Best Museums in Edinburgh

History, Science and Culture at Edinburgh's Best Museums

Edinburgh has a rich and fascinating history, and this is reflected in the city’s many museums. From the smallest local history museum to the hugely popular national museums, there is more than enough to keep you entertained every day of the week.

Arguably the most popular is the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street. This free resource was given a major upgrade a few years ago and is now one of the UK’s premier attractions. The permanent exhibitions include wonderful interactive displays and cover diverse subjects such as astronomy, ancient Egypt, science and technology, Scottish history and zoology. They also regularly host great temporary exhibits, so it is worth checking their website to see what is coming up.

At the other end of the scale you will find a host of smaller museums inhabiting beautiful historical buildings in the Old Town. You could learn about local history, famous literary figures or see some wonderful antique toys. For a unique (and sometimes macabre) view of the history of medicine you should seek out Surgeon’s Hall in the South side.

The city of Edinburgh is dominated by the imposing form of Edinburgh Castle, and one of the capital’s most popular attractions is housed within its walls. For a fascinating, and sometimes poignant, exploration of military history and the lives of those who signed up to defend their nation head to the National War Museum.

Edinburgh’s museums are fascinating, thought provoking, and often free – what more could you ask for!


This fascinating attraction was the first museum in the world to be dedicated to the history of childhood. The collection was originally established by Patrick Murray, an Edinburgh Councilor who was a passionate collector of toys and childhood memorabilia. The permanent exhibition contains a huge collection of antique toys, games and teddy bears (including a collection of early Steiff bears). There are also fascinating exhibits exploring the history of education, clubs and growing up. There is a recreated Victorian street complete with outdoor toys, a 1930s classroom and great collection of dressing up clothes for children to enjoy. This delightful museum is not just for children, the exhibits are bound to delight older visitors too.

Recommended for Museums because: With a huge collection of antique toys on display, the young at heart will love the Museum of Childhood.

Simon's expert tip: There is a great shop, but no café. This shouldn't be a problem, as there are plenty of cafes nearby.

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Museum of Edinburgh

The Museum of Edinburgh is dedicated to displaying the local history of Edinburgh. You will see Greyfriars Bobby's collar and feeding bowl and the National Covenant, signed by leaders of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland in 1638. There are also displays of crafts that were important in the lives of past populations, including glassmaking, pottery, wool processing, and cabinetry. You'll find this old house on the Royal Mile and every room is crammed with interesting curiosities, there are also regular exhibitions, and a fascinating attraction that charts Edinburgh's growth over the past few centuries into the city it is today. Also open Sunday afternoons in August.

Recommended for Museums because: The Museum of Edinburgh is a great place to get to know the history of Scotland's capital.

Simon's expert tip: You'll find fun activities that offer a glimpse into the past here for kids and adults, so check what's on to plan your visit.

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The Museum on the Mound is housed in the former Bank of Scotland headquarters (now the Lloyds Banking Group's Scottish HQ) which is a spectacular Victorian building just off the Royal Mile. It's all about money and it covers the art and design of money, and associated technology, crime, trade and security. It's free to visit and you can see a range of exhibits from the oldest bank note in Scotland to a million pounds in cold, hard cash. You can learn how money developed and there are some fun exhibits and activities for kids to try out, including the even popular safe cracking challenge.

Recommended for Museums because: The Museum on the Mound is a great free exhibition housed in an impressive building.

Simon's expert tip: Little ones will love the free activity book – and if they complete it they can earn some free postcards!

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The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh was founded in 1505 and the city has been an important location for medical research ever since. The museum here was originally designed as a teaching museum for students, but it first opened to the public in 1832. There's a history of surgery, a dental collection, and a fascinating collection of pathological anatomy. You'll also find an interesting look at Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and other exhibitions, often centered on famous figures, come and go. You'll find this museum is full of curiosities and it offers a real insight into the development of modern medicine. Some people may find some of the exhibits macabre or even gruesome – you have been warned!

Recommended for Museums because: Fascinating and sometimes a little gruesome, Surgeon's Hall is certainly unique.

Simon's expert tip: Those with an interest in Edinburgh's darker side will want to seek out the death mask of the infamous body snatcher Burke and the pocket book fashioned from his skin.

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John Knox House is a fascinating mediaeval building constructed in 1470. It is named after the famous Protestant reformer John Knox, although he actually only lived there for a short period in his life. The house was also home to James Mosman, an ardent supporter of Mary Queen of Scots who was one of the "Queen's Men" who seized Edinburgh Castle in a failed attempt to have her reinstated. The exhibition includes the contents of the time capsule buried which the house was saved from demolition in the 1840s as well as a host of fascinating period details such as the carving of the devil hiding in The Oak Room ceiling.

Recommended for Museums because: John Knox House is the oldest intact house in the city of Edinburgh which also gives visitors an insight into the turbulent Reformation.

Simon's expert tip: The audio guide is very reasonably priced and helps you to discover some of the fascinating details around the house you might otherwise miss.

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Set within the walls of historic Edinburgh Castle the National War Museum explores the history of Scotland at war. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Scottish Highlander was viewed with suspicion and fear by the British state and even by many lowland Scots. In time the image of the Highland soldier became a central icon of Scottish identity, and Scots enlisted in the Armed forces in huge numbers. The National War Museum charts this transformation with exhibits of uniforms, military insignia and equipment. You can also learn a little about the life of a serviceman though fascinating displays of diaries and memorabilia. Admission is included in the ticket price for Edinburgh Castle so make sure you do not miss out this little gem.

Recommended for Museums because: The National War Museum packs an incredible amount of information into a small space and is one of the most popular attractions at Edinburgh Castle.

Simon's expert tip: You can book a free workshop at the museum to discover whether one of your ancestors served in the army, navy or air force.

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Housed in the historic Cannongate Tolbooth, the People's Story Museum tells the story of the people of Edinburgh from the late 18th century to the present day. The three galleries explore life in an Edinburgh tenement during the eighteenth century and recount the stories of Edinburgh citizens during the twentieth century using waxworks, recorded oral histories and written sources. The museum also houses an impressive number of early reform flags and banners in support of political reform, trade unions and the anti-apartheid movement. Finally there is a film screening room showing short documentaries about the lives of four Edinburgh citizens from different time periods.

Recommended for Museums because: The People's Story gives a fascinating insight into the lives of Edinburgh citizens – and it's free!

Simon's expert tip: Don't skip the films in the screening room, they are very well done.

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The Writer's Museum is housed in the beautiful and ornate Lady Stair's House, a category 'A' listed building. Built in 1622 by Sir William Gray, it was given to the City of Edinburgh in 1907 for use as a museum. The collection celebrates the legacy of Scotland's literary contributions, with special emphasis given to Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns. The museum is home to numerous portraits and manuscripts, and you can also see Burns' desk, Scott's chess set, and the printing press on which Scott's Waverly novels were first published. They maintain one of the world's premier collections of memorabilia related to Robert Louis Stevenson. Exhibits also spotlight current Scottish authors.

Recommended for Museums because: The Writer's Museum has a great collection of memorabilia relating to Scotland's three most famous literary figures, Burns, Stevenson and Scott.

Simon's expert tip: Don't miss the fascinating Makar's Court with its flagstones inscribed with quotes from famous literary figures.

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Our Dynamic Earth

This phenomenal museum celebrates the beauty of the earth via innovative technology. It is situated at the opposite end of the Old Town from the castle, near Holyrood Palace in the shadow of the crags and Arthur's Seat. Interactive exhibits allow visitors to experience simulated earthquakes, tropical rainstorms, the ocean floor, ice ages, glaciers and mountains. Particularly interesting is the virtual tour around the eleven Earthscapes. It is educational fun for the whole family and can serve as a good introduction to concepts surrounding the formation of the planet, the creatures we share the earth with, and the growth of the human population.

Recommended for Museums because: Our Dynamic Earth is sure to inspire, delight and educate.

Simon's expert tip: There are frequent special exhibits and events, so check up on the calendar before you go.

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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 Museums because: The National Museum has a wonderful collection with more than enough to delight both young and old.

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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