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Bustling Edinburgh’s Christmas Market in Princes Street Gardens, George Street lights illuminate 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. I love Edinburgh at Christmas. The smells, the skating, the shopping and the celebration!
Edinburgh in Winter Activities and Events
1. Edinburgh Christmas Market
Start at the top of the world-famous (East) Princes Street Gardens and prepare for sensory overload – sounds, smells, and tastes from around Europe.
You can enter the market by The Royal Scottish Academy or the North Bridge.
Warm up with mulled wine, deluxe hot chocolate, and even hot toddies as you wander through the vendors.
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 Big Wheel.
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 17 November to 6 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. 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 or classic cocktail.
3. 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.
The Dome also puts on a magical afternoon tea with seasonal sandwiches, warm scones, Christmas pies, and a selection of sweet treats.
Everyone talks about the Christmas scent that fills this institution! Good luck finding out what is in that magical potion.
In previous years, George Street, where The Dome is located, has been partly closed off for festivities and light shows, and while parking is free in the evening, it is near impossible to find a space.
The Dome is featured in our guide to the best Christmas dinners in Edinburgh.
4. Christmas Lights Switch On
Kick off the festivities at Light Night as choir songs fill the air.
Previous locations include George Street and the Royal Mile.
5. Edinburgh Diwali: Festival of Light
Celebrate Diwali in Edinburgh this winter.
The event starts with a parade from St Andrew Square to Princes Street, then an afternoon packed with dance and music at the iconic Ross Bandstand.
Food will also be served, and the day ends with a fireworks display in the gardens.
6. Ice Skating at George Street
Get your hired skates on and fly through the New Town at the George Street ice rink.
Skates start from child size nine are available from the skate hire shop and included in the price of the ticket.
Book your skating time slot here.
7. Edinburgh Botanical Gardens Light Trail
Music, lasers, water reflections, and the tunnel of light, Royal Botanic Garden (Arboretum Pl).
This popular thing to do in Edinburgh in December gets busy. You can actually book your tickets now.
8. Edinburgh Castle at Christmas
Forget a Game of Thrones feast with horror and tragedy and enjoy an Edinburgh Castle Christmas afternoon tea instead!
Lunch is served in the opulent Queen Anne Room, fit for royalty.
9. Meet Santa in Edinburgh
Have you been a good kid this year?
Santa wants to meet you!
Book a breakfast, lunch, or just a meet and greet at one of the popular grottos.
Read the full guide on Santa grottos in Edinburgh.
10. Be Amazed by the Christmas Decor and Lights
Watch Rose Street, George Street, Cockburn Street, and alike twinkle as they are transformed from blank canvasses to free Christmas shows.
See Christmas colours at historic restaurants, modern bars, and busy shops.
We have a full guide on the best places to see deco and lights.
11. Stay in a Festive Hotel
Feel like you are on the set of a Hollywood classic movie at one of Edinburgh’s Christmas hotels where no money is spared for festivities.
12. 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.
13. 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.
See also our guide to walks in Edinburgh.
14. 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 that 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.
15. 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.
16. See a Christmas Show
If panto isn’t your thing, if you are child-free, 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.
17. 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.
Giving the above a run for their money is the decadent Scotsman Picturehouse.
18. Watch a Festive Film in a Pub
Get comfy at the Brass Monkey film room, where you can lounge on thick mattresses while you sip on a beer and enjoy a seasonal movie.
Student discount is available, making this a perfect cheap thing to do this winter in Edinburgh for students before they go off on Christmas break.
19. Go Christmas Shopping in Edinburgh
Edinburgh is great for shopping any time of year, but especially at Christmas.
High street names can be found at St James Quarter, Princes Street, and Ocean Terminal in Leith.
At OT, check out The Leith Collective for gifts made by locals.
You can also find independent stores on Cockburn Street on the way to the Royal Mile and in Stockbridge and Bruntsfield.
Commercial shop sales often start just before Christmas if you are looking for some bargains at St. James Quarter.
Edinburgh’s Christmas market stalls actually sell some independent brands, so you can shop locally there too.
20. The Royal Boat Britannia at Christmas
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.
Read our guide to the RYB here.
21. 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.
22. 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.
23. 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.
24. Rooftop Rendezvous
Make it a date night or grab your pals for drinks at one of the many Edinburgh rooftop and beer garden bars, with heating, of course!
Drink with views of Edinburgh Castle at Cold Town House or Nor’ Loft.
25. Gorge on a Monster Marshmallow Hot Chocolate
The Marshmallow Lady makes crazy marshmallows and serves them in extravagant hot chocolate cups for takeout enjoyment.
Warm up with a toasted gourmet marshmallow the size of your palm plopped into a warm pool of hot chocolate.
There are also packs of marshmallows available at the shop in Bonnington (14 Rodney Street).
Highly recommend 10/10!
This is close to the Botanic Gardens, so you could combine a visit to their light show with a take-out hot chocolate.
26. Get a Buzz From a Hot Toddy
Even if you don’t like whisky, you might like a hot toddy.
It’s akin to a hug in a mug and is thought of as medicinal in many Scottish households!
Ingredients include hot water, whiskey, honey, and lemon.
Most whisky pubs have hot toddies on their menu by autumn when the temperatures drop or you can buy your own kits and make them at home.
Reading this abroad? Check out this hot toddy cocktail kit from Etsy.
Alternatively, go straight for the hard stuff and learn about Scotland’s national drink at the Scotch Whisky Experience.
27. Warm Up With Whisky
If this is your first visit to Scotland, you won’t want to miss an educational 4D tour of The Scotch Whisky Experience Tour and Tasting.
During the visit, you learn about the country’s whisky-producing regions, how the water of life is created, and a visit to the world’s largest collections of Scotch whisky.
See Edinburgh through new eyes after this whisky-tasting session, ha!
Reserve your ticket here.
28. The Johnnie Walker Whisky Experience
One of Edinburgh’s most popular attractions, The Johnnie Walker Whisky Experience, whisks you through the brand history using actors to tell its story, tests your personal preference using science and technology, and introduces you to whisky or high balls if you prefer some mixology.
This tour is not to be missed by first-time visitors; I don’t even like whisky but enjoyed it immensely.
Reserve your ticket here.
29. Celebrate Hanukkah
Keep an eye on the Chabad of Edinburgh website for Festival of Lights updates in the city.
Special Mention: Jenner’s Christmas Tree
The Jenner’s tree, which was erected in-store by a team who harnessed the tree upright and then scaled the branches to put on the light and decorations, will be missed.
Here’s a video of what it looked like.
Edinburgh at Hogmanay
30. 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 on 29 December.
For the Procession, you purchase a fire and waxed-based torch with your ticket.
During the event, you walk with thousands of fellow torchbearers, pipers, drummers, and Vikings!
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.
The meeting point is The Meadows, and the lit parade walks through the Old Town.
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.
Let us know your experience in the comments!
31. Night Afore
Filling the gap between the Torchlight Procession and Hogmanay, Night Afore events are scheduled throughout the city to keep folks entertained the night before!
Previous acts have included Paisley-born Paolo Nutini in the Princes Street Gardens.
This event is great for people who want to celebrate in Edinburgh this winter but can’t face the NYE crowds.
32. Edinburgh’s Hogmanay Street Party
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 the bells.
Beginning at 9pm, expect live acts in Princess Street Gardens, Scottish music and dance in the Tartan Zone, and some hilarious silent disco moves too.
As the bells welcome in the New Year, get ready for a firework display and belt out Auld Lang Syne!
33. Candlelit Concert at St. Giles’ Cathedral
For a more chilled yet still atmospheric Hogmanay, consider the city’s candlelit concert hosted by St. Giles’ Cathedral on the Royal Mile.
The event features a host of sopranos, tenors, and the St Giles’ Cathedral choir.
34. Loony Dook
On the 1st of January, visitors and some locals traditionally used to celebrate the new year by running into the Firth of Forth waters with the Forth Bridges as company.
The official event no longer runs, but there will be plenty of wild swimmers all over Scotland making a splash at the likes of Portobello (Edinburgh), Aberdour (Fife), and Gullane (East Lothian).
Check out our guide to Edinburgh beaches for more.
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 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.
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 the 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 a stay
- Chinese/Indian restaurants who do not celebrate Christmas
- Local convenience stores that 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 on 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 apartment, 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 that offers free wifi and comfortable seating. Located just outside the terminal, you won’t have to look hard for it. 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. Book here.
- Edinburgh tram: the tram runs from the airport to Princes Street.
Here’s our guide on the best ways to get to Edinburgh from the airport.
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.
Edinburgh’s Airlink bus connects the city and the airport.
Edinburgh has three stations, Waverley is the most central (Princes Street 2 minute walk away/Royal Mile 10 minute walk away), Haymarket is in the west (closest to the West End 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 and has a coffee stall and M&S Food.
Trainline is a great app/website for train journeys in the UK.
Edinburgh trams run from Newhaven to Edinburgh Airport.
Purchase your ticket at the machine and validate at the machine before you board the tram.
Without a ticket? You will be charged £10 if caught. Day tickets are available.
The trams will be running for free after midnight on Hogmanay to get party-goers home safe.
We have Uber 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
We have a dreamy guide on the best Edinburgh Christmas hotels to stay at.
Alternatively, here is a snapshot of hotels to consider. I’ve personally stayed at all three.
- The Balmoral– Very close to Princes Street Gardens
- Ibis Hunter Square – Just off the Royal Mile
- Jurys Inn – Affordable option next to Waverley Train Station
Want more choices? 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.