There's something very special about staying in a hotel in your home town. And if that hotel happens to be The Balmoral, home to Edinburgh's grandest, most spectacular accommodation, you're in for a treat indeed, I can tell you!
Growing up in Edinburgh, The Balmoral was always one of the city's most recognisable landmarks, alongside the Castle, Arthur's Seat (the city's very own volcano), and Scott Monument, the big spiky spire thingy on Princes Street. The Balmoral always reminded me of a giant wedding cake, with the clock tower the bride-and-groom topping. Situated as it is next to Waverley station, The Balmoral takes responsibility for guests being on time for their train; since the hotel was built in 1902, its clock has been set three minutes fast. Genius.
Yes - as a kid living in Edinburgh, whose parents were obsessed with camping-and-hitchhiking holidays, The Balmoral stood for all things decadent and held a unique allure - what luxury lay behind that elaborate facade, those high, round windows? And although as an adult I have eaten at the hotel's Michelin-starred restaurant Number One (get a babysitter and go), and afternoon-tead in its beautiful Palm Court accompanied by live harp music, I had never actually stayed overnight.
And so, when The Balmoral invited Susie and I to bring our kids and experience a night's stay, to prove to The Pink House how family friendly the hotel is, they didn't need to ask twice. Susie, Sean (9), Oscar (6), and I decided to use the stay as an excuse to spend the weekend being tourists in our own town, while making a collaborative list of 10 fab things to do with kids in Edinburgh. Why don't you come along for the ride (all photos by Susie Lowe, unless stated otherwise)...
1) Stay overnight at The Balmoral
Turns out, everything I had dreamed was possible at The Balmoral actually is - and the rest. Yes, there is a grand sweeping staircase, smartly dressed doormen, beautiful flower arrangements in the lobby and sumptuous bedrooms with stunning views over Edinburgh. But more importantly for the kids, there were bags of sweets and piles of games in their room, tubs of popcorn while they watched their favourite programmes on the flatscreen telly, and the gift of a cute, cuddly owl - The Balmoral's mascot - on their pillow. The thing that got them most excited, though, was the treasure hunt Families R Forte passport - they loved running around the hotel finding those places where staff would give them a special stamp and small gift, and enjoyed answering the quiz and doing the puzzles too. Not only was this a great way for them to learn about the special place they were staying in, but it also helped us mamas relax, knowing the hotel actively encouraged excited children to run around exploring. Not sure if the stair jumping/slinky session was exactly what they had in mind, though...
2) Follow the Harry Potter trail
As any die-hard Harry Potter fan will know, Edinburgh is the adopted home of his creator, J K Rowling, and the city provided inspiration for J K Rowling as she was writing the famous books. One lesser-known writing location is hidden in the depths of The Balmoral itself - the room in which the author wrote one of the books is now named after her. Once you've sought it out (there's a clue in the pic, above), you can head deeper into the Old Town to the Royal Mile, where Rowling's handprints are immortalised, before checking out colourful Victoria Street, which is said to have inspired the wizards' shopping street, Diagon Alley. Finish off the trail with a hot chocolate at the Elephant House cafe, where Rowling was also spotted scribbling away, and then it's a five-minute stroll across to George Heriot's castle-like school, apparently the inspiration behind Hogwarts.
3) Have a slap-up lunch in Hadrian's Brasserie
In my experience, finding a restaurant that's both swanky enough to suit grown-ups, and fun enough to suit kids, is a virtually impossible task, and the reason we eat at Pizza Express so much (try the one in Morningside, in a converted church). But at Hadrian's Brasserie at The Balmoral, Susie and I had a slap-up lunch involving smoked salmon, scallops and loin of Perthshire lamb, while the kids got stuck into burgers, chips and spag bol. Crayons, activity sheets and nothing's-too-much-trouble staff all contributed to a delightful lunch, even though Uncle iPad wasn't invited.
4) Visit the National Museum of Scotland
However old your kids, from newborns to teens, you can't go wrong with a visit to the National Museum. For a start, it's dry and spacious, and in a city that is occasionally cold and rainy, that can come in very handy, especially if you have small people with energy to burn. It's also extremely buggy-friendly, thanks in part to the dry/spacious situation, but also because there are lifts to all levels, plenty of space between exhibits, and loads of places to park the buggy if it's bugging you. There are a number of child-specific areas too - our kids are especially keen on the 5th floor interactive area in the animal end of the museum. Here, you can dig for dino bones, press buttons, make fossil rubbings and even create your own computerised fish, which may or may not get eaten by a digital shark, depending on how well camouflaged it is. There's a sensory area ideal for babies and toddlers on the ground floor, and every hour, on the hour, make sure you're standing by the giant Millennium clock - I won't spoil the surprise, but I can say that it's held me captivated every time I've seen it do its thing for the past five years, and I've been to the museum a LOT, due to the cold/rainy scenario. Plus, the floors are rather Instagrammable, as you can see above...
5) The Meadows
If it isn't raining - which is actually the case quite a lot more than you might be led to believe - the Meadows, a large green space five minutes' walk South from the Royal Mile, is a great place for soaking up a few rays/a cup of coffee while your kids work up an appetite. Plus, if you go in May you'll be treated to the wonderful sight of the blossom tree avenues in full bloom. The big play park at the East end is arguably Edinburgh's best, and comes equipped with a handy cafe, ice cream van when it's warmer, and a huge sandy area, ideal for the littlies. Our slightly larger children, however, were more interested in going on the flying fox, climbing the large artificial rock, and escaping through the secret tunnel and hiding from their parents.
Q: What's the best way to unearth a hiding child in Edinburgh? A: Shout that you're going to Civerinos without them. Civerinos, an 'Italian Street Food & Pizza Slice' restaurant in Hunter Square, just off the Royal Mile, only opened at the start of 2015, but already it's an Edinburgh institution. As well as funky decor, there's Edinburgh's best pizza, sold whole or by the slice, calamari to die for, a neon sign that says 'Soup of the day...prosecco', and amaretto slush puppies - maybe best drink these yourself though.
7) Commonwealth Pool
The Commonwealth Pool, known to locals as the 'Commie', was built for the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh and has recently been revamped and updated. It's right next to Arthur's Seat (see number 8) so works well as a combined visit. There is a huge main swimming pool, which is sometimes set up for lane swimming (call the pool to check sessions) and a large separate children's pool. For the adventurous, there's a state-of-the-art diving pool, which was used for the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, with boards from the springy 1m to the terrifying 10m (go on!). I'm old enough to remember the former water slides, which included the near-vertical Stingray, and the more leisurely River Rapids, down which you floated on a rubber ring. Sadly, the flumes are no more. Instead, there's a really good soft play area at the back of the building, which has a cafe and overlooks the diving pool, dive training gym and Arthur's Seat - it's a nice spot to chill out while the kids go crazy. Oh, and there's usually a shiny pile of i-on magazines - Scotland's free glossy lifestyle mag - lying around; why not have a flick through and admire Susie's gorgeous photos (she's i-on's head of photography) - you might spot one of our features too...
8) Arthur's Seat
One of the coolest things about Edinburgh is the fact that we have an ACTUAL VOLCANO right in the middle of the city. OK, so there hasn't been any molten lava for a little while, but there's still plenty to do and see. A walk to the top offers the best view in Edinburgh, or you can just wander around near the bottom (our kids love running at top speed down the spongey grass slopes), taking in the Scottish Parliament building, the ruined keep and the duck pond, and admiring the spectacular sheer rock of Salisbury Crags. If it isn't a Sunday (when the road is closed to traffic) you can drive up and round to the back of the hill, where there's another pond, and enjoy stunning views without breaking a sweat. It's also a shorter climb to the top from there - park at the small car park behind the pond and scramble up.
9) Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle is the city's most famous landmark - even the walk up the Royal Mile to reach it is enough of a spectacle (look out for The Witchery, a fabulous, gothic-style restaurant, just before the Castle gates). Once inside, there's plenty to keep kids entertained. Bling-lovers will be well impressed by the Honours of Scotland, the oldest crown jewels in the British Isles (look for a mysterious silver wand). If your small people are into swords and suits of armour, you'll find loads of them (swords, not children) in the Great Hall, which was built for the king's banquets. And then there's Mons Meg, the medieval cannon that could fire a stone ball nearly two miles: the rumour that small, naughty children can also be dealt with in a similar fashion is unconfirmed. Oh and if you're at the Castle at 1pm, you're for a surprise...
10) Our Dynamic Earth
This was the venue for Oscar's 5th AND 6th birthday parties - that's how much he loves it. Inside this unmistakeable, armadillo-like structure next to the Scottish Parliament, you're taken on a journey to witness the story of planet Earth. Oscar's favourite bits include the 3D film, in which you fly an aeroplane and a giant scorpion tries to grab you in its pincers, the extremely life-like tropical rainforest and the bubbling, ground-shaking volcano. It's also suitable for toddlers - plenty of space to run around - and buggies - everything is designed to be easily accessible. There's also a cafe with a pretty decent selection of food, with, as you'd expect, great views of Arthur's Seat and Salisbury Crags.
So this is just a starter for 10; there are so many other great things to do in Edinburgh with kids, but if you're just here for a weekend, or you live here and want to impress your guests and their children, I reckon this itinerary is a pretty good starting point. Have fun!
A huge thank you to The Balmoral for looking after us and our small Pink House Dwellers so well. For more info on Families R Forte, The Balmoral's programme that ensures younger guests are just as well looked after as their parents, click here