Edinburgh in winter

Edinburgh is great year round but I would say that it’s best in winter. For me it boils down to three things: tourists, weather and events.

Take tourists. Please.

I’m not a fan of crowds and in summer Edinburgh is just swamped by tourists. I get it. Edinburgh is amazing and most people prefer to travel when the weather is warm, or during children’s school holidays. But try and walk around Old Town in July, and you see what I mean. High Street / Royal Mile is chock full of tourists, all the main attractions have huge queues and you can’t get a cheap hotel room anywhere. And then there’s August and the festivals, when an additional 4 million people descend on Edinburgh. As the flat I found was only available in end of August, I had to actually leave Edinburgh for three weeks, because I couldn’t find any accommodation for less than 120 GBP per night. Unless you really, really want to visit some of the festival events, avoid August at all costs.

Mass of people at the Samhuinn fire festival

But in winter. Aahhh. Some peace and quiet. There are always tourists in Edinburgh but it is at a reasonable level from October onward. I visited some of the peaks and castles nearby and they were practically deserted, which made for fantastic visits. Walking in Portobello Beach or Leith Shore is a very different experience during winter as well, with usually just a few dog walkers about.

Christmas didn’t see quite as big a surge as I had thought even though it was of course fairly busy at the different events, but walking around town on Christmas days was surreal. Hardly anyone in sight. New Year was of course busy, but only for a few days, then it settled down again. The first week of January was very quiet, with reduced bus connections and most people at home nursing a hangover. These would be the best days to visit the Castle or any of the other major attractions in town (check first that they are not closed).

All the buildings decked with holly, fa la la la la la laaa

Edinburgh is always gorgeous but I especially loved it lit for the year end festivities. All the buildings are decorated with (sometimes fake) holly or other greenery and millions of twinkly lights. The days just before Christmas were quite busy, with the lovely Xmas market often swamped in the evenings. But it wasn’t too bad during daytime, except the last Sunday before Xmas when the entrance queue stretched around the block. Having lived in Germany for quite a few years, I had grown to love these Christmas markets and the mulled wine stalls, so I was happy to find them again here. I even got a Tarot reading there, and was promised a successful year both in terms of money and love. So that was nice.

There were also several delightful year end events and attractions, many with lights or fire, like the ice sculptures, the light trail in Botanical Gardens, the open days in many historical buildings in town, the torchlight procession on New Year’s Eve’s Eve, and of course the street party and fireworks on New Year’s Eve. I also went to see the Samhuinn Fire Festival, a pagan celebration of winter, in November. It was quite spooky actually, with a procession of self professed pagans, dressed and made up appropriately, banging drums, showing off their fire handling skills, and one particular set screaming, moaning and contorting themselves as they walked down High Street. Eerie. And I’m quite sure there are many other events that I missed during the last months as there is always something going on.

It never rains in Edinburgh

The common view of Scottish weather seems to be “wet and dismal”. After spending about six months in Scotland, most of it in Edinburgh, I would have to disagree. The weather was great in Scotland those first weeks when I was traveling around, but since I got to Edinburgh there’s been hardly a rainy day. Don’t believe me? The average rain fall per year in Edinburgh is 704 mm with 124 rainy days per year, which is considerably less than for example Brussels (852 mm, 199 days), New York City (1268 mm, 122 days), Tokyo (1528 mm, 114 days) and even Sydney (1222 mm, 135 rainy days). London, which also gets a bad rep for rain, is even drier and sunnier than Edinburgh.

Blue skies over deserted High Street on Boxing Day

Interestingly, Glasgow which is only 75 km west of Edinburgh gets 1245 mm of rain every year, spread over 170 days, which is almost twice the amount of rain! This major increase in rain fall can be explained by the mountain range in Scotland that make the eastern coast of Scotland much drier than the western one. In fact, Glasgow is the third wettest city in the whole of UK, and Edinburgh is the driest in Scotland. I for one am not complaining! Well, there were days when I would have welcomed rain, just so that I could have spent the day writing at home with a clear conscience.

But what about winter weather? It’s only January now, but based on the past three months I would again have to say it’s lovely. Most days which would be logged as a “rainy day” have only gotten actual rain for half an hour or less, which skewers those number of days counts in my opinion. Based on the actual monthly averages for 2017, it has been even drier in the past three months in Edinburgh than what the wikipedia long term averages show. As for temperatures, they seldom dip below zero °C, or freezing, and the days are clear, crisp and glorious. This makes for amazing visibility and the views you can get from high spots such as the Castle or Calton Hill make the climb really worth the effort. And if it does get a bit nippy or windy, all the more reason to pop somewhere for a hot cuppa or a dram of single malt whiskey.

Here’s for sunny days and cold nights!

Note: all average rain fall figures are from the cities’ wikipedia pages.

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