Edinburgh is a city that inspired the creation of Harry Potter and one that allows you to walk in the footsteps of famous real-life individuals like Mary Queen of Scots. Historic sites are around every corner and some of the world’s largest festivals can be experienced including the New Year’s Hogmanay or Edinburgh Festival Fringe which holds the title of largest arts and media festival in the world.
They say the best things in life are free, and that definitely holds true for a city like Edinburgh. While many attractions within Scotland’s capital are paid such as visiting Edinburgh Castle, The Real Mary King’s Close, or Camera Obscura & World of Illusions, there are countless ways to enjoy the city for free.
So grab your kilt or tartan dress and experience one of Europe’s most visited destinations. With so many free attractions on offer, you’ll have enough money left over to be able to treat yourself to a dram of fine whisky. I now give you some of the top free things to enjoy in Edinburgh.
Guide to Edinburgh’s Best Free Things to Do and See
Walking Tour of Edinburgh
Joining a guided free walking tour in Edinburgh is arguably the easiest and best way to get introduced to the city. Not only does a walking tour give you a great overview of what is on offer, but your guide will also often offer loads of helpful tips and advice on what to do during the rest of your trip. They’ll also share with you insightful history and fun facts about the places you visit.
The best part of a free walking tour is that you will often find a number of themed tours like those offered by GuruWalk. This ensures you can match a tour that suits your personality and interests.
While a number of great walking tours are free, I always make the effort to tip the walking guides for their effort. They go above and beyond to create a great experience and no doubt appreciate whatever you are willing to pay them based on what you believe the experience was worth to you.
As I dive further into the many free things to do in Edinburgh, keep in mind that many of the following attractions will often be incorporated into free walking tours of the city.
The Royal Mile
One of the most famous streets in Europe, Edinburgh’s Royal Mile is actually a route made up of several streets. What better place to begin your journey of the city than at its heart, where many of its most iconic attractions can be witnessed.
You’ll be able to gaze at seemingly endless historic monuments including Edinburgh Castle, St. Giles’ Cathedral, and Holyrood Palace. There are many free attractions like visiting the Scottish Parliament or a number of museums, as well as paid activities like Camera Obscura & the World of Illusions.
Uncover the secrets of Old Town as you stray down hidden alleyways full of history and tales. The cobblestone street that is now home to endless historic sites and lively pubs once held public executions and has a few secrets of its own to discover such as the Heart of Midlothian mosaic.
The Royal Mile also comes alive during the city’s festivals whether it’s During the Fringe Festival or Hogmanay’s torchlight procession when the cobblestones get lit up beneath a sky of fireworks as the clock strikes midnight.
The Royal Botanic Gardens
While the Royal Mile may be lacking abundant green spaces, don’t let this fool you. Edinburgh actually is believed to have more trees per capita than any other city within the UK. There are more than a 100 vibrant green parks to roam as well as The Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh.
I was told that nearly 5% of the entire world’s plant species can be found with the gardens and one could easily spend an entire day trying to take it all in. While the Royal Botanic Garden may be at its finest during spring and summer, any season is enjoyable thanks to the exciting seasonal changes that take place and numerous glasshouses where plants thrive year-round.
Make your way through countless themed gardens, with glimpses of the city’s historic sites in the distance. The gardens are near the city centre, making it convenient to visit and enjoy a picnic break after walking through Old Town.
Embrace the World of Harry Potter
The Elephant House Interior
Harry Potter fans will easily fall in love with Edinburgh since it is here where he was born thanks to J. K. Rowling who moved to the city and wrote the books here. You can visit a number of the locations that inspired her and places where she worked on the book series including hotels like Balmoral as well as the Traverse Theatre Café and The Elephant House.
Countless visitors make an effort to visit The Elephant House for the chance to sit in the very spot where Harry Potter’s world came to life. And just like an elephant painting hung in the Hogwarts’ Grand Staircase, so too will you find hundreds of elephant painting and figurines scattered throughout the cafe, in addition to a fun collection of Harry Potter wall graffiti.
There’s even a dedicated Harry Potter Trail that will lead you to all the pertinent sites including shooting locations from the films. Just be quick though as you never know when a location will disappear like the Spoon Cafe which permanently closed down due to the pandemic.
Holyrood Park and Arthur’s Seat
Many travellers to Edinburgh hike the extinct volcano in Holyrood Park known as Arthur’s Seat, but climbers often miss the interesting ruins that sit upon the hill. Halfway up the 250-metre hill, are the ruins of a 14th century chapel known as Saint Anthony’s.
Little is known of the church’s history, but visitors can view the last remaining wall that stands, along with the remnants of what is thought to have been a storage room. The church is thought to have featured a 12-metre tower at one point.
You can access the Arthur’s Seat summit climb from either the dedicated parking lot that is located just south of Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official Scottish residence, or via Dunsapie Loch which offers a shorter route.
From the parking lot, you can choose a few different trails to reach the top of Arthur’s Seat which will take you roughly an hour, but taking the paved trail to your left or the eastern trail will lead to the ruins of Saint Anthony’s Chapel.
From the ruins, you’ll enjoy great panoramic views over St Margaret’s Loch and North Edinburgh. Be sure to continue your hike to reach the summit of the extinct volcano which erupted over 300 million years ago.
The summit of Arthur’s Seat is the highest point in the city and some believe Arthur’s Seat to be the location of the legendary Camelot, hence the volcano’s title.
The Writers’ Museum
Situated in what has become known as the Lady Stair’s house, The Writers’ Museum pays tribute to three of Scotland’s most prominent writers. Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Sir Walter Scott are all brought back to life by way of portraits, personal artefacts from their lives, and rare first editions of their works.
The building itself dates back to 1622 and was once owned by Lady Stair, widow of the 1st Earl of Stair, John Dalrymple. The museum divides itself into separate sections that showcase each literary great, offering up a wealth of information and personal belongings associated to each of them. Edinburgh was the birthplace of both Scott and Stevenson, and Burns would end up moving to the city during his lifetime.
You will get a chance to see Scott’s chessboard, early childhood rocking horse, hat, and the printing press on which many of his novels were written. See a plaster cast of Burns’ skull as well as his writing desk. The Stevenson exhibit features his smoking pipe, riding boots, and numerous items he picked up during his world travels.
There is a small sitting area where you can read some of their novels and a gift shop where you can purchase their works. Just outside the museum, you’ll find the Makars’ Court, which honours even more Scottish writers from the 14th century until present time. Read their famous quotes or words that have been inscribed into stone slabs.
The Anatomical Museum @ The University of Edinburgh
Photo By: Kim Traynor-CC By 2.0-geograph.org.uk
The University of Edinburgh’s Anatomical Museum is usually only reserved as a study space for medical students, however, on select days it opens its doors to the public. You can check their website for public open days and other events.
Housed inside the museum are thousands of items that related not only to human anatomy, but animals as well. Some of the specimens date back as far as the 1700s.
The museum might be most well known for containing the skeleton of William Burke, the notorious serial killer who along with his partner William Hare murdered 16 people during the early 1800s in order to profit from selling the victims’ bodies to science.
Burke’s skeleton isn’t the only crazy skeleton on display. You will immediately be greeted by two giant Asian elephant skeletons as you enter and find the skeletons of a gorilla and strange looking egg-laying mammal called an echidna.
There is also a narwhal tusk that looks like a unicorn’s horn and a jawbone from a 19th century whale that washed up on a nearby Scottish beach.
You’ll find numerous life and death masks, casts of human faces that were taken both when people were alive and after they died. The masks feature prominent politicians and scientists, as well as a Maori from New Zealand which shows incredible Tā moko facial tattoos.
National Museum of Scotland
Photo By: Paul Hudson Wikimedia CC BY 2.0
The National Museum of Scotland is often a contender for most popular visitor attraction every year, luring millions of people annually. This free-entry museum explores natural history, science & technology, art, fashion, and Scottish history and archaeology.
You’ll be able to view a replica of Mary Queen of Scots’ tomb and see a stuffed cloned sheep. There are also dinosaur skeletons, a whale skull, meteorites, and the famous ancient Lewis chess pieces which were carved from walrus ivory.
The museums have created a number of themed trails as well as offering a handy app that helps explain the various exhibits. Right in the middle of Old Town, the museum also regularly hosts special events and exhibitions.
The People’s Story Museum
While most museums such as the National Museum of Scotland are dedicated to displaying expensive relics from notable people such as kings and queens, athletes, or famous celebrities, The People’s Story Museum focuses on the history of the day to day lives of Edinburgh’s ordinary citizens.
The museum is housed within the old 16th century Canongate Tolbooth, a municipal building that provided Edinburgh with an early council meeting room, jail, and courthouse. Three floors of exhibits display the daily lives of Scottish citizens using mannequins that are set in recreated past life scenes.
The first floor shows 18th century life, the second floor moves forward in time to the 19th and 20th centuries, and finally the third floor showcases how residents spent their leisure time as well as showing how religion and culture impacted their lives.
The museum displays many exhibits that showcase trades like blacksmiths, carpenters, bookmakers, and gunsmiths, offering up a glimpse into the early tools that were used for their crafts. The exhibits are made to look like actual rooms such as a jail cell, bookbinding workshop, and an ordinary early home kitchen.
The museum also contains an extensive collection of protest banners and memorabilia used during decades of fight for political reform. This museum is perfect for those looking for a brief overview of what living in Scotland was like over the last few centuries.
It offers up plenty of informational signage, which along with the displays, really gives you a glimpse of how early residents lived and how much times have changed.