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Bustling Edinburgh’s Christmas Market in Princes Street Gardens, George Street lights illuminating the midnight blue sky and The Dome’s towering tree of varying colours. Keep reading to find out the ultimate list of festive things to do in Edinburgh in winter for locals and tourists alike. Why don’t you stay a little longer and experience the world’s biggest New Year’s Eve party too? Edinburgh has three days of events celebrating Hogmanay.
Why trust us? I’m Gemma, a local who lives over the water in Fife. I love Edinburgh at Christmas. The smells, the skating, the shopping and the celebration!
For Christmas in Edinburgh 2020, I’ll update this guide as news comes in.
» Don’t miss our guide to 70 things to do in Edinburgh all year round!
Edinburgh in Winter Activities and Events
1. Edinburgh Christmas Market
This year, Edinburgh Christmas Market will take look different.
There will be a festive digital programme for families to enjoy.
Last year the markets looked liked this…
Start at the top of the world-famous (East) Princes Street Gardens and get ready for sensory overload – sounds, smells and tastes from around Europe. The market consumes every stretch of the park and starts again on the other side of the train tracks.
For mulled wine and hot cider, there is ‘rent-a-cup’ service at some stalls, to save on plastic waste. Drinks come in a festive mug which is ideal for photos, and when you return it, you’re given your deposit back.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case at all stalls, with others giving single-use coffee cups. This is something Underbelly really needs to work on as they are also the company which hosts the Edinburgh Fringe and their plastic consumption is terrifying.
Street food ranges from Scottish venison burgers to spiral potato fries on a stick.
Probably one of the most identifiable landmarks in the market is the Star Flyer. Soar 60 metres in the air above the shops, trams and Christmas huts.
For rides, you need to purchase tickets at the ticket huts before you wait in line.
Running from the 16th of November until the 4th of January, the market opens from 10 am to 10 pm every day.
If you can, avoid the weekends as the line goes as far back as Waverley Train Station, and then some.
If you want to be close to the Christmas mayhem but not in it, head to the National Galleries cafe for the floor to ceiling views of the market.
2. Dalkeith Drive-In Panto
The Gorgeous Dalkeith Country Park will play host to an all singing and dancing Cinderella which families can watch from their safety of their cars!
Participation will be encouraged from behind the windscreen.
3. Waverley Festival Village
Since there is some pub action going down at Waverley this autumn, there may be some festive fun too.
Take the stairs to the top of Waverley on the Princess Street side to find a collection of temporary bars at the Waverley Festival Village.
Cute tipis, roaring fires and every kind of tipple under the sun, I mean moon.
4. The Dome Cocktails (George Street)
When The Dome winds its lights around its Graeco-Roman façade pillars, you know the festive period has started in Edinburgh. It is a tradition for many locals to grab a cocktail underneath the bar to ceiling tree.
It’s not really the tipple we are after, we want a waft of the legendary Christmas scent they fill the downstairs bar with. Good luck finding out what is in that magical potion.
In previous years, George Street, which is the street behind Princes Street (Edinburgh’s main drag), has been partly closed off for festivities and light shows.
5. Christmas Lights Switch On
Kick-off the festivities at Light Night on George Street as choir songs fill the air.
Fireworks light up Edinburgh at the end of the night after a celebrity guest switches on the Edinburgh Christmas Lights! Previous locations include George Street and the Royal Mile.
6. Ice Skating at George Street?
The previous home of the official Edinburgh’s Christmas ice rink was St Andrews. There are whispers that George Street will now takeover.
Previously, Edinburgh’s Christmas ice rink was a circular rink surrounding the ice skate exchange and St Andrew’s bothy bar.
→ Local’s tip: Dine at the Harvey Nichol’s Forth Floor Restaurant for St Andrews views, without the chill. Into fine dining? Here are three restaurants serving meals for under £30 in Edinburgh.
7. Jenner’s Christmas Tree
Think Hollywood style shopping mall tree and you are there!
Jenner’s tree is actually erected in store. A team harnesses the tree upright and then scales the branches to put on the light and decorations.
8. Edinburgh Botanical Gardens Light Trail
Music, lasers, water reflections and the tunnel of light, Edinburgh’s Botanics change shape come Christmas.
This popular thing to do in Edinburgh in December gets busy. You can actually book your tickets now.
- Address: Arboretum Pl, Edinburgh EH3 5NZ
9. Edinburgh Castle at Christmas
Forget a Game of Thrones feast with horror and tragedy and enjoy an Edinburgh Castle Christmas meal instead!
Lunch is served at the opulent Queen Anne Room, fit for royalty.
If you prefer to visit the Castle without forking out for food, you can pre-book your ‘skip the line’ reservation ticket here with GetYourGuide.
10. Walk up Calton Hill
Ok, not very festive but you do get magic views of the city all lit up. The walk up Calton Hill is relatively easy and close to Princess Street. You might just get some snow.
11. Silent Disco Adventure Tour
I’ve now done the silent disco tour around Edinburgh twice. Once at Christmas and once for a fitness class.
It is such a laugh. You get given headsets which tune into the same frequency and an enthusiastic guide coordinates a routine around Edinburgh’s landmarks.
Expect song battles, cheeky dance-offs to Mariah and lots of public snap-shaming.
It is super popular (runs throughout the year and is always sold out during the Fringe) so book before it is too late.
12. Catch a Panto
He’s behind you! Oh no, he isn’t.
Pantomime shows are engrained in Scottish Christmas tradition. Catch a show with the family at many of Edinburgh’s theatres and community centres.
Expect goodies, baddies, talking animals, and a whole lot of crowd participation.
13. See a Show
If panto isn’t your thing (if you are childless, I don’t blame you), then check out one of the festive shows running from November through to January.
Musicals, ballet and plays dominate the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh Playhouse and The Festival Theatre.
14. Watch a Festive Film
Honestly, Edinburgh has two of the most charming film houses, the vintage Cameo on Home Street and Morningside’s Dominion.
You can even buy some alcoholic drinks with your snacks at the Dominion. Chill with your partner on the comfortable seats, one of the romantic things to do in Edinburgh in December.
» 34+ best cities in Europe to visit for Christmas markets
15. Christmas Shopping
Edinburgh is great for shopping any time of year but especially at Christmas.
High street names can be found on Princes Street and at Ocean Terminal in Leith.
At OT, check out the Scottish Design Exchange and The Leith Collective for gifts made by locals.
You can also find independent stores on Cockburn Street on the way to the Royal Mile.
Commercial shop sales often start just before Christmas, if you are looking for some bargains.
The Edinburgh’s Christmas market stalls actually sell some local brands so you can shop local there too.
16. The Royal Boat Britannia
Deck the deck with balls of holly…
Docked at Ocean Terminal, Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia is the former royal yacht of the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II and damn those royals know how to decorate their sea home.
Private tours only.
17. Take That Insta Pic on Circus Lane
Circus Lane is cute every day of the year but super cute at Christmas. The Insta-famous mews can be found in the New Town, wrapped up in green shrubbery with splashes of red bows.
18. Hike Arthur’s Seat
A very popular Edinburgh activity throughout the year is the short hike up Arthur’s Seat. It doesn’t matter that it is touristy because the views are worth it.
A great cobweb blower if you’ve had a bit too much the night ‘afore.
» You may also like: Edinburgh’s best day trips – history, hikes and Outlander
19. Do the Santa Run
Make some space for the turkey and chocolates to come by running the 2.5K Santa Fun Run around West Princess Street Gardens.
This event is for charity, infants run free.
Did I mention you have to wear a Santa outfit?!
Remember to take your outfit home, there was an uproar about the mess left in previous years.
20. Eat a Traditional Turkey Meal
No, Scots don’t eat haggis at Christmas! Traditionally meals include turkey, sometimes, ham, potatoes, vegetables and everyone’s seasonal favourite, pigs in blankets. These wee cheeky fellas are sausages wrapped up in bacon. Delicious.
Christmas meals can be found at many of the Edinburgh hotels and restaurants.
21. SKYBAR at Doubletree
If there’s any snow in the air and you happen to be in Edinburgh on the first Thursday of the month, head to SKYBar for floor to ceiling views on Edinburgh Castle and the city.
22. Cocktails at Twenty Twenty
A wee hidden gem across from the Waverley Train Station, Twenty Twenty’s windows span the city! Watch the Star Flyer while you sip on a Strawberries and Steam. Probably one of the most popular cocktails in Edinburgh on social media.
» Want to find the best of Edinburgh’s bars? Here’s a list of my favourites
Edinburgh at Hogmanay
23. Edinburgh Torchlight Procession
Of course, the holiday season in Scotland only begins with Christmas.
The real partying starts in the run-up to New Year.
One experience loved by tourists is the Edinburgh Torchlight Procession.
For the Procession, you purchase a fire and waxed based torch with your ticket.
This year the event will be static whereas in previous events the procession moved.
Here’s what it used to look like.
During the event, you walk with thousands of fellow torchbearers, pipers and drummers.
Regardless of how many times I hear the pipe band, the hairs of my neck still stand on end when the drums do their intro and the pipes whining kicks in.
I’m going to be honest here, I did the Procession and I found that it was more waiting around than walking.
First of all, you wait in line to collect the torch, then you wait to move on to the next section.
Once you are in place you wait for your torch to be lit. Then you wait to walk. Finally, the fun begins when you get to walk behind a local pipe band.
Glad I did it, don’t think I’d do it again.
24. Edinburgh’s Street Party – Cancelled
While Edinburgh’s Hogmanay Street Party has been called off for 2020, you can still expect some kind of light show around the city to ring in the new year.
Here’s what is normally look like.
Join Edinburgh for the world’s greatest street party! To really understand how to party Scottish style, get ready to ceilidh with strangers, party in the park and make a new pal or two or the bells.
Beginning at 7.30 pm, you will be dancing in the streets to well-known bands from across the globe. Wandering through Princes Street Gardens, you can soak up the happy atmosphere and enjoy meeting new people.
As the bells to welcome in the New Year, get ready to sing and dance to some well known Scottish tunes like Auld Lang Syne, Loch Lomond, and 500 Miles to name a few.
25. Loony Dook
On the 1st of January, visitors and some locals (mainly visitors) celebrate my birthday (I know, worst day ever), by running into the Firth of Forth waters with the Forth Bridges as company.
This tradition raises funds for charity and Loony Dookers are encouraged to wear costumes.
Weather in Edinburgh in Winter
Edinburgh’s weather in December and January is cold and sees dark mornings and evenings. Sunset is around 4-4:30pm. While snow is unlikely, days can be damp and wet. Pack accordingly because there is no such thing as bad weather in Scotland, just bad clothing!
If you are lucky you will get to enjoy crisp mornings and that glorious east coast sunrises.
Expect temperatures as low as 1-degree Celsius and highs of a staggering 7! Winters are getting milder though so it is not uncommon to see highs of 12 -degree Celsius on weather apps.
If you plan to travel out of Edinburgh take the shorter days and seasonal opening times into consideration. For example, Culross Palace which is a famous Outlander location in Fife is not open during the winter.
Edinburgh in Winter Packing List
- Layers such as cardigans and pullover sweaters or jumpers as we call them in Scotland
- Tights with skirts and dresses
- Avoid denim if you can as it’s not pleasant when wet and takes an age to dry
- Waterproof coat\jacket and a padded warm coat
- Waterproof shoes or boots and trainers without air holes
- Hats, gloves and scarf
- Umbrellas are a pain when windy
- Refillable water bottle – you can drink the water here
- Tote bags for shopping – bags are 5p in Scotland
- Camera! So much beauty to snap
- Anker battery packs for an extra charge on phones US / UK
- Hydration tablets for hangovers US / UK
Christmas Day in Edinburgh
The 25th (Christmas) and 26th (Boxing) of December and 1st (New Year’s Day) and 2nd of January are official public holidays in Edinburgh which means there will be little to no activity around the city.
On Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, public buses run on a very limited timetable which you can access at the Lothian Buses website.
Trains do not run at all. Taxis will be difficult to find and will charge public holiday prices.
On Christmas Day and New Year’s Day the main things that will be open will be:
- Hotels that serve Christmas lunch/dinner – reserve while booking stay
- Chinese/Indian restaurants who do not celebrate Christmas
- Local convenience stores who do not celebrate Christmas
- Some pubs may be open on the 1st
Edinburgh attractions such as Edinburgh Castle, Botanics, Holyrood Palace and museums will be closed on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, re-opening until January 1st and 2nd.
Boxing Day used to be a big shopping day, it is less so now but most major brands will open Sunday/holiday hours.
If staying in an Airbnb, get your grocery shop done before Christmas Day and enjoy the city to yourself!
Edinburgh Travel Information
Getting to Edinburgh
If you arrive by air, the airport is a short ride from the city centre. There are a few ways to get into Edinburgh and it’s a good idea to have this planned before you arrive.
- Edinburgh Airlink: This is a bus which offers free wifi and comfortable seating. Located just outside the terminal, you won’t have to look hard for it. Per person: $6 or £5. Pre-book your ticket here.
- Private airport transfer. Take the worry out of waiting in cab lines and have a car pick you and your luggage up, taking you straight to your accommodation. Per person: $33 or £25. Book here.
- Edinburgh tram: the tram runs from the airport to Princes Street.
Getting Around Edinburgh
Edinburgh’s public transport includes the bus, train, and now tram. Lothian Buses have a useful trip planner on their site.
Buses run throughout the day and on a night timetable (£3). A single adult ticket costs £1.60 (kids 80p) and you must have the correct money, no change is given. Day tickets are £4/£2.
Edinburgh’s Airlink bus connects the city and the airport for £9 per adult and £4.50 per child.
Edinburgh has three stations, Waverley is the most central (Princes Street 2 mins walk away/Royal Mile 10 mins walk away), Haymarket is in the west (closest to the zoo and Murrayfield Stadium), and the Edinburgh Gateway connects users to the Gyle Shopping Centre and Edinburgh Airport.
Edinburgh Waverley has toilets (30p), showers, food places, and a bar. Haymarket is smaller but has a coffee shop.
Trainline is a great app/website for train journeys in the UK.
Edinburgh trams run from York Place to Edinburgh Airport for £5.50 single/£8.50 return (kids £3/£4.50).
Purchase your ticket at the machine and validate at the machine before you board the tram. Without a ticket? You will be charged £10 in caught. Day tickets available.
The trams will be running for free after midnight on Hogmanay to get party-goers home safe.
We have Ûber in Edinburgh (order through the app) as well as private taxi firms (order by calling) and black taxis which you can hail down on the street or hire from a taxi rank.
Where to Stay in Edinburgh
- Old Town: Apex Grassmarket Hotel for Castle views on the Grassmarket
- New Town: Tigerlily Hotel, smack bang among the George Stree restaurant and bars
- Leith: Malmaison Hotel Leith, a super modern chain on The Shore
- Stockbridge: The Raeburn, village feels in the city
Want more choice? Here’s our guide on where to stay in Edinburgh.
Whether you are nipping to the capital for a weekend festive cocktail or choosing the city as your annual December trip, there are so many things to do during the Edinburgh winter festival. Tell us what you do in the comments below.
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