A Covid vaccine drop-in bus is parked in the square – a stark reminder that this year’s cohort of students is still living through a pandemic.
However, while the queue of masked students waiting for their jag snakes around the corner, the line for a nearby food van is even longer as in-person friendships rekindle after 18 months of online learning.
"It is exhausting, everyone is having to deal with seeing so many people again, with walking into the library and having to speak to everyone you know,” says Pip Howes, 21, a fourth year geography and social anthropology student at the University of Edinburgh. “It does just knacker you.”
Her friend Dulcie Loveland, who studies history of art, agrees.
"After talking to so many people during the day, I often just put on my mask and block people on my walk home,” she says. “I do most of my lectures online – I’ve only got two hours a week in person this year, which isn’t very much, but it suits me. When I go into uni now, it’s more of a social occasion for me.”
Unlike most students, Ms Loveland says she actually prefers learning online from her room.
Large lectures of more than 50 people are online at most Scottish universities, in line with government guidance. For a lot of students, smaller group classes such as seminars and tutorials are in-person, but can depend on the university, subject – or even the lecturer teaching it. Students are required to wear masks during classes, as well as while studying in the library.
"I know it’s not a popular point of view among most students, but it is better for me,” she says. “I can rewind parts and I find I’m more productive.”
Ms Howes finds Covid regulations also interfere with in-person teaching.
"When you’ve got a tutorial in person, you have to wear a mask and it makes it really difficult to speak to people and connect with them,” she says. “Online, it was just as bad, nobody wants to speak and people just turn their cameras off.”
Third year students Josh Landau, Ben Boissier, Hugo Rogers and George Williams are happy to be returning to a life which is more like the first year of the student experience they remember.
"Last year was pretty bleak to be a student,” says philosophy and theology student Mr Boissier. “It feels now like life is getting back to normal. Coming into uni is pretty nice, as is going out to bars. It still feels like a novelty.”
None of the students are worried about catching Covid. Some of them had it earlier this year and most have since been vaccinated.
"Bars and clubs feel the same again now, everyone crowded in – apart from when you don’t have to wear a mask on the dance floor, but have to put it on to go to the bar, that’s strange,” adds Mr Boissier.
Mr Williams, who has only received his first dose of vaccine and is not due his second for some weeks, will not be allowed in to nightclubs now, since the introduction of vaccine passports, but says he has not considered it.
Ms Howes, who is double vaccinated, but cannot download her vaccine passport due to having had one jag in England and one in Scotland, does not believe clubs will be able to implement the policy in practice.
"The club we went to last week, there was a queue around the block anyway, it was mayhem,” she says. “Everyone is pushing and shoving and I can’t see how they are going to check anyone’s passport.”
Mr Landau, who studies history and politics, says he found online learning difficult.
"I couldn’t work in my room, I need a work space outside my flat,” he says. “Coming into uni now, where everyone is around you, all the hustle and bustle, is much better. I go into the library and see people who I haven’t seen since 2020. It hasn’t happened yet, but I think it’ll be weird when I see someone in person who I’ve only met in an online tutorial.”
However, what the universities are dubbing “blended learning” – a mix of in-person and online teaching – is not always working.
"I have one history class which is in person one week and online the next,” says Mr Landau. “The first week was great, but the second week, it was awful to go back online, the tech didn’t work and it was just a disaster.”
Caitlin Macnab, 19, from Livingston, spent much of her first year studying politics in lockdown. Now in second year and attending face-to-face classes for the first time, she has found it difficult to meet new people.
"I’m quite a social person, but this has been weird even for me, last year was very isolating,” she says. “The only people I’ve met since I started uni are the people I shared a flat with. Last year, it felt like a choice between breaking the rules and making friends, or following them and not getting to know anyone. I did the second one and it’s left me in a very difficult position this year.
"The university staff tried their best [to get students to mix] by holding events online, and if you can meet people that way, great, but it wasn’t for me. Now, this year, I couldn't find a flat, so I'm living at home again.”
She indicates a quiet Bristo Square, where a handful of students are enjoying the afternoon sunshine and a few skateboarders are practising tricks on the steps.
"To me, this seems mental, it’s so busy. When I used to walk through here last year, it was absolutely deserted. But my sister, who started here two years before me, says it used to be a lot busier than this before.”
Anna Fischer, who works at the Brewbox coffee box on George Square, is delighted to see the students again.
"We tried to open last year, but it was absolutely dead, you could see the tumbleweed,” she says. “It is bustling again now and we’ve had the busiest day we’ve had since we re-opened today, so it is nice. We are seeing customers who used to be regulars before – two years ago – who are coming back and asking how we are.”
However, the business is not quite back to pre-pandemic levels.
"It is more university staff who are not back fully this year – a lot of them are still working a couple of days from home, so it is still definitely quieter than it used to be,” she says.
Fourth year Magnus Robertson, who is studying politics at the University of Aberdeen, says that while his social life is back to normal, anything connected to the university still feels affected by Covid.
He runs a second hand bookshop for students, which is based in a dedicated room in the student union. While the cafes are open in the union building, the offices and some rooms used for societies are not – and Mr Robertson has not been able to open the bookshop this year.
"We’re the cheapest place to buy books and a lot of students haven’t got the money to buy them new,” he says. He and his fellow students who run the bookshop have been allowed into the building to organise stock – although only one at a time and while wearing a mask.
"It is still not the full university experience, but there are so many things I’m grateful for now. In the non-uni things, the experience does feel normal because I can see my friends more and go to clubs, but it does not feel the same yet in my uni work,” he says.
A spokesman for Universities Scotland says: “This year, university feels very much closer to normal, with the wider student experience also getting back to normal alongside the changes across society.
"That said, universities continue to prioritise safety and many have been cautious in our plans for this next academic year. We understand that all will limit in-person lectures over a significant size, at least for the first semester, and that a range of mitigations will remain in place to give students and staff peace of mind.”