Budget Edinburgh: the best things to do for free in Scotland's capital

August 2018: People relaxing near Ross Fountain in Princes street gardens, with Edinburgh Castle above.
People relaxing near Ross Fountain in Princes street gardens, with Edinburgh Castle above © lou armor / Shutterstock

Cards on the table: Edinburgh isn’t a cheap place to eat, drink, or live. Second only to London as the most expensive city in the UK, and officially the most expensive place in the country to grab a pint, the Scottish capital is an easy place to bleed contactless payments if you’re not careful.

However, with a little scheming, Edinburgh opens up to even the most budget-restricted travelers, with a wealth of art galleries, outdoor spaces, community endeavours and charming nooks and crannies ready to be discovered for precisely zero pounds.

Here’s the best things to do in Edinburgh for free.

Grand Gallery of the National Museum of Scotland.
All the national museums and art galleries in Edinburgh are free © Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock

National Galleries of Scotland

All national museums and art galleries in the UK are free, which makes them a perfect place both to immerse yourself for an entire day or to pop into for an artsy break in between other activities. The Scottish National Gallery is located on the foot of The Mound, the steep hill that separates the medieval Old Town from the neoclassical New Town, and houses an impressive collection of art, including Claude Monet’s Haystacks, Van Gogh’s Olive Trees and John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw.

Its modern counterpart, meanwhile, boasts great art and even better grounds, from sculpted alien parkland by Charles Jencks to a permanent installation by Turner-Prize winning artist Martin Creed that sees “EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT” written in neon across the gallery’s neoclassical façade.

Arthur’s Seat

One of the most iconic features of Edinburgh’s cityscape is the towering mass of extinct volcano, Arthur’s Seat, and the sharp Salisbury Crags that surround it. Sitting at the heart of the city in Holyrood Park, walking to the top takes around 30 to 60 minutes, depending on how hardy your lungs are feeling.

There are also gorgeous, more accessible paths including one at the foot of the hill that passes by the swan-filled St Margaret’s Loch and looks out onto the eerie ruins of St Anthony’s Chapel, and another that goes through the quaint village of Duddingston at the back of Arthur’s Seat.

Monuments on Calton Hill in Edinburgh
Climbing Edinburgh's hills like Calton Hill, Arthur's Seat and Blackford Hill won't cost you a cent © Leonid Andronov / Shutterstock

Calton and Blackford Hill

Arthur’s Seat is everyone’s bucket list climb, but don’t forget that Edinburgh is famously a city of seven hills, many of which are well worth your time. Calton Hill just on the east end of Prince Street takes but a few minutes to scale and has an eclectic collection of historic monuments – including the infamously half-finished National Monument and the Greek temple-esque City Observatory – and experimental art space Collective Gallery at the top. 

Meanwhile, Blackford Hill in Morningside in the southwest of the city is surrounded by the Hermitage of Braid nature reserve and affords picturesque views – including of Arthur’s Seat itself.

Independent art galleries 

If the city’s national museums feel overwhelming, head to one of the many small, privately owned art galleries for a glimpse of a far more cutting-edge arts scene. Ingleby Gallery in the heart of the New Town stages solo exhibitions of up-and-coming, established, and historically forgotten artists such as Antiguan painter Frank Walter, while Arusha Gallery’s rotating group and solo exhibitions change almost every month and focus on art with a striking, dreamy aesthetic.

woman looking at display george st edinburgh.jpg
Window shopping at Christmas time is high on spectacle, and free if you have self-control © Carlos G. Lopez/ Shutterstock

Bookshop crawl around Edinburgh

Edinburgh was famously declared the world’s first City of Literature by Unesco and its wealth of independent bookshops regularly host free events during the summer festival season. 

Browsing is, of course, free (depending on your self-control): start in the Southside with radical queer bookshop Lighthouse Books before heading down the hill to second-hand treasure trove Armchair Books and the gorgeously curated Golden Hare Books and women’s writing-only bookshop Rare Bird Books in Stockbridge.

Festivals

The cornucopia of festivals that take over Edinburgh are usually ticketed, but there are lots of free gems buried in their programmes: Edinburgh Festival Fringe has numerous free comedy and theatre performances (notably at The Counting House on West Nicholson Street and The Free Sisters on Cowgate), Edinburgh International Film Festival puts on open air screenings of classic films in St Andrews Square, and exciting newcomers Fringe of Colour offer free performing arts tickets for people of color. 

Out of the Blue Drill Hall

Edinburgh may be a large capital city but community spirit still thrives and nowhere more so than in its art scene, which is dedicated to fostering local talent. Out of the Blue Drill Hall is one such community-minded endeavour: half open-access riso print studio, half arts center, the space hosts free exhibitions, zine fairs, and creative classes open to all. There’s also a cosy cafe right in the middle of the warehouse-studio space, making it a perfect stop off while exploring the nearby Leith neighborhood.

St Stephen's Centre from Circus Lane, Edinburgh
Beyond the Royal Mile, Edinburgh has many quiet courtyards to explore  © John Lawson, Belhaven / Getty Images

Royal Mile

Running between the looming mass of Edinburgh Castle at one end and the stately Palace of Holyroodhouse on the other, this long cobbled street is almost exactly one Scots mile (roughly 200 yards longer than an English mile) in length and one of Edinburgh’s most quintessential streets. 

It’s heavily touristed, especially during the August festivals when it turns into a single, almost unnavigable crowd, but it’s charming to wander down in quieter months. Avoid the tartan tat shops and opt to poke your head down the dozens of little closes that branch off the main street and lead to courtyards, including the quaintly manicured Dunbars Close Garden.

Innocent Railway Tunnel & Colinton Dell

For something less traditional, head to either the Colinton Dell or Innocent Railway Tunnel. These two disused railway tunnels have had their abandoned industrial vibes transformed by a rotating display of street art and murals, from intricate portraits to Gaelic graffiti that form a living, ever-changing gallery. 

The former is about an hour’s walk from the center while the latter starts in a housing estate next to Arthur’s Seat and is best seen on bike – not only does the sharp incline offer an exhilarating ride, but it leads to cycle paths that wind round the back of Holyrood Park and to the seaside neighborhood of Portobello.

A woman sits by a pool at the Scottish Parliament while her dogs plays in the water
If the free guided tours aren't on, the Scottish Parliament exterior is equally informative © Claudio Divizia / Shutterstock

Scottish Parliament Building

A post-modern feat of architecture, the Scottish Parliament Building is currently closed for free guided tours due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but don’t worry, the exterior is the best bit anyway. A palimpsest of Scottish history and culture, the edifice features the Canongate Wall with 24 quotes from local writers inscribed into blocks of Aberdeen granite, and a staircase-like cascade of asymmetrical windows influenced by Henry Raeburn’s painting The Skating Minister (on display in the Scottish National Gallery) across the facade. 

Its irregular corners, prodigious use of natural wood and stone, and almost affable accessibility (you can picnic by the ponds right next to the front door) set it far apart from its highly embellished, traditional counterpart in London’s Westminster.

Grassmarket Community Picture House

There are numerous indie cinemas in Edinburgh, but Grassmarket Picture House is the only free one, putting on a programme of old and recent releases mere minutes from the Royal Mile. For more budget-friendly film events, check out local festivals such as Take One Action and Africa in Motion. Many offer a sliding scale, pay-what-you-can model if money is tight.

Gorgie City Farm

An adorable alternative to an Edinburgh Zoo ticket, which can set you back a small fortune, Gorgie City Farm is but a 15-minute walk from the west end of Princes Street. Thanks to the local community who have rallied around to save it, this city favorite has survived the specter of closure many times. It’s a lovely way to reconnect with nature – pigs, goats, guinea pigs, you name it – right in Edinburgh’s urban center.

May Queen and Green Man at the Beltane Fire Festival
As well as the summer festival season, Edinburgh celebrates Beltane Fire Festival © Getty Images

Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Edinburgh is a very green city, with sprawling parks punctuating even the most populous parts of the center, from the flat expanse of The Meadows to the carefully cultivated flower beds of Princes Street Gardens. The most impressive public park, however, is the city’s Botanic Garden, found in the village-like neighborhood of Stockbridge. 

The greenhouses are ticketed but the grounds are free: head to the towering 25ft (7.6m) hedges – especially striking when dressed in autumn foliage – that trace the edges of the floral herbaceous border. Don’t miss one of the world’s largest collections of rhododendrons either. They bloom in luscious clusters of pink, red and white in spring.

Fruitmarket

Fresh from a multi-million pound renovation, Fruitmarket’s exhibition space is looking extra shiny, but the cherry on its sundae is the new industrial gallery located in the former home of beloved Edinburgh club Electric Circus. As well as culturally pioneering exhibitions, the gallery functions as an arts hub for nurturing creativity. The website has details of workshops, poetry nights and art fairs.

Waterfront buildings in Leith during late afternoon.
There are many districts of Edinburgh to explore by foot, walke the Water of Leith © Richie Chan / Shutterstock

Walk through the city

When in doubt, wander around – join a free walking tour or just explore yourself. Edinburgh is split into numerous distinct and tightly contained neighborhoods (some only a few streets wide). Check out the artsy, multicultural stretch of Leith Walk or the fairy-tale charm of Dean Village, and walk the Water of Leith river between them. In the other direction, the Water of Leith joins up with the Union Canal, a long stretch of water that starts in central Edinburgh and snakes through countryside and suburbia and along aqueducts all the way to Falkirk.

This article was first published 23 August 2012. 

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