The Out About Scotland complete guide to the 10 best things to do in Edinburgh on a Rainy Day
If you want to skip my introduction to Scotland’s weather and dive straight into my top recommended attractions scroll to the bottom of this page and go to pages 2 and 3.
If you spend any amount of time reading through Scotland’s many travel blogs you’ll quickly come to realise they’re all chock-full of an obscene amount of syrupy-sweet adjectives when it comes to describing the country’s landscapes.
Words like ‘stunning’, ‘jaw-dropping’, ‘mesmerizing’, and ‘mind-blowing’ – all over-used to some extent and generally a sign that the writer is getting over-excited about some adventure they’ve just had.
But to be honest it’s difficult not to write like that when you’re trying to describe this country, and I say that with hand on heart because it’s exactly the kind of writing style I find myself falling into every time I create a new article.
You see, you’ll just have to bear with us when we start waxing lyrical about the ‘swooningly-beautiful’ mountain vistas we’ve been hiking through over the weekend. Seriously, how else can we write this stuff?
Scotland really is a beautiful place and there’s been more than one occasion when I’ve been on an all-day hike covered in mud and sweat, and I’ve got to the brow of a hill and found a view in front of me that’s jaw-dropping. And I mean that in all seriousness. On more than one occasion my jaw has actually inadvertently flapped open.
So when you’re reading through an article about a Scotland blogger’s exploits and they start describing the place as mind-blowing, you can be pretty damn sure that it really is beautiful enough to blow your mind.
But even so, not everywhere in Scotland is like that. Let’s be honest, if you read a travel blogger and they start describing an inner city slum as ‘a beautifully gritty urban landscape’ you can be fairly sure they’re just trying to get their word count up.
Either that or they’ve just finished an article about Glen Coe or the Isle of Skye and they’ve got stuck in a superlative overload.
So we can all agree that bloggers tend to get carried away when it comes to describing the good bits about travelling around Scotland when the sun is shining and the skies are blue. What you don’t find written about so much is the other 80% of the time when the sky is overcast, there’s a ferocious wind blowing and it’s drizzling.
And not the kind of refreshing-but-brief drizzle you get in the middle of summer, nope, I’m talking about the near-constant annoying-as-hell freezing-cold drizzle that manages to soak every single item of clothing you’re wearing. The kind of drizzle that’s utterly depressing and impossible to dry off from without a complete change of clothes.
Why don’t you hear so much about that kind of Scottish weather? I guess it’s because it doesn’t make for particularly fun reading, and who’s going to encourage people to visit a place if they tell them how grotty the weather is?
So in this article, I’m going to address this issue of the reality of Scotland’s often crappy weather, but I’m also going to tell you why you really don’t need to worry about it.
You see, having a good time in Scotland isn’t about avoiding the bad weather, it’s about being smart when the weather inevitably turns bad. It’s about going to the right places where it doesn’t matter if it’s going to be grey and miserable outside because you’re already somewhere warm and cosy indoors.
Read on and I’ll explain exactly what I’m talking about.
The truth about Scotland’s weather
Look at the majority of Scottish travel websites and you’ll see umpteen photos of green and lush Highland glens bathed in a gorgeous golden glow of summer sun, where birds flitter aimlessly on a gentle breeze and tiny wisps of cloud drift along an otherwise perfectly blue sky.
It’s enough to make you get your credit card out and book that all-inclusive Scotland break you’ve had at the back of your mind for the last five years. And truth be told, if I didn’t actually live here I’d probably believe that’s what it’s like all the time too.
The truth, however, is slightly different.
While the UK as a whole is known for its cold, wet weather, Scotland tends to get the worst of it.
Compared to the rest of the UK our weather is just that little bit wetter, just that little bit cloudier and windier, and our average temperatures are more-often-than-not a few degrees cooler than other parts of Britain.
And just because you’ve decided to head to the south of Scotland instead of the north doesn’t mean you’re going to escape a good Scottish soaking either.
Take a look at this chart from World Weather Online which shows the average rainfall amount and rainy days for the town of Kelso in the Scottish Borders, just 44 miles south of Edinburgh:
Pretty miserable right? Especially if you’re looking at that graph in a nice hot country (you lucky person!). Even in August, in what is historically the UK’s hottest month, the Scottish Borders had to put up with 144 mm of rain and a full 27 rainy days in August 2018. And that’s in the south of the country in summer.
Now let’s look at the same time of year in the north.
It’s even worse! If you were in Thurso in the north Highlands in August 2018 you’d have had to brave 172 mm of rain over a full 30 days. That’s one day out of the entire month when it didn’t rain. ‘But surely’, you must be thinking, ‘it’s not all bad?’.
Well actually no, it’s not all bad, and you’ll frequently find that while the lowlands are covered in mist and low clouds, the more elevated parts of the Highlands are being bathed in glorious sunshine. It’s also quite common for the west coast to be subjected to heavy rain due to low pressures and warm air from the Atlantic Ocean while the east coast remains completely dry.
The point I’m making here is that there’s no hard-and-fast rule when it comes to Scotland’s weather, and just because you’ve gone to a certain area at a certain time of year doesn’t mean you’ll escape the frequent downpours.
So when is the best time to visit Scotland?
That’s a difficult question to answer, and to be honest I don’t think there is a particular best time because it really depends on what sort of holiday you’re hoping to have.
If you’re coming here to enjoy our snow sports then obviously you’re not going to be here in summer. Ski season in Scotland usually runs from December through to early April although because our weather is so changeable some years have a much heavier snowfall than others (my experience has been January and February are your best bets for skiing in the Highlands).
If you’re coming here to hike through our wonderful landscapes then April to July are a fairly safe bet, although the weather does seem to be getting wetter with a fairly consistent rainfall throughout the year.
March to May is often sunniest on the west coast – especially the Hebridean islands – while June to August is normally drier on the east coast. November to February can be dreary thanks to the short days, but then those months are also the loveliest times of the year when it’s cool, crisp and sunny.
As we saw earlier, rainfall in Scotland can be high, especially in the western Highlands which get around 4500 mm each year, but you can minimize the number of grey days you’ll see by heading south – particularly towards the east coast which averages around 550 mm over an average 170 days per year (so says Wikipedia).
Which leads me on to the main point I want to make in this article. While it’s impossible to predict in advance exactly what Scotland’s weather is going to do, if you want to minimize the number of rainy days you’ll see you could do a lot worse than visit the southern end of the east coast in spring and summer, especially if you head to a big city which has loads of attractions you can dive into if dark clouds start looming overhead.
But what big city have we got on the south-east coast that’s got loads of things to do indoors but also has lots of green spaces for when the sun decides to come out again? Hmmm…
How about visiting Edinburgh to escape from Scotland’s rain?
I’ll admit I’m biased because I live there, but whenever I’m asked ‘where’s the best place to visit in Scotland when it’s raining’, I always say Edinburgh because there’s just so much to see and do.
This country’s capital city is home to a wide range of tourists attractions that cater to all age groups and the majority of them rival any attraction in any other city worldwide. Aside from the obvious Edinburgh Castle you’ve got Holyrood Palace at the opposite end of the Royal Mile and the Scottish Parliament building across the road – all fantastic places to visit in their own right.
But you’ve also got the nation’s portrait, classical and modern art galleries in the city centre (all of which are free to enter) and the Scottish National Museum just a few minutes walk away.
There are historic buildings like John Knox’s house and Gladstones Land situated within easy walking distance of St. Giles Cathedral (one of the finest cathedrals in Scotland) as well as popular attractions like Camera Obscura and The Scotch Whisky Experience. And that’s before you’ve visited other famous places like Greyfriars Kirk (home of the wee dog, Bobby) and Mary King’s Close.
But perhaps the best thing about visiting Edinburgh is when the clouds eventually break and the dark clouds turn into blue skies there are loads of green spaces to enjoy.
In fact, Edinburgh has more parkland per acre than any other city in Britain, with an enormous area to explore at Holyrood Park (an enormous extinct volcano) just a few hundred yards from Holyrood Palace, and the vast Pentland Hills just a short taxi ride away to the south of the city.
And perhaps best of all, because the city is so compact getting to most of these destinations is easily achieved on foot so you’ll never find yourself traipsing through the rain for hours trying to find something to do. Not that you would anyway because there are more bars and restaurants to enjoy than you could ever fit into a single holiday, most of which serve top-quality local produce.
Anyway, I could go on and on about all the amazing things you can do in Edinburgh when it’s raining but the list would be big enough to fill ten articles before I start to run out of ideas.
So instead, I’ve included my top ten favourite indoor Edinburgh attractions that are all fairly close together, so any bad weather needn’t mean you get a soaking walking between them. They’re not in any particular order but they all offer a great experience, and I hope you have as much fun visiting them as I did.
Map of the 10 best places to visit in Edinburgh when it’s raining