Family Vacations to Edinburgh, Scotland

Family Overview - Edinburgh, Scotland
EDINBURGH: a city of historic architecture and countless festivals (PhotoDisc)

Edinburgh Highlights

  • Walk in the footsteps of kings and queens from Edinburgh Castle down the Royal Mile.
  • See the city and surrounding countryside from the top of Arthur's Seat, an 822-foot-high extinct volcano.
  • Visit during summertime's festival season to see everything from marching military bands to hip hop-scored break dancing.
  • Go underground to tour the haunted passageways of Edinburgh's buried past.
  • Make a brass rubbing of famous tombstones, including Shakespeare's!
  • Travel way back in time to Earth's geological beginnings at Our Dynamic Earth.

Edinburgh's two nicknames, "Athens of the North" and "Auld Reekie" (literally, Old Stinky, testament to the city's smog- and poverty-filled past), provide the perfect clues as to what's in store for younger travelers to the Scottish capital. The high-brow travel heavyweights of architecture, history, and culture sit in the one corner; in the other, the macabre, gruesome, and plain weird will no doubt spark the imaginations of your kids. The good news, though, is that all this—and more—is packed into one compact and fascinating family destination.

Edinburgh's main thoroughfare, bustling Princes Street, divides the city into two halves, the Old Town and the New Town. Perched atop a volcanic crag, Edinburgh Castle crowns the city and is the centerpiece of the Old Town. The site of a fortress of some sort since the sixth century, the city's many layers of history can be tasted by just exploring the narrow alleyways around this strategically important citadel. The Royal Mile unfurls downhill from the castle gates, and is where many of the city's main attractions (and tourist tack) can be found.

The castle itself is certainly worth a visit, with spectacular 360-degree views of the city, Firth of Forth estuary, and, on a good day, foothills of the Scottish Highlands to the north. If it's history and pomp you want, visit for the daily firing of the One O'clock Gun as well as the collection of Scottish crown jewels and mythical Stone of Scone. However, know that admission is expensive and you might want to spare yourself the struggles with crowds by checking things out from the free Esplanade at the castle's entrance. Here you can watch the hourly Changing of the Guard, sometimes involving kilted guardsmen, for a good photo op. As you're leaving, duck into the nearby Camera Obscura for a look at a 19th-century optical device that casts real-time images onto a horizontal dish through a series of lenses and mirrors built into a tower overlooking the city.

Edinburgh is a world-famous festival city, particularly its summertime arts festival and big New Year's Eve bash. While the latter is mostly not for the under-18 set, kids will love the Edinburgh Military Tattoo that takes place at Edinburgh Castle for the duration of the summertime Edinburgh International Festival. Each night for about three weeks in late July and August, bagpipe bands create a stirring beat in the shadow of the castle, while military motorcycle stuntmen, artillery fusiliers, and prancing cavalry fill the parade ground with the full gamut of uniformed pageantry.

Besides the Tattoo, July and August make great times to visit Edinburgh, not only for the official International Festival but also the concurrent indie Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Edinburgh International Book Festival. Throughout the city you'll find countless new and unexpected things to do, including offbeat drama performances, concerts by big-name rock bands, readings by your favorite children's authors, and a ragtag army of body-benders, jugglers, and rap artists scouring the streets to promote their nightly shows. All in all, an amazing, mostly free spectacle (plus the best time of the year to visit, weather-wise). It's all topped off with a series of free concerts and a massive firework display above the castle ramparts.

While the mention of museums will elicit a big yawn from most kids, several of Edinburgh's bastions of culture are worth a look, in particular the Museum of Childhood on the Royal Mile. Purportedly covering serious childhood issues like education, poverty, and upbringing, it's really a big toy display with fascinating games, gizmos, and gadgets from the ages—and for the ages. Another ideal indoor activity for rainy days (which probably will occur at some point during your visit!) is the adjacent Brass Rubbing Centre. Here, kids can rub etchings of Celtic symbols and famous tombstones (including Shakespeare's) while listening to chilling tales of Edinburgh's grizzly past.

For more of the macabre, wrap the kids up warmly for a nighttime ghost tour that introduces some of the city's less salubrious historical citizens, as well as its spookiest paranormal denizens (okay, mostly students lurking in alleyways dressed in black capes). The City of the Dead tour is one of the best ghost-tours offered. Or head underground in the daytime to explore passageways buried beneath the streets of Edinburgh's Old Town at The Real Mary King's Close. Here, ghosts of impoverished, disease-ridden Edinburghers from the 17th and 18th centuries are said to lurk. The Edinburgh Dungeon, near the central railway station, offers more of the same, albeit in a more sensational, blood-spattered museum format.

Parents with younger kids will enjoy wiling away a few hours in the nicely landscaped Princes Street Gardens at the foot of Edinburgh's imposing volcanic crag. There's a good park here, plus an open-air ice-skating rink in the winter. Further to the north part of Edinburgh's New Town lies the Royal Botanic garden, split into different zones with a wide array of domestic and exotic flora. This is a great escape spot for a half-day picnic, as are the Dean Gallery and National Gallery of Art. The latter has a lovely modern-art sculpture garden, the perfect place for tots to burn off energy. There's also a family-friendly café here, with outdoor seating, plus an easy walk down to the tranquil Water of Leith, in which younger kids will have fun splashing and throwing rocks.

For more outdoor fun, tramp to the foot of the Royal Mile, where you'll find Holyroodhouse Palace (the Queen's Edinburgh pied-à-terre) and a zany-looking new Scottish Parliament, plus the expansive open spaces of 650-acre Holyrood Park. Tackle the moderately strenuous trail to the top of 822-foot Arthur's Seat, the tip of an extinct volcano, for the best views of the city and beyond. Or stroll to one of several small lochs to feed the ducks and geese. Be sure to visit Our Dynamic Earth, an exhibit across from the Scottish parliament building, which takes visitors on an interactive geological romp to the Earth's very beginnings. This is one truly modern museum in the volcanic spot where Edinburgh first literally boiled to the surface. Note that if you do head down to this part of the city, wear sturdy footwear and bring adequate snacks and liquids, as you'll need to do some walking to get there—and back.

Shoppers among your brood will find plenty of places to spend their pocket money, whether that's on souvenirs for friends (look no further than the Royal Mile), designer gear (try Princes Street and parallel George Street), or quirky finds (head up Cockburn Street, for everything from second-hand CDs to hemp clothing). Princes Street features good and bad high-street chains, among them a Virgin Records, Disney Store, Marks & Spencer, and Jenners (a 150-year-old Edinburgh institution where Gen Y can get schooled in genteel, tea-and-scones-style shopping).

Tip: Skip the open-top double-decker bus tour and navigate the city in an Edinburgh Pedicab. With the wind in your face and a friendly driver to show you the sights, this is a fun and inexpensive way to get to know the real Edinburgh.

Published: 26 Nov 2007 | Last Updated: 8 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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