It’s December so we are sharing our favorite ways to celebrate Christmas in Edinburgh Scotland. There are loads things to do in Edinburgh during December, which include browsing traditional Christmas markets, ice skating, Christmas shopping, enjoying the holiday lights, riding the Star Flyer, and attending concerts. We cover all things associated with Christmas in Edinburgh from amusement rides to church services, and everything in between.
Whether you are a visitor or a local, we give you advice to help you find the best shopping hotspots, Edinburgh Christmas markets, festive afternoon teas, Edinburgh Christmas events, Christmas meals, light displays, and Christmas decorations in Edinburgh. We also share a brief history of Christmas in Scotland and some of the common holiday traditions. So let’s delve into our guide to things to do in Edinburgh during Christmas!
15 Ways to Celebrate Christmas in Edinburgh Scotland
Although Christianity in Scotland dates back to the Roman Occupation of Britain, Christmas has not always been a popular holiday in Scotland. Prior to the Scottish Reformation, Christmas was celebrated in a manner similar to the rest of Western Europe. However, after Scotland broke ties with the Catholic Church Christmas celebrations in Scotland were banned as they were seen as Catholic feasts and rituals by the Church of Scotland.
Even after the bans were lessened, Christmas celebrations continued to be suppressed and discouraged by the church. Hogmanay (celebration of the New Year) became the most celebrated Scottish holiday, and Christmas was generally afforded only a quiet acknowledgement and celebration.
Believe it or not, Christmas has only been an official holiday in Scotland since 1958 and it wasn’t until the 1980’s that it was widely publicly celebrated. The increased influence is likely due to a lessening of influence by the Church of Scotland, the influence of popular Christmas customs from countries like Germany, England, Ireland, and the United States, and the demonstrated economic benefits of Christmas markets and celebrations.
Today both Christmas and Hogmanay are widely celebrated in Scotland and considered important holidays. So now there are twice as many fun celebrations!
There are a lot of ways to enjoy the holidays in Edinburgh and there are loads of special Christmas events throughout the city. Head to the official Edinburgh’s Christmas website to see what events are scheduled during your visit. The official events this year are being held from November 16th, 2018 to January 5th 2019.
Although the specific events change each year, our list should give you a good idea of what the city can offer and help you plan your Christmas in Edinburgh. Here is our list of the top 15 things to do in Edinburgh during Christmas!
**A Special Note for Residents of Edinburgh & Vicinity: If you have an EH postcode, you are likely eligible for discounts on Edinburgh rides, attractions, and shows. For instance this year, residents can receive 20% off on rides, attractions, and some of the Christmas shows. Be sure to check when purchasing your ticket, whether online or in person. You’ll need to show proof (e.g., driver’s license or bank statement) to receive the discount.**
Browse the Edinburgh Christmas Markets
The main Christmas Market is held each year in the Princes Street Gardens. It seems to get bigger each year with several lanes filled with little shops and kiosks selling crafts, art, gifts, food, and more. It also now is spread out into part of George Street as well where you find even more booths, rides, and attractions so be sure to head there as well. Typically the market at the Princes Street Gardens features traditional European Christmas stalls and is often referred to as the “German Christmas Market”, and the George Street section features Scottish products and is often referred to as the “Scottish Christmas Market”.
You can find a bit of everything at the Christmas markets and some things we saw there this year were painted nutcrackers, scarfs, carved nativity scenes, leather wallets and purses, flavored coffee beans, candles, personalized engraved gifts, Christmas ornaments, stuffed animals, and chocolates.
Although many of the food stands feature German food such as German sausages, there are a number of options which include hamburgers, salmon filets, pulled pork, crepes, and churros.
There are also stands selling hot drinks such as hot chocolate and coffee, and alcoholic options like hot cider, mulled wine (often advertised using German word Glühwein), and hot toddies. There is also usually one stall selling Glayva drinks, Glayva is a local whisky that has a spicy taste and is good on its own or paired with coffee or hot apple juice.
Seek out Holiday Lights
Seeking out festive twinkling light displays is a great way to get into the Christmas spirit in Edinburgh! I am a bit spoiled as I’ve been to some amazing over-the-top light displays in the United States, and have found the ones here in Scotland to be a bit more subdued and fewer people decorate their homes. However, you can still find some great lights here.
Our favorite find so far is the evening light trail at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Each evening in December, they have illuminated trails that include lots of lights, music, and illuminations. It is a really well done display and great for families. You can also buy hot chocolate or mulled wine to enjoy along the trail. There is an entrance fee and you can book tickets online in advance or buy them on site. Entries are timed to ensure that the trail doesn’t get too crowded.
For the best light event, I’d recommend heading to Light Night which is a festive event each year (normally in mid November, will be on Sunday November 18th in 2018) where the city’s holiday lights are officially switched on for the first time. There are music performances, the lighting of the Christmas Tree on the Mound, and fireworks. Light Night is a free event, and we’d recommending coming early as it attracts around 20,000 people.
In terms of streets, the best street for lights and decorations is George Street as there is normally a large light installation here. The Dome on George Street is well-known for its lights as each year it places fairy lights and huge Christmas wreaths around its Corinthian columns. It is one of the most Instagrammed Edinburgh Christmas spots each year. You’ll find more light displays around the city and these change each year, so be on the look out!
Go Ice Skating
There is always at least one outdoor skating rink that springs up during the winter months. The rink is usually located in St. Andrews Square and/or within Princes Street Garden. You can book tickets online in advance from the Edinburgh Christmas website or buy them in person at the rink. You can bring your own ice skates or rent them on site.
Enjoy a Festive Afternoon Tea
A holiday afternoon tea is a great way to sit down, warm up, and enjoy a break from all the other festivities. There are a number of places in Edinburgh that offer special Christmas time afternoon teas with the best known being The Dome. The Dome is known for going over the top with its holiday decorations with lots of lights, garlands, and decorations filling its interior. Time slots for afternoon tea in the Georgian Room at The Dome normally fill up several days in advance during the holiday season, so making a reservation is strongly recommended. If you are not into afternoon tea, The Dome also serves lunch, drinks, and dinner in its bars and restaurants if you’d still like to come enjoy the holiday decorations.
Other spots that normally serve Christmas afternoon teas in Edinburgh (as well as normal afternoon tea service the rest of the year) are The Signet Library, Prestonfield, Hilton Edinburgh Carlton Hotel, The Balmoral, Mercure Edinburgh, Sheraton Edinburgh, café at Jenners, and The Caledonian. Reservations are strongly recommended (or required) for these afternoon teas to ensure you get a table.
Many of the city’s big attractions also serve afternoon tea, including the tea room at the Royal Yacht Britannia, café at Holyrood Palace, and the tea room at Edinburgh Castle. These attractions often have a special festive afternoon tea on offer during December, and can be special places to enjoy a more casual tea experience while out sightseeing.
See the Nativity in St. Andrew Square
The city’s nativity scene is typically placed in St. Andrew Square gardens. Since 2003, the nativity scene has been Tim Chalk‘s life-size sculpture which represents the biblical family within a shed or barn. Mary is clutching the baby Jesus in her arms, Joseph is holding a blanket, and there are some shepherds.
The sculpture is not a traditional depiction of the nativity scene as there is no manger, no menagerie of farm animals (only a couple of lambs), no angels, and no three magi. The expressions on the figures’ faces are also interesting and in contrast to the serene joyous scenes normally depicted.
A celebration, such as a free concert featuring traditional caroling, is normally held here each year after it is first placed in the square.
Admire the Holiday Decorations at Edinburgh’s Top Attractions
December is a great time of the year to visit some of the big attractions as many of them will have special holiday decorations out. Many also offer special holiday themed tours, workshops, caroling, holiday meals, or after-hour tours. Some popular Edinburgh attractions that usually have good Christmas decorations and/or events include Edinburgh Castle, Royal Yacht Britannia, Edinburgh Royal Botanic Gardens, Palace of Holyroodhouse, St. Giles’ Cathedral, Georgian House, and the Edinburgh Zoo.
Check the attraction’s website to see the latest news and what holiday events are happening during your visit.
Go Christmas Shopping
If you haven’t finished your holiday shopping, Edinburgh is not a bad place to be as there are a lot of stores in Edinburgh! An obvious place to begin is at the Christmas markets on Princes Street gardens and along George Street, but there are plenty of other places to go Christmas shopping. Princes Street and George Street are home to some of the city’s oldest flagship department stores as well as a number of UK and international fashion, fragrance, and accessory stores
. Multrees Walk is the place to head for luxury stores like Louis Vuitton, Michael Kors, Coach, and Tesla. Independent shops are easy to find in the Grassmarket area, Stockbridge, The Arches, Thistle Street, and the West End. Good places to find local arts and crafts products is at the Royal Mile Market as well as the weekly markets that take place in several locations throughout the city including Stockbridge and Grassmarket. If you are a Harry Potter fan (or are shopping for one), you can check out our Harry Potter Edinburgh guide which includes a list of stores selling Harry Potter items.
If you are looking for high-quality Scottish items, such as bagpipes, whisky, cashmere, quaichs, tweed, or kilts, do a little research online beforehand to find the best stores that specialize in that product. There are a lot of stores selling these items and the quality can vary substantially in the main tourist areas, although you’ll find gems even on the Royal Mile if you know where to go. Take your time to compare quality and prices before making a purchase.
Visit Santa Claus
There are usually at least two places you can find Santa in Edinburgh from the 1st of December to Christmas Eve. The main location is at Santa’s Grotto which is part of the large Edinburgh’s Christmas celebration. The grotto location changes depending on the year, but you’ll usually find Santa within the large Princes Street Garden market within the Santa Land area, or alternatively on George Street. If you want to see this popular Santa, I’d book a ticket online with a timed entrance as lines can get long and time slots can get fully booked on busy days.
Other places you can usually find Santa is the children’s section of Jenners department store and the Ocean Terminal shopping center in Leith. Other department stores, attractions, and charity organizations often have Santa visits as well so you may want to check online or a local newspaper for other opportunities. Note that almost all Santa visits require buying a ticket or paying an entry fee that ranges from about £3 to £9 per child.
Attend a Religious Service
Christmas has become a fairly secular and commercial time of year, but at its core it is a Christian religious holiday designed to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. The word literally means Christ’s Mass or Mass of Christ. If you are looking to spend Christmas in Edinburgh and want to attend a religious service, you’ll have lots of options with many churches offering services on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In addition to worship services, many churches also offer candlelit concerts and services, caroling, and charity events during the holidays. The largest religious denomination in Scotland is Presbyterian so you’ll find a number of Presbyterian churches in Edinburgh such as St. Giles’ Cathedral (principal church of the Church of Scotland), St Cuthbert’s Church, and Grace Church.
There are also a number of Roman Catholic (e.g., St. Mary’s RC Cathedral, Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart) and Scottish Episcopal (Anglican) churches (e.g., St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedra, St John’s Episcopal Church) in Edinburgh. But there are also churches offering other Christian services such as Carrubbers Christian Centre (independent evangelical church), Quaker Meeting House, City of Edinburgh Methodist Church, and Abbeyhill Baptist Church. If you are looking for a more informal nondenominational service, check out the services offered by The Salvation Army.
Enjoy the Music and Theater Performances
Each year there is a special Edinburgh Christmas events program which includes music, theatre productions, and other evening events. Shows range from family friendly sing-alongs to silent discos to adult-oriented shows. This year we went to the saucy and fun La Clique Noël, which is a Christmas version of La Clique which was developed during Edinburgh Festival Fringe back in 2004. Some of these are geared to families and some like La Clique Noël are geared towards adults.
If you are looking for caroling, there is normally a traditional caroling performance at the nativity at St. Andrews Square, caroling performances at some of the city’s churches and cathedrals, and the Carol Service concert put on by The University of Edinburgh’s Chaplaincy service. This year the University Carol Service is at St. Giles’ Cathedral and is a popular event, so if you plan to go, arrive early to guarantee a seat.
For holiday concerts, theater, and dance performances, check out the Edinburgh Theatre Guide which lists productions held at a number of performance venues around the city such as The Usher Hall, the Royal Lyceum Theatre, King’s Theatre, and Edinburgh Playhouse. If you are into comedy and variety shows check out the schedule at The Stand which always offers some special Christmas performances.
Check out the Christmas Trees
Each year there is a large lighting ceremony of a Christmas tree that signifies the kickoff of the Christmas season in Edinburgh. This free annual event, called Light Night, is family-friendly and huge crowds gather to watch the tree being lit for the first time of the year and to hear choir performances and music. The tree lighting ceremony usually takes place in mid-November on the Mound off George Street, and the tree that is lit is a gift from the Hordaland Country Council in Norway. The tradition of Norway gifting a tree to the people of Edinburgh is a gesture of thanks for the support Scotland gave the Norwegians during World War 2. The tree used to be sent from Norway, but is now sourced in Scotland.
Other places to find decorated trees in Edinburgh which usually also have a special lighting ceremony include the University of Edinburgh’s tree in the Old College Quad, the Christmas tree in the Grassmarket Square in Old Town, and the Christmas tree in Jenners department store. Some other places you can usually find beautifully decorated Christmas trees are in Edinburgh’s Christmas Santa Land, The Dome, Palace of Holyroodhouse, prominent hotels such as the Balmoral, department stores, and at the Edinburgh Royal Botanic Garden.
Take Part in a Fun Charity Event
There are a number of fundraising and charity events that take place during the holiday season in Edinburgh. These include performances, lunches, comedy nights, charity walks and runs, charity auctions, concerts, and more! Some are raising money for a number of charities, and some are specific to one type of charity. These are mostly local events, but if you are a visitor to the city you can also buy tickets to participate in many of these and help fund a good cause. To help find the latest local charity and fundraising events, check out the What’s On Edinburgh website, The List, and local newspapers.
There are always at least a couple of holiday themed charity walks and runs in Edinburgh each December. Most have fun holiday related themes and many participants wear a Santa suit or reindeer antlers during the event. There is even an Edinburgh Christmas Charity Festival that hosts a series of events (walks, runs, parade, live entertainment) to help raise money for a number of charities. One of the longer running charity Christmas events is the Santa Run each December where adults and children don provided Santa suits and run or walk to help raise money for When You Wish Upon a Star, a UK foundation which helps fulfill the wishes of children with life threatening illnesses.
If you will also be celebrating Hogmanay in Edinburgh (Scottish New Year’s celebration) and have a bit of a crazy streak, you might want to consider participating in Loony Dook. On New Year’s Day, Loony Dook “dookers” participate in a fancy dress parade and then take a cold dip into the freezing River Forth in South Queensferry, just north of Edinburgh. You need to register for Loony Dook well in advance as it always sells out, and the money raised from the event goes to local charities.
Head to the Special Edinburgh Christmas Events
Each year, there are always a few new or special events that are part of Edinburgh’s Christmas programming, many are free to the public. For example in 2015 and 2016 there was the Street of Light, a walk through light and sound installation, and in 2017 there was Ice Adventure.
Ice Adventure was a walk-through indoor installation filled with life-like ice and snow sculptures, which include well-known figures from Scottish history (e.g., Mary Queen of Scots, Robert the Bruce), popular animals (e.g., Greyfriars Bobby, Highland coos), and creatures from Scottish legends and myths (e.g., Loch Ness monster, fairies). The indoor ice installation also included an ice bar where you could stop and have a drink halfway through the tour.
Another example from 2017 is the Giant Advent Calendar that is a light-and-sound show projected onto the General Register House. Each day a different window or door is “opened” as part of the show, showing information from what was happening that particular year. The first day we watched on December 1st featured the year 1965, and it is amazing how well the show was integrated onto the facade of the building. The show changed each day until it ended on Christmas Eve.
Each year there is also usually an art related event. The Winter Windows program has been displayed at Edinburgh Christmas for the last several years. The program is a collaborative enterprise between Edinburgh’s primary schools and local businesses and each year a different theme is chosen. The best artwork entries from students around the city are chosen to be displayed in several areas in and around the city throughout the winter season.
Eat a Tasty Christmas Dinner
If you’re in Edinburgh during Christmas, you might want to have a special Christmas lunch or dinner. Traditional Scottish Christmas meals vary widely but usually feature a roasted meat or fish (turkey is one of the most common), gravy, cranberry sauce, roasted vegetables (potatoes, carrots, parsnips), stuffing, a green vegetable (e.g., peas, green beans, Brussels sprouts), and kilted chipolta (sausage wrapped in bacon).
The traditional dessert is Christmas pudding (dense suet, molasses, dried fruit, alcohol, and spiced cake), but other common options are clootie dumpling (a Scottish version of Christmas pudding), a Scottish trifle, or cranachan (whipped cream, whisky, honey, and raspberries). Although not typically part of the Christmas Day meal, mince pies are very common snacks or desserts during the Christmas season throughout the UK.
You’ll find dozens of local restaurants offering special holiday menus in Edinburgh throughout December, and reservations are recommended at most restaurants. Some places to consider for a special Christmas meal are The Witchery, The Printing Press, Tower Restaurant, Hotel du Vin, The Balmoral, The Dome, The Caledonian, Browns, Prestonfield House, and David Bann (vegetarian). Some popular Edinburgh attractions such as the Edinburgh Castle also have special holiday meals. Many restaurants are closed on Christmas Day (so do be sure to confirm opening dates and times), but a number are open, especially those connected to a hotel, and offer special Christmas Day meals.
If you are celebrating Christmas in Edinburgh, there are some common Christmas traditions associated with Christmas Day and the Christmas meal in the UK. In the morning, some families may attend church services and most people exchange and open gifts. The main Christmas meal is often served in the late afternoon and accompanied by the pulling of Christmas crackers and wearing paper crowns (usually found inside the cracker).
Another common UK tradition is listening to the Queen’s Christmas Message which is broadcast live on radio and TV on Christmas Day. Watching Christmas cartoons and films (a couple common ones that were new for me were Arthur Christmas and the animated The Snowman short film) and listening to Christmas music is common throughout December. Many of these are more common in England than Scotland, but are widely practiced throughout the UK.
Let your Inner Child Loose on the Amusement Rides
Each year a number of amusement rides are brought in for Edinburgh’s Christmas and set in Princes Street Gardens and along George Street. There are normally about a dozen rides geared towards children and families, and then several oriented to adults and thrill seekers.
You’ll find all the classics such as a mini roller coaster, a ferris wheel, and a carousel. Santa Land, where many of the children’s rides are, also features other attractions such as a Santa Train, carnival games, and a Christmas tree hedge maze.
Two popular local favorites are the Star Flyer (spinning swinging chairs that go up really high) and the Big Wheel (a large ferris wheel), both designed for those who don’t mind heights!
Tickets for rides can be booked online at the Edinburgh Christmas website (valid for the date you choose) or purchased in person at the Christmas market. If you are looking for the shortest lines, the best time to visit is near the opening times and on weekdays. The rides do typically get busy after 4pm and on weekends.
So there are our top 15 things to do to celebrate Christmas in Edinburgh! Of course, if you are visiting the city in December or January, there are plenty of other non-Christmas things you’ll likely want to do in the city. If this is your first time in Edinburgh, we’d recommend checking our guide to Edinburgh’s top attractions and if you’re returning we also have a guide to exploring Edinburgh’s lesser known attractions.
Do you think you would enjoy spending Christmas in Edinburgh? Have you visited Edinburgh in December or for Christmas? If so, we’d love to hear about your favorites things to do during the holidays. If you are going to be visiting, feel free to ask us any questions below in the comments and we are happy to try to help. We love hearing from you!