Sometimes Edinburgh’s museums, densely packed with rich artefacts and superlative treasures, can get a little intense. They form the spine of the medieval Old Town and to experience the city properly is to enter their semi-mythic worlds of kings, poets, wizards, and dragons.

It is not just the Scottish capital’s curated galleries and world-class institutions that encourage notions of the fantastic, but also the wild setting. Edinburgh itself is a riddle, cradled by volcanic hills and rib-like crags, and to understand this sublime city, you must start by finding out what it does best. The following museums are the perfect introduction.

rand Gallery of the National Museum of Scotland
The National Museum of Scotland has a labyrinth of themed galleries © Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock

National Museum of Scotland: best free museum 

Topping the bill for free things to do in Edinburgh is this colossal pleasure palace, the country’s largest collection of curated trinkets and natural history wonders. Behind the Chambers Street entrance, the light-filled Grand Gallery atrium is a riot of cast iron and plate glass, but also the entry point for a labyrinth of themed galleries that reflect on natural history, anthropology, and the heavyweight contributions Scotland has made to the world of science.

Time traveling highlights include a giant T-Rex skeleton, an Egyptian priest’s coffin, the oldest surviving color TV and Dolly the sheep, the first ever cloned mammal. Other objects of veneration include the Lewis chessmen – distinctive medieval chess pieces – and the macabre Millennium Clock, a hat tip to Dante’s Hell that captivates and terrifies in equal measure thanks to its hourly display of moving skulls and kinetic statues.

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Our Dynamic Earth: best for expanding minds

Scotland’s very own Darwin was Edinburgh-born James Hutton, who first posited the philosophical concept of geological time – proposing that the Earth’s life cycle was one of constant disrepair and renewal. Appropriately, the story of the father of modern geology is the curtain-raiser at this forward-looking museum dedicated to the ever-changing architecture of planet Earth and the thrill is how it makes not only the new stories new, but the old stuff too. 

The target audience is kids of all ages and the Disney-like set-up is typified by a tour of computer-generated immersive rooms, including a Deep Time machine, 4D cinema, volcanic simulation, yellow submarine and animatronic rainforest. Location-wise, the museum improbably fits below the geological theatre of Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags, both places where Hutton first conducted his era-defining experiments in the 18th century. 

The Writers’ Museum: best for bookworms

Before Harry Potter, before Trainspotting and before Miss Jean Brodie, Edinburgh was a rendezvous for wordsmiths and it owes a lot to the written word. The city was the world’s first to be named a Unesco City of Literature, and this museum, tucked-away beneath the witch’s hat spires of the Old Town, is a tribute to three colossi of Scottish Literature: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

The finds on show vary from rare books to portraits to personal effects such as Burns’ writing desk and, whatever you may think of the supposed Jekyll and Hyde womaniser, Scotland owes a lot to the national bard. It’s one of the best free museums in the city and tells its own story, despite the shadow cast by the blatant boosterism of tourist guides and souvenir shops peddling Edinburgh as the one true home of JK Rowling’s wizarding saga.

Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle is home to the National War Museum © Saffron Blaze / Getty Images

Edinburgh Castle: best living museum

Of all the Edinburgh attractions, there is one that rises above the rest, both metaphorically and figuratively. Edinburgh Castle looms long in the imagination, as well as from its roost atop the volcanic plug of Castle Rock and, by nature, is both nostalgic and rousing. Over the empty moat, under the raised portcullis spikes and up the cobbles to the Battery and cannons, it is clear this war-torn fortification was never one to shy away from defending the city. 

That story continues inside the free National War Museum, home to a catalogue of uniforms, insignia, medals and once-bloody weapons. If you ask any Edinburgh local, then the real star of the castle is the Honours of Scotland, the country’s pearl-set crown jewels, which were once lost for more than a century. Ask a child, however, and they’ll try and convince you a dragon is asleep under the ramparts.

The front of the classical looking building of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
You can discover contemporary art of all kinds in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art © Ulmus Media / Shutterstock

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art: best for pop art

Now to the West End, where Picasso, Emin and Warhol collide with local contemporaries in two much-loved neoclassical buildings that couple as Edinburgh’s unmissable modern art gallery. This is ground zero for contemporary art of all topics and tones, and there’s an emphasis on temporary exhibitions, with the grounds ambushed by a permanent display of sculpture, including Charles Jencks’ swirling land circle that has been terraformed into existence on the front lawn. 

In the permanent collection inside, native son of Leith Eduardo Paolozzi’s sculpture studio has been recreated, while the tutored eye will recognise works by Miró, Matisse, Magritte, Dalí and Lichtenstein. If you have the time, walk from here along the Water of Leith to Stockbridge via stopped-in-time historic mill town Dean Village. On the weekend, when the Farmer’s Market is in full swing, it makes for one of city’s loveliest scenic routes.

12th Century chess pieces (the Lewis Chess men) in the Museum of Scotland
The Museum of Edinburgh is full of quirks and oddities for the curious traveler © Jonathan Smith / Lonely Planet

Museum of Edinburgh: best for local quirks

For a cross-section of Edinburgh’s history, the Canongate is where to head for perspective. Located two-thirds down the Royal Mile, the cobblestoned street is loomed over by both the wonky Canongate Tolbooth’s museum of social history (The People’s Story) and mustard-yellow Huntly House, the home of the free Museum of Edinburgh. It’s a place where local eyes mist over when considering the highs and lows, but also where first-timers can cement a love affair with the city and see all sorts of oddities: how about the bowl and collar of Skye terrier Greyfriars Bobby, Scotland’s most famous lap dog?

This part of the Old Town is also more of an out-the-way carousel of restaurants and there are several worth sniffing out. Specifically, Wedgwood The Restaurant, for a chef with a huge smile and plates of seasonal game, and the White Horse Oyster and Seafood Bar, a quiet nook for shuck-fests and little else. 

Surgeons’ Hall Museums: best fright sights

Edinburgh is a city of ghoulish attractions. There is Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, the supposed haunting ground of the Mackenzie Poltergeist, and the Real Mary King’s Close, a subterranean network of once-plagued streets open for late night, dimly-lit tours. Unsurprisingly, the Surgeon’s Hall Museums (made of the Wohl Pathology Museum, History of Surgery Museum and Dental Collection) stick to the same theme, with an immeasurably historic pathology collection of abnormal skulls and skeletons, surgical instruments and spine-shuddering anatomical tools.

Associations with the museums run deep, no more so than the legend of criminal body-snatchers Burke and Hare, who murdered 16 people to sell as body parts to Edinburgh’s anatomy schools back in 1827. Particularly grisly is Burke’s death mask, made after his execution and scarred with marks from the hangman’s noose.

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