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The Ultimate List of Free Things to Do in Edinburgh

Edinburgh is full of beautiful and interesting things to see and do. But, we understand that when travelling on a budget, the last thing you want to do is pay for expensive attractions. Fortunately, there are plenty of free things to do in Edinburgh. The problem is finding them. Wouldn’t it be perfect if some friendly person created a list?

Well that is exactly what we have done. Read on to learn about all the free activities and sites Edinburgh offers. Its quite a long list, so feel free to click on the list below to skip straight to that section!

  1. Cramond Island
  2. Dean Village
  3. Museum on the Mound
  4. St Giles Cathedral
  5. Greyfriars Kirkyard
  6. The Royal Mile
  7. Scottish Parliament
  8. National Museum of Scotland
  9. Calton Hill
  10. Royal Botanics
  11. Arthurs Seat
  12. The National Gallery
  13. The Gallery of Modern Art
  14. Sandemans Free Walking Tour

Cramond Island

There is no denying that Edinburgh is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with so much to do. But sometimes, to truly appreciate a new place, you need to leave the city and visit some of its outskirts. With this in mind, Cramond is the perfect place.

The small village of Cramond sits on the shores of the Firth of Forth, in the North West of Edinburgh. Once the home of a Roman hill fort, the village is a beautiful little pocket of tranquility in a bustling city.

Cramond boasts beautiful nature walks through its woods area along the river Almond. Starting at one end you can make your way along until you emerge at the beach. But it is the island that is the real draw here. When the tide is suitable you can walk out to the island on a stone causeway. Once there, enjoy exploring this tiny uninhabited island. It has great views across the Firth of Fourth and you can see all the other tiny islands around it.

Make sure you check the tide times before going out. One of our staff had the misfortune of being stuck on the island with no way back until the tide was low again!

Dean Village

Dean Village is located pretty much in the Edinburgh and is surrounded by busy residential and commercial areas. But for all that, it could be worlds apart and a visit is one of the best free things to in Edinburgh. A visit to this tiny village beside the Water of Leith is like stepping into a peaceful oasis.

Originally home to the workers of the thriving milling industry that Edinburgh had adopted, you can see plenty of evidence of its past in statues and carvings on the walls. With brightly colored houses that haven’t been changed much at all since they were originally built, it is a great place for photographers looking to come to Edinburgh.

It borders the Water of Leith, which runs right through the city, and you can walk along the river, exploring the village as you go. Be sure to check out the fantastic pubs and restaurants of Stockbridge on your way!

Visit The Museum on the Mound

Whilst not on our list of must-see attractions in the city, the museum on the mound is great way to spend a quick 30 minutes or so if you have time to spare.

Located in the Bank of Scotland head office, which itself is a fantastic relic of history, this museum explores everything to do with money. From its collection of one million pounds in fake cash in its reception, to its explanations of how banking grew in Scotland, it is pretty fascinating.

The museum is open until 5pm Tuesday to Saturday.

St Giles Cathedral

St Giles Cathedral was, and still is, the main place of worship for the Church of Scotland. It is also known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh, and has played a prominent role in the cities history. In fact, evidence suggests that it is one of the older buildings in Edinburgh, with the oldest part dating back to 1124. After a fire in 1385, there has been many refurbishments, however, it is still a stunning place to visit.

The Entrance to St Giles Cathedral located on the Royal Mile.

The Cathedrals interior is definitely not to be missed. From its intricate stained glass to the inspiring ceiling of the Thistle Chapel, there is much to see. On the outside, you can marvel at the detailed stone carvings displaying different meanings and interpretations of the Cathedrals history.

Visiting hours will vary, as St Giles is still used for worship. It is best to check out their website before heading over, just to be sure. There is no entry cost, making it another of our favorite free things to do in Edinburgh.

GreyFriars Kirkyard

Greyfriars Kirkyard was the main graveyard in Edinburgh and the site of burial for many famous Edinburgh residents. Whilst it is still in use today, it was originally founded in 1561.

Situated towards Edinburgh University, to the South of the old town, it is a very busy place as tourists flock to see perhaps its most famous grave, that of Lord Voldemort. It is said that Harry Potter author JK Rowling came up with many of the names for her characters by visiting the kirkyard and looking at the grave stones. Indeed, there names Potter, McGonnagal and of course, Tom Riddel are all present. Tom Riddels grave is most popular with tourists, so much so, it is even marked on Google maps!

The Kirkyard also played a prominent part in the history of Edinburgh and Scotland as a while. It was the meeting place of many of the covenanters, a group of people who were not in favor of how to country was being run. It is also known as one of the most haunted places in the whole city. This is no mean feat when you look at the list of haunted places the city boasts. It got this reputation due to the unexplainable happenings that have been occurring since the 1990s. Most famous of these haunting is that of Sir George Mackenzie, a poltergeist said to haunt the kirkyard.

Whether you believe in these hauntings or not, the Kirkyard is still an interesting place to visit due to its part in the cities history. It is open all day and is very easy to get to.

Experience The Royal Mile

The Royal Mile is the main street of the old town of Edinburgh and is teeming with history. Actually made up of a number of different, connected streets, it is so called as it leads up from the Royal Palace of Holyrood, the the Castle.

Once one of the most important streets in Scotland, nowadays, it is mobbed with tourists. However, if you can shut out all the background noise and crowds for a few minutes, you can take yourself back in time. It is a truly remarkable place, and a must-see, free thing to do in Edinburgh.

Start at the bottom, beside Holyrood castle, and take your time walking up, exploring and taking in everything. Admire the old style tenement blocks and explore the tiny lanes, known as closes, that form off the road all the way up. The Royal Mile is also home to some of the cities oldest pubs, most of which are hundreds of years old.

Scottish Parliament

When the Scottish Parliament was completed in 2004, and immediately divided opinion of the residents of Edinburgh. Some said it was too expensive, that the money could be used elsewhere, whilst others said it was fitting that a new modern building should be built for a parliament looking to the future. Whatever your view on this, it is certainly a striking piece of architecture and a testament to the will of Scotland to have its own parliament.

The Scottish Parliament building is located near the bottom of the Royal Mile, close to Holyrood Palace. It is closed during the summer months, when parliament is taking place, however, it is open to the public outside of this. Visitors can get a free guided tour of the buildings and learn all about Scottish politics and its history. We certainly recommend a visit, and it can be tied in easily with a walk up Arthurs Seat, located not far from it.

National Museum of Scotland

First on our list of free things to do in Edinburgh is the National Museum of Scotland. It is open 7 days a week (10:00 – 17:00) and is free to enter. As a result, it is a perfect venue for a typical Scottish rainy day and continues to be Scotland’s most visited attraction. Explore Scotland’s history, meet Dolly, the world’s most famous sheep, see the mysterious Arthur’s Seat miniature coffins for yourself, and marvel at the blade of ‘The Maiden’, Scotland’s very own version of the guillotine. Make sure you head to the terrace for a panoramic view of Edinburgh. You will find the National Museum on Chambers Street, Old Town, about 15 minutes’ walk from Haystack Hostel.

The museum runs regular exhibitions and special late events. It is always worth checking out their website to see if there is anything that you may enjoy ‘after hours’.

https://www.nms.ac.uk/national-museum-of-scotland/

Calton Hill

One of our favourite free things to do in Edinburgh is Calton Hill. It’s only a 10 minute walk from Haystack Hostel to the top. Atop the hill you will find the curious National Monument, which looks like the ruins of an Ancient Greek temple. Construction on the monument started in 1826 to remember those who died in the Napoleonic Wars. The project was abandoned three years later, and still stands unfinished to this day.

The National Monument at mid afternoon

Alongside the National Monument you will find the Nelson Monument (for the admiral), the Dugald Stewart Monument (for the philosopher), the Robert Burns Monument (for the poet), the Political Martyrs Monument (for the five political reformers who fought for universal suffrage), and the City Observatory.

Not only do you get all this, but we think that Calton Hill is one of the best places to get a view of central Edinburgh, and a great place to watch the sunset. How romantic.

Halfway between Haystack Hostel and Calton Hill is the Calton cemetery, a little known spot with great views of Calton Hill and the city.

Royal Botanic Garden

Founded in 1670, the Royal Botanic Garden is the second oldest botanical garden in the UK after Oxford. The gardens were once located right next to Holyrood, but were moved to their current location in 1793 to keep away from the city pollution. The gardens cover seventy acres of stunning scenery and contain collections of plants, from all over the world. They even have their own waterfall. We think it’s the perfect place for a chilled out afternoon stroll, away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre.

The gardens are a 20-minute walk from the hostel and are also reachable by bus.

Tip: From the Botanic Gardens, the water of Leith Walkway is easily accessible. Walk along this river and take in Dean Village, a famously beautiful residential area, before looping round the West End of the city, along Princes Street and back to Haystack!

Arthur’s Seat

Situated in the middle of Holyrood Park, next to the palace and Scottish parliament, is Arthur’s Seat. Formed by an extinct volcano hundreds of millions of year ago or, as old Celtic legend would have it, a sleeping dragon that once plagued the land, it is the highest point in the city. As a result, it is extremely popular with tourists and locals alike, looking for beautiful views, a pleasant walk or, in some cases, a race to the top. Depending on the route you take, it takes approximately 45 minutes to reach the summit (250m) which provides a 360° view of Edinburgh and Fife.

Arthurs Seat and Salsbury Crags located just outside Edinburgh city centre.

Tip: Save this one for a clear and not too windy day if possible and start your descent before it gets dark. Early starts are recommended as the summit can get quite busy. Dress warm, wear some appropriate footwear, and always take a jacket. This is Scotland, remember!

Edinburgh hosts a wide selection of national galleries, all of which are free to enter. The National Gallery is located on Princes Street, only a ten minute walk from Haystack Hostel, and features a huge selection of British and international classic art. Perhaps the most famous painting is The Monarch of the Glen, by Edwin Landseer, which is considered to be an icon of Scottish culture.

Gallery of Modern Art

A little further out from the city centre, but a staff favourite, is the Modern Art Gallery. Near Dean Village, the two gallery buildings host a wide array of bizarre and beautiful pieces, from surrealist landscape paintings, to strange and wonderful sculptures. And if you’re feeling blue, the gallery will remind you in the biggest possible way that everything is going to be alright.

Like any other, all of Edinburgh’s galleries host regular exhibitions. Although these are not usually free, they are often cheap, so it’s worth checking out the National Galleries website for what events are going on during your stay in Edinburgh.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/

Sandemans Free Tour

Probably one of the most obvious free things to do in Edinburgh. An excellent introduction to Edinburgh, Sandemans Free Tour is a must. Lasting roughly 90 minutes, the walking tour covers the most historical part of Edinburgh, the Old Town. The meeting point is only 5-10 minutes’ walk from Haystack Hostel.  You just cross North Bridge and meet outside the Starbucks on the right. No ticket required! Check out their website here.

tourist touching Humes foot

Take this tour early on in your trip. The excellent guides will likely point out places you’ll want to come back to. Make sure you bring your camera, as you will stumble upon some of the best photo opportunities the city has to offer. With all the knowledge that the guides have, this is certainly one of the most informational free things to do in Edinburgh.

So there you have it. Our ultimate guide to free things to do in Edinburgh. We hope you enjoy exploring the city. Let us know what you think. Have we missed anything off? We’d love to hear from you!

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