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Free Things to do in Edinburgh

Free Things to do in Edinburgh

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Edinburgh is one of those cities that ticks all the right boxes. Even better, if you’re looking for free things to do in Edinburgh, then you’re in luck. Scotland’s capital is brimming with budget-friendly activities. 

A cornucopia of free museums and galleries brings the city’s history to life while every single building will prompt you to whip out your camera. Not to forget the glorious parks scattered throughout the city for when the sun comes out. 

Here’s a handy guide to all the free Edinburgh attractions. 

15 Free Things to do in Edinburgh

Once you’ve stumped up for your travel and accommodation costs, Edinburgh is relatively budget-friendly. Much like London, Edinburgh has a roster of free activities and attractions. 

The following things to do in Edinburgh for free are grouped by category. Read this guide in conjunction with our 2 day Edinburgh itinerary which will help you navigate getting around and where to stay.

Top Things to do in Edinburgh for Free

The following activities are perfect for first-timers who want to get a flavour of Edinburgh. 

edinburgh street scene

The colorful streets of Edinburgh are always free to explore and photograph.

1. Royal Mile (Edinburgh Old Town)

The Royal Mile consists of a string of five streets that mark the epicentre of Edinburgh Old Town. 

This handsome avenue links two of Edinburgh’s famous tourist attractions: Edinburgh Castle at Castle Hill and Holyrood Palace at Canongate. Both carry an admission charge although you can have a peek at the exteriors without coughing up the fee. 

Even if you don’t want to visit these attractions, roaming the Royal Mile in full is one of the ultimate free outdoor activities in Edinburgh. Start at one end and then work your way slowly down the street.

A couple of prominent landmarks that you’ll notice on the Royal Mile include the Gothic-style St Giles Cathedral and the peculiar Scottish Parliament Building. 

But the real highlight is all the side alleyways that slip off either side of the avenue. Make the time to scuttle down a couple of these, such as Advocate’s Close, and survey the view across New Town.

It’s worth visiting the Royal Mile at least twice. Firstly, head there bright and early in the morning to experience the street when it’s quiet and duck into a couple of the free museums. 

You could then return in the evening for the evening energy and enjoy a meal or a pint in one of the pubs. Obviously, this isn’t free but you’ll need to eat somewhere! The Royal Mile tends to get busy around midday – earlier when the festivals are in town over summer. 

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historical buildings in old british city

Monuments along Princes Street in Edinburgh.

2. Free Walking Tour

As with most major cities, it is possible to take a free walking tour in Edinburgh. City Explorers Edinburgh offer an assortment of tours, spearheaded by the Edinburgh Free Tour. Professional guides will inform and entertain you as they whisk you around the city’s principal sights and landmarks. 

The same company also offers themed tours for free, such as the Free Ghost Tour and the Harry Potter Tour. Ghost tours are extremely popular in this haunted city but the free tour is the perfect option for anyone feeling sceptical!

These free Edinburgh sightseeing tours depart daily from the Copper Still at 154 High Street (Royal Mile). You will need to check the current schedule online and then reserve your space via the website.

Although there is no fee to join the tour, it’s always polite to tip the guide as a token of thanks. 

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3. West Bow (Victoria Street)

The fact that West Bow is often referred to as Edinburgh’s Diagon Alley gives you a hint that this is one of the city’s most enchanting streets!

West Bow is a curved, sloping avenue that connects Grassmarket with the Royal Mile. The towering townhouses date back to the 19thce century and nowadays the street is a primary destination for souvenir shopping. 

Independent boutiques sell high-quality gift items including Scottish-themed clothing and trinkets, books, art prints, and confectionery. The Harry Potter Museum sells licensed merchandise from the film series (and is a fabulous photo opportunity). 

West Bow is a treat if you’re looking to spend but you’ll still enjoy a window shop and the chance to photograph the street without opening your purse. Plan to visit the street before 10 am in order to experience it before the shops open. There are lots of lovely cafes too in case you need a lunch spot.

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edinburgh castle

Going inside Edinburgh Castle is far from free, but enjoying the views of the castle are always free!

4. Greyfriars Bobby Statue 

Greyfriars Bobby sits up there with Robert Burns and J. M. Barrie as one of Scotland’s icons.

Bobby, a little Skye Terrier, lived with his owner John Gray. Although trained as a gardener, Gray was unable to find work in his profession in Edinburgh and so he accepted a night watchman role with the Edinburgh Police Force. Bobby accompanied Gray every day to work and the pair were inseparable.

Gray passed away from tuberculosis in 1858 and was buried in Greyfriars Kirk. Bobby kept a faithful vigil for the proceeding 14 years until his own death on 14 January 1872. Despite the best efforts of Gray’s family and town residents, Bobby refused to leave his post. 

As a testament to Bobby’s unwavering loyalty, a statue was placed at the junction on Candlemaker Row. Besides the statue, you’ll spot a number of other testaments to the terrier around the city.

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5. Greyfriars Kirkyard

Greyfriars Kirkyard is where John Gray was buried. Besides visiting the grave where Bobby spent his final 14 years, you can wander around the rest of the graveyard. This is one of the best free things to do in Edinburgh early in the morning when it’s at its most peaceful.

The graveyard is said to be heavily haunted and is a popular destination on the ghost tour route. 

A number of tombstones inspired the names in the Harry Potter series – you’ll spot the grave of Tom “Riddell” who became Lord Voldemort. Additional names to look out for include Elizabeth Moodie who was behind Alastor Moody and Margaret Louisa Scrymgeour who inspired Rufus Scrimgeour.

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edinburgh river and old buildings

There are so many wonderful views and walks to enjoy around downtown Edinburgh and they’re all free!

Best Outdoor Things to do in Edinburgh for Free

Edinburgh is abundant in green spaces where you can picnic, jog, or even hike. Here are the best free outdoor activities in Edinburgh.

6. Princes Street Gardens 

Princes Street Gardens is a lovely urban park located to the west of Waverley Station. This plot marks the boundary between Edinburgh New Town and Edinburgh Old Town. You’ll note floral displays that change seasonally and have the chance to admire the elevated Edinburgh Castle.

Besides innumerable memorials and fountains, you’ll not miss the Scott Monument – built in honour of Sir Walter Scott. There’s a fee to climb the tower but do get close enough to hire the resident bagpiper who performs daily at the base. 

A wander and a picnic in Princes Street Gardens is one of the things to do in Edinburgh for free during summer. During colder months, you can expect to find Christmas fairs and German-style markets serving treats to keep you warm. 

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7. Carlton Hill

Carlton Hill is a grassy mound at the eastern end of Edinburgh New Town which grants some of the finest city views. 

A gentle walk up either the sloped path or stone steps brings you to a hodgepodge of landmarks and monuments. These include the National Monument (which bears an uncanny resemblance to the Parthenon of the Acropolis), the Observatory, and the Nelson Monument. 

You can visit Carlton Hill at any time of day although it is particularly atmospheric early in the morning or to coincide with sunset. On a summer day, it’s great for a picnic. 

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cartlon hill

Carlton Hill is a great spot to take in the views back over Edinburgh as well as the neighboring Leith.

8. Arthur’s Seat

While you’re ogling the view from the summit of Carlton Hill, you’ll not fail to notice the huge volcano looming across the other end of town.

Rest assured, Arthur’s Seat has been dormant for over 300 million years and has no plans to erupt again! 

Located within Holyrood Park, tackling the summit of Arthur’s Seat rewards you with incredible views across the city and toward the port. The Arthur’s Seat is one of the best free outdoor activities in Edinburgh.

There are a handful of different routes that weave up the slope to the summit and vary in terms of difficulty. Although there isn’t a map or any blazers to lead you up, the easier paths are well-trodden and there are always a couple of other hikers, runners, and dog walkers to steer you the right way. 

The trailheads start from Queen’s Drive next to Holyrood Palace. You will need sturdy footwear for this hike as there are steep sections and loose terrain in places. But running trainers are sufficient – there’s no need for boots. 

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9. Dean Village 

Dean Village is a small settlement on the banks of the Water of Leith that honestly does feel like a little hamlet in the heart of the city. Edinburgh has a laid-back environment already but there is a noticeable change of pace when you venture into Dean Village. 

The picturesque village comprises 19th-century buildings that used to play a key role in the city’s milling history. You’ll see the renovated mills (now used as housing for Edinburgh residents) as well as a variety of other architectural styles. 

You can potter around the little cobbled streets and wander along the stream. Located a short walk from Edinburgh New Town, Dean Village is one of the loveliest free Edinburgh sightseeing experiences when you need a moment of tranquillity. 

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cobbled streets with tower in the background

The walk from the downtown area of Edinburgh over to Dean Village is also wonderful (and free!).

10. Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

If you run out of greenery in the city centre, hop on the bus and take a turn around the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

This floral oasis is set within 70 acres of land with exhibits including the Rock and Woodland gardens, Alpine Houses, the Arboretum, the Chinese Hillside, and the Scottish Native Plants Collection. Each of the four seasons brings new colours, fragrances, and blooms to the botanical garden. You can check out what to expect before you turn up or allow yourself to be surprised.

Admission to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is free although there is a charge to enter the greenhouses. 

The garden is a 30-minute walk from Waverley Station. Alternatively, bus lines 8, 23, and 27 depart from Hanover Street (Stop GP) and will save your legs. 

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Free Edinburgh attractions for culture and history 

Here’s some news that’s sure to delight history buffs and art lovers: the vast majority of Edinburgh’s museums and galleries are free to enter. Here’s 5 institutions not to miss.

11. National Museum of Scotland 

For a crash course in Scottish history of the nation, the National Museum of Scotland is one of the top free things to do in Edinburgh. Permanent galleries display prehistory through to the modern day through objects ranging from fossils, skeletons, books, ancient tools, and textiles. This is one of the best 

Exhibits include natural history items as well as Celtic, Roman and Viking artefacts. There is an ever-changing schedule of temporary exhibitions, many of which are free.

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views from Cartlon Hill

Golden Hours on Carlton Hill. Photo credit: Connor Mollison.

12. Museum of Edinburgh 

The Museum of Edinburgh is an exhibition venue on the Canongate end of the Royal Mile. Preoccupied exclusively with Edinburgh’s past, this one is perfect for those eager to sink their teeth into local history.

Objects on display piece together the history of New Town and Old Town. You’ll see the National Covenant of 1638, city blueprints, decorative arts, pottery, and much more.

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13. The Writer’s Museum

If you’re an avid reader, here’s one of the best free Edinburgh sightseeing activities that celebrates literature. The Writer’s Museum honours the lives and works of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Items on display include original manuscripts as well as the personal effects of these three Scottish authors. Even if you’ve yet to read any of their work, the museum is fantastically curated and will inspire you to dive in.

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walking the cobbled streets in the UK

Cobbled streets of Edinburgh.

14. Scottish National Gallery 

Conveniently located within the Princes Street Gardens, the Scottish National Gallery displays a mix of Scottish and European masterpieces.

The bulk of the collection casts a spotlight on Scottish artists including Ramsay, Raeburn and Wilkie. From further afield, you’ll see pieces by the likes of Botticelli, Raphael, and Rembrandt.

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15. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art 

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art comprises two galleries: Modern One and Modern Two. Both are located in Edinburgh West End at either side of Bedford Road. 

Modern One exhibits sculptures by artists that include Joan Miró, Henry Moore, Rachel Whiteread, and Barbara Hepworth. Paintings by Scottish artists include Peploe and Fergusson. The gallery is fronted by a statement lawn conceived by the landscape architect Charles Jencks and is worthy of a wander. 

On the other hand, Modern Two presents the Stairwell Project by the Turner prize-winning artist and musician  Richard Wright. This installation consists of several thousand individually hand-painted forms and abstract shapes.

Visiting both of these free Edinburgh attractions is ideal if you’re looking to fill a 3 day Edinburgh itinerary!

Bus numbers 37, 41, 43, 113, and X55 depart from Princes Street (Stop PU –opposite Levi’s) and drop you a 10-minute walk away.

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