We recently spent half term in an AirBnB in Edinburgh – our first family trip there and our first time using AirBnB (which was excellent, by the way).
Here are our top ten favourite things to do or places to eat with primary school children in (and around) Edinburgh.
Note: Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Yacht Britannia don’t feature because we failed to book tickets and therefore didn’t visit them. This is entirely the fault of the grown ups in our family. We chose a different animal-based day than Edinburgh Zoo and Dynamic Earth seemed complicated with booking the planetarium separately.
11 Wonderland Models
So this isn’t really an “attraction”. Wonderland Models is just simply a wonderful old fashioned toy shop. We must have spent over an hour just browsing all the traditional toys – we don’t have anywhere like this near us, it’s all floor to ceiling mega stores with all the same things you see everywhere. Small boy was stunned and the massive range of Schleich and Papo dinosaurs, dragons, and other animals. Large boy spent a long time browsing the various Lego sets and eyeing up the toy guns (that’ll be a no from me). Himself had a long conversation with the staff about RC cars and tyres and Scalextric this, that and the other.
If you need inspiration for gifts, want a browse or to purchase something really special and bit unusual, or if you’re after advice from really knowledgeable and interested experts – this is the place to go.
10 Deep Sea World
We met the grandparents at Deep Sea World and spent a very happy morning observing all sorts of sea creatures. The location is frankly stunning – right under the Forth Rail Bridge – so you get to wonder at the magnificence of the structure as you go in and out. The absolute centre piece of this aquarium is the tunnel through their big shark tank – it’s really long and there are load of different big fish moving around, so you’re sure to see everything you want. It’s much much better than the one at the Sea Life Centre at the Trafford Centre in Manchester for example.
There was a wonderful opportunity to see the seals getting fed, which everyone had a good view of.
We had lunch there too – the food was tasty, quick and soon disappeared down the boys’ gullets.
9 Arthur’s Seat
On our first day, we walked all the way from our AirBnB in Stockbridge to Prince’s Street, up to the castle and down the Royal Mile to Holyrood and then up Arthur’s Seat. I say we “walked”, by the time we got to the bottom of Arthur’s Seat large boy was trudging and small boy broke into a run which didn’t stop until he reached the top. It was a warm autumn day, a bit overcast but neither dreich nor baltic.
The climb starts off with proper laid paths and relatively shallow slopes – this is to lull you into a false sense of security, so that by the time the ground under foot becomes unlevel and the ascent becomes harder work, you’ve already committed and the idea of turning back is embarrassing. So, despite the large steps in the path and my moaning knee and complaining large boy, we pressed on. Himself declared himself very glad he’d just completed the Couch to 5km and small boy just loved every minute.
Once we were at the top, the views made all the effort worth it – even if it was rather blustery up there.
8 National Gallery and National Gallery of Modern Art
During our trek through the city on our first day, large boy asked what that big building was. When we explained that it was an art gallery, he got unexpectedly excited. He is far from a precise or elegant artist, but he’s always enjoyed art at school. He learnt about Hundertwasser in year 2 and loved it, both examining his work and attempting to reproduce or apply the style to his own paintings or drawings. This year he’s doing Picasso and loves the abstract line drawings.
So, after this enthusiasm we booked our (free) tickets to go to the gallery. Himself and I were feeling a little nervous of taking a 6 year old and 9 year old, not known for their peacefulness or calm, to such a quiet and formal place. In general, they pleasantly surprised us – there were no questions about bottoms or criticism of “boring” subject matter. We probably spent an hour wandering through the rooms in order so that large boy could see the progression of style and topics, from religious to power to landscapes and animals.
However, the main gallery off Prince’s Street stopped at about 1900. So large boy’s hunger for a real Picasso went unfed. Luckily, Modern 1 was just a 20 minute walk from our AirBnB, so we were able to visit there too. At last, some Picasso!
Large boy went back and forth between several paintings, examining them until he decided which was his favourite and why.
Small boy was immediately drawn to La Joie de Vivre by Max Ernst. He just loved the colours and the hidden figures and just how full of details the painting is, spotting something different each time he came back to it.
7 Royal Mile
If you love a mooch (as we do), this is the place to come for it in Edinburgh. Packed with gift shops, little museums, tour opportunities, statues and lots of little cafes, you could lose an entire day flitting up and down. Himself councils you not to buy whiskey, kilts, or souvenirs here – the prices are much higher than elsewhere, for the exact same products. Why pay 50% for Ardbeg whiskey on the Royal Mile when you can get it at retail price in the supermarket?
However, we found probably the best fudge we’ve ever tasted – at the Fudge Kitchen. It was raining and the boys needed a pick me up but no one could agree on flavours. So we splashed out (fearful after a similar experience in Lincoln in the summer had yielded something rather odd, neither tablet not fudge) on four pieces. We were not disappointed though. White chocolate, belgian chocolate swirl, dark chocolate sea salt, and peppermint – all amazing!
6 The Kelpies
Because himself and I had been rather blasé about booking the castle or a ghost tour, we found ourselves on our second to last night with nothing planned for the last full day. I reached out on Twitter for ideas and was rewarded with tips to see the Kelpies. We’d driven past them on the motorway in the summer and seen them from afar.
This was nothing compared to the majesty, splendour and astonishing size of them up close.
Set in a lovely big park, I think that in nicer weather we could easily have spent the day there exploring. On the day we were there it was a bit wet and chilly, not too bad but not nice enough to want to venture far from the cafe and shop (stocking some beautiful gifts by the way).
5 Five Sisters Zoo
We gave the boys the choice between Edinburgh Zoo and the opportunity to see pandas (running family joke, himself has a panda aversion) or meeting their cousin and aunty at Five Sisters Zoo. They picked family and they absolutely made the right choice. The space and variety at Five Sisters is excellent – the bear enclosure is massive (so massive we couldn’t find the bears) and there are just so many different, evidently happy and well-cared for, animals to see.
The ethos of Five Sisters is preservation, protection and rescue – their bears had been adopted from a roadside cage. We were really impressed at how active most of the animals were – so often you peer into glass cases and there’s some reptile lethargic and bored looking. We saw a fabulous monitor jumping from rocks into a pool and swinging on a pallet, he seemed to be having a marvellous time. The keepers were really welcoming and friendly too, inviting the children to watch the snake necked turtles being fed, just because we happened to be hanging around at the right time.
The boys loved seeing the red panda – one of their favourites anyway – and we were lucky enough to find the snow leopard out and about too. The emu was hilarious and every time small boy went near its window, it tried to peck at him, so much fun (not that he was allowed to taunt it of course).
I would highly recommend Five Sisters Zoo, we had a fabulous day there – a full 6 hours – and it looks like they’ll be putting on some pretty special Christmas events too.
4 Falkirk Wheel
We’re lucky enough to live sort of near the Anderton Boat Lift, and there are lots of canals nearby, so we’re familiar with the concept of narrow boats needing to navigate water courses at different heights. However, the Falkirk Wheel concept of a rotating lift was a whole new idea to us.
Honestly, it’s a bit mind boggling. The power needed to rotate the lift, because of the balance of water in the two buckets, is only the equivalent of boiling 11 kettles! Can you imagine?
That’s the sort of weird and memorable fact that the audio on the boat tour provided – it was so accessible and engaging, something pretty rare for voice overs. The boys were spouting interesting information for the whole rest of the day.
We had a damp wander along the local footpaths to see Roughcastle Fort on the Antonine Wall, it was pretty amazing seeing the remains of the wall and ditch that are close-enough 2000 years old.
We would also recommend the cafe, but get in before 12pm to order your full Scottish breakfast!
3 Bonnie and Wild
Himself had heard about this indoor market (Bonnie and Wild) with food outlets and shared seating – we all enjoy different types of food and so it seemed like a great opportunity to each have one of our favourites without anyone else getting put out. We arrived just before 12pm (later this turned out to be a “very good thing” as the queue was quite large when we left) and were seated immediately.
The boys both choose fried chicken (what a surprise!) from Chix, himself had salt and chilli chicken from Salt and Chilli, while I went for pasta albeit plant-based from Erpingham House. The only disadvantage with getting food from different outlets was that it all arrived at different times. Everyone else had finished eating by the time mine was ready and I was starving by that point! However, the wait was worth it, everything was scrummy.
2 Museum of Scotland
The Museum of Scotland is frankly awesome. It is huge, diverse, spacious, well-presented and engaging, accessible, sympathetic, and really easy to dip in and out. If we lived in Edinburgh I think we’d be visiting at least once a month, just for an hour here or there. I’m sure we didn’t make it all the way round, but we visited most of the rooms and the boys had SO MANY QUESTIONS!
The saw old fashioned telephones and musical instruments from far flung places, old lab equipment, all sorts of stuffed animals (even if I find them a bit creepy), mountains of minerals, racing cars and bikes, ancient Scottish swords, fossils, aeroplanes, strange clocks, fashion from the ages, and so much more.
By the end of the day, we all had sore feet and the boys were definitely at their museum capacity for the week. We all loved it.
1 Camera Obscura
We luckily booked this in advance (unlike the castle), so we had one day where we knew exactly where we had to be and when as they give you arrival slots.
The Camera Obscura is absolutely magnificent.
There, that’s my whole review…. but really, it’s a triumph. It’s been on this site since 1853, always as a tourist attraction I think. As well as the original tower with mirrors to see across the city on the top floor, there’s a plethora of other visual mysteries to explore.
We loved the hall of mirrors but only himself enjoyed the spinning tunnel thingy (the rest of us just felt like we were going to fall off). The plasma balls were a hit, until the boys held the static generator and then got a good electric shock when we touched them – not funny, apparently. Himself now wants a non-stop-farting chair for Christmas.
Essentially, we enjoyed it all. It’s definitely worth the cost of entry and we’d recommend it to anyone young or old.
How about you?
What’s your favourite thing to do in or around Edinburgh? Have you enjoyed any of these places? Or do you have hidden gems to suggest?