With just 36 hours to explore the history-rich city of Edinburgh during my family’s stopover in Scotland last summer (while we were sailing with Semester at Sea), I knew we had to see the sights efficiently if we wanted to spend time at key landmarks. Also high on our agenda: Walking a lot, preferably uphill and close to nature, since I knew I’d we’d be indulging in Scottish specialties such as haggis and shortbread on shore.

Thankfully, my husband and kids (then ages 14 and 12) were game for an action-packed trip. Here are the sights and activities we managed to hit (and enjoy!) during our short time in Scotland’s capital city.

The Royal Mile. Measuring the length of one Scots Mile (an ancient unit of measurement; a bit longer than the mile we know today), the Royal Mile is the main thoroughfare through Edinburgh’s Old Town. It’s actually a set of centuries-old connecting roads, and it stretches from the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the official Scotland residence of the British monarch (currently, Her Majesty the Queen), all the way to imposing Edinburgh Castle. The Royal Mile is lined with pubs and restaurants and lots of touristy shops. You might find a tartan kilt or cashmere scarf cheaper elsewhere, but the Royal Mile is a convenient place to shop for souvenirs to bring home. Plus, it’s fun to stroll the wide street, people-watch, and duck into the historic “closes,” small alleyways and courtyards, to see the historic buildings.

Viewfinder Tip: If the Palace of Holyroodhouse is on your agenda, check the website for closures to make sure the Queen is not in residence when you want to visit.

Edinburgh Castle. You can spend an entire day exploring the palace, chapels, and museums in Edinburgh Castle, which served as a home for Scottish royalty from at least the 1100s until the country’s unification with England and Ireland under one monarch in 1603. The fortress, which perches above the city on Castle Rock, offers free tours by enthusiastic costumed guides, or you can purchase an audio guide. My family did neither (again, we were pressed for time), and used the handout map to find the sites that interested my children most: the dark Prisons of War exhibit and the Military Prison. I dragged the kids through a display detailing the history of the Crown Jewels, and we learned about the harrowing birth of James VI, son of Mary Queen of Scots, in the Royal Palace. I’m not sure my tween and teen fully appreciated the significance of the important castle and its place in Scotland’s tumultuous history, but I think it’s a must-see when in Edinburgh. If anything, children will like running around the cobblestone walkways and outdoor grassy areas, climbing on the cannons, and exploring the narrow passageways throughout the ancient buildings.

Fun times at Camera Obscura and the World of Illusions

Camera Obscura and World of Illusions: The entertaining exhibits in this optical-illusion attraction/museum on the Royal Mile could be found anywhere in the world. That said, there is an Edinburgh-centric and historic reason for visiting: For more than 150 years, Edinburgh’s visitors have climbed the stairs of the six-story building to glimpse a 360-degree view of the city. At the top, visitors experience the “Camera Obscura,” described as a cross between a giant pinhole camera and a periscope. Once we got to the top of the tower, we enjoyed amazing views of the city from a rooftop deck, and were thoroughly entertained by a guide’s commentary about the camera’s images (moving cars, walking people on the Royal Mile below) that were projected onto a large white table. This probably sounds odd, and it was. Even more odd: the glass mazes, bendy mirrors, magical images, and totally unexpected optical illusions on the five floors below. The kids loved it. The adults laughed, too.

Arthur’s Seat. On the edge of the city, Arthur’s Seat (pictured at top) is a lush-green, dormant volcano that looms over Holyrood Park. The little research I’d done about the moderate hike to the 823-foot summit revealed it would take us two to three hours round-trip-—perfect for our school-age children accustomed to hiking at high altitudes. Thankfully a posted map at the trailhead gave us a little more insight into a loop route (there are a few different options to choose from) and friendly locals kept us on track along the way. Highlights included fabulous panoramic views of Edinburgh and the surrounding countryside, as well as the ruins of a 14th-century chapel. This retreat into nature was a wonderful complement to our time spent amid tourist crowds on the Royal Mile.

If we’d had more time in Edinburgh, my family would have toured the Palace of Holyroodhouse; checked out Our Dynamic Earth, an interactive science-centric attraction detailing the formation of our planet; and gone underground to the narrow 17th-century streets in The Real Mary King’s Close. Still more fun stuff for families in Edinburgh includes the Edinburgh Zoo, and, for older kids, the creepy Edinburgh Dungeon.

I fell in love with Edinburgh during our short stay. I could have walked for days along its wide streets lined with Georgian sandstone buildings. I could have made a living out of admiring Gothic churches and ancient clocktowers along the way. The Scots’ friendliness is legendary, and now I know it’s true; so many folks—from restaurant servers to shopkeepers to train-station attendants—went out of their way to welcome us to their city.

Having had just a small taste of Edinburgh, I know I’ll be back. In fact, I spent most of my family’s stint in Scotland’s capital trying to convince my children they needed to study at least one semester there in college so I can visit them. And if they don’t study in Edinburgh, this momma will just have to plan a return visit solo.

How do you like to spend your time in big cities with your family?

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