What can I say about Edinburgh that hasn’t been written before? If you’re unfamiliar with my home city, it was made to be dreich, brooding and equally enchanting. Winter is therefore maybe the best time to visit as a sea of spires are lit up by the light of Christmas market stalls and embellished buildings.
Known as the ‘festival city’ it’s no surprise that millions of people from around the world arrive to Edinburgh during the festive season to witness the delights of Hogmanay, quite possibly the best New Year’s party on the planet. As Christmas shoppers pound Princes Street in the full glare of Edinburgh Castle, mugs of Glühwein warm the cockles of market goers and locals are probably grumbling that it’s impossible to move anywhere.
With that in mind let’s go through the places to visit so you can enjoy the city like a local which will include the big attractions as well as off the beaten path tips. Let’s face it, even as a local I still enjoy the festivities that Edinburgh is famous for and love the more unusual things to do too!
1. Enjoy free festive sights in Edinburgh
Edinburgh was made to be enjoyed during the festive season, there are lovely spots to take in if you’re visiting this year and walking is absolutely the best way to get around Edinburgh in the city centre. To re-enact the joys of my childhood, visit the glorious Jenner’s Christmas Tree, this department store has been here since the late 1800’s and it might be the last year to see it before it closes! From here you can choose to walk along the historic Rose Street and up to the grandiose George Street with its fantastic displays, not to be missed are the Christmas lights and The Dome building.
In the Old Town just over North Bridge is St Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile and during Christmas you can enjoy concerts in the evening like the popular ‘Viennese Christmas by Candlelight’ on Dec 6th and 13th, it also looks wonderful at this time of year. Take in the colourful Victoria Street and draw comparisons with Diagon Alley, walk down to the busy Grassmarket and head up towards the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street. The museum is free to enter and from the garden on the roof you can see the entire city from the castle to spires and crooked rooftops over to Arthurseat (a great place for a free hike in the city).
2. Edinburgh Christmas Market (16th November – 4th January 2020)
Every year my family wait in a state of heightened anticipation for the city centre Christmas markets to open! The Edinburgh Christmas market is best known for their German market on the Mound where you can have your fill of currywurst, Glühwein and marvel how beautiful the markets are against the backdrop of Edinburgh Castle. The Scottish market on George Street sells traditional crafts and there’s now a Children’s Market which is part of Santa Land in Princes Street Gardens. Edinburgh does Christmas in such a magical way and it never feels too commercial even though realistically it kind of is, and I do recommend going on a weekday as it gets busy and bit squashed sardine in a can. Edinburgh Christmas markets are free to enter, and the Christmas markets are open every day 10am-10pm. I’ll list alternative Christmas markets further down for a real local experience!
3. 24 Days of Advent
A wonderful thing Edinburgh does at Christmas is 24 Days of Advent which opens a unique location to the public every day of December, giving you a more diverse choice of where to visit in Edinburgh. This real-life advent sees the doors of places like Trinity House, Mansfield Traquair, Custom House, BT Murrayfield, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Centre, and the Anatomical Museum open. The best part is that it’s completely free and we can celebrate beautiful architecture and unique spaces that we don’t normally have access to, making it accessible to everyone!
4. Christmas Cinema in Edinburgh
Christmas movies are a staple of any festive season and there are opportunities to watch special screenings in Edinburgh! Cultural village Summerhall are hosting showings of The Grinch, A Christmas Tale, Gremlins and Scrooged on select Fridays and Saturdays in December. In the student and backpacker friendly Cowgate, the Three Sisters bar are showing Christmas films in their courtyard for free on Sundays and Mondays in December. Meanwhile, The Filmhouse on Lothian Road is always a great place to visit over Christmas for showings of It’s a Wonderful Life and Christmas classics in a beautiful independent cinema.
5. Family Friendly Ice Skating in Edinburgh
Tis the time of year for ice rinks to pop up in the city centre, but for an alternative and possibly cheaper skate on the ice then visit Murrayfield Ice Rink (next to the famous rugby stadium). This Olympic size ice rink is perfect for all the family and each Saturday in December they’re hosting a very jolly Santa Claus on the ice as he takes pictures and hands out wee presents to all the kids. There’s also a Family Christmas Disco on Sundays with Rocky (the Racers mascot) and other surprises! It’s easy to get here in 10/15 mins from town, just jump on the 12, 26 or 31 bus from Princes Street and remember to wear warm clothes!
6. Fairground Rides and Attractions
In East Princes Street Gardens there are the Winter Wonderland fairground rides and kid-friendly attractions. Get lost in the Christmas Tree Maze and awarded a small gift for completing it, go on the impressive Forth One Ferris Wheel for a view from above and kids will enjoy the Santa Train or indeed meeting the big guy himself in Santa’s Grotto. Thrill seekers might look more towards the Helter Skelter, Star Flyer and The Yeti rides. It’s a fun time for families and friends and Edinburgh residents can get 20% off the ticket price of any ride too, so time to find a local! If you have time for a daytrip, Glasgow city centre also has markets and fairground rides and you can catch the train straight there from Edinburgh Waverly in 50 minutes.
7. Best places to grab a festive drink in Edinburgh
The residents of Edinburgh will tell you there’s no shortage of pubs and everyone has their own favourite haunt. As someone who’s worked in bars across the city, I’d like to share my personal choices for where to drink in Edinburgh and get merry with a festive tipple!
- Pub – For a cosy traditional pub head to The Blue Blazer up by the Usher Hall and near Edinburgh College of Art. It’s a true locals pub in the city centre which is a rare find these days and it’s got a rotation of real ales, craft beer and a fine whisky selection which will keep you cosy on a winter’s night.
- Cocktail Bar – A harder one to narrow down is where to go for the best cocktails because it’s a city of amazing, world-class cocktail bars. For something special I would go to Bramble, I find it unpretentious and it’s officially one of The World’s Top 50 Bars. It’s only noticeable from the outside by a plaque on the wall, but you’ll find it underneath a tailor’s shop on Queen Street.
- All-rounder – A good all-rounder for a cosy atmosphere, an excellent selection of drinks and scrumptious food in the city centre is the Devil’s Advocate. Located on Advocate’s Close just off a blustery Royal Mile is this bar and restaurant inside an old Victorian pump house. The menu changes seasonally, there are festive lunch and dinner options, fabulous cocktails and over 400 whiskies.
- Alternative – As a wee extra I also recommend checking out the Pop-Up Geeks theme bar which over this festive season is running a Star Wars Cantina bar with intergalactic cocktails inspired by a Galaxy far, far away. Find them in the Edinburgh Arches on East Market Street.
8. Hogmanay Street Party
If you’re coming to Edinburgh for our world-renowned Hogmanay celebrations, you’ve probably heard this is one epic party. It’s changed vastly over the years, from being a free event, to a ticketed one. They’ve made it bigger by adding big names to the line-up, this year it’s Mark Ronson and Rudimental in the Gardens seeing in the New Year. At the Street Party festival goers can see Idlewild, Marc Almond and the Ninth Wave among others across several stages. As well as the live music, DJ sets and an unbeatable festival atmosphere there’s the fireworks display from Edinburgh Castle which is an absolute showstopper. Of course we have to also bring in the bells with a rendition of Auld Lang Sang by Scotland’s Robert Burns. It’s a wonderful thing to experience for visitors, but most locals will probably be elsewhere at the bells and later I’ll give alternative suggestions for a Hogmanay knees up!
9. Catch a show or Christmas concert in Edinburgh
If you’re not British you might not be familiar with the concept of a traditional pantomime, a funny, family friendly retelling of a story where the men usually dress like women and the audience are invited to participate with shouts of ‘he’s behind you!’ as the bad guy approaches. The best place to see one in Edinburgh is at the ornate King’s Theatre for Goldilocks and the Three Bears which runs into January.
The Lyceum theatre just down the road are also showing an Edinburgh Christmas Carol bringing the story back to its origin, Dickens was said to be inspired by the city and the performances run until January 4th.
There will be Christmas concerts with choirs and classical musicians in St Giles Cathedral, The Queen’s Hall and in The Usher Hall which is another great venue from classical music from the RSNO, The Snowman and Now That’s What I Call Christmas Live. Edinburgh Christmas are also running shows across various venues including DraGart (drag performances), Men With Coconuts: Slamprov and The Chicago Blues Brothers Christmas Party.
10. Community Christmas Choirs in Edinburgh
On December 21st there is a celebration of Sufjan Stevens’ songs performed by Sufjan devotees from across the UK musical landscape and a specially created Edinburgh community choir in a new alternative to the traditional carol concert at the Roxy Theatre in town.
Community choirs will be carolling across Edinburgh in twelve locations throughout December in residential areas, the most central being on 12 December, at Abbeyhill Primary School with the Abbeyhill Primary School Choir. On December 18th go along to see the eclectic sounds of the Summerhall Singers Winter Concert who’s theme this year is ‘metal’! At Greyfriar’s Kirk, there’s also the ‘Feed the Minds’ magical carol concert on December 17th performed by the Edinburgh Telephone Choir which is a ticketed charity concert.
11. Night Walk for Edinburgh
The Fruitmarket Gallery are running a self-guided Edinburgh Night Walk from 16th November – 31st January 2020 which is run by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. Pick up a screen and a pair of headphones from Bookmarket, the Fruitmarket’s pop up shop and event space in Waverley Mall, and set off for an hour’s adventure. It’s a tour of Edinburgh with games, poetry and even a murder mystery!
12. Hogmanay Torchlight Procession
As part of the Hogmanay celebrations is a Torchlight Procession on December 30th through the heart of Edinburgh’s old town and culminating in Holyrood Park by the Scottish Parliament and historic Holyrood Palace. To take part with a torchlight, you must have a ticket, 50p of the ticket goes towards OneCity Trust, fighting inequality and exclusion in the City of Edinburgh. You can choose to enter from St Giles’ Street, North Bridge or South Bridge. There will be pipers, drummers, and fiery fanfare for all the family to enjoy, and even if you don’t take part you can watch it go by for free.
13. Catch a ceilidh
If I can recommend something not to be missed is the opportunity to go to a traditional Scottish dance. The ceilidh (pronounced kay-lay) is an insight into our past and culture that cannot be replicated. You’ll have a band who usually go through the steps of each dance, and normally there’s people there ready to fling you around the room. This year the Assembly Rooms are running a Snow Ball Ceilidh in a glamourous setting, and there’s a swankier one at the Sheraton Grand Hotel or for something a bit cheaper check out the Night Afore Ceilidh at Assembly Roxy with the HotScotch Ceilidh Band on December 30th. Alternatively, every Tuesday there’s a brilliant Ceilidh Club at Summerhall where they teach the dances and it runs throughout the festive season and beyond.
14. Spread some charitable goodwill in Edinburgh
This really should be the season of giving and bringing a wee bit of joy to people. Every year people raise money for their chosen charities by joining the Loony Dook in South Queensferry, which is swimming in a nippy River Forth usually in fancy dress on New Year’s Day. It’s fantastic to go along and watch too!
You can buy a homeless person a meal from Edinburgh based Social Bite, a chain of sandwich shops who have done incredible things to tackle homelessness in Scotland and beyond through bold initiatives. In their shops you can buy a hot drink or food which will then be used to feed the homeless community or add a £1 to your bill in Edinburgh restaurants like The Shore, Voyage of Buck – and all of the Big Red Teapot Group to ‘pay forward’ a Christmas meal for those less fortunate over the festive period.
This might seem like an obvious thing but by shopping in the city’s charity shops you are helping local charities and you might find some more interesting and unique gifts – my favourite city charity shops are St Columbus Hospice on Leith Walk and Bethany (a homeless charity) who have shops in Leith, Morningside and on Summerhall Square. There are whole areas that have a multitude of well-stocked charity shops – Stockbridge is a fantastic place to shop second hand and take in the Water of Leith down to the picturesque Dean Village.
15. Message From The Skies and Calton Hill
The words of five celebrated writers, Charlotte Runcie, Irvine Welsh, Kathleen Jamie, Kayus Bankole and Robin Robertson will illuminate and animate landmarks around the city with a maritime theme this January. Locations for Message From The Skies are to be announced on the Edinburgh’s Hogmanay website, but one place where it will take place is up Calton Hill which is a marvellous vantage point across Edinburgh. Even if you don’t visit this outdoor exhibition, make your way to see ‘Edinburgh’s Disgrace’ the National Monument of Scotland, which is a memorial for Scottish soldiers and sailors in Napoleonic times.
16. Alternative Christmas markets
The main Christmas markets are in the city centre and you can’t miss them, but there are other markets dotted around the city which give you the opportunity to give back to the local community and support our artists, designers, farmers and craft makers.
- Summerhall Christmas Market 2019 (8th December) – Over 70 local businesses in Summerhall cultural village (a former university building turned multi-arts venue, bar, and distillery) alongside festive workshops and carolling. Find beautiful ceramics, home and jewellery vendors, artists, designers, and lots of vegan friendly food. Entry is £3.
- Secret Herb Garden Christmas Market (14th December) – A free entry market in a beautiful location right next to the Pentland Hills spawned from a love of good food, herbs and retaining tradition. At the Secret Herb Garden Christmas market you can peruse stalls and enjoy the glasshouse on a winter’s day with a mulled wine in hand. On the same day you can book tickets to make a fully compostable Christmas wreath.
- Out Of The Blue Drill Hall Christmas Arts Market (7th and 14th December) – This lovely community arts centre in Leith, my home stomping ground in the city will host more than 150 artists and makers who will be selling their work, ranging from paintings, prints and photography through fashion, jewellery and textiles to ceramics, soft furnishings and design. Don’t miss the special Xmas Bruncheon on December 14th with live music from Melee, singer/songwriter Wilson Noble and Tom Kane.
- Leith, Grassmarket and Stockbridge Markets (weekly) – For a real local’s market which is open all year round, check out Leith and Grassmarket on Saturdays and Stockbridge on Sundays. They host passionate, independent traders and it’s an absolute foodies haven.
17. Local restaurants to eat at over the festive season
As with bars and pubs when it comes to where to eat in Edinburgh, we locals all have our favourite places to eat in the city! I’ll keep it simple and give you three price ranges and places I personally endorse and have eaten in and can attest to their quality!
- Budget friendly – If you’re not fussed about a proper roast dinner, I would send visitors to somewhere like Mosque Kitchen or Ten to Ten in Delhi (South Bridge) for amazing Indian curries at a very reasonable price. Ting Thai Caravan for fantastic yes…. Thai food and Saboteur (next to Edinburgh University) or Vietnam House (Morrison Street) for two fantastic Vietnamese options. Traditional fare including lovely seafood options like Cullen Skink or a mug of Stovies, a Scottish staple in winter can be found on The Shore in Teuchter’s Landing.
- Somewhere in the middle – Eating out in Edinburgh is surprisingly easy to get wrong if you stick to the city centre tourist trail, seriously the foodie scene is amazing in this city and there’s so much choice away from the big chains. Running amazing festive menus this year are Nobles (Leith) with roasted guinea fowl ballotine and lemongrass smoked hake fillet featuring on the menu this year, vegan restaurant and bar Harmonium (Leith), Three Birds (Bruntsfield) have two festive menus with lunch and dinner including a scrumptious Truffle scented braised beef feather blade and Treacle cured salmon. Locanda di Gusti (Dalry) is an amazing Naples restaurant with fantastic and proper Italian food while one of my favourite places the is the bohemian L’Escargot Bleu (Broughton Street) for French/Scottish fusion.
- Fancy Pants Dining – If you can’t treat yourself during the festive period then, when can you? Luckily, there is no shortage of Michelin Star dining opportunities or fine dining in the city. For a special night out or lunchtime treat go to The Witchery (Royal Mile), it really feels like you’re in Hogwarts and is eleganza extravaganza! Seasonal food experts Gardener’s Cottage (Royal Terrace Gardens) or their sister restaurant The Lookout (Calton Hill) are both tremendous and innovative places to eat. Aizle (St Leonard’s Street) is fine dining in a more casual setting and Six By Nico is a concept restaurant with a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party theme this festive season.
- Casual cafés, coffee shops and desserts – Brunches are seriously good in the city, check out Ostara in Leith, Salt in Morningside and The Pantry in Stockbridge (near Circus Lane). Great coffee can be found at Custom Lane on The Shore, The Milkman on Cockburn Street and Artisan Roast on Broughton Street and in Bruntsfield. For delicious cakes check out Lovecrumbs in West Port and Mary’s Milk Bar for one amazing ice cream experience.
18. The best independent shops for unique gifts in Edinburgh
If Christmas markets aren’t fruitful for gifts then these shops I can recommend for unique options by Scottish designers, artists, and craft makers. Stop by Etch’d for an alternative gift shop who specialise in personalised designs on Rose Street in the city centre, just behind Princes Street. On Leith Walk near Elm Row is The Cat’s Miaou for Fairtrade and ethical gifts, gallery, and artist’s studio Coburg House on The Shore and The Scottish Design Exchange within the Ocean Terminal Shopping Centre. Armstrong’s Vintage in Grassmarket or Newington is always a great shop to explore fashion through the decades and check out the charming Armchair Books near Grassmarket for beautiful books, always the perfect gift!
19. Christmas at the Edinburgh Botanics
One of my favourite spots in the city are the Royal Botanical Gardens near Stockbridge, they are just beautiful and for me there is no other comparison. In December they host Christmas at the Botanics which runs from 22 November to 29 December. Enjoy walking through light installations and see the garden transformed in the dark. You can enjoy a spiced cider, mulled wine, or hot chocolate as you walk explore and there’s a fire pit to keep you toasty. You do have to book beforehand, so make sure you don’t miss out!
20. Alternative Hogmanay club nights in Edinburgh
If you want a night out that won’t cost, you all your beer fund then these are some solid options for New Year’s Eve. Messenger Sound System are powering Bongo Club’s festivities with Storm and Om Unit in a night of Jungle, 160, Footwork spectrum. Samedia Shebeen are having a Hogmanay Fiesta Tropical Soundclash at La Belle Angele, expect a colourful night of dancehall, Cumbia and afrobeat. In Summerhall find Magic Nostalgic, where the premise is every half an hour someone spins a wheel and the chooses the decade or type of music to dance and sing along to or in The Old Dr Bell Baths there’s a Drum and Bass Hogmanay bash in an old Victorian swimming pool. Burlesque and cabaret can be enjoyed at Vegas! The Grand Hogmanay Ball in Voodoo Rooms just off Princes Street which promises showgirls, cocktails and swinging music!
Once you’ve exhausted this festive list it might be savvy to know how to fit in with locals by reading our cultural guide to Edinburgh or discover the city’s hidden gems!
On a side note I’m regularly asked does it snow in Edinburgh over Chrismas? The answer is not really, but the Pentland’s might have some snow if you’re lucky!
Please note there are no affiliated links in this post, purely a local’s thoughts and recommendations.