15 fun and free things to do in Edinburgh
Edinburgh is our 2nd favourite city in the UK after London! Scotland's capital has everything: a medieval Old Town and Georgian New Town (UNESCO listed), a Royal palace, an ancient castle perched on an extinct volcano, spine tingling haunted sites and is also famous for being the birthplace of Harry Potter! Like many capital cities, you can easily spend a lot of money here, but also like other capital cities there are loads of amazing things to do in Edinburgh for free!
From fab galleries and museums to jaw dropping view points and fun Harry Potter locations, we've made a guide to our top 15 free things to do in Edinburgh.
1. Edinburgh's Old Town: Start your visit to Edinburgh by exploring the city's narrow, winding Medieval closes and Edinburgh's famous Royal Mile. It's a great jumping off point for lots of other places on this list like St Giles Cathedral, haunted Greyfriars Kirkyard, the National Museum of Scotland, and favourite Harry Potter fan location Victoria Street . If you're here during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (an enormous theatre festival that takes over the city every August), there will be LOADS of free street theatre and performances going on around the Old Town, especially along the Royal Mile and around St Giles Cathedral.
2. Royal Botanical Gardens: About a half hour walk out of the New Town, but feeling like another planet, are the beautiful Royal Botanical Gardens. Explore 70 acres of wonderful plants, including the rock garden, Chinese hillside, trees and rhododendron. Don't miss the Queen Mother's Memorial Garden, chock full of stunning Dahlia variants.
NB: The gardens are free to visit, the only part with an entry fee are the glasshouses which are currently closed for refurbishment.
3. Portobello Beach: Did you know Edinburgh had a beach? A short 20 minute bus ride from Princes Street is Portobello Beach - 2km long and sandy, the water is blue flag certified for swimming and the beach is backed by a long promenade full of cafes and penny arcades.
4. Climb Arthurs Seat: This famous volcanic peak and the adjacent Salisbury Crags can be seen from all over Edinburgh. Head down to the far end of the Royal Mile to Holyrood Palace and continue round to the right to pick up the walking trail.
It's a moderate hike, easy enough to do in trainers if the weather is dry, with some fairly steep sections. After about 5 minutes of walking, you'll see a path heading left with a signpost for the summit - we'd advise taking this more direct route up to the top, and then taking the longer route via the crags on the way down - this way you'll avoid a very brutal long climb!
The 360 degree views from the top are spectacular, looking out over the city, Edinburgh Castle and the surrounding countryside and sea.
5. Take a selfie with Greyfriars Bobby: Snap a pic with one of Edinburgh's most famous alumni, a little Skye Terrier called Bobby. According to local legend, this loyal pup guarded his owner's grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard for 14 years in all weathers until his own death in 1872.
There is a life sized statue of Bobby on a granite pedestal outside a pub named after him, right beside Greyfriars Kirkyard. Just at the right height for a selfie, this Good Boy has clearly had a lot of fuss over the years, as his nose has been rubbed a different colour (You can see Bobby's collar and bowl at the Museum of Edinburgh which is also free)!
6. Calton Hill: If you don't fancy hiking Arthur's Seat (we'd actually recommend doing both!), Calton Hill is a much easier 10 minute climb and also provides wonderful views across the city and Forth of Firth. You might recognise the view from up here -the lantern style Dugald Stewart Monument looking out over the city is often used on Edinburgh guide books.
You might enjoy these other Scottish blogs!
Where to find dinosaur footprints on the Isle of Skye
10 awesome detours off the NC500 Route
The Ultimate Scottish Bucketlist
7. Scottish National Gallery: This free art gallery celebrates the greats of Scottish art, including Ramsay, Raeburn and Wilkie, along with works by the big names from around the world like Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, El Greco, Constable, Turner, Rembrant and van Dyck. While you're here, don't miss the café for BEAUTIFUL cakes and a pot of tea! Not free of course, but worth treating yourself as you're not paying any entry fees.
Monarch of the Glen by Lanseer and cake!
8. Brave the world's most haunted graveyard: Greyfriars Kirkyard is not just famous for little Bobby and his owner's grave (both tomb stones are close to the entrance of the church yard), it has another more infamous resident... tucked against a side wall is an ornate mausoluem with a dome and a padlocked door. This is the Black Tomb of "Bloody Mackenzie", or George Mackenzie, Lord Advocate during the rule of King Charles II. Sent to ruthlessly persecute and suppress the Presbyterian Covenanters, he imprisoned 1200 of them in very cruel conditions in a corner of the kirkyard. Hundreds died. Mackenzie's tomb is is said to be haunted by his violent spirit - people have reported being shoved and scratched. The entrance to the tomb is locked after several break ins, but you can still peer through the grill in the front door if you dare...
While you explore the church yard, keep an eye out for mortsafes, iron bars built over graves to deter body snatchers. Before you leave, pop into the watchman's bothie to check out its collection of cursed dolls: seriously creepy...
Check out our full blog about visiting Greyfriars Kirkyard here.
9. See £1 million at Museum on the Mound: Have you ever wondered what £1 million looks like? Just up the hill from the Scottish National Gallery is the Museum on the Mound, located in the grand Bank of Scotland Head Office. Focussing on all things banking and money related, the main attraction of this little museum is see through box containing £1 million - wads and wads of decommissioned £20 notes - and there is also an interesting display about the Scottish Widows' Fund and Life Assurance Society.
10. National Museum of Scotland: an absolute treasure trove that's like London's British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Natural History Museum and Science Museum all mashed together. The collection is absolutely vast, from dinosaurs and geological wonders to fashion throughout the ages and Scottish historic treasures like the Lewis chessmen and a carved cradle said to be used by Mary, Queen of Scots for her baby son, the future King James VI (James I of England). Other exhibits of interest include the taxidermied remains of Dolly the sheep, who made the news when she was cloned in 1996, and the Maiden, a fearsome looking guillotine style device used for public executions in Edinburgh between the 16th and 18th centuries. Its innovative flatpack style design made it easy to transport around the city!
The Grand Gallery at the National Museum of Scotland
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11. Visit the Harry Potter shops on 'Diagon Alley': Winding cobblestone Victoria Street with its colourful shopfronts and hidden staircases was supposedly JK Rowling's inspiration for Diagon Alley. Walking here, you can certainly imagine popping into Ollivanders to pick up a wand, or browsing the books in Flourish and Blotts.
There are two magical shops on Victoria Street that Harry Potter fans will want to visit: Museum Context at number 40 has multiple floors of officially licenced Harry Potter merch like wands, quidditch jumpers, sweets and books and feels like a location straight out of the Harry Potter films. Pretty much opposite, the Enchanted Galaxy stocks a huge range of Harry Potter themed clothes, bags, stationary and goodies from the different Hogwarts school houses. They also sell Game of Thrones, Star Wars and Marvel themed products.
From Victoria Street it's a very short walk along Candlemaker's Row to another very popular Harry Potter fan location in Edinburgh...
12. Find the Harry Potter gravestones : Scattered around the right hand side and rear of Greyfriars Kirkyard are several grave stones with names that some literary fans might recognise - Potter, McGonagall, Scrymgeour, Cruikshanks, Moodie and one of the most photographed burial sites in Scotland: Thomas Riddle.
While JK Rowling has never confirmed that she took her characters' names from the cemetery, seeing as how she wrote much of her Harry Potter novels in various cafes in the vicinity, it doesn't seem too farfetched to assume that she took a wander through the graveyard for inspiration...
13. The Scottish National Portrait Gallery: Over on Queen Street in Edinburgh's New Town, you can come face to face with famous Scots throughout history, from Mary, Queen of Scots and James VI to Bonnie Prince Charlie, Flora Macdonald and Robert Burns, and modern day names like Billy Connolly, Robbie Coltrane and Alan Cumming.
14. St Giles Cathedral: Located right in the centre of the Old Town and famous for its striking crown steeple, most recently you'll have seen St Giles on TV during the preparations for Queen Elizabeth II's funeral. Before returning to London, the Queen's coffin lay in rest for 24 hours for a service of thanksgiving and for the public to visit.
Tucked in the back right corner is the tiny, beautiful Thistle Chapel, the private chapel of the Order of the Thistle, an ancient chivalric order founded by King James III in the 15th century. The chapel dates from 1911 and was opened by King George V. See if you can spot a carved angel playing the bagpipes! Nearby the chapel in a wooden frame is a copy of the National Covenant.
Despite the name, St Giles isn't technically a cathedral as it doesn't have a Bishop - it serves as the High Kirk of the Church of Scotland. Following the Protestant Reformation in 1559, John Knox was made the minister of St Giles, and there is a statue of him in the nave close to the entrance. Knox was buried in the Kirkyard, but his gravesite was paved over as part of a car park. To find it, head round the outside of the cathedral to the statue of Charles II in Parliament Square. Find parking space 23, where a plaque marks the approximate spot where Knox was buried.
Edinburgh born Robert Louis Stevenson has a bronze memorial in St Giles Cathedral - the celebrated author of Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Kidnapped is buried in Samoa, where he died aged 44.
15. The Writer's Museum: Along with Robert Louis Stevenson, the Writers Museum celebrates two other Scottish greats: Walter Scott and Robert Burns. This little museum is tucked away on Lady Stair's Close, just off Lawnmarket, in an attractive 17th century house. The collection includes portraits, books and personal effects like Burns' writing desk and Stevenson's wardrobe made by Deacon Brodie, an infamous Edinburgh resident whose double life of respectable city councillor/furniture maker and burglar is said to have inspired the duplicitous character of Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde.
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