Free attractions in Scotland include Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park, Botanic Gardens, the Scottish National Gallery and St. Giles Cathedral. The top free attractions in Glasgow include Glasgow Cathedral, the Riverside Museum of Transport and the Tall Ship. Discover many more free places to visit – with in-depth descriptions – in this complete guide.
The ultimate guide to the best FREE things to do in Scotland
There are lots of attractions in Scotland that are reasonably priced – but something that’s even better than cheap attractions are free ones and the majority of the best Scottish attractions cost absolutely nothing to visit.
Take Edinburgh and Glasgow. These two cities have some of the best tourist attractions in the country and the majority of them have completely free admission.
In Edinburgh you can hike up an extinct volcano in Holyrood Park, wander around one of the oldest Botanic Gardens in Britain, see the best artworks in the National Gallery, marvel at the huge number of exhibits in the National Museum and be awe-struck by the architecture of St. Giles Cathedral, all for the price of… exactly nothing.
Glasgow fares just as well on the free-attractions front with the beautiful Glasgow Cathedral, the fascinating Riverside Museum of Transport, the amazing Tall Ship on the River Clyde, the fantastic Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, the wonderful Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art …and too many others to mention in this article.
Then of course, there are the Highlands.
How about going up Ben Nevis – the highest mountain in the United Kingdom, or exploring Scotland’s most beautiful landscape at Glen Coe?
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And I haven’t even started on all the walks you can do in Scotland that are guaranteed to bring a smile to your face, with routes like The Southern Upland Way, The West Highland Way, and The John Muir Way taking hikers across the best parts of the country from north to south and east to west.
With all these thoughts in mind, I’d like to show you my personal recommendations for the best free things to do in Scotland that are guaranteed to offer you a fun-filled experience.
I’ve broken them down into the country’s main tourist areas so hopefully you’ll find something that’ll interest you no matter which region of Scotland you visit.
Map of free attractions in Scotland
The best free things to do in Aberdeen
Aberdeen is one of the largest cities in Northern Scotland and is the perfect hub for tours throughout the Highlands.
Although the city is best known for its links to the oil and gas industry it also has a vibrant nightlife and extensive shopping areas as well as fascinating history in the old town including Aberdeen University which dates back to 1495.
In addition, there are a number of award-winning beaches, and ferry travel to Orkney and the Shetland Islands is easy from Aberdeen Ferry Terminal.
Aberdeen Maritime Museum
- Address: Aberdeen Maritime Museum, Shiprow, Aberdeen, AB11 5BY
- Website: Aberdeen Maritime Museum
- Telephone: 01224 337700
As the former fishing capital of Europe, Aberdeen has a long association with the sea and this museum located in the historic Shiprow area showcases the proud heritage of Aberdeen’s long seafaring history.
This 16th-century building is owned by the National Trust for Scotland who took ownership of it after it fell into ruin in the 1950s, and it’s now joint-managed by the NTS and Aberdeen city council.
There are actually two parts to this attraction – the old Lord Provost’s house which is built of traditional stone, and a modern steel and glass building.
It’s fitting that the old building contains all the traditional examples of shipbuilding, fishing, and harbour life while the new building contains all the ultra-modern offshore oil and gas exhibits.
It’s a nice touch and one of the reasons the museum is rated a four-star visitor attraction by Visit Scotland.
Inside the museum you’ll find a collection of exhibits that cover the entirety of Aberdeen’s sailing and shipbuilding past as well as the city’s current use as a fishing port and hub for oil exploration and extraction in the North Sea.
They’ve done a great job in making the museum interesting to all ages and you’ll find an assortment of touch screen consoles alongside more traditional hands-on exhibits. Both children and adults will have a great time exploring the story of how this former shipping port became one of Scotland’s major industrial powerhouses.
As with all attractions like this, there’s a souvenir shop on-site that sells a wide range of gifts, crafts and books, and there’s a great café that’s a bit of a tourist attraction in its own right thanks to the harbour-side views from its floor-to-ceiling windows.
Aberdeen Zoology Museum and Botanic Garden
- Address: Tillydrone Ave, Aberdeen, AB24 2TZ
- Website: Aberdeen Botanic Gardens / Aberdeen University Zoology Museum
- Telephone: 01224 274330
The Zoology Museum is located in the Aberdeen University zoology building where it showcases numerous exhibits that cover the complete spectrum of worldwide animal research, from the smallest protozoa to the largest whales.
During your time at the Aberdeen Zoology Museum you’ll see skeletons and models of a variety of animals, from monkeys to snakes and everything in-between, as well as a fascinating collection of skulls and preserved animals.
There are several taxidermy specimens in the collection as well so if you’ve got children, taking them to this university museum is a good way to help them develop an interest in biology and the animal kingdom.
The entire collection is the result of over 200 years of university research by staff and students and it has obviously been a work of love putting it all together. It’s fantastic that the university has made the collection available to the public with no entrance cost, especially considering there are over 75,000 exhibits to view.
Even better, the displays frequently change so that new specimens are added to the permanent vertebrate and invertebrate collections so there’s a good chance there’ll be something new to see if you visit the museum another time.
Covering a surprisingly large 11 acres, the botanic garden is full of plants that have been collected from all over the world and there are over 2,500 specimens to view in the shrub borders, rose garden, water garden and arboretum.
The gardens are exceptionally pretty and they bloom with colour in summer which makes this corner of Aberdeen University a great place to relax after a visit to the busy city centre.
The gardens are located just 3 miles from Aberdeen train station and you can easily get there by bus (see the First Bus Aberdeen route planner for details).
Balmedie Country Park
- Address: Balmedie, AB23 8XG
- Website: Balmedie Country Park
- Telephone: NA
This park envelopes 14 miles of coastline from Aberdeen to just north of the mouth of the River Ythan at Newburgh and it’s home a diverse range of animals and plants in the wide stretches of sand dunes that border the golden beaches.
There always seems to be something new to watch whenever I’ve visited Balmedie Country Park so if you’re a bird watcher I recommend you take your binoculars and camera with you.
Oh, and don’t forget to look out towards the sea because there’s a good chance you’ll catch sight of bottlenose dolphins and harbour seals that live around this part of the coastline.
The dunes at Balmedie Country Park reach 30-feet in some places so here’s a tip for when you visit – bring a plastic sledge. The dunes are steep enough to act as a fantastic slide so you can go hurtling down them with a soft cushion of golden sand waiting for you at the bottom.
Smaller children will have a great time at the playpark near the car park and if you’ve got a dog I can’t think of anywhere they’ll enjoy more, but as there are often horse riders on the beach you might want to keep them on a lead.
Aberdeen Council have done a great job of making the park accessible thanks to the 1.7 km of wooden boardwalks that have been installed through the dunes so even if you’ve got mobility issues you’ll be able to enjoy the beautiful surroundings.
The car park is a decent size so you shouldn’t have any problems finding a parking space and they’ve even installed picnic benches and barbecue fire stands so you can have an al-fresco family munch. Well done Aberdeen Council!
Want to save money in Scotland? Check out my shopping page for Scottish tourist attraction discounts.
The best free things to do in Edinburgh
Edinburgh is the compact and hilly capital city of Scotland that offers a wide range of family-friendly tourist attractions.
As well as an expansive parkland formed from an extinct volcano the city boasts Scotland’s most-visited attraction at the impressive Edinburgh Castle.
Edinburgh also plays host to the world’s biggest multi-arts festival as well as the Royal Military Tatoo which draws thousands of visitors each year.
The National Museum of Scotland
- Address: Chambers St, Edinburgh, EH1 1JF
- Website: The National Museum of Scotland
- Telephone: 0300 123 6789
This enormous museum easily rivals any other worldwide and not only can you get lost in the wonders of history in the ultra-modern exhibitions but you can also marvel at the fully-restored architecture of the Victorian Grand Gallery.
One of the things I love about the National Museum of Scotland is that it’s full of exhibits that take you through the wonders of nature, art, design, fashion, science and technology (to name just a few).
There are galleries containing meteorites from the dawn of our planet, galleries depicting the somewhat later history of Scotland, galleries displaying incredibly lifelike animals from an extinct T-rex to an endangered Scottish wildcat, galleries focussed on world culture and galleries showing just about everything else.
The curators have done a wonderful job of presenting each area as a mixture of education and fun that’s accessible to all ages, so you’ll likely find yourself getting as excited about the story of meteorites as your kids are. And that’s before you’ve got to the dinosaur galleries and the interactive science and technology galleries.
The science and technology galleries, in particular, are brilliant and you can compete with each other in games like seeing how much energy you can burn in a giant hamster wheel, or try to get the fastest lap in an F1 racing car simulator, and even beat a cheetah in a race.
If you have extra time on your hands the museum presents premium exhibitions that showcase everything from the history of video games to the history of fashion, and while the tickets can be a bit pricey they’re free if you become a National Museums of Scotland member.
There are also a couple of cafés if you feel the need to take a break, and the gift shop sells lots of quality souvenirs.
The Edinburgh Royal Botanic Gardens
- Address: Inverleith Row, Edinburgh, EH3 5LR
- Website: The Edinburgh Royal Botanic Gardens
- Telephone: 0131 248 2909
One of the best botanic gardens in the UK is located in Edinburgh and a short bus ride from the city centre will allow you to explore over 13,000 different plant species in the most beautifully landscaped and manicured grounds you’re ever likely to see.
Founded in 1670, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) is the second oldest botanic garden in Britain after the gardens in Oxford.
What makes the Edinburgh gardens special is that they boast the most diverse collection of plants in Britain and across 70 acres you’ll find yourself transported all over the world from the low-lying mosses that live on Peruvian mountains to the dense green vegetation of the Brazilian jungles.
As a place to relax away from the busy city centre the gardens are only equalled by the Water of Leith and the facilities rival those found at any other Edinburgh attraction with cafés, a restaurant, snack stations, a gift shop and an information centre.
The gardens themselves are divided into the regions of the world which all flow seamlessly into one another so that walking from alpine rockeries into a Chinese hillside feels completely natural.
If you want to explore the wilds of Scotland then a walk around the Scottish heather garden will transport you deep into the Highlands and there’s even an old abandoned croft to enhance the experience.
Although the gardens are free to enter it’s worth paying the small fee to get into the premier attraction of the RBGE which is the tropical jungle that lives inside giant glasshouses.
These glasshouses contain some of the oldest plants in the entire collection – as well as some of the largest – and there are more than 3,000 exotic species that have been collected from all over the world.
Other highlights of the RBGE include a woodland garden, an arboretum, a Rhododendron collection, alpine houses, and a botanic cottage (which is used for education and community sessions), while the visitor centre houses exhibitions that change on a regular basis.
St. Giles Cathedral
- Address: High St, Edinburgh, EH1 1RE
- Website: St. Giles Cathedral
- Telephone: 0131 226 0674
If you’ve ever looked through photos of Edinburgh on the internet there’s no doubt you’ll have seen Saint Giles Cathedral dominating The Royal Mile in the middle of the city’s Old Town.
The cathedral has been a focal point in Edinburgh for over 900 years, although the present structure that we see today can trace its roots back to the 14th-century.
Due to its central location on The Royal Mile, St. Giles has become a popular tourist attraction and it’s an ideal stop-off point between excursions to the palace at the bottom and the castle at the top.
One thing I should point out is that the cathedral is still an active place of worship so entrance might not be possible during times of prayer, but mid-week tourists are free to enter and explore the interior as much as they like.
There are five services held every Sunday and on average fourteen acts of worship take place each week, often with the St. Giles Cathedral Choir singing in full voice. The choir has become acclaimed throughout Europe and America and it’s quite an experience to listen to them during the leading of the worship.
They’ve even released a few albums which can be purchased from the gift shop alongside other souvenirs to remind you of your time in Edinburgh.
And finally, the cathedral has an excellent café with delicious home cooking so you can relax in peace and quiet after a busy day of sightseeing in the city centre.
Looking to save money on travel to Edinburgh? Check out my Tickets & Travel for special discounts on flights.
The best free things to do in Glasgow
Glasgow is Scotland’s largest city and it’s renowned for its culture, style and its wide variety of tourist attractions. The city provides one of the best shopping experiences in Scotland and it’s home to lots of big attractions like the SECC and Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.
Glasgow also offers a diverse range of internationally acclaimed museums, beautiful architecture, vibrant nightlife, and a selection of quality restaurants and bars.
If you’d like to learn a few interesting facts about the city check out this article: 30 Interesting Facts About Glasgow.
The Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art
- Address: Royal Exchange Square, Glasgow, G1 3AH
- Website: The Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art
- Telephone: 0141 287 3050
The Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art (or the GoMA as it’s often called) is Scotland’s most-visited art gallery, beating the national galleries of Edinburgh for annual footfall numbers.
You’ll probably recognise the GoMA from the hundreds of photos on the internet where a Duke of Wellington statue stands proudly outside a very grand neoclassical building – with a traffic cone stuck on his head.
The cone has embedded itself into Glasgow culture over the last thirty years since it was first placed there and the council seems to have given up trying to remove it, mainly because as soon as they do it’s put back by more late-night revellers.
The museum is relatively new to the city having only opened in 1996 but the building itself dates back to 1778 when it was built as a townhouse for a wealthy tobacco trader.
There’s a lot to see in this gallery and not only are there permanent displays from local and international artists but there’s an ever-changing collection of temporary exhibitions loaned from other Glasgow city collections.
The gallery has been set up to display the artworks in a way that’s both educational and enjoyable and there are lots of information boards to let visitors know the story behind each artwork as well as the artist that created it.
Because the GoMA is so centrally located it’s a good place to visit if you get fed up with shopping and there are plenty of nearby bars and restaurants to pop into if you stay until closing time (particularly Thursday when it’s open till 8 pm).
If you’re a weary parent that’s tired of excitable children racing around the gallery you’ll be pleased to know there’s also a top-notch café on-site as well as a decent shop and a library.
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
- Address: Argyle St, Glasgow, G3 8AG
- Website: Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
- Telephone: 0141 276 9599
The constantly changing exhibitions in the museum and art gallery are displayed across multiple sections and visitors can enjoy over 9,000 artefacts and paintings that cover themes from modern art, the animal kingdom, Ancient Egypt, Scottish history and much more.
Designed to be informative as well as entertaining, Kelvingrove has gained a reputation for being one of the top places in Glasgow for family days out, with the bonus being that like most museums in the city there’s absolutely no fee to get in.
As part of a major restoration project the museum was extensively renovated over three years and was re-opened in 2006 with the exhibits organised into two halves; Life and Expression.
The Life galleries represent natural history, human history and prehistory, while the Expression galleries include fine art collections. Both themes are staged across 22 state-of-the-art galleries which are large enough to easily take up most of your day.
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is second only to the museums of London for the number of visitors it draws annually, with many coming to view its great art collection which is arguably one of the best in Europe.
Here you’ll find masterpieces from Rembrandt, Renoir, Salvador Dali and others alongside antiquities from Europe and modern works from the celebrated Glasgow designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
The Riverside Museum of Transport and Travel
- Address: 100 Pointhouse Place, Glasgow, G3 8RS
- Website: The Riverside Museum
- Telephone: 0141 287 2720
The Riverside Museum is home to a huge collection of cars, motorbikes, boats and trains, and there are so many travel-related objects on display that you can spend an entire afternoon inside and barely scratch the surface.
This museum deserves its place in Scotland’s top ten best museums because it has received the European Museum of the Year award and it regularly attracts over a million visitors annually, making it the fourth most popular attraction in Scotland.
Amazingly, the museum cost nearly £75 million to build and since opening in June 2011 it has amassed over 3,000 exhibits.
Inside you’ll find examples of every conceivable form of transport from skateboards to racing cars with examples dating from their earliest days all the way to modern times.
There’s so much to explore at this museum that you’ll likely have to make a return visit just to see everything, with vintage motorbikes, old buses, even older trams, fire engines, steam trains and interactive displays all explaining the story of man’s fascination with getting from A to B.
There are a couple of highlights that might surprise you about the Riverside Museum of Transport. First is the recreation of one of Glasgow’s yesteryear streets, complete with cobbled paving stones and shops dating from 1895 to the 1980s.
The second highlight of a visit is actually located outside on the River Clyde, where the Tall Ship (a sailing ship called the Glenlee) is moored up alongside.
The Glenlee first took to the water in 1896 and is one of only five ships built on the Clyde that’s still afloat today. She’s a wonderful old vessel and visitors can pretty much explore every single nook and cranny from the galley to the captains quarters.
The best free things to do in the Highlands
The Scottish Highlands is the largest area of Scotland and it encompasses an area of more than 30,000 square kilometres, yet it has a population of fewer than 250,000 people.
Primarily mountainous, visiting the Highlands offers a unique experience that’s unmatched anywhere else in Europe.
The remote wilderness of some of the UK’s most beautiful national parks makes this region of Scotland the perfect place to get outside and enjoy the fresh air, whether it’s going for a walk or climbing a mountain.
Inverness Botanic Gardens
- Address: Bught Lane, Inverness, IV3 5SS
- Website: Inverness Botanic Gardens
- Telephone: 01463 713553
There’s a lot of things to enjoy at the Inverness Botanic Gardens and visitors can explore a mixture of formal gardens, wildflower meadows, cactus houses, ponds, and a tropical house in this volunteer-run charity attraction.
The glasshouses are worth visiting in their own right as they feature lots of tropical plants and it’s quite an experience to walk out of the cold Scottish air and into the balmy heat of a rainforest.
Once you step inside you’ll find a cascading waterfall in the glasshouse with a pool full of beautiful (and inquisitive) Koi Carp which makes the whole experience very relaxing, if slightly surreal.
Some of the plants will be immediately recognizable to anyone with an interest in flora and fauna but there are many more that you probably haven’t seen before, like the beautiful bird of paradise plants with their lovely yellow and orange flowers.
Next door to the rainforest is a cactus house that showcases hundreds of different species of cacti that survive in extremes of temperature. It’s quite a bit cooler in there than the rainforest so you’ll be able to acclimatize before heading outside to the outdoor gardens.
The lawns, trees, shrubs, and borders of this section of the botanic gardens are linked by meandering paths that take you past rockeries, wooden carvings and cottage gardens while a ramshackle gate at the back of the formal gardens leads you into a ‘secret garden’ which is managed by a group of adults with special needs.
Glenfinnan and The Glenfinnan Monument
- Address: Glenfinnan, Highlands, PH37 4LT
- Website: Glenfinnan
- Telephone: NA
The little village of Glenfinnan in the Lochaber area of the Highlands is famous for having three major tourist attractions on its doorstep, with the first being the Glenfinnan viaduct which offers one of the most spectacular photo opportunities in Scotland.
The viaduct has been one of Scotland’s top tourist attractions for many years and it offers superb views of The Jacobite steam train which transports tourists from Fort William to Mallaig.
The sight of this vintage train puffing its way across the viaduct attracts thousands of visitors each year and their numbers have exploded since it was featured in the Harry Potter movies as the Hogwarts Express.
The second attraction is the view at the foot of Loch Shiel with the Sgurr Ghiubhsachain mountain rising on one side and Rois-Bheinn rising on the other.
The third attraction is the Glenfinnan Monument which sits at the north-east head of Loch Shiel where it has commanded spectacular views of the Highland landscape since its construction in 1815.
The monument was commissioned by a member of Clan Macdonald of Glenaladale to commemorate the raising of the standard by the ‘young pretender‘ prince, and in 1835 the statue of the anonymous Highlander was placed at the top.
The tower has been a respected Highland landmark ever since which is why it is now in the care of The National Trust for Scotland who has maintained it since 1938.
The Trust has since built a car park and pathway to the monument so that it can be accessed by people of all abilities, and a visitor centre has been constructed to educate tourists about the ill-fated Jacobite uprising and the history that led up to this important moment in Scotland’s history.
The centre also includes educational exhibitions and displays about the area as well as a café and gift shop.
- Address: Loch Morlich, near Glenmore village, PH22 1QU
- Website: Forestry Commission Scotland
- Telephone: NA
Located deep in the heart of Scotland’s beautiful Strathspey area is Loch Morlich, a natural freshwater loch that’s considered one of the most attractive in the Highlands.
There’s a lot to like about Loch Morlich.
First off there’s its location at the bottom of the Cairngorm mountain range just a few miles from Aviemore, and second there’s the lovely Glenmore Forest which surrounds it on all sides.
So not only have you got mountain sports and hill walking trails within easy reach but you’ve also got excellent walking and cycling trails nearby.
It’s the view that first hits you when you visit and you’ll have trouble taking it all in as you walk out of the adjoining car park and set foot onto the glorious expanse of golden sand on the beach.
The immense snow-capped peaks of the Cairngorms rise high into the clouds on one side and the deep-green Scottish pines of Glenmore Forest sweep away into the distance in every other direction.
It really is a very pretty place.
Glenmore Forest Park has been designated as a National Nature Reserve and there are numerous wildflowers and birds to watch as you make your way through it.
The visitor centre across the road has plenty of snacks and ice creams and there’s also a picnic area on the site if you want to bring your own packed lunch. The only thing you’re not allowed to do is camp in the recreational areas, which is fair enough I think.
All-in-all you really owe it to yourself to visit this amazing beach resort which has to be one of the best free things to do in Scotland.
Frequently asked questions
How can I save money on Scotland’s trains?
How can I save money on Scottish accommodation?
Hostels offer same-sex and mixed-sex dorm rooms in city centres like Edinburgh and Glasgow for as little as £20 per night. An alternative option is to book a budget hotel room out of season when you’ll find city centre rooms for £50 or less, which is 2 to 3 times cheaper than the same room in peak (summer) season.
What is the cheapest way to travel in Scotland?
Buses are the cheapest way to travel between cities in Scotland and you will often find coach companies like Mega Bus and Citylink with special offers of £1 between Edinburgh and Glasgow. At other times a cheap rate bus ticket between the cities will cost around £5.
How can I save money on Scottish tourist attractions?
Many of the best attractions in Scotland are the historic buildings managed by Historic Environment Scotland. The cheapest way to visit these attractions is to by a HES membership which costs around £4 per month for an adult.
More free things to do in Scotland
- Princes Street Gardens – Edinburgh: Complete Visitor GuidePrinces Street Gardens in Edinburgh is one of the largest public spaces in the city. Originally a body of water called the Nor Loch, the gardens were designed in the 1770s but weren’t created until 1820 when the loch was drained. Today, the gardens are a popular recreational area that features a number of popular landmarks including The Scott Monument, The Ross Fountain and The Ross Bandstand.
- Brodick – Isle of Arran: Complete Visitor GuideBrodick is the main village on the Isle of Arran, located on the west coast of Scotland. Brodick lies halfway along the eastern side of the island where it overlooks Brodick Bay and Goatfell mountain. It is the arrival point for most visitors due to the ferry port but is popular in its own right thanks to its beaches, surrounding forests, castle and quality restaurants.
- Arran Forest Walks: Complete Visitor GuideThe forests of Arran offer some of the best mountain biking routes of any of the west-coast islands and any cycle ride is almost guaranteed to include sightings of Arran’s famed red squirrels. The most popular wooded areas are; Brodick Castle, Dyemill, Glenrickard, King’s Cave, North Sannox and South End.
- The Arran Coastal Way: Complete Visitor GuideThe Arran Coastal Way is a circular cycling and walking route around the perimeter of the Isle of Arran on Scotland’s west coast. This easy-going trail rewards visitors with stunning views at every section of its 65-mile length and there are plenty of opportunities to deviate onto nearby attractions along the way.