Baby and toddler destination guide: Edinburgh festivals

As an arts journalist, the Edinburgh festivals are a high point of my working year. I’ve spent pretty much very August since 2007 up there, including 2016, when I was eight and a half months pregnant and mildly terrified that I would end up having the baby girl in Edinburgh rather than London. (It worked out fine: in the end she came 10 days late, by which time I’d been home for ages.)

I had my concerns about taking the baby girl to the Fringe in 2017, but as I was still breastfeeding, I didn’t have much choice in the matter. I was definitely going, which meant that she would be coming too. My partner and I decided to spend a stupidly large proportion of our festival income renting an entire flat (including a spare room for visiting grannies/babysitters) and come up as a family.

I haven’t come across many other journalists taking small children to the Edinburgh festivals, but there are lots of performers that do it. This post is for them (and indeed anyone working at the festivals) but it’s also for non-performers; ordinary punters considering whether to brave Edinburgh with a little one in tow. My message to you is… do it!

Things to do

A baby girl sits on stage at the end of a performance for babies
Wowed by Scottish Opera’s BambinO at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017

Shows for babies and toddlers at the Fringe are still very much in the minority compared to shows for older children, but it’s a genre that’s growing. They’re spread around the hundreds of different venues so the best way to find them is to search by category at tickets.edfringe.com and filter by age suitability. A lot of companies or artists making work for children hedge their bets by putting a lower age limit than is really reflective of the show, so you’ll need to read the marketing blurb and use your judgment when it comes to picking what to see.

The great news for theatre, comedy, cabaret and dance fans is that babes-in-arms (usually up to the age of 2, but it varies) are welcome at a massive number of shows at the Fringe. There’s unfortunately no way of filtering shows via their babes-in-arms policy on the Edfringe ticketing site; you have to click through to the individual show listing to find out whether infants are allowed and if they need a ticket.

Fringe venues aren’t usually accessible with pushchairs, and there’s rarely anywhere to park them, so take your little one in a sling if you can.

The Royal Mile is a great place to get a taste of the madness of the Fringe, though if you’re there with a pushchair or toddler on foot it might be best to go in the morning before the crowds descend. Catch see street performers at work, see snippets of shows at various pop-up stages and maybe even receive free tickets for later that day from performers desperate for an audience.

Two of the biggest venue companies, Underbelly and Assembly, have huge astroturfed areas in George Square Gardens that are good spots to let toddlers roam as you grab a drink or snack. They get very busy as the afternoon wears on. Underbelly’s Circus Hub on the Meadows offers something similar on a smaller scale, though there’s no shade there so it’s not ideal in the middle of the day.

Along with hosting lots of children’s shows, the Kidszone at the Pleasance Courtyard runs arts and crafts activities suitable for children up to the age of 10. There’s a little puppet theatre there too and ad hoc storytelling sessions.

There are lots of events for toddlers at the Edinburgh Book Festival, meanwhile, including readings of new books by your favourite picture book authors, craft activities and music sessions. Unlike the Fringe, the Book Festival takes place at one pop-up site, making it much easier to navigate with small children in tow. It’s also pushchair accessible.

A baby sits on the floor of the Imagine gallery at the National Museum of Scotland
The baby girl checks out the big kids’ side of the Imagine gallery at the National Museum of Scotland

Away from the festivals, you’d be crazy not to check out the National Museum of Scotland. There’s a fantastic children’s gallery where babies and toddlers can roam around, dress up, curl up for a story and play with a range of toys and musical instruments. There’s lots to do for kids elsewhere in the museum too, from laughing at taxidermy animals (a favourite activity of the baby girl’s) to playing in a sandpit. Entry is free.

Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh’s natural history museum, is also well set up for visiting with little ones, including a soft play area (it can get a bit raucous in there during the school holidays, so is better for toddlers than babies), plenty of high chairs and a microwave for heating up baby food and milk in the enormous café.

The Royal Commonwealth Pool has a shallow training pool and a brilliant soft play area that’s open until 6pm every day. It’s got a dedicated under-2s area so your little one doesn’t have to battle it out against children double her size.

Edinburgh Zoo is home to the UK’s only giant pandas, as well as all the other excellent animals you’d expect from a world-class zoo.

The Meadows, Edinburgh’s sprawling city centre park, has good playgrounds in the middle and at its far western and easternmost points. On the other side of town, the Royal Botanic Garden has free admission and runs family activities and trails. It’s also a venue for Fringe events for young children.

Please add your suggestions to add to this list in the comments below!

Childcare

You can take your little one to a lot of shows at the festivals, but not all of them, and there are some venues that don’t allow under-18s in at all. If you’re travelling as a couple or with other family members you can simply tag team babysitting and seeing shows – the nature of the festivals means that there are always lots of people seeing shows by themselves, so you won’t feel like a loner.

If that’s not an option, Edinburgh-based childcare agency Super Mums can provide festival nannies and babysitters to come to your flat or hotel, or to take your little one out and about. They can even stay the night if you need them to. It’s a good idea to book in advance but they can usually help out last-minute too.

Getting there

A baby sits amid a pile clothes and toys
Taking everything out of all the bags for fun on the train back to London from Edinburgh

You can fly to Edinburgh Airport from all over the UK and Europe and a handful of destinations in the Middle East, Asia and the Americas. It takes about 30 minutes to get to the city centre by car (there are plenty of car hire companies to choose from), taxi, Airlink bus or tram. Read my posts on booking plane ticketsflying, airport transfers and getting through airports with babies and toddlers for tips.

Edinburgh’s main railway station, Waverly, is located in the heart of the city centre. It has several taxi ranks and is served by a large number of bus routes. My post on long train journeys with babies and toddlers might come in handy when it comes to planning here.

Getting about

Parking in the centre of Edinburgh is a nightmare so far better to leave your car at home and use the city’s excellent public transport system instead. Buses have space for a couple of unfolded pushchairs, though wheelchair users take priority. You need to pay the exact fare; drivers won’t give change and don’t look kindly on being asked to do so.

Far more convenient is the m-tickets smart phone app, which lets you buy a variety of tickets in advance to validate as you board. Tickets for Edinburgh’s trams can be bought on the app or at the ticket machines at tram stops. You’ll find more general tips on public transport with a pushchair elsewhere on the blog.

Edinburgh is well supplied with reasonably priced black cabs which are large enough to fit an unfolded pushchair. As elsewhere in the UK, you don’t need a child car seat for journeys in private hire vehicles.

Edinburgh is pretty compact so walking is often the fastest way to get around. The New Town is mostly very easy to navigate with a pushchair, with wide pavements and plenty of pedestrian crossings. The Old Town is a different story: it’s very hilly, pavements are narrow and lots of the streets are cobbled. It also gets very busy in August so leave plenty of time to get wherever you’re going.

Accommodation

A huge proportion of Edinburgh festival lets are flats in tenement buildings with winding stone staircases and no lifts. There’s sometimes space to lock a pushchair in the hallway at the bottom of the stairwell in these buildings but you can’t depend on that, so unless you like the idea of lugging a pushchair up and down stairs every time you go out, make sure to rent a ground-floor flat.

For information on what other questions to ask before booking self-catering accommodation, please see my post on the subject.

Eating out

Toddler in a portable high chair at a table in a restaurant
The baby girl in her Totseat portable high chair

As many of Edinburgh’s restaurants and cafes occupy small or architecturally idiosyncratic premises, often up or down stairs from the street, it’s easier all round if you’re unencumbered by a pushchair. Some places have high chairs, but not enough to rely on, so bring your own; the Totseat is very light and packs down small enough to pop in a handbag. You’ll find general tips on eating out with babies and toddlers elsewhere on this blog.

Essentials

There are small supermarkets all over central Edinburgh and a number of large ones a short distance by bus or car. The city is also well equipped with pharmacies.

Emergencies

The phone number for emergency services is 999 and there’s an accident and emergency department at the centrally located Royal Hospital for Sick Children. The one time we had cause to use it the baby girl was seen very quickly and the staff were excellent. Adults and children aged 13 and up should use the accident and emergency departments at the Royal Infirmary in the south of the city. Treatment is free at both hospitals on the NHS.

Essential kit, part 3: pop-up tent travel cot

I’m not looking forward to the day the baby girl outgrows her pop-up tent travel cot. We bought it for a trip to Goa when she was four-months-old, and have used it every time we’ve gone away since then, at hotels, B&Bs, in our campervan, when staying with friends and relatives, and for nearly a month over the summer when we were working in Edinburgh.

It’s handy for a lot of reasons, the primary one being that it functions almost like a separate space within the room because it’s entirely enclosed once it’s zipped up. It’s not soundproof, and it doesn’t entirely block out the light, but it’s better than an open cot in both respects (if it’s not dark enough in the room we’re trying to get the baby girl to sleep in, we usually drape a breathable blanket over the top of the tent). The zip itself is important too: zipping the tent closed works as a sleep cue – for our baby at least (except when it doesn’t, of course). And once it’s closed, it’s a barrier to mosquitos and other insects.

Given how different sleeping in the tent is from sleeping in a cot, you’ll want to do a few practice runs before you go away. It took the baby girl two naps in the tent in our living room at home to get used to it, as I recall.

Depending on your destination and type of trip, you might find the tent useful in the daytime too; and for more than just napping. We put the baby girl in it all the time in Goa so she could roll around with her teething rings and toys in a relatively clean environment. We must have looked ridiculous carting it to and from our room all day, but the staff took it in their stride. We thought we’d use the tent on the beach a lot, but ultimately it was too hot to do that, so we stayed in the beachside restaurant most of the time and took turns going for dips in the sea. We’ve used it camping too, as a way of safely stowing away the baby girl for the moments when two sets of hands are required to set up or strike camp.

Further perks are that it packs down very small and is very light. It’s so small and so light in fact that you can take the tent as carry-on on a plane, or pack it into your luggage. Your actual cot cunningly concealed, you can then pass off another small bag as a travel cot, thereby making the most of your infant baggage allowance of (usually) travel cot, pushchair and car seat. I’ll be covering infant baggage allowance separately in a future post, so sign up to the mailing list if you want to read more (there’s a link on the sidebar on the right).

A major downside of the tent is that it doesn’t provide complete shade, so you can’t rely on it in sunny places – your baby will still need sun cream, a hat, etc. It gets pretty warm in there too – in Goa we used a little battery-operated fan and covered the baby girl with damp muslin squares to keep her cool.

The tent is very easy to pop up and pack away, but the fact that you have to be either on the floor or in a very deep bend to get your child into and out of it means that it won’t be ideal for all parents/carers. We use a conventional travel cot when we take the baby girl to stay at her grandparents’ house.

Baby on holiday in a pop-up tent travel cot on a beach in Goa, with the sun setting over the sea. A mini fan is keeping the baby cool. There are sun loungers on the beach.
The baby girl in her pop-up tent travel cot on the beach in Goa, her miniature fan keeping her cool.

Essential kit, part 2: wireless bone-conducting headphones

Trying to get a baby to sleep can be tedious at the best of times. Throw in an unfamiliar location, early starts, late nights, missed naps, hot weather and jet lag and it’s probable that you’ll be spending more hours than you’d like at the start of your holiday pacing around a dark hotel room with a baby in your arms, or sitting next to a cot soothing a grumpy toddler.

Your child will settle into their new surroundings at their own pace, depending on various factors (stay tuned for posts on how to deal with jet lag and hot weather), but in the meantime, a pair of wireless bone-conducting headphones can provide some relief.

Initially developed for military operations, and now used by some cyclists and runners, these headphones sit just below your temples (see picture) and send the sound through your cheekbones to the inner ear, bypassing the ear drum altogether. With nothing in your ears, you can hear the world around you – including the baby being rocked to sleep in your arms – while keeping your brain occupied listening to podcasts, music or audio books. The fact that they’re wireless means no cord to get tangled up in.

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My partner bought me a pair of these headphones when I was pregnant and I’ve used them practically every day since the baby girl was born. They came in particularly handy those first few months when I was still feeding her frequently at night and needed something to keep me awake (I recommend getting an Audible account too), but these days it’s when we’re travelling that they’re really useful, whether we’re heading off long distance or just around the local area.

It’s possible to push a buggy one-handed while having a conversation on a mobile, but it’s safer and easier to use wireless headphones instead, and bone-conducting ones mean you’re still aware of traffic noise. I don’t generally listen to podcasts when I’m with the baby girl unless she’s sleeping, but there have been a couple of occasions when I’ve broken that rule, like on the four and half hour train journey back to London after a month at the Edinburgh festival, when I hit a wall of tiredness and had to keep my mind occupied so as not to nod off. It was only by listening to BBC World Service documentaries that I was able to stay awake for yet another round of take-things-out-of-all-the-bags-and-hit-them-against-the-table. I stand by my choice.

At around £100 a pop, these headphones aren’t cheap, but they’re definitely worth it.

What’s on your list of essentials for travelling with babies and toddlers?

Museums and galleries

Babies may not seem like ideal companions for gallery-hopping, but with some advance planning, taking a baby to a museum can be a surprisingly fulfilling experience. I’ve actually been on more visits to more museums and galleries with the baby girl than I did in the year leading up to her birth – which is saying something, because, you know, I’m an arts journalist.

The easiest time to take your baby to a museum is before she’s interested in rolling around. Those first few months, it’s just a matter of putting her in a sling and making a note of where the café is so you know where you can sit down and have a rest. You’ll need to bring all the usual baby paraphernalia with you, of course, so I’d recommend taking a pushchair too, or you’ll get pretty tired pretty quickly carrying it all around. Most large museums and galleries will be accessible with a buggy, but if they’re not – or you don’t fancy walking around with it – ask to leave it in the cloakroom. Smaller, quirkier institutions, or those in developing countries, can be less well set up in this regard, so consider packing light and leaving the pushchair at home, in the car, or wherever you’re staying.

Once your baby is of an age where she’s not content to be carried around for extended periods, you need to be pickier about where you’re visiting. Is there an area at the museum you’d like to go to where it would be safe and appropriate to let your baby roll or crawl around on the floor to give her a break from the sling or buggy? Dedicated children’s galleries like the ones at the National Museum of Scotland are ideal, but large foyers like at the Barbican Centre also work, as do immersive installations like Gustav Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment at Tate Modern.

Visiting with a small person in tow, you won’t be able to spend hours absorbing every detail of every exhibit in the way that you might if you were there by yourself, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Knowing that you can’t possibly do it all removes the pressure of trying to do so, and the experience can be more enjoyable as a result. That said, if your baby will nap in a sling or buggy, you can probably squeeze in an hour of uninterrupted culture if you time it right.

With toddlers there are a few more things to consider. Lots of museums and galleries run free activity sessions for children and families, so check before you go to see if there’s one that coincides with your visit. Self-guided activity trails can be fun too. If there’s nothing like that on offer, buy a few postcards at the gift shop on your way in, and make a game of finding the object or art work as you go through the museum. Not all toddlers will have the patience for such an activity, but you could try the simpler, DIY version instead: do basic drawings in a notebook of objects that appear – trees, cars, etc – and get your offspring to race around trying to find them.