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National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh
Photograph: National Museum of Scotland

The 11 best museums in Edinburgh

Looking for a fun day out that includes history, culture and adventure all in one? Check out one of the many excellent museums in Edinburgh

Written by
Niki Boyle
,
Huw Oliver
&
Arusa Qureshi
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Wander through Edinburgh's old town and you'll encounter enough stories, pieces of local history and tidbits about interesting characters to last you a lifetime. This ancient city is bursting at the seams when it comes to culture and heritage and so unsurprisingly, there are plenty of museums, attractions and galleries dedicated to covering and preserving Edinburgh's rich and lively history.

There are, of course, the standard institutions that cover topics like science, nature and the city's past, but elsewhere, Edinburgh has museums that celebrate everything from childhood to money. So whether you're up for learning about notorious graverobbers, famous local authors or medieval instruments, you'll be sure to find something to keep your interest piqued. Here’s our pick of the best museums in Edinburgh.

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Edinburgh

Best museums in Edinburgh

National Museum of Scotland

What is it? Scotland’s premier museum of natural and anthropological history.

Why go? The big daddy of Edinburgh museums is an eye-catching mix of old and new: the main hall, a grand, airy space ringed by balconies across three storeys, dates from 1866, while the more modern sandstone section was opened in 1998. Its contents, too, are wide-ranging: from dinosaur skeletons, Egyptian sarcophagi and Tibetan prayer wheels in the old galleries to artefacts from Scottish history in the new wing.

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What is it? A concert hall that is also home to one of the most important historic musical instrument collections in the world.

Why go? This Georgian venue, which was originally built by the Edinburgh Musical Society in 1762, recently through a £6.5 million renovation, bringing together the University of Edinburgh's huge collection of musical instruments. The Concert Room regularly hosts concerts and other public events, but the real gem is the Music Museum, which has over 400 instruments from across the globe, from world-famous harpsichords to eighteenth-century guitars.

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What is it? A tribute to the lives of Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Why go? Edinburgh is rightfully proud of its writing and publishing heritage, so of course it has a museum celebrating the lives of some of its leading literary lights. Accessed via the Makar’s Court – where famous quotes are inscribed in the flagstones – exhibits at the Writer’s Museum include Burns’ writing desk and Scott’s ‘Waverley’ printing press.

What is it? An impressive collection of childhood ephemera from throughout the ages.

Why go? An expansive exhibition of retro toys and games would be enticing enough for visitors of a certain vintage. But the Museum of Childhood is packed out every weekend because kids love it too. Interactive exhibits, dress-up areas and frequent special events are on hand to engage young minds, leaving grown-ups to coo over Buzz Lightyear dolls and Andy Pandy puppets.

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What is it? A chronicle of Scotland’s conflicts.

Why go? It can sometimes be easy to overlook the fact that Scotland’s castles – for all their undoubted picturesque charm – are, first and foremost, fortresses designed to withstand attack from enemy forces. The National War Museum, located within the walls of Edinburgh Castle, keeps the concept of conflict fresh in the mind, from old Jacobean battles to the great wars of the twentieth century.

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What is it? A museum packed with optical illusions, interactive exhibits and intriguing photography.

Why go? Just below Edinburgh Castle, you'll find the oldest purpose-built attraction in the city, with six-floors of exhibitions waiting to be explored. There are optical illusions on every floor, designed to make your brain hurt, plus puzzles, a mirror maze, and a vortex tunnel. The centrepiece, however, is still the Camera Obscura itself, which projects a 'virtual' tour of the city for visitors on the rooftop of the building.

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What is it? Delve into the lives of ordinary Edinburgh folk over the years.

Why go? It’s all well and good remembering the generals, monarchs, politicians and other figures of note. But what about the average Joe? The People’s Story explores exactly that: lives of the working classes throughout Scottish history. View photographs and objects, and read first-hand accounts. 

Museum of Edinburgh

What is it? Discover the history of the Scottish capital.

Why go? It’s amazing we’ve got this far into a list relating to Scotland’s history and haven’t mentioned either Mel Gibson or Diana Gabaldon yet, so here goes. Yes, Huntly House – home to the Museum of Edinburgh – was featured in season three of the, ahem, ‘historic’ TV series ‘Outlander’. It’s also home to city plans, historical documents and the collar and bowl of Greyfriars Bobby. If you’re serious about the city, get involved.

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What is it? A collection of artefacts and exhibitions exploring Edinburgh’s medical history.

Why go? The story of Burke and Hare is a popular example of Edinburgh’s grisly past: two graverobbers who graduated to murder when they realised that fresher corpses fetched higher prices from the unscrupulous doctors at the university medical school. This grand museum doesn’t shy away from such lurid details, but neither is it shy about exploring Edinburgh’s major role in the development of modern medicine.

What is it? A hands-on geological experience.

Why go? Remember that episode of ‘The Simpsons’ where the family visit the definitely-not-a-museum ‘Knowledgeum’? That’s kind of what Dynamic Earth is like: somewhere you’ll learn stuff, but studiously avoiding the ‘museum’ connotations. You can touch a real iceberg, experience an earthquake simulation and, on special occasions, listen to Pink Floyd’s ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ in surround sound while watching cosmic, immersive dome projections. Which might sound a bit hippy-dippy, but honestly it’s awesome.

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Museum on the Mound

What is it? A museum of money, housed in the historic Bank of Scotland headquarters.

Why go? It feels a bit crass to say so, but let’s be honest: you want to see what a million quid looks like, right? It’s just one of the sights on offer at the Museum on the Mound, where you can also have a go at safe-cracking and apply for some 1820s life assurance. Pro tip: don’t skimp on the cholera cover.

Empty stomach? Here’s where to head next...

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