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The best free things to do in Edinburgh
Edinburgh is the compact and hilly capital city of Scotland that offers a wide and varied range of activities that the whole family can enjoy.
As well as an expansive parkland formed from an extinct volcano the city boasts Scotland’s premier tourist attraction in the impressive Edinburgh Castle, and there are lots of museums and art galleries located across the city.
Edinburgh also plays host to the world-famous annual multi-arts Fringe Festival and the Royal Military Tatoo which draws thousands of visitors each year. In addition, there are loads of fantastic pubs and restaurants, and the shopping experience is one of the best in Scotland.
The National Museum of Scotland
- Address: Chambers St, Edinburgh, EH1 1JF
- Website: The National Museum of Scotland
- Telephone: 0300 123 6789
Everyone wants to save a few quid on family days out, especially when some of the major attractions will set you back over £50 in entrance costs for a family of four, and thankfully for cost-conscious tourists in Edinburgh there are several world-class attractions that are completely free to enter.
One of my favourites – and one of Scotland’s most-visited museums – is the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street, just a few minutes walk from the city centre.
This enormous museum easily rivals any other worldwide and not only can you get lost in the wonders of history in the ultra-modern new building but you can marvel at the fully-restored architecture of the Victorian Grand Gallery too.
One of the things I love about the National Museum of Scotland is that it isn’t just a load of stuffy old information booths and boring skeletons like you might find in some other museums, but instead you’ll find a collection of really interesting exhibits that take you through the wonders of nature, art, design, fashion, and 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 anything else you can possibly imagine.
This attraction is big – really big – and there are enough activities and things to do that you can spend most of the day trying to see everything, but the great thing about the museum is that you’ll never get bored.
They’ve 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, and trying to get the fastest lap in an F1 racing car simulator, or even trying to beat a cheetah in an animal cycle race.
There are loads more activities like that dotted throughout the museum and I can say hand on heart they’re all great fun.
If you have some extra time on your hands the museum frequently has 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 cafe’s on site if you feel the need to take a break, and the gift shop sells lots of quality gifts.
I can totally see why the annual visitor numbers for this attraction are even higher than those for Edinburgh castle, so if you’re intent on visiting the nation’s capital you really should include the National Museum of Scotland in your itinerary.
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, with only the Oxford Botanic Garden beating it for age.
However, the garden in Edinburgh boasts the most diverse collections of plants of anywhere in the country, and across its 70 acres of land 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 for peace and quiet, and you’ll always find Edinburgh locals wandering through the grounds enjoying the serenity of the varied plant life.
For tourists, the facilities available easily match those found at any other Edinburgh attraction, with cafe’s, a restaurant, snack stations, a gift shop, and an information centre catering to the needs of visitors of all ages.
The gardens themselves are divided into regions of the world which all flow seamlessly into one another, so walking from alpine rockeries into a Chinese hillside garden seems completely natural.
But 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 explore to make the experience ultra-real.
Although the gardens are free to enter it’s well worth paying the reasonable entrance fee to get into the premier attraction of the RBGE which is the incredible jungle that lives inside the enormous glasshouses.
These glasshouses contain some of the oldest plants in the entire collection, as well as some of the largest, which makes for a fascinating walk as you appreciate the 3,000 exotic species that have been collected from all over the world.
Other highlights include a woodland garden, a tree collection, 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.
It’s difficult to rate Edinburgh’s Botanic Garden highly enough and in my opinion it easily sits near the top of this list of the best free things to do in Scotland.
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 distinctive 15th-century crown steeple is one of the most-viewed features of any building in Edinburgh and it easily takes a place alongside Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace as one of the most historically significant buildings in the city.
The church has been a focal point for religious activity 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 in 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 church 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 inside of the cathedral as much as they like.
There’s a lot of history in this tourist attraction and it’s unlikely you’ll learn too much about it during a short visit so I’d suggest buying one of the cathedral guidebooks in the shop before you begin your tour.
How else will you know interesting things to look out for, like the four 12th-century central pillars that are believed to be the oldest parts of the cathedral after a fire gutted the majority of the original building in the 14th-century? There are a lot of little details like that in St. Giles and its history is well worth reading about.
Another interesting fact is that although St. Giles Cathedral has been officially designated an A listed building and is of the greatest historical importance to Scotland, it’s not in the truest sense of the word an actual cathedral.
As the Church of Scotland doesn’t officially have either bishops or cathedrals, St. Giles is often referred to in its much older title as the ‘High Kirk’, which means a place where a congregation of the Church of Scotland worships.
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 certainly impressive 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 first-class home cooking, cakes, and coffee, so you can relax in peace and quiet after a busy day of sightseeing in the city centre.
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