Edinburgh, Scotland was a delightful surprise. We went in thinking we’d like it, but we fell hard for this old and new city. It’s dark and medieval and green and flowery. It’s one of those places where you can really picture what the past was like. And there are so many fun things to do in Edinburgh with kids. We wanted to focus on work while we were there, but the city kept luring us in with all its attractions, parks, old buildings, and history.
We spent a lot of time in the U.K. Partly because visa restrictions mean we can only be in the Schengen passport control area for 90 out of 180 days and partly because we really wanted to explore this beautiful country. We ended our two-and-a-half months in Britain with ten days in Scotland’s capitol where we found lots of fun things to do in Edinburgh with kids.
Watch the video to see some of the things we did, then scroll down for all the details — plus some bonus kid activities in Edinburgh and books set in Edinburgh, Scotland for kids.
Take a Free Walking Tour
We like to take city tours when we get somewhere we’ve haven’t been for an introduction and better understanding of the place. We love the Sandeman’s New Europe Tours for a general city tour. The guides have been great and the kids get really involved.
Sandeman’s Edinburgh Tour, multiple tours per day, reserve free tickets online, don’t forget to tip at the end.
In Edinburgh, we also took a Harry Potter tour. J.K. Rowling wrote the Harry Potter books in Edinburgh and was inspired and influenced by places around the city. From the graveyard where she picked up names for her characters, to the cafés where she wrote, to the castle and school that inspired Hogwarts, we traipsed around the city following in her footsteps. Our guide was awesome. He dressed up and handed out wands for people to use throughout the tour. They cap the tours at 50 people now (I read they used to do tours of 100-200!), so get there early.
The Potter Trail, check website for tour days/times, no reservations-get there early, don’t forget to tip at the end.
If you are saying “I don’t need no stinkin’ tour guide!,” I have a self-guided tour just for you. Check out GPSmycity for a New Town sightseeing walk, best pub walk, art and gallery walk, or one of the 18 self-guided walking tours in Edinburgh they offer. There’s something for you in there.
I saw crawl, because this castle is crowded! There is a lot to see here and everyone wants to see it. We preferred Stirling Castle, but since we bought an Explorer’s Pass we visited a whole bunch of castles for one price. We especially liked seeing the crown jewels and the Stone of Destiny. The kids liked the cannons.
Maybe I was tired of castles by the time we got here, you should see the castle—it’s iconic and interesting.
Tip: Guided tours are included with tickets, audio tours cost extra.
Hold an Owl at an Old Building
Gladstone’s Land is a surviving 17th century high-tenement house—one of the oldest buildings on the Royal Mile. It has been restored and furnished by the National Trust for Scotland, and is operated as a popular tourist attraction. The little museum shows what local building would have looked like during the 17th and18th centuries.
In front of Gladstone’s Land is an owl. You can hold the owl for a required “donation” of 4 Euros. Finn was thrilled to hold the owl and it was at his request that we went. The European eagle owl he held was enormous. It weighed in at eight pounds. I’ve held owls before, but not like this one. The owl belongs to a local falconry and bird sanctuary place and this is one way they raise money.
Lunch with J.K. Rowling
Ok, we didn’t eat with J.K. Rowling, but we did eat at one of the cafés where she wrote some of the Harry Potter books. While it’s not the only coffee house she frequented (we saw another on the Potter Trail), it is the one with the biggest sign.
From the back room at The Elephant House, you can see Edinburgh Castle, Greyfriars Kirkyard (church and cemetery), and George Heriot’s School, which are said to have inspired parts of the books. In the bathrooms, the walls and are covered with messages people wrote to Rowling and her characters.
Bonus: the food and tea are good and the café is very cute.
The Elephant House does not take reservations and can get quite busy. We weren’t the only ones who wanted the Rowling experience. Plan to wait in line and hold out for a table in the backroom—that’s where the views are. We waited 20-30 minutes.
The Elephant House, 21 George IV Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 1EN, 0131 220 5355
Interact with Scotland
There are a lot of museums in Edinburgh, but we ended up at the National Museum…twice. It’s that fun for kids. And it’s free, so you can fit it in between other activities. What we loved about the National Museum is that there are a lot of interactive exhibits and even the non-hands-on displays really draw kids in.
They say, “Our diverse collections will take you on a journey of discovery through the history of Scotland and around the world, taking in the wonders of nature, art, design and fashion and science and technology – all under one roof.”
Plus, Dolly the Sheep (the first cloned mammal) is stuffed and mounted inside a glass case. You do not want to miss that.
Tip: On a bookshelf next to the café there are “family trails” or sheets for kids to fill in on a wide variety of topics. If you need some direction, grab one or two of the most interesting and use it to lead you around the museum.
The National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1JF, 0300 123 6789, free except for special exhibits, café and restrooms.
Play in a Park
Sometimes you just want to run around and climb on things. Or at least watch your kids do it while you post to Instagram. We love finding playgrounds. The Meadows has a great playground with equipment suitable for itty-bitties up to older kids.
Read more about how and why we seek out playgrounds at Nature.Play.Trips.
The Meadows Playground, Melville Dr, Edinburgh EH9 9EX, 0131 529 5151, tennis court, cricket, café and restrooms, picnic tables, croquet and designated barbecue areas. Other parks, playgrounds, and woodlands in Edinburgh.
Go Back in Time – Way Back
Our Dynamic Earth is a very cool museum and I’m not just saying that because there is an iceberg in one of the rooms.
They say, “A visit to Dynamic Earth is like nothing else on Earth. It’s a chance to experience the primeval forces of nature as they shaped our planet, to journey through space and time and even go on a 4DVENTURE around the world. You’ll be embarking on the interactive adventure of a lifetime – the lifetime of our planet.”
You basically move from room to room watching films and interacting with the displays. If you like science, and who doesn’t?, you’ll like this museum.
Tip: Have your child join the Dino’s Dynamic Kids Club and they get in free on Saturdays plus other goodies. There are other interesting looking programs and camps if you can time it right.
One of the best ways to get some perspective on the city is to get up high.
Arthur’s Seat is the top of one of two extinct volcanoes in Edinburgh (the castle is atop the other). Depending where you start, it is about three to four mile round trip.
You can get specific walking directions and a map from Walking Highlands or walk down to the Parliament building and head up the hill. Within the park you can also visit the ruins of St Anthony’s Chapel – a 15th century medieval chapel, Salisbury Crags – a series of 150 foot cliff faces dominating Edinburgh’s skyline, as well as Duddingston Loch – a fresh water loch rich in bird life.
Calton Hill is more of a walk than a hike, but you get atop a hill with a great view. You’ll see the Athenian acropolis poking above the skyline—the National Monument.
It takes about five minutes to get to the top of the hill from a staircase at Regent Road on the south side or the Royal Terrace on the north side. There is a path round the edge of the hill and a jumble of historic buildings and structures on top. Among other things, the Nelson Monument (a tower you can climb), the Dugald Stewart Monument the old Royal High School, the Robert Burns Monument, the Political Martyrs’ Monument and the City Observatory. Get more details from Walking Highlands.
Calton Hill is the scene of the Beltane Fire Festival, which we missed by two days! That would have been fun with or without kids.
Climb a Tower
There are at least two towers you can climb in Edinburgh. We chose the Scott Monument thinking we’d get the best view. And I think we were right. Plus, it’s cool that it’s the largest monument to a writer in the world – Sir Walter Scott. The stairs get narrow at the top and we thought we might lose Henry, but we are all able to squeeze through. Definitely worth the 287-stair climb, and with three viewing platforms on the way up, there are plenty of places to rest.
Scott Monument, East Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh EH2 2EJ, 0131 529 4068, £5/person, no concessions (but close to plenty), during adverse weather conditions (high winds especially) check the Twitter feed @EdinCulture before traveling as the monument may be closed at short notice for safety reasons.
The Nelson Monument sits atop Calton Hill (see hiking section). Looking like a tall stone telescope, the Nelson Monument contains a time ball, which is still dropped at 1 o’clock daily. You get a wonderful view of the city and the sea from the top of the building.
Nelson Monument, Calton Hill, Edinburgh EH7 5AA, 0131 556 2716, £5/person, no concessions (but close to plenty), during adverse weather conditions (high winds especially) check the Twitter feed @EdinCulture before travelling as the monument may be closed at short notice for safety reasons.
Explore Edinburgh From a Different Perspective
We didn’t get to Camera Obscura; not because we didn’t want to, but there is only so much time. The line was always down the block, so it’s quite popular. Our friends went and they said it was great. It’s a place of optical illusions, a movie, and a great view over Edinburgh.
Camera Obscura and World of Illusions, Castlehill, The Royal Mile, Edinburgh EH1 2ND, 0131 226 3709, no online ticket sales that I could find
Another one we didn’t get to, but wanted to (we need another trip and more money!) is the Real Mary King’s Close. It’s sort of a Colonial Williamsburg, but underground and spooky. They say, “Discover for yourself Edinburgh’s deepest secret; a warren of hidden streets frozen in time since the 17th Century. Join us on a one hour guided tour of Edinburgh’s hidden history.” And they are in costume.
Jen and I tried to do this on our Edinburgh weekend, but it was booked, so buy tickets ahead of time.
Find other fun things to do in Edinburgh with kids in my Girls’ Weekend description. Eating, botanic gardens, or a scary tour might be right up your kids’ alley.
Getting Your Kids Ready for Edinburgh
We all like to read books that are about the places we are visiting or are set in those places. In Scotland, there are plenty of books to choose from. Here are a few kids books about Edinburgh that we liked.
Alibù: The subterranean mystery of Edinburgh by Laura Mandolesi is a historical mystery. It might be a little scary for younger kids, but if gives a good perspective of what life was like for the poor forced to live in the Underground City.
The High Road–A Kid’s Guide To Edinburgh In ScotlandThe High Road–A Kid’s Guide To Edinburgh In Scotland by Penelope Dyan and John Wiengand is a non-fiction, fun-to-read travel book for kids.
Travel with Kids ScotlandTravel with Kids Scotland (streaming video, free with Prime) Better watch this one before you go, because this video isn’t available in a lot of places due to geographical licensing restrictions.
I read that Edinburgh gets less rainfall than Rome, which means Rome is a lot rainier than I thought. We had plenty of sunny days mixed in with the rain, but I was glad I had an umbrella. Show your Scottish pride with this umbrella covered in the St. Andrews cross flag. Or maybe you’d prefer the tartan version.