30 free things to do in Edinburgh
Updated: 5th of August 2021
The city of Edinburgh is full of history and culture. From the iconic Scottish castle to the famous Royal Mile, there are plenty of free sites for you to explore in this beautiful city. If you're looking for a few hours away from your busy schedule, here are some free attractions you can experience in the Scottish capital without spending any money at all.
This article contains contributions from Katrina Milne, owner of Travel Kat Tours which offers many great walking tours in Edinburgh. She also has a great travel blog with her adventures around the world.
Start planning your trip now with these free things to do in Edinburgh!
Edinburgh Royal Botanic Gardens
Located in the north of the city the Edinburgh Royal Botanic garden is a must-visit.
Set in over 70 acres this 350 year old garden is a favourite activity for visitors and locals alike.
The gardens are home to an array of different areas including the woodland garden, Chinese hillside garden, the Queen Mother’s Memorial Garden and the Victorian era glasshouses*. There is also an extensive collection of Rhododendrons which bloom throughout the spring. All throughout the gardens there are many benches which makes for the perfect picnic day out.
*The glasshouses are not free, however inside there is the palm house, the tropical house and the arid and temperate house which has many tropical plants and ferns. Please pre-book your time slot online before visiting.
Climb Arthur’s Seat
Set in the vast Holyrood Park in the centre of Edinburgh is Arthur’s Seat - an ancient extinct volcano that sits 251m above sea level and offers fantastic views across the city.
Arthur’s Seat is the highest of the hills, however, the area is also home to the Salisbury Crags which is to the west of Holyrood Park.
All over the park there are well trodden footpaths and you might come across one of the three lochs within the area, all of which are full to the brim with wildlife.
Holyrood Park can be accessed on foot, the pathway begins across the street from the gates of Holyrood Palace. There is also a car park nearby.
National Museum of Scotland
Consistently voted one of the top attractions in the UK, the National Museum of Scotland is home to a diversity of cultural artifacts, technology, science and Scottish history.
The museum is free to enter and very interactive for children of all ages.
They also have temporary exhibitions and their most recent collection includes the fashion and style gallery which houses couture pieces from the likes of Viviene Westwood throughout the eras. The Scottish history section is very detailed and if you are interested in Mary Queen of Scots then make sure you visit upstairs in the Kingdom of Scots exhibition.
Another highlight is the Victorian built Grand Gallery and look out for the giant whale bone skeleton and the famous Dolly the Sheep in the centre of the gallery.
**Entrance is free, but time slots must be pre-booked. There is limited parking in this area, and is best accessed on foot or by bus.
Scottish National Portrait Gallery
The Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street, is a must-see for any tourist. The gallery hosts portraits of famous figures from all over the world and spans centuries of art history. If you're lucky enough to visit on the last Saturday of every month, you can also enjoy a guided tour by one of the curators!
The Archivists' Garden
Hidden behind the impressive General Register House, is a beautiful botanical haven. Designed and created by David Mitchell, curator of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Just minutes from the hustle and bustle of Princes Street, it's a lovely quiet spot to relax in. The Archivists' Garden is filled with 57 different varieties of plants connected in some way to Scotland's collective memory, whether through myth or folklore, heraldry, or association with individual famous Scots. Open during office hours, with free admission, or with a visit to the garden available from 2pm to 3pm at the end of the afternoon rush hour...
Found in the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town, Greyfriars Kirkyard is one of the most famous cemeteries in Scotland.
Greyfriars church opened in 1620, but there have been burials there since 1562.
It is estimated that there are now over 250,000 people buried within its grounds.
The original entrance to the kirkyard is at the foot of Candlemaker’s Row.
What makes Greyfriars so interesting to visit is its rich history - to the south of the entrance, you will find remnants of the Covenanters prison and the remaining walls left behind (it was within this graveyard that the National Covenant was signed in 1638). If you walk around the cemetery you will come across very intricate and beautiful tombstones, including the imposing Bloody Mackenzie’s Tomb which is said to be haunted by a ghost - these rumours and sightings are so prolific that the tomb is now sealed off from visitors.
You should also lookout for the “Mortsafes” which can be found next to the church building, they were used to protect the bodies from the infamous body snatchers during the Victorian period in Edinburgh.
If you are on the lookout for something a little more light hearted then look out for the tombstone of the well loved dog - Greyfriar’s Bobby.
Dean Village is a small, quiet residential area in Edinburgh, but the quaint streets, river views and cobblestones are very picturesque.
Dean Village is situated in between the neighbourhood of Stockbridge and the city centre, it is around a 10 minute walk from Princes street, on route you may see the high Dean Bridge which was designed in 1831 by famous civil engineer and bridge designer Thomas Telford.
Walk down along the tranquil Water of Leith walkway and look out for old millstones left from the remains of the old milling industry. If you are looking for that classic Edinburgh photo, head down Hawthorn Bank Lane for views across the river and to the Victorian era worker’s cottages.
Dean village and the surrounding area is best explored on foot, there are very limited parking spaces available.
Situated in the middle of the Firth of Forth is the small island of Cramond that is only reachable when tides are low. Follow the causeway and the WW2 concrete teeth until you reach the island, Cramond is only 0.3 miles long but is home to a collection of unique things to see.
The uninhabited island has remnants of old war bunkers, emplacement for a 75mm gun that protected the area and abandoned farm buildings. If you enjoy exploring a little off the beaten track then head over to the island, whilst you are there you can also spot the three bridges that cross the Forth.
Tidal times are posted on the large notice board at the start of the causeway, so allow at least 2 hours before the tide comes in to get back onto dry land safely. There is a car park and free public toilets in the village of Cramond.
The Royal Mile of Edinburgh
The Edinburgh Royal Mile is a historic mile-long street in the heart of the city. Home to many pubs and shops, but it also has beautiful architecture and important attractions. The most famous building on the Edinburgh Royal Mile is Edinburgh Castle, which dominates the skyline as you walk up from Parliament Square.
At the end of the Royal Mile is Edinburgh Castle, one of Scotland's most iconic monuments dominating the Edinburgh skyline. Entry to the castle is not free, but you can walk up to it and take in the fantastic views.
St. Giles Cathedral
Found in the heart of Edinburgh’s old town is the imposing St. Giles Cathedral. The “High Kirk” on the Royal Mile is one of the oldest buildings in Edinburgh and arguably one of the most important churches in Scotland. Dedicated to the patron saint of Lepers - St Giles, the cathedral has over 1000 years of history.
Significant parts of Scottish history took place in this church, especially during the Reformation under John Knox and is often referred to as the 'Cradle of Presbyterianism'. You will also spot a large statue of John Knox himself on the north side of the cathedral.
Head inside to see the beautiful stained glass windows, the Rieger organ and the Thistle Chapel. St. Giles still maintains daily services and on occasion also hosts concerts, and special events. For the Lunar New Year 2020 the cathedral was decorated with beautiful red lanterns.
Calton Hill is one of the best vantage points in Edinburgh with it's panoramic views of the city. It's on a hill just south of Princes Street, with views over New Town and the Firth of Forth. You can get up there by going through an old gate in the city wall near St Giles Cathedral or follow a path that goes around it first - either way it's about 300 metres uphill so you'll need some energy!
At the summit, there are other attractions such as the Nelson Monument, Dugald Stewart Monument and the unfinished 12 pillar stone national monument inspired by the Parthenon in Athens, Greece.
An ideal place for photography and sunsets in the evening.
Street art of Leith
The neighbourhood of Leith is one of the most up and coming areas within Edinburgh. If you are a street art lover and appreciate urban art and murals then take a stroll down Leith Walk and towards the Shore area for some well known and hidden pieces of street art. A relatively new piece of Art can be found on Arthur Street - it is a mural dedicated to a local homeless man who lived in Leith for over 20 years.
Head further into Leith and on St. Giles street you will spot a giant mural painted on a gable end dedicated to a Proclaimers song (who were residents of Leith).
Another hub of art is Quality Yard - a courtyard area dedicated purely to street art, the murals often get updated throughout the year so it is worth checking out.
Leith is well connected with city buses and once down in the area, the murals are best explored on foot.
Duddingston Village & Loch
Tucked behind Arthur’s Seat is Edinburgh's last remaining natural loch in the city centre.
The loch is in abundance with wildlife and there is the largest heronry in the Lothians, as well as Canadian geese, otters and ducks.
Nearby to the loch is the historic Duddingston Kirk which dates back to the 12th century, as you enter the churchyard you will notice the imposing gatehouse that was put in place to deter any body snatchers during the 19th century.
The village of Duddingston is very picturesque and best explored on foot, however, if you are looking for a rest spot the Sheep Heid Inn is a popular choice and is said to be the oldest surviving licensed premises in Edinburgh.
There is a car park next to the loch and buses frequently travel through the area.
Scottish Independence Marches
Once or twice a year there is usually a big independence march through the centre of Edinburgh in support of Scotland becoming an independent country. Supporters usually amass at a set meeting point then the crowd will follow a predetermined path to a rallying point, usually at Holyrood Park near the Scottish Parliament.
Supporters can exceed 100,000 people in a single march, it is an impressive sight to see all the flags snake far up Edinburgh's streets. Usually there are pipe bands and drummers too adding to the spectacle of the event.
There are normally speakers at these events at the end of the marches, independence campaigners, MSPs and sometimes celebrities will say some words.
Even if you don't believe in the case for Scottish Independence, there is a lovely positive atmosphere at these marches, with people of all ages and backgrounds, just go along and soak in the vibes. People will be open to speaking with you about why they want Scotland to become an independent nation, it's a good way to make some new friends, and all Scottish people love a yap!
The best way to find out when a march is on is to follow the AUOB (All Under One Banner) Facebook page, as they are the main organisers for the biggest marches.
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
Situated in the west of the city is the modern art gallery which is home to a collection of modern art, paintings, film, photography and sculpture. Spread over two buildings (modern one and modern two), Modern one is a neo-classical building that looks out onto sculptured shaped lawns. Inside the modern one it features a permanent collection of abstract art and surrealism pieces, featuring the well known Salvador Dali.
Modern two is set in an old children's hospital and features an exhibition on Edinburgh based sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, the second gallery also frequently has temporary exhibitions. A popular exhibition that has been extended throughout 2021 is the Ray Harryhausen “Titan of Cinema '' which documents the creative process involved in stop motion animation.
The Scottish National gallery is best visited on city bus or by foot, travel along the west end of Princes Street for the quickest access.
Museum on the Mound
Located on an artificial slope in central Edinburgh there is a free museum named Museum on the Mound. Located in the Bank of Scotland building, the museum focuses on old currency and economics. Have a visit and gaze in awe at the 1 million pounds banknote.
So many people have visited Edinburgh because of its great attractions. However, it is also a place that has an abundance of literary landmarks and museums to visit. One such museum is the Writers' Museum Edinburgh which commemorates writers from Scotland and around the world who have made this city their home for some time or even just passed through on business.
The writings of Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson are celebrated here. The Writers' Museum offers visitors a chance to learn about some of these notable individuals, as well as explore their works in detail with plenty of informative panels among other things. It's certainly worth a visit!
Museum of Childhood
Do you want to visit a museum that is unlike any other? If so, then the Museum of Childhood on the Royal Mile might be perfect for you. Opening in 1955 the Museum of Childhood is an interactive museum full of games and hands-on exhibits designed to make children happy while they learn about toys costumes and models throughout history.
From toy displays to puzzles and creepy-looking dolls! This museum has something for everyone!
The People's Story Museum
Located in the historic Canongate Tolbooth (built in 1591), The People's Story Museum contains an archive of collections on the life of working-class people from the 18th century to modern times. The Museum boasts a collection of 144 reform banners and flags about politics, trade unions, and the anti-apartheid movement.
The Scottish Parliament Building is located in Scotland's capital. It was built to represent the Scots' aspirations for democratic freedom and independence with its impressive exterior and ornate interior. The building is home to 129 members of parliament who are elected every five years by a proportional system of representation from six regions of Scotland.
The Scottish Parliament Building has been open since 2004 and welcomes over 10 million visitors each year. You can tour the inside and see the debating chamber or just take a photo outside!
Princes Street Gardens
The Princes Street Gardens are a beautifully landscaped public garden in the heart of Edinburgh. You can feel like you're walking through rural Scotland, or just relax and enjoy the scenery! The gardens contain many different plants and flowers that bloom throughout the year. There are also many stone sculptures to admire as well as water features for you to sit by on a sunny day.
The Ross Fountain
In the beautiful surroundings of Princes Street Gardens is the Ross Fountain, a cast-iron sculpture crafted in the 1860s in Sommevoire, France. The fountain was a gift to Edinburgh from a gunmaker named Daniel Ross who saw the sculpture at an exhibition in London, he purchased it and it was installed in the gardens in 1872, sadly, Ross passed away the year before its completion.
The Scott Monument
Another impressive building in Princes Street Gardens is the Scott Monument, a large victorian gothic tower, dedicated to Scottish Author Sir Walter Scott. Completed in 1844, at over 200 feet tall, it is an impressive structure in the gardens. It is possible to reach viewing platforms but there is a fee to do so... there is nothing stopping you from visiting the monument.
Portobello Beach is a beach in Edinburgh, Scotland. The beach has been used for swimming and sunbathing since the late nineteenth century. Portobello Beach is one of the most popular beaches on the Firth of Forth coast with over 400 people using it every day during the summer months. It's possible to find cheap accommodation nearby as well as pubs and restaurants that serve locally sourced food.
The Elephant House
This cafe on George IV Bridge street is famous for being one of the Cafes where JK Rowling wrote the Harry Potter series of books. A must-do pilgrimage for all Potterheads.
Grassmarket is a street in Edinburgh, once the site of public hangings and executions for the town's criminals and witches. Today it is mostly home to pubs, restaurants, galleries, and shops. The Grassmarket has something for everyone!
The most famous landmark on the Grassmarket (other than its name) is Greyfriars Bobby Statue which commemorates an old dog who spent 14 years guarding his owner's grave after he died from a heart attack while chasing a criminal across George IV Bridge.
Pentland Hills Regional Park
To the southwest of Edinburgh lies the Pentland Hills Regional Park. You can get some great views looking toward the city here. There are various walks to be taken advantage of here with over 100km of maintained pathways. Four circular paths that would suit families or those who just want a short work are:
Harlaw Woodland Walk - 2 miles / Flat easy route / (includes a children's biodiversity trail).
Great Glen Mystery / Glencorse View - 2.7 miles / Moderate difficulty
Torduff Water - 1.5 miles / Moderate difficulty
Capital View - 2.5 miles / Moderate difficulty
Festival Fringe Performances
Edinburgh Festival Fringe runs every August. There is are a great deal of ticketed events, but also many free shows showcasing comedy, music and street performers on the Royal Mile that can also be seen for free.
I hope this article on "free things to do in Edinburgh" has been useful for planning your trip.
Many thanks to Kat Milne for her contributions.