It was wizardry that brought us to Edinburgh or at least my son’s obsession with them. And while the Scottish capital more than delivered in Harry Potter inspired thrills, there’s are so many more things to do in Edinburgh with kids.
For starters there’s all that gorgeous Georgian architecture, cobbled alleyways, and its famous looming castle.
There are also gorgeous gardens, sprawling green spaces, funky festivals and a grand gourmet scene.
The city has high appeal for literary lovers, and not just because of a certain boy wizard. Before J.K Rowling, literary luminaries including Robert Louis Stevenson, Kenneth Grahame, J.M. Barrie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Walter Scott called the city home, which is why Edinburgh was designated the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature in 2004.
Movie buffs too also find endless things to do in Edinburgh with kids. This celluloid star of a city has appeared in everything from Chariots of Fire to Trainspotting. And of course, with a history dating back thousands of years, visiting the ancient fort town is an absolute no-brainer for history buffs.
And if that’s not enough to whet your appetite to explore, it’s also utterly quirky, kid-friendly, warmly welcoming and loads of fun. But don’t take my word for it. Here, Raffles (10) and Sugarpuff (7) share their thoughts on Edinburgh by kids.
The best things to do in Edinburgh with kids
1. Best Edinburgh landmarks
Amongst the city’s many iconic buildings and monuments, it is Edinburgh Castle that dominates both skyline and imagination from its lofty position on Castle Rock, a 700-million-year-old extinct volcano. Castle Rock has been inhabited in one way or another since the Bronze Age, been home to royalty for 1200 years and is still a working military base. But despite its best efforts to impress with history and views, Raffles and Sugarpuff were infinitely more interested in straddling its canons Cher-style and bothering the guards.
At the other end of the Royal Mile is Calton Hill and a fairly eccentric and eclectic collection of buildings and monuments, including the National Monument of Scotland, the Nelson Monument, and the Dugald Stewart Monument! And there are dozens in between including the 60-metre tall Scott Monument, dedicated to Sir Walter Scott, and decorated with 64 statues that depict characters from his works.
He said – “It is hard to choose just one or two historical landmarks to rave about when it comes to Edinburgh, because the whole place is pretty much one giant historical landmark. I mean, even if you only walk from one end of the Royal Mile to the other, you’ll stumble over at least a bazillion and a half historic buildings and statues.
I have to start with Edinburgh Castle though, because it is a huge hulking thing that kind of looms over the city like Hogwarts. It doesn’t matter where you are in Edinburgh either, you can pretty much always see it. It deserves its place as Edinburgh’s most popular attraction and you’ll need a good few hours to explore it. And if you happen to visit with my sister you’ll need twice that long because she’ll insist on stopping at every single tartan shop on the Royal Mile on the way up to it, so she can find “the exact right skirt”. Sheesh.
Once you do get there, it’s awesome. We explored the weapon-filled great hall, made our way into the spooky prisons, spied crown jewels and checked out a massive siege cannon called Mons Meg. We also stopped for the best scones ever at the teahouse and enjoyed epic views over Edinburgh in every direction.
At the other end of the Royal Mile, I loved Calton Hill and the Scottish National Monument which looked kind of like the Parthenon from Ancient Greece. I had a great time pretending to hang out with a groovy imaginary Greek God or too here. Except because it’s kind of only a demi-Parthenon (because the city ran out of money when they were building it) I had to settle for imaginary demi-Gods… but that’s OK, Hercules and Perseus make perfectly adequate imaginary play pals.”
She said: “Edinburgh Castle was amazing because it was so big and there were canons and turrets and dungeons and all kinds of stuff to explore. At the top of the hill (Calton Hill) I liked the Old Observatory and the big monuments which I tried to climb all over but couldn’t cos the steps were way too big for me. There were also loads of pretty old churches and cathedrals. “
2. Edinburgh museums and galleries with kids
Edinburgh is itself a living museum, but it’s also packed full of actual kid-friendly museums housing artefacts and exhibits covering everything from science and medicine to world culture, literature, history and art. You’ll even a find a museum devoted to toys and teddy bears.
He said: “The National Museum of Scotland has loads of awesome stuff like a T-Rex skeleton, but it was the Edinburgh’s smaller museums I liked best of all. The Museum of Childhood had all kinds of retro toys and games, interactive exhibits and dress-ups. I also loved watching my mum at the Writer’s Museum. She loves words so much I thought she might explode from excitement. But my absolute favourite was Camera Obscura and World of Illusions which was kind of like a museum of magic with optical illusions, puzzles, mazes and holograms. Super fun!”
She said: “I really liked all the displays in Edinburgh Castle, but Camera Obscura was the best. It was crazy and I loved all the weird optical illusions and experiments. We didn’t go to any art galleries this time but there is art everywhere on the street and I really, really loved it.”
3. Harry Potter sites in Edinburgh
It was in the back room of The Elephant House, a café overlooking the gothic grandeur that is Edinburgh Castle, that J.K. Rowling crafted a story that would become one of the most successful ever published. But it’s not the only Harry Potter location in this wizardly city that can be visited on a DIY Harry Potter tour with the kids.
Behind the café is Greyfriars Kirkyard, where tombstone inscriptions are said to have inspired characters in the books. We spy a McGonagal, a Moodie and a Potter but it’s the grave of Voldemort, or at least that of his real-life namesake, Tom Riddell that proves most popular with my Potterheads.
Then there’s the fairytale façade of George Heriot’s School, alleged to be the inspiration for Hogwarts. And the city’s many winding streets, including Victoria Street (said to be the real Diagon Alley), are huge influences on the wizarding world.
He said: “I love Harry Potter more than just about anything other than food and my mum. This is the city where Harry Potter was born and one of the best things to do in Edinburgh with kids is visit all the famous sites that inspired him. My first stop had to be for lunch at The Elephant House, where J.K. Rowling wrote some of the first Harry Potter book. Out the back of The Elephant House is a spooky graveyard where we legit spotted Voldemort’s grave. Well not actual Voldemort, but the tomb of a guy called Thomas Riddell Esq, who is said to have inspired his name. And nearby Victoria Street is a winding cobbled street with funny little shops that I think must have been the inspiration for Diagon Alley. There’s even a joke shop there that I reckon Fred and George Weasley would be mad for.”
She said: “This city looks like Hogwarts, and all the shops looked like places in Diagon Alley, only they sold tartan skirts and bagpipes instead of wands and owls. I got a skit and it makes me look cool. And we did actually see a big white owl that looked like Hedwig on the street. And we went to a café where some of the Harry Potter books were written and my brother got to write on a toilet wall, which was a bit weird because I always get in trouble for writing on furniture and stuff! It’s not fair.”
4. Edinburgh’s best parks and public spaces for kids
It may be famed for its monolithic castle and stony architectural beauty, but Edinburgh is officially the greenest city in the UK with almost half of the city classified as green space. The urban centre boasts 131 public parks and gardens. No wonder my kids declared it “the most cartwheelable city on earth!”
And the green doesn’t stop there, just a few minutes from the centre is stunning Holyrood Park, a sprawling area of volcanic cliff faces, mini lochs, and dramatic hills and crags that help to shape Edinburgh’s incredible skyline. It’s also the location of Arthur’s Seat, a mighty hill that Celtic legend says a sleeping dragon that used to fly around the sky, terrorising the region and eating all the livestock. On our visit it’s just Raffles and Sugarpuff creating all the kerfuffle.
He said: “Even though the streets in Edinburgh are kind of narrow and the city centre isn’t all that big, there are loads and loads of public parks and green spaces. As well as a stack of monuments, Calton Hill has loads of grassy areas and trails we could explore. The Princes Street Gardens are also super pretty and all these crazy shades of green.
But for me the most beautiful place in Edinburgh is Arthur’s Seat, about a mile from Edinburgh Castle. Some people say that the peak was the site of Camelot, the home of King Arthur. It’s actually an extinct volcano and you can walk up along the mountain past loads of craggy rocks that are epic for climbing up and scaring the wits out of my mum who wanted me to come down all the time. The walk took a few hours and I didn’t see any passing knights in shining armour or a round table but that didn’t stop me pulling a stick Excalibur from the ground to sword/stick fight my sister all the way to the top.”
She said: “I loved all the parks in Edinburgh because I could practise my cartwheels everywhere. At Arthurs Seat we went hiking and there were heaps of doggies running up the hill who stopped to play stick with us. It felt like a magical place to me. I thought we might find wizards and knights but there was only rocks and grass.”
5. Edinburgh’s most endearing quirks
While the Edinburgh Festival transforms the city with three exhilarating weeks of the finest performers from the worlds of the arts and The Edinburgh Fringe provides a stage for creative freedom, the city is home to wild and wacky street performers all year round, each adding a splash of colour and quirk to the capital.
He said: “So when I say Edinburgh is weird, I mean it in the best possible way. The city is filled with nutters. I mean there was a guy dressed like an Ancient clansman chasing me with a sword, a dancing Darth Vader, floating witches, dogs in sunnies, a levitating Yoda and guys playing bagpipes… and that was just in one block! I loved it. The street performers are one of the best things about this place and as far as I am concerned the wackier they are the better”.
She said: “A crazy, hairy, man wearing a skirt and fur chased us with an axe and made us laugh and laugh! And we also saw Yoda levitating and stormtroopers playing pop music there. Edinburgh is weird like that.”
6. Eating out in Edinburgh with kids
Scotland is famous for haggis and deep-fried Mars bars, so it’s no surprise that prior to our visit I thought most Scottish cuisine was primarily based on a dare. Traditional Scottish food is really good, and there’s an impressive culinary scene in Edinburgh that bears little resemblance to what I imagined. In fact, along with the trad treats visitors can expect an international smorgasbord of fab food and fine dining with a veritable constellation of Michelin-stars.
Really, it shouldn’t be a surprise, given all that fresh air, sprawling green pastures and clear, cool rivers that provide the elements for producing perfect protein, including Angus beef and salmon. Not to mention those chilly seas that sprout plump oysters, juicy scallops and sweet Scottish Brown Crabs.
Of course, you can still nab traditional delights like Haggis with neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes), cock-a-leekie soup, the best porridge on earth and, if you really want, deep-fried mars bars! This is a city that caters to all tastes.
He said: “I was really surprised with the food in Edinburgh. For starters its really multicultural and there’s so much choice. I always try to eat local foods when we travel so had to try Haggis with neeps and tatties. Now Haggis itself is bits of sheep heart and lung and other gross stuff mixed with oatmeal, onions and spices cooked in a sheep’s gut. Yeah, I know it sounds absolutely disgusting and when you think about it actually is, but it’s also surprisingly tasty. I also tried something called Cullen Skink, which is a creamy seafood soup that’s pretty delish.
But the two very best meals I had were at Dalhousie Castle. The dinner in the Dungeon restaurant was one of the most incredible dining experiences I’ve ever had, not only because the insane multi-course meal was so great, but because we got to eat it by candle light in a 730-year old dungeon, which I reckon is haunted as! They served modern Scottish cuisine which was ah-mazing, especially the wild salmon. The following morning at The Orangerie, Dalhousie kept up the fab food with a traditional breakfast that came with eggs and bacon, more haggis and proper Scottish style porridge, which is the best!”
She said: “I loved the food in Edinburgh. Especially in the pub. I had fish and chips and really yummy steak and kidney pies. But my favouritist food was jammy dodger biscuits and the shortbread and fudge we bought for my gran and grandad. I ate them all so we had to go back and buy some more.”
7. Edinburgh’s best accommodation for families
From its city hotels and apartments to fortress-like castles, a warm welcome awaits children of all ages in Edinburgh’s many family friendly hotels. We offer the kids the best of both worlds with an apartment stay in the heart of the city as well as a castle stay at 13th century fortress, Dalhousie Castle, 20 minutes outside Edinburgh. And while it may not be Hogwarts, it’s as close as my Potterheads are going to get.
He said: “We stayed in a pretty cool apartment hotel right in the heart of Edinburgh for our first few nights which made it super easy for us to explore. But we finished our stay at Dalhousie Castle. It is the oldest inhabited castle in the whole of Scotland and it looked a bit like a baby Hogwarts as we drove up to it.
Inside it was even more epic with windy staircases, vaulted ceilings and huge old furniture and it is supposed to be totally haunted by a bunch of ghouls including the ghost of a 16-year old called Lady Catherine. She died after being locked in the castle tower in 1695. Apparently, she rocks up to the castle all the time, walking through walls and waving from windows. It felt like I was in an episode of Scooby Doo and I was ready and raring to solve mysteries, but the closest I got was seeing my sister hiding under a white sheet to scare mum.
Dalhousie was the most amazing place I’ve ever stayed, and I wish we could have stayed for a month, or at least until I could do some ghost busting. Staying is legit the best thing to do in Edinburgh with kids, because it’s liking living in a movie.
The only thing I can complain about is the massive four poster bed in our room because awesome though it looked, and comfy though it was, we couldn’t jump on it like we usually do in hotel rooms or we would have knocked ourselves out on the timber canopy.”
She said: “I liked our little apartment in Edinburgh, because we had our own room, but I snuck in with mum and dad cause their bed was really comfy. It was also nice because we could walk everywhere from it. But really my favourite hotel ever, ever, ever, ever, was Dalhousie Castle because it was a really real castle with turrets and a dungeon and a suit of armour and a giant throne and everything. I loved it.
Our room was really beautiful and looked like something from a movie and I loved the big huge timber bed because they left a special fluffy teddy bear on it for me. I called him Jimmy, and he was really cuddly. The castle gardens were super fun to explore and I could do cartwheels and my brother and I could play the best games of hide and seek. But the best thing were the owls. We got to hold our arms out with big gloves and owls would fly to us and land on us and cuddles us. They were so beautiful and fluffy. I think owls are my favourite birds.”