Move over, Times Square – Edinburgh is the best place to celebrate New Year’s Eve. You’ll find no finer celebration than the Hogmanay festivities that take over the streets of this ancient city. If seeing the highland mountains draped in snow wasn’t already enough to make you want to visit Scotland in the winter, let this be the excuse you need.
Whisky! Fireworks over castles! Torches! Ceilidh dances! Men in kilts! What more could you want?
Not normally a fan of New Year’s Eve due to lackluster celebrations in years past, I set off to Scotland to revive a love for the holiday. I traveled alone but ended up making amazing new friends among the 150,000 visitors from all around the globe. It was truly the best weekend of my life. There’s an energy that drives this city. You’ll find it in the antiquated streets lined with castles and history. You’ll find it in the charisma and brogues of the locals. And you’ll find it in the traditions and celebrations of their culture. Edinburgh is enchanting. Edinburgh for Hogmanay is downright magical.
|| What is Hogmanay?
For the rest of the world, it’s New Year’s Eve. For Scotland, it’s something even better: Hogmanay.
Hogmanay is the Scottish celebration for welcoming in the new year. The celebrations have Viking and Gaelic origins. It holds importance because for hundreds of years, the Scots didn’t celebrate Christmas. During the Protestant Reformation, celebrating Yule was made illegal. Though the ban was repealed in 1712, the Church frowned on celebrations and Christmas didn’t become a public holiday until 1958. So, Scots focused their celebrations on Hogmanay instead.
There are several traditions surrounding Hogmanay, such as first-footing (where the first person to enter the house after midnight brings gifts). But the main attraction is the wild revelries, and Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations aren’t just for New Year’s Eve – they last for three days!
|| Edinburgh Christmas Market
The Edinburgh Christmas Market takes over Prince’s Street and St. Andrew’s Square from mid-November to early January. With hundreds of vendors and many carnival rides, this massive market gives those in Eastern Europe a run for their money. It was certainly the best and biggest I have been to! Artisan stalls sell bespoke and traditional goods, from glassware to Christmas ornaments. Food carts offer smoked sausages, chips, mulled wine, deep-fried mars bars, and more. An enclosed bar tent makes a great rendezvous point – try the special Edinburgh Christmas ale on tap. Live music drifts from the food village near Waverly Station. Over in Andrew’s Square, there is even an ice skating rink.
One particularly tall carnival ride swings visitors above the city – we laughed at how close it seemed to the Burns Monument until we rode it ourselves. If you can manage your fear of heights, this is the best view of the city! I recommend riding it at night during the street party festivities – you’ll get a bird’s eye view of the massive crowd as you swing above the spire of the monument, where you’ll see details you’d never notice from below!
The markets are a great way to spend the day while waiting for the night’s celebrations to begin, but note that many rides and food vendors will be open during the street festival as well!
|| December 30 – The Torchlight Procession
The Hogmanay celebrations kick off on December 30th with a torchlight procession led down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, where thousands carry flaming torches down the Royal Mile. No fire hazards here! It is led by the Vikings that lead Shetland’s Up Helly Aa festival. Visitors can opt to carry a torch in the parade or simply watch the spectacle as the procession makes its way down the Royal Mile towards Holyrood. This year, 2,600 torchbearers helped spell out the ‘Scotword of the Year’ – Braw (a Scottish word meaning grand, fine, or pleasing). The evening ends with fireworks set off over Edinburgh – the first of many displays to come over the next 24 hours.
|| December 31 – Hogmanay Street Party
You’ll find Hogmanay celebrations throughout the country, but none quite as over-the-top as you’ll find in Edinburgh. And while parties rage through homes and clubs alike, the real party is in the streets.
The Hogmanay Street Party opens its gates at 7 PM, and festivities begin around 9 PM. It’s a joyfully chaotic and buzzing atmosphere where everything feels larger than life. There are a few main stages along Prince’s Street – this year The Human League drew the crowds. Other performers add to the spectacle, from acrobats dancing on the side of a building to bagpipers dressed in Hogmanay pink tartan.
There are short firework displays every hour on the hour to count down to midnight. Though nothing compares to the show you’ll get when the clock strikes twelve, these are a great way to see where the fireworks are set off and find the best view for midnight! We stood on Prince’s Street just across from the castle hill for the most amazing view.
There are additional events scattered throughout the city that offer entertainment. The Ceilidh Under the Castle is a traditional way to welcome in the new year, because there’s nothing better than being swung around by a man in a kilt. Don’t worry if you don’t know any traditional ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee) dances – you’re sure to have a good time and figure it out as you go! Concert in the Gardens takes over the Prince’s Street Gardens – here you’ll find concerts across several stages to kill time until midnight. Bairns Afore is a special festival and concert series for the kids. Each of these events do require additional tickets to the street party.
As the clock inches closer to midnight, crowds huddle together to face the castle on the hill. The countdown begins, and the new year is welcomed with the most magnificent fireworks display. Friends and strangers kiss and hug each other. Cries of ‘cheers’ ring out as drinks are toasted. Many join in a rousing chorus of Auld Lang Syne, the famous New Year’s melody that was written by Scotsman Robert Burns.
…we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.
Midnight was a wild moment, but it felt as if everything was moving in slow-motion. I was surrounded by friends I had only just met in a crowd of strangers, but it felt like we’d all known each other forever. Like I said, I’ve never been much of a fan of New Year’s. The pressure of resolutions, the disappointment of not finding love at midnight, the expectation of finding the perfect way to welcome in another year. But this year changed all of that. Because midnight was the most joyful moment I’ve ever experienced. After a year of uncertainty and tribulations in the world, this was a moment that brought everyone together.
There’s something about this city at midnight. Between the castles and cobblestone streets, things feel timeless. This moment felt like it should last forever. And it set the precedent for a new year in a way I’d never experienced before. I felt humbled, I felt immensely grateful, and I felt ready for whatever 2019 had to offer. Because surely this is what it’s all about. Cities and cultures and traditions that bring people from all over the world together, to see strangers holding hands and singing about the years gone by and our hopes for the future.
After midnight, the crowds linger for another hour. Don’t expect to be able to get anywhere quickly with thousands of people all heading in the same direction. This was my favorite part of the night, though – a crowd hungover on the perfect midnight. We made our way along the road, stopping to dance and sing with strangers here and there. No one knew anyone, but it was as if we all knew everyone.
The festival dies down around 1 AM, and many head off to their accommodation so as to enjoy the next day’s festivities. However, there are plenty of after parties in the pubs and clubs around town for the night owls.
|| January 1 – The Loony Dook
What better way to revive yourself after a night of reveling than a dip into some icy water? The Loony Dook is Edinburgh Hogmanay’s more bizarre tradition. Hundreds dress up in wild costumes and splash into the Forth River at South Queensferry. All money raised from the event goes to charity.
|| Tips for Visiting Hogmanay
- Buy tickets and accommodation early – Tickets go on sale early, so don’t wait til the last minute to purchase yours! Accommodation will also become scarce and very expensive around this time, so the sooner you can book yours, the better. Conveniently, many hostels will include a street party ticket in the cost of your stay – I stayed at Castle Rock Hostel and this saved me the hassle of having to stand in a queue to pick up my wristband as they gave it to me at check-in.
- Pick up your tickets early – If you do have to stand in line to pick up tickets for the torchlight procession or any of the New Year’s Eve events, I highly recommend going to the ticket office as early as you can. There will be long queues – don’t risk being late to an event because you’re stuck in line!
- Dress warm – I can’t stress this enough! I was wearing a fluffy faux-fur coat and still thought my fingers were going to fall off. You’ll find it gets a little warmer as the crowd grows, but the Edinburgh winter can be bitterly chill and the wind blows right through you. Bundle up, and wear comfortable shoes!
- BYOB – If festivals make you hesitant because you’re limited to highly overpriced food and drinks at designated booths, fear not! You can bring your own alcohol into the street festival. You can’t bring glass for safety reasons, but cans and plastic bottles are fine as long as they are under 500 ml. We ran to Sainsbury’s for drinks and snacks to last us through the night and it saved us plenty of money!
- Bring cash – The temporary bars within the festival grounds are cash only, so if you plan on purchasing food and drink, be sure to bring plenty of cash with you!
- Pace yourself – Remember, it’s a marathon, not a race! The street party opens its gates at 7 PM, so you’ll have five hours until midnight. Drink responsibly!
If you’re heading to Hogmanay to welcome in the next new year, you’re in for the time of your life. Stay warm and slàinte!