Free things in Edinburgh
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.
A local authority-run museum on the Royal Mile, this venue has toys through history: vaguely spooky dolls, marionettes, Meccano, mannequins in period costume for context, model trains, go-karts in the shape of racing cars, bicycles, even a Dan Dare-branded radio station. It will make adults over a certain age go wobbly with nostalgia.
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.
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' interior even better. Visits are free and allow access to the striking main chamber and elegant committee rooms.
Founded in the seventeenth century as a physic garden at Holyrood, RBGE now has four sites across Scotland but the main one is here in the north of Edinburgh, covering more than 28 hectares. It has a world-class collection of plant species, a selection of cafés, an art gallery and many rules – it's not a public park – but it is a truly beautiful green space.
Occupying the old Canongate Tolbooth where justice was dispensed from the late sixteenth century onwards, this museum looks at Edinburgh's people over the last couple of centuries and more. From tenement life before the advent of modern amenities through trade unionism, football and war right up to the late twentieth century, the tale is effectively told with displays, tableaux and mannequins.