Architecturally varied, rich in culture, and a gateway city to the Scottish Highlands -- it’s hard to think of a reason not to visit Edinburgh this winter. Sure, the famous annual Edinburgh International Festival and accompanying Edinburgh Festival Fringe take place in July, but that just means you’ll find the Scottish capital a quieter place to explore this time of year. From the medieval ramparts, castles, and volcanic hills of the Old Town to the galleries, theaters, and gardens of the New Town, there’s a lot packed into the destination. Edinburgh is a relatively small city, and its narrow streets and hidden nooks are best explored on foot. The chance to catch the city bathed in the unmistakable glow of winter light with the ever-present Edinburgh Castle gazing down on you is just one reason to visit Edinburgh this winter -- here are nine more.
1. The Atmospheric Walking Tours
Winter is the best time for an Edinburgh walking tour. Sure, rain and gray skies are frequent during this time of year, but the moody weather is perfect for indulging in a tour that evokes the myths and alluring history that make Edinburgh what it is. We’d recommend a guided tour that takes in the history of royal Edinburgh, through the courtyards and homes of the Old Town. Alternatively, take the Mercat Tours Ghost Tour -- if you can handle the dark history.
2. The Royal Botanic Garden is Beautiful
While Edinburgh does have its fair share of gray days, when the sun shines on a crisp and chilly day, the light makes the city look even more irresistible. And nowhere in town does the light do that more than at the Royal Botanic Garden, a horticultural heaven located a mile north of Old Town. While you’d think it would be at its brightest in summer, the gardens have an array of gorgeous winter-flowering plants and shrubs. By February, white carpets of snowdrops cover areas of the gardens, making up for the rarity of heavy snow fall.
3. Hogmanay Is a Huge Deal
You might think you go wild for New Year’s, but once you've seen the Edinburgh Hogmanay celebrations, you might reassess. A trip to Edinburgh for the 31st of December is one for the bucket list. Tourists and locals alike take to the streets for the huge organized celebration, which culminates with a world-famous firework display above Edinburgh Castle. Locals who aren’t at the party will hole up in a good pub -- Kays Bar, a cozy Victorian pub, is a good choice -- and wait for the fireworks from there. At the end of the night, it would be rude not to indulge in some first footing (an old tradition of greeting neighbors at their door after midnight -- bearing gifts), even if you’re staying in a hotel.
4. The Burns Night Celebrations
You can eat haggis with neeps and tatties any time you want in Edinburgh, but the best time to enjoy the traditional food is as part of a lively Burns Night supper. Held every January 25 in honor of the great Scottish poet Robert Burns, the traditional dinner should be followed by whisky, poetry recitals, ceilidh dancing, and more whisky. Burns Night suppers and accompanying dances are hosted all over the city, from pubs to restaurants, and there is always a beginner’s introduction to Burns at Edinburgh Castle.
5. The Mountainous Holyrood Park
Generally, inner-city parks look like manicured expanses of green space that are there to offer a respite from the hustle outside. Edinburgh’s looks a lot like a huge, imposing mountain. The vast peak that sits at the center of Holyrood Park is Arthur’s Seat, a volcanic hill that rises about 820 feet above the city. And in a city that’s full of views, the windswept green space is yet another ideal place to look down on Edinburgh’s medieval charms.
6. The Views From Calton Hill
If climbing Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood Park seems too daunting, then head for Calton Hill for more imperious views. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the hill sits opposite Edinburgh Castle, with the ancient structures of the Old Town separating the two. At the top of the hill, you’ll find the National Monument of Scotland, a memorial to the Scottish soldiers and sailors who died in the Napoleonic Wars as well as the city’s best photo spot. You can capture the Castle, the Old Town skyline, and the distant mountains all in one frame.
7. There's Culture Everywhere
There’s no arguing that Edinburgh is a city built on culture. After all, this was the first city to be named UNESCO City of Literature in 2004. From Robert Louis Stevenson to Ian Rankin, the city can celebrate its fair share of writers. Plus, its arts and cultural scene is continuously thriving. Beyond the beauty and history of Edinburgh Castle -- an absolute must-visit -- there’s the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the Edinburgh Playhouse, Edinburgh Farmers' Market, Princes Street Gardens, and The Scotch Whisky Experience to warm you up should the temperatures dip too low. If you still have time to spare, head to Mary King’s Close, a cluster of buildings preserved beneath the streets of the Old Town area that come shrouded in myths of murder, plague, and gruesome urban legends.
8. It’s the Home of Harry Potter
As Harry potter fever sees a revival with the impending release of "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," it’s only proper that we mention that Edinburgh is the city from which the bespectacled wizard originated. J. K. Rowling frequented the quiet back room of the now-famous Elephant Cafe and seven books and eight movies (so far) later, the toilet is a shrine to Potter fans who have visited from around the world with pens in hand.
9. It’s the Perfect Gateway to the Highlands
Depending on the type of trip you’re taking, Edinburgh is the perfect base from which to jump into the Scottish Highlands. Trains regularly depart for destinations across the country, but we would recommend visiting Fort William and Mallaig on the west coast, where ferry trips to the Isle of Skye are frequent. It's probably a bit too far for a day trip (over three hours by car, or about five hours by train), but is a worthy next stop on your itinerary after Edinburgh. The dramatic scenery of the west Highlands is unrivaled, thanks to its undulating peaks, ruggedly rich land, and vast lochs.