Edinburgh is my favorite city in the entire world. Although it’s an ancient city that has evolved and grown over time, walking its cobblestone streets still feels as if you’ve travelled back in time. Edinburgh offers visitors fascinating history, vibrant city life, an incredible castle AND a grand palace all in a very compact area. One could easily spend a week in the city and still not see it all. Edinburgh offers something of interest for the entire family and although this is a top 10 list, there are many other things to do and see as well.
Top 10 Things to do With Families in Edinburgh
1. Edinburgh Castle
Although Edinburgh Castle is the most popular tourist destination in Scotland, it is so for good reason. An impressive structure built atop a 700 million-year-old extinct volcano, it has withstood many wars, political strife, as well as housed generations of kings and queens. Fantastically preserved and well planned, this castle is a must-see for all ages.
- The castle gets crowded especially as the day goes on, so pack your patience when planning your visit.
- Beat the lines and save money by purchasing tickets in advance. Or better yet, buy an Explorer Pass which will give you admission to many of Scotland’s main attractions.
- The Stone of Destiny and Crown Jewels are pretty great to see, as well as the place where Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI (make sure when you’re there you read the fascinating mystery surrounding the details of the birth). There’s typically a line to get in but it tends to move pretty quickly. Once inside the Crown Jewels/Stone of Destiny room, you will also move through pretty quickly so make sure you’ve done your research on their history ahead of time. This is a great movie about the rather funny history of the Stone of Destiny that the family can watch before you go: The Stone of Destiny. It can be purchased on Amazon.
- Make sure you’re there for the 1 o’clock gun, fired every day except Sunday. There are usually large crowds that gather for the gun firing so claim your desired spot early.
- The Redcoat Cafe offers many delicious choices for a cafeteria-style meal.
- Check https://www.edinburghcastle.scot/visit/itineraries for some great suggested itineraries.
- read more interesting facts about the castle here.
2. The Palace of Holyroodhouse (Holyrood Palace)
At the bottom of the Royal Mile sits Holyrood Palace, a sprawling residence that has been used consistently since before the time of Mary, Queen of Scots. Queen Elizabeth still frequents the palace as it is her official residence in Scotland. Take an audio tour through the palace to learn all about it’s fascinating history.
- Be aware that the palace is closed to the public when the Queen is in residence. We wanted to visit last July but she was there so we were out of luck.
- Book tickets online or at the palace.
- Be sure to catch the tragic but fascinating story of the murder of David Rizzio, Mary, Queen of Scot’s secretary, through the audio tour.
- Take time to walk the grounds after your audio tour. My favorite part of the palace was the remains of the Holyrood Abbey. It’s absolutely stunning.
3. Hike King Arthur’s Seat
Because Holyrood Palace was closed to the public, we decided to hike King Arthur’s Seat instead. I mean, who wouldn’t want to say they hiked to the top of an ancient volcano? King Arthur’s Seat is located in Holyrood Park very close to the palace. Although it’s a steep hike, walking trails and the views from the top make it a very enjoyable experience. This is a great active activity to do with the kids, especially when they seem to have a bit too much energy.
- Although walking trails are accessible, it’s still a hefty hike. Make sure to wear appropriate footwear and bring water.
- Be sure to find Holyrood Palace once you reach the top. The views are spectacular!
4. SANDEMAN’s FREE city tour
I’ve mentioned before that we love SANDEMAN’s tours because they offer an interesting FREE overview of the city, giving you the opportunity to quickly get your bearings and learn some history about the area. The SANDEMAN’s FREE walking tour of Edinburgh is one of the best ones we have taken (in all, we’ve gone on 5 SANDEMAN’s tours throughout Europe). The boys were especially interested in our guide’s way of teaching through stories.
You can easily sign up for a tour here.
- Although the tour is free, tipping at the end is highly encouraged.
- The tour is over two hours in length so make sure you wear comfortable footwear and bring water if it’s hot (yes, it can get hot in Scotland), or an umbrella (because although the forecast may call for sunny skies, you just never know).
5. SANDEMAN’s Dark Side tour
If you’re traveling with older kids, this evening tour is an interesting way to learn about some of Edinburgh’s dark history. Grave robbers, witchcraft, and other spooky stories are told as your guide walks you around the places where these stories occurred. Although we decided not to let our younger son go on the tour, it proved to be not quite as scary as we thought it could be. Just something to take into consideration if you’re on the fence about booking this tour. If you have older kids who love to get really scared, other ghost tours may be more frightening, and there are plenty of tours of this kind to be found in an old city like Edinburgh!
- Unlike the FREE SANDEMAN’s tour, this one does incur a fee, but you really get a lot for your money. Easily book online directly through SANDEMAN’s.
- The tour is in the evening and lasts 2 hours so make sure you eat dinner before you go.
6. Camera Obscura
- Tickets are available at the door. Make sure to get there early since it gets busier as the day goes on.
- Part of the draw of Camera Obscura is your ability to see the city in a unique way through cameras situated atop the building. If it’s a foggy or rainy day the city cameras from the top may be obscured (for lack of a better term). If this is the case, Camera Obscura kindly offers a subsequent day ticket so you can come back again and see the city in all it’s glory.
- Allow 1-2 hours to get through the museum.
7. Shop for souvenirs on The Royal Mile
The Royal Mile is exactly what it’s name says. A street that spans a mile connecting the Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace. Along the way are shops and restaurants galore. It would be easy to spend and entire day shopping here. Need a kilt? Check! A souvenir magnet? Check! Bagpipes? Check! Whiskey? Check! You get it. It’s a fun place to be super touristy and get all this souvenirs you just can’t live without.
8. Have a picnic in the Princess Street Gardens
The first time I visited Edinburgh, I was so focused on Old Town (The Royal Mile Area), that I hardly noticed there was also a New Town directly north of The Royal Mile. Although New Town is also pretty old, it offers a completely different vibe than Old Town. Shopping, high-end stores, fine dining, and the Princess Street Gardens offer an entirely different take on the city. Enjoying a picnic lunch in the garden is a great way to relax, let the kids run around, and enjoy unique views of the castle up atop the hill. Just don’t tell the kids that this location used to be a loch where people would be tried and executed for witchcraft. That may not sit too well as you’re trying to eat your delicious sandwich.
9. Take a spin on the Edinburgh Festival Wheel
This huge 42-meter high ferris wheel can be found in Princess Gardens. It offers families a different perspective of the city while enjoying some good old-fashioned fun. Check out their website here.
- Book online up to the day before your visit, or purchase on site.
- Summer operating dates are around June 30-September 2, and winter operating dates are around November 18th to January 6th. Check here to find the latest operating information.
10. Watch street performers
There is no shortage of entertainment along The Royal Mile. Street performers are busy from 9am-9pm every day playing bagpipes, dressing in crazy costumes, and putting on fascinating shows. We’ve seen everything from a floating Yoda to a guy who can lay on a bed of nails. This is a great way to pass some time and enjoy a photo op or keep the kids (and yourselves) entertained.
- As far as I could tell, all street performers ask for tips. This includes the ones you may just want a photo with.
- If you really love the arts and street performances, plan your trip in the month of August to see The Fringe, a festival with over 54,000 performances!
5 More Honorable Mentions
Practically anything you chose to do in Edinburgh is going to be fantastic. Unfortunately there are just too many things to do all in one visit. The following suggestions attain honorable mention status because in my two visits I either haven’t had time to visit them myself or I felt as if the aforementioned 10 take priority if you only have a limited amount of time to take in the city. However, I’ve heard the following are also fantastic, and are definitely on our list for subsequent visits.
1. The Royal Botanic Garden
Because I travel with my brood of boys who aren’t very interested in anything botanical, we haven’t yet ventured to the Royal Botanic Gardens, However, it’s top on my list for next time. It is one of the world’s leading botanical gardens and looks beautiful.
2. Greyfriars Bobby
We have seen this site and it’s definitely worth a quick side trip if you’re in the area. I don’t want to completely give away the sweetness of the story because it’s always most powerful the first time you hear it, but if you have dog lovers in your family, you owe to them to tell them the tale of the little Skye Terrier named Bobby. It’s a true story of a loving loyalty that went beyond the grave, and brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it. Today a statue stands in memorial of Greyfriars Bobby just outside the south (main) entrance to Greyfriars Kirkyard.
3. The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
For three weeks in August, Edinburgh is home to the famous Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, a demonstration of world-class public military events rooted in Scottish tradition. A massive grandstand is erected on the Edinburgh Castle esplanade, and shows take place every weekday evening and twice on Saturdays. Kids will especially love the fireworks at the conclusion of the show.
- Shows tend to sell out in advance so make sure to book your tickets online as early as possible.
- Shows happen in all weather conditions so plan appropriately.
4. Edinburgh Zoo
A fun excursion for animal lovers both old and young. The Edinburgh Zoo is the second most popular paying attraction in the city. Some of the more notable creatures at the zoo are; penguins, koalas, and giant pandas.
5. The Royal Yacht Britannia
Visiting The Royal Yacht Britannia is high on my list of things to do in Edinburgh. This massive ship was Queen Elizabeth’s former floating palace for over 40 years. It would be fascinating to see how the royals lived life out on the open seas.
- Located in the city of Leith just outside of Edinburgh, this attraction would require a train ride to get to if you’re staying in the city.
Thoughts and Things
- One thing that’s really great about the city is that even though these top things to do are geared towards families, they are indeed interesting and fun for all ages.
- The most popular time to visit Edinburgh is in August due to the many festivals and The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. That being said, it will be massively crowded, and accommodation prices may be higher.
- Edinburgh is walkable and a very easy city to navigate. A car is not necessary and public transportation is readily available and easy to figure out.
- We usually stay in an Airbnb or vacation rental located within walking distance to where we want to be. Book early if you’re going in the summer as these places tend to fill up quickly.
- Just be aware that in the rare instances it gets hot (which has happened both times we went in June/July), most lodging does not offer a/c or fans so if you’re traveling in the summer, you might want to look for a place with a/c if you can find it. Trust me, it can get really hot inside and if you’re located near The Royal Mile, the street noise can be loud so you may not necessarily want to sleep with your windows open.
- In the summer it’s light until around 11:30 pm, and in the winter it is only light until about 3:30pm.
As you can see, there are many things for families to do in Edinburgh. From festivals and cool history to castles and palaces, there’s truly something for everyone to enjoy. So put this amazing city on your list of places to go. If you do, Edinburgh just might become your favorite city in the entire world too!
Want more? Read about our crazy adventures driving around Scotland in this post ⬇️