Edinburgh (pronounced ed-n-bura)is the historical and cultural heart of Scotland. From the Royal Mile filled with tartan shops and picturesque “closes” to the New Town with its amazing museums and restaurants, Auld Reekie is a place where its history is as evident as its present.
Edinburgh is a compact city, and three days will give you enough time to visit most of the historical sites – check out my sample three day itinerary below. It’s a good base city for day trips to other parts of Scotland as well, so make sure to take that into account when planning your Scotland adventure!
Transportation: Edinburgh is easy to navigate on foot if you don’t mind the hills. Most of the historical sites are located along the Royal Mile, a mile-long street that takes you from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
If you’re moving from Old Town to New Town, be aware that there are many elevation changes, usually accompanied by never-ending stairs! These hundreds of stone steps are not stroller-friendly, so plan your accommodations and itinerary accordingly!
There are frequent buses and a tram line that connects New Town to the airport. And there is a hop-on/hop-off bus tour that I recommend for families with young kids since walking the hilly city can be too much for their little legs!
Edinburgh is easily accessible from anywhere in Great Britain by a fantastic train network. We took the train from York and enjoyed seeing the English and Scottish countryside whirring by!
Food: Edinburgh is not usually thought of as a culinary destination (haggis, anyone?) but we found the food to be quite good and easily accessible. There are plenty of touristy restaurants lining the Royal Mile, some chains, some local, so be sure to ask your hotel concierge for recommendations. Some of our family’s favorites include Burgers and Beers Grillhouse and Gordon’s Trattoria on the Royal Mile and Cote Brasserie in New Town.
Lodging: There are five-star hotels and quaint apartments in Edinburgh, mostly along the Royal Mile. That is the central tourist area so it’s very convenient – but know that it is busy and loud so if you have little kids, you might be more comfortable in the relatively flat and quieter New Town. One hotel chain that we used has hotels in both spots so pick the one that matches your family best.
We stayed at the Cheval Old Town Chambers, and it was easily the most atmospheric hotel I’ve ever stayed in! We had a two bedroom apartment spread over three floors that included the original stone from when it was a tenement building in the 19th century. Located down a “close” or alley, it was so cool!!!!
Cheval also has a location in New Town that has an amazing rooftop deck! These are great options for families as they’re not just hotel rooms but mini-apartments.
Check out the options with apartment rental sites such as Plum Guide (affiliate link). Use a family-friendly travel agent like the ones at Ciao Bambino for help!
Shopping: Edinburgh has many of the department stores and shops you’ll see in England, like Marks and Spencer and Harvey Nichols, especially in the New Town shopping district. Along the Royal Mile, you’ll find tartan shop after tartan shop, some more authentic than others. Be sure to check for a “Made in Scotland” tag for authenticity.
Harry Potter fans will want to visit Victoria Street, a picturesque lane off the Royal Mile that looks like it was taken right out of the movies (it’s said it was the inspiration for Dragon Alley). There are several Harry Potter shops along this street.
Book lovers will want to check out John Kay’s on Victoria Street and Typewronger Books in New Town along with the excellent chain, Waterstones on Princes Street.
There’s a branch of the London-based toy wonderland, Hamleys, in New Town along with a Lego store. Plus kids will love all of the Scottish cow stuffed animals found in any of the touristy shops!
Tickets to attractions: There is a city pass from the Edinburgh tourism board that’s a good deal if you’re planning to visit most of the attractions (choose the Royal Pass for access to the must-see places!). As always, be sure to buy your timed entry tickets to places, especially Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse ahead of time to ensure your visit.
Websites to help you plan your trip:
Other general tips:
- Make sure all phones are enabled with mobile payment options – this is used everywhere in the UK!
- Plan for changing weather. Even in the summer, it can be chilly and rainy in Edinburgh. Wear layers and bring a raincoat!
- The Royal Mile is the main tourist area so you’ll be spending a lot of time on its cobblestone streets. Some of the areas are pedestrian only, some allow cars, so be sure to hold tight to little ones’ hands as you walk.
- Edinburgh, in general, is not very stroller-friendly. It’s just too hilly and the stone sidewalks and streets can be uneven. If you have the option, use slings or backpacks to carry your babies and toddlers. Be ready to hoof it up a bunch of rain-slicked stairs at any moment!
- Edinburgh is known for its festivals, including the Fringe Festival and the Military Tattoo. Be sure you’re not planning your visit to coincide with these dates.
- Edinburgh is where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter so there are several themed tours and sites to check out. Don’t miss the Elephant House cafe (currently closed) where she wrote the books and the nearby Greyfriars Cemetery (the names on the tombstones will be familiar!), along with the Balmoral Hotel where she completed the series.
Check back often for more of these sites to be reviewed by The History Mom! Note that sites reviewed by The History Mom are marked with *. Other links are external links to the museum’s own website.
Old Town: Includes the Royal Mile along with several great museums and historic sites.
- Royal Mile: A mile-long walk through Scottish history and culture, this is the main tourist area. Be sure to download Rick Steves’ walking tour!
- *Edinburgh Castle: The must-see historic site in the entire city! The castle is perched at the top of the Royal Mile and contains the Scottish crown jewels, most recently on display at Queen Elizabeth II’s lying in state.
- Palace of Holyroodhouse: The official residence of the British monarch in Edinburgh found at the end of the Royal Mile
- St. Giles’ Cathedral: The flagship of the Church of Scotland halfway down the Royal Mile, this cathedral was most recently in the news as the first place to host a service for the Queen’s funeral
- *The Real Mary King’s Close: A great tour of the underground city of Edinburgh. Lots of discussion of the plague and ghosts so best for kids 8 and up.
- Greyfriars Kirkyard: Spooky cemetery and where JK Rowling got names for Harry Potter characters
- National Museum of Scotland: Located just off the Royal Mile, this free museum is great for kids and adults alike! And it’s a must-see for Outlander fans with its extensive Jacobite collection.
- Museum of Edinburgh: A free museum that tells the colorful history of the city. Outlander fans should note that Jamie’s printshop scenes were filmed at the next-door Bakehouse Close.
- Canongate Kirk: The official church of Britain’s monarch in Scotland
- Scottish Parliament: Home of the Scottish government
- Gladstone’s Land: A tenement house museum about 16th and 17th century Edinburgh
- Ghost tours: Edinburgh is a spooky city and has some of the best ghost tours you’ll ever take! I still get chills from the one I took while visiting during college!
New Town: A much flatter section of town, it’s easy to navigate with kids and strollers.
- National Gallery: Amazing art museum close to the Royal Mile
- National Portrait Gallery: Art museum that has paintings of famous Scots such as Mary, Queen of Scots
- Scott Monument: A picturesque monument to Sir Walter Scott
- Princes Street Gardens: Great playground located in this lush, green space that used to be a loch (lake)
Outside of Edinburgh:
- Arthur’s Seat at Holyrood Park: A challenging yet unforgettable hike (that’s its craggy peak above)!
- Calton Hill: A hilly hike to see historical monuments
- Royal Yacht Britannia: The decommissioned royal yacht
Easy Day Trips from Edinburgh
Edinburgh makes a great base camp for venturing out into the Scottish countryside.
- St. Andrews: This picturesque town located on the North Sea is best known for golf and its university (where Prince William and Princess Kate met). We took the train from Edinburgh to Leuchars and then took a ten minute cab ride into the town. It has quaint shops and eateries amidst a lovely sea walk. Families will love the small aquarium as well.
- Stirling: Home to a historically significant castle and near the famous Wallace monument and Battle of Bannockburn.
- Outlander filming locations: Edinburgh is home to a few filming locations, but if you really want to step into Claire and Jamie’s footsteps, rent a car and visit Falkland (the fictionalized Inverness in the show), Midhope Castle (Lallybroch), Doune Castle (Castle Leoch), Hopetoun House (several locations including Duke of Sandringham’s home, Paris streets, and Ellesmere), and Blackness Castle (Fort William)
Edinburgh in Three Days
You can see most of Edinburgh in three days, including some of the sites located just outside of town. This itinerary is best for 10 and up, but I’ve noted modifications for younger kids.
Day 1: Start your visit by walking up the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle. Spend 2 – 3 hours touring its museums and walking its ramparts. Detour off the Royal Mile at Upper Bow and head to a lunch spot on Victoria Street (recommendations include Scotts Kitchen with older kids, Pizza Express with younger kids) or the restaurants at Grassmarket. Shop along Victoria Street and then head to the nearby National Museum of Scotland. Harry Potter fans, make sure to detour through Greyfriars Cemetery. Head back to the Royal Mile for a quick spin through St. Giles’ Cathedral and tartan shops to find a kilt. End your afternoon with a late tour of the Real Mary King’s Close and have dinner at Gordon’s Trattoria or get real pub fare at The World’s End.
With younger kids, visit the castle and have lunch on Victoria Street, taking the hop-on/hop-off bus tour around the city. Get a multi-day pass so you can use it your whole trip. Its first stop is near Victoria Street for easy access.
Day 2: Start your day at the Palace of Holyroodhouse and then walk up the Royal Mile, stopping at Bakehouse Close (for Outlander fans), Parliament, or the Museum of Edinburgh. Take a right onto North Bridge and cross into New Town, having lunch at one of its fabulous eateries near St. Andrew Square. History enthusiasts should visit the National Portrait Gallery while others can shop along Princes Street. Go back to the hotel to rest and then have a late dinner before joining in a spooky ghost tour.
For younger kids, head to New Town after the palace and visit Hamleys and The Lego Store before taking a picnic to the Princes Street gardens and playground. Head back for naps at the hotel and then take a kid-friendly ghost tour before dinner.
Day 3: Head out of the city. For adventurous families, hike to Arthur’s Seat and Calton Hill. To see a cute Scottish town, take the train to Leuchars and a cab to St. Andrews. Have lunch, walk around the quaint college town, and visit the aquarium. For Outlander fans, rent a car and see Falkland and Stirling, stopping at filming sites along the way.
For true Harry Potter enthusiasts, take The Potter Trail guided tour and then have a Potter-themed afternoon tea at The Cauldron. Or take the Jacobite steam train across the bridge made famous in the film.
Edinburgh is a city that’s as comfortable with its spooky past as it is with its present. From the cobblestone streets to its haunted closes, the city is a history lover’s dream! Be sure to spend some time in Auld Reekie on a family trip to Scotland!
Books to Read:
Scottish writers are well-known throughout the centuries from poet Robert Burns to Robert Louis Stevenson to JK Rowling. I’ve included just a sample of books below! Be sure to check out my Bookshop.org shop (affiliate link) for even more recommendations.
All images below are Amazon affiliate links.
This site is continually updated.