25 Free Things to Do in Edinburgh
Group Accommodation in Edinburgh
An architectural and cultural gem, Edinburgh should definitely be on your bucket list of places to visit. The city may have a reputation for not being easy on the pocket – it is a western capital city, after all – but there are plenty of activities that you can do for free. Here is a list of 25 things to do for free in Edinburgh.
Places of Interest
Scottish Parliament Building
Located in Holyrood within Edinburgh’s central UNESCO World Heritage Site is the Scottish Parliament Building, which is open to the public six days a week for the majority of the year. The building itself, completed in 2004, is worth a look, having won numerous architecture awards. If you are interested in what goes on inside, it is possible to join a free guided tour of the building on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays. The tour lasts about one hour and you will learn about many aspects of the Parliament Building, including how the Parliament works, the building’s architecture and design, and pieces from the art collection.
Greyfriars Kirkyard and Greyfriars Bobby
One of the most well-known cemeteries in the world, in recent years owing to a certain writer who penned seven novels about a boy wizard who stole names from the tombstones to use in her books, Greyfriars Kirkyard is the resting place of a few well-known Scots. Possibly the most visited of the graves is that of Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye terrier who died in 1872. A familiar figure in 19th century Edinburgh, Greyfriars Bobby reportedly guarded his owner’s grave for fourteen years and stole the hearts of the Lord Provost William Chambers and the public, who would bring him food. Chambers even organised a dog licence for him, thereby saving him from being put down by the local authorities. Greyfriars Bobby himself is buried just outside the kirkyard, close to his memorial statue.
Edinburgh Central Library
Opened in 1890, Edinburgh Central Library was the first public library to open in the city. As well as being a beautiful building to walk around, the library organise a number of events throughout the year. Some are ticketed even though they are free so it is best to check the library’s website for details. As for the collections, the library has several floors and has books, periodicals, maps and newspapers going back many years in six different departments.
Outdoor Spaces and Activities
Arthur’s Seat and Holyrood Park
Edinburgh is built on seven hills which form Holyrood Park, and the highest of these is Arthur’s Seat, named allegedly after the eponymous King Arthur of British legend and supposedly the location of Arthur’s Camelot. In reality, the hill is an ancient, now extinct, volcano which erupted around 350 million years ago. It makes for a pleasant walk and is also the location of a well-preserved fort dating back approximately 2000 years. Holyrood Park is the park surrounding Holyrood Palace and is home to a wide range of flora and fauna as well as a 15th century chapel and a fresh water loch.
Dr Neil’s Garden
One of the most impressive gardens in the country, Dr Neil’s Garden – also known as Edinburgh’s Secret Garden – is the result of the hard work of two medical doctors, Nancy and Andrew Neil. Situated next to Duddingston Loch, the garden has long been a source of inspiration for writers, musicians and artists. It is a space used for meditation and contemplation, and also makes for a lovely setting for a romantic walk.
The Royal Mile and the Grassmarket
Possibly the most famous place in Edinburgh, the Royal Mile connects Holyrood Palace to Edinburgh Castle. A good percentage of the city’s museums, sights and galleries are located on the Royal Mile. You also have the opportunity to see an abundance of Scottish crafts, including the national tartan fabric. Just a short walk away is the Grassmarket. During the medieval ages, the Grassmarket was the city’s market place and execution site. It is now one of the most vibrant areas of the city with lots of shops and pubs, but you can still discover its past by following the Greater Grassmarket Historic Trail.
Royal Botanic Garden
Set in an amazing 72 acres of land, the Royal Botanic Garden is easily one of the most stunning botanic gardens in the world. There is much to explore in the garden, including: the arboretum, a tree collection containing over 730 species; the rock garden with plants from Asia, Europe and the Americas; the Chinese Hillside which highlights the strong links between the garden and China; the Queen Mother’s Memorial Garden with plants from around the world to symbolise her love of travelling; and the demonstration garden, focusing on encouraging people to grow their own food.
Perfect in the summer months, the seaside district of Portobello Beach is located just a few miles from the centre of Edinburgh. It is the ideal spot for sunbathing and swimming when the weather is fine and the beach is also host to a number of events, such as the Big Beach Busk, a huge busking event and sporting competitions for volleyball and triathlon.
Archivists’ Garden is located in the open courtyard between General Register House and New Register House and houses 57 species of plant, all of which are connected to Scottish history and culture in some way. These associations are divided into five categories: Events (Birth, Marriage and Death); Famous Scots; Heraldry; Homecoming; and Tartan. The garden layout is a physical representation of the human mind and memory; the flora are planted in a flowing pattern to mimic the randomness of the human brain.
The Potter Trail
It is a well-known fact now that JK Rowling wrote a lot of her best-selling series of Harry Potter in Edinburgh, with a lot of local locations inspiring names, places and characters in the books. On this free walking tour, you will discover these locations, including the real-life street that Diagon Alley is based on, where Professor McGonagall and Lord Voldemort are buried, and the school which was the inspiration for Hogwarts. You will also visit the Elephant House, the cafe where Rowling wrote the first book.
A designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, Calton Hill offers wonderful views over Edinburgh, especially at sunset. It is also home to a number of monuments: the National Monument of Scotland, which is dedicated to Scottish soldiers and sailors who perished during the Napoleonic Wars; Nelson’s Monument; and the Robert Burns Monument.
Museums and Art Galleries
Scottish National Gallery
Housing an astonishing amount of art from around the world, the Scottish National Gallery is a must for every visitor to Edinburgh. Opened in 1859, the collections here span all the way from the Renaissance to the 20th century, and include works by Botticelli, Vermeer, Constable, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Turner, Monet, Raphael, and Rembrandt, among many others. There are actually two buildings of the gallery, the National Gallery Building and the Royal Scottish Academy Building, which are now connected by the underground Gardens Level.
The Writers’ Museum
Located on the Royal Mile in Lady Stair’s House, the Writers’ Museum details and celebrates the lives of three of Scotland’s most revered writers – Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. It is not necessary to have read the works of these writers in order to enjoy the museum as there is plenty of information given throughout. The museum houses a number of portraits, personal effects and rare books belonging to the three. Highlights of these include: original drafts of Burns’; a plaster cast of Burns’ skull, one of only three made; and Stevenson’s riding boots and a ring given to him by a Samoan chief. Outside the museum is Makars’ Court where you will find flagstones inscribed with the names of Scottish writers from the 14th century up to the modern day.
National Museum of Scotland
History buffs will be in heaven during a visit to the National Museum of Scotland. Detailing the country’s history, the museum looks into various facets, such as art, design and fashion, science and technology, and nature. In the Grand Gallery – one of the most beautiful spaces in Scotland with its high windows and tall pillars – there are a number of wondrous objects on display, such as a 19th century lighthouse lens and a 12-foot long South Pacific feast bowl. In the Natural World galleries you will come face to face with a giant Tyrannosaurus Rex and discover the wide variety of the animal world. Other galleries to check out are the World Cultures galleries, the Scottish History and Archaeological galleries, and the science and technology galleries.
City Art Centre
One of the most interesting galleries in Edinburgh, City Art Centre offer a wide range of exhibitions from the historic to the modern. They primarily concentrate on photography, architecture and contemporary art. As well as the exhibitions, they also have a hands-on ArtSpace where you can try your hand at different art projects such as portraits, landscapes and collages. They even have facilitated art sessions on Saturday afternoons.
Museum of Edinburgh
If you are particularly interested in the history of the city itself then the Museum of Edinburgh is for you. Situated in the 16th century Huntly House, the building is a maze of collections relating to the city’s origins and history. One of its most impressive collections is its decorative art. Examples include silver, glass, pottery and porcelain, showing the diversity of Scottish craftsmanship. Other interesting items are the collar and bowl of Greyfriars Bobby and the National Covenant of 1638. Fans of the TV show Outlander will be interested to know that some scenes from series three were filmed at Huntly House.
Museum of Childhood
The first museum in the world completely dedicated to the history of childhood, the Museum of Childhood has an impressive collection of toys and games dating back to the 18th century. The ground floor has recently been refurbished and now includes a number of new items, including a retro Buzz Lightyear from the year 2000. As well as toys and games, the museum also showcases costumes and fashion and details the home, nursery and school lives of children throughout the ages.
Scottish National Portrait Gallery
The Scottish National Portrait Gallery was the world’s first portrait gallery, opened in 1889. It’s an impressive building in itself, built in the Spanish Gothic Style, making it distinct from other buildings in the area. Designed specifically to showcase pictures of Scotland’s heroes and heroines, the gallery now houses a vast array of paintings, photographs and sketches, beginning in the Renaissance and leading up to the present day. Some of the more famous portraits include Mary Queen of Scots, Robert Burns and James IV as well as some modern names like Billy Connolly and Robbie Coltrane.
Museum on the Mound
If you’re interested in the story of money, the Museum on the Mound, located in the Bank of Scotland’s head office, tells it in a fascinating way. It looks at the way in which money has evolved over 4,000 years, from using objects such as shells and tea as currency to our present day coins and banknotes. It has exhibitions on the rise of building societies in Victorian Britain and the changing face of banking throughout the centuries. The museum also has some interactive activities to take part in, such as trying to crack open a safe and applying for a 19th century life assurance policy.
Churches and Chapels
St Giles’ Cathedral
Founded in 1124, St Giles’ Cathedral, the High Kirk of Scotland, is located at the heart of the city and was the focal point of the Scottish Reformation during the 16th century. It is the most important place of worship in the city and named after the patron saint of Edinburgh, who was extremely popular during the Middle Ages. Unusual for a Presbyterian church, it has some stunning stained glass depicting several figures, including Saint Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland.
It would be very easy to miss Magdalen Chapel – it’s hidden away in the Cowgate – but it is well worth seeking out due to the fact that it has the oldest stained glass in Scotland. Built in the 16th century, it was initially partly established as a hospital for the poor as well as the sick. Its stained glass was the only ones to survive the Scottish Reformation. The central window feature four shields including the arms of Mary Guise, the mother of Mary Queen of Scots. The chapel is now used as the Scottish Reformation Society’s headquarters.
St Cuthbert’s Parish Church
Built on the foundations of at least six previous churches, St Cuthbert’s Parish Church is hidden away at the west end of Princes Street. The current church was built in the late 19th century but also includes an 18th century memorial chapel to those who died in the World War I. This chapel is the location where Agatha Christie married her second husband in 1930. Other notable features of the church include the Byzantine-inspired apse and rounded vault with its exquisite ceiling paintings and marble and alabaster pulpit, and its stained glass window of David on his way to defeat the giant Goliath, made from Tiffany glass.
Live Music at Whistle Binkies
Although many venues offer free music in Edinburgh, Whistle Binkies gets the nod for offering up to four bands on any given night during the week. They are free to enter from Sundays to Thursdays, and up to midnight at the weekends. In addition to regular gigs from both signed and unsigned artists, they also hold open mic nights.
Live Music at Sandy Bell’s
If folk music is your thing, Sandy Bell’s is where you should head. With evening sessions every day and afternoon ones on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays – with the exception of the month of August during the Edinburgh Festival, when afternoon sessions take place every day – you can catch a wide variety of acts performing different folk genres, including Scottish reels and American bluegrass.
The Stand Comedy Club
Edinburgh has a great culture of comedy and the Stand Comedy Club is one of the most popular venues in the city. Although you need to pay for most of their gigs, they do have a free improv show at Sunday lunchtimes led by resident comics Stu and Garry. They also serve food so it makes an ideal place to go after a big Saturday night out.
Edinburgh is a stunning city with plenty to keep you occupied for days. And with all these free attractions, there really is no reason not to visit.