On a hunt for things to do in Edinburgh TODAY? Here are my top things to do in Edinburgh in the winter. Also works for summer, considering that Scotland has pretty much one season and that season is RAIN. If by chance it is a sunny day, consider my top things to do in Edinburgh on a sunny day. But here you’ll find things that are wind, rain and sleet friendly. The list features a golden retriever, nature walks, cafes and hidden gems. Enjoy!
The best Edinburgh winter walking tours
As someone who has been a tour guide through Edinburgh’s winter, I can tell you it is one of the worst jobs the city has to offer at that time. As a ‘free’ walking tour guide, you have to pay for everyone on your tour. But most of them end up too cold to finish the tour, and you usually end up barely breaking even. But, I still think tours are one of the best ways to see the city. Tour guides are the best people and can really make your holiday a lot more fun! I recommend pre-booking a tour, and dressing for the weather so you actually go. Book through Wee Walking Tours and you get to do a city tour with a golden retriever. I did not work with Sammi or Sawyer, but I saw them out giving tours when I was working. I always thought they were winning the game. Who wouldn’t want to do a tour with a golden! retriever!?!
Victoria Street and Grassmarket
I’d wager that winter time is the best time to visit Old Town’s Victoria Street and Grassmarket in all their glory. Once the New Year hits, the Christmas markets close, the tourists slow and Victoria Street and Grassmarket start to empty out. Plus, with horrible wind and rain, you want to be in a neighbourhood full of places you can pop into for some shelter. Victoria Street is home to tons of cafes and shops all worth a quick visit, so you can really enjoy everything it has to offer, you won’t just take a picture and leave!
Leith and The Shore
Leith is one of those places that continually pops up on lists of things to do. I recommend going in the winter because it’s easy to get to on public transport, so you don’t have to walk. The Shore is beautiful and a real contrast to the grey buildings of Edinburgh’s Old Town. There are a lot of new restaurants and Edinburgh favourites like Mimi’s Bakehouse right on the Shore. Leith is an up and comer, and there are two markets on the weekend that are favourites with locals to the neighbourhood. The Leith Market has local crafters and creators, and the pitt market is full of mouthwatering food vendors. I’ve recently become aware that there are more than a handful of adorable cafes in Leith, some of my favourites include the Hideout Cafe and Lady Marmalade.
Edinburgh’s Art Galleries
I’m a big fan of art galleries but mostly for the architecture and ambiance. In winter time, I always would visit the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Scotland on days when my tours didn’t run. They’re both very central and quick to get to through the blustery wind. Once you get inside they’re like little safe havens. Completely free to visit, quiet and full of incredible artwork. If you’re cold and want some time inside, visit them. Even if you hate galleries. If you do like galleries: the Portrait Gallery has more of a historical approach. You can learn a lot about Scottish history through the artwork they show there. The National Gallery is just full of famous pieces by famous painters. Both worth seeing.
Calton Hill (over Arthur’s Seat)
If you only have a few days in Edinburgh and the weather is terrible the whole time, don’t bother with Arthur’s Seat unless you really want to. If all you want are beautiful views of the city, pick the easy choice! Pick Calton Hill. On Calton Hill you have a clear, paved pathway and stairs that get you to the top. There are buildings and monuments and trees, all of which can shelter you slightly from the wind and rain. You will still get widespread views of Old Town, New Town, the Firth of Forth and Arthur’s Seat. Plus, you can see the classic view of Edinburgh Castle the Balmoral Hotel, Princes Street and the Scott Monument that you see below.
The National Museum of Scotland
The National Museum was like my office when I was a tour guide. Just minutes from the Royal Mile, free to enter with free (and good!) wifi, tons to see and a cafe with good coffee and scones on the 2nd floor? Sign me up. The National Museum features exhibits on everything from natural history, to technological history, to fashion history. It’s so big there is truly something for everyone in there. Children and adults alike will love how interactive it is. If you’re not big on museums, it’s still worth visiting because the architecture is incredible. Even on a miserable day, it’s bright and airy inside, and that cafe is the perfect place to soak it in!
Hiking in the Pentlands
The Pentland Hills are easy to access through the Lothian Buses. You can take the #44 to Balerno (end of the line) and walk 10 minutes to the Harlaw Reservoir. This option is nice, flat and accessible. It’s nice for a lowkey Sunday walk and a lovely place to really feel like you’ve left the city for a slice of nature. The alternative is to take the #4 to Hillend (end of the line) and take one of the many walking routes up the hills. This feels less like you’ve left the urban area, but that’s only because you get incredible views of all of Edinburgh from here! If you live in the area, or you’re visiting for awhile, you really have to come to the Pentland Hills. They’re always my first pick for a quiet and relaxing afternoon, and they’re even quieter in the winter time.
Royal Botanic Gardens
For those of you who maybe aren’t in Edinburgh long enough to go out to the Pentland Hills, the Royal Botanic Gardens are a good second. They’re famously ‘not as good as the ones in Glasgow but still really nice’. I haven’t been to the ones in Glasgow, so I can’t say I agree, but I do really love the ones in Edinburgh. The only drawback is that it costs £6 to visit the glasshouses, which you really should do if you’re visiting in winter time. Otherwise you have to spend the whole time outside, and there’s not as much growing in winter. The glasshouses are so warm that the tall windows fog up and make you feel cosy and tropical. One thing to be wary of: the glasshouses won’t be open in high winds. Call ahead if the weather has been windy to make sure you won’t be disappointed!
Go (indoor) sightseeing
For the best outdoor views, simply read my Top 5 Instagram Spots in Edinburgh post. Outdoor views are better for days when it’s not raining horizontally. If it is horrible weather, fear not! There are ways to still appreciate the beauty of the ‘Burgh. Camera Obscura is popular for the views, but also for the fun!
If you’re going for a meal, book somewhere like Chaophraya, a Thai restaurant with a glass box that has astounding views of Edinburgh Castle. Or, if you’re in Old Town see if Casa Andaluz has any seats at the back of the restaurant. It’s right next to the Elephant House Cafe, where JK Rowling sat at the back and saw this beautiful uninterrupted view of the Castle… Unfortunately, the Elephant House Cafe always has a line of tourists, so you’re more likely to get the view from one of the places next door! If you’re a lover of the Forth Rail Bridge, Scotts in South Queensferry is the place for you.
Visit the churches
Churches are everywhere in Edinburgh and they all have incredible architecture and history. St Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile was the first church in the Church of Scotland, John Knox gave his first official services there. Through its history it’s seen days of pillaging and revolts, and it’s gorgeous inside, definitely worth a visit. Greyfriars Kirk is full of stories about grave-robbing and cute dogs.
If you’re really not into churches but you like the architecture, you still have some options. The Tron Kirk on the Royal Mile now has a UNESCO information site and a John Kays pop-up shop. The Hub, close to the top of the Royal Mile is where the Church of Scotland used to hold their General Assembly. It looks like a church, but it was never a church and now? It’s a venue. And a cafe. Give it a try!