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The 9 best museums in Edinburgh

Get your knowledge on with our guide to the best museums in Edinburgh
Edinburgh homepage 2018
By Niki Boyle |

The simple act of strolling around Edinburgh can be something of a history trip – from the ancient volcanoes of Arthur’s Seat and Castle Rock, to the medieval wynds and closes of the Grassmarket and Royal Mile, to the neo-classical splendour of the New Town. But it’s not all ancient history – Scotland’s first parliament for nearly 300 years was formed in Edinburgh in 1999 and Dolly the Sheep was cloned here in 1996. As a seat of historical significance, then, it makes sense that Edinburgh is home to an array of museums, many focusing on a specific corner of history. Here’s our list of the best.

National Museum of Scotland

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 broad-ranging: from dinosaur skeletons, Egyptian sarcophagi and Tibetan prayer wheels in the old galleries to artefacts of Scottish history in the new wing.

museum of childhood edinburgh
Alan Laughlin

Museum of Childhood

What is it? A treasure trove of childhood ephemera through the ages.

Why go? An expansive collection of retro toys and games would be enticing enough for visitors of a certain vintage – they don’t make nostalgia like they used to, after all – but the Museum of Childhood is popular because it’s beloved by kids 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.

writer's museum edinburgh
Alan Laughlin

The Writer’s Museum

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.

National War Museum
Photograph: Ruth Armstrong

National War Museum

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

Why go? It can sometimes be easy to overlook the fact that castles – for all their connotations of Disney adventures or Shakespearean family intrigue – 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.

museum of edinburgh

Museum of Edinburgh

What is it? Home to the history of Scotland’s capital.

Why go? It’s amazing we got this far into a list concerning Scotland’s history and haven’t yet mentioned either Mel Gibson or Diana Gabaldon, 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 (just in case the paperwork wasn’t doing it for you).

the people's story museum edinburgh
Alan Laughlin

The People’s Story

What is it? A look at the lives of Edinburgh's general public 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. 

surgeon's hall museum edinburgh

Surgeon’s Hall

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, Playfair-designed museum doesn’t shy away from such gruesome details, but neither is it shy about exploring Edinburgh’s major role in the development of modern medicine.

museum on the mound edinburgh

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 up close, 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.

Our Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh

Our Dynamic Earth

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 kinda what Our Dynamic Earth is like – somewhere you’ll learn stuff, but studiously avoiding the stuffy ‘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 hipp dippy, but honestly it’s awesome.

Ready for a sweet treat?


The 11 best afternoon teas in Edinburgh

From the colonnaded architecture of the New Town to the regal stretch of the Royal Mile, there’s something about Edinburgh that feels very much aligned with aristocracy and sophistication. That’s borne out by the dozens of venues offering afternoon tea – that ever-so-refined post-lunch activity that revolves around delicate cakes and sandwiches served on silver platters in high-ceilinged atriums. Here are some of the best.

More to explore