For families looking beyond the big European cities, Edinburgh is a convenient choice. Just a short train ride north from London, the capital of Scotland is loaded with interesting architecture, historical sights and museums. And because Edinburgh has a compact city center, it’s easy for families to explore on foot, making 72 hours a good amount of time to get to know this grand old beauty.
Edinburgh’s main attraction is Edinburgh Castle, but in high season, it’s wise to save the castle tour for later in the day when the crowds start to thin. Instead, spend the first day getting to know the old town.
Walk the Royal Mile
The Royal Mile forms the oldest part of Edinburgh’s historic center. At its midpoint is High Street, which connects the city’s two most prominent landmarks, Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse. In between the castle and palace are blocks of historic buildings, many with colorful flowers tumbling from window boxes above shops and cafes. Interspersed between these old tenement buildings are closes, such as Dunbar Close — these narrow alleyways lead down to hidden courtyards and gardens.
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As you approach Edinburgh Castle, the last few blocks of the Royal Mile feature street performers that the whole family can enjoy. Take in the traditional sounds of the bagpipe players and let your kids try to figure out how the levitating performers float above the sidewalk.
St. Giles’ Cathedral
Make time for a visit to St. Giles’ Cathedral. This 14th-century church is the city’s best-known house of worship. The cathedral is named for St. Giles, the patron saint of Edinburgh, and is often referred to as the “Cradle of Presbyterianism.” Take your time admiring the ribbed vaulting of the ceiling, the detail in the Thistle Chapel and the exquisite stained glass.
TIP: You can take a small group tour to the top of the cathedral for a bird’s-eye view of the old town. The cathedral also holds music services and special concerts — check the schedule for your travel days.
Palace of Holyroodhouse
After lunch, continue up to the opposite end of the Royal Mile. Still the queen’s official residence, the Palace of Holyroodhouse was the 16th-century home of Mary, Queen of Scots. A tour of the historic palace reveals details in the fascinating reign of this rival of Queen Elizabeth I. Take a look at the neighboring ruins of a 12th-century abbey and the Parliament building as well as the famous view over the old town.
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Active families may want to allow time for a climb up Arthur’s Seat, the highest point in Holyrood Park. This hillside sits atop an extinct volcano and offers 360-degree views of the city and surrounding countryside.
The Royal Mile is also fun to explore in the evenings. Browse the small shops selling a whole host of local wares, from cashmere scarves and wool sweaters to bagpipes and shortbread, before settling into one of the cozy pubs for traditional Scottish food and live music. Try the Royal Mile Tavern (kids welcome until 8p) or the World’s End for a historic pub atmosphere.
Royal Botanic Garden
This enormous botanical garden, founded in 1670, is a place of wonder for both adults and children. It serves as an important center for plant science and is now home to an array of plants in its gardens and glass houses. The gardens are free to enter, but the glass houses, some of which date from the 19th century, require an entrance fee. Inside you’ll find giant lily pads, carnivorous plants, colorful orchids and bromeliads, and palm trees so tall they look like they’ll break through the ceiling.
It’s easy to get here by taking one of the public buses (line 8, 23 or 27). These double-decker buses are an adventure in themselves for kids. For the most fun, get a seat in the front row on the top level.
TIP: Don’t miss the Beech Hedge and Fossil Garden. Stay for a snack or lunch at one of the garden’s cafes.
If your kids are still game after all that exploring, this is the perfect outing for a couple of hours in the late afternoon or evening. Camera Obscura was my kids’ favorite activity from our entire trip in Scotland! Housed on six floors in a narrow old building next to Edinburgh Castle, this tiny museum is named after the 19th-century camera obscura that is still in use on the roof. While the museum specializes in optical illusions of all kinds, the interactive demonstration of how the camera obscura works is a real treat for both adults and kids.
The Scottish National Gallery
For a brief tour through the history of art, save half a day for a visit to the Scottish National Gallery. It’s located on the Mound, just down a narrow lane of steps from High Street. Bonus: as with most museums in Scotland, entrance to the gallery is free.
Try to save time for tea at the museum’s Scottish Café and Restaurant, which overlooks the Princes Street Gardens. Afterwards, buy soft-serve ice cream and watch street performers in the square outside the gallery, then take a stroll through the gardens.
Edinburgh’s most famous attraction, Edinburgh Castle dominates the city’s skyline from its position atop Castle Rock at the west end of the Royal Mile. Like many castles in Scotland, this one has an activity to keep kids entertained while learning about the structure’s history. After purchasing your tickets, pick up a quiz from the audio tour booth; once finished, the kids can return it to the Visitor’s Center, where they’ll be given a prize for completion.
Buy your tickets online to avoid a wait at the ticket desk. If you visit during high season, plan to go in the afternoon when the crowds begin to thin. You’ll need about two hours to visit, and the castle closes at 6p. A guided tour is included in your ticket.
We could not have been happier with our stay at the Radisson Blu Hotel, Edinburgh. Located right on the Royal Mile, it’s in a perfect spot for exploring the city center on foot. The Radisson Blu welcomes families with a global explorer pack for each child at check-in. Our family room was big enough for us to spread out, with two queen beds and a large seating area featuring a sectional sofa and a flat-screen TV.
We especially appreciated all the small touches that made this hotel family-friendly. Our room included a kids’ play area with board games and toys, a child-size table and chairs, and an easel for drawing, as well as a stuffed animal and a kids’ bag of toiletries for them to keep. The extensive breakfast buffet allowed us to start the day off right — from fresh pastries and the traditional Scottish breakfast to pancakes, made-to-order omelets and cappuccinos, everyone in our family loved it.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Jenna Francisco.
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