Enjoy Edinburgh for Free: Top Things to Do in the City

Edinburgh city panorama.

Fringe, Hogmanay or Beyonce. Edinburgh is a tourist mecca, but it can be pricey. However, there are many attractions that are free. Edinburgh is a city that offers something for everyone, but if you are on a budget, there are still plenty of free things to do.

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Table of Contents

 From strolling through the stunning Royal Botanic Garden to exploring the historic Old Town and sampling the local delicacies at markets – there is no shortage of activities in Edinburgh that won’t cost you a penny. In this article, we will explore some of the best free things to do in Edinburgh so that you can experience this beautiful city without breaking the bank.

Free things to do in Edinburgh- Galleries

Edinburgh’s excellent galleries include;

The Scottish National Gallery

(The Mound) which houses works of artists like Rubens or Cezanne. The gallery houses Scotland’s national collection of fine art, spanning Scottish and international art from the beginning of the Renaissance to the start of the 20th century.

 

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

One site, two sculpture parks, and two galleries

Home to Scotland’s outstanding national collection of modern and contemporary art, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art comprises two buildings: Modern One and Modern Two. It also includes the Photography Gallery and the atmospheric Victorian Library

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery

showcases contemporary portraits of pop culture icons such as Billy Connolly, Emeli Sandé, and Tilda Swinton in the galleries above. You will spot recent pioneers in science, sport, and the arts, as well as famous historical figures such as Mary Queen of Scots, Robert Burns, and Charles Edward Stuart.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/

Museums - big and small

The National Museum of Scotland

For the rainy day, among the best free things to do in Edinburgh is to visit a local favorite, The National Museum of Scotland. It offers world-class collections that will take you on a journey through the history of Scotland, the wonders of nature, and diverse cultures from around the globe.

Writers Museum

The Writers’ Museum celebrates the lives of three giants of Scottish Literature: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Lady Stair’s Close is one of the most picturesque corners in Old Town, a spectacular 17th-century townhouse that is home to the Writers’ Museum.

The Museum of Edinburgh

Discovers Edinburgh’s fascinating history through its wide and varied collections. By exploring the Museum’s maze of 16th century buildings, you can view iconic items, beautiful objects, and learn fascinating facts and gruesome tales.

Museum of Childhood

The world’s first museum dedicated to the history of childhood features displays of toys, games, clothes, books, and dolls dating from the 1800s to the present day

The People’s Story Museum

The People’s Story provides a unique insight into Edinburgh’s working-class people from the 18th century to the late 20th century. The displays include tableaux, original objects, images, and personal stories to reveal the fascinating history of the city.

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

Writer's Museum
Writer's Museum

Collective at Calton Hill 

Collective is a free contemporary art space that brings innovative new perspectives to the city of Edinburgh. Located in a heritage observatory, Collective develops and presents first-rate exhibitions, events, workshops, and discussions from pioneering local and international artists.

Museum on the Mound 

This fascinating museum has informative, well-presented displays and interesting hands-on activities. Kids can enjoy safe cracking and coin pressing during summer and school holidays at certain hours.

Discover how money has evolved over the past 4,000 years and view £1 million pounds. You can also observe Scotland’s oldest banknote and explore the changing face of Edinburgh.

 

Anatomical Museum

This museum is incredible and definitely worth visiting! Primarily functioning as part of the university, it also allows public access to its exhibits. Therefore, don’t expect a standard tourist experience here, as it is not designed for that purpose.

The museum is home to a plethora of interesting artefacts and specimens, especially the real skeleton of William Burke. If you’re someone who’s intrigued by these things, it’s definitely worth a visit! However, do keep in mind that it’s open on specific days/months only, so be sure to plan accordingly.

 

William Burke Museum

In the early 1800s, Edinburgh was a hub of anatomical experimentation. Various laws at the time did not allow scientists to use human cadavers for research, so they had to employ the services of “resurrection men.”

Burke and Hare were experts on the field who decided to take a different approach, instead of taking bodies from graveyards, the perpetrators lured unsuspecting victims to a boarding house near the museum, intending to kill them. Subsequently, they sold their corpses for scientific research.

Over a 10-month period, 16 individuals were killed by the Burke and Hare duo. To escape the gallows, Hare provided evidence against his partner Burke who was eventually hanged on January 28th, 1829.

Following Burke’s death, numerous citizens took pieces of his body as mementos. A part extracted from the back of his hand was used to make a special case for a calling card.

The calling card case was made from skin taken from the back of William Burke’s left hand, which was treated, tanned, and finely decorated with gold tooling.

The calling card case had been owned for many years by Dr Hobbs and was passed down to the family of Piercy Hughes, a descendant of one of the surgeons involved in William Burke’s dissection.

The museum is located inside the Witchery Tours building. 

Architecture

Scottish Parliament 

Scottish Parliament is one of the most interesting free things to do in Edinburgh

Is located at the bottom of Royal Mile sitting in the award-winning building you can see live debates, take a tour or learn about Scotland’s political history.

Self-guided visit but also free guided tours and talks are available. There is also an exhibition, a café and gift shop. All meetings in the Debating Chamber are open to the public from Tuesday to Thursday.

  

Parliament hall

This magnificent 17th-century hall, with original oak hammer-beam roof, is where the original Scottish Parliament met before its dissolution in 1707. The stunning roof and stained glass are complemented by sculptures and paintings, including a Raeburn, of famous legal figures up to the present day.

11 Parliament Square – there’s a sign outside saying ‘Parliament Hall; Court of Session’- the building located behind St Giles Cathedral

 

Dovecot Studios

Established in 1912 by the 4th Marquess of Bute, Dovecot Studios handpicked their weavers from the workshops at Merton Abbey, London that were managed by William Morris.

The Marquess asked the studios to make large tapestries for Mount Stuart House, his residence on the Isle of Bute. Dovecot, now situated in a transformed Victorian baths building plus a café, endeavors to bring the latest work of present-day creators and makers to a larger group of people.

Get a unique artistic experience away from the usual tourist attractions but still in the city center. Go to the gallery and you will get a wonderful view of professional weavers doing their work below.

The gallery itself is an attractive place and offers an interesting insight into these highly skilled workers. From the viewing gallery to see some amazing tapestry and rugs whilst watching the weavers in action on the floor below

An exhibition ticket is required for some of the paid exhibitions.

Debate Chamber at Scottish Parliament_free things to do in Edinburgh
Debate Chamber at Scottish Parliament

Churches and Chapels

St Giles Cathedral

The story of St Giles’ Cathedral, which sits on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, is one of drama and powerful figures. The church dates back to the 1120s and was dedicated to Saint Giles, the patron saint of the city. It was a small, Romanesque building, of which only fragments remain.

St Giles has had a very eventful history. In 1385, it was burned by the forces of Richard II, and during the Reformation of the 1600s, much of its beauty was destroyed to make way for Presbyterian austerity.

During this period, the renowned John Knox was the minister of St Giles Church, and additional walls were added to create multiple rooms and chapels. It was during the 17th century, under Charles I and II, that the church became a cathedral. Today, the cathedral is one of the free places to visit while in Edinburgh.

 

Magdalen chapel

The chapel is located on Cowgate, a dark street dotted with bars, nightclubs, and hostels, stretching across the lower level of Edinburgh’s Old Town.

It’s a spot that’s often missed by visitors who are buzzing between the more popular sights on the nearby Royal Mile and Candlemaker Row.

Inside is Scotland’s only remaining medieval stained glass, featuring four modest but beautiful roundels depicting coats of arms: Mary of Guise’s, the Lion Rampant of Scotland, and those of Michael MacQuhane and his wife, Janet Rynd. 

 

Hidden garden chapel of St Albert the Great

Hidden behind the wall at the back of George Square Lane is a strikingly beautiful piece of modern architecture, fitting perfectly into its setting. It is beautifully handcrafted, providing a gathering place and a new space for contemplation and prayer

The awarding winning Chapel is part of St Albert’s Catholic Chaplaincy, which serves the spiritual needs of Catholic staff and students of Edinburgh’s Universities. 

It belongs to the Dominican Friars who built it in their back garden in 2012. The garden planting echoes the views of its Fourteenth Century patron St Albert the Great who while commenting on Aristotle wrote that a garden should have “a great diversity of medical and aromatic herbs, not only to delight the sense of smell by their perfume, but to refresh the sight by the variety of their flowers, and to cause admiration at their many forms in those who look at them” (from ‘De Vegetabilibus et Plantis‘).

To date there are about 150 different species in the raised bed, including many of the herbs of which St Albert wrote https://scotland.op.org/about-us/history/the-chapel-of-st-albert-the-great/ 

It is open all day until early evening and has two entrances – one through the basement of 23 George Square and the other from George Square Lane

St Giles Cathedral free things to do in Edinburgh
St Giles Cathedral

Free things to do in Edinburgh - Music

St Cecilia Hall and Music Museum

This is Scotland’s oldest purpose-built concert hall and home to the Edinburgh University musical instrument collection. which ranks among the world’s most important collections of musical heritage. It has an official Recognised Collection of National Significance to Scotland status.

 

Live music 

Sandy Bell’s

Sandy Bell’s has a long-standing tradition in music, with roots tracing back to 1942. This bar is deeply tied to folk music and has maintained the same for almost 80 years. Live sessions take place every day, with an emphasis on traditional Scottish and Irish music

Jazz Bar

The Jazz Bar is renowned for its diversity of performers; from jazz to blues, funk and soul. Regularly hosting between three and five gigs every day, they draw in a huge crowd from all over the city. Some gigs may require tickets to be purchased.

The Voodoo Rooms

The historic Edinburgh building hosts a bar which won six awards in 2008 for cocktails, music & design. You can catch a wide variety of performances here – from singer-songwriters to jazz musicians and blues artists. Some gigs may require tickets to be purchased.

The Royal Oak

The Royal Oak has been preserving its strong connections to folk music for the past 35 years. Every single night you can find some type of music performance, ranging from open mic sessions to small concerts. Bring an instrument and a good singing voice and you’ll be able to enjoy the special atmosphere of the pub even more.

 

Gardens

Princes Street Gardens

This free attraction lies in the heart of Edinburgh two adjacent public parks,  lying in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle.

Botanic Garden

Is a peace and tranquility among 72 acres of stunning scenery. Chinese Hillside, world-famous Rock Garden or stroll among the magnificent Giant Redwood trees in the Woodland Garden. The Royal Botanic Garden is located just 1 mile from the city center.

Dunbar’s Close

A verdant 17th-century-style garden hidden along Edinburgh’s Royal Mile

Dr Neil Garden

A secret garden in a picturesque Edinburgh village has inspired artists for centuries. Tucked away behind a 12th century church in the picturesque village of Duddingston, the green hideaway sits in the shadow of an extinct volcano and overlooks a loch.

Lauriston Castle – Kyoto Friendship Garden

Explore the beautiful Japanese Garden located at Lauriston Castle in Cramond, Edinburgh. It was built to celebrate the bond between Kyoto and Edinburgh in 2002 and is formally known as ‘Castle Garden to Water and Beyond’.  This hidden gem is a bit off the tourists’ route, but I highly recommend visiting it as a free thing to do in Edinburgh, especially,  beautiful in May when all cherry trees are in bloom. 

Archivist garden

The space between the General Register House and the New Register House has recently been refurbished and turned into a unique garden. Archivist garden features a variety of 58 plant species, all having some kind of connection to Scotland’s collective memory – from mythology & folklore to heraldry and related to iconic Scottish figures.

rocky garden at botanic garden edinburgh free things to do in Edinburgh
Botanic Garden

Tunnels and Murals

Innocent Street Tunnel

built by a Victorian engineer at 517 metres, the Innocent Railway tunnel under Holyrood Park is an impressive feat, especially considering it was the first railway tunnel in Scotland. Now, it is part of the Edinburgh Cycle Network.

The Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway, opened it in July 1831, originally as a horse-drawn tramway built to haul agricultural produce and coal from the mines of Lothian up to the Edinburgh terminus at St Leonard’s. Designed by engineer James Jardine (1776-1858), it was Edinburgh’s first railway line.

Inside, it is cool and damp; however, after descending the long tunnel, you will exit into the pleasant, green surroundings of Holyrood Park and the Bawsinch Nature Reserve. This green corridor then continues onto Duddingston, along paths at Niddrie Mains, out to Brunstane and beyond the coast or on routes to Midlothian

 

Colinton tunnel

It was opened in 1874 by the Caledonian Railway on the route of a single-track branch line that connected Slateford with Balerno, serving mills along the Water of Leith.

4th December 1967 – there was a last train ran on the line through Colinton Tunnel. 1967 to 1970’s – Tunnel has been closed and bricked up. It was restored, lit and re-opened again in 1980 by Edinburgh District Council on the route of the Water of Leith Walkway.

When Colinton Tunnel deteriorate again a local group raised funds to refurbish it once more. Over 600 local young and older people contributed along with the lead artist and his team of professional and volunteer artists.

The entire 140-meter tunnel is painted plus the brick wall outside of the tunnel.  The illustrated poem of Robert Louis Stevenson who had a long connection with Colinton runs along the wall and connect with illustrations reflecting the community heritage

Colinton TUNNEL painting older men with a dog
Mural in Colinton Tunnel

Festivals

One of the best things to do for free in Edinburgh is to visit the city in  August. Edinburgh celebrates a season of extraordinary events such as its Book Festival, Fringe and The Royal Military Tattoo. Accommodations this month may be pricier than usual, but free street entertainment and open-entry events are everywhere.

What’s more than 40 museums, galleries and pop-up spaces come together in August to programme the Edinburgh Art Festival, with free entry to most exhibitions. 

August is just one month for festival celebrations in Edinburgh, but there is more throughout the year. Find out more here.

Little free libraries

Edinburgh has a number of Little Free Libraries, which are small free book exchange boxes that allow people to take a book or leave a book.

I love this simple concept anyone can get something to read at any time, for free. These little libraries are dotted all around Edinburgh. 

Here are a few locations you might be interested in:

  1. Stockbridge Colonies – Teviotdale Place- definitely my favourite!

  2. 17 Dundas Street, Edinburgh, EH3 6QG

  3. 37 Scotland Street- the location of Alexander Mccall Smith’s popular book series 44 Scotland Street. 

  4. 7 Chandler Crescent,  Leith
  5. 11 Forrester Park Grove,  EH12 9AL
Little library Stockbridge Teviotdale Place
Little library Stockbridge Teviotdale Place

Vistas

Arthur Seat

Climbing up to Arthur’s Seat is free, and you can start from outside the Palace of Holyroodhouse. This ancient volcano is the highest of the seven and rises above Holyrood Park. From here, you can take a few different routes that suit your walking ability.

The view of the city from the top is worth every step. My favorite path is to walk along The Queen’s Drive (High Road), which is a circular path around the volcano.It’s 5 km long (1 hour walk) with a moderate ascent. Walking this path allows you to view the city from different perspectives.

Castle Rock

Edinburgh’s iconic Castle is perched atop the prominent cragged hill known as The Rock. From there, the Royal Mile meanders through its classic crag-and-tail formation, eventually leading to the Palace of Holyrood at its bottom.

Calton Hill

The views of Edinburgh from Calton Hill are just as stunning as the hill’s monuments themselves. Witness the Athens-like National Monument of Scotland and the early 19th-century Nelson Tower built to honour Vice-Admiral Nelson after his victory and death at the Battle of Trafalgar. Calton Hil is lovely both day and evening, but if you time it right, you can catch a gorgeous sunset here

Andy Goldsworthy Hutton Roof 

The National Museum of Scotland roof terrace is located on the seventh floor of the museum, the roof terrace offers stunning panoramic views of the city skyline, including Edinburgh Castle and Arthur’s Seat.

It is a perfect place to take a break from the busy museum exhibitions and enjoy the fresh air and breathtaking views. The terrace is open during museum hours and is accessible via a lift or stairs.

There is also a cafe located on the terrace where you can grab a coffee, a light bite, or enjoy a drink while taking in the views.

Princes Gardens The Ross Fountain
Princes Gardens The Ross Fountain

Wild swimming or sunbathe

Portobello beach 

Portobello Beach is a beautiful seaside area located in the east of Edinburgh. It is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike, offering a long stretch of sandy beach, a busy promenade, and a variety of cafes, restaurants, and shops.

If you’re in the area, be sure to take a stroll along the beach, enjoy a coffee with a view or take a dip in the Victorian swimming pool. Portobello Beach is also a regular meeting spot for swimmers all year round. 

 

Cramond Beach 

Cramond Beach is another lovely seaside area located in the west of Edinburgh, Scotland. It offers a more tranquil experience compared to Portobello Beach, with a quiet atmosphere and beautiful views of the Firth of Forth.

The beach is a great spot for walking, picnicking, or enjoying a relaxing day in the sun. You can also explore the nearby Cramond Island, accessible by a causeway during low tide. You can also walk or cycle along the Cramond Beach promenade or take a lovely walk along Almond river

Path to Cramond Island
Path to Cramond Island

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About me
Scotland Itinerary planning

My name is Kate and I created Scotland Itinerary Planning to give you those life-changing experiences right in the beautiful country I call home.

I’m proud to live in Edinburgh, Scotland, one of the world’s most beautiful capital cities. Living in Edinburgh has provided me a base to explore extensively around this magical little country.

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