The Royal Botanic Garden has delighted both plant-lovers and casual strollers for almost two centuries. Edinburgh's most peaceful tourist attraction, it's also a noted centre for botanical and horticultural research, and houses the oldest botanical library in Britain. Access to its grand Victorian palm house is free, although it costs to delve deeper into the themed zones of the '60s-era glasshouses. Still, it's worth the modest fee for the privilege of viewing all kinds of orchids, ferns, tropical plant life, rainforest species and other bits and pieces. The Plants & People glasshouse, for example, shows off rice, sugar and cocoa as vegetation; the pond in the middle is covered with freakishly large water lily leaves every summer.
In autumn 2009, the Botanics welcomed a major new arrival with the opening of the John Hope Gateway at the West Gate, a carbon-neutral biodiversity and information centre with shop, restaurant, plant nursery and education rooms. With a wood-and-slate exterior and a rooftop wind turbine, the Gateway is the Botanics' leap into the 21st century.
Another highlight is the Chinese Hillside, which focuses on intrepid Scottish plant-hunters such as George Forrest and Robert Fortune. Specimens grow in drifts beside winding paths and carved bridges; there's also a t'ing, a traditional poolside pavilion.
The Botanics is a controlled space (no ball games, no bikes, no dogs, no jogging). However, during the Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe, outdoor art installations are often set up around the site. Year-round, there's plenty here that appeals to children. The pond, with its ducks and swans, and the waterfall in the rock garden area, where a heron sometimes fishes, are particularly popular.
The Terrace Café, by Inverleith House, is good for a quick coffee, but the food is hardly bargain basement. Sitting outside may find you pestered by pigeons, the odd squirrel or one of the city's assertive seagull population. But even the mighty gulls are intimidated by Edinburgh's middle-class mothers, many of whom stroll here all year round.