Visiting (or living in) Edinburgh can be a pretty expensive business when you add together all the costs of accommodation, eating out, shopping, drinking and visiting attractions. But it’s totally possible to have an excellent day out on a minimal budget, especially if you take advantage of all the free thing to do in Edinburgh.
Whether you’re an Edinburgh local looking to explore the city more or a visitor to the Scottish capital, here are some of my favourite free things to do in Edinburgh.
1. National Museum of Scotland
The National Museum of Scotland is one of the biggest and best museums in Edinburgh, and best of all it’s completely free! The visiting exhibitions usually cost up to £10 to enter, but the rest of the museum is free of charge. My favourite galleries are the Scottish History and Natural History ones, and don’t forget to check out the secret rooftop garden for amazing views of Edinburgh.
2. Union Canal
On a sunny day, the Union Canal is the perfect place for a stroll if you’re looking for free things to do in Edinburgh. It’s a flat, easy walk and it feels like you’re in the middle of the countryside – the stretch of canal around Harrison Park is particularly picturesque. If you fancy splashing some cash, you can also hire kayaks, rowing boats or even a barge.
3. Royal Botanic Gardens
Another great free thing to do in Edinburgh is to visit the Royal Botanic Gardens. There are lots of different areas to explore, so you can spend hours wandering round and admiring the plants. The Glasshouses require an entry fee of £5.50, but the rest of the garden is completely free.
4. The Meadows
One of the largest parks in central Edinburgh, the Meadows is a great place to go at any time of year. Go for a walk through the cherry blossoms in the spring, bring a picnic or portable barbecue to soak up the sun in the summer, admire the falling leaves during autumn – plus there are always lots of cute dogs around.
5. St Giles Cathedral
If you like a bit of history and some impressive stained glass, St Giles Cathedral is one of the best free things to do in Edinburgh. Entry to this imposing cathedral is free and you can enjoy looking at the stunning architecture and religious relics.
If I’m on a budget, one of my favourite free things to do in Edinburgh is just to go for a wander round the neighbourhood. Bruntsfield is one of the best areas in the city for this, with plenty of independent shops to browse, cafes to treat yourself to a hot chocolate in, picturesque streets to photograph and even the Bruntsfield Links for a stroll in the park.
7. Water of Leith
Another great place to escape city life and go for a walk on a nice day is the Water of Leith. The prettiest stretch can be found between the Dean Village and Stockbridge – look out for landmarks like St Bernard’s Well and enjoy the peace and quiet. There’s also a free visitor centre further along near Chesser.
8. Scottish Parliament
Even if you’re not particularly interested in politics, a trip to the Scottish Parliament is a great way to spend an afternoon if you’re looking for free things to do in Edinburgh. Entry is free and you can explore all the public areas including the exhibition and the Debating Chamber. There’s also a range of free guided tours (book in advance) covering politics, history, literature, architecture or art.
9. Calton Hill
My favourite view of Edinburgh is definitely from Calton Hill. It’s just a short walk from the end of Princes Street and gets you an amazing panoramic view of Edinburgh Castle, the Forth, Arthur’s Seat, and lots of other Edinburgh landmarks. Don’t forget to explore the monuments on Calton Hill itself, like the National Monument of Scotland and the Dugald Stewart Monument.
10. Portobello Beach
On a sunny day, you can’t beat a trip to the seaside. A visit to Portobello Beach is a great free thing to do in Edinburgh – although make sure to keep some spare change to treat yourself to an ice cream! Sunbathe on the beach, dip your toes in the sea, go for a walk along the promenade or relive your youth in the arcades.
11. Scottish National Portrait Gallery
If you’re looking for free things to do in Edinburgh, at least one of the National Galleries of Scotland will probably be on your list. The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is my favourite, with lots of interesting paintings and sculptures as well as the NGS’s collection of photography.
12. Edinburgh Farmers’ Market
My ideal Saturday starts with a trip to the Edinburgh Farmers’ Market. Entry to the market is free and there are usually plenty of free samples to try, but you’ll probably want to take some cash so you can buy some produce to take home (or have some delicious street food for breakfast!).
13. Arthur’s Seat
I’ll be honest: I’ve only climbed Arthur’s Seat once because I am l-a-z-y. But if you like a bit of exercise combined with your free things to do in Edinburgh, Arthur’s Seat is the one for you. If you climb to the top, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of Edinburgh.
14. Watch the Fireworks
Although there aren’t fireworks every day of the year, there are quite often displays to look our for in Edinburgh. For fireworks displays at the Castle – including the Hogmanay fireworks, the Military Tattoo fireworks and the end-of-festival fireworks in August – you can view them for free just by climbing Calton Hill or taking a picnic blanket up to the Bruntsfield Links.
15. The Writers’ Museum
A great free thing to do in Edinburgh if you’re a literature lover is to visit The Writers’ Museum. The free museum holds interesting collections about Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns, but my favourite part is the Makars’ Court outside the museum which is filled with beautifully engraved flagstones with quotes from iconic Scottish literary figures.
16. Greyfriars Kirkyard
If you’re familiar with the tale of Greyfriars Bobby, take a trip to Greyfriars Kirkyard where he used to hang out. The kirkyard itself is a lovely, peaceful place to go for a walk – and if you’re a Harry Potter fan you might even be able to spot “Voldemort’s” grave.
17. The Grassmarket
The Grassmarket is another area of the city I love to explore when I’m looking for free things to do in Edinburgh. It’s super picturesque and has a great view of the castle, plus there are plenty of nice wee shops and boutiques to go window shopping in. On Saturdays there’s even a free market with fresh produce, foodie treats and local crafts.
18. Museum of Childhood
For a healthy dose of nostalgia, head to the free Museum of Childhood on the Royal Mile. Covering everything from Victorian toys to games from your own childhood, you can find out all about what childhood was like through the ages.