For a city of such small stature – it's home to fewer than 400,000 people – Edinburgh has one of the best ranges of cultural exploits to enjoy, from art galleries and attractions to clubbing and live music. Its museums, though, are pretty much second to none. In addition to the usual culprits (nature, medicine and the city itself all have institutions dedicated to their history) there are museums for firefighting, geology, money and famous local authors, not to mention the world's first museum of childhood. So whether you're interested in local history or the natural world, grisly anatomical studies or pristine Georgian apartments, blazing fires or cold hard cash, Edinburgh has a museum for you. Here's our pick of the best.
Reopened after an extensive refurbishment in 2011, the National Museum has become an extremely popular destination with tourists and locals alike, with children particularly well catered for. There is a large, all-ages play area to the rear of the first floor and a more educational play space for older children on the top level, while many exhibits feature a significant degree of interactivity. In particular the Natural World gallery, a three-level space filled with hung and standing stuffed and model animals from around the world, and a recreated Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, is a favourite.
Apparently the first museum of its kind when it was established in 1957, the Museum of Childhood is the perfect day out for restless kids. Child-centric in its entirety, the museum combines a vast collection of toys from throughout history and from around the world, with artefacts from childhoods past: chimneysweeps’ hats, classroom slates and retro, kid-marketed medicines provide loads of opportunities for parents and grandparents to get lost in nostalgic reveries while their kids enjoy the many interactive exhibits.
It is worth making the effort to get in to the Anatomical Museum (which is only open for nine days a year): its existence reflects an enthusiasm for anthropology, craniology and comparative mammalian anatomy that flourished in the university medical faculty from around 150 years ago. Exhibits include elephant skeletons, craniology samples (including the skull of the tutor of James I & VI), plus models of heads and life and death masks made by the Edinburgh Phrenological Society.
Based in an authentic sixteenth century townhouse and its adjoining properties, this museum has history woven into its fabric as well as its artefacts and curios. Its displays are fabulously eclectic; you'll discover glass, silver, pottery, the collar and bowl of Greyfriar's Bobby, architect James Craig's original plans for the New Town, a specs case that belonged to John Knox and – most historically important of all – the National Covenant of 1638, with some of the signatures written in blood.
This museum, in a former fire station, tells the story of the world's first municipal fire brigade (formed in Edinburgh in 1824) and its subsequent development. The old fire engines are quite beautiful, including hand-pulled and horse-drawn pumps from the nineteenth century, a unique Halley from 1910 and a Dennis from 1930. Aside from the vehicles in their distinctive red livery, displays also chart the improvement in protective clothing over the years, and there are historical artefacts including a fifteenth century tool for removing burning thatch from a roof. You can also inspect the old fire brigade control room, and plenty more besides.
Housed in the former head office of Bank of Scotland, the museum forms only a small part of this iconic building dating back to 1806. The focus here is on money and showcasing a unique collection of artefacts and memorabilia, with a mix of static and interactive displays to keep visitors entertained. There's a million quid in used twenties for example, a section on forgers and forgery, some social history about bank staff and a gallery dedicated to the history of Bank of Scotland at the Mound, set in the context of the wider development of the city.
The Knox house is a genuine fifteenth century property that was saved from demolition in the nineteenth century in the belief that the founder of Scottish Presbyterianism had lived there. Actually the house was home to one James Mosman, a goldsmith who was a fascinating character in his own right; it's his initials – along with those of his wife Mariota Arres – that can be seen on the external wall below a first floor window. However, the museum says that Knox was in residence for a short period before his death in 1572, so the association with one of the key figures of the Reformation still stands.
A distinctive looking landmark in its own right, with a tented roof that mimics the sailmasts of a ship, Our Dynamic Earth is a science centre whose principal aim is to educate on the geological formation of the Earth. Amongst various interactive and partially simulated galleries within the building, exhibits demonstrate to visitors the formation of the Earth from the Big Bang onwards, as well as patterns of glacial activity and animals that have been made extinct by evolution. The journey takes in the depths of the ocean, the icy extremes of the polar ice caps and a tropical rainforest.
This museum is based in Lady Stair's House, remarkable for its sharp turnpike staircases and maze-like layout. Built by William Gray in 1622, it was given to the City of Edinburgh in 1907 and now has curios and memorabilia relating to three of Scotland's most famous writers: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Early editions of their works are supplemented by personal effects including a dining table and rocking horse that once belonged to Scott, a writing desk that belonged to Burns and a ring given to Stevenson by a Samoan chief.
Built in 1550 and then extensively rebuilt 70 years later by the merchant burgess Thomas Gledstanes, an ancestor of Victorian-era British prime minister William Gladstone, Gladstone's Land is a typical example of the lands – or tenements – that once lined the Royal Mile, right down to the high level entry door up a narrow flight of external stairs. The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) maintains the property in the seventeenth century style of its former owner; you can poke around in half a dozen rooms over two floors including a bedchamber complete with painted wooden ceiling and ornately carved bed.
This local authority-run venue is dedicated to the social history of the city's working classes over the last four centuries or so. The exploits of the feared Edinburgh mobs are recorded but most displays concern everyday life so guilds, unions and friendly societies are prominent, with various trades represented. Exhibits go up to the 1980s, even covering punk and football. The museum also offers a glimpse into the grinding poverty that some citizens endured in the past – something that continues into the present. Dwell on that and a picture emerges of an Edinburgh that's very different to the glamorous Festival City.
The original Trinity House was built in 1555 as the Hospital for the Fraternity of Masters & Mariners of Leith. Completely rebuilt in neoclassical style in 1816 by Thomas Brown, these days it is hemmed in by local authority housing of a 1960s vintage. However, the building has a fabulous interior and now serves as a museum of Leith's seafaring history. Highlights of the main house include the war memorial window of 1933, added in remembrance of merchant sailors who died in the Great War, a number of portraits by Sir Henry Raeburn and the highly impressive convening room upstairs.
This property, run by the National Trust for Scotland, is an excellent reconstruction of how wealthier Edinburgh residents lived their lives in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. There is period furniture, porcelain, silver, glass, art, chandeliers and more. Everything seems desperately polite though and the only room in the entire property where it looks like people got their hands dirty, or wet, is the kitchen. Fact fans will note that the building next door at number six is the official residence of Scotland's first minister.