Dubbed the Festival Capital of the World, Edinburgh knows how to put on on event. Heck, the Scots even celebrate New Year’s for three whole days, making Edinburgh’s Hogmanay one of the top places to ring in the New Year. It’s not surprising, then, that the Scottish capital goes all out for Christmas too. Edinburgh’s Christmas is more than just Christmas markets stretching across some of the city’s squares. From festive holiday shows to spectacular decorations and Scottish markets with the scents of hot toddies and all locally produced products, Edinburgh’s Christmas is like stepping in to The Grinch’s Whoville.
East Princes Street Gardens Christmas Market
Nestled between the Old Town and New Town is Edinburgh’s largest Christmas market: the East Princes Street Gardens Christmas Market. More than 130 chalets sell everything from Scottish food like haggis, neeps and tatties to German sausages, classic Christmas collectibles like hand carved wooden nutcrackers to personalized ornaments and Christmas stockings, and perfect Scottish gifts like 100% wool and cashmere scarves.
While we love eating our way through the Christmas markets and doing a bit of shopping, the East Princes Street Gardens has a lot more going on than just food and shopping. We took a spin around the Forth 1 Big Wheel right around sunset, for view over the Christmas market, Edinburgh Castle and Scott Monument.
There’s a lot more rides for adults than just the Forth 1 Big Wheel, like the Star Flyer that swings you around near Scott Monument at 60 meters high. And there’s tons of rides to keep the little ones entertained between browsing the chalets.
Ice Skating in St. Andrew’s Square
We’re never too old to strap on a pair of ice skates for some good ol’ fashioned winter fun. The ice rink at St. Andrew’s Square wraps around Edinburgh’s Melville Monument, with a bar serving up hot cocoa for kids and with some Bailey’s Irish Cream added for adults.
There’s also some food trucks located around St. Andrew’s Square, and if you’re American expats like us, you might not be able to resist the taco truck.
Scottish Christmas Market at George Street
A smaller Scottish Christmas market spreads out on George Street and features all local made products like Harris Tweed, Scotch whiskeys and tartan scarves. You can also warm up with a adult coffee or hot chocolate at the Glayva bar, where coffee and hot chocolates are spiked with the Scottish whiskey liqueur, Glayva, made right in Edinburgh.
George Street is also home to this year’s Ice Adventure, Santa’s Grotto, rides for kids and the 80 meter tall drop tower for the daring adult.
George Street Christmas Market is open November 16 – December 24, 2019 from 10am – 10pm.
Ice Adventure: A Journey Through Frozen Scotland
New for the 2017 edition of Edinburgh’s Christmas is Ice Adventure: A Journey Through Frozen Scotland. Ice sculpture artists have created a beautiful, albeit chilly tour of Scotland’s most famous characters, both real and fictional. In the tent kept at -10°C (14°F), you might be able to imagine how polar explorer Ernest Shackleton felt on his Antarctic expeditions. And he’s there in ice too, fittingly.
The Loch Ness Monster, more affectionately referred to as Nessie, is there too captured with her dragon-like humps protruding from a frozen Loch Ness. Some Scottish highland cows graze, looking on at Nessie as they much on whatever grass they might have been able to dig at under the frozen tundra.
If you’ve strolled in the East Princes Street Gardens, you might have come across a bronze statue of a soldier with a bear. The bear is Wojtek, and he’s also been immortalized in ice. The Syrian brown bear was purchased by some Polish soldiers as a cub in Iran. In order to bring him back on a British transport boat, Wojtek was enlisted as a soldier with the rank of private and he had a serial number and his own paybook. He actually did serve in the 22nd Artillery Supply Company during WWII, helping to move crates of ammunition. He was promoted to corporal and retired after the war ended. He lived out the rest of his days at the Edinburgh Zoo.
Of course, there’s also Mary, Queen of Scots. She famously acceded to the throne at just six days old and ruled over Scotland from 1542 to 1567. And even more infamously, she was known to have arranged the murder of her second husband, Henry Stuart and King Consort to Scotland. She was eventually found guilty of plotting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I of England after years of being confined in various castles and manor houses in Scotland, before she was beheaded.
And after a good dose of Scottish history in ice, warm up with a hot toddy at the Ice Adventure’s ice bar. The hot toddy is made with Shackleton Whiskey, a Scotch whisky made in honor of Sir Ernest Shackleton.
La Clique Noël
La Clique Noël is the holiday version of the award-winning La Clique cabaret and variety show that was born at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival over a decade ago. Definitely not a family affair (there’s nudity), the show ironically starts with the six-man band entering to O Come All Ye Faithful.
The cast are anything but angelic, and each act is full of humor and sexual innuendo. There’s American Heather Holliday, who eats swords and comes back to breath fire in the second act. Scotty the Blue Bunny is a hoot with his singing and dancing. Tim Kriegler and Johnny Rey twists their bodies in aerial acrobatics that had some older ladies in the next row using their programs as a fan and were ready to douse themselves with their glasses of wine to cool off. Though most impressive was Craig the Hula Hoop Boy.
La Clique Noël is definitely an enjoyable way to spend two hours watching some circus-esque talents sans the caged animals.
Holiday Cocktail at The Dome
The Dome has part of Edinburgh’s history since 1775. And it’s the place in Edinburgh that conjures up the Christmas magic more than anywhere else. Home to the most festive Christmas tree in Scotland’s capital, stopping by The Dome is a must for a look at the decorations, if nothing else.
It was built and designed by the highly revered planner of Edinburgh’s New Town, James Craig, as the Physicians Hall of the College of Physicians. Unfortunately, the building cost nearly twice what was budgeted and the College looked for a buyer. The buyer was The Commercial Bank Of Scotland.
They demolished it down to just the foundation and redesigned in a spectacular Graeco-Roman style. It’s nearly impossible to stroll down George Street and not notice the building with its Corinthian columns.
Though the columns are wrapped in sparkling white lights twinkling like diamonds in the night, it’s the inside that is jaw-droppingly magnificent. The dome itself, which the building is named for, is located in The Grill Room. Unfortunately, it books up far in advance and well in to the new year during the festive season, but you can still pop in to admire the tree. And you might be lucky enough to snag a table for a glass of wine or one of their holiday inspired cocktails like the Snowflake Martini.
The Dome is decorated for Christmas from October 28, 2019 – January 6, 2020. The Grill Room opens for drinks at 4:30pm daily.
Other Things to Do in Edinburgh
It can get quite cold spending all day outdoors at Edinburgh’s Christmas markets and attractions. Nicknamed “The Windy City,” Edinburgh doesn’t get that nickname from it’s “windy” politicians like Chicago. It’s almost always windy in Edinburgh and that cold wind cuts right to the bone if you’re not used to it.
Edinburgh has a lot of attractions that are great for escaping the cold. We only explored Edinburgh over a long weekend, so hit some of the must-sees.
Perched upon an extinct volcano, Edinburgh Castle dominates the skyline of the Scottish capital. There’s been human settlement on the Castle Rock since the 2nd century AD, though archaeologists don’t know specifically what. But we do know that there’s been a royal residence on the 80 meter cliff since David I reigned in the 12th century and the castle continued to be a royal residence until 1633.
Now Edinburgh Castle is Scotland’s top visitor attraction, and though always busy with tourists, a stroll around the castle makes it easy to see why. Edinburgh Castle is really like a small city and you could practically spend a day alone exploring.
Even if you’re a bit short on time while trying to pack Christmas markets, ice skating and holiday shows in to a short trip, Edinburgh Castle is still worth a visit. We hit the highlights and arrived in time to see the One O’Clock Gun. A gun has been fired from this very spot since 1861 and you can watch the 105mm field gun be fired off every day at 1pm, except Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas Day.
Head straight up to the Castle Rock summit, which you can reach up the steep Lang Stairs. The stairs once were the original entrance to the castle, though you can also take a gentler winding route around the hill.
The Great Hall was built in 1511 and the original hammerbeam roof is still in it. It was here banquets were held, including one by Mary, Queen of Scots upon her return to Scotland from France. And there’s an impressive collection of armor and weapons around the Great Hall.
The Scottish Crown Jewels are the oldest set of surviving crown jewels in the British Isles. They haven’t been used since 1651 for the coronation of Charles II. Because they were hidden away, the Scottish Crown Jewels managed to survive being melted down under the orders of Oliver Cromwell. Now we can see the crown, scepter and sword of state on display inside of Edinburgh Castle.
Of course, the highlight of Edinburgh Castle is the panorama over the entire city. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the Forth Bridge. And even if it isn’t clear, you can see just about all of Edinburgh’s historic monuments from up on the Castle Rock.
Edinburgh Castle is the most visited attraction in Scotland. Skip the line by purchasing advance tickets.
Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura and World of Illusions
Just outside of Edinburgh Castle is Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura and World of Illusions, which is worth visiting for the 360° views over Edinburgh and the one of the best views down the Royal Mile.
Opened in 1852, it’s the city’s oldest purpose built attraction and one of the oldest in the United Kingdom. Of course, the main attraction has always been the camera obscura, a kind of pinhole camera that projects a live mirror image. When you get your ticket, you’re assigned a show time and a guide takes you on a tour of Edinburgh’s sites with the camera obscura in a darkened room. How clear the image appears depends on how bright it is outside, so going when the sun is shining is ideal.
The ticket also gets visitors in any time for the rest of the day, and the rooftop viewing platform is a great spot for sunset or night shots of Edinburgh Castle and The Royal Mile.
Watch the Sunset from Calton Hill
From October to March, the winter sun is perfectly positioned to create a stunning sunset from Calton Hill – that is when the sun shines. Just bundle up. You’re watching that winter sunset on top of one of Edinburgh’s hills and with not much but the unfinished National Monument (meant to be a replica of the Acropolis in Athens), the Dugald Stewart Monument and Nelson’s Monument up there, the wind whips right through you.
Take the Rooftop Tour of St Giles Cathedral
Even on the busiest of days in Edinburgh, you can find a little slice of solitude in the heart of the Royal Mile. Not many people realize that you can climb the 92 steps up the narrow, leaning spiral staircase to the rooftop of St. Giles Cathedral for a beautiful view up and down the Royal Mile. Only four people are permitted on the rooftop at the same time, so it’s always an exclusive experience.
Warm up in a Pub
Edinburgh has no shortage of watering holes where the Scotch is sure to warm you up. But Edinburgh’s pubs aren’t just for the scotch drinkers. Cocktail lovers should head to Epicurean inside the Radisson Collection Royal Mile Hotel for award-winning aromatic drinks like Lavender Fields that are inspired by watercolors. Here, mixology is an art form.
If you fancy a pint of beer, The Hanging Bat focuses on more than 150 craft beers from around the UK. Aside from the bottles listed on the extensive beer menu, there’s six casks and 14 keg lines serving up a rotating selection. On the night we visited, we found Wild Beer’s Millionaire on the bat shaped taps, a beer I discovered I really liked in Bristol. The bar is also a gastro-pub and the chef serves up a regularly changing menu with locally sourced ingredients, with some reappearing favorites like the beer mac’n’cheese and a selection of hot dogs.
Where to Stay in Edinburgh: Radisson Collection Royal Mile Hotel
The Royal Mile is the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town, and right in the middle of it is the Radisson Collection Royal Mile Hotel. It’s just a few minutes walk to Edinburgh Castle, St. Giles Cathedral is practically across the street and the festivities of Edinburgh’s Christmas are a short distance away.
Let’s be honest, sometimes five star hotels can feel stuffy and a bit too posh. The Royal Mile Hotel couldn’t be more opposite from making you feel like a bull in a china shop. The design is full of bright colors, fun prints and Scottish touches.
Guests are greeted with a gin and tonic upon check-in. There’s a Bloody Mary bar at breakfast. And a cozy fireplace to warm up in front of with an award-winning cocktail from the aromatic Epicurean cocktail bar.
But our favorite part were the floor to ceiling windows of our room, overlooking Victoria Street and with a view of Edinburgh Castle.
Deluxe rooms, which is what we stayed in, all have a spectacular view of the Old Town. The mini bar, including beer and wine, is complimentary and restocked daily during your stay. And for longer stays or in case spills happen, two laundry items are complimentary during your stay.
Breakfast is also included for deluxe rooms and suites. Continental breakfast items like pastries, yogurt, cheese and meats are available at a buffet. There’s also fresh honeycomb daily from the hotel’s very own bees. Hot breakfast items like a full Scottish breakfast or eggs benedict are ordered from an a la carte menu. We recommend the kipper and the eggs florentine. And you can enjoy it all with a G&V Bloody Mary from the buffet.
The hotel also has a gym and spa. The gym was temporarily closed for renovations during our stay, but in Edinburgh you’re sure to work off all the goodies and meals you eat. No matter where you go in Edinburgh, there’s always an up whether that be uphill or up stairs.
We did take advantage of the spa for a bit of relaxation with G&V’s invigorating massages for both me and Tim. The hotel worked with Ishga and ila to develop their very own line of skincare products. My skin has been particularly dry and my massage therapist selected just the right products to moisturize me during my massage and sent me off with some recommendations for how I can stay better moisturized at home.
Head to Royal Mile Hotel’s restaurant, Cucina, for dinner. Believe us, after a day of exploring outdoors in freezing Edinburgh, it’s nice to just head to the hotel’s restaurant. The menu features fresh Italian with locally sourced, seasonal ingredients from Scotland.
We started off with an Italian classic, bresaola, for Tim and the roasted scallops on a bed of ceralic puree and topped with saffron dressing for me. Bresaola and carpaccio are some of the things Tim really misses from our time living in Italy, so the salt cured beef from Valtellina was like a treat from our former home.
For our main courses, Tim selected roasted pork with Mediterranean vegetables and I choose a honey and lavender glazed duck breast. The pork was really good, but the duck was incredible. The honey, like the honeycomb at breakfast, comes from Royal Mile Hotel’s very own bees.
We allowed Cucina’s sommelier to choose our wine pairings for our meal. We started off with a glass of Franciacorta, a sparkling wine from Brescia with a DOCG status. A bottle of one of our favorite Italian reds, Amarone, followed. It was from Allegrini Estates, a gorgeous vineyard we visited while living in Italy.
Never ones to turn down dessert, we finished off the delicious meal with milk sorbet with honeycomb and drizzled with white truffle honey. The sommelier paired it with a Moscato d’Asti, which the the perfect amount of sweetness to compliment the savory white truffle oil drizzled on the dessert.
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Our trip was provided in part by Edinburgh’s Christmas with support from Visit Scotland and Radisson Collection Royal Mile Hotel in order to bring you this story. However, Luxe Adventure Traveler maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site. As always, all thoughts, opinions, and enthusiasm for travel are entirely our own. This article contains affiliate links. When you book on Booking.com or Viator or shop on Amazon through our affiliate sites, we earn a small commission at no additional cost to you.