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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.
(1) Edinburgh Castle
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
You can find out more about this attraction with my complete guide to Edinburgh Castle.
(2) 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
You can learn more about this amazing event with my complete guide to Edinburgh’s Christmas.
(3) 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 my Guide to Free Edinburgh Attractions.
(4) 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 my Guide to Free Edinburgh Attractions.
Infographic about Edinburgh
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.
(5) 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 about this attraction with my complete guide to Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.
(6) Glasgow Cathedral
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 this historic attraction by reading my Guide to Glasgow Cathedral.
(7) The Necropolis
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
If you want to know more about this historic attaction you can read my Complete Guide to the Glasgow Necropolis.
(8) 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 this attraction by reading my Guide to The Glasgow Riverside Museum.
Infographic about Glasgow
Planning a trip to Scotland?
- Find hotels in Scotland and book your rental car.
- Explore the country with Rabbies small group coach tours and get cheap advance tickets for attractions.
- Learn about Scotland with a range of Amazon books and prepare for hikes with
Ordnance Survey maps.
- Before you explore the great outdoors get your rain gear in place and don’t forget to buy Smidge anti-midge repellent!