Last Updated on January 17, 2024 by Michela
Budget travelers rejoice! There is a destination out there that allows you to fully live its atmosphere, attractions and areas without you having to spend an extra dime on activities. Welcome to Edinburgh, Scotland. With the abundance of free things to do in Edinburgh, you can plan an itinerary that will allow you to feel like you have left no stone unturned and experienced the city to its fullest.
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1. National Museum of Scotland
Start off a weekend in Edinburgh heading to one of the most beautiful museums in the country, the National Museum of Scotland.
This museum is huge, with seemingly-endless wings of exhibits of all kinds: animals, art, fashion, transportation, musical instruments. You name it, they have probably covered it.
You could easily spend half a day (or more) looking at all of the exhibits or squeeze this in a two-hour slot on a busy itinerary.
Good to know: The museum is open every day from 10 am to 5 pm and you do not have to do any sort of pre-booking to enter.
2. Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
From museum halls to nature strolls, you can see every side of Edinburgh on a budget.
The next free thing to do is the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Just over 70 acres of greenery and park area, the botanical gardens are a place to be explored. The gardens host multiple themed areas like the Rock Garden, the Inverleith House, and the Botanic Cottage, pictured above.
One of the attractions that is unfortunately currently closed are the Glasshouses, which are currently in use in a huge project dedicated to preserving endangered plant species. While you can’t visit the greenhouse, you can still admire the buildings and learn about the scientific work being done at the facilities in the main welcome area.
Good to know: The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is not far from the city center, but it is further from almost all of the other activities. Plan to walk around 20-30 minutes outside of the city center to reach it.
3. Greyfriar’s Kirkyard
Greyfriar’s Kirkyard is one of the most famous graveyards in the world and interesting places in Edinburgh, not only for its history dating back over 400 years, but connection to a world famous book series: Harry Potter.
In fact, Edinburgh played a huge role in the inspiration for many locations in the fantasy books because J.K Rowling was writing the first book while living in Edinburgh. The café in which she wrote, Elephant House, which is unfortunately now closed, is right around the corner from this beautiful graveyard.
Yes, this graveyard is beautiful. The historic tombs and their uneven dispersion on the greens and the peeks at the old town skyline through the trees makes it a very haunting, yet stunning setting.
Another Harry Potter connection? In Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, you’ll find the tombstone of Tom Riddle (and probably recognize a few other character names as well, like Potter.)
And the stories don’t stop there. The real landmark of this graveyard is Greyfriar’s Bobby. Bobby was a dog who, when his owner died and was buried at Greyfriar’s, sat at his tomb and protected it for 14 years until he died. Bobby is also buried in the graveyard and has his own statue outside the entrance.
4. Scottish National Gallery
Calling all art fans! You don’t have to pay to see the most famous art housed in Scotland.
A visit to the Scottish National Gallery, right next to the city center’s Princes Street Gardens, is completely free.
The gallery is very traditional in the sense that the rooms are wide, with the walls covered in historic paintings. There are a few sculptures on display in the center of the rooms. The gallery collection is focused on Scottish artists but there are also pieces from Botticelli, Raffaello, Rembrandt, and others.
If you’re an art-enthusiast, you should also check out the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, which is free to visit.
Good to know: The gallery is open every day from 10am to 5 pm.
5. Dean Village
Edinburgh is full of cute neighborhoods but Dean Village stands out. Like most of the city, it feels like taking a step back in time while walking through this hamlet.
The neighborhood dates back to the eleventh century. Its stand-out feature is just how storybook the setting feels: a tranquil stream framed by overgrown greenery, old stone buildings, houses decorated in patterned wood panels.
6. Museum on the Mound
The Museum on the Mound is a fun and interactive activity that is completely free.
The Mound is the slope up to Old Town Edinburgh and the museum is located just on the historic center’s edge.
The museum focuses on the history of Scotland’s banks, money and financial system. It doesn’t sound like the most interesting museum but it was the one that surprised me the most by how fun it was!
There were interactive elements in each room of the exhibits and some of them even resulted in winning a prize!
7. Arthur’s Seat Hike
One of the most epic things to do in Edinburgh is climb Arthur’s Seat.
Arthur’s Seat is the tallest hill in Holyrood Park on the edge of the city center, just beside the monarch of the UK’s residence in Scotland, the Palace Holyroodhouse.
It also happens to be an ancient volcano!
The park is easy to walk through, with several clear trails, but the climb is less marked. There are some steep areas that are difficult to navigate, so I recommend wearing a sturdy pair of shoes and being extra careful, knowing your physical limits.
The views over the city are stunning from the beginning of the climb all the way to the top. Stay attentive at the hill’s peak because it is very rocky and windy.
The best time to hike is around an hour and a half before sunset so you arrive mid-dusk at the top. Don’t go up too late, as the area is not lit and you will need to be able to safely come back down.
8. Water of Leith
Looking for one of the most peaceful, relaxing and free things to do in Edinburgh? Make your way to the Water of Leith.
The Water of Leith is the main river that flows through the city, but it isn’t large and overpowering. In fact, it may be better to call it a stream.
But what makes the Water of Leith such a unique thing to see in Edinburgh is that it is so calm, naturally beautiful and tranquil that you completely forget you are in a European capital city.
The stream runs through Dean Village, which is a good starting point for a walk. Along the way are some stunning monuments, like St. Bernard’s Well, pictured above, and “6 times” statues by Anthony Gormley.
The Water of Leith walkway stretches over 13 miles, going through the city and outpouring into the Firth of Forth, an estuary connected to the North Sea and the Lothian Sea. You definitely don’t have to walk all 13 miles to experience this piece of tranquillity in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the city.
9. Circus Lane
The best way to explore Edinburgh is on foot so that you can see all the cute side streets and off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods: Circus Lane included!
Circus Lane also just happens to be one of the most instagrammable places in Edinburgh.
The street has become famous for its abundance of blooms and the church tower that composes the perfect frame for a share-worthy photo.
The best time to visit is during the day on weekdays to avoid seeing cars parked on the street. It is a residential street, so keep in mind that people actually live here and act respectfully.
10. St. Giles Cathedral
St. Giles Cathedral is arguably the most stunning religious structure in Edinburgh’s Old Town. Its steeple is one of the most recognizable landmarks of Edinburgh’s skyline.
The church has been actively in use for over 900 years.
You can enter whenever you would like to visit or book a free walking tour of the cathedral that lasts 45 minutes. Entry is free but they do encourage visitors to make a donation.
The inside of the church does not get a lot of natural light, so my photos were very grainy and dark. However, some highlights of the cathedral’s interior are the organ and the nave, which has a striking blue ceiling and beams shaped in a unique cross-pattern.
11. The Royal Mile
You can’t visit Edinburgh without strolling the Royal Mile, even though it is not my favorite spot in the city. Very crowded and the heart of city activity, the Royal Mile is that commercial area full of big tour busses and crowds of tourists.
Nonetheless, it’s one of the free things in Edinburgh you just have to do.
12. Calton Hill
The city keeps on giving when it comes to parks. One of the most famous green areas is Calton Hill, a park north of Old Town that is home to the top iconic city view you see in all the photos shared about Edinburgh.
The park is large, with various significant structures: the Dugald Stewart Monument, pictured above, the Nelson Monument and the National Monument of Scotland.
On one side, you get the view of the city, on another the view of Arthur’s Seat, and on the other, the view of the sea.
The best time to visit is at sunrise to avoid crowds and also get the best lighting not just for photos but for taking in the scenery. Waking up early may not be your thing, so I would also suggest you visit towards sunset, but just expect a lot of fellow park-goers at that time.
Good to know: Calton Hill is not a super accessible park. The main entrance is via a tall staircase. There is also vehicle access, so, if you are in need of mobility assistance, take a taxi to Calton Hill.
13. The Writer’s Museum
The tour of free Edinburgh museums continues and this one is specially-themed.
Housed in Old Town, just behind another Edinburgh attraction, Gladstone’s Land, is The Writer’s Museum.
This small and homely space (literally the exhibit rooms are rooms of a house) hosts artifacts, texts and dedicated exhibitions of Scottish writers like Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.
14. Edinburgh Closes
Strolling the streets of Edinburgh is not just a fluffy, no-meaning activity. The streets are literally an attraction themselves!
The Old Town of Edinburgh is full of tiny, narrow alleyways that are called “closes”. Each close is different: some lead to a secret square, a hidden garden or from one main street to the next.
Exploring all the closes is an activity in itself. Some of the most famous closes in Edinburgh are Dunbar’s Close, Bakehouse Close and Mary King’s Close.
15. Victoria Street & Grassmarket
Exploring Edinburgh Old Town’s shopping area doesn’t have to cost you a thing.
The historic and peculiar areas of Victoria Street and Grassmarket are valuable enough!
Victoria Street is the hub of mom & pop shops and restaurants, all themed and full of personality. It is also said to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley in Harry Potter.
The Grassmarket is the square right at the foot of Victoria Street. The best time to visit is on Saturday or Sunday when there is an active farmer’s market! You will get a look at local artisans and traditional foods.
16. Princes Street Gardens
Princes Street Gardens is the focal point of where Old Town and New Town Edinburgh meet, which are considered an UNESCO World Heritage Site for their extraordinary example of urban planning in the 18th and 19th century.
This serene park is at the foot of Edinburgh Castle, high above on the cliff of Old Town.
The grounds are wonderful not only to see but truly explore. There are several park monuments, like the Ross Fountain and the Wojtek the Soldier Bear Memorial, as well as art pieces scattered along the lawn.
17. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
You will love all the free things to do in Edinburgh if you have a thing for art.
The other galleries and museums I have mentioned have everything to do with historic pieces. The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art focuses on contemporary artworks and artists.
There are actually two galleries of modern art, one that is always free and another that hosts rotating exhibits, for which you have to pay to visit.
Both galleries have huge, beautifully curated lawns on which you can relax and take in the Edinburgh air.
18. Canongate Kirkyard
Visiting graveyards is just kind of a thing in Edinburgh. One of the lesser known but beautiful graveyards is Canongate Kirkyard. It is in the outskirts of Old Town near the Palace Holyroodhouse and Scottish Parliament.
Canongate Kirk is the church building you see in the lefthand picture. Simple but eye-catching, the church building has been active since the 1600s.
The graveyard, in the back of the church and open to free for the public, sits below Calton Hill. Eerily beautiful tombs and an open lawn make it a peaceful place to visit and connect with history.
19. St. Mary’s Cathedral
There are fewer popular attractions in Edinburgh’s New Town than in the world-famous Old Town, but one sticks out for sure: St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral.
I actually stayed down the street from this church while in Edinburgh. All jokes aside, I was floored every day passing by and seeing this church up close. The grounds feel like a manicured college campus and the building like a historic Harry Potter hall.
You can visit the church for free and, like at St. Giles Cathedral, leave a donation if you would like.
Pro Tip: After visiting St. Mary’s Cathedral, head nearby to Cairngorm Coffee for a quick pastry and coffee or to Indigo for a full and satisfying breakfast.
20. Salisbury Crags
The last but not least of free things to do in Edinburgh is visit the Salisbury Crags.
Like Arthur’s Seat, the Salisbury Crags make up a part of the Holyrood Park. Instead of being one of the hills, the crags are the cliffs you see on the park’s edge.
The walk to Salisbury Crags is easier than that up to Arthur’s Seat and there is also more flat space to be able to sit down, lay out and spend some time taking in the super up-close view over the city.
The best time to visit is at sunset, while the lights flicker on in the city buildings and the sun slips away behind the sea and skyline.
Tips for Visiting Edinburgh on a Budget
The best tip I can give you to visit Edinburgh on a budget is to start planning your itinerary with all the free things to do in Edinburgh.
Then, if you find you have more time available, consider which paid experiences you would like to do, whether its visit the Royal Brittanica, go inside Edinburgh Castle, or taste whiskey at the Scottish Whiskey Experience.
As for saving money on the rest of the factors of your trip, here are my best suggestions:
- Walk or bike. The city center is extremely compact. You can easily walk the entire thing in a day! If you are thinking of visiting other neighborhoods outside of the city center, like Leith, then I would recommend you take a bus.
- Visit during the week for lowest accommodation prices. This is obvious, but Edinburgh is a quintessential weekend European city break, so prices rise on everything from Friday-Sunday.
- If you pay by credit or debit card, always select to pay in the local currency. This is one of those general money travel tips that helps you save little by little. If you pay in your card’s currency, chances are the exchange rate is higher than normal, so opt to pay in British pounds.
Beyond the stunning architecture, lively social scene and abundance of green areas, my favorite thing about Edinburgh is its accessibility.
I love that there are truly so many free things to do in Edinburgh. And not just “stroll the streets” or “admire the view” – of course there is plenty of that, but you get what I mean. In Edinburgh, you get to experience things concretely and vividly and to 100% because you are not limited by your budget.
My trips are always limited by my budget, so I often forgo many activities. This helps me save, but many times it ends up feeling like I really didn’t experience the city to the fullest. It’s the complete opposite with Edinburgh and that’s why I truly recommend you catch the next flight out to this gothic, storybook city.
What is the number one free thing you are looking forward to doing in Edinburgh? Let me know in a comment!
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I hope you have found this master list of free things to do in Edinburgh helpful to planning your trip!