Free Things to Do in Edinburgh - TopScotlandTours
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Free Things to Do in Edinburgh

View of Edinburgh from Calton Hill

Free Things to Do in Edinburgh

There is so much to see and do in Edinburgh. It is a must see city and has everything. From beautiful architecture, cosmopolitan restaurants and buzzing festivals. But doing all of these things can start to become quite pricey. That is why we have compiled our list of the best free things to do in Edinburgh.

Admire the paintings at the Scottish National Gallery

View of the national gallery from waverly bridge

First on our list of free things to do in Edinburgh is the Scottish National Gallery. Situated right in the heart of the city, towards the east end of Princes Street, is the Scottish National Gallery. This beautiful building sits next to Princes Street Gardens and stands out among the hustle and bustle of Edinburgh’s main street. First opened to the public in 1859, it is a fine example of the Neoclassical style.

The gallery itself is houses one of the best collections of fine art in the world. Artists on display include Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Raphael. But besides these international artists, it also has a fantastic collection of Scottish art. Artists such as Ramsay, Raeburn and Wilkie are all on show, providing a look at the history of Scottish painting.

The gallery is open every day, from 10am – 5pm. On Thursdays, it is open until 7pm. It has free entry, except for a small fee for certain temporary exhibitions which occur throughout the year.

Explore Dean Village

One of the most underrated places to visit, and a great cost free activity in Edinburgh, Dean village is a short walk from the city center. Sitting alongside the water of Leith river that runs through the city, it is the perfect place to relax from the hustle and bustle.

Dean Village itself is a small, former village that was once home to Edinburgh’s mill workers. Mentioned in Edinburghs charters as long ago as 1145, it remained a separate village until the 19th century. Exploring the village, you will see remnants if its milling history of the form of old mill stones and carvings of bread and pies. The village housed many of the tradesmen and women who worked on the construction of the New Town. If you look carefully, you can see carvings of hammers, sewing needles and other trade symbols, above doorways. The symbols are said to represent what job the occupant of each house had.

Today, Dean Village is a beautiful place to take a walk and just relax. Its picturesque, colorful houses are a photographers dream, whilst nature lovers will enjoy following the river that flows past it. It is roughly 10 minutes walk from the West End of Princes Street. If you find your way to Dean Bridge, just off the West End, you can follow the small slope down and you will find yourself in the village.

Immerse yourself in history at St Giles Cathedral

Also known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh, St Giles Cathedral is the main place of worship in the Church of Scotland, Edinburgh. There is evidence that the oldest part of the cathedral dates back to 1124. Unfortunately, in 1385, the building caught fire and, as a result, there has been many refurbishments.  The current exterior is a result of work done in 1833, whilst the interior was refurbished in 1883. Nevertheless, the cathedral is awe-inspiring and today stands as constant fixture on Edinburgh’s’ skyline.

Front of St Giles Cathedral

The interior of the cathedral is absolutely stunning. Be sure to check out the ceiling of the Thistle Chapel and the beautiful stained glass windows. Outside the chapel, look closely at the intricate stone carvings. It is a truly fascinating place to explore, with many memorials and records on display as well.

For visiting hours, which vary, take a look at St Giles Website. Access to the cathedral may be restricted unexpectedly due to services or private services.

Visit Voldemorts grave at Greyfriars Kirkyard

Founded in 1561, Greyfriars Kirkyard is an old graveyard situated in the south of the old town. The Kirkyard is the burial ground of many notable Edinburgh residents and is operated by the council to this day. But it is perhaps most famous for its references to JK Rowlings Harry Potter series. Just a short walk from the famous Elephant House cafe, where Rowling was said to have written her books, it is said that many names for the books were taken from the grave stones. The names Potter, Moody and McGonnagal can be found. But most famously is the grave of Tom Riddel, Lord Voldemorts name in the books. The grave is so popular with tourists that it is marked on google maps.

Besides Harry Potter, the Kirkyard is also known for the part it played in the history of the covenanters and for being one of the most haunted sites in Edinburgh. People have reported strange occurrences whilst walking in the graveyard since the 1990s. In particular, the tomb of Sir George Mackenzie has long been associated with hauntings. Known as ‘Bloody’ Mackenzie, his poltergeist is said to haunt the graveyard. For this reason, many of the cities Ghost Tours take in the Kirkyard.

The Kirkyard is open 24 hours a day and has free entry.

Say hello to Greyfriars Bobby

One of the most endearing sites to see in the city, Greyfriars Bobby is an easy, cost free thing to do whilst in Edinburgh. Bobby was a Skye Terrier who lived in Edinbirgh with his owner in the 1850s. When his owner died, Bobby spent 14 years guarding the grave of his owner, John Gray, every day. John was buried in the nearby Greyfriars Kirkyard, hence the name Greyfriars Bobby. The Terrier became famous for this, so much so, that when he died, a statue was erected in his honor.

Greyfriars Bobby with gold nose

The memorial is a life sized statue of the loyal dog, standing near to the entrance of Greyfriars Kirkyard. it was unveiled on 15th November 1873 and is well known and loved in the city to this day. Every Scottish child knows the story of Greyfriars Bobby, and there is huge affection for his story in the city. In recent years, a myth has emerged, stating that by stroking Bobbys nose, you will receive good luck. However, this results in rubbing of the paint of the dogs nose, revealing the metal beneath, so many tour guides have now start asking people to refrain from doing this.

You can find Bobby at the end of George IV bridge, just at the top of Candlemaker Row.

Take a walk up Arthurs Seat

No trip to Edinburgh is complete without a walk up the magnificent Arthurs Seat. This majestic hill overlooks the city and is a fantastic view point for people looking to get a 360 view of Edinburgh. You can even see all the way to the town of North Berwick on a clear day.

The slope of Arthurs Seat

An extinct volcano, Arthurs Seat takes roughly 45 minute to climb, and at over 250m high (822ft), it is one of the  highest points in the city. It is a wonderful way to truly take in the beauty of the city and see the contrast between new and old from above.

Arthurs Seat itself is home to some of Edinburghs early history. An iron age hill fort occupied the hills summit. This was said to be a stronghold of the Votadini, an early tribe in the area. It also has some slightly more creepy history. In 1836, a group of boys stumbled across a set of 17 miniature coffins. Inside these coffins were small wooden figures. It is said that these represented the victims of the notorious Burke and Hare.

Nowadays, however, Arthurs Seat is a favorite place for locals to come and enjoy the beautiful views! It is situated at the bottom of the Royal Mile, very close to both Holyrood Place and the Scottish Parliament. This makes it a perfect free activity to do while visiting these other sites in Edinburgh.

Enjoy Nature at the Royal Botanical Gardens

Situated North of the city center, the Botanic Gardens is a stunning green area of plants and greenhouses. It was founded over 300 years ago, and is roughly 70 acres large. With free entry, it is extremely popular with locals, especially young families, looking to take advantage of the peace and tranquility that it offers.

The Botanics has over 273,000 individual plants grown there and at its 3 sister sites across Scotland. A perfect free activity in the summer, the gardens glass houses are also a fascinating place to explore when its raining (there is a small charge for admission to the glass houses). It is located extremely close to the water of Leith walkway and Dean Village, another beautiful place to explore.

Explore the National Museum of Scotland

The National museum of Scotland is a fascinating place to explore during your trip to Edinburgh. In 2017 it was Scotlands most popular visitor attraction with over 2 million visitors. The building itself is stunning, with its grand gallery overlooking the main hall, whilst its roof top balcony provided beautiful views of the city.

The museum itself houses a vast collection of artifacts, documenting the history of everything from ancient Egypt to the birth of Scotland itself.  In particular, take a look at the stunning Animal World collection. Here, you can learn about the way animals interacted with the early world and see a huge T-Rex collection. You can also visit Dolly the Sheep, the first cloned animal in the world.

It is open 7 days a week from 10am to 5pm and is another free to enter attraction in Edinburgh. The museum is situated on Chambers Street, in the Old Town of Edinburgh and is close to all other tourist attractions in the Old Town. This, with its free entry, makes it the perfect place to visit during a busy day in Edinburgh. Check out the National Museum of Scotland website here.

Learn about Edinburgh on Sandemans Free Walking Tour

The best place to start your trip to Edinburgh is with Sandemans free walking tour. There truly is no better way to get an introduction to the city. The tour itself lasts around 90 minutes to 2 hours and takes in all the major sites of the Old Town.

Tourist touching the foot of the David Hume statue

Your tour guide is a local expert who will be able to answer any and all questions you may have about Edinburgh. Edinburgh is a fascinating city and the history behind it is even more so. You will be able to experience this history for yourself whilst also meeting other travelers who will be on the walking tour with you.

Highlights include the Royal Mile, Greyfriars Bobby and the Grassmarket. The tour starts at multiple times per day and meets outside Starbucks just off North Bridge. Sandemans also offer a variety of other, paid for tours. These include a tour of the New Town of Edinburgh, a Castle tour, a ghost tour and a pub crawl. If you are interested in any of these tours, simply get in touch with us here and we will help point you in the right direction.

Watch the sun set on Calton Hill

Our personal favorite free thing to do in Edinburgh, Calton Hill offers perhaps the best view of the city of Edinburgh and an absolute must visit during your time in the city. It is only a 2 minute climb to the top of the hill which is situated at the east end of Princes Street. Home to various monuments, including the iconic National monument, it is a beautiful place to explore and relax at. It is also home to the city observatory and, for a small fee, you can climb to the top of this too.

The National Monument is probably the most imposing monument on the hill. It was built as a  memorial to Scottish soldiers and sailors who died fighting in the Napoleonic wars. Designed during the early 1820’s by Charles Robert Cockerell and William Henry Playfair, it resembles the Greek Pantheon.  However, due to lack of funds, it was only partially finished and has been left in its current state ever since. For this reason, it is often referred to as ‘The Shame of Edinburgh’.

Sillhouette of tree and national monument at Calton Hill

Calton Hill is a favorite spot among photographers who take advantage of its view of the skyline. It is also one of the most beautiful places to watch the sun rise and set, so try and time your visit to coincide with this. A top tip from us is to visit the nearby Old Calton Burial Ground. This hidden cemetery is an oasis of quiet in the middle of a busy city. It is the burial site of many interesting people, including the famous philosopher, David Hume and has one of the only American civil war memorials outside of the states.

As you can see, Edinburgh certainly has some fantastic free options to explore during your visit. If you are interested in any of the activities or sites mentioned here and want to learn more, please feel free to get in touch. We are always happy to help.

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