Like any city, Edinburgh is somewhere you can visit and spend a lot of money or somewhere you can explore and discover while spending very little and still having a great time. It’s all about staying away from the shops and avoiding the tourist traps. Here are a few suggestions of free things to do in Edinburgh.
Planning a trip? Browse Viator’s Edinburgh tours and things to do.
1. Arthur’s Seat
It’s an extinct volcano, it’s spectacular, it has great views and it’s one of the locals’ favorite places. Climbing Arthur’s Seat – the highest of the city’s seven hills – is a bit of a must-do when you visit Edinburgh and it’s completely free.
2. Royal Botanic Gardens
Peaceful and historic, these gardens were established nearly two centuries ago and have the oldest botanical library in Britain. They still carry out a lot of research here. A highlight is the Chinese Hillside which has exotic plants and a t’ing, a traditional poolside pavilion. Entry to the gardens is free but there is a charge to go into the glasshouses.
3. Royal Mile
With both the Old Town and New Town awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status and an incredible 4,500 listed buildings in the city center, a walking tour of Edinburgh offers a plethora of free sights. The famous Royal Mile, four sequential streets that stretch from Castle hill, home to Edinburgh Castle, to the Royal Palace of Holyrood contains many of the city’s free attractions, including the striking 12th century St Giles Cathedral, the Scottish Parliament building and a number of Museums.
4. Explore the city’s museums
Edinburgh is home to an incredible array of museums and galleries, with many of them offering free admission to their permanent exhibitions. The National Museum, the Gallery of Modern Art, National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery are among the most impressive options, but for literary aficionados, the Writers Museum provides a fascinating insight into famous Scots like RL Stevenson, Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. Looking for something a little different? Try the nostalgic Museum of Childhood or the gloriously gruesome Surgeons Hall Museum.
5. Water of Leith Walkway
A beautiful 12 ¾ mile walking path through the heart of Edinburgh along the banks of the Water of Leith which runs from the Pentland Hills to the Firth of Forth in Leith. The river valley was filled with industry once, but these days it is managed by a conservation trust who are bringing it back to its natural environment and beauty. British artist Antony Gormley has installed 6 of his iconic standing figures along the river in the water although currently three are not visible as flood waters knocked them down, they will be restored to standing soon though. You can access the walkway at many places including near the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art and the Royal Botanic Gardens.
The east coast beaches on the Firth of Forth and along the North Sea coast are all free and all wide and sandy, great for walking or flying a kite or even a picnic on a non-windy day. Yellowcraig near Dirleton has views to the island of Fidra which is said to have inspired Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.
7. Scottish Parliament
Housed in the wonderfully modern, expensive and controversial new building it’s free to enter Parliament and visit the public areas including the Debating Chamber and you can also book a free tour of the building.
8. Soak up the atmosphere at a festival
Few places know how to throw a street party like Edinburgh and the city’s celebrated roster of festivals include the International Film Festival in June, the International Festival, the Edinburgh Art Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August, and of course, the mammoth 4-day New Year celebration of Hogmanay. While visiting the city during one of the festivals isn’t always the cheapest time to explore, the festive atmosphere breathes new life into the historic streets and there’s sure to be a plethora of free events and entertainment to keep you amused even if you can’t afford tickets to the main events.
9. Climb the city’s seven hills
The ‘city built on seven hills’ is well situated for a hiking expedition and it’s possible to climb Edinburgh’s seven mounts – Blackford Hill, Craiglockhart Hill, Arthur’s Seat, Castle Rock, Calton Hill, Corstorphine Hill and Braid Hill – in a scenic 14.2 mile walk. Alternatively, scale the popular sunset point of Arthur’s seat, the highest point in the city, or Calton Hill home to the looming Edinburgh Castle, where you’ll get the best views of the city for absolutely free.
10. Picnic in the parks
Stock up on supplies at the nearest supermarket and escape the crowds for a picnic and a wander around one of the city’s scenic public parks. The Princes Street Gardens, surrounding Edinburgh Castle, are one of the most popular picnic spots, with expansive views over the Old Town or head to exquisite Royal Botanic Gardens, a 70-acre stretch including a memorial garden for the Queen’s Mother, an elaborate Chinese garden and a creative rock garden. If you’d prefer to escape the city altogether, a mere 5km from the city center is the beach resort of Portobello, where you can soak up the rays and watch the kite-surfers tear up the waves.
- Philippa B.