There is no disappointing time of the year to visit Edinburgh. The spirit of the city is like that of a Christmas shop (more on that later) when it comes to taking something special, then making it last and last and last.
Consider the very beginning of the year (a very good place to start). No place on Earth is better to welcome the new year. The Scots won’t even feel the need to debate this with you, should you dare to challenge the idea, so confident are they that Hogmanay – as they call it – is, factually, the best. Why? Well, the world’s biggest street party certainly plays a part, before eyes-up at midnight for a jaw-dropping fireworks display, which surely costs more to stage than Scotland’s gross national income, to celebrate a joyous gathering of folks so committed to having a good time they’re willing to stand outside and brave the freezing cold for it. They’re rewarded too; it’s such a huge deal the Scots get two national holidays for it.
And while January might very well mostly be spent recovering post-Hogmanay, if you were to visit in February, once the city has bounced back from its hangover, you might find it is also just as suited to Valentine’s Day. Edinburgh is more romantic than a city that originated the deep-fried Mars bar has any right to be. The rolling hills up Arthur’s Seat, that glorious countryside, and delicious air – it’s perfect for couples who want to find creative ways to stay warm in the chilly Lothian region.
And och – spring, too, is quite a time to be in the capital city, which is sometimes unflatteringly nicknamed Auld Reekie due to the smell of the coals and woods burned in the old days. Thankfully not all wood was burned and today Edinburgh has 112 parks, and a higher tree count per person than any other British city – which is no mean feat given the population is nearly half a million, meaning roughly one in ten people who live in Scotland reside in Auld Reekie.
Seeing, and smelling, the flowers blossom in Braidburn Valley or Inverleith Park in the spring will have you bloomin’ grateful that you traveled across the Atlantic, and is also a good time to visit with children, as the International Science Festival and performing arts-themed Imaginate Festival can keep them entertained while (secretly) informing them too.
It’s not just impressive trees Edinburgh boasts; the city also has more listed historic buildings than anywhere in the world. The architecture is quite a thing to behold, with the medieval cobbles of the Old Town making you feel like you’re in a classic literary novel, which is apt, seeing as the city was the home of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the man who created Sherlock Holmes. But when it comes to buildings that need to be seen, you don’t have to be Sherlock to figure out what should be top of the list. That building, of course, is Edinburgh Castle, the city’s most iconic structure, perched on Castle Rock, sitting proudly on a 340-million-year-old volcano, 130 meters above sea level. St. Margaret’s Chapel, located within its walls, is the oldest building in Edinburgh, and was built in memory of Queen Margaret, who is said to have died from a broken heart after the death of her husband. (Side note: you’ll be brokenhearted if you don’t visit The Witchery by the Castle – it really is the place to eat.)
Once summer hits, you’ll really want to get out and explore. Walking the Royal Mile has always been one of the most popular tourist activities, and is a treat any time of year. The classic way is to walk the mile from one royal residency to the other, the Castle at the top and the Holyrood Palace at the bottom – where the Queen comes to stay when she’s in town. Minutes away from the Royal Mile – which is actually one mile and 107 yards long, just so you’re prepared – is where J.K. Rowling drafted much of her early Harry Potter material in the back room of The Elephant House.
Come August, the city is invaded – and no, don’t worry, it’s not a Braveheart sequel. Instead, the Edinburgh International Festival and its eclectic cousin, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, take over. They double the population for pretty much the entire duration of the month they’re on. Last year there were 53,232 performances of 3,398 shows in 300 venues – everything from music to theater to comedy to dance – so while seeing everything is simply not possible, you’re unlikely to leave feeling short-changed. People perform in phone booths, on streets, in old ambulances, you name it – entertainment seeps from every pavement crack, and you won’t be able to swing a cat without hitting an aspiring standup comedian.
But for a really authentic Scottish experience, see The Tattoo, which comes every year for the festival. It’s less about body ink, more about bagpipes played by the men in kilts marching. It doesn’t get more Scottish than that. Beware though, Edinburgh is way more expensive in every conceivable way during the month of the famous festival.
However, it’s not just during the festival that the city bulges with culture, thanks to a wealth of art. The National Gallery of Scotland features a collection rich with European masters like Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Gauguin.
By fall, the rows of trees on the streets tan golden brown, providing a heartwarming backdrop for Halloween (trivia: In Scotland, you don’t trick or treat, you go “guising”) and the British traditional holiday Bonfire Night, November 5. It’s also a perfect time to visit the famous pandas at Edinburgh Zoo. They’re basically celebs in the city, but don’t worry, Tian Tian and Yang Guang – the UK’s only giant pandas – have toned down their diva behavior in recent years.
When winter hits, and boy does it ever, the people will keep you warm in spirit (and, if required, with whisky). And yes, you might think they’re speaking a different language, but they’re really not; they can just be hard to ken (read: understand) sometimes with so much slang, aye?
For old-fashioned Scottish grub like Haggis and tattie scones – not to mention Scotch – Sandy Bells and the Royal Oak are good places to seek out. But if whisky’s not your bag, a good cup of tea will also warm you up at Clarinda’s, a chintzy tearoom that makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Think lace tablecloths and old pictures framed on the wall.
And then, finally, The Nutcracker Christmas shop is a treat you’ll really be thanking Santa for as the festive season approaches in December, although as mentioned, it’s actually open all year round and remains a beloved attraction for all 12 months. And just as you start feeling Christmassy, it’s time to start lining those stomachs – with Scottish “delicacy” deep-fried pizza, of course, to prepare yersen for Hogmanay again. Has it been a year already? Sure enough, whenever you’re ready to go, Edinburgh’s ready for you.
Edinburgh is known as the Festival City. For more information on all its festivals – including the springtime Edinburgh International Science Festival, and August’s world-famous Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh Festival Fringe – visit edinburghfestivalcity.com.