Are you looking for free things to do in Edinburgh? Perhaps you’ve already checked our post on visiting Edinburgh on a budget and want to delve deeper into all the free museums and art galleries available in the capital. I have to admit that I’m always blown away by the number of museums and galleries that are free in Edinburgh. It’s a real blessing to locals and tourists alike and ensures the arts are accessible to everyone. They also make for a great rainy day activity!
Map of all the free museums and art galleries in Edinburgh
We’ve created a map which shows where all of the museums and galleries mentioned below are located. This will hopefully help you plan your outings.
1. National Museum of Scotland
It’s not surprising that the National Museum of Scotland is one of the most visited sites in Edinburgh (after the castle of course). As a matter of fact, it attracts in excess of 2 million visitors a year! This gem of a place combines history, culture, technology, the arts and science – all with a very Scottish theme. There are numerous galleries and floors to explore… in fact, don’t expect to get round it on your first visit. Our highlights include Dolly the sheep (first successfully cloned sheep), the millennium clock, the F1 car simulator, the Lewis chessmen, 4.5 billion year old Allende meteorite and the skeleton a T-Rex.
>> If you’re visiting Edinburgh with kids and are wondering what else there is to do in the capital… then head to the post for a complete guide to visiting Edinburgh with children! <<
It’s also the first museum in Scotland to offer a virtual online tour via the Google Arts & Culture Museum view experience. So fear not, if you’re unable to get to the museum in person, you always have the option to visit it virtually.
2. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is composed of two buildings named ‘Modern 1’ and ‘Modern 2’ (formerly known as the Dean Art Gallery). The galleries are located either side of Belford Road to the west of the city. You can’t fail to be impressed by the exteriors – sculptured gardens, Paolozzi’s sculptures, outdoor art installations. Head inside and discover works of art which include the likes of Dali, Magritte, Miro, Tracy Emin and Damien Hurst. Particularly impressive is the recreation of Paolozzi’s art studio. There is a great ‘create and play’ room for children as well as a reading nook if you’re visiting with kids.
You can easily reach the galleries by foot in around 15 minutes – along the Water of Leith Walkway or through the city centre. Alternatively, you can catch the free Gallery shuttle bus which runs in a circular route between all three galleries (the Scottish National Gallery, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art). Click here to check timetable.
3. Scottish National Gallery
You can’t fail to be impressed by this iconic building centrally located on the mound near Princes Street. Home to some of the finest art in the world, you can expect to see some of Titian, Raphael and Bottticelli’s masterpieces as well as some more contemporary artists including Monet, Dégas, Gaugin, Cézanne. The grand Georgian galleries on the ground floor display large canvasses that mostly focus around biblical scenes and important historical Royals. Don’t miss the Scottish Café & Restaurant housed in the Galleries and overlooking Princes Street Gardens – a real gem of a place.
4. Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Located at the east end of Queen Street, you can’t fail to be impressed by the beautiful red sandstone neo-gothic exterior of the National Portrait Gallery. Opened in the late 19th century, this museum is the world’s first purpose-built portrait gallery. Head inside and admire the intricate interior design as well as the large collection of portrait paintings dating as far back as the 16th century. You’ll also find some modern-day portraits including Sean Connery, Andy Murray, Tilda Swinton and Allan Cumming. Don’t miss the Café Portrait on the ground floor for some delicious tea and scones!
5. People’s Story Museum
If you’d like to get a true insight into the lives of the working class of Edinburgh during the course of the last 3 centuries, then head to the People’s Story Museum. This museum is housed in an iconic building on the Royal Mile – the Canongate Tolbooth. It’s the sister museum to the Museum of Edinburgh and a visit to both can easily be combined as they’re both located on the Royal Mile. As the name suggests, this small museum tells the story of the local, everyday people of Edinburgh through the ages starting around the mid 17th century up to the late 20th century. You’ll find plenty of personal stories, displays, objects and mannequins. You’ll find it on your left as you head down the Royal Mile towards Holyrood Palace. The exhibits are a little dated, however, this only adds to the museum’s charm. Allow up to an hour to visit.
6. Museum on the Mound
Would you like to see what £1 million pounds looks like? Would you like to learn how to crack a safe? Would you like to learn about the history of the British currency? If so, head to the Museum on the Mound – former headquarters of the Bank of Scotland – and enjoy a fun visit to this unusual museum. You’ll get to build a model bank and see Scotland’s Scotland’s oldest bank note. It’s actually a really fun museum to go to if you have children (check this post for more family friendly ideas). The guides are really knowledgeable and offer plenty of interesting anecdotes. → Museum on the Mound website.
7. Museum of Childhood
If you fancy a wee trip down memory lane, head to the Museum of Childhood. Located on the Royal Mile, this quirky museum is spread across four floors and covers many eras of toys and games. It gives you an idea of playthings over the years starting from the 18th through to the 21st century. Take a step back in time and indulge in some nostalgia – Fisher Price phones, corgi cars and much more. There’s also a fun dressing-up area for children – kids will love this museum!.
8. Museum of Edinburgh
The Museum of Edinburgh is located in a 16th century building on the Royal Mile. If you want to learn about the history of Edinburgh, this is the place to go! It’s packed full of information on local history and legends, with something to interest everyone. Highlights include the bowl and collar worn by Greyfriar’s Bobby, Edinburgh’s most famous dog (he even has his own statue!) and the original signed copy of the National Covenant of 1638.
Fun fact: the museum building featured in the TV series “Outlander” (season 3) as Huntly House and nearby Bakehouse Close.
9. Edinburgh City Art Centre
We love popping into Edinburgh’s City Art centre – whether it’s to admire the art or to indulge in a delicious cupcake at Mimi’s Bakehouse. Located a stone’s throw from Waverley train station, this quirky modern art gallery is well worth the detour. Spread over 6 floors, the flavour is Scottish modern and historic art. There is something for everyone including paintings, photography, crafts and sculptures. You’ll find works ranging from up-and-coming artists to the largest collection of classical fine art in Scotland. If you have children, make sure you visit the basement floor where you’ll find a great art space where the kids can bring out their inner Picasso.
>> Looking for more quirky places to visit? Check out our off the beaten path guide to Edinburgh! <<
10. Writers’ Museum
Accredited with the title of UNESCO City of Literature, Edinburgh has a very rich literary heritage and it may therefore not be surprising to find out that the city has its very own writers’ museum. Tucked down a small alley off the Royal Mile, you’ll find the Writers’ Museum which is housed in the Lady Stair’s House. This museum celebrates the lives of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson. There are many interesting artefacts including the famous poet, Rabbie Burns’ writing desk as well as a plaster cast of his skull (unusual!). You’ll also come across Robert Louis Stevenson’s riding boots, rare books, personal items of writers and impressive portrait paintings.
As you can see, there’s plenty of choice whether you’re interested in art, literature, history, nature and more. We hope you enjoyed our round-up of free museums in Edinburgh and do let us know in the comments if there are any other hidden gems to be added to the list!