Last Updated on December 20, 2022
Edinburgh in December sparkles with Christmas spirit strung amongst its medieval stone buildings. While the wind definitely reminded me it was winter, the chill was a good excuse to bundle up with a new tartan scarf. I spent one December with my dear friend Joanne exploring centuries-old streets packed with history and good fun. Edinburgh is a walkable city if you don’t mind some hills, and there’s no better place to start visit to Edinburgh than Old Town.
Remembering the Queen at Holyrood Palace
Old Town nestles on the volcanic hillside with royal residences on each side. The Palace of Holyroodhouse, now King Charles III’s official home in Scotland, anchors the bottom of Edinburgh’s craggy ridge. You feel like a special guest entering the stone estate along the same route royal guests once followed.
Joanne and I wanted to pay homage to Queen Elizabeth and understand Holyrood’s place in royal history. While grand, the palace is surprisingly cozy and intimate. Intricate alabaster plaster ceilings cap carved oak panels with rich tapestries creating a warm sense of place. Classic holiday decor and beautifully lit Christmas trees made visiting during the holidays an exceptional experience.
A free audio tour detailed the palace’s eventful past, such as a jealous plot by Lord Danley to murder David Rizzio, Mary Queen of Scots’ private secretary. The tour also highlighted current activities through the voices of the Royals, such as Princess Anne.
Louise, a palace docent, told Joanne and me how she enjoys getting a peak behind the scenes of royal events. One can only imagine! Photos and portraits of Queen Elizabeth in the Royal Dining Room and Great Gallery reminded us of her importance to the United Kingdom. The Queen lay in state in the Throne Room as part of the royal procession to London. The gift shop still sells memorabilia with her likeness and her cute corgis.
Explore Scottish Parliament
The Scottish Parliament, located next to Holyroodhouse, stands out due to its award-winning modern architecture against Holyrood Park’s rolling hills and Old Town’s stone buildings. The building was commissioned after the 1997 referendum when Scotland voted for a devolved parliament from England.
The light-filled design contains nods to Scotland’s landscape that connects the space with nature. In addition, you can visit the debating chamber, an amphitheater wrapped in blonde woodwork, steel beams and glass. An art collection represents contemporary art, sculpture, craft and photography from 50 of Scotland’s artists.
Walk the Royal Mile
After exploring the crossroads of politics and palaces, it was time for Joanne and me to stroll up the Royal Mile—the heart of Old Town. No visit to Edinburgh is complete without it! The Royal Mile is 1.8 kilometers, or a Scots mile, from the Palace of Holyroodhouse to Edinburgh Castle. Kings and queens once trod this route over 500 years ago.
Magnificent old stone buildings line the Royal Mil and I wanted to stop every couple of feet to take a picture of the next craggy gem. You could spend the day exploring narrow alleys – called a close in Scotland – historical landmarks, and gothic-style churches here. The Royal Mile will also tempt you with coffee shops and quirky stores offering Scottish-themed goods – anyone up for a Scotch?
Edinburgh Castle: an Icon on Castle Hill
Edinburgh Castle looms over the city atop the Royal Mile. The castle has been a military garrison, prison, royal residence and ancient stronghold. It’s the guardian of the town and is seen from almost anywhere. In December, the exterior becomes a Castle of Light with brilliant colors.
Winding Down to New Town
It was time for Joanne and me to wander down to New Town via twisting Cockburn Street. Sparkling snowflakes strung across the cobblestone street created a joyous atmosphere. We stopped at Museum Context to shop for a Harry Potter Christmas gift for my nieces. After all, Edinburgh is the birthplace of Harry Potter.
Despite its name, the Georgian-style New Town was established over 200 years ago. Princes and George Streets are home to shopping and ornate hotels. Sadly, some of the grand department stores did not survive the pandemic—happily, the Jenners Building will become a hotel. We enjoyed poking around the shops on George Street, like Seasalt and Sweaty Betty.
Christmas at The Dome
My favorite Edinburgh visiting experience was lunch at The Dome, formerly a Physician’s Hall and bank. From the first moment walking into the foyer, the luxurious space glimmers with decorations, fresh flowers, and what feels like zillions of sparkling lights. The Grill Room’s gigantic Christmas tree glows.
We ate a late lunch in the library-inspired Club Room underneath ornate crystal chandeliers and among red flower bouquets. I sipped on my Mr. & Mrs. Claus cocktail, enjoying leisurely conversation. The Dome is also a perfect place for afternoon tea. Make a reservation, even for cocktails, as a seat at The Dome is a must on your next visit to Edinburgh.
St. James Quarter
Throughout the day, Joanne and I kept hearing people mention the “new mall.” We decided to check it out. St. James Quarter, a revitalized neighborhood in the east end, houses upscale shops, restaurants and entertainment. We especially loved browsing at the classic department store, John Lewis. Unfortunately, most nights, the shops throughout Edinburgh close at 8 p.m., so plan your shopping accordingly on a visit to Edinburgh!
Edinburgh’s Winter Festival
When nightfall sets in it’s the perfect time to explore the Christmas Market. Europe always delivers incredible Christkindl markets and Edinburgh is no exception. (Bookcottages.com has also recently visited Christmas markets in Strasbourg and Bratislava.)
Wintery chalets selling handmade gifts and savory bites line the East Princes Street Garden. If you dare, you could opt for Scottish foods like haggis. Not to worry, though, as traditional market foods such as sausages and mulled wine abound.
Edinburgh’s Winter Festival turns the city into a wonderland that brings joy to the young and old. A giant Ferris wheel winds its way along Princes Street along with other rides, an ice skating rink, and a Christmas tree maze. I adored watching the children’s excited faces as they sat perched on their father’s shoulders.
Capping off One Day in Edinburgh
Joanne and I cherished our visit to Edinburgh with its holiday warmth. We wrapped up the day with delectable Spanish tapas at Cafe Andaluz on George Street. If you fancy a curry (Indian food in the UK is so darn good), Rubab Restaurant, will hit the spot, or have a nightcap at the ornate Peacock Alley bar at the Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh – The Caledonian.
No matter what you choose, you’ll be sure to make memories in Edinburgh.