowds in an echoing athletics ground, Thistle nonetheless narrowly missed out on promotion to the Premier in 1988. With dwindling revenues, by 1995 Thistle were forced to either fold or move – they chose the new town of Livingston, 20 minutes from Edinburgh. Livingston FC have recently appeared in the Premiership.

Edinburgh City duly moved into the vacant Meadowbank. Sharing the stadium with them are Leith Athletic. Able to trace their history back to 1887, Leith were revived in 1996 and now run a dozen boys’ and ladies’ clubs, a valuable resource to the community. 

In 2016, the first team won the East of Scotland League, only to be denied Lowland League status through lack of an SFA licence. The Leithers are currently treading water in the East of Scotland First Division, tier seven of the Scottish pyramid.

Lowland League champions for the third time in 2023, The Spartans at last made the Scottish League that spring, a narrow win at Albion Rovers condemning the Coatbridge side to the drop.

Their modest Ainslie Park ground welcomed a crowd of 3,500 for the visit of city rivals Hearts in the Scottish Cup in January 2024. Holding their illustrious visitors to 1-1 until stoppage time, the League Two newcomers failed to defend a late corner, ending the game empty-handed.

Cup fever has swept through Edinburgh quite often in recent seasons, most notably in the 2022 semi-final between Hearts and Hibs, staged at lunchtime at Hampden despite local fans demanding the game be played at the national rugby ground of Murrayfield. 

The game turned on a flurry of goals around 20 minutes in, propelling Hearts to another cup final defeat, the third in four seasons. They could at least take comfort in the 3-0 demolition of Hibs at Easter Road, in the same competition early the following year.

Getting Around

Arriving in town, local transport and timings

Edinburgh Airport is 9km (six miles) west of town, served by Lothian Bus Airlink 100 (every 10mins) to St Andrew Square (£5.50, contactless on board, exact change if cash, journey time 25mins) in town, near main Waverley station. It also calls at Murrayfield, close to Hearts’ home of Tynecastle, and the city’s other station of Haymarket

Alternatively, a tram runs every 7mins to St Andrew Square/Waverley (£7.50, journey time 25mins), also passing via Murrayfield and Haymarket, before heading towards Leith via Balfour Street, the nearest stop for Easter Road and Hibernian.

A taxi service for airport transfers is provided by Capital Cars (0131 777 7777), fare into town around £30-£35. Around town, City Cabs (0131 228 1211) have the biggest fleet of black cabs, serving Edinburgh over the last century. 

Transport for Edinburgh oversees trams and local Lothian buses. Using the same card for contactless payment means your fare is capped at £4.80/day through the TapTapCap scheme or you pay the standard £2 per daytime journey. Also valid on Lothian buses are the m-ticket app and cash payments (exact change only) to the driver.

Where to Drink

The best pubs and bars for football fans

Cocktails, ales, wines and craft beers, Edinburgh has a proper venue for every taste. Many show matches too, including Grassmarket landmarks the White Hart Inn, with its half-millennium of history and Belhaven beers, and the food-focused Beehive Inn and Black Bull

Further west on Spittal Street, you can rent one of six booths at the Footlights Sports Bar & Grill, with beer-and-burger deals and an online schedule of live matches.

Back towards town on Cowgate, supersized Irish pub Three Sisters has an equally whopping big screen in the forecourt. Next door, the most central branch of Aberdeen’s BrewDog chain in Edinburgh features 28 taps, each with a top craft option.

Between Grassmarket and Waverley, appealing to a younger clientele, Belushi’s is a part of a Europe-wide chain of hostel and urban, sport-focused bar combined, while The Jinglin’ Geordie is nicely tucked away from the tourist hordes – note the photograph of one-time regular George Best in his serious-drinking prime after signing for Hibs.

Facing Haymarket station, attached to the Tune Hotel Platform 5 provides TV football, Belhaven beers and rump steaks to commuters and new arrivals.

Where Leith Walk begins its long stretch to the seafront, Mathers on Broughton Street offers a huge selection of whiskies along with sports action on TV. If it’s whiskies you’re after, then perfectly located on the Leith waterfront, Teuchters Landing has scores of them, the friendly staff happy to advise on which to sip. The food’s superb, there’s sport on TV – although here they favour the oval ball, also judging by the framed shirts – and the beer range is interesting. Set in the former waiting room for the ferry to Aberdeen.

Where to stay

The best hotels for the grounds and around town

Forever Edinburgh has a small database of hotels. Accommodation is limited around New Year’s Eve and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe during the month of August.

In February 2024, ambitious Hearts opened their own Tynecastle Park Hotel, the first in the UK to be club-owned and -operated within the stadium itself. Match-day packages now include a ticket and overnight stay, with a full breakfast thrown in – or a two-night stay with a stadium tour and three-course dinner. The hotel comprises 24 rooms and access to the third-floor Skyline Restaurant.

Until 2024, there was only one hotel within easy reach of Tynecastle: the family-run Ardmillan (9-10 Ardmillan Terrace, 0131 337 9588), with live music in the bar, a terrace restaurant, garden and hearty Scottish breakfasts. Its bar is also a pre-match haunt.

For Hibs, there are plenty of hotels, guesthouses and boutique spots near the bottom of Easter Road, either side of Royal Terrace Gardens. Affordable and well located, the Twenty (20 Leopold Place, 0131 556 3556) has a Thai restaurant and in-house bar.

The Holiday Inn Express is also handy for Easter Road while the Ibis Styles Edinburgh Centre is a convenient walking distance from Waverley. 

Every kind of lodging can be found around the centre of tourist-focused Edinburgh, starting with the century-old grand railway hotel, The Balmoral by Waverley Station, with its spa and Michelin-starred restaurant.

Also at the upscale end, the Sheraton Grand Hotel & Spa features a rooftop hydropool and rooms with Castle views. Across Lothian Road, the DoubleTree by Hilton Edinburgh City Centre caters to the business crowd with a 24/7 gym and room service.

Closer to Grassmarket, the Novotel Edinburgh Centre on Lauriston Place has a more vibrant, urban feel with craft beer and local gins served in its Tap Kitchen & Bar, its heated pool and spa. 

Next door, the Premier Inn Edinburgh City Centre provides conveniently located affordable lodgings, with a full breakfast, too. On Grassmarket itself, the Apex City of Edinburgh is a contemporary four-star with online deals.