Edinburgh is a wonderful city to explore if you’re an architecture buff, pub crawler, Harry Potter fan, history nerd or art lover. It’s filled with Victorian splendour and medieval gloom, a young crowd (among many tourists, we may add), green gardens and lots of atmosphere. It’s said to be the city in the world with the most ghost stories and it is indeed the perfect backdrop for haunted histories. Here are the best 12 things you can do for free:
The colourful Victoria Street supposedly inspired JK Rowling to Diagon Alley
The National Museum of Scotland is a personal favourite
Princes Street Gardens are a green no-man’s land between Old and New Town
Closes are the Scottish term for an ancient alleyway
Calton Hill is the perfect place to begin your exploration of Edinburgh
Soak up some of that haunted Edinburgh ambiance at Greyfriars Kirkyard
Hike to Arthur’s Seat and look at Edinburgh unfold at your feet
There are a number of things you can spend your money on visiting, like HMY Britannia, Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace, Camera Obscura & World of Illusions and The Scotch Whisky Experience. And it’s just as easy to deplete your wallet in the many shops selling kilts, whiskies and Harry Potter trinkets.
Or you can bestow a present to your palate by spending time in the many pubs, sampling local ale, Scottish whisky and artisan gins. Not to mention trying Afternoon Tea: a quintessential British experience involving sandwiches, scones, cakes. And tea.
Our take on free things to do in Edinburg is not a proclamation that you shouldn’t do any or all of the above – if your schedule and finances allow. It’s a suggestion that will allow you to make the most out of your visit to Scotland’s capital, allowing you to work up an appetite and save money you can then spend afterwards in a cosy pub. Cheers!
One hilltop to rule them all – Calton Hill
This hilltop, overlooking both the old medieval and new Georgian town is the perfect place to begin your exploration of the city. Take in the scenery from the Old Observatory House where Dugald Stewart monument acts as crosshairs for the stunning views of the city. Make out the gigantic clock tower of the exclusive Balmoral Hotel. The black, gothic looking spike to its right is the Walter Scott monument at Princes Street Gardens.
It’s easy to locate Edinburgh Castle, watching over Edinburgh. The dark, gothic spire to its left is St Columba’s Free Church of Scotland, located between the Royal Mile and Grassmarket, and the smaller tower further to the left is St Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile. Look to the northeast and spot the palatial Holyrood Palace, nestled at the base of Holyrood Park with the imposing Arthur’s Seat towering over Edinburgh.
Less sitting and more hiking – Arthur’s Seat
If the weather, your schedule and form permits, hike to the top of Holyrood Park, also known as Arthur’s Seat and look at Edinburgh unfold at your feet. It’s a 3-kilometre (2 mile) hike from Calton Hill and besides the epic views you’ll be awarded with healthy workout as well!
Finding out if you’re related to Jamie Fraser – National Records
Located on the way to the Old Town, a visit to the National Records of Scotland might tickle your fancy if you want to discover your Scottish genealogy. It’s free to enter and search for information about your Scottish family tree and the staff is very helpful. They have documents dating back to 1127, kept in this marvellous 18th century building, partly funded by forfeited estates of the Jacobites after the 1745 rising.
Sit under the beautiful dome and discover your own Scottish roots. Or visit the Scottish Register of Tartans to register your own, personal tartan. When you’re done, a visit to the secluded Archivist’s Garden in the back of the building may just be the place to contemplate your past. Or new tartan design.
My personal favourite – National Museum of Scotland
Time for some background on Scottish history. Head for my personal favourite in Edinburgh: The National Museum of Scotland. Not only is it free to enter, they also provide free Wi-Fi and the Grand Gallery is one of the most beautiful spaces in Edinburgh.
The museum is vast. In an ideal world, you would have lots of time at your disposal and could do one room per day instead of doing like me; trying to take it all in at once until your head exploded. This is a history, natural history, science, design and anthropology museum all in one. It is very beautiful set up, interactive and is very popular with families. The history section will give you some fascinating insights to Scotland, and there’s a chance to find out how many discoveries were actually made by Scots!
Play with poltergeists – Greyfriars Kirkyard
This may be a green, quiet place to soak some sun, a busy Harry Potter tour site or a haunted graveyard – depending on weather, time of day and mood of the local ghosts. It can be a nice, quiet place to escape the urban noise, but it will probably be teeming with groups trying to find tombstones, that allegedly have inspired JK Rowling to name the characters in her world famous Harry Potter books.
Greyfriars Kirkyard is also a perfect spot to soak up some of that haunted Edinburgh ambiance as the poltergeist of George Mackenzie is said to haunt the premises. And while you may not believe in ghosts, more than 500 recorded incidents of the poltergeist attacking people may convince you otherwise. Come and see for yourself. If you’re looking for more poltergeists to play with or want to discover the dark side of Old Edinburg, you can do a Free Ghost Tour, that starts every night at 17.00, 19.00 and 21.30. Just remember to tip your guide – otherwise he may come to haunt you!
The real life Harry Potter Diagon Alley – Victoria Street
From the churchyard, you have just a short stroll down to Grassmarket, that’s a popular place among the many university students to kick back a few. This rectangular square is flanked with pubs and vintage shops, but you may find a bench in the centre where you can enjoy the sandwich you brought along.
The colourful Victoria Street coyly bends its way up from here, towards the Royal Mile. Harry Potter tour operators will claim that this street inspired JK Rowling to the magical Diagon Alley where the wizarding world of Harry Potter come do their shopping. And though this remain unconfirmed, it’s not far fetched when you’re just an ordinary muggle looking for something extraordinary. A couple of shops selling Harry Potter trinkets and other curiosities may complete your itinerary if you’re a fan.
Echoes of the past – Royal Mile
You either love or hate the sound of bagpipes. There’s no middle ground. Some hear the melancholy sounds of a turbulent history; others think it sounds like twisting the life out of a lamb. I will recommend for your trip to Scotland that you assume the first attitude, as you’ll be hearing lots of bagpipes.
The most atmospheric setting to hear them – if you’re not in town for the annual Edinburgh Tattoo – might just be at the Royal Mile, where bagpipers continuously provide an extra Scottish dimension to your visit. The sounds are echoed off the tall buildings and carried up – and down – the most popular tourist street in Edinburgh. Find a place to sit or stand and take in the music while people watching.
And tip the bloke if you like the music. He is entertaining you in a kilt, after all.
Haunted alleyway and closes – Old Town
With the Royal Mile as the backbone of Edinburgh, the many steep and narrow closes lead north and south from here like a herringbone pattern. Closes are the Scottish term for an ancient alleyway and here in Edinburgh they make up a delightful, frightfully narrow labyrinth, where tales of The Black Death lures behind the next corner.
And even though they have a claustrophobic, gothic charm to them, they are mere consequences of medieval city planning; squeezing in as many – and as tall – houses of possible within the protective city walls.
If you want to dig deeper into the history of these dim-lit alleys, visit The Real Mary King’s Close for a 15,5£ guided tour of one of these closes, that was sealed shut when The Royal Exchange was built above.
A chapel worthy of a Noble Order – St Giles Cathedral
Located on the Royal Mile, the distinctive crown steeple of St Giles Cathedral is a prominent feature of the city skyline. Its highlight however is the Thistle Chapel with intricately carved woodwork and painted fittings of extraordinary detail. While the church dates back to medieval times, the Thistle Chapel was built in 1911 for The Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Scotland’s foremost Order of Chivalry.
It’s free to enter the cathedral, but they do appreciate a small donation for the upkeep.
Marvel at masterpieces – Scottish National Gallery
It’s such a treat to be a culture vulture in Great Britain, as their best museums are free to enter. The National Art Gallery is thankfully no different. Located on the artificial hill, The Mound, at Princes Street Gardens, this neoclassical building is impossible to miss. Looking like an ancient Greek Temple, this museum however worships fine art from the Renaissance and up to the start of the 20th century.
Featuring masterpieces of Van Dyck, Ruben, Botticelli, Cezanne, Gauguin, Monet and many more, this is a definite no-miss.
The green lung of Edinburgh – Princes Street Gardens
This natural valley is like a green no-man’s land between Old Town and New Town. It’s a wonderful place to stroll around, sit with a cup of Flat White and watch the world go by. And if you’re in luck and the sun comes out, you might even remove a layer of clothing and laze in the grass.
The Ross Band Stand is an open-air music venue in the gardens and they oftentimes feature music festivals and concerts. And while there may be an entry fee in the area in front of the scene, music knows no boundaries and it’s absolutely free to sit in the park and enjoy the tunes.
Staring history in the face – Scottish National Portrait Gallery
“Last but not least” is certainly the case with this award winning attraction. The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is one of Edinburgh’s most remarkable buildings, a red neo-gothic palace that opened to the public in 1889 as the world’s first purpose-built portrait gallery.
Explore different aspects of Scottish history told through a wealth of imagery, including portraits of famous historical figures such as Mary Queen of Scots, Bonnie Prince Charles, Robert Burns etc.
The gallery also features miniatures, medallions, a photography collection and a beautiful Victorian library. The building alone is an attraction in itself with the stunning Great Hall and its painted frieze with famous people from Scottish history.
If you want to venture further north and arrive in the Highlands in fashion, perhaps you want to read about a royal train ride on the Caledonian Sleeper?