Our trip to Edinburgh was one of those trips that came out of a dangerous practice.. browsing the easyJet website. For someone in my position of penny-pinching wanderer, such behaviors are, or (ahem) should be, strictly forbidden.
Four fifty-euro-return tickets and one infant fee later, I was left with a mountain of research and a challenge: have as much fun as is parentally possible with three boys under the age of six, in unpredictable-but-always-bone-chilling Scottish November weather, while spending, well.. next to nothing.
Lucky for traveling families, Edinburgh suffers no shortage of delightful diversions for the youthful crowd. Unlucky for cheapskates and parents of littles, most of them are expensive (if you’ve got the bucks, check this place out) or designed for older children (if you’ve got the nerves, creep yourselves out here).
But, have no fear. You know I’ll always share with you all the fun that can be had for little more than a song. Check out these inexpensive, fun things for families to do in Edinburgh.
You can’t visit Edinburgh and not do the castle. You must. I know, it’s expensive, and I just broke one of the rules of this post. But, just go. I promise the rest of the list isn’t this pricey.
We must have used up all our good weather luck the day before when climbing Arthur’s Seat. The fog might as well have been a hearty potato soup drowning out any hopes we had for a fantastic view from the castle. But, at least there’s no shortage of things to see within the castle grounds.
Our favorite sites were the National War Museum of Scotland, the prisoner of war barracks, and the crown jewels (naturally).
- Try to time your visit to see the one o’clock gun fire. We missed it because we visited in the morning and needed to grab some lunch before the appointed hour. Note that castle tickets are single entry.
- Ask for the kid’s quiz at the audio tour desk. It’s more for the 8+ crowd, but we still enjoyed trying to answer some of the questions.
- You can join free guided tours. We caught snippets of a few of them, and the guides were informative and interesting (maybe you really can have it all). But, they’re not easy to do with kids who aren’t accustomed to tours, so pick up an audio guide if that’s more your speed.
- The castle is mostly pram-friendly (though I wouldn’t take an umbrella stroller on the steep slopes and cobblestones). The only place that might be a problem is the room with the crown jewels. However, I did notice some kind of secret elevator for wheelchair access which might be possible for pram pushers as well.
Cost: See current ticket prices here.
National Museum of Scotland
You don’t see me recommending museums very often here at Thrifty Travel Mama, but The National Museum of Scotland gets my full endorsement.
Not only is it free, but it is PACKED with hands-on activities for kids. Our boys thoroughly enjoyed the Formula 1 simulator, donning scuba gear, and marveling at all the exotic animal exhibits.
And.. the gift shop is actually filled with educational trinkets you might actually want to buy at prices that you can actually afford. And.. the toilets are free and clean. And.. if you’re lucky, the rooftop terrace will be open and you’ll get another great view of Edinburgh. And.. well, you get the idea. This place rocks.
Save the museum for a rainy day. One could spend anywhere from thirty minutes to four hours here. We thought the best areas for kids were Connect, Earth in Space, and Animal World (1st floor), and Adventure Planet (5th floor). But, those are just the highlights – try to explore all the floors!
Cost: Free (suggested donation). Current info here.
The beach in November? Okay, no one went for a dip, but the boys ran in the sand, went bananas on the playgrounds along the boardwalk, and indulged in ice cream.
On a tip from my friend Katie, we skipped lunch and instead had a sort of tea at the Beach House which serves a stellar salted caramel ice cream and a mean carrot cake.
Portobello Beach is a modest bus ride from the east side of town (about 20 minutes from Meadowbank where we stayed). After devouring your ice cream cones, take a gander at the cute stores and thrift shops along the main street.
Cost: Free, plus bus fare and pocket money for ice cream.
Truthfully, I hesitate to recommend this total insider tip that I received from a friend for fear that this wonderful service will be abused. If you do patronize the Parliament, please don’t take advantage.
The Scottish Parliament operates a crèche (day care center) that is open to the public.. and it’s FREE. You can’t leave the building, but you can drop your children off and go have tea in the cafe without your kids, explore the exhibits in the atrium without your kids, tour the Parliament without your kids, and browse the gift shop without your kids.
I was a little nervous dropping off my kids with total strangers in a foreign country, but the friendly staff in the crèche put everyone at ease (as did the metal detectors and strict security measures). My boys LOVED playing here, and they were sad to leave when at last it was closing time.
We visited near the end of the day, so all parliamentary business had finished and we could view the debating hall (oooo!). If government and politics are your thing, book a free tour and crèche space in advance.
According to the Parliament visitor’s website:
- The Crèche is registered to provide care for children between the ages of six weeks and 5 years.
- Spaces can be booked up to 2 weeks in advance Bookings can be made by email (Creche@scottish.parliament.uk), by telephone on extension 86192 or in person by reporting to the Crèche Office.
- Maximum single stay in the Crèche is 4hrs per day.
- Visitors to the Parliament may use the Crèche free of charge.
- Snacks are provided but parents/carers should provide lunch for children if stay is over lunchtime period or if child has any special dietary requirements. It should be noted however, that there are no facilities available to cook or reheat food. Bottle warmers are available to allow feeding of younger children and a baby changing/feeding room is situated adjacent to the Crèche.
Cost: Free. More info here.
Old town Edinburgh is filled with secrets of every kind. Some of the more innocent are the close gardens, small patches of green hidden away from the main traffic artery known as Canongate (and further up, the Royal Mile).
Pop into small alleys, and see how many gardens you and the kids can find! The gardens make great picnic spots when the weather’s dry.
Dungar’s Close Garden was our favorite, but it took us several tries to locate. Keep searching!
The Royal Mile
Starting from the Holyrood Palace and the Scottish Parliament, walk along the Royal Mile up to Edinburgh Castle. Ignore the cheesy kilt & shortbread shops; instead, enjoy the architectural gems that are wedged together block after block.
None. Just explore!
Cost: Free, unless one of your party succumbs to overpriced kilt or shortbread madness.
Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
I must say I’m rather disappointed we did not visit the Royal Botanic Garden. Several expat friends mentioned their kids loved romping around this conservatory cornucopia. But, we never managed to make it to the northwest side of town.
If you do go, note that you can explore the gardens for free, but the glasshouses are worth the price of adult admission (kids 15 and under are free).
Getting to the gardens by bus is very easy. Click here for info on how to reach the gardens.
Cost: Entrance to the gardens is free. Current admission prices for the glasshouses and more visitor info here.
I found the little pup rather underwhelming, but if sappy legends are your thing, don’t miss a chance to snap a cheesy photo with the stone terrier near the National Museum of Scotland.
Take a break from the hubbub of the city streets in the monument-studded Greyfriars Kirkyard behind the statue. Skip the over-priced awful tourist food at the pub of the same name.
Cost: Free. More info here.
Museum of Childhood
Another free museum in Edinburgh! We plumb ran out of time for this one, so I can’t personally give you any juicy tips for your visit.
I’ve seen mixed reviews on TripAdvisor. Pop in if you have time and are already in the area.
Cost: Free. More info here.
Have your own list of kid-friendly budget attractions in Edinburgh? Add a link in the comments below!