There is nowhere in the world that does Christmas quite like Edinburgh. Whilst most people’s yuletide vacation fantasies have them floating down the streets of New York amidst crowds of excited shoppers, Scotland’s capital is often sadly overlooked.
At any point of the year, Edinburgh is undeniably fantastical, magic seeming to ooze from the unique landscape and the dark, winding streets; but it’s at Christmas that the city really comes to life. From snug pubs with their roaring fires to the sparkling lights of its renowned Christmas Market, a few days in Edinburgh during December is enough to get you truly into the Christmas spirit.
Read on for our ultimate guide to Edinburgh at Christmas time, from the best places to eat and drink to the most jaw-dropping Christmas trees.
Edinburgh’s Christmas Market
Princes Street Gardens East, Edinburgh EH2 2EJ, United Kingdom
It wouldn’t be right to kick off this guide with anything other than Edinburgh’s beloved Christmas Markets: a 6-week long winter extravaganza, located beneath the looming castle.
Aside from its incredible setting, this market is renowned country-wide for its winding rows of stalls and rides, which begins by the Balmoral Hotel and ends at the esplanade of the National Gallery. With guaranteed Christmas music blaring at all hours, and its endless, glittering lights, it’s almost impossible not to feel Christmassy here.
Try out some of their Bailey’s Hot Chocolate or their Mulled Wine from their Johnny Walker Bothy Bar. A renovated shipping container sitting in the centre of the market, this bar will provide arguably the best view across the market, and boasts a cosy chalet-esque interior.
If you get hungry, there are a number of stalls across the market serving both sweet and savoury treats, such as Eastern European “Kürtőskalács” (or Chimney Cake).
Thrill-seekers should make sure to jump onto the Star Flyer: a 60-metre-tall ride which spins its passengers around at inconceivable speeds. If you dare to open your eyes, you’ll see the city as you’ve never seen it before. Tickets for this ride are £8.50.
At the bottom of the hill, there is a children’s winter wonderland, with rides, games and even a Christmas tree maze (which definitely isn’t just for children!). Families with young kids will love spending an entire afternoon here.
Entry to the markets is free, and admission prices vary for each ride.
14 George St, Edinburgh EH2 2PF, United Kingdom
An Edinburgh landmark thanks to its regal, decadent architecture, The Dome is a restaurant and bar located on George Street: one of the city’s most refined areas. When it switches on its infamous, looping lights, which wrap around the marble pillars of the building’s exterior, Edinburgh residents know that Christmas is truly on its way.
Inside its grand entrance sits a huge Christmas tree, whose lights bounce off the chandeliers suspended from the ceiling. If you fancy feeling a little extravagant, then splash out on a festive cocktail in their ornate Grill Room.
Ice Skating @ St Andrews Square
St Andrew Square, Edinburgh, EH2 2AD, United Kingdom
It wouldn’t be Christmas without an ice-skating session: and the rink at St Andrew Square is particularly picturesque.
Wrapped around the square’s imposing Melville Monument, this doughnut-shaped ice rink is suitable for people of all ages and is surrounded by twinkling lights. In the centre of the rink is a wooden bar, which serves a number of hot drinks and alcoholic beverages. So grab a mulled wine for some Dutch courage before getting out onto the ice!
Ticket prices range from £9 – £12.50 per person for a half-hour slot.
Royal Botanic Gardens
Arboretum Pl, Edinburgh EH3 5NZ, United Kingdom
Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden is a lush green space in the centre of the city, which is home to a number of rotating exhibitions, as well as beautifully-curated gardens and flowerbeds. Whilst a visit to these gardens in the summer will leave you gawping at its pretty colours and abundant wildlife, it is arguably even more magical during the winter. This is due to their infamous light show, “Christmas at the Botanics”.
Loaded with a million twinkling lights, the show incorporates a number of separate installations, such as their Cathedral of Light, which stretches for 70 metres and includes more than 100,000 pea lights. There is also a Santa Show for children, as well as food and drink to enjoy as you marvel at the decorations around you.
Make sure to book your time slot early so as not to be disappointed. An advance adult ticket will cost £17 while paying on the day will cost £19.
The Nutcracker Christmas Shop
52 High St, Edinburgh EH1 1TB, United Kingdom
Although this shop is open 365 days a year, it is – unsurprisingly – most popular in December. Located in the centre of the Royal Mile, this festive boutique will please even the biggest of Grinches out there.
Filled with colour, light, and festive music, this is the perfect place to shop for decorations. With everything from traditional manger scenes and fake snow to gingerbread men and candy canes, The Nutcracker will have you decking the halls in no time.
Jenners Department Store
47/48 Princes Street, Edinburgh, EH2 2YJ, United Kingdom
The city’s most famous department store, Jenners, has lived in its exact location on Princes Street since 1838. The elegant stonework of the outside stretches also into the store’s interior, with a grand hall framed by balconies, and a glass ceiling stretching out above you.
During the winter season, this hall is home to one of Edinburgh’s biggest Christmas trees, with twinkling streams of lights dangling from the wooden beams bordering it. This is the perfect spot to do any Christmas shopping, with departments covering all interests and tastes!
Afternoon Tea @ The Caledonian
Princes St, Edinburgh EH1 2AB, United Kingdom
A Waldorf Astoria hotel, the Caledonian is an Edinburgh landmark, which signals the beginning of the city’s charming West End.
Its rusty, red-brick exterior stretches all the way down onto Lothian Road, with one side of the building looking over the castle. Stepping inside the hotel will leave you breathless; you are greeted by a palace-like marble staircase, which wouldn’t look out-of-place in a Disney Princess movie.
At Christmas, the Caledonian doesn’t take its decorations lightly, known in the past to have erected giant candy canes and a life-sized gingerbread house in its lobby lounge. It seems like the perfect location, then, to have a traditional Afternoon Tea, complete with scones, pastries, and sandwiches.
The cost of this Afternoon Tea is £49 per person, or £59 if you’d like to include a festive Christmas cocktail. Or you can book a room at the hotel!
Carol Service @ St Giles
High St, Edinburgh EH1 1RE, United Kingdom
Edinburgh’s St Giles Cathedral is arguably one of the most impressive buildings in the city. With its unique skeletal tower and its impressively high archways, tourists from all over flock to experience this astounding piece of architecture.
In December, St Giles is home to a series of carol services and Christmas concerts: most notably their Evening Concert Series. A full run-down of events and ticket prices can be found on the St Giles Cathedral website, with admission fees varying for each event. Attending one of their candlelit concerts will leave you feeling peaceful and inexplicably filled with magic.
Christmas Dinner @ Howie’s
10-14 Victoria St, Edinburgh EH1 2HG, United Kingdom / 29 Waterloo Pl, Edinburgh EH1 3BQ, United Kingdom
A small, family-run Scottish restaurant chain, Howie’s has two locations in central Edinburgh: one in Old Town, and one in New Town.
Known for its modern take on Scottish cuisine, and its locally-sourced fish and meat dishes. Their flagship restaurant, at the foot of Calton Hill, manages to marry traditional with modern, its interior framed by exposed stone walls and dotted with sleek wooden furnishings.
At Christmas, Howie’s offer a special festive menu, for both small celebrations and huge, hundred-person parties. Their Christmas Day menu includes the classic roast turkey, as well as vegetarian and fish options for anyone looking for something a little different.
Old College @ Edinburgh University
South Bridge, Edinburgh EH8 9YL, United Kingdom
Although not an obvious choice for visitors to the city, this ancient building houses Edinburgh University’s law school, and is recognised mainly by its turquoise dome and typical dark stone walls.
At Christmas, an enormous, glittering tree sits in the college’s ample courtyard. In November, when the lights are switched on, there are performances from the University Choir and the Edinburgh Salvation Army Band, getting everyone into the Christmas spirit a little early.
Where To Stay In Edinburgh During Christmas
The Budget Option: Kick-Ass Greyfriar’s Hostel
37-39 Cowgate, Edinburgh EH1 1JR, United Kingdom
Starting from roughly £18 per night, the Kick Ass Hostel is located in the depths of Edinburgh’s Old Town. The perfect place for young people to stay, the hostel is found near some of the city’s best bars, pubs and nightclubs, and offers a pretty spectacular view of the castle.
The Mid-Range Option: Apex Hotel Grassmarket
31-35 Grassmarket, Edinburgh EH1 2HS, United Kingdom
Grassmarket is one of Edinburgh’s most well-loved streets; at Christmas, it is illuminated by row upon row of glinting lights. The Apex Hotel is located at the centre of this street, looking up towards the castle. A modern building with a cosy indoor pool and a restaurant with unbeatable castle views, a night at this hotel will cost you only around £90.
The Luxury Option: Old Town Chambers
Roxburgh’s Court, 323 High St, Edinburgh EH1 1LW, United Kingdom
Tucked into a dark stone alley, branching away from the Royal Mile, lies Edinburgh’s Old Town Chambers: a boutique collection of serviced apartments.
Its shiny, modern décor contrasts that of the ancient buildings which surround it, making you feel as if you’ve been dropped straight into a JK Rowling novel. Some rooms boast a view out across Princes Street and, of course, the Christmas Market, with others looking out across Calton Hill.
A one-bedroom apartment in December will cost you around £205 per night.
What To Know For Visiting Scotland
Scotland is part of the United Kingdom, which typically provides a free stay of up to 180 days in the entire UK to visitors from many countries. This means you can enter Scotland and stay for up to 6 months on each entry.
However, as of publication Brexit may change the visa policy. Be sure to check the official United Kingdom Immigration Website for the latest information.
The currency used in Scotland is the Great British Pound (GBP). The current exchange rate is approximately 1 GBP to 1.30 USD. You can check the latest EUR exchange rate on Google.
While traveling, our number one tip is to use a free Charles Schwab Debit Card which gives unlimited worldwide ATM Fee Refunds and the true exchange rate.
Best Tours In Edinburgh
Some of the best tours and things to do in Edinburgh are:
- Harry Potter Magical Guided Walking Tour
- Loch Ness, Glencoe & the Highlands Tour
- The Scotch Whisky Experience: Guided Tour and Whisky Tasting
Where To Stay In Edinburgh
We recommend booking your hotels on Booking.com to get the best rate and many hotels offer free cancellation in case your plans change.
Some of our favorite hotels in Edinburgh are:
- The Bonham: Situated in Edinburgh’s West End, this hotel is a beautiful converted Victorian House.
- The Edinburgh Grand: Modern Aparthotel with luxury apartments, including their own kitchens.
- Kimpton – Charlotte Square: 5 Star hotel very close to old town and Princes Street.
AirBnB is also a great option in Edinburgh (and you can save $44 using that link to sign up!).
Best Time To Visit Scotland
The best time to visit Scotland depends on if you are looking to embrace the winter or get outside for the summer. If you are going for Hogmanay and the Christmas Markets (like we recommend!) then plan to visit any time in December.
If you are more interested in being outside in nice weather, then plan to visit between April and September when the weather begins to get warmer and drier.
Best Books About Scotland
Read more about Scotland before you go! Some of the best books about Scotland are:
What Power Adapters Do You Need
Scotland uses 3 prong Type G adapters also commonly used in England.
You can buy a universal adapter that will work in any country and has extra ports for USB cables to charge your phone and other devices.
We also always travel with a portable battery pack which is great to keep your phone charged on long journies.
Transportation In Scotland
- Public Transportation: Scotland has good public transportation, with both local buses and trains. Google Maps works well to find the best routes depending on your location and time of day.
- Rental Cars: If you want flexibility, we recommend renting a car at the airport. Parking in Edinburgh can be expensive but it is available.
- Uber: Uber is readily available in Edinburgh. You should not have to wait long for a ride from Uber as long as you are near the center of Edinburgh.
Our top recommended travel insurance companies for Scotland are:
- World Nomads: Comprehensive coverage for medical, travel delays, and electronics.
- SafetyWing: Cheaper monthly coverage primarily for medical, starting at $37 for 4 weeks of coverage.
More Articles About Scotland
Edinburgh is a wonderful city, and visiting during Christmas even makes the experience more memorable!
We hope that this article has helped inspire you to visit Edinburgh over Christmas. If you have any questions about the destination or have your own travel tips to share please leave these in the comments below.
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