Edinburgh has always been a fantastic city to visit, but it now boasts two very special inhabitants that are drawing visitors from all over the UK.
Ever since giant pandas Tian Tian and Yang Guang first arrived at Edinburgh Zoo a few months ago, crowds have been flocking to catch a glimpse of these remarkable animals that somehow manage to melt even the hardest heart.
Like dolphins, pandas have the ability to make you feel exhilarated and they are fascinating to watch, although your time is limited to just 10 minutes in each enclosure.
They are on loan to the zoo for 10 years, at which point they must be returned to China, along with any babies that may be born.
Pre-booking your ‘panda time slot’ is essential, although it is included in the cost of your zoo tickets (£15 for adults, £11 for children aged 3-15, under 3 free).
Pandas are solitary animals and the pair can currently only see each other from over the wall of the enclosure, although it is hoped they will soon be introduced and strongly encouraged to ‘get along’!
The pandas are the obvious highlight, but it’s the penguin enclosure you’ll want to be near at 2.15pm. It is at this time each day that the penguins strut their stuff and waddle past you on their daily parade.
Sadly, the day we were visiting, they refused to budge!
Edinburgh is just over a four-hour drive away, which easily justifies it as a long weekend break at any time of the year.
There’s tonnes of stuff to explore other than the obvious tourist attractions of Edinburgh Castle and The Royal Mile, such as antique book stores, vintage clothing shops, and lots of delightful restaurants and bars.
If you want to splash the cash though, try Multrees Walk - Edinburgh’s high-end designer shops all situated in the one street, including Harvey Nichols, Louis Vuitton and Mulberry.
But with a toddler in tow, it was the zoo that made its way to number one on our list. I confess to spending a fortune on panda merchandise afterwards and we now also keep up-to-date with the pandas’ progress by watching ‘Panda Cam’ on the Zoo’s website.
We chose to stay in serviced apartments right in the heart of the city centre. With all the luxuries of a hotel, but without the meal restrictions, lack of space and sometimes impersonal nature, this is choice of accommodation that is growing in popularity, particularly for anyone with children, or those going away with groups of friends.
Princes Street Suites has one, two and three bedroom apartments and penthouses, each featuring double bedrooms, kitchen and a large, contemporary living area with stunning views across the city skyline.
There’s 24-hour concierge and even the option of booking your own private chef! The average price of a two bedroom suite is around £229 per night or you could opt for the three bedroom penthouse, for around £399.
The suites also have a spa – The Sanctuary – offering a wide range of treatments for men and women, so I took the rare opportunity to enjoy some ‘me time’ with a hot stone massage – a perfect ending to a chilly day at the zoo.
Prior to having kids, an open top bus tour might not have appealed, but after a couple of hours trotting around the city, it was a welcome relief to sit down.
Hop on, hop off bus tours are a good chance to get your bearings in the city and also soak up its vibrancy, as the route takes you to Holyrood, St. Andrew Square, the National Museum of Scotland and the Scottish Parliament, overlooked by the magnificent Arthur’s Seat.
Tickets are £12 each, children £5 (under 5 free) and valid for 24 hours.
I was particularly excited about a visit to The Elephant House on George IV Bridge Street – the café made famous as the place where JK Rowling started writing Harry Potter.
She would sit by the window, inspired by the view of the castle, making a cup of coffee last as long as possible with her baby by her side as she scribbled away. I couldn’t help but fall in love with its warm, relaxing atmosphere and big, oak tables nicely spaced with pictures and figurines of elephants dotted throughout.
The loos are full of Potter- related graffiti including lines such as ‘I’d go sleazy for Ron Weasley’, ‘Mischief Managed’, ‘Ron 4 Hermione’ and my personal favourite ‘Flush twice for Ministry of Magic’ written in marker pen above the toilet chain.
I could have quite happily whiled away the hours drinking coffee, reading the newspapers - perhaps contemplating a novel of my own - but with a 2-year-old that hasn’t yet been introduced to the magic of Hogwarts, our visit was a relatively short one.
Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, two days in Edinburgh wasn’t really enough and although I know it’ll be busy in August, it’s not the London Olympics that gets my vote this summer – it’s Edinburgh Festival.