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The Best Free Things To Do With Kids in Edinburgh

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Scotland’s vibrant capital city has something going on all year round despite the sometimes unpredictable weather. Alongside the palaces and castles, there are also plenty of options to find out how ordinary people lived in the past, plus more than a touch of magic, from ghost tours to Harry Potter. There are museums, galleries, free street entertainment on the Royal Mile in particular, and plenty of stunning viewpoints. You can see the city from Arthur’s Seat (allow at least two hours to climb) to Calton Hill (about five minutes to climb – there’s a staircase). You’ll also find gorgeous gardens, secret villages – there’s even a beach and a city farm. 

Table of Contents

There’s loads to keep the kids happy in the Scottish National Museum

What it is: This national museum has something for everyone – check out the Tyrannosaurus Rex, explore the various galleries, and find out about so many items and approaches that have shaped Scotland’s history. As well as archaeology, world cultures, and art and design galleries, you can find out about Ancient Egypt, sea life; the Romans, and, of course, Scotland’s national instrument the bagpipes. And all of this in interactive spaces that are designed with families in mind. Exhibitions change regularly, and one of the highlights is the Millennium Clock, which sounds every hour, with lights, music and moving parts. 

Why we liked it: If you don’t know much about Scotland’s history (or even if you do), this is a brilliant place to find out more, with lots of different trails and puzzles to try out. There are exhibitions on the natural world, global culture; centuries of art, fashion and design. There’s even a space exhibition. Plus, the building itself is just stunning, especially the Grand Gallery atrium. We also enjoyed the suggestions to make the experience less overwhelming for autistic visitors, including which parts of the museum are likely to be noisiest, and a tip that the Tower Entrance is usually quieter than the main entrance hall. 

More information about the National Museum of Scotland  

Address: Chambers St, Edinburgh EH1 1JF

Opening Hours: 10am to 7pm, all year round. (Check Bank Holiday and Christmas season opening times.)

Botanic Gardens

The Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh

What it is: These beautifully landscaped gardens cover over 70 acres with glorious views over the city, including the stunning Edinburgh Castle. The local name for the gardens is the Botanics, and you can explore and play in over eight different themed gardens, including Alpine, the Arboretum, Chinese Hillside, Heath Garden, Pond, Rhododendrons, and Scottish Native Plants. The Glasshouses are currently closed while a new construction and restoration project is underway.

Why we liked it: Whatever the season there’s something to see, and birds and insects adore the different habitats in the various gardens, which are often home to community events. You might also come across some of the naturalists involved in 24-hour “BioBlitz” sessions when they record as many different types of wildlife as they can, and everyone is welcome to join in with this and the other activities that go on each day. We’re also determined we’ll spot the kingfishers and sparrowhawks, and maybe even the badgers, on our next visit. 

More information about the Botanic Gardens  

Address: 20A Inverleith Row, Edinburgh EH3 5LR

Opening Hours: 10am to 6pm March to September (last entry 5.15pm); 10am to 5pm February and October (last entry 4.15pm); 10am to 4pm November to January (last entry 3.15pm). (Closed Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.)

The Royal Mile

A marching band takes part in a parade on the Royal Mile

What it is: The Royal Mile is pretty much the heart of Edinburgh, with so much to see, from Edinburgh Castle right at the top on its plinth of extinct volcanic rock, to Arthur’s Seat and the stunning Palace of Holyroodhouse. There are dozens of places to investigate on or just off the Royal Mile, including St Giles’ Cathedral, the Real Mary King’s Close, the Scottish Storytelling Centre, and the medieval area known as the Grassmarket. Four streets connect to make up the Royal Mile, and with so many festivals throughout the year you’re almost certain to encounter something going on in the area. 

Why we liked it: You could spend a whole day on the Royal Mile quite easily, just looking at the castles, watching people go by, or taking a detour into the shadowy, mysterious tenements that look down on the Mile. On a typical day, you’ll come across pipers, living statues, buskers, and all kinds of free entertainment. The area also regularly gets used as a backdrop to movies, and it was fun to spot the locations. 

More information about the Royal Mile  

Address: Royal Mile, Edinburgh EH1 2PB

Opening Hours: 24/7 all year round; at very busy times some areas may be ticket access only or behind barriers, check with the tourist office for details. 

Dean Village and the Water of Leith

Dean Village

What it is: The pretty former water mill village of Dean is just a few minutes away from the endless hustle of Princes Street, with exceptionally pleasant walks amongst the buildings which were once the homes of local mill workers. Right in the middle of the village, Well Court was built in the 1880s and is the most distinctive building. The paths are mostly flat and easy to walk on, but there are a few places where you’ll still come across those “Edinburgh cobbles” you might have heard about as well as some newly laid paths that can be a little bit tricky.

Why we liked it: We had great fun on our walk spotting the stones and plaques marked with pies and baked bread, and walking down as far as the Water of Leith. The Dene stairwell is like something out of a storybook, and there’s a delightful little path that goes around St Bernard’s Well. There’s also a free audio trail you can download to help you make the most of your trip to this hidden fairy-tale part of Edinburgh.

More information about Dean Village and the Water of Leith 

Address: Dean Path, Edinburgh, Edinburgh & The Lothians, EH8 8BH

Opening Hours: 24/7, all year round. 


Leith is only a short trip from Edinburgh city centre

What it is: At the end of the Water of Leith Walkway is where you’ll find this very different part of Edinburgh, home to all kinds of unusual independent retailers, and with a strong maritime vibe. It’s regularly voted one of the ‘coolest’ areas in the world, and in fact, wasn’t part of the City of Edinburgh until 1920. The waterfront offers views over the Forth and Fife, and you’ll often find cruise ships in the dock here, as well as the Royal Yacht Britannia – check schedules to find out the vessels due in port.

Why we liked it: There are all kinds of buildings and events to explore and enjoy in this edgy part of Edinburgh, and we really enjoyed looking at the murals – we certainly hadn’t expected to see sea lions in Leith, paying homage to a long-ago zoo escape by the creatures in question. Our favourite, though, was the Colindale Tunnel, which is literally like walking through a portal into another world. (Oh, and don’t worry about having to walk – some buses do stop here!)

More information about Leith and the Constitution Street Murals 

Address (approximate): 24 Lanark Road, Edinburgh EH14 1TQ 

Opening Hours: 24/7 all year round

Harry Potter Trail

The Harry Potter Trail

What it is: This free trail takes you on a magical mystery tour of the city, from the view of a very special boy wizard. There is a maximum total group size of 35, so you are requested to book in advance, and if there are more than ten of you, you will need to book a (paid) private tour. Tours start at the Greyfriars Bobby statue, at the junction of Candlemaker Row and George IV Bridge, and finish on Victoria Terrace. The tour lasts around 75 to 90 minutes (it all depends on how busy the city is). 

Why we liked it: J.K. Rowling wrote her early Harry Potter tales here, and drew much of her inspiration from the city, including names in Greyfriars Kirkyard. It’s no coincidence that the train to Hogwarts leaves from King’s Cross, and this tour gives you the chance to see the world from the perspective of one of the world’s most famous fictional boy wizards…We liked the fact that you could use pretty much anything as a wand – pencils, pens, umbrellas….the tour does fill up pretty fast, but you can ask to be put on a contact list in case of cancellations. 

More information about the Harry Potter Trail 

Address: 30-34 Candlemaker Row, Outside Greyfriars Bobby’s Bar, Edinburgh EH1 2QE

Opening Hours: Tours run at noon all year (except 24th to 26th December) with extra sessions at 4pm on very busy days. 

LOVE Gorgie Farm (formerly Gorgie City Farm) 

LOVE Gorgie Farm

What it is: This urban farm and registered charity is between the main railway line and one of the major roads in Edinburgh. It offers a small but perfectly formed location where visitors can learn all about the small animals who live here. This includes alpacas, badgers, a Boer Goat or two; chickens, ducks, love birds, and turkey; guinea pigs, reptiles, sheep, ferrets, and guinea pigs. 

Why we liked it: When you think of Edinburgh as a visitor, you often think of the Royal Mile and the other famous locations, but it’s a working city too. Not so many people know about this little hidden gem, and we just loved the fact it was an unexpected spot of countryside in the middle of Scotland’s capital city, as well as the real sense of being part of the local community. 

More information about LOVE Gorgie Farm  

Address: LOVE Gorgie Farm, 51 Gorgie Road, Edinburgh, EH11 2LA Opening Hours: 9.30am to 4pm all year round (check Bank Holiday opening hours before visiting). 

People’s Story Museum

The People’s Story Museum

What it is: This is another of Edinburgh’s many museums, just off the Royal Mile and just about directly opposite one another in the middle of buildings dating from the 1500s, and housed in the old Canongate Tolbooth. If you’re looking for something to occupy you for a couple of hours, it’s just opposite the Edinburgh Museum, where you can enjoy the permanent collection as well as various exhibitions that run through the year. 

Why we liked it: We liked the fact that the stories in the People’s Story Museum were about ordinary people in working-class jobs and homes, from the 1700s to the late 2000s. All of the displays use the words of real, ordinary people who once walked these same streets. We’d already seen the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, one of the most loyal little dogs in history, and it was really touching to see his bowl and collar on display here. Other popular displays were the wartime kitchen, tea room, jail cell, and bookbinder’s workshop, and we always love trying to work out how people carried on their everyday lives in the old-fashioned garb they wore. 

More information about the People’s Story Museum 

Address: The Royal Mile, 163 Canongate, Edinburgh EH8 8BN

Opening Hours: 10am to 5pm every day; last entry 4.10pm. (Check with the museum for Bank Holiday opening hours.)

Portobello Beach

Portobello Beach

What it is: People often forget that Edinburgh is right on the sea – so if you’re looking for a day at the beach, Portobello, a few miles outside the city centre, is one nearby place to go for a day of chill and sea air. Depending on the time of year, you might see beach volleyball, paddle boarders, and even strong swimmers braving the icy waters of the North Sea. (Seriously, that water’s usually freezing even in the middle of August.) It’s a very dog-friendly beach so if you’re not a dog-loving family that is something to bear in mind. 

Why we liked it: A lot of tourists either don’t realise the beach is here, or don’t venture much outside the centre of Edinburgh, so it’s a great place to go for a bit of peace and quiet, with panoramic views and lovely, soft sand and plenty of benches. You can also keep going a little further up the coast if you’d prefer quieter beaches but the promenade here means it’s a great location for an absolutely bracing walk pretty much all year round.

More information about Portobello Beach

Address: 1 Promenade, Edinburgh EH15 2DX Scotland

Opening hours: 24/7 all year round

Cramond Beach and Island

Cramond Island Causeway

What it is: The tidal island off this beach is around a mile out to sea and can only be accessed at low tide, via a paved path right at the foot of a line of mysterious pylons made of concrete. (They were in fact a defence boom for submarines during World War Two.) It is safe to walk to the island over the causeway at low tide, but you really need to make sure you leave enough time to get back to the mainland as the causeway gets completely covered when the tide is in. 

 Why we liked it: It’s a really striking thing to see, and there’s a real sense of adventure in taking a walk over the causeway and having to make sure there’s enough time to get back. You can still see pretty much all of the structures from the Second World War on the island, and there’s also a legend that the Romans had a harbour here. 

More information about Cramond Beach 

Address: Cramond Beach at Cramond Village, Edinburgh EH4 6NU

Opening hours: 24/7 all year round, but you really do need to pay attention to both the weather and the tide times – you can check tide times at the start of the causeway before you start on your adventure. 

Honourable Mentions

There are a couple of museums we’ve highlighted, but there are plenty of other great places to explore the history of Scotland and Edinburgh too, including the Museum of Childhood. Others include the Writers Museum or the Surgeon’s Hall (including old-fashioned dentistry). 

If art or stories are more your “bag”, then the Scottish Storytelling Centre or the National Gallery of Modern Art both offer another great way to while away a few hours. And even if you’re not all that interested in engineering, the Forth Bridge is one of the world’s great structures and well worth seeing. 

Or take a look at Greyfriars Kirkyard, the resting place of one of the most devoted little dogs in history – and one of the worst poets in Scottish history. It’s also thought to have inspired many of the names in J.K. Rowling’s Potterverse. Look out for Tom Riddell and others. 

Listen for the Edinburgh Castle Gun at one o’clock – this tradition dates from 1861. Back in the 1850s, the good citizens of Edinburgh expressed a need for an accurate time-keeping system across the city, and following a not-entirely-successful installation at the Nelson Monument, the city authorities settled on an audible signal – and the tradition of the one o’clock gun was born. You can chill in Holyrood Park before or after – it might be a royal palace, but the gardens are free.

Edinburgh is supposed to be one of the most haunted cities in the British Isles, so if your family members have nerves of steel (and aren’t too young to find it all a bit too overwhelming), then check out the Free Ghost Tour

Written by
David Prior

David Prior is an NCTJ-qualified journalist and the editor of Big Family Breaks. He is also a father of five and an experienced traveller, especially with kids.

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