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Updated: 25th November 2023
Flames flickered in all directions as thousands upon thousands of people baring blazing torches paraded through Scotland’s capital city. Squeezing my way through the slow-moving crowds condensed into Edinburgh’s medieval Old Town to reach the front of the procession, I was overcome with awe rather than anxiety. Tonight marked the beginning of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, perhaps the world’s best New Year’s Eve celebration. Over the next three days, rituals, parties, and fire-illuminated nights would take over Scotland as they do annually, inviting the world to begin a new year with an unforgettable roar — and I felt beyond lucky to be here witnessing it all play out.
The word Hogmanay itself refers to the New Year’s Eve all-night party hosted on the 31st of December. However, many of the fire-focused traditions that make up the event are believed to date back to 8th-century Viking invaders, borrowing inspiration from old Norse winter solstice celebrations.
History aside, it’s quite a spectacle; Edinburgh serves as a perfect backdrop for some masks, madness and medieval firethrowing. If you’re visiting Europe in winter and at a loss for celebrating the New Year, it doesn’t get much better than this — here’s the low down of what to expect from the main events between the 30th of December (there are some other, smaller festivities also scheduled), right up to the charity plunge on the January 1st.
Good to know: changes to Edinburgh’s Hogmanay in 2023/2024
Below, you’ll find an overview of what to expect from Edinburgh’s Hogmanay. However, be aware there have been a few changes since I last attended the event. These were partly caused by cancellations and changes during the pandemic (which were never reinstated) but also by some activities pulling out of the official Hogmanay programme altogether, citing increasing costs and what some organisers see as the over-commercialisation of the event. I’ve added notes where you might notice some changes.
Edinburgh’s Hogmanay Torchlight Procession
When: 30th December 2023 from 18:00
Where: In 2023, the route begins in the Meadows and ends in Edinburgh’s centre — in all previous years, the parade started on the Royal Mile and ended in Holyrood Park with the formation of the aerial torch pattern.
Costs and tickets: Free to watch from afar. However, to join the procession, get a torch, and really enjoy the experience, you’ll need to buy a ticket in advance.
If there was one moment of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay I had been waiting years to experience, this was it. The Torchlight Procession was a major bucket list tick for me, more so than the actual bells and fireworks of the official New Year’s Eve celebration in the park.
Led by performers dressed in traditional Celtic and Viking-esque costumes and masks, flaming batons and daredevil fire tricks illuminate the head of the 20,000-strong crowd — with the city’s residents and visitors following behind, torches ablaze.
The streets are crammed with onlookers as the parade continues all the way down the Royal Mile to Holyrood Park. Most participants in the procession will have a torch, but it’s equally exciting just to watch the night unfold from the sides and join the free party later on in the evening.
Being in the media pool (I regularly work for Edinburgh Festivals), I was lucky enough to have a front-row seat with the other photographers as we ran ahead of the procession, turning to snap and film whenever the fire wasn’t fast approaching us. Still, I’m desperate to come back again another year to get stuck into the magic of it all and not be restrained by my camera.
That said, drummers, bagpipe players and pyro-artists create a dramatic impression at the head of the group, which is something you won’t witness if you’re in the parade itself. Flame wheels, juggling torches, and other performers keep the energy high, which is important given the parade can take hours to complete.
By 21:00, Holyrood Park is packed with torchbearers who follow strategically staged paths to create an image not visible at ground level. Behind, the flames gliding down the streets of the Old Town continue; it’s simply far too many people to arrive in good time.
Every year, an ‘image from above’ is created in Holyrood Park by the torchbearers, and in 2019, it was that of two people holding hands, the international sign of friendliness. At 21:00 on the dot, a hovering helicopter photographs the moment, and the defined photos are then projected onto screens around the park.
After this, Holyrood Park, in all its muddy glory, erupts into a massive party — is there really anything more Scottish? — with live bands and everyone getting into the spirit of the evening. Although I was there on my own, I certainly think it would be suitable for kids, with plenty of places to slide off to, such as sitting on the hills around Arthurs Seat for some excellent views. The music continued for a few hours, and a firework display was scheduled for around 10 pm. It’s tempting to keep going to the early hours — but with tomorrow being the main event, it’s best to save some energy!
Edinburgh’s Hogmanay Street Party & Concert In The Gardens
When: 31st December from 20:00 (earlier events happen for families with younger children). Main fireworks at midnight.
Where: The main party is in Princes Street Gardens, but the ‘arena’ area spills out to the street, up the mound, and even onto the Royal Mile
Costs and tickets: From £28.50 (Street Party) and from £72.50 (Concert in the Gardens). They are two separate tickets, and one will not give you access to the other areas.
Using the term ‘street party’ to describe this evening event at Edinburgh’s Hogmanay is a bit of an understatement — it’s huge, and the event covers a vast area in the gardens, surrounding streets and even up into the Royal Mile, known as the ‘arena’. It varies in size from year to year, but there are many stages and different parts of the event you can enjoy, with varying ticket prices to reflect this.
This year’s (2023/2024) celebration is the 30th anniversary of this huge party, and PULP is heading the concert in Princes Street Gardens. If you aren’t fussed about the concert itself, you can still experience many of the surrounding events and street performers by buying the lower-priced Street Party Ticket.
Most people will start with a dinner in town, but beware that reservations and patience are needed given the popularity of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay. For those with younger families, there are children-friendly events and entertainment in the gardens earlier in the day, including an early-hours firework show for the little ones.
The main concert part of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay takes place in Princes Street Gardens, where the main stage is on the left and the Ceilidh under the Castle dance area on the right.
The Ceilidh under the Castle is the more traditional part of the evening, where local bands, bagpipes and fiddles are up on stage, and everyone else jigs and dances with great laughter in front of them. With Edinburg Castle illuminated up above, it’s a great place to enjoy if you want a more traditional evening, with slightly fewer crowds to the street party.
On the street, which comes down from The Mound and onto Princes Street, there are various podiums set up with different acts, bands, and dancers performing throughout the night. In the midst of this, street performers, from jugglers to gigantic robots, are also coming through the crowds, getting everyone fired up.
When I arrived shortly after 19:30, it was still relatively quiet, but by 21:00, the streets were getting bustling. For those without tickets to the gardens, and only the street party, this is a popular place to watch the huge midnight fireworks.
Alongside the street party, there are a few different stages set up on side streets and up toward the Royal Mile. Bands are performing here, as well as the main stage, so wherever you spend your Hogmanay, you’re sure to have some good tunes and great company to celebrate with. This year, a whole street was even closed off for a silent disco, allowing those attendees to pick their own tunes to party the night away, too.
Down on the main stage of Princes Street Gardens is where the more famous acts will perform, building up throughout the night until the main act at 23:00, which will also usher in the New Year with a soundtrack to the fireworks. In 2019, acts including Rudimental and then Mark Ronson performed for the main show, and he even brought Daniel Merriweather along for the ride. In 2023, PULP will headline.
At midnight, a huge fireworks show begins from the castle, and it’s a genuinely epic performance set to the beats and soundtrack of the performers below. The fireworks performance lasts a substantial amount of time, and as with everything Edinburgh Festivals do, it’s show-stopping!
The party in the gardens continues until around 1 am when things start slowing down. After this, there are plenty of after-parties or clubs around town, but be sure to have purchased your tickets in advance or check when the last entrances are for the few venues without ticketed events.
One thing that amazed me was walking home around 2 am; the amount of trash and litter everywhere was insane. But by the time I left my hotel the next morning, it was all cleaned up and spotless, and even half of the stages were already packed away.
There are rightly concerns about the environmental impact the 11 huge Edinburgh Festivals bring to the city and how they change the dynamic of the UNESCO-listed city, and while I agree they don’t get everything perfect (the damage from the Christmas Market to the gardens this year, for example) — I was pleased with how efficient and hard working the team was throughout the night to collect all the rubbish.
The Loony Dook Dip
When: 1st January from 14:00 (times can vary)
Where: South Queensferry, a gorgeous place outside the city centre
Costs and tickets: Free to watch, £12 to take part (which I find criminally high, even if part is for charity)
*2023 Update: The Loony Dock Dip (which has been happening long before it became an official part of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay programme, was suspended for two years due to COVID. In 2023, the organisers decided not to remain a part of the official programme, supposedly because of being unhappy with the high ticket charges and how commercialised the event had become. I do believe it will still happen on January 1st 2024, but likely in a more toned-down and local way than since my last attendance.
If you are feeling mad or brave or just want a way to kick the hangover, then drag yourself out of bed and head down to South Queensferry for a traditional Scottish start to the New Year.
South Queensferry is a little out of Edinburgh, but it’s a really beautiful village and somewhere all visitors to the city should try and see at any time of year. With adorable old colourful houses and fantastic views of the iconic Forth Bridge, it’s a fantastic setting for the Loony Dook Dip.
This parade of people in fancy dress goes all down the high street before the Dookers head down to the rocky beach for their drip in the cold waters. While it’s a charity fundraising event, the current organisers are changing £12 to take part and capping the number of attendees, which is a shame, given the water wasn’t exactly full up and it’s meant to be a fun and community-focused event.
If you don’t want to take part, as many (wise) people prefer to stay warm, you can grab a coffee and enjoy the madness from the sidelines. Over the hour or so, all these people charge into the water in their crazy costumes, and hopefully, it’s all worth it as the cold water washes the hangover away!
Message from the Skies
When: 1st January from dusk
Where: Various locations around Edinburgh
Costs and tickets: Free, locations throughout the city
*2023 Update: Messages from the Skies have not as yet been confirmed for inclusion in Edinburgh’s Hogmanay programme for 2023/2024. I hope it returns, as it’s a nice, mellow way to wrap up the party. What has been confirmed so far for January 1st 2024, is First Footin’, a live music event in pubs and venues across the city, which first debuted on Edinburgh’s Hogmanay programme in 2022.
Every year (so far!), on the 1st of January, the ‘Message from the Skies’ projections start popping up across Edinburgh and last for nearly the whole month of January. If you’re looking for a brisk walk to clear your hangover and are only in town for a few days over Hogmanay, then from dusk on New Year’s Day, they can be enjoyed.
Projected onto various different landmarks and historic buildings across the city, each year, the words and projections are related to a different theme. This year, the ones I saw were related to race, history, and colonialism, and as always, I am glad to see Scotland not shying away from this discussion, ones that the UK should be having more of, in my opinion.
Edinburgh isn’t just dishing out the festivities on New Year’s Eve, though; there are actually eleven different festivals throughout the year, from the world-famous Fringe and The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo to lesser-known ones such as the awesome Jazz and Blues Festival, complete with a carnival, and the traditional storytelling festival.
I’ve been lucky enough to attend nearly all of the eleven festivals now while working with Festivals Edinburgh over the years. Here’s my quick guide to the eleven Edinburgh Festivals, a brief lowdown on the five Edinburgh Festivals in August, and how to plan a foodie weekend in Edinburgh no matter when you visit.
Enjoy the festival city; it’s truly one of my favourite places in the world!