When you start looking for a new apartment, there are few things more enticing than a beautiful balcony, especially if you love the outdoors. In urban areas, you may not be able to find a living space surrounded by a lush yard or next door to a park, but a balcony provides a space to work, cook and relax when you still need the feeling of getting out of the house. In many ways, a balcony is an extension of your apartment. It can be a comfortable area in which you enjoy a lot of time, especially during long summer days. Whether you need a go-to spot for reading a good book, knocking back a few cold ones with some friends or just enjoying a little fresh air, the balcony is the place to be. Here are 5 ideas for transforming your balcony from a bland platform to an essential part of your home:

1. Make the most of your handrail
The handrail on your balcony may seem like nothing more than a safety precaution, but there are numerous ways you can make it into something more. You can relatively easily build a tabletop style attachment to your handrail or buy one online. That way you have counter space for an outdoor kitchen or setting drinks. You can also use the handrail for hanging string lights or potted plants. For those that are a bit more utilitarian, your balcony handrail can also be used to hang drying laundry.

2. Create a balcony garden
Just because you live high in the sky doesn't mean you can't enjoy a bit of nature. If you have a green thumb, purchase some potted plants and herbs to grow on your balcony. That way, you'll be able to savor the delightful aroma of nature every time you walk out the door. What's more, if you grow some essential herbs, such as rosemary, oregano, basil, parsley and thyme, you'll be able to simply pull off a sprig or two for fresh homemade meals.

3. Bring out some color
Odds are your balcony will look rather bland when you move in. Using string lights or other decorations to bring some color this space and give it a more vibrant feel. The lights will be great for late summer meals al fresco or serve as festive decorations during the holidays. One option is buying a tapestry or colorful canvas to hang overhead. Not only will this help protect you from the elements, but also make your outdoor space feel more personalized.

4. Build a breakfast nook
Some comfortable chairs and a small table make the perfect set up for enjoying a meal on your balcony anytime of day. However, there are few things better than scarfing down a late breakfast on your balcony in the morning sun. Create a comfortable space where you can sit outside and check your email or do a crossword puzzle while you sip on your morning coffee. Cushioned chairs will add to the comfort element of your balcony, but remember to take the cushions inside when not in use so they don't get soaked in the rain.

5. Get a grill
There's no reason to stop at simply eating outside. Cooking outdoors is an American pastime. Everyone enjoys grilling up some hot dogs and hamburgers in the summer, and your balcony makes it possible to grill without leaving your home. Luckily, grills come in a wide range of sizes so you don't have to worry about them taking up too much space.