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Best Free Things to Do in Edinburgh: Save Money, Have Fun



Just taking a walk through the Edinburgh streets can be a lot of fun for visitors seeking a glimpse into the past. The entire Old Town and New Town areas are World Heritage sites and the architecture is stunning, from the wide classical avenues of the New Town to the cobbled streets, wynds and closes of the Old Town. There are also lots of free Edinburgh attractions worth stopping off along the way.

Head south and seek out the National Museum of Scotland for a treat that will engage the whole family. There are lots of activities for kids covering science, nature, and, of course, history. You’ll also find a detailed look into Scotland’s past, and exhibits from around the world, as far-flung as Ancient Egypt and China.

For a spectacular panorama of the city climb Arthur’s Seat. On the way to the summit, you can take in a picturesque ruin and a lovely duck pond. If your idea of a good view is a beautiful painting or sculpture then you won’t be disappointed either. Edinburgh has three world-class galleries and all are free to peruse and enjoy.

During the Edinburgh Festival, you will also find a selection of free shows and a host of street performances, as well as an infectious and lively atmosphere to brighten even the dullest day. A fun day out in Scotland’s capital doesn’t have to cost you a thing.


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Calton Hill

This hill at the east end of Princes Street provides the ideal perch for viewing Edinburgh's loveliest sights, including the Castle, New Town, Holyrood and Arthur's Seat. At 100 feet, you'll be surprised at how extensive the view is from the crest, and it's a great place for a picnic lunch. At the top of the hill, you'll find Nelson's monument, offering added lift for an increased perspective of the city. You'll find numerous other interesting monuments, including the National Monument, often called Scotland's Disgrace, which was supposed to be massive, but which ended up being 12 simple columns due to lack of funding.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Calton Hill combines wonderful views of Edinburgh with a range of interesting monuments that are worth exploring.

Simon's expert tip: Make sure you take your camera with you when you climb Calton Hill as the view along Princes Street from the top is stunning.

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National Gallery of Modern Art


You'll find the National Gallery of Modern Art housed in a stunning neo-classical building in the west of the New Town. It was originally a school, built in the 19th century. The sizable grounds are a perfect home for an interesting mixture of sculpture and the huge "Landform" landscaped front lawn is sure to catch your eye on the way in. Inside the gallery, you'll find a stunning array of works by artists such as Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Ben Nicholson, Matisse, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein. There are also frequent international exhibitions. Entry to the permanent collection is free, special exhibitions sometimes have an entry fee.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The National Gallery of Modern Art offers an inspiring mixture of contemporary art and sculpture.

Simon's expert tip: This is a great place to sit outdoors on a sunny day and there are plenty of works to enjoy in the grounds of this grand building.

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Burials have been taking place here since the 16th century and there are a number of notable inhabitants including William McGonagall, James Craig and George Buchanan. The National Covenant which sparked the Covenanter's movement against King Charles II after the Reformation was signed here in 1638 and after their defeat, many of them were imprisoned nearby. It is most famous for Greyfriar's Bobby the loyal dog who guarded his master's grave for 13 years. You'll find a statue of the Skye Terrier nearby at the end of George IV Bridge. Many claim the graveyard is haunted, most of them run ghost tours, but there's certainly no denying it is creepy. You'll find a number of interesting monuments and gravestones within.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Greyfriars Kirkyard has a real atmosphere and it's a wonderful place to explore, with many interesting stories to tell.

Simon's expert tip: Look out for the mortsafes which were designed to protect graves from body snatchers like Burke and Hare.

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Water of Leith Walkway


The Water of Leith Walkway is an idyllic and tranquil path and cycle track which snakes its way through the heart of Edinburgh. The walkway passes numerous beauty spots and places of interest including Saughton Winter Gardens, Colinton Village and Dell, the Union Canal, the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art, Dean Village and Stockbridge, and the Royal Botanic Garden. As part of your walk or cycle why not pop into the Water of Leith Visitor Center? This free attraction features video and interactive presentations and includes a lovely café and gift shop. There are also numerous events held throughout the year including guided walks, family events and an annual plant sale which has proved very popular.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The Water of Leith Walkway is a great way to explore the city and it passes a number of other free attractions.

Simon's expert tip: Practical Action Days allow members of the public to get involved. Why not join them for some exercise, fresh air and the knowledge that you have helped preserve this beautiful natural asset?

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St. Giles' Cathedral
Photo courtesy of Colin Smith


There has been a church on the site of this cathedral since the 9th century. St. Giles' Cathedral was built in 1120, and it has served an important role in Scottish religion as the Mother Church of Presbyterianism. John Knox led the Scottish Reformation from St. Giles and it is still in use today. The pre-Raphaelite stained glass is amazing. It is also well worth seeing the chapel of the Order of the Thistle, the highest Scottish chivalric order, established in 1910. When you are finished exploring you can also descend into the crypt, where there is an unpretentious coffee shop. You can't miss its famed crown spire on the Royal Mile and entry is free.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: You won't soon forget St. Giles Cathedral as stepping through the doors is like stepping back in time.

Simon's expert tip: The stained glass and incredible ornamentations inside St. Giles Cathedral can hardly fail to capture your imagination. If you want to film or take photographs then you should pick up a permit at the Information Desk, it only costs £2.

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The Scottish Parliament at Holyrood officially opened in 2004. This is where Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) meet to debate Scottish issues. It is open to the public and there are free guided tours available, generally on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays. There are also exhibitions, a shop and a cafe. This stunning building lies at the bottom of the Royal Mile and was designed by Catalan architect, Enric Miralles. It is a source of some controversy in Scotland because it went massively over budget and a fierce debate still rages over whether it is beautiful or ugly. Decide for yourself when you visit.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: For a fascinating insight into the inner workings of the Scottish Parliament take one of their informative tours.

Simon's expert tip: The Debating Chamber is a fascinating space and not to be missed. You can even get a free ticket to visit the Debating Chamber and listen in to a debate when parliament is in session. Make sure you request a ticket in advance to avoid disappointment.

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Arthur's Seat


If you're feeling adventurous then why not scale the rocky crags on the edge of town to get a closer look at Arthur's Seat? It is a dormant volcano that last erupted more than 300 million years ago. Though interesting by itself, the views from the rocky vista are amongst the best in the city. You'll enjoy an uninterrupted view of everything Edinburgh has to offer so make sure you take your camera. This is a large park, perfect for hiking, and it is fun for kids too, thanks to a lake full of well-fed ducks and swans. The name is popularly supposed to be a reference to King Arthur.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Arthur's Seat offers a spot of real adventure. There are crags and ruins to explore, and the view is hugely rewarding.

Simon's expert tip: If you can dig yourself out of bed early enough to scale the peak before sunrise you'll be treated to an unforgettable sight.

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National Gallery of Scotland


The Scottish National Gallery is one of the most popular attractions in Scotland and it is situated right in the heart of Edinburgh. This gallery boasts broad offerings of sculpture, paintings and furniture that range from the Italian Renaissance to French Impressionism. Artists represented include Monet, Degas, van Gogh, Renoir, Gauguin, Cezanne, Rembrandt and Reubens. It is an impressive collection that's not to be missed. Entry is generally free but there are occasionally special exhibitions which charge for admission. The gallery is part of a complex on The Mound which includes a restaurant, cafe and a shop. It can be found in the middle of Princes Street Gardens.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The National Gallery of Scotland will surprise you with the quality of its international collection which includes works by Monet, van Gogh, and Rembrandt.

Simon's expert tip: The permanent collection is fairly small so an hour is enough to explore it and entry is free. There are often interesting temporary exhibitions on which charge for entry so it's always worth checking out the calendar to see what's on.

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Royal Botanic Gardens
Photo courtesy of Calum McRoberts


Any plant or flower, rare and common, can be seen and enjoyed at the Royal Botanic Gardens. It was originally developed as a learning conservatory for students, but it has grown to become an example to the world. The rock garden, arboretum, and over 70 acres of shrubs, blooming plants, and trees are great fun to explore. There is also a serene Chinese Garden and a duck pond. Some of the plants date all the way back to the dinosaur age. You will also find exhibitions and interactive activities for children in the main building and there are a shop, a restaurant and a couple of cafes. On a sunny day you'll enjoy the peace and beauty you'll find here. There are also some spectacular views of the city.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The Royal Botanic Gardens are beautiful and offer a little relaxation and serenity away from the bustle of the city.

Simon's expert tip: Make sure you visit the Terrace Cafe for gorgeous views of the castle, it's perfect for a picnic. You should also check out the John Hope Gateway where you'll find a great gift shop and sometimes events, displays or activities.

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National Museum of Scotland
Photo courtesy of Simon Hill


The diverse collection at the National Museum of Scotland encompasses the history of Scotland along with exhibitions of international interest. You can learn all about Scotland's past from the age of chivalry through to the industrial revolution and beyond. You'll also find diverse displays on everything from the pharaohs of ancient Egypt to the samurais of Japan. The natural world, science and technology, discoveries, art and design, and world cultures are all explored. There are interactive elements and activities to suit children of all ages, including science experiments, musical instruments and unusual photo opportunities. There are also regular exhibitions and you'll find plenty of shops, cafes and restaurants. It is a fantastic location for the whole family.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: For sheer variety and quality, the National Museum of Scotland is the best free attraction in Edinburgh.

Simon's expert tip: There are lots of great, interactive activities for children and plenty to keep adults interested so this is fun for the whole family. Kids of all ages love the models of trains and engines because you can push a button to activate the displays.

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Meet Simon Hill

Simon has lived in various corners of Edinburgh over the last 18 years. He fell in love with the city as a small child after visiting the castle and returned to study Scottish History.

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