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15 Best Free Things to Do in Edinburgh

Written by Brad Lane
Oct 11, 2022

Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, is a significant tourist destination and often the first stop on a Scotland vacation. The city offers a plethora of things to do in the morning, throughout the day, and well into the night. And this long list of attractions includes plenty of free things to do.

Historic Dean Village in Edinburgh
Historic Dean Village in Edinburgh | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

On top of many free itineraries is walking the world-famous Royal Mile, and visiting some of the country's best museums. Other free places to visit in Edinburgh include royal gardens; centuries-old churches; and Arthur's Seat, with beautiful views. All these free attractions offer a different slice of Edinburgh's art, culture, and family entertainment.

To make the most out of your Edinburgh travels and to make your vacation budget stretch the furthest, enjoy our list of the top free things to do in Edinburgh.

1. Tour the National Museum of Scotland

National Museum of Scotland
National Museum of Scotland | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The National Museum of Scotland is a massive repository of art, culture, science, and history under one roof. This enormous museum is free to enter and could take up an entire day (if not more).

Upon entering, the iconic and eye-catching Grand Gallery greets guests with its light-filled atrium. The rest of the world is yours to explore, spanning from this beautiful space.

Other galleries of note include Art, Design, and Fashion; the Natural World; and Science and Technology. Hanging from the ceiling and behind glass barriers are thousands upon thousands of displays relating to this wide variety of topics.

Be sure to budget extra time when visiting this free Edinburgh attraction.

Official site: https://www.nms.ac.uk/

2. Walk to Arthur's Seat in Holyrood Park

View from Arthur’s Seat
View from Arthur's Seat | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Holyrood Park is a 640-acre Royal Park near the Royal Mile, offering some of the city's best walks. Many visitors aim to reach the highest point in the park, Arthur's Seat, an extinct ancient volcano standing 251 meters (823 feet) above the city. This elevated vantage point gives a 360-degree view of the entire city.

It's free to walk to the top of Arthur's Seat, though it requires some sweat equity. The most common starting point is near the Palace of Holyroodhouse car park. From here, it's approximately a 2.4-kilometer (1.5-mile) hike to the top. Several worn paths aid navigation, but expect craggy conditions, especially near the top.

Holyrood Park offers several other worthwhile sights for those not interested in the moderate walk. The park is also home to Salisbury Crags, Duddingston Loch, and remnants of an ancient fort.

3. See What's in Bloom at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh comprises 72 acres of botanic delight. These stunning and lush gardens are less than a mile from the city center and are accessible via a walk or bus ride from the Royal Mile.

The Royal Botanic Garden is free to visit and stroll around. Budget at least a couple of hours to wander, and perhaps more to include its extra attractions, including the Inverleith House.

The Royal Botanic Garden takes on a different appeal each season, with plenty to see throughout the spring, fall, summer, and winter. A few notable points of interest include the Rock Garden, the Woodland Garden, and the Chinese Hillside. Also of note are the Queen's Mother Memorial Garden and the nearby Botanic Cottage.

4. Explore Edinburgh's Old Town

The Royal Mile, Edinburgh's Old Town
The Royal Mile, Edinburgh's Old Town | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Edinburgh's Old Town, the historic heart of the city, is often the first place to visit. It's based around the world-famous Royal Mile, stretching from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

Centuries-old buildings, free museums, and plenty of shopping and restaurants line this historic thoroughfare, alongside a dizzying amount of people on any fair-weather day.

Take some time to simply stroll the Royal Mile when visiting. Attractions abound in this part of Edinburgh, and something is bound to catch the eye, if not merely the stunning history that imbues the entire area. Free tours, free museums, and plenty of people-watching are just a few planned or unplanned things to do along the Royal Mile.

5. Admire the History of St. Giles' Cathedral

St Giles’ Cathedral
St Giles' Cathedral | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

St Giles' Cathedral is a landmark church on the Royal Mile, approximately halfway between Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse. It was founded in the 1120s and was the church of John Knox during the Reformation. Today, this longstanding history radiates from this holy cathedral's walls and stained-glass windows.

St Giles' Cathedral is still an operating place of worship and special events. Admission is free, though donations are encouraged. Public visiting times might be limited during worship hours or other special occasions.

A few notable pieces of interest during a self-guided tour include the massive Rieger organ and the renowned Thistle Chapel.

Official site: https://stgilescathedral.org.uk/

6. Peruse Fine Art at the Scottish National Gallery

Scottish National Gallery
Scottish National Gallery | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The Scottish National Gallery is yet another spectacular free tourist attraction of Edinburgh. It sits between Princes Street Gardens and the Waverley train station and is operated by the National Galleries of Scotland.

The Scottish National Gallery is split between two buildings: the National Gallery Building and the Royal Scottish Academy Building.

Within the National Gallery Building, explore fine art spanning the early Renaissance to the early 19th century. While big names in painting are represented throughout the several wings, the densest concentration of work comes from famous Scottish artists, including Raeburn, Ramsay, and Wilkie.

Official site: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/

7. Sign Up for a Free Guided Tour in Edinburgh

Guided tour in Edinburgh
Guided tour in Edinburgh | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

From Old Town's antiquated buildings to the immense castle standing above the city, the longstanding history of Edingburgh is hard to miss. However, the best way to peel back the layers of time is by hopping on a guided sightseeing tour led by a knowledgeable docent. And visitors to Edinburgh have several free guided tours to enjoy.

The most popular is the free city tour offered by City Explorers Edinburgh. This two-hour tour takes off three times a day, seven days a week, starting and ending in the Royal Mile. Along the way, gain insight into quintessential attractions along the famous street and take a deeper look into its hidden history. Prebooking these free tours is recommended.

Other free tours include Free Ghost Tours and Free New Town Tours. City Explorers also offers a popular Free Harry Potter Tour to learn about Edinburgh's influence on J.K. Rowling and the author's wizardly world.

8. Take in the View atop Calton Hill

Calton Hill
Calton Hill | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Calton Hill offers another high vantage point to enjoy a fantastic city view. This World Heritage Site is just east of Edinburgh's New Town and is accessible with a short walk up a paved path from Regent Road.

Atop, enjoy fantastic views of the city from all sides. In particular, a great vantage of Holyrood Park and Edinburgh's Old Town awaits those who make the short climb.

Calton Hill is also home to several eye-catching monuments and attractions, including the National Monument, which replicates the Parthenon in Athens.

Also atop are the Nelson Monument, the historic City Observatory, and a Greek Temple. All these monuments make great foreground shots for photographing epic sunrises and sunsets.

9. Wander along Princes Street, New Town Edinburgh

The Scott Monument, Princes Street
The Scott Monument, Princes Street | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Princes Street is the southernmost thoroughfare of Edinburgh's New Town. It's a bustling street filled with shopping, monuments, and plenty of benches to sit down and enjoy the scene. And don't let the label New Town misinform, as there is still plenty of historic architecture to admire.

One of the most eye-catching attributes of Princes Street is the towering Scott Monument, dedicated to the late great Scottish writer, Sir Walter Scott. This lofty monument sits at the top of Princes Street Gardens – a vibrant green space on the south side of Princes Street.

10. Discover the Faces of Scotland at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Scottish National Portrait Gallery | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is another free museum operated by the National Galleries of Scotland. It's housed within one of Edinburgh's most iconic buildings and has been operating since 1889.

Within, several portraits and portrait styles tell the story of Scotland through up-close images of its people.

Alongside its permanent and rotating artworks, the building itself is a pleasure to tour. Notably, the Great Hall sits at the center of the Portrait Gallery and provides remarkable illustrations of Scotland's past. Several fresco and mural decorations add an undeniably beautiful aesthetic to the Great Hall.

11. City Art Centre

City Art Centre
City Art Centre | Aivita Arika / Shutterstock.com

The City Art Centre is near the Waverly train station and offers six exhibit spaces. The rotating collection highlights historical and contemporary works from Scotland and from across the world. This ever-changing lineup of paintings, photographs, and other multi-media works ensures something new to see with each visit.

The City Art Centre is free to enter. However, some special exhibitions may require a fee.

Take some time on any tour of the Art Centre to enjoy the café on the first floor. The City Art Centre is open seven days of the week, barring any special circumstances or events.

Official site: https://www.edinburghmuseums.org.uk/

12. Stroll along The Water of Leith Walkway

The Water of Leith Walkway
The Water of Leith Walkway | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

If the crowds along the Royal Mile become too much, head for The Water of Leith Walkway. This relatively quiet water corridor offers a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. It's also a great connecting path for other free attractions in Edinburgh.

The Water of Leith Walkway, also known as The Walkway, spans 12 miles between Balerno and Leith, passing right through Edinburgh.

Within the city, the central part of the trail stretches between the Museum of Modern Art and the Royal Botanic Garden. This section spans just over two miles and passes through the picturesque Dean Village.

13. Learn about Local History at the Museum of Edinburgh

Museum of Edinburgh
Museum of Edinburgh | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The Museum of Edinburgh is within the 16th-century Huntly House on the Royal Mile, not far from the Palace of Holyroodhouse. It's entirely devoted to the city's history, with several artifacts and information panels on display. It's a valuable stop for any visit, and after winding through the various rooms and exhibits, it makes walking back onto the street that much more enjoyable.

The museum is free to visit. The 16th-century home is an exhibit itself, and although interesting, the old building is not accessible to everyone. Like many of Edinburgh's historical attractions, visitors must navigate winding steps.

14. Get Inspired at The Writers' Museum

The Writers' Museum
The Writers' Museum | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The Writers' Museum is another free museum just off the Royal Mile. Specifically, this free museum is near the top of the Royal Mile, accessible by cutting through Lady Stair's Close (alley). The museum is dedicated to three of Scotland's most famous authors: Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Information, artifacts, and personal possessions fill this fascinating historic home turned museum. A few objects on display include Robert Burn's writing desk and Sir Walter Scott's childhood rocking horse. First edition books, manuscripts, and other memorabilia also make up the museum's collection.

15. Enjoy the Aesthetics of Dean Village

Dean Village
Dean Village | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Dean Village is a quaint and historic village, a short jaunt from Princes Street. It's mostly a residential area these days with few public storefronts. However, its beautiful aesthetics make up for its lack of commercial activity. The village is along the Water of Leith, and its historic buildings shine whether the weather is sunny or rainy.

A recommended approach to putting Dean Village on the itinerary is to double it up with a trip to the Museum of Modern Art (another free attraction). The Water of Leith Walkway connects these two photogenic attractions with a picture-worthy route. It's approximately a half-mile stroll on The Walkway between Dean Village and the Museum of Modern Art.

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