Edinburgh sign at Edinburgh Airport © Phillipa Ellis, Arts Aloud
Last year’s Edinburgh Fringe was momentous for me. Alongside putting together my definitive Best of Free Edinburgh Fringe for Families, for the first time ever since being footloose and child-free, I decided to let my children (aged 5 and 3) in on the fun, organising a week-long break to take in Edinburgh Fringe. I entered into this decision completely accepting that our experience might be unrecognisable from what we’d enjoyed in the past, yet contrary to my assumptions, it was one of the most memorable family holidays we have ever had. It wasn’t, however, without its challenges. What I learned forms an invaluable guide for those visiting this year with children.
1. Book early to avoid bankruptcy
If you’re reading this planning to visit this year, and you haven’t yet booked flights or accommodation, it’s likely you’ve already missed the boat. The cheapest flights are on sale up to a year in advance, but booking in the sale at the end of the year prior, can usually yield good results. We paid approx £400 return for 2 adults and 2 children (including seat selection) from London City to Edinburgh with Flybe. Easyjet and Ryanair also provide affordable alternatives from a range of UK airports, and occasionally British Airways muster up a bargain. Alongside travel, the price of accommodation in Edinburgh can swell by more than 30% during the fringe, with family options limited, depending on how comfy you want to be. Airbnb is obviously a great option, but ensure you’re centrally located or the daily commute could really take its toll. We stayed in Holyrood Aparthotel, just a stone’s throw from The Pleasance, offering all the comfort and services of a hotel (daily cleaning, concierge, safe, free wi-fi, family friendly) but with the flexibility of self catering, saving us on lunches out and evening meals. Our 2 bed apartment with fully equipped kitchen cost approximately £1100 for 5 nights, but there are less glam options from around £850. It was great to have a base to escape when we needed to, and the kids settled in a treat. It was our home from home.
2. Never underestimate the power of planning
If you think you can just rock up, pick up a programme and point and shoot, you’re wrong. Edinburgh’s Fringe programme is immense and unless you take the time and effort to familiarise yourself with what’s on offer for you, you’ll be well and truly bamboozled. Far from sapping the life out of spontaneity, creating an activity wish list by day and time was a brilliant way of wading through the haze. We still embraced so many of the flyers waved in our faces, but it enabled us to be much more nimble. By having plenty of back-up, we never missed anything that we really wanted to see, and there was no confused panic if events were cancelled or didn’t live up to expectations. For planning, the Fringe website has come a long way in terms of usability, with the range of performances well categorised, easy to find and book. There is, however, definitely still some value in rooting through the many pages of the pre-ordered printed programme with a highlighter pen to choose your goals. Similar planning principles should also be applied to any eateries that you are keen to try. Historic Edinburgh’s restaurants and cafés generally lack space, especially during the busy festival season, so always carry a picnic in the day and book ahead for popular dinner venues, such as yummy pizza pick Amarone, beautifully housed in an old banking hall.
Edinburgh planning spreadsheet © Phillipa Ellis, Arts Aloud
3. It’s not all child’s play
When it comes to choosing what to see and do, there’s no right or wrong. Edinburgh has everything from Shakespeare for Kids and science shows, to mad cap magic. There’s even a kids pub quiz! My husband and I did our own shortlist based on what we liked, what the kids might like and what was new and unusual, then we merged it all together. Visiting with children also doesn’t have to mean you’re limited to the children’s shows. There are almost 800 performances classified as ‘U’ or ‘Universally Suitable For All’ with only 131 of these listed as children’s shows. Providing they aren’t in an unsuitable venue (e.g. age restricted pub), don’t stipulate age, are at a time that works for you and aren’t too lengthy for fidgety bottoms, you can seek out something for you all to enjoy. Perhaps (if you need to) pre-book one or two things that you know the kids will love, so that you have some guaranteed big-hitters. For example Les Petits’ First Hippo On The Moon by David Walliams is running for the majority of the festival at The Pleasance, and can be booked in advance through the Edinburgh Fringe website. Bagging a dead-cert might leave the door open for you all to experiment elsewhere.
4. Free, can be stress free
The beauty of ‘free’ is the right to bail at any time, without loss of money or more importantly, loss of face! This year’s programme has well over 100 free performances, activities and events under the ‘U’ classification, 17 of which are children’s shows. The PBH Free Fringe is a great place to start, as is the Free Festival, yielding everything from children’s theatre such as Blue Bird, Ceilidh Kids dance lessons for children and adults and the (almost) educational Science Magic. There’s also free fringe music every day in the glass-roofed hall of the National Museum of Scotland, plus don’t miss its stunning views from the recently refurbished roof terrace. Virgin Money’s Fringe on the Royal Mile is also a brilliant place to watch free previews of hundreds of Fringe shows, making it a great place to discover gems beyond the children’s programme.
Holyrood Park © Phillipa Ellis, Arts Aloud
5. Be realistic about what you can achieve in a day
You might be on holiday and you might be at Edinburgh, but avoid the temptation to pack out your agenda more than you’d ever dream of at home. Try to cluster your activities into one or two neighbourhoods, to avoid trawling back and forth across the city (as we did when we were child-free). This is where your wish list from Step 2 will serve you well, giving you a chance to stroll and take impromptu stops, exploring the many hidden gems of this beautiful city. There are also some great hubs that you can head to if you’re at a loose end, such as The Pleasance Courtyard, where there’s always craft activities on offer for visiting children.
6. Be prepared to ditch the buggy
Although the Georgian New Town is more accessible, the Medieval Old Town causes havoc with any stroller, with parents having to endure the stress of busy, narrow pavements, whilst little ones experience bone-shaker sensations generated by the prevalence of historic cobbles. Laden with an almost unusable buggy board and having not brought along a toddler-carrier, we had to resort to carrying our youngest quite a bit. Yet another great reason to be realistic with your daily quest.
Portobello Beach © Phillipa Ellis, Arts Aloud
7. Take a Break
If you’ve made it here to Step no. 7, you should have done everything you need to sit back and relax, as much as you can when on holiday with children. As with any city break (especially this one during festival time) it’s busy and it’s hectic, and it can take its toll, especially on very young family members. The good news is that Edinburgh’s parks are plentiful. Whether the wilds of Holyrood Park (the gateway to King Arthur’s Seat) or the brilliant children’s playground at The Meadows, there’s plenty of break-out space for children of all ages to let loose. Less than an hour from the city by bus, beautiful beaches are also abound, such as the swathes of beach-combing sand at Portobello. This Victorian seaside suburb has bags of character, pretty beachfront cafés and more recently, a few chichi shops, making it a great option for an escape. Once at the beach, all that remains is to give yourself a huge pat on the back for clawing back your old life, whilst introducing your children to one of the everlasting giants of the arts scene.
Edinburgh Fringe runs from the 4th to 28th August.
Share your Edinburgh highs and lows this summer by tagging me on Instagram or Twitter and as they say in Scotland; Whit’s fur ye’ll no go past ye, or whatever is meant to happen to you, will happen to you! Good luck and happy hols!