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The debating chamber in the Scottish Parliament
Photograph: Colin / Wikimedia Commons

The 6 best free things to do in Edinburgh

Fancy some culture but don’t want to splash out? These are the best free things to do in Edinburgh according to us

By Huw Oliver

Let’s face it – we all love doing things, but not spending money while we’re at it is even better. And for all its Michelin stars, grand concert halls and big-hitting tourist attractions, Edinburgh’s also a place where it’s possible to have a great time for free. From museums and art galleries to several feasible day trips from Edinburgh, these are our top recommendations when it comes to spending precisely nada in the Scottish capital. Happily, the best free things to do in Edinburgh are also some of the best things to do full stop.  

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

Free things to do in Edinburgh

National Museum of Scotland
Photograph: National Museum of Scotland

1. National Museum of Scotland


One museum, two conjoined buildings. The modern half of this complex on Chambers Street opened in 1998 and tells you everything about Scotland from its geological and prehistoric past to its social and political present. The older half with the soaring Victorian atrium – massively refurbished over several years then reopened in 2011 – is more of a crowd-pleaser with galleries covering the natural world, science and technology, art and design, and more.

Museum of Childhood, Attractions, Things to do, Edinburgh
Photograph: Museum of Childhood

2. Museum of Childhood


A local authority-run museum on the Royal Mile, this venue tells the story of playthings from throughout the ages: vaguely spooky dolls, marionettes, Meccano, mannequins in period costume, model trains, go-karts, bicycles, even a Dan Dare-branded radio station. It’ll make adults over a certain age go wobbly with nostalgia.

National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh
Photograph: National Gallery of Scotland

3. National Gallery of Scotland Complex

Art Galleries

This organisation runs the city’s premier art galleries and the permanent collections won’t cost you a bean. This includes the Scottish National Gallery complex at the Mound, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art buildings on Belford Road and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street. 

The Scottish Parliament, Attractions, Things to do, Edinburgh
Photograph: Scottish Parliament

4. The Scottish Parliament


Scotland’s parliament has been in operation since 1999 and has occupied its Holyrood premises since 2004. The bold design here – by Catalan architect Enric Miralles – was always controversial but the best way to appreciate the exterior is to walk up nearby Salisbury Crags and see the complex from above. If you like it, you might find Miralles’s interior even better. Visits are free and allow access to the striking main chamber and elegant committee rooms.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh
Photograph: Royal Botanic Garden

5. Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Attractions Parks and gardens

Founded in the 17th century as a physic garden at Holyrood, the RBGE now has four sites across Scotland but the main one is here in north Edinburgh, covering more than 28 hectares. It has a world-class collection of plants, a selection of cafés, an art gallery and many rules – it’s not a public park – but sitting among the beautiful floral displays is still relaxing. 

The People's Story, Museums, Edinburgh
Photograph: The People’s Story

6. The People’s Story


Occupying the old Canongate Tolbooth where justice was meted out from the late 16th century onwards, this museum looks at ordinary Edinburgh citizens from the past century or two. From tenement life before the advent of modern amenities, through trade unionism, football and war, right up to the late 20th century, the tale is compellingly told through displays, tableaux and mannequins.

City too much? Take some time out here...

Photograph: Hamish Irvine

The 7 best day trips from Edinburgh

Things to do Walks and tours

With a wealth of luscious green space surrounding its winding streets and historic castles, urban ramblers can certainly keep busy in central Edinburgh. But if you do get bored of all those city parks and fancy a proper escape, the serene landscapes around the Scottish capital may be more up your street – or hiking trail.


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