For a dose of holiday magic we journey to the beautiful city of Edinburgh, where some locals share what life is like in Scotland's capital
Christmas in Edinburgh is truly lovely. In fact, it’s so lovely that Edinburgh tops most lists of “best places to visit for Christmas in the UK”, and it’s easy to see why. Known for its festivals all year round, the city doesn’t take any time off in December, instead coming alive with festive decorations, markets and special events. Stroll through charming wooden stalls and pick out handmade gifts for your family, or warm up with some mulled wine, surrounded by twinkling Christmas lights.
If you’re not so fussed about Christmas, you can take in the city’s scenic views instead. Climb up the famous Arthur’s Seat, an ancient volcano whose peak boasts panoramic views of the Edinburgh and beyond. After a bracing walk up and down the hill, reward yourself with Scottish delicacies like haggis or neeps and tatties.
The party continues into the new year with the city’s Hogmanay celebrations. Hogmanay is the Scots word for the last day of the old year, and it is often celebrated with fireworks displays and heartfelt renditions of “Auld Lang Syne” sung in a circle of linked arms. Edinburgh certainly doesn’t hold back: its 1996–97 celebrations were recognised by the Guinness Book of Records at the world's largest New Year party, with approximately 400,000 attendees. These days, Edinburgh’s Hogmanay involves live music, fireworks and a torchlight display.
With the holiday season fast approaching, we speak to locals about what life is like among the magical markets, luminous light displays and sensational street parties.
Dani Rae, director at UniqueAssembly, who produce Edinburgh’s Christmas
I came to Edinburgh as a student in September 2003 and never left. I did a degree in Drama and Theatre Arts, thinking that I wanted to perhaps be a performer, and then I got hooked on the Edinburgh festivals. I first worked for the International Children's Theatre Festival and then the Fringe. More recently I've got involved in Edinburgh Christmas and Hogmanay.
Edinburgh is like a big village really. You can turn the corner and see someone that you know. I grew up in Dumfries and Galloway so I really grew up with that kind of village feel. I was ready for more when I left, and I remember Edinburgh gave me that village feeling but with so much more to do and see. At Christmas, when you come into the station as a visitor, you look up and immediately see that incredible big wheel and the trees all sparkly and the gorgeous architecture and the castle. We’re right in the heart of the city, and it feels like walking into an old-timey, magical kind of Christmas. It has a bit of a Hogwarts feel.
"Edinburgh is like a big village really"
For me, Christmas starts in March. We get going really early so that everything is ready to go by mid-November. It’s been a big head shift for me—I’ve always been firmly in the “Christmas doesn’t start until December” camp. But now it’s my whole year!
Festivals are a big part of the city’s identity. They started in 1947, and the whole premise was to cheer up postwar Britain. There’s around 12 festivals throughout the year in Edinburgh, so it’s a really big part of life here. It does feel like the majority of the city wants those festivals to be there, and we see it in the people coming out to go to the markets, go for an ice skate, go and see Santa, you know. There are plenty of budget hotel offers this time of year, so you can do all this and stay the night quite easily.
Edinburgh’s Christmas started small and has grown over the years. It’s a responsive festival, we try to be reflective of the city. We have a beautiful market where you can come and buy things that are locally produced, as well as things you might not find in Edinburgh normally. We spread that across the city centre alongside a funfair with rides and dodgems for the younger kids, and a beautiful ice rink. It’s a lovely, safe space for people to come and have a bit of fun. Father Christmas is there, of course, but we also have a Festival of Kindness, so as well as receiving a gift you’re encouraged to give back as well, to temper that commercial feeling of Christmas. It’s not just about buying, it’s about giving. We’re also partnering with our lovely community, Diwali will be hosted as part of the festival too which will be gorgeous. The whole city just comes alive with light trails and Christmas shows and pantos.
It’s hard to pick a favourite spot in Edinburgh. I love the light in Edinburgh, so my favourite place is really anywhere you can sit in that light and see the sky. We’ve got so many beautiful green spaces in Edinburgh—the meadows, Princes Street Gardens. You can sit on a bench or lie in the grass and just look up and feel the light on your face.
Callum Ross, director of Cycling Gardners
I am born and bred in Edinburgh. In my twenties I travelled extensively to Australia, South America and North America, but these were just trips before returning to Edinburgh. Edinburgh is a very competitive place when trying to build a career and many of my friends had to leave in order to pursue theirs. I decided to remain and though this at times proved to be difficult, the life I have built has given me such good rewards and memories it was more than worth it.
Most of my family and friends live here and it is where 20 years ago I met my wife. I have an active social life that is centred here. Within the area we live we get immersed in all aspects of its cultural life. A sense of community is very important to me and Edinburgh gives me this through my friends and family, the people I work with and the clients we do gardening for.
"Edinburgh simply explodes with colour and culture during its extended holiday season"
Edinburgh simply explodes with colour and culture during its extended holiday season. It is not just its famous festival in the summer but its Christmas and Hogmanay celebrations, which fill the city with tourists from all over the world. In December my business (based at Tollcross, at the edge of the Meadows) lights up its yard and turns into a base for selling Christmas trees. This gives us so much local community interaction and brings cheer to the area at the start of winter.
Along with the tourists Edinburgh has loads of students who bring energy and diversity to the culture of the city. Although this can be overwhelming at times, if you embrace the good that it brings you can get so much out of the city. It is never a boring place to live in with so much going on!
Although Edinburgh is a small city it often feels more like a big town with so many small world coincidences always happening. I call it Edinburgh Village Syndrome as it seems that everybody is somehow related to each other by no more than a few degrees of separation.
The Cycling Gardeners are a part of the local community. By being totally dependent on bikes for transport we are limited to working within the city centre. We have made life a bit easier on ourselves by using electric bikes, and we often beat cars in traffic and have no problem finding place to park. Our team are mostly young qualified horticulturalists who enjoy the freedom of working on their own on a bike. We have a great collective team spirit which is is very important. Edinburgh’s wet weather can be overcome by helping each other out, or by spending time in the many local cafes, catching up and having a good moan about the rain!
Without doubt my favourite spot in Edinburgh is the Meadows Park. I was born in the hospital overlooking it and grew up in flats surrounding it. Much of my childhood days were spent there playing “out the front” when not in the back gardens. I met my wife there and it is where I take my young son to play. I have the happiest memories of sledging and building snowmen when the snow comes down. I really hope that this winter brings good snow so I can replicate my own childhood with my son!
Hazel Johnson, festival director at Hidden Door Festival
I’ve lived in Edinburgh for coming up to 20 years. My mum’s family are from the area so I visited a lot as a child. I remember emerging from Waverly Station for the first time and being absolutely awestruck by the hulking form of the castle, and the jutting skyline sweeping down the Royal Mile. That first impression clearly stuck as I ended up returning to study—and staying!
"My advice for any visitor is not to forget to look up—the roofs and skyline of the city’s streets are a treat"
Edinburgh is a city that can show off its assets in any weather—rain or shine, snow or haar (fog). During the holiday season it is reasonable to expect a bit of a dreich climate, made all the more seasonal by lights from the Christmas market twinkling through the wind in the trees in Princes Street Gardens. And if you don’t fancy joining in with the crowds, the Old Town in particular isn’t short of a number of excellent hostelries ready to provide festive cheer! Edinburgh is also a city of beautiful architecture; from medieval twisting turrets to neoclassical delights (not for nothing was the city known as the “Athens of the North”), there is always something new that catches your eye. My advice for any visitor is not to forget to look up—the roofs and skyline of the city’s streets are a treat. I love the culture and vibrant arts scene here—there is always something new and exciting to discover! This time of year is no different, with gigs, exhibitions and events to fill your diary with.
Lots of people refer to Edinburgh as a village, and I’ve certainly found that often you can’t walk anywhere without bumping into a friendly face or three. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why, even though Edinburgh is a capital city, it feels like a place where you can make things happen.
Hidden Door is an arts charity run by volunteers, and since 2014 we have held regular multi-arts festivals in unusual or disused spaces and buildings across Edinburgh, temporarily transforming them into unique sites for visitors to discover new creative talent across a range of art forms. We programme music, visual art, theatre, dance and spoken word, film—and more! One of the greatest privileges of working for Hidden Door is how many wonderful, creative and talented people I get to meet. And one of the greatest perks is the fantastic spaces we get to explore! Most recently, in June 2023, we opened up an amazing and vast empty 20th century office building for a five-day festival. With the help of our volunteers and the local community we built stages, exhibition spaces, immersive performance spaces, brought in some of Edinburgh’s finest street food vendors, and constructed beautiful pop up bars. One of the reasons Hidden Door is so special is that it is Edinburgh’s own independent arts festival—it exists because so many people are giving of their time and skills to pull it all together.
This December we’re holding a festive art sale, both online and at the magnificent Hub building at the top of the Royal Mile. We’re bringing together the work of some of Edinburgh’s most exciting artists, so you might just find the prefect Christmas present! More information can be found on our website.
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