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My three previous visits to Edinburgh, Scotland all took place during summer or fall months. However, for many years, I’ve dreamed of traveling to Edinburgh in December, to experience the city’s Christmas Market.
COVID closed down the event in 2020 and 2021, postponing my plans. When I learned the city intended to open the Christmas Market in November 2022, I booked my trip…in August.
What an incredible experience, exploring Edinburgh in winter. Not only did I enjoy the Christmas Market, I discovered many other fun things to do during the colder months.
Edinburgh in Winter
Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city, offers so many exciting experiences year around. During the month of August the city hosts the Fringe Festival, which draws a huge number of tourists from around the world. I’ve experienced Fringe, and everyone who enjoys art and media should. Lasting the whole month, Fringe features more than 60,000 performances of 3800 shows in 320+ venues, including along the Royal Mile.
The other eleven months of the year, the streets are still busy with throngs of people, but less crowded. I found that while the Christmas Market area was packed during the weekend, weekdays were less crowded and the rest of the city very easy to navigate.
Normal temperatures during December average 45 degrees Fahrenheit by day and drop to mid 30s at night. I began watching the weather in Edinburgh two weeks before my trip, using the Weather App. Rain is a daily occurrence in Scotland throughout the year. So snow was a possibility in December. And, watching the predicted weather pattern I saw that temps were expected to be lower than normal, in the 20s and 30s. This knowledge helped me to prepare for outdoor adventures in cold weather. Watch for an upcoming post about what I purchased, for adventuring in the cold.
I planned out what activities I wanted to do during my week in Edinburgh, leaving some free time for spontaneous adventures. Here’s where my explorations took me.
The Christmas Market
This event is what drew me to Edinburgh in winter and I was not disappointed! The Christmas Market opened November 25 and closed January 3. Stretching along Princes Street, in New Town, the market includes stalls with vendors selling crafts, gifts, Christmas items and clothing. Everything imaginable, really, is available there. There are also lots of stalls selling all kinds of food including German food, fair food, nachos, crepes, burgers, fish and chips, Scottish food and even vegan fare plus drinks such as beer, wine, hot tea and hot chocolate, soda and water.
The Wheel offers riders the chance to see Edinburgh from above while a few other rides appeal to people of all ages. Music plays throughout the market, from fiddles to bag pipes, lights decorate stalls and trees and there is a festive atmosphere that permeates the area along with the tantalizing aroma of food.
The Christmas Market is free while The Wheel and other rides have a small fee. Restrooms are available on site. As noted, the market was extremely busy Friday night through Sunday evening. I visited during weekdays and only walked by over the weekend. My last day in Edinburgh, which also happened to be the coldest, I enjoyed vegan nachos with haggis for lunch and a hot chocolate.
At the other end of Princes Street, down in the gardens, is Santa Land. This event is geared toward younger children. A variety of rides, fun booths and food stalls invite families to stay and play. The event is free to walk through with the rides requiring a ticket.
I enjoyed walking through the area and capturing photos of Santa Land with Edinburgh Castle perched high above. The Ross Fountain is in that area as well and worth taking a photo of.
Edinburgh certainly decorates for the holidays! I enjoyed walking around, camera ready on my iPhone, looking at the decorated store fronts, restaurants and townhouses. New Town seems to decorate more than Old Town, however it’s worth walking the streets in both areas. Lights strung across the cobblestone streets lend holiday cheer and some of the storefronts are astounding!
Walk around St Andrew Square and along George Street, both in New Town, for some of the best Christmas decor.
Christmas at the Botanics
The Edinburgh Botanic Garden hosts a lighted trail walk every year during the holidays. I visited the garden for the first time on my last visit, in July 2019. What a magical experience to visit again for a nighttime walk through enchanting gardenscapes.
While the botanic garden is free during the rest of the year, there is a fee for the Christmas tour. It is worth the price! There are timed entries, every half hour. Once in the garden, you can stay as long as you like. It took me about an hour to slowly wander the trail.
The themed displays all feature light and music. You can’t get lost. The trail is well marked and personnel are posted throughout the garden. Restrooms are available, in the heated main building, and there are stalls in several places selling food and hot drinks.
Ice Skating Rink
The ice skating rink opens when the Christmas Market does and closes on the same date. This year the rink set up at the end of George Street, in an enclosed rectangular structure. There is a fee to rent the skates and enter the rink however there is space at one end with tables and chairs for spectators. Food and drink stalls are in this area as well.
I have never ice skated and didn’t attempt it…this time! Rather I enjoyed watching the skaters glide by. A large carousel is available outside, for those who would rather ride in circles instead of skate.
St Andrew Square
At the other end of George Street is St Andrew Square. It’s decorated with lights and trees. And this green space partnered this year with Social Bite’s Festival of Kindness, spreading goodwill and helping others.
People could donate meals, gifts and accommodations for those in need. Social Bite, with the help of Essential Edinburgh, set a goal of providing 250,000 meals and essential items during the winter months, for the city’s most vulnerable, the homeless. The charity installed huge lighted Christmas Trees in the square and asked people to purchase one extra gift during the holidays, to donate to those in need. St Andrew Square served as the collection site for those gifts.
I was very impressed and moved by the work of Social Bite. Hopefully this is an event that continues year after year.
Exploring Edinburgh in Winter
Exploring the city is a fun activity on any visit to Edinburgh. Add in frosty temps and a dusting of snow and familiar landmarks and locations take on a fairytale quality.
While exploring Edinburgh, I visited two new to me areas, The Vennel in the Grassmarket area and Circus Lane, in Stockbridge. I also revisited one of my favorite Edinburgh gems, Dean Village, and explored many of the closes off of the Royal Mile.
This scenic location, with an excellent view of the castle, requires a bit of hunting to locate. An old, steep stone staircase, separating two buildings in Grassmarket, leads to a platform where you can turn and see the castle in all its glory.
While this spot isn’t well known, more and more people are finding it, thanks to photos on social media. When I climbed the stairs, coated with a thin layer of ice and snow, a handful of people stood on the platform. We all took turns capturing the shot of the castle. I needed to catch my breath anyway, after all those stairs!
I saw photos of this pretty lane on social media as well, which is what inspired me to walk there to see it myself.
Circus Lane in the Stockbridge area is a favorite for photographers, with its narrow curved street and cute mews houses. It’s not far from Dean Village and only required a 10 minute walk from my accommodations on Rose Street.
Circus Lane is, indeed, extremely picturesque, even in winter. I loved walking along the lane and taking photos. And afterward, I ate lunch at an amazing vegan restaurant in the area. Check out vegan eats in Edinburgh HERE.
Dean Village in Winter
This hidden gem in Edinburgh is one of my favorite locations in the city. If I could live in Edinburgh, I’d want to have a flat in Dean Village. Tucked in a valley, and lying along the Water of Leith, this area once housed mills and the people who worked in them. Today it is a quaint village that still retains the charm of the past.
I walked to Dean Village on the coldest day during my visit. Temperatures never rose above the low 20s. And when I first descended into the valley, fog hung over the water. It looked so magical though, with the wispy fog and the snow. I enjoyed walking around the village and standing on the bridges. And I gratefully bought a large hot chocolate from a vendor with a small cart.
Royal Mile Closes
Closes are narrow alleys that connect the Royal Mile with other streets and areas in Edinburgh. Originally there were about 250 closes. As medieval Edinburgh grew, tall tenements sprang up along the closes. Some of these lanes were eventually filled in, or sealed off, as is the case with the most famous one, Mary King’s Close.
It’s fun to wander down these closes and see where they lead. I had time to explore many of them, seeing new sights. And I took the Mary King’s Close tour for the first time, an experience one pays for. I discovered the Writer’s Museum, in the Lady Stairs Close. And found the Bakehouse Close, where they filmed scenes for the Scottish series Outlander.
On a couple of different days, in all kinds of weather, I wandered the length of the Royal Mile, exploring the closes and stepping back in time, it often seemed.
Walking and Taking Photos
My favorite activity, exploring Edinburgh in winter, was simply walking the city, Old Town and New Town, and taking photos. I’ll never tire of this city. Every visit I see something new and discover different areas to explore.
In Scotland, the days are very short in December. The sun rose about 8:40 am and by 3:40 pm, it set. The golden hour, the best time for taking photos, occurred between 2:30 and 3:30 each day! That meant I got up early and headed out so I could see as much as possible in daylight.
It’s magical to walk at night in Edinburgh as well, although being a solo traveler, I never stayed out too late. I loved seeing familiar streets dressed for the holidays and watching the lights come on, late afternoon.
Have You Visited Edinburgh?
What an incredible trip, exploring Edinburgh in winter. This first international solo trip taught me things about myself. (I can handle navigating HUGE airports and make it to my gate on time.) And I learned more about this marvelous city. I feel a deep connection to Edinburgh and it will continue to haunt me and draw me back.
I can check Edinburgh Christmas Market off my bucket list. I think I’ll add Edinburgh Hogmanay though! I’d love to experience the city’s new year celebration.
Have you visited Edinburgh? Or have you experienced a European Christmas market?
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