14 Free Activities In Edinburgh
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When you're exploring a city and need to fill in the gaps between attractions it helps if the place you're visiting is as picturesque as the Scottish capital. Inspired by the city's beautiful green spaces, Gothic charm and Georgian opulence, we compiled a list of iconic things to do that don't cost a penny.
If anything, these free activities will keep you on your feet - something that's unavoidable in a place as hilly as the Auld Reekie.
1) Explore The National Museum of Scotland:
This recently refurbished palace of wonder promises a sublime journey through the history of the world and everything in it - both natural and man-made. It's the result of two former museums: The Museum of Scotland, and The Royal Museum, merging together to become known as The National Museum of Scotland.
National Museum of Scotland - Grand Gallery | Credit: Andrew Lee.
Even its glass-roofed main hall is the subject of an installation called 'Window on the World'. Featuring over 800 different objects it’s the single largest display of its kind in the UK, and that in itself is worth witnessing. The price of admission? £0. Just walk in and browse to your heart's content.
Further inside there's a myriad of permanent and temporary exhibitions to discover, plus a café, brasserie and souvenir shop. On the roof you'll find The Tower Restaurant, a fine dining spot from restaurateur royalty James Thomson with stunning views of Edinburgh Castle. Obviously the latter isn't exactly free, but at least it doesn't cost a penny to get through the door.
The National Museum of Scotland Is Free To Enter.
2) Take A Free Guided Tour Of Holyrood Abbey:
Most Edinburgh lovers are familiar with Holyrood Palace, but directly behind the royal residence sits the ruins of an even older structure - Holyrood Abbey. Dating back to the days of King David I it's now part of the Royal Collection Trust, a roster of buildings including Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and more. Free tours are conducted during the summer months by professional guides who specialise in tales of monarchical intrigue and Edinburgh's political history.
Free Guided Tour Of Holyrood Abbey | Credit: Shannon Tofts.
3) Meet Wojtek The Bear At Princes Street Gardens:
Even if you're a first time visitor to Edinburgh you'll probably have heard of the city's most iconic four-legged friend, Greyfriars Bobby, whose visage stands immortalised at the top of Candlemaker Row. However, Bobby's not the only one with a tale to tell.
Next time you're walking through Princes Street Gardens drop in on Wojtek the Bear. Wojtek was the mascot of the Polish 22nd Artillery Supply Company during World War II, and due to the cultural connections between Scotland and Poland (and work by the Scottish Polish community) it was decided that a commemorative statue would be erected in the city's park.
Wojtek the Bear | Credit: CityXplora.
4) See Vibrant Tapestries At Dovecot Studios:
Edinburgh is a city stretched at the seams with art institutions, but a lesser-spotted one that piqued our interest was the Dovecot Studios on Infirmary Street, just off the Royal Mile. Its exhibitions focus on contemporary art in the medium of fabric. Expect displays of unparalleled colour, dynamic form and thematic diversity. Dovecot's gallery and Tapestry Studio are free-to-access.
Free Exhibitions At Dovecot Studios | Credit: Michael Wolchover.
5) Scottish National Gallery:
The National Gallery is home to some of Scotland’s most treasured fine art from the early Renaissance to the end of the 19th century. The gallery also offers free entry, drop-in activities and a programme of special events for families.
Inside The Scottish National Gallery.
6) Scottish National Portrait Gallery:
Everyone knows Scotland has made some astonishing contributions to world history, but if you need a reminder of who the great and the good are, The Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street should be your first port of call. This free-to-access gallery harbours over a dozen unique display rooms across three levels, each exploring Scotland and the famous figures who shaped it.
Notable additions to the collection include 'Robert Burns' by Alexander Nasmyth, 'Sir Walter Scott' by Henry Raeburn, and 'Bonnie Prince Charlie (later life)' by Hugh Douglas Hamilton. These timeless pieces and many more are joined by regular temporary exhibitions covering modern portraiture and photography. Past exhibitions have focused on Lee Miller and Picasso, 19th century photography pioneer David Octavius Hill, and Ai Weiwei.
What not miss right now? If you decide to visit be sure to catch 'The Modern Portrait'. This collection of 60 artworks will be on show until October 27th, 2019. The subjects hail from a variety of disciplines and include recognisable faces such as Tilda Swinton, Alan Cumming and Andy Murray.
General Admission To The National Portrait Gallery Is Free.
7) Climb Up Arthur's Seat:
Looming over the Scottish capital is Arthur’s Seat, the main peak of a group of hills just east of the Old Town. Formed by an extinct volcano, you can easily get there from the Royal Mile; just take a right once you get to the bottom and walk towards the unmissable hill.
Arthur's Seat isn't Scotland's most arduous climb, and there are several easy paths to the summit. Excluding photo stops, a person in good physical shape should be able to cover the distance in just over half an hour. The only thing to be mindful of is the season and weather conditions. Always dress to suit the climate and wear appropriate footware.
On May Day, it was once traditional for young women to wash their face with the hill's morning dew. A popular belief had it that this would keep them young and beautiful, though it's a bracing start to the day at any time of the year.
A Scenic View Of Arthur's Seat.
8) See The Monuments On Calton Hill:
Calton Hill is often overshadowed by Arthur’s seat, but it boasts far more items of interest at its top. At the summit you'll find Nelson's monument, whose height offers an enhanced view of the city. You'll also find other interesting attractions, including the National Monument, nicknamed 'Scotland's Disgrace', which was supposed to be massive, but which ended up being 12 simple columns due to lack of funding. You can get to it easily from Princes Street, Regent Street and Leith Walk.
The View From Calton Hill, Priceless.
9) Rub The Nose of Greyfriars Bobby:
Adjacent to the National Museum, you’ll encounter a little bronze statue commemorating an instantly recognisable Edinburgh resident - Greyfriars Bobby, the Skye terrier. It was designed by sculptor William Brodie in 1872 at the behest of Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts, who, amongst many other roles, served as President of the Ladies Committee of the RSPCA.
Bobby's statue is located just across from Greyfriars Kirkyard, a spot which many will remember as the resting place of the dog's owner. Unwilling to abandon his master, Bobby famously lay by the graveside until his own death 14 years later.
Greyfriars Bobby Statue, Edinburgh | Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
10) Discover The J K Rowling Conection At Greyfriars Kirkyard:
The Greyfriars Kirkyard was founded in 1561 and is notable for its wealth of historic monuments. Perhaps the most famous grave site is that of Lord Monboddo (1714-1799) a judge, linguist, and scholar who helped inspire the idea of natural selection pioneered by Charles Darwin. The grave of Greyfriars Bobby lies just beyond the entrance (filled up with sticks left by admirers), and his aforementioned statue sits opposite the church gates on Candlemaker’s Row.
In more recent times Greyfriars has become popular with Harry Potter fans wanting to trace J K Rowling's footsteps. She famously began writing Harry Potter in the nearby Elephant Cafe, and would take breaks in the Kirkyard.
It is said that several of the graves in the kirkyard inspired the names of some of J.K. Rowling’s characters. See if you can spot the grave of Thomas Riddell, which has not been explicitly stated as the inspiration for the name of 'he who shall not be named'. The adjacent George Heriot’s school as also been cited as an inspiration for the setting of Hogwarts.
11) Peruse Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh:
Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Garden is world-renowned for its horticultural excellence. Dating back to 1670, when it was used to grow medicinal plants, this conservation project has bloomed into a leading tourist attraction.
A menagerie of biomes are represented across the 70-acre site. Unmistakable hints of the Scottish landscape are evident in the terraced moorland and heather gardens. Tropical species can be admired in the UK's largest palm house, while other alpine giants from as far away as the Himalayas and North America have roots in the arboretum.
Young children can chase squirrels, adults can learn about plants and everyone can enjoy a free stroll around the green spaces. Picnic's aren't allowed in the grounds, but visitors can purchase refreshments from the on-site Terrace Café. The Talking Trees Storytellers are around every month, relating tales of trees and travellers, magic and marvels.
Note that while the gardens are free to enter, the Glasshouse has an admissions charge.
12) Take A Stroll Through The Meadows:
The Meadows is a large public park located in the south of Edinburgh, close to the University of Edinburgh. On sunny summer days The Meadows fills up with disposable BBQ-wielding students, couples enjoying romantic picnics and kids playing in the playground. For the more active locals there are tennis courts, cricket pitches and a big free space to play football.
The Meadows With A View Of Arthur's Seat.
13) Uncover The Archivists' Garden:
Most locals probably aren't even aware that a secret garden exists at the east end of Princes Street. Designed by RBGE Curator David Mitchell, the 'Archivists' Garden' can be found in an open courtyard between the New and General Register Houses. It boasts over 50 different plant species each with their own connection to Scottish myth, politics and culture. Admission is free all year round.
The Archivists' Garden | Credit: Anne Burgess.
14) Browse The New Waverley Arches:
Towards the end of 2015 Edinburgh's long abandoned Waverley Arches underwent a redevelopment that would see them transformed into a modern leisure/retail environment. Enter 2016 and the area has already welcomed its first customers. Head along and see the place for yourself in 2017. When the summer festivals get under way it's likely that various business will set themselves up as performance spaces, so the atmosphere, we hope, will match that of other famous streets.
The New Waverley Arches, Edinburgh.