What can you do in Scotland when it’s dreich, jeelit and blowing a hoolie?
Scotland is popular with tourists for lots of reasons thanks to the amazing scenery, the beautiful cities and the fascinating history, but what isn’t so popular is the miserable weather in winter. It’s often said that a holiday to Scotland will let you experience all four seasons in one day, and to be honest, there’s a certain amount of truth in that statement.
While Scotland enjoys some truly glorious weather in the summer months, with an average 17 hours of daylight at an average 19°c, the winter months are a completely different beast. Between November and February the temperature rarely rises above 6°c, and the hours of daylight drop to a slightly miserable 8 hours per day. But that doesn’t mean that Scotland should be avoided outside of the summer months, and if you come to visit us between November and February you’ll quickly find that our winters provide some of the best holiday experiences in Europe.
We’ll explore some awesome things to do in Scotland in winter in a moment, but first, let’s take a more in-depth look at the reality of our winter weather so that you know exactly what to expect when you arrive.
The low-down on Scotland’s winter weather
While Scottish weather doesn’t differ dramatically from other countries sitting at this latitude it might come as a bit of a shock to the system if you’re used to a warmer climate. In general, the weather here is similar to the rest of the UK, although of course it’s usually a couple of degrees cooler thanks to the fact that we’re further north. But where we do differ is the fact that our mountainous regions have weather fronts that can change in minutes, and many a hiker has set out in blazing sunshine in the morning only to find themselves stuck in driving snow in the evening. With so many winter sports drawing in tourists from far and wide, it’s no surprise that the Scottish Mountain Rescue Service is one of the busiest in Europe. Just take a look at the statistics:
- In 2016 there were 436 recorded incidents that required the services of a mountain rescue team.
- There were a total of 733 call-outs to the mountain rescue service in 2016 which resulted in 627 people being assisted.
- Of these incidents 235 involved mountaineers and 214 involved hillwalkers.
- Bad weather is a critical factor in winter weather incidents, especially in the western Highlands where around 3000mm of rain falls each year.
- In the Cairngorms, you can expect snowfall for more than 100 days each year, while the average winter temperature on the Ben Nevis mountain range is as low as -0.3°c. Chilly!
All this is of no consequence if you’re a hardened mountaineer or a hill walker where a little bit of dreich (dreary) and jeelit (freezing) weather isn’t going to put you off, even if it is blowing a hoolie (it’s really windy). But what if you’re a mum or dad with a couple of kids in tow? Or maybe you’re a bit older and don’t fancy braving the cold? Well luckily for you there are more indoor activities in Scotland than you can shake a woolly glove at, especially in the cities where tourists attractions have entertained weather-weary locals for decades.
The following list aims to offer you a few suggestions for making the most of your time in Scotland without having to wipe any icicles from your nose, although you might feel the need to warm up inside one of our pubs with a wee dram of Scotch whisky at times, purely for medicinal reasons of course…
Things to do in Edinburgh in winter
As the capital of Scotland, Edinburgh is home to a dizzying amount of attractions that will keep you entertained when it’s cold and damp outside, and this is a city that seems to have been designed with tourists in mind. From the cosy pubs along Rose Street to the sprawling maze of rooms in Edinburgh Castle, you’ll find enough to keep an entire family occupied no matter the state of the weather outside. Add to this the theatres, museums and art galleries (most of which are free), the fantastic array of places to eat and one of the best winter festivals in Europe, and Edinburgh has to be at the top of your list for things to do in Scotland in winter. Let’s check out a few of the best attractions with the list below.
Who needs sunny skies when you’ve got the grandest castle in Europe in the middle of Scotland’s capital city? Edinburgh Castle deserves its place as the number one rated tourist attraction in Scotland, with over 2 million visitors walking around its ancient rooms, corridors and courtyards each year. But while a visit to this incredibly popular attraction in summer will see you getting stuck in enormous queues as you fight to dodge a thousand eye-poking selfie sticks, visit the castle in winter and you’ll find that it’s a much more relaxed affair.
The castle is full of places to explore and although the entry cost is on the pricey side at £18.50 (as of 2018), there’s more than enough activities to keep families occupied for an entire day. On-site attractions include the Scottish National War Memorial, the National War Museum, several regimental museums, the Royal Palace and Saint Margaret’s Chapel, and all will keep visitors entertained for hours, while weary feet can take a rest at the excellent castle cafe and restaurant in the main courtyard.
While you’re at the castle make sure you take the time to see the crown, sceptre and sword of state of the Scottish Crown Jewels and learn about their incredible history, before stopping to take a few photos looking out over the panorama of the city from the cannons on the half-moon battery. And as an extra tip, make sure you’re in the courtyard near the cafe to hear the ear-popping one o’clock gun being fired, a tradition that has been reenacted every day since 1861.
- Address: Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2NG, UK
Edinburgh’s Christmas Festival
Forget your high-end Christmas shopping in London or your Gluwein-fuelled Christmas markets in Germany, if you really want to experience the spirit of Christmas then you have to come to Edinburgh in December to experience our Christmas festival extravaganza. We don’t do things by half in Auld Reekie, and not only will you find one of the best Christmas markets in the UK, but you’ll find more Santa-themed shows and activities than you can poke a candy cane at.
Princes Street gardens play host to more than 130 chalets selling everything from haggis to German sausages, hand-carved wooden nutcrackers to personalized Christmas ornaments, and clothes ranging from cashmere sweaters to tartan woolly scarves. If you want to enjoy some family shopping while sipping on a hot glass of mulled wine, the Edinburgh Christmas market is where you can do it.
Nearby you’ll find a fun fair with a big wheel, the (slightly terrifying) star flyer, a Christmas theme park for the younger kids, an ice skating rink, a gallery of ice sculptures and more friendly pubs and bars than you could imagine. Not only that but there are shows-a-plenty during Edinburgh’s Christmas with regular appearances by the circus and cabaret act La Clique, the camp-as-Christmas annual panto at the Kings Theatre and sing-along musicals at the Edinburgh Playhouse.
- Address: Princes Street, Edinburgh
The National Museum of Scotland
Cold winds and rainy days do not make a fun-filled holiday, but who needs to be outside when you can explore the maze of exhibits at The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. This enormous museum easily rivals any other worldwide and not only can you get lost in the wonders of history in the modern part of the buildings, but you can marvel at the restored architecture of the Victorian Grand Gallery too.
One of the things I love about the National Museum of Scotland is that it isn’t just a load of stuffy old information booths and boring skeletons like you might find in some other museums, but instead you’ll find a collection of really interesting exhibitions that will take you through the wonders of nature, art, design, fashion and science and technology. There are galleries containing meteorites from the dawn of our planet, galleries explaining the slightly later history of Scotland, galleries displaying incredibly lifelike animals from an extinct T-rex to an endangered Scottish wildcat, galleries focussed on world culture and galleries showing just about anything you can possibly imagine in-between.
Another great feature of the National Museum is that it has lots of interactive experiences for kids to get involved with, so not only will a visit there keep them entertained but they’ll come away having learnt a few things too. And if you have some extra time on your hands the museum frequently has premium exhibitions that showcase everything from the history of video games to the history of fashion. There are also a couple of cafes on site if you feel the need to take a break, and the gift shop sells lots of quality gifts. Best of all entry to the museum is completely free!
- Address: Chambers St, Edinburgh, EH1 1JF
You can find out more about the National Museum of Scotland by checking out our guide to free Edinburgh attractions here.
The Scottish National Gallery
Freezing-cold Scottish winters needn’t stop you enjoying Scotland’s fine collections of artworks, and the Scottish National Gallery at The Mound in Edinburgh city centre contains more than enough culture to keep you busy for an entire afternoon, or longer. Masterpieces from all around the world are housed at this art gallery, with artworks from Botticelli, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Monet and many others displayed across two interlinked buildings – the National Gallery building and the Royal Scottish Academy Building.
The Royal Scottish Academy is used as an exhibition space (usually with an entrance fee) and includes an underground gardens level which houses a restaurant, shop and visitor facilities, while the National Gallery building next door (free to enter) houses the major artworks in the collection.
As well as the collections of art from across the planet this gallery also contains some great examples of Scottish art through the ages, and kids can be entertained by the regular storytelling sessions that take place. There’s even a free bus that will take you to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art a short distance away, so you can spend most of the day lost in the world of art without having to pay a penny.
- Address: The Mound, Edinburgh, EH2 2EL
You can find out more about the Scottish National Gallery by checking out our guide to free Edinburgh attractions here.
Things to do in Glasgow in winter
As the biggest city in Scotland, Glasgow has loads to see and do when it’s a bit dreary outside. This is a city with a rich industrial heritage and as well as loads of free attractions like the iconic Kelvingrove Art Gallery and the Riverside Museum, you can enjoy a vibrant city centre with some of the best shopping in Scotland and enough theatres, cinemas, bars and restaurants to make your head spin. Not only that but there are plenty of museums, galleries, landmarks and historic buildings to keep visitors happy no matter their age or activity level, and if it’s dry there are even some country parks in the city to wander around. Let’s check out a few top ideas for your next visit to Glasgow with the list below.
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum houses one of Europe’s greatest art collections across twenty-two themed galleries, and its extensive collections contain a rather unbelievable 8000 objects in total. The fact that the gallery offers such a diverse range of artefacts goes some way towards explaining why it’s the most visited free attraction in Scotland, even beating Edinburgh’s National Museum for annual footfall.
There’s a little bit of something for everyone at Kelvingrove and the list of displays and exhibitions is too big to completely include in this article, but some of the most popular exhibition areas are; the Arms and Armour Gallery, the Dutch Gallery, the French Gallery, the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Gallery and the West Court with its Spitfire plane hanging from the ceiling. Highlights of the museum have to be the painting by Salvador Dali, the Kelvingrove organ (daily recitals happen at 1 pm and 3 pm on Sundays), and the Fulton Orrery, one of the most complicated orreries in the world (an orrery is a mechanical 3D model of the solar system).
- Address: Argyle St, Glasgow, G3 8AG
You can find out more information about the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum by checking out our Glasgow itinerary here.
Glasgow boasts the most complete medieval cathedral on the Scottish mainland with a building that features stunning stained glass windows and incredibly well-preserved ancient chapels. The cathedral, also called St Kentigern’s or St Mungo’s Cathedral, is today a gathering place of the Church of Scotland.
The cathedral is thought to have been built on the site of St. Kentigern’s tomb, and many Scots believe that this location is the birthplace of the Glasgow city that we know today. There’s a lot to admire about this building, especially the ornate stone carvings on the inside which are remarkably well-preserved considering they were made nearly a thousand years ago! And even if you’re not a religious type you can’t help but feel a little bit awe-struck by one of the finest collections of stained glass windows in Britain. Just wait for a cloudy day when the sun suddenly breaks through the windows, it’s seriously impressive (but don’t forget your camera).
You can also explore the spooky crypt that was built to house the tomb of St. Kentigern, the Blackadder aisle ceiling with its brightly painted carved stone bosses and some seriously ugly gargoyles. Even better is that after you’ve wandered around the cathedral it’s only a short walk to one of Glasgow’s best-kept secrets – The Necropolis.
- Address: Castle St, Glasgow, G4 0QZ
You can find out more information about the Glasgow Cathedral by checking out our Glasgow free attractions guide here.
The Glasgow Necropolis is one of the few outdoors locations included in this article but I’ve added it here because one of the best times to visit it is in the winter, when the light is fading and there’s a chill in the air. This big, or should I say enormous burial site is the final resting place for over 50,000 of the city’s residents, and some of the most important people in Scottish history have their final resting place in this fascinating city of the dead.
As the need for extra burial grounds for the city’s dead began to reach crisis point Glasgow’s city councillors added several extensions in the late 19th-century, and today the entire site covers a remarkable 37 acres. This is great news for tourists as it’s easy to walk through the network of paths that meander all the way through the graveyard, and it has to be one of the few places in Glasgow where you can forget that you’re in the middle of Scotland’s biggest city.
A walk through the Necropolis will reveal many monuments to Scotland’s most prominent historical figures, including Charles Rennie Mackintosh (actually buried in London), and William Miller, the man responsible for the children’s nursery rhyme Wee Willie Winkie! It might seem like a bit of a strange place to visit but Glasgow’s Necropolis is well worth the journey on a crisp winters day.
- Address: Castle St, Glasgow, G4 0UZ
You can find out more information about The Necropolis by checking out our Glasgow itinerary here.
The Riverside Museum of Transport
If you’re going to be spending a day in Glasgow then you have to take a walk along the banks of the River Clyde, the famous heart of the city that was once home to the city’s world-leading shipbuilding industry. Those days, of course, are long gone, but you can at least experience some of the history of Glasgow’s industrial heritage with a trip to the Museum of Transport. This museum is free to enter and is big enough to easily spend an afternoon in when the temperature drops, especially if you combine it with a visit to the 120-year-old Tall Ship moored up on the Clyde nearby.
The Riverside Museum is one of the most popular in the city and each year over a million visitors flood through its doors, which is another reason why visiting Glasgow in the winter is such a great idea – there are hardly any queues!
Inside the building, you’ll find an impressive range of transport memorabilia with full-size steam locomotives exhibited alongside buses, trams, cars and bikes, and over 3000 objects on display from Glasgow’s industrial past. There’s even a complete recreation of a Victorian Glasgow cobbled street, complete with shops and carts. If you’re any kind of transport buff or if you’ve got kids that love getting interactive with machinery then the Riverside Museum should definitely be at the top of your list of places to visit.
- Address: 100 Pointhouse Place, Glasgow, G3 8RS
You can find out more information about the Riverside Museum by checking out our Glasgow itinerary here.
Things to do in the Highlands in winter
The Scottish Highlands offer something for everyone at any time of the year, with tourists visiting the area throughout summer for the walks through the mountain ranges that would otherwise be impossible to reach in winter. But even in the colder months, this part of Scotland has plenty to keep visitors entertained, especially if they have a love of winter sports. Glistening ice and miles of crisp, white snow will make you feel like you’re hiking in a winter wonderland, while adrenaline junkies will be more than happy with the dog-sledding, skiing, snowboarding and ice climbing at sites like Cairngorm Mountain. Check out the activities below for ideas on your next Highlands winter adventure.
Ice Factor, near Glencoe
So you’re in Scotland in winter and you want to do some sport but it’s too miserable outside. What can you do? Well, how about taking a trip to the National Ice Climbing Centre at Kinlochleven? This climbing centre in the Scottish Highlands has activities for all ages groups and abilities and they can accommodate you whether you’re a beginner or an experienced climber. The centre features some of the worlds biggest indoor ice climbing walls and also has rock climbing walls with over 135 possible routes. Suffice to say if you’re in the area and you enjoy climbing then it’s going to be impossible to get bored at Ice Factor.
Beginners can take to the indoor climbing walls under the supervision of trained instructors, and equipment is available to rent on site if you don’t want to pay outright for your harness and safety gear on your first few climbs. There are plenty of slabs, corners and overhangs to practice on and once you’ve got some practice under your belt you’ll eventually be able to take advantage of the experienced climber’s facilities.
The ice climbing wall is the highlight of Ice Factor and it’s second to none against any other indoor climbing centre in the world. Over 500 tonnes of real snow and ice have gone into constructing the wall which stands at a mightily impressive 12m high, and there are enough routes to keep both beginners and experienced climbers entertained for hours.
- Address: Kinlochleven, PH50 4SF
Visitor Centre at Culloden Battlefield
The Culloden Visitor Centre is located on the site of Culloden Moor, the very same location where the Jacobite uprising of 1745 came to its final, bloody end, in a battle that almost entirely wiped out the Jacobite army and sealed the fate of the Young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart. If you’ve any interest in Scottish history then you really owe it to yourself to visit the battlefield where more than 1500 Jacobites were killed in less than one hour.
The site is well-managed thanks to the National Trust for Scotland and paths lead right around and through the moor, so even on cold days you’ll be able to explore the moorland. There are plenty of information tablets at the sides of the path as you make your way around and it’s interesting to imagine how the scene would have looked on 16 April 1746 as the two armies faced each other.
Luckily for modern-day tourists there’s an absolutely fantastic indoor visitor centre on the moor that will tell you all about the events leading up the battle, during it, and how the events afterwards shaped Scotland into the nation it is today. The visitor centre serves to both entertain and inform with interactive exhibitions where characters from the battle retell their stories, and an immersive, 360-degree film will help you imagine what being in the centre of the fight would have actually been like. There’s even an animated battle table to give you a birds-eye view of the sequence of events as they happened, and an excellent cafe will warm you up after you’ve been for a walk around the moor.
- Address: Culloden Moor, Inverness, IV2 5EU
You can find out more about the Culloden battlefield by checking out our guide here.
Cairngorm Mountain Centre
The Scottish Highlands are home to some of the most dramatic mountain ranges in the world, and visitors from across the planet flock there in winter to enjoy the activities they have to offer. One of the favourite starting points for many Highland adventures is the Mountain Centre at Cairngorm.
Heading to the Cairngorms when a fresh dusting of snow has hit the landscape really is like stepping into another world, and your senses will initially struggle to take in the stark brightness of the snow glistening on the mountain tops stretching away into the distance. Luckily, the Mountain Centre will help you get your bearings with lots of information guides, or you can just stay at the resort if you don’t want to wander too far.
The Cairngorm Mountain Centre caters for skiers and snowboarders with a variety of pistes that are suitable for both beginners and the more experienced alike, and a network of ski lifts will whisk you up to the mountaintop in double-quick time. You can even hire your ski gear from the resort so you don’t have to cram it all into your car, but if you’re not feeling too excited about hurtling down a mountainside you can take a ride on the funicular railway instead, Britain’s highest railway which runs over 3500 feet up to the restaurant and viewing platform on the mountain plateau.
- Address: CairnGorm Mountain Centre, Aviemore, PH22 1RB
You can find out more about the Funicular Railway at the Cairngorm Mountain Centre by checking out our guide here.
Wildlife Watching in the Cairngorms
Winter in the Cairngorms is one of the highlights for any visit to Scotland thanks to the diverse range of animal species that descend from the mountain tops for the slightly warmer climate at the bottom. Although many animals hibernate throughout the winter (red squirrels being one), you can still see plenty of other creatures about, and the fact that they’re on lower ground means they’re much easier to spot and photograph.
Alongside red deer (Britain’s largest land mammal) you’ll frequently find mountain hares, ptarmigan, pine martens and badgers all scurrying about as they forage for food in the cold winter climate. And unlike summertime, winter on the east coast means you won’t get eaten alive by the midges that thrive there during the warmer months. You don’t even have to go traipsing through muddy woods to see Scotland’s wildlife either as there’s plenty of marine life right along the coastline to keep an eye open for, and otters and dolphins can be regularly seen along much of the Highlands coastline.
Some tour operators like Highland Safaris will take you out into the wilds in fully kitted out 4×4 vehicles so you don’t have to worry about getting your boots muddy, while other tour guides like Speyside Wildlife offer hides and huts located right in the heart of Scotland’s forests. But perhaps the best way to experience Scotland’s winter wildlife is to just pack your rucksack, pull on your boots and set off on a trek across the rugged landscape. But as we discussed earlier, be sure to check the weather before you set off, and make sure you pack plenty of warm hiking gear. After all, as the old Scottish saying goes, ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes’.
- Address: Speyside Wildlife, Wester Camerorie, Ballieward, Grantown on Spey, Cairngorms National Park, PH26 3PR
Speyside Wildlife is recommended on several Scottish wildlife websites. Take a look at their own website here.