‘Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland; sitting on the nation’s east coast. It’s filled with history and culture and comprises Old and New Towns…
I spent a great deal of time in Edinburgh over the years when I worked for VisitScotland. After writing a post on Glasgow, I felt I should even things up between the two Scottish cities and do the same for Edinburgh. These are some fantastic free things to do in Scotland’s beautiful capital:
Edinburgh’s Old Town from Greyfriars Kirkyard
National Galleries of Scotland
The National Galleries complex consist of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, The National Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art (1 and 2).
As well as a plethora of temporary exhibitions from around the globe, the permanent collections house some of the world’s great art. This includes works by Picasso, Warhol, Dali, Annie Leibowtiz and Fife artist, Jack Vettriano.
As the National Galleries comprise of separate buildings, they offer free bus travel around the 3 locations. All galleries are free of charge.
Greyfriars Kirk and Greyfriars Bobby
If you haven’t heard the sad tale of Bobby and his Master, where have you been? Certainly not Scotland, that’s for sure. Scots have the tale drilled into them from any early age.
For those not in the know, Bobby is a wee dug (small dog) who lived in Greyfriars in Edinburgh with his master. When his master passed away, the Skye terrier famously lay on his grave for 14 years.
Bobby is possibly the most loyal dog and most loved canine in Scotland. In fact, Greyfriars Bobby is so popular he has his own statue. His master doesn’t have one, but don’t let that colour your opinion of how Scottish people treat each other.
Anyway, Bobby’s statue can be found in Candlemakers Row, just a short walk from the Royal Mile. Directly across the road from Bobby is Greyfriars Kirk, where Bobby has his own grave. It’s perpetually covered in sticks that visitors leave for him, which might be the sweetest thing ON EARTH.
Entry to the Kirk is free of charge, but it’s only open on a seasonal basis. Bobby’s grave and statue are always available to visit.
Bobby’s Grave…complete with sticks
National Museum of Scotland
This. Is. Massive. Seriously; it’s HUGE. It’s got actual tons of stuff in it. NMS is one of the most popular attractions in Scotland due to its size, it’s quality and the fact that it’s legendary at keeping kids happy. Honestly…even the really naughty ones.
The museum covers everything from the age of dinosaurs to what technology will look like in the future. From galleries dedicated to Natural Science, Scottish History and World Cultures, there really is something to interest everyone.
I’m particularly fond of looking at dinosaurs and all the interactive displays. There’s nothing quite like pushing buttons on exhibits to see what they do, right?
The fascination lies somewhere between having spent your own childhood being told not to touch ANYTHING in a museum. Like, even breaking next to some of the exhibits was frowned upon. In NMS, you can touch anything you like that doesn’t have one of Those Signs on it.
The staff also actively encourage you to get involved. It’s often more than my tiny mind can deal with.
NMS has a terrible problem with dinosaur infestation.
The main hall in the Museum of Scotland
St Giles Cathedral
Located in the High Street portion of the Royal Mile, this 900-year-old Cathedral – also known as The High Kirk – is easily recognisable by its crown shaped spires.
The Cathedral is vast and the interior is pretty impressive. There’s usually a volunteer or two on hand to provide tours and answer any questions.
One of the highlights of a visit is the Great West Window. This was designed by an Icelandic architect and celebrates the works of Scottish bard, Robert Burns. There’s also a lovely memorial to fellow Scottish writer, Robert Louis Stevenson.
Although visiting St. Giles is free of charge, there is a suggested donation of £3 per person. This isn’t enforceable, but monies collected are used towards the upkeep of the building.
Writers Museum and Makars’ Court
The Writers’ Museum occupies a small space in Lady Stair’s Close in the Lawnmarket portion of the Royal Mile. As the name suggests, the museum celebrates the life and works of Scottish writing talent. Permanent exhibits are dedicated to Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Sir Walter Scott.
My favourite part of the museum is actually outside in the courtyard at Lady Stair’s Close. Here, there are numerous flagstones dedicated to a wealth of Scottish writing talent.
These include Muriel Spark, Author of ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, Ian Rankin, who writes the Inspector Rebus novels, and John Buchan, who penned ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’. There are many others and it’s a really pretty little spot to walk around.
Muriel Spark’s flagstone in Makars’ Court
City Arts Centre
This venue is run by the city council and is tucked away just a few minutes’ walk from the main shopping areas, in Market Street.
It’s home to Edinburgh’s fine art collection and has a focus on Scottish art, as well as works from around the world, in the 4,500 piece collection.
CAC is a lovely, peaceful space and is well designed and presented. It also has a beautiful shop on the ground floor and a very popular café, with a very eye-catching full wall mural.
City Art Centre upper floor display.
The Royal Mile
Firstly, it’s not actually a mile. Despite being longer than its title suggests, the name ‘Royal Mile’ sounds so much better than ‘Royal Mile and a Third’ and, well…that’s that, really.
It’s actually based on an old Scots mile and we didn’t feel the need to amend it just because measurements changed.. We’re stubborn like that.
Anyway, The Royal Mile is made up of various streets, running from the west to the east (and helpfully downhill…) and are: Castlehill (from the foot of Edinburgh Castle), Lawnmarket, High Street, Cannongate and Abbey Strand.
It’s a beautiful walk and, while wandering, you can indulge in a spot of shopping for some famous Scottish ‘tat’ (cheap souvenirs). You can’t miss them unless you don’t know what tartan looks like…
I quite like all the souvenirs and it obviously sells well or there wouldn’t be as much of it around, would there? I mean, what right-minded individual goes home from Scotland without a stuffed Loch Ness Monster? Exactly.
Anyway, following the streets down the Royal Mile, there are also lots of quality cafes and bars. Should you make it to the bottom, you can gaze in quiet amazement at the Scottish Parliament.
The Parliament building rather divides opinion I’m not a fan of it myself (the building, I mean, I like the Parliament). However, it is impossible to miss, which can’t be all bad, can it?
The Queen’s official Scottish residence, Holyrood Palace, is located across the street. This also divides opinion, but for totally different reasons…
The Royal Mile (or part of it, at least)
Relaxing in Princes Street Gardens
PSG is a public park, right in the heart of Edinburgh’s the New Town. Within the gorgeous green space are many statues and monuments. These include the largest, Sir Walter Scott’s Monument, as well as smaller statues for David Livingstone and Allan Ramsey, amongst others.
There are also numerous war memorials within the gardens, paying homage to lives lost in the Spanish Civil War, and commemorating the work of the Royal Scots. At the eastern entrance to the Gardens lies the world’s first floral clock.
During the winter, the Gardens are famous for hosting Winter Wonderland. The city creates an ice rink, puts up their Ferris wheel and transform PSG into a mecca for holiday season enthusiasts.
The German Christmas markets are also among the most famous in the world. There are few things better than wandering round a chilly Edinburgh, drinking mulled wine and eating brats.
View of Princes Street and the Christmas Markets.
What are you favourite free things to do in Edinburgh?
Hi, I'm Suz. I love travelling (obvs..), dogs, shoes and wine, although not necessarily in that order. I'm originally from Scotland, but now live in Snowdonia in North Wales with my husband and a seriously large shoe collection.
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