If last year's New Year's celebrations were a more of a damp squib than an explosion of delight, you might want to consider heading somewhere that's guaranteed to give you an end-of-year party you'll never forget: Edinburgh.
I headed there in 2015 for a city-break over the Christmas hols and was spellbound by the magical atmosphere of Hogmanay. I've spent New Year's Eve in lots of different places on my travels: partying on the streets of Amsterdam, Stockholm, London and Sydney and even raising a toast on an Aussie beach near Perth, but nowhere has ever topped the New Year's Eve I had in Edinburgh.
Read on to find out what makes Edinburgh's three-day Hogmanay celebrations one of the best parties in the world.
The Torchlight Procession
When my travel plans to Edinburgh were confirmed, one of the first things my friends and I booked were tickets for the torchlight procession that takes place every year on December 30th. Participants assemble on the Royal Mile and then begin to march through the centre of Edinburgh while brandishing flaming torches. The Viking re-enactment group of Up Helly Aa lead the 8000-strong crowd down the hill from the castle in a blaze of drums and fire, eventually finishing at Carlton Hill, where a fireworks finale is ignited. The procession dates to pagan times of sun-worship and the winter solstice, back in the days when people got nervous about the shorter daylight hours and ran amok with fire in the streets to persuade the sun to come back again.
Walking as a torchbearer through the streets of Edinburgh was such a magical, primal experience. You get the feeling you're doing something that is centuries-old and full of spiritual significance, even if all you're doing is holding a big stick with fire on the end of it. The sight of so many people moving through the streets like a river of fire was awe-inspiring.
Traveller's Tips: You can book in advance for this event online and tickets go on sale several months before the Christmas period. During the march, take care of your clothing with the wax-dipped torches, as they get a bit drippy once the flames are lit (a waxy splodge on my old winter coat being evidence of this). Another thing we'd suggest is to find a cosy pub for a post-procession tipple to warm up afterwards; Scottish winter nights are a bit brisk even if you’re holding a flaming piece of wood.
The Street Party and Concert in the Gardens
We also booked tickets for the huge street festival that takes place on the last night of the year. Passes allow access into an enclosed area that encompasses the park and roads around Princes Street, with stages hosting rock, pop and folk bands, world-food stalls and street entertainers making a party so hugely entertaining, it's often listed as one of the "top 100 things to do before you die". With a fantastic view of the castle and the sound of live Scottish and Irish ceilidh music playing behind us, our build-up to the stroke of midnight was the most atmospheric New Year's celebration I've ever experienced.
In the UK, you can expect the following to happen once the clock strikes twelve: Everyone sings/hums/mimes Auld Lang Syne (a Scottish poem sung by everyone in the British Isles at this time, even those who aren't Scottish), there's a huge chorus of "Happy New Year!" and then everyone hugs and kisses anyone within a five-metre radius. At least, that's what happened to us in the Edinburgh Hogmanay street party. I'm not sure if there was anyone we didn't kiss that night.
Stumbling through the throng of drunken, merry revellers, we made our way to a nightclub in the Old Town: The Bongo Club. We'd been recommended this place a few days before the big night and we weren't disappointed. With two dance-floors of funky house and electro-funk we were able to bop and boogie till the sun came up. If you're a party animal who loves to find the best nightlife, we'd recommend heading to the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh, where there are plenty of traditional pubs, modern bars and hip clubs to choose from. As ever on a New Year's Eve, expect the prices on the door to be extortionate and the queues at least an hour long.
The Loony Dook on January 1st
Another (very recent) Scottish tradition particular to Edinburgh, this bonkers event involves a fancy-dress dip in the River Forth on New Year's Day. It was started as a joke by two blokes in a pub, who thought it'd be a novel hangover cure after the Hogmanay blitz on NYE. The first ever "dook" (a Scottish word meaning "to dip or plunge") took place on January 1st 1987 and really took off after the Millennium. Now thousands of "loonies" (mad people) take part each year, dunking themselves in the freezing Forth for a laugh. Give it a go if you're can be arsed to get out of bed on the first day of the year (we couldn't, hence the lack of our own photos in this blog post).
What else to do while you're waiting for the year to end
Edinburgh makes for a perfect short-break getaway not just for its three-day extravaganza of a party, but also its rich cultural and historical heritage. If you’re in the city a few days before or after NYE, there’s plenty stuff to explore (if you’re not hungover to hell, that is).
1. Start with the castle in the centre of the Scottish capital, a royal fortress that allegedly inspired J K Rowling’s Hogwarts in Harry Potter. You can’t get much more festively magical than that. We paid the pricey entrance fee (head to https://www.edinburghcastle.gov.uk/visit/tickets-prices for info) and spent a whole afternoon getting lost in its warren of ancient buildings. Once we found our way to the ramparts, we braved the biting winter winds and had a selfie with the city sprawled out below us.
2. If you’re not prepared to fork out for the tickets into the castle for views of Edinburgh, and you’re not completely hanging out of your arse from alcohol abuse, we also recommend a climb up Arthur’s Seat. This unmissable hill is the remains of an extinct volcano and offers a spectacular panorama from the summit. We recommend going easy on the whisky before attempting an ascent.
3. Boozers will find plenty of places to top up the levels of alcohol in their blood, with pubs scattered all over the city. The oldest of these is The White Hart Inn, where we had some traditional ales and a proper Scottish fry-up. Or you could pay a visit to The Greyfriars Bobby for some quirky history concerning a dog who never left his master’s side, even when his owner was buried in the churchyard behind the pub.
4. Somewhere a little more serene to pass the time in Edinburgh are the Botanic Gardens (NB: Open 10am till 4pm Nov-Jan and closed on New Year’s Day. Free Admission). 70 acres of picturesque parks lie only a mile from the city centre, and if you’re too frozen to enjoy the wintry landscaped gardens, you can always head inside the balmy glasshouses for a tropical respite, like I did.
5. The city also has some impressive collections of art in its numerous galleries and museums. Our favourite place was the Scottish National Gallery (free entry, open daily 10am-5pm), where we rubbed some warmth back into our extremities while admiring paintings by international artists.
Getting to Edinburgh
Although it’s hard to find any cheap flights to Edinburgh for the Hogmanay period (along with the Fringe Arts Festival, the celebration marks the busiest time of the year for the city), booking early with airlines such as AirFrance, KLM, FinnAir or Flybe could bag you a bargain. Domestic flights with EasyJet or Ryanair also offer deals from London (1 hour 20 mins) or Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol (all just over an hour away).
The airport is 12km outside the city and can be reached by bus or tram. Look for the Airlink 100 Express or the N22 nightbus.
For rail links, try http://www.redspottedhanky.com/trains/trains-to/edinburgh/
What to take