Thanks to its wealth of top eateries, historic attractions and vibrant atmosphere, you don’t need summer shorts or even golf clubs to enjoy St Andrews.

When the golfers go St Andrews is still a great place to visit,” smiles Niall Campbell, concierge at the Old Course Hotel since 2008. If my weekend back in town at the chilly end of November is anything to go by it’s the best time to ease off to St Andrews.

I’m with Mark Twain when it comes to golf, but St Andrews has always been about more than just being home to the Royal and Ancient. Yes St Andrews has seven golf courses that together form Europe’s largest public golf complex – and you can play in winter if you really want to – but to me that only distracts from the rest of its appeal. St Andrews after all is the fulcrum of the church in Scotland, the legacy the ruins of our largest medieval building, and the dramatic end of the new Fife Pilgrim Way, which marks a pilgrimage route trodden for centuries. I trace the outline of St Andrews Cathedral, as always amazed by its sheer size, hinted at by the foundations and the soaring, haunted tower of St Rule’s Tower. Next door is St Andrews Castle, the rugged fortification of childhood imagination, rough-hewn walls standing defiant against the North Sea. 

It, too, swims in ecclesiastical intrigue – the pals of burned alive protestant reformer George Wishart were so incensed they murdered the man they held responsible, Cardinal Beaton, and held Scotland’s first Protestant church congregation here. Layers of history like this peel back at every turn on St Andrews’ grand stone streets. Then there is the university. The University of St Andrews, founded in 1413 as Scotland’s first university, which earlier this autumn trumped both Oxford and Cambridge to top The Guardian University Guide 2024 rankings, as its population swells from 10,000 towards 15,000 under ambitious Principal Professor Dame Sally Mapstone. 

I always feel reluctant to delve around the university’s myriad locations – you shouldn’t as they are a Harry Potter-esque joy and the university choose to inhabit a town rather than a distant campus after all. Blue Badge Guide Val Eglinton is on hand to show me the highlights and ease my sense of being too nosy. And there are many highlights, from the revamped Younger Hall and the grand house where William and Kate lodged. One thing that always impresses me about this Fife town is how much people buy into the ‘Town and Gown’ ethos. I collide right into a physical expression of it chancing upon a whole street closed off to allow students and locals to fling themselves around to a ceilidh band as part of the ‘Big Hoolie’ celebrations.

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The symbiotic relationship between the students and the town fuels not just the lively local hostelries, but also hip cafés, the swish shops their parents frequent and ridiculously good restaurants for a town with just under 17,000 inhabitants. Chief amongst them is Haar, one of the east coast’s finest restaurants. Not content with sublime tasting menus the same team open a gastro bar, Dune, when I’m in town, a rare late night eating and drinking venue for grown-ups outside Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Haar and Dune are not alone. St Andrews has bounced back from Covid faster than any other town in Scotland I can think of. There is a buzz about the streets even as the days shorten; no shutting up shop at the end of the tourist season here. 

Indeed White Company have just opened. Edinburgh’s Islander too, where you can fashion your own Harris Tweed handbag.Spoiled Life is a hip, zeitgeist nodding microcosm. The clothes rails are lovingly laid out with curated vintage clothes, backed up by expensive niche brand perfumes. 
Upstairs the café hums with excited students ordering matcha lattes next to more mature local ladies securing fresh bakes. Coffee beans are roasted in Burntisland; cups are recycled from coffee husks. The hardwood herringbone floor is standard issue, but the warm welcome and genuine vibe of this lifestyle boutique are harder to buy off the hipster peg. 

What is as telling about what is here in St Andrews is what is not – no McDonalds, Burger King or Wetherspoons. Authentic, local and independent often trumps the chains for a blessed change. I find superb local haunt Little Italy has just expanded, but on a Saturday night it’s still hard to get a table, as a half empty Pizza Express looks jealously on. Not only is Wetherspoons not here, but Brewdog lies quiet while a few doors local guys the St Andrews Brewing Company go great guns. 
Eden Mill’s shop is booming too as this local distillery expands and just down the road Kingsbarns are up and running with their first (superb) single malts.

Of course it is not all about the new in St Andrews. This is a town where deep roots keep things grounded. I meet Tony Fusaro of Luvians. For 40 years he has been conjuring up superb ice cream, carrying on the tradition from his Italian father. I savour his superb pistachio ice cream; he talks proudly of authenticity: “We are a small town that punches above its weight and maintains its individuality. Tourists and golfers flock here from all over the world, but we don’t rest on our laurels. St Andrews stays proudly St Andrews.”

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This must be my twentieth visit to St Andrews, but every time I discover more. If you knew the sea cliffs in front of The Scores were home to Fife’s largest colony of fulmars that makes one of us. I had never been inside the Byre Theatre, a serious mistake as it’s a brilliant theatre any town would be proud of. The art deco New Picture House cinema is a joy too. It doesn’t come as a surprise to learn Ryan Reynolds and Tiger Woods recently waltzing in to try to turn it into a sports bar has met fierce local resistance.

My last stop is back at the Old Course Hotel, my favourite St Andrews bolthole. It is a Sunday so the sprinkling of hardy out of season golfers have been replaced by dog walkers and families toddling kids along the fairways. Sunday means no play on the world’s most famous golf course as local life takes over.  That doesn’t surprise me – in St Andrews golf always plays second fiddle to life. 
And in winter you can indulge even more in a multitude of alternative pleasures. 
Mark Twain would no doubt have heartily approved.

The Herald:

Foodie St Andrews 

Masterchef star Dean Banks, right, is the creative talent behind St Andrews’ best restaurant. Opt for the tasting menu and try the signature smoked St Andrews Bay lobster in miso butter.

Swilcan Loft
Peer over the most famous course in golf and big North Sea skies. A hotel restaurant worth staying in for. Kick off with a haggis Scotch Egg, before a beef fillet from Perthshire, or ribeye from the Black Isle.

Seafood Ristorante
You couldn’t get any closer to the catch of the day in this striking glass box on the waterfront. Savour the likes of Anstruther lobster raviolo and roasted Scrabster turbot in one of the east coast’s finest seafood temples.

Bed down in St Andrews

Old Course Hotel Golf Resort & Spa
The place to stay in town, right on the Old Course’s 17th hole, with views across the church-studded skyline. The Kohler Waters Spa is one of Scotland’s finest. Luxurious, but not stuffy, with can-do friendly service for golfers and non-golfers alike. Quote ESCAPE when booking for stays until March 31st for three nights for the price of two.

Haar Rooms
After dinner at Haar head upstairs to one of their half dozen top floor suites. Old Course and West Sands views await. Breakfast in bed completes the decadent experience.

Fairmont St Andrews
Spacious, luxurious option enjoying a prime position on a high bluff south of town. With its own golf courses, spa and superb dining options pulling yourself away for a trip into town is hard. The opulent Manor Homes – revamped by interior designer Russell Sage – take things up another level.