As you’ll no doubt know, your wallet can take a serious hit when visiting a city and a trip to Edinburgh is no exception. So if you’re on a tight budget, we’ve got lots of ideas to share with you that won’t cost you a penny. Save your pounds for a visit to the castle and mix it up with plenty of other free activities.
It may come as a surprise to many visitors but almost all of the museums in Edinburgh are free! So why not try out some museum hopping and check out some of the best (free) museums Edinburgh has to offer.
Meet Dolly the Sheep at the National Museum of Scotland
Wow, wow, wow. This is such an amazing museum! We never get bored of visiting it. The Museum of Scotland is particularly great if you’re visiting Edinburgh with kids or if you’re looking for a rainy day activity. The flavour is science meets culture and history, all with a very Scottish theme. You’ll find many interesting artefacts that piece together the history of Scotland through the ages. Our highlights include Dolly the sheep (first successfully cloned sheep), the Lewis man chess pieces, the millennium clock, Sir Jackie Stewart’s F1 racing car, steam trains and a skeleton of a T-Rex.
Trip down Memory Lane at the Museum of Childhood
This museum is like the tardis! It looks tiny from the outside but expands the further you go in and is spread over several floors. It’s a really quirky museum which will please both old and young alike. If you fancy a trip down memory lane, go check out this sweet museum on the Royal Mile. Our kids particularly loved the dressing up corner, checking out an early version of Buzz Lightyear as well as some rather creepy dolls!
Crack a Safe at the Museum on the Mound
If you ever find yourself needing to work out how to crack a safe, this is the place for you! This small museum is the former headquarters of the Bank of Scotland and is located on the Mound. To get there, you’ll need to head towards the Old town (if you’re located near Princes Street). Highlights include cracking a safe, learning about the history of the British currency and getting to see £1 million in £20 notes.
What makes this place extra special is the staff – they are incredibly knowledgeable, passionate and enthusiastic. For us, it was one of the guides who really brought our visit to life by giving us special historical insight into the different coins. Check their website for opening hours as they vary.
Learn about Scotland’s Authors at The Writers’ Museum
At first glance, the outside of this museum looks like a small Scottish castle complete with ornate towers and carved stone balconies, the interior doesn’t disappoint either. It’s situated in a commanding position in between the Mound and the Royal Mile off the Lawnmarket.
It is above all a celebration of the lives of Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott, perhaps the greatest Scottish writers. Inside there are some pretty special artefacts including the writing desk used by Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson’s riding boots. If that is not enough how about a plaster cast of Robert Burns skull, nice! You will also come across rare books, various personal items of writers and impressive portraits that complement their life stories.
One of the highlights for me is a wardrobe made by the famous Edinburgh criminal Deacon Brody – it’s thought that this very piece of furniture inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write the novel Jekyll and Hyde.
The museum is open 7 days a week from 10am to 5pm and makes an enjoyable visit, even if you are not the ultimate bookworm.
Delve into the History of the city at The Museum of Edinburgh
Located right on the Royal Mile, this fascinating little museum is a must see. The 16th century building is well worth exploring itself, with its ancient creaking floor boards, low ceilings and network of narrow passage ways. It’s packed full of information on local history and legends, with something to interest everyone.
Top attractions for me is the original signed copy of National Covenant of 1638 and the bowl and collar worn by Edinburgh’s most famous dog, Greyfriars Bobby. There is also a large collection of interesting objects and works of art that showcase the best of Scottish craftsmanship including silverware, glass, clocks and porcelain.
Any fans of the TV series “Outlander” with sharp eyes may recognise the museum building (Huntly House) and the nearby Bakehouse Close from episodes in season 3.
Become an Art Connoisseur at the National Galleries of Scotland
You don’t have to be an art buff to enjoy walking around this incredible building which is centrally located on the mound near Princes Street. The beautiful classical sandstone columns of the exterior of the gallery give some clue as to what the treasures the interior might hold.
In the grand Georgian galleries’ downstairs, you will find some of the finest art in the world. The huge canvasses that adorn the walls are mostly focused around biblical scenes and important historical Royals. Many of these paintings were created by famous artists such as Titian, Botticelli and Raphael. Take the stairs to the smaller galleries upstairs and will you be blown away by the selection of artists. Expect to see paintings by Gauguin, Monet, Degas, Cézanne and even Leonardo Da Vinci!
Click here for website.
Admire Paintings at the National Portrait Gallery
This is one of our favourite museums in Edinburgh. From the stunning red stand stone exterior to the intricate interior design, you can’t fail to fall under the charm. Opened in 1889, it was the world’s first purpose-built portrait gallery!
Located on Queen Street in the city centre, the museum is set over 3 floors and there’s usually a special exhibition on. If you’re interested in Scottish history, you’ll enjoy seeing portraits of Mary Queen of Scots or the execution of King Charles I on the top floor or even the head of Robert the Bruce.There are also modern day portraits including Tilda Swinton, Sean Connery, Allan Cumming and Andy Murray. Again, take a detour via the cafe for some lovely tea and scones.
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
These two galleries, located to the west of the city (one on either side of Belford Road), are well worth the visit. Firstly, the buildings are impressive, the sculptured gardens are incredible and of course, you will be impressed by the works of art which include the likes of Tracy Emin, Dali, Miro and Damien Hurst. You can walk there from the city centre in about 15 minutes – choose from a peaceful meander along the Water of Leith Walkway or stick to the main roads.
You can also hop on the free shuttle bus (£1 donation requested) that runs a circular route around the 3 galleries (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery).
City Art Centre
Located a stone’s throw from Waverley train station, the City Art Centre is a great, quirky modern art gallery. It’s spread over 6 floors and the flavour is Scottish modern and historic art. There is something for everyone including photography, paintings, sculptures and crafts. Works on display range from modern art by upcoming artists to the largest collection of classical fine art in Scotland. There is also a great art space for children tucked away in the basement floor where they can bring out the Picasso in them.
Hike up an extinct volcano Arthur’s seat
If you’re feeling energetic then why not get your hiking boots on and climb up the iconic Arthur’s Seat. There are few cities in the world that have an extinct volcano in their centre! The best way to reach the base of Arthur’s Seat is to walk down the bottom of the Royal Mike and turn right – you can’t miss it. Alternatively, there’s a public car park at the base of the hike – note that it’s free to park there at the weekend.
There are a number of different paths that lead to the top and you also have the choice of climbing to the top of Arthur’s Seat or the Salisbury Crags. Both are challenging and will give you a good workout. The weather can be very changeable so make sure you sure you’re wearing appropriate clothing. You’ll feel very virtuous once you reach the top! We also used to enjoy running around Arthur’s seat – a great 5km workout. You simply follow the tarmac road round the contour of the hill. You’ll get the most amazing panoramic views of the city from the top. There’s usually an ice-cream van at the bottom to recharge your batteries.
Climb Calton Hill
Another favourite of ours and definitely one for your Edinburgh bucketlist! Calton Hill is one of the most iconic hills within Edinburgh. It forms part of the 7 hills that make up Edinburgh and can easily be reached from Regent’s Street (at the East end of Princes Street). It’s a great location if you’re into photography. The views you get of the city are amongst some of the best. Head there at sunset or sunrise for a real treat.
Go for a Wander Around The Botanics
The Royal Botanic Gardens, which date from 1670, are located in the north of the city (slightly off the beaten track) and are a wonderful oasis of peace and tranquility. Jump on buses 8, 23 or 27 (download the Lothian buses app here) and enter via the West Gate. It’s an easy 25 minute walk from the city centre taking in the beautiful Georgian New Town neighbourghood.
You’ll easily be able to wile away a few hours wandering around the lush, green space. Within the 70 acres of green paradise, you’ll find a waterfall, an alpine garden, a Chinese garden, a pond and loads of picture-perfect flowers and trees. Everywhere you look resembles a pretty water colour painting. And the best part is that it’s free, unless you wish to visit an exhibition in Inverleith house or venture into the glass houses. We recommend a tea and scones in the Terrace cafe and from there, head onto the lawn to check out the spectacular panorama of the city skyline including the world-famous castle.
Picnic in the Meadows
The Meadows, located to the south of the city, is a lovely large green parkland and a popular place to run, play cricket, practice golf or rugby on a Sunday. It’s also where you’ll find many the students revising, enjoying a ray of sunshine or having sneaky refreshment. The park borders the neighbourghood of Marchmont which is the heart of student-ville in Edinburgh. It’s a great park to have a picnic in or simply relax if the sun is shining. If you’ve got children, then head to the bustling playpark that has everything from sandpits, climbing frames to a flying fox.
People Watch in Princes Street Gardens
Head to Princes Street Gardens which are located in the heart of the city under the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. The gardens give the feeling that you’re in the countryside despite being right in the middle of the city. There are plenty of benches to sit on or alternatively relax in the grass, people watch. If the weather happens to be good, you can always cool down in Ross fountain.
Picnic on the Parliament Lawns
If the weather is on your side, you could plan a picnic by the parliament gardens. You’ll spot lots of workers on their lunch break relaxing on the parliament lawns. There’s a lovely water feature and beautiful outlook towards Arthur’s Seat. You’ll also have Holyrood Park nearby if you fancy going for a wander and if you’re feeling energetic, then why not climb Arthur’s Seat after you’ve had your lunch?
Visit the Scottish Parliament
The building in itself is worth a visit. The unusual architecture – both inside and out – is worth checking out. Designed by Catalan architect Enric Miralles, it was opened in 2004 after having taking 5 years to build and going thousands of pounds over budget. Even if you aren’t interested in politics, it’s worth having a wander inside – there’s a café, you can check the debating chamber and there’s even a gift shop on your way out. There’s are some (free) guided tours of the parliament if you’re looking for some more in-depth information. It’s worth noting that the parliament is closed during the summer months when parliament is in recess.
Click here for website.
Do Some Geocaching
You might be wondering what on earth geocaching is? Well, it’s a fun self-guided outdoor treasure hunt for both young and old. Participants download a geocaching app on their phone and then choose a mission based on their location. They then navigate using a set of GPS coordinates until they find the hidden geocache (container). There’s usually a log book in the container that you sign and then hide for the next users. It’s a fun (free) way to discover a new place and Edinburgh is no exception. Check out this Holyrood Horror mission!
Self-guided Harry Potter Tour
Thanks to J K Rowling, Edinburgh has been firmly put on the map when it comes to movie tourism in the capital. If you’re wandering around the Old Town, you can’t miss the hordes of tour groups led by a cape-clad tour guide as they traipse around the city pointing out the various Harry Potter inspiration spots.
If you prefer to pick and choose the locations and go at your own pace, you can easily embark on your own self-guided Harry Potter tour. Here are some of the highlights that we recommend:
Start with Diagon Alley, ahem I mean Victoria Street… the pretty cobbled street with the brightly fronted shops which is said to have been the inspiration for Diagon Alley. Wander down the street to the Grassmarket and back up Candlemaker Row where you’ll find the entrance to Greyfriars Kirkyard.
Proceed through the gate, into the cemetery and head on a hunt to find Tom Riddell’s tombstone. It took us a while to locate it! You can also follow the *many* Harry Potter groups to help you find it.
Finally, make your way towards the rear part of the cemetery. From there, have a peak through the gates to take in the magnificent building, George Heriot’s, a private school that is said to have been the inspiration for Hogwarts. You can take a snap through the gates but please be aware that there are pupils going about their daily lives so please respect their privacy.
Head back out onto George IV Bridge and take a token pic of the Elephant House – the tearoom that claims that JK Rowling wrote parts of her book there. You might want to finish off with a cocktail at the swanky Balmoral hotel on Princes Street as it is here that JK Rowling shut herself away to finish her last Harry Potter book, The Deathly Hallows. They’ve even named a suite after her!
Free Harry Potter Trail – Guided Tour
Perhaps you prefer to be guided round the city and appreciate the anecdotes that a guide can provide about the city. There’s a great Harry Potter trail that will lead you round all the HP spots of importance. Follow a robe clad Harry Potter enthusiast and expert for a fun alternative look at Edinburgh. They’ll take you to all the places that inspired J K Rowling. The tour is free although it is gratuity based so do show the volunteers your appreciation.
Visit Greyfriars Kirkyard + Greyfriars Bobby
Have you heard the story of Greyfriars Bobby? The endearing tale is based on a true story of a dog named Bobby who lay on his master’s tomb every day for 14 years. Following the death of his master, John ‘Jock’ Grey, heartbroken Bobby went and lay on his master’s tomb every day. He was looked after by the locals including the butcher would feed him some meat every day.
Bobby has his very own statue which you can find at the junction of Candlemaker Row and George IV Bridge as well as his own tombstone within the grounds of Greyfriars cemetery just a few meters away from his master’s. Head into the graveyard and rub shoulders with many Harry Potter fans and as a bonus, you’ll get some stunning views of Edinburgh castle from the kirkyard.
St Giles Cathedral
St Giles Cathedral is located on the Royal Mile and is a beautiful building both inside and out. You might recognise it from the recent film ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ as it was used as a backdrop in several scenes. Founded by King David I back 1124 (a few years before he built Holyrood Abbey), the cathedral has survived through many tumultuous events during the course of its 900 year history! It’s also the place where the famous John Knox used to preach back in the day.
Head inside and admire the intricate stonework as well as the beautiful stain glass windows, in particular the Robert Burns memorial window. You have to pay if you wish to take a picture of the inside. We recommend you time your visit for 12 noon as there’s usually a free concert at this time.
Free Walking Tour
There are plenty of walking tours in Edinburgh and if you’re on a budget, the ‘free’ walking tour is the perfect one for you. The tour guides do operate on the basis of tipping so you will be expected to give a gratuity at the end of your tour. This tour, which lasts around 2.5 hours, will take you round Edinburgh’s most visited attractions in the Old Town.
Tours take place on a daily basis at 10am, 11am, 12 noon, 1pm & 2pm and leave from outside Frankie and Benny’s restaurant at 130 High Street. The tours are run in English, German and Spanish. Check their website for full details.
There is another FREE walking tour company that has set up – meet them every day at 10am, 11am & 1pm on the Royal Mile (155 High Street).The tours are in English and Spanish and last 2 hours. Check their website for full details.
Free street entertainment on the Royal Mile during the festival
You’ve no doubt heard of Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival. There is an absolute explosion of activity that takes place across the capital during the month of August and one of the best places to take in the atmosphere is the Royal Mile. There is a constant stream of street entertainers entertaining the crowds on the Royal Mile. Often you’ll find troupes performing parts of their acts on the street. You might also find some inspiration for a show you want to see. The best of it all is that it’s free!
And don’t worry, you won’t be missing out if you visit at other times of the year as there’s always some kind of street entertainer ready to put on a show and perform for passersby – just less variety and less diversity of acts.
Walk the Water of Leith
The water of Leith is a small river that runs right through the centre of the city starting at Balerno and ending at the Shore in Leith. There is a scenic tree lined walkway that follows the river and runs for a total of 20km.
It’s possible to join or leave the path at multiple location throughout Edinburgh. My favourite section is between the Modern Art Gallery and Canonmills, the route takes you through gorgeous Stockbridge and Dean Village. The path itself is safe for all but very youngest of children, (who may be drawn to the water) and its either tarmac or gravel underfoot. If you are lucky, you may bump into some wildlife as ducks and herons are quite common.
The walkway is also great to run or cycle along, being an ideal alternative to a roadside pavement. I have run down to the Shore area a few times and it’s such a pleasure bypassing the business of the city. The Shore in Leith was once a busy industrial dock, but now it’s an uber trendy area with upmarket restaurants, cafes and hotels.
Take Part in A Park run
Travelling around a city is no excuse to let your usual training regime fall by the wayside! Why not join the locals on a free timed 5km run? It takes place every Saturday morning at 9:30 am and costs absolutely nothing. You simply have to sign up online before hand so that you can get your official time.
The runs take place in the Meadows Park (South of the city) and Inverleith Park (north of the city, next to the Botanics). There’s also one at Cramond, a lovely coastal village on the outskirts of Edinburgh if you’re looking to explore the coast and are seeking some sea air.
Freebies at the Sunday Market in Stockbridge
Stockbridge is one of the most attractive areas in Edinburgh with a real village feel. There is a main street with lots of independent boutiques, hipster cafes and slick modern bars. If you venture down a side street such as St Stephens Street, you will be greeted with an unusual array of rather abstract shops and more traditional pubs that serve a Sunday roast.
In the centre of Stockbridge is an old stone bridge which spans the Water of Leith and has for generations allowed people and animals to cross the river. Of course, nowadays it’s more normal to see cars and buses using the crossing, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the market opposite. Every Sunday from 10 am, the little square is filled with artisan market stalls selling handmade crafts and many street food stalls.
The farmers market is here every weekend, throughout the year, whatever the weather and is a great alternative to the supermarket. Or, if you are looking to catch a snack on the move, then try some of the excellent street food, it truly is a foodie’s paradise!
Blow away the cobwebs at the beach!
One of the things that I love about Edinburgh is its proximity to the seaside. Drive or jump on a bus (lothian bus no 26, 124 or 113) and head to Portobello or ‘Portie’ as it’s fondly known to locals. Portobello is about 5kms (3miles) to the East of the city centre and can easily be reached by public transport. There is a lovely two mile stretch of beach where you can swim or sunbathe – weather permitting of course! And don’t miss the great promenade where you can walk, run, cycle, roller-blade or stop off for a coffee and cake.
As you can see, there are plenty of things to do in Edinburgh even if you’re on a budget. We hope you’ve found our round up of some of the best free things to do in Edinburgh useful and please let us know if there are any we should add to our post.