It had been so long since my last visit to Scotland, and since then I couldn’t wait to return. 10 years, an upcoming birthday, and a few airline mileage points to make use of and here I was, even if just for a week. I did not have nearly enough days to enjoy everything the holidays in Edinburgh have to offer (I left too early to enjoy the Castle of Light and Hogmanay), but stayed long enough to get a taste and share some highlights with you to help you get started when navigating this amazing city – during the holidays and beyond. And disclosure, this itinerary is very much geared toward a first-time visitor. A more in-depth Edinburgh experience would require far more days, if not weeks to explore.
Let’s Start with The Bookshops
Edinburgh is the world’s first city to be designated a City of Literature and is home to the famous Edinburgh International Book Festival. If you are a book-lover, whether new, used, or of any genre, this city’s collections of bookshops will captivate you. I would dedicate a trip just to visit bookshops. These are just the three I spent the most time in during my very short visit.
I fell madly in love with everything about Typewronger Books. I don’t know the moment I fell in love. If it was founder Tee Hodges’ warm welcome and friendly conversation…and our common affinity for Earl Grey, of which they offered me a warm cup while I perused the shop, or the enviable display of vintage typewriters (for purchase!), or the delightfully diverse collection of local and international authors, with many of the books signed by the same! But it was certainly well before I walked out with my beautifully wrapped books (and if interested you can also get a bookmark and an origami animal).
The Gently Mad Bookshop, just steps from the Royal Botanic Garden (which has a light display ongoing the weeks before Christmas), is perfect for book browsers such as myself. I wanted to spend hours upon hours looking through their many vintage books – from poetry to history and so much more in between. This teeny shop is a beautiful spot to stay warm and melt the time away from the inevitable Scottish rain.
John Kay, an engraver and caricaturist who became famous for his humorous portraits of some of Edinburgh’s residents at the turn of the 19th Century has a shop named after him located right on the lovely Victoria Street. I stumbled upon John Kay’s Shop on a particularly windy and rainy evening and was immediately captivated by some of my favorite classics – The Iliad, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Wuthering Heights, and others presented in stunningly embossed covers with gold-edged paper. There are gift items and postcards, as well as some more recent publications to choose from, but to me, the beauty of these more design detailed selections was really what made the experience special.
Edinburgh is also home to many literature giants, and so in between bookshop visits, I highly recommend stopping into the Writer’s Museum which celebrates three of Scotland’s greatest male authors – Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
The cafes and Other Eateries of note
The cafe and food scene in Edinburgh is as epic as their bookshop flex. Every day was a struggle trying to decide which cute or majestic or extravagant or cozy cafe we were going to eat breakfast in or grab a pastry and coffee from. A quick scroll through Instagram and you will find it overwhelming. So, for the amount of days that we spent in the city, I feel we made some pretty great choices. Before moving on to list them, I want to note the lack of food photos. Rarely did anyone have their phone out at the table when dining, let alone taking pictures of their food. Sure, there were a few influencers here and there, but in general, what people did was sit and talk with each other with no tech distractions and it was so, so lovely it wasn’t hard for me to follow suit. For images and short video clips, please visit the Scotland Highlights on my Instagram page.
Arrive hungry, but most importantly, arrive early to Edinburgh Larder. It’s the perfect cozy spot to sit in on a cold Scottish day, surrounded by the fun buzz of food prep and conversation. Go full Scottish with servings of black pudding haggis, potato scone, homemade beans, and free-range poached egg to name some of what is in the dish by the same name, or select a lighter or sweeter fare from their locally sourced, seasonal menu. Just know the coffee is very good, the vibe is even better, and the food is a warm welcome to Scotland. Don’t want to wait in line? Make a reservation on their website ahead of your visit instead.
My first Dishoom experience was in London, and this experience in Edinburgh was just as wonderful. The food here is some of the best Indian food anywhere, and the energy is fun and friendly. This is a walk-in restaurant with few reservations available. But the bar at the lower level makes any wait there a bit more enjoyable. Though I don’t have any food images to share here (again, see my Instagram), I loved capturing how enraptured in conversation everyone was with each other…and oh, I longed for more of this everywhere I went. Great vegan options that even non-vegans will enjoy, and though I didn’t try it, I was told by a local the breakfast here is an absolute must!
My other favorite part about dining around Edinburgh besides the absence of phones and beautiful people watching was how we were never, ever once rushed after our meal…we felt truly welcomed to fully enjoy, not just the food but the entire ambiance.
Society Bar and Kitchen was the most touristy of all the spots we went to, and felt the most “hurried” and yet, was not totally. They have a sophisticated brunch selection and again, great coffee. Their airy and bright eatery is centrally located and close to a lot of the favorite spots in Central Edinburgh.
Leith is a port district known for its creative locals and diverse community and is a short tram ride from Central Edinburgh. While experiencing some gentrification, labeling it one of the coolest neighborhoods in the city, it still very much is a wonderful escape for those looking for a bit of a more local, diverse, and calm city experience. Here we had just that with an early dinner – and I mean, we beat the crowds on this one – at The Ship on The Shore, a restaurant that offers an elevated seafood experience, which they pair nicely with a bubbly or any other drink of your choice.
We enjoyed a delicious dinner followed by a sunset walk around Leith during a break from the rain.
Urban Angel felt like “the spot” for locals. There were already several full tables when we arrived, despite the early morning, and it felt cozy to sit window-side with a nice warm coffee. The Scots are big on poached eggs and I made sure to have my fill everywhere I went, with whatever locally sourced pairing was available at each eatery.
Other memorable dining experiences not pictured here, but which I highly recommend are: Umi for ramen and authentic Japanese cuisine; Whiski Bar and Restaurant for a fun Scottish pub experience and great food and drinks; Lannan Bakery for freshly made pastry and warm beverages – note lines get long in the early morning and is when their most popular pastries go fast, and there are no seats inside); and lastly but not to miss, Afternoon Tea at The Balmoral’s Palm Court, the most elegant of experiences!
The Holiday Market experience
I love holiday markets, whether in Europe or America. The best ones are always the most festive and colorful, and I was eager to check out the East Princes Street Gardens Christmas Market, which was just steps from our hotel, the Apex Waterloo Place, and has been my home each time I visit the city.
This market has so much going for it; it is centrally located, has stunning views of Edinburgh Castle, and even greater views from the Big Wheel, Scotland’s largest Ferris wheel! There are tons of wonderful stalls selling artisan goods, gift items, food, and drinks. Go during the day and again at night as both feel like completely different experiences. Even when most crowded, the market felt easy to navigate, and my goodness, the festive air was intoxicating!
But this wasn’t the only holiday market in Edinburgh! The West Princes Street Gardens Family Funfair also offers rides and shopping, both in and around the market, and for more shopping that supports local artisans and designers, there’s the Tron Kirk Market by the Scottish Design Exchange, opened year-round both on Royal Mile and George Street. Read more about the holiday festivities on the Visit Scotland page here.
Lastly, SOME beautiful sights of Edinburgh
I will conclude with a series of photographs gathered from the many steps we took walking this city. Edinburgh in the winter is rainy and cold, and when you get a sunny day it feels magical but not that it isn’t equally so on the cloudiest of days because it is, in any weather such a breathtaking city. Note that this is a walking city of many, many hills and even more steps.
We didn’t bother taking on the battle against the Scottish winds and rain with an umbrella. We simply dressed in our best boots and rain jackets and popped into shops, cafes, and even malls and museums if we needed a break. I love Edingburgh no less now during this winter visit than I did during my summer one. It remains a city to love…and an incredible introduction to the beauty of Scotland as a whole, a country worth exploring further.
Edinburgh Castle. We didn’t take the tour but still found it very informative. Tip: Purchase tickets online, spare yourself the ticket box fee, and arrive early to avoid crowds.
Music at Usher Hall. During the holidays they have a live orchestra playing the score of your favorite holiday films while it plays. Love Actually may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved the experience of watching the film again with live music. They have other holiday performances to enjoy! Visit their website for more.
Dean Village. This is still a village where actual people live, so it’s important to not get too caught up in the Instagram-mania. Yet, to truly enjoy and avoid the discomfort of over-tourism arrive early. Aside from the cute cottages, what’s cooler about Dean Village is that it is one stop along the Water of Leith Trail which starts in Balerno goes through the city, and ends at the outflow into the Firth of Forth at Leith. The 13-mile walkway offers different views and picturesque sites and a different way to experience the beauty of Edinburgh.