Last Updated on 29th June 2020 by Sophie Nadeau
As the capital of Scotland, there’s no denying that there are plenty of things to see and do in Edinburgh. Full of culture and inhabited since time immemorial (where Edinburgh Castle stands was once home to a Bronze Age Settlement), it means that the city can sometimes be a little pricey. Its good location, great transport links and draw for tourists mean that sometimes you can end up paying over the odds to visit the city. However, it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. Here are some free things to do in Edinburgh!
#1 Explore the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens
Flowers both common and rare can be found in this little corner of paradise. Located not far from Dean Village, you’ll find the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh. The gardens date all the way back to 1670 when the space was founded as a physic garden. Today, the Gardens are regularly used in ground breaking research… and they’re free to visit!
#2 Hike Arthur’s Seat
With a view over the city below, Arthur’s Seat is the result of volcanic activity millions of years ago. It could be argued that there is no better way to get a feel for the city than by getting a bird’s eye perspective of it. Free to visit and climb, you can see Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh Castle and many other iconic sites from the top.
#3 See Scottish Parliament
Little known to international visitors is that Scotland has its own parliament. And it’s based in Edinburgh. Although closed during the summer months when Parliament is recess, throughout the rest of the year you can go on one hour guided tours of the buildings for free. And learn more about Scottish law in the process!
#4 Visit the Scottish National Gallery
Small and ornate, this intimate gallery allows you to get close enough to see the paint flecks on some of the most famous works Scotland has to offer. Located on the Mound in the very middle of the city, here you can see artworks by painters such as J M W Turner, and William McTaggart (an iconic Scottish Artist)… all for free!
#5 Marvel at the National Museum of Scotland
The National Museum of Scotland is filled with history and gives you the chance to learn more about the city at a local level. Free to visit, it makes the perfect rainy day activitiy and is even home to Dolly the Sheep (the first ever successfully cloned animal).
#6 Walk down the Royal Mile
With the Castle at one end and Holyrood Park at the other, the Royal Mile is one of those ‘must-see Edinburgh’ attractions that most certainly can’t be missed on any trip to the city. Located in the very heart of the city, a walk down the Royal Mile will allow you to see plenty of pubs, churches and other historic buildings between two castles.
#7 Visit Greyfriars Kirkyard
The ancient churchyard of Greyfriars Kirkyard dates all the way back to the 16th Century. Located near the Old Town part of the city, a number of famous Edinburgh residents are now interred here. It’s also said that JK Rowling got much of her inspiration for names in the Harry Potter series by wandering around the graveyard and looking at the grave markers.
#8 Visit the Magdalen Chapel
Little known is that the Magdalen Chapel(open only at select times) is home to some of the oldest stained glass in Scotland. Tucked away in a little corner of Cowgate, this little place of worship has witnessed centuries of history and plenty of revolution.
#9 Climb Calton Hill
One of the best views over Edinburgh does not come in the form of a long hike, but more of a short stroll. Just a short way up, above Princes Street, you’ll find Calton Hill. Filled with monuments dedicated to famous Scottish residents, the area is included in UNESCO’s designated world heritage site of the city.
#10 Takes Free Walking Tours of Edinburgh
There are free walking tours of the city available on a daily basis. Tours are available on a daily basis, and including a variety of topics from the middle of the Royal Mile. It’s a great way to get an introduction to the city from a local, and learn about plenty of interesting stuff in the process! If you’re looking for a self-guided trail, check out my free walking tour of Edinburgh.
#11 Climb up to Edinburgh Castle
While the castle in of itself is not free, the view from the top is. The rock on which Edinburgh Castle stands is the result of volcanic activity millions of years ago (much like nearby Arthur’s Seat). Located at one of the highest points in the city, you can’t go wrong by wandering around and picking up an ice cream here!
#12 Visit the Museum on the Mound
Marvel at a million pounds worth of (fake) cash in the reception. And that’s just the beginning. The Museum on the Mound is free to visit and well worth a trip (if only to glance around for a half hour). Learn all about the history of money in Scotland, as well as its banks, at this free museum.
#13 See all of the Harry Potter sites in the city!
It’s well known that JK Rowling lived in Edinburgh (and still does) while writing much of the Harry Potter Series. As a result, many of the locations in the books, and subsequently the films, featured heavily as inspiration for the magical series. Take yourself on a self-guided Harry Potter tour of the city to really get a feel for the real world behind the Boy Who Lived…
#14 Visit Dean Village
Of all the free things to do in Edinburgh, a visit to Dean Village is most probably my favourite. Situated just a short walk from the end of Princes Street, you’ll find a village which was first built for mill workers (dating back to a time when much of Edinburgh’s exports were focused on the mill trade). Today, the village is one of the cutest areas in the city and home to some of the most exclusive addresses…
#15 Check out the art at the National Gallery of Modern Art
Edinburgh is absolutely filled with free galleries and museums, including that of Modern Art. The Gallery of Modern art is part of the National Galleries, and as a result is completely free to visit (although donations are always welcome). Here, you can find treasures by Picasso and Matisse, among others.
#16 Visit St Giles Cathedral
Located in the very middle of the Royal Mile, St Giles Cathedral has stood for Centuries. Also known as the ‘High Kirk of Edinburgh’- Kirk is the Scottish word for Church, it’s the main Christian place of worship in the city. It’s also free to visit and well worth a visit, if only to admire the beautiful stained glass windows.
#17 Take a day trip to Cramond Island
You don’t have to stay in the middle of the city to find free things to do in Edinburgh. Instead, consider a day trip from the city. Located on the very edges of the Scottish capital, Cramond Island makes the perfect day trip from the city. Once home to a Roman settlement, this tidal island is uninhabited and perfect for a nature escape.
#18 Enjoy the gardens of Lauriston Castle
Overlooking the sea and filled with flowers, there’s nothing quite as relaxing as heading to the Gardens of Lauriston Castle. While you have to pay to visit the Castle itself, the gardens are completely free to visit (and chill out in). Barely twenty-five minutes by bus from the middle of the city, here you’ll find a Japanese Garden, an Italian Garden and plenty of green space to wander around.
#19 Relax in Dunbars Close
Edinburgh is filled with little spaces, cobbled alleyways and green areas. One such is most unexpected and located just off from the Royal Mile. Dunbars Close is a secret little garden which is free to visit and hidden in plain sight, meaning that it most definitely makes the list of the best free things to do in Edinburgh!
#20 Visit the Museum of Childhood
Free to visit and well worth a walk around, the Museum of Childhood is located on the Royal Mile, making it easy to visit. Free to enter, the museum is filled with vintage toys, board games and other items relating to childhood. It’s the first museum ever to be dedicated solely to childhood and is the perfect place to relive your youth.
#21 Wander through the neighbourhood of Stockbridge
Just a short walk from the end of Princes Street, you’ll stumble on an entirely different type of architecture. Far from the familiar grey façades that characterise the Royal Mile, you’ll find plenty of Georgian architecture. Wander through the neighbourhood, camera in one hand, curiosity in the other. After all, there are always new things to be discovered in Edinburgh…
#22 Visit Gothic St Mary’s Cathedral
Located in the ‘New Town’ area of the city (which nevertheless is incredibly beautiful and still centuries old), St Mary’s Cathedral was constructed in the late 19th Century. Designed in the Gothic style, the cathedral is just as beautiful on the inside, as it is on the exterior.
#23 Soak up some sea air in Leith
Leith is Edinburgh’s district closest to the water. It’s here you’ll find parks, as well as HMY Brittania. Though a visit onboard the ship itself is charged, it’s free to admire from the outside. Once the holiday home (among other things) for the Queen and the rest of the Royal Family, the ship is a great memory of the Monarchy’s past.
#24 Sunbathe on the beach at Portobello Beach
Okay, so maybe Edinburgh’s weather doesn’t permit that much ‘sunbathing on the beach’… but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your own little escape to the sea. After all, Edinburgh is located on the fringes of the North Sea. Plan a trip to the beach, stroll along the sand and eat an ice cream (or two) at Portobello Beach. Of all the free things to do in Edinburgh, this may seem like one of the most unusual, but weather depending, you’re guaranteed to have fun!
Photo of Portobello Beach taken between 1890 and 1900, Edinburgh
#25 Relax in Princes Street Park
Set alongside the shopping street of Princes Street, one of the most beautiful green spaces Edinburgh has to offer is also completely free to visit. Offering plenty of shrubs, bushes, grass, and even a view onto the Balmoral hotel, there is no better place to relax with a book or escape the hustle and bustle of the city, if only for a few hours.
#26 Enjoy live performances at the Fringe Festival
Although lots of the performances at the Fringe Festival are ticketed, some are also free. There are free comedy shows, music performances and many other things. The Fringe Festival takes past in August every year and lasts for much of the month.