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With an abundance of historical architecture, green spaces, and public museums and galleries, there are plenty of places to go in Edinburgh – and best of all, you visit them for free! Those interested in art and history will have many options available to them. Meanwhile, those seeking fresh air will find it with ease – oftentimes right in the city centre. The top 10 best free things to do in Edinburgh are some of the Scottish capital’s most exciting and dynamic attractions that won’t cost you a penny. So, whether you’re a traveler on a budget looking for places to visit in Edinburgh for free or simply an adventurer with an enthusiasm for exploring cool and fun things to do in Edinburgh, read on for a guide to the best free stuff to do in Edinburgh and plan the perfect trip.
Our best picks: Fun things to do in Edinburgh for free
1. Spend some time under the sun in the city’s wonderful parks and gardens.
The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is beautiful any time of year. It’s the perfect, free place to enjoy nature and watch the seasons change – the rhododendrons are incredible during the spring, and if you’re visiting in the winter, there will be plenty of blooms as part of the Snowdrop Festival. In the event of wet weather, worry not – there’s always an interesting exhibition at Inverleith House, in the middle of the garden.
If you don’t fancy wandering the spacious grounds of the Botanics, try venturing down Dunbar’s Close. The cobbled entryway will lead you into a tiny, tranquil 17th century garden, hidden away along the Canongate. Dunbar’s Close Garden is the ideal refuge for a busy day exploring the Royal Mile. This hidden gem is a great place to take a quiet moment of rest and relaxation.
Similarly, if you’re waiting to catch a train from Waverely Station, why not take a bit of time to stroll through Princes Street Gardens? This lush green valley of a park offers unparalleled views of Edinburgh Castle, the Scott Monument, and the historic Old Town. Best of all, it’s conveniently located just across the street from the major shopping thoroughfare of Princes Street.
To get a taste of Edinburgh’s local neighborhoods, have a summer barbecue on The Meadows, beside the University of Edinburgh campus in the south side of town. There’s a great view of Arthur’s Seat, plenty of space for frisbee-throwing, and ample opportunities for photo shoots – especially in the spring, when the cherry blossoms are blooming!
Alternatively, bring a picnic to Inverleith Park, right next to the Botanics. The hill over the swan pond is a great spot for lunch, and provides a lovely view of the Edinburgh skyline.
If the Botanics sound like they would be a highlight for you, consider staying at our Drummond Place apartment, which is located near the east gate of the gardens. Part of an elegant Georgian townhouse, this 3-bedroom apartment sleeps 3 guests and includes a private patio and traditional AGA cooker.
2. Discover Scotland’s nature, history and art at the National Museum of Scotland.
Looking for free things to do with kids and families in Edinburgh? National Museum of Scotland is the place that you should not miss when visiting Edinburgh because it is one of the UK’s most popular attraction outside of London. Located in the centre of town at Chambers Street, with thousands of objects on display, the enormous National Museum of Scotland has something to fascinate everyone. Galleries cover topics as broad as Scottish history and archaeology; science and technology; world cultures; and art, design, and fashion. It’s perfect for exploring on a rainy day — and on a sunny one, too! Take the lift to the roof of the museum and you’ll find one of the city’s most underrated sunbathing spots.
The Victorian Venetian Renaissance-style Grand Gallery is not to be missed. You’ll also be able to see Dolly the Sheep, the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell, or travel back in time and admire Celtic, Roman, and Viking artifacts such as the Lewis chess pieces that were seen in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
Families might especially enjoy the Animal World gallery, where you will see animals and their diverse habitats, as well as a massive life-sized skeleton cast of a Tyrannosaurus rex!
Stay near the National Museum of Scotland at our Blackfriars Street accommodation, which is located just five minutes away. With a lovely view of Salisbury Craigs, this central top-floor apartment is in the perfect spot for exploring all of Edinburgh’s best attractions.
3. Scale one of the beautiful seven hills of Edinburgh.
Can you name the seven hills of Edinburgh?
The first and most central hill is Castle Rock. Although entrance to Edinburgh Castle is not free, following the dramatic Royal Mile up to the Castle Esplanade will bring you to some of the best views that the city has to offer.
Arthur’s Seat is also an unmissable destination. This ancient volcano is the highest of the seven hills and offers visitors a beautiful and wild ramble right in the centre of town. Hike to the top or explore the lush green surroundings of Holyrood Park. You’ll find three separate lochs and the dramatic Salisbury Craigs, which are covered with sunshine-yellow gorse flowers in the springtime.
For a shorter walk and equally brilliant views of the city, take the stairs at the end of Princes Street up to Calton Hill. Home to an eclectic collection of monuments, you will be able to look out towards the tranquil shores of East Lothian on a sunny day. This is also an excellent place to watch the sunset over the Edinburgh skyline!
For the best views of Arthur’s Seat, venture south to Blackford Hill, which is also home to the Royal Observatory. Further from the city centre are Braid Hill; Corstorphine Hill, next to the Edinburgh Zoo; and Craiglockhart Hill, in the suburbs.
If you’re feeling especially ambitious, you might attempt to walk all seven hills in one day…or why not enter the annual Seven Hills of Edinburgh Race, in which runners find their own route to the summits of all seven hills? With a length of about 14.3 miles and over 2000 feet of ascent and descent, the winners somehow manage to finish under 1 hour and 40 minutes! If you enjoying hiking or exploring the nature, this is one of the best free activities to do with your friends and families! Just remember to wear a comfortable pair of shoes and bring water to stay hydrated when you go.
4. Wander around world-famous collections of art in the capital’s free national galleries.
One of the best things that really sets Edinburgh apart is the number of galleries you can visit in Edinburgh for free! Located in the very heart of the city centre, the Scottish National Gallery is just five minutes away from our spacious Ramsay Garden and Ramsay Garden – Castle Views apartments. Resting at the bottom of The Mound, it houses one of the world’s finest collections of art.
With an abundance of Old Masters as well as a comprehensive collection charting the history of Scottish painting, there are centuries of art to experience in the gallery’s opulent red rooms. One of our favorite paintings to pore over is Princes Street with the Commencement of the Building of the Royal Institution by Alexander Nasmyth. It shows the construction of the Royal Scottish Academy Building in 1825, which you will have passed on the way in!
If you’re going by St Andrew’s Square in the New Town, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is also worth a stop. Did you know that this gallery’s palatial sandstone edifice is the world’s first purpose-built portrait gallery? Amidst gorgeous murals and gold-embellished columns, you’ll find portraits of historical figures like Sir Walter Scott, as well as contemporary ones like Tilda Swinton.
Meanwhile, in the west end of the city centre, a fifteen-minute walk away from Princes Street, the two buildings of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and their surrounding sculpture gardens are home to remarkable modern and contemporary works such as Salvador Dali’s Lobster Telephone.
5. Take a lovely stroll along the Water of Leith, or one of the city’s other cycle or canal paths.
If you’re visiting the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the Water of Leith Walkway is the perfect path to take you back to the city centre. As the main river running through the city, the Water of Leith meanders for 12 miles from Balerno, at the foot of the Pentland Hills, all the way to the Shore of Leith, where it flows into the Firth of Forth.
The most central section of the walkway will pass Murrayfield Stadium and the modern art galleries. Then, walking east, you will go through quaint Dean Village and lively Stockbridge towards the Royal Botanic Garden and then on to Leith.
A designated Urban Wildlife Site, the Water of Leith is the perfect place to leave behind the bustling atmosphere of the city and escape into nature. Just follow the birdsong and the sound of the rushing river — you’ll soon smell the wild garlic growing on the banks in springtime, or see the colourful woodland leaves in the autumn.
If you’re a big fan of walking, consider staying at our Circus Lane apartment, which is just a hop and a skip away from the most scenic parts of the Water of Leith. Located between the New Town and the stylish Stockbridge neighbourhood, this quiet spot is the perfect place to rest after a long, satisfying stroll through nature.
6. Experience one of Edinburgh’s many historical churches.
The most famous of Edinburgh’s churches is St Giles’ Cathedral, which sits halfway between Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse on the Royal Mile. Founded in the 1100s, it was at the centre of much of Scotland’s historical religious turmoil. Inside, admire the elaborate stained glass windows and take in the dramatic interior of the Thistle Chapel, which is home to the Knights of the Order of the Thistle.
There are also free music concerts every Sunday at six, as part of the St Giles’ at Six concert series.
Across the street from the National Museum of Scotland, you’ll find the famous statue of Greyfriars Bobby, memorializing the loyal Skye terrier who waited on his owner’s grave for many years.
Just beyond, you can visit the historic Greyfriars Kirk, where the National Covenant was signed in 1638. You can also see the Covenanters’ Prison, and several of the graves that were said to have inspired the names of J. K. Rowling’s characters in Harry Potter.
For some fresh air, visit the only building in Holyrood Park: the ruins of St Anthony’s Chapel. What little remains of this chapel stands on a high rock, with views of the swans swimming in St Margaret’s Loch. Interestingly, it’s still a mystery to historians when the chapel was constructed and why.
7. Learn about the government and take a free tour of the Scottish Parliament.
The fascinating and unique Scottish Parliament building sits at the bottom of the Royal Mile, just across from Holyrood Palace. It was designed by late Spanish architect Enric Miralles, who wanted the building to reflect the Scottish land it represents. ‘The building should arise from the sloping base of Arthur’s Seat and arrive into the city almost surging out of the rock,’ Miralles said in 1999, when construction of the building commenced.
The building is open from Monday to Friday throughout the year, and visitors are free to explore public areas such as the Main Hall, parliament exhibition, cafe, and shop. The Parliament also offers free guided tours on the architecture, art and history of the building from Monday to Friday at 10:30 am, 2:00 pm, and 3:30 pm. Tours should be booked online here.
Those interested in experiencing Scottish democracy in action can attend parliamentary business, which usually happens on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. This includes watching debates and committees, as well as First Minister’s Questions every Thursday from 12:00 -12:45 pm when the Parliament is in session. During the Questions, the First Minister will answer questions from opposition party leaders as well as other members of the Scottish parliament.
Tickets can be booked a week in advance by telephone on 0131 348 5200 or freephone 0800 092 7600.
If the Parliament particularly interests you, stay nearby at our Holyrood apartment. With two bedrooms, a lift, and a marvelous view of Holyrood Park, the apartment is less than a five minute walk from Parliament.
8. Visit one of the many fascinating free museums along the Royal Mile.
As the capital and the cultural hotspot of Scotland, Edinburgh has lots of fun and exciting things to do for free. There are an abundance of interesting museums in the city centre – and luckily, many of them are free to enter!
The People’s Story Museum in the Canongate Tollbooth gives voice to the working class people of Edinburgh from the 18th to the late 20th century. Using oral histories, personal stories, and original objects, the museum’s collection highlights the history, culture, crafts and trades of Edinburgh’s people, while also drawing attention to contemporary issues and events. The collection includes banners for street protests, reform movements, and trade unions; as well as displays of a wartime kitchen, a bookbinder’s workshop, and a jail cell.
The Museum of Edinburgh is a must-visit for history buffs young and old. Depicting the long and varied history of Edinburgh, the museum’s collection features artifacts such as the National Covenant of 1638 and the collar and bowl of Greyfriars Bobby himself. You’ll also be able to see the historical plans of the New Town, and many beautiful examples of Scottish craftsmanship.
Bookworms and aspiring novelists should head over to the Writers’ Museum, which focuses on the three great writers of Scottish literature: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Aside from portraits, personal objects, and rare old books, the museum also houses a plaster cast of Robert Burns’ skull, one of only three (3) ever made!
There’s also free admission to the Museum on the Mound, which is located in the historic Bank of Scotland office. With a focus on money, coinage, and economics, the collection includes Scotland’s oldest banknotes – as well as 1 million pounds in cash.
9. Go for a swim or simply spend some time at the beach.
A few miles east of the city centre, the delightful seaside suburb of Portobello Beach can be reached by a 15 minute drive or cycle, a 20 minute bus ride, or even a 1 hour walk. With two miles of sandy beach, Portobello is a very popular spot for sunbathing (when there’s any sun available) and swimming (at any time of the year!).
You can also take a wander down the promenade or the busy High Street–a peek into the very well-curated Portobello Bookshop is free too, I suppose, if you don’t buy anything.
Wardie Bay, in the north of town, is another favourite swimming spot for locals. Tucked beside Granton Harbour, you might miss it if it weren’t for the swimmers bobbing around in woolly hats and wetsuits all winter.
If you’re not a fan of wild swimming, head further west to Silverknowes and Cramond Beach, which are excellent places to watch the sunset over the Firth of Forth. Cramond Island in particular is a highlight – just a little under a mile away from Cramond Village, the island can be reached on foot during low tide. Be sure to check the noticeboard for the low tide crossing times before you head over to the causeway, so that you don’t get trapped on the island!
If fresh sea air is an essential for you, why not look into staying at Green Cottage? Less than a fifteen minute walk from the seafront and the little beach at Wardie Bay, this holiday cottage features two bedrooms, a private garden, and a cosy traditional wood-burning stove. Though quiet, it’s still only ten minutes away from the city centre by bus!
10. Take a free tour of Edinburgh – or attend one of the city’s many free festivals and events.
There are plenty of free tours available around Edinburgh, if you look for them. City Explorers offer highly-rated free tours of the city centre daily. They also offer a Harry Potter tour every afternoon and a ghost tour every night!
Free Tours by Foot also offer pay-what-you-like tours every day, with themes such as the Old Town, the Royal Mile, Harry Potter, and ‘Art Walking Tour in Georgian Edinburgh.’
Depending on when you are in the city, there are likely to be free events happening also. If you are in Edinburgh during the festival in August, tickets to free Edinburgh International Festival events can be found on the festival website, here. Free Fringe festival events can be found at the Laughing Horse’s Free Festival and Peter Buckley Hill’s Free Fringe.
You can also visit the many galleries and artist-run spaces taking part in the Edinburgh Art Festival, and there are usually free discussions, readings, and performance events as part of the Edinburgh Book Festival’s Unbound Series, which takes place during the second half of the month.
And if you’re around at the end of August, why not tune in to the Festival Fireworks Concert? Listen to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and watch the fireworks explode from Edinburgh Castle from Inverleith Park, where there is a free family viewing area; or North Bridge, Calton Hill, Bruntsfield LInks, and Arthur’s Seat.
Check what festivals and free events are happening during your time in Edinburgh here – you might be surprised by how many options you’ll find. It’s the world’s festival city, after all!