Why Edinburgh is perfect for a festive break

·7-min read
Edinburgh Castle and Christmas market festive holiday - Travelpix Ltd/Stone RF
Edinburgh Castle and Christmas market festive holiday - Travelpix Ltd/Stone RF

If your European Christmas market plans have been thrown into disarray, then you might want to consider a trip closer to home – and just a train ride away, Edinburgh has all the ingredients for a traditional festive getaway.

With a Christmas market twinkling beneath the illuminated historic castle, an ice rink, a brand-new immersive whisky experience, cosy restaurants serving seasonal dishes, and luxury venues with Christmas-movie size trees in the lobby, Edinburgh is the best UK option for a festive city break by a royal mile.

Edinburgh summers are the stuff of legend – when the festival descends, it’s a frenzy of shows, street performers, packed-out pubs, and pop-ups in all corners of the city.

Fewer people though seem to know that as autumn turns to winter and snow dusts the roofs and spires of the city’s Gothic cathedrals and historic buildings, Edinburgh becomes like the setting of a nativity play.

Trains from London and many other UK cities arrive at Waverley Station, bang in the middle of Edinburgh’s medieval Old Town and neoclassical New Town. Though some roads are undeniably steep – steps up the old wynds towards the Old Town are particularly cumbersome – Edinburgh is a city that is easily explored on foot.

The city’s Royal Mile gets a lot of slack for its kilted pipers and shops selling clan and shortbread-style tourist tat. But while it may be wise to avoid the manic thoroughfare at certain times of the year, at Christmas it takes on a familiar charm.

At one end is the historic Palace of Holyroodhouse, the 17th-century official Scottish residence for Her Majesty the Queen, with its pleasing symmetry of towers either side and views of Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat.

At the other end of the cobbled Royal Mile is the castle, perched high above the city like the perfect tree-topper.

Edinburgh Castle lit up in the snow - georgeclerk/iStockphoto
Edinburgh Castle lit up in the snow - georgeclerk/iStockphoto

Until 9 January 2022, the Castle of Light: Hidden Treasures installation embellishes the castle walls with stirring visuals. Anyone can view the outside display from the castle esplanade for free from 4.30pm onwards, while those with tickets can go within the castle walls to see a spectacular audio-visual show. From the castle’s battlements you can also look down on the glittering city below.

Much of that glittering comes from Edinburgh’s Christmas market, which is back after being cancelled last year, creating a festive meeting point in Princes Street Gardens. There is a Ferris wheel (and other rides), wooden stalls selling mulled wine, whisky and bratwurst, and lots and lots of people.

It’s worth nipping in for the jolly atmosphere (especially during the week when the crowds are more manageable) but the festive spirit doesn’t stop here – far from it.

Edinburgh Christmas market at night - Jason Friend Photography Ltd/Photodisc
Edinburgh Christmas market at night - Jason Friend Photography Ltd/Photodisc

A 10-minute walk west along Princes Street, on the New Town side of the gardens, the new Johnnie Walker Experience, housed in the old House of Fraser department store, is a fun way to incorporate a few tipples into your day, while learning about one of Scotland’s most famous whisky brands along the way. If you don’t fancy a tour, the 1820 rooftop bar (booking essential) serves up expertly crafted whisky cocktails with a full-on view of the castle.

From here, it’s just a couple of minutes’ walk to one of Edinburgh’s most salubrious roads – George Street. This year, the annual ice-skating rink has been relocated to the western end, but walk east and you will see some of Edinburgh’s most spectacular Christmas lights.

The Dome, at the eastern end of George Street, has long set the bar with its shiny lights, and this year is no different. The six Corinthian columns outside the grand restaurant are wrapped in lights, while huge Christmas wreaths, twinkling with fairy lights, are topped with huge red bows.

The Dome Christmas lights Edinburgh - RollingEarth/iStockphoto
The Dome Christmas lights Edinburgh - RollingEarth/iStockphoto

You’ll have to head inside to fully experience the building’s Christmas overload – in the lobby, a New York-style Christmas tree towers up towards the cupola, and the Grill Room is a glimmering wonderland – the kind of place Kevin McAllister would inevitably get left behind in.

Across St Andrew’s Square is another grand festive facade, where a pair of Nutcracker soldiers welcome you into the Cheval Edinburgh Grand and its giant lobby tree.

In this festive building, as well as enjoying afternoon tea and cocktails fireside in the upstairs Register Club, you can stay in one of the super-luxe apartments, which come with the level of service you’d expect in a five-star hotel.

And Edinburgh’s festive attractions aren’t limited to the city centre either – a little further into the New Town, St James Quarter is a great place to shop for gifts, while Dean Village, an old milling town on the Water of Leith, is like Edinburgh’s very own gingerbread-house village.

Dean Village Edinburgh - Susanne Neumann/iStockphoto
Dean Village Edinburgh - Susanne Neumann/iStockphoto

On the Southside of the city, the Sheep Heid, Edinburgh’s oldest inn, is about as Christmassy a pub as you could imagine. Serving chunky pies with thick slabs of pastry that melt on the tongue, it’s a great place to warm up after a hike to Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat – Edinburgh’s Highlands in miniature.

And what’s Christmas without some games? Pop into the Sheep Heid’s skittle alley for a free game (but try not to let it descend into a Christmas argument).

I defy you to go to Edinburgh and not have a good time. Scotland's capital is good year-round, but during the festive period, it has a special sprinkling of magic.

Where to stay

Cheval Old Town Chambers

Pretty hard to beat in terms of centrality, the Cheval Old Town Chambers are directly opposite St Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile. Its smart apartments, which come with a 24-hour concierge service, have a clean, minimal aesthetic (though sliding wooden doors add character). Meanwhile, sister hotel, the Cheval Edinburgh Grand is a New Town alternative and brimming with festive cheer. Until 28 December Cheval is offering 20% off selected apartments (minimum two-night stay) and a bespoke Christmas hamper, which includes all sorts of goodies, including Bvlgari hand lotion, candy canes and wooden travel games. Read our review here.

Book it: Old Town Chambers from £182 per night; The Edinburgh Grand from £194 per night (020 7341 7052; chevalcollection.com)

Cheval Old Town Chambers in Edinburgh
Cheval Old Town Chambers in Edinburgh

Dunstane Houses

Out towards Murrayfield, this boutique hotel, which is spread across two smart buildings, is very cool, a comfortable balance of old-school hospitality and modern luxury. With the hotel’s two-night Edinburgh Christmas Experience – over Christmas itself – guests will be treated to a mulled wine and mince pie welcome, an Orkney-themed supper on Christmas Eve, a Champagne breakfast on Christmas Day, and a five-course Champagne Christmas lunch. Read our review here.

Book it: From £395 per person, staying in a Cosy Wee Double (0131 337 6169; thedunstane.com)

House of Gods

For a decadent stay – think the Witchery for millennials – try this new opening on Cowgate in the Old Town, with velvet bedspreads, hand-built four-poster beds, marble-clad bathrooms, and a cocktail bar in the room. Treat your special someone to the hotel’s luxurious Christmas hamper, which includes a voucher for a Treat me Like I’m Famous – Decadence stay (which includes a cocktail bar tab and an indulgent midnight feast), prosecco and luxury chocolates. Read our review here.

Book it: House of Gods Christmas hamper from £249 (0131 2300445; houseofgodshotel.com)

For the best advice on visiting Scotland responsibly this winter, see visitscotland.com

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