“A city so beautiful it breaks the heart again and again.”
I’d wager British poet Alexander McCall Smith never wrote a truer sentence than that in his entire career. Scotland’s wonderfully rugged landscape and cheeky sense of humor are captured perfectly by its capital city, Edinburgh. I lived there for a year, so I can say with absolute certainty that you would be doing yourself a disservice by going to the UK and not visiting England’s northern neighbor. Whether you want a taste of rolling hills, history, or literary delights, you will find plenty of things to do in Edinburgh – for free.
The Best Free Activities in Edinburgh
1. Arthur’s Seat
You can’t read any guidebook or blog post about Edinburgh and not hear about Arthur’s Seat. The vantage point and the top of the hill provides amazing views of the city on one side and the sea on the other. If you don’t feel like trekking all the way to the top, Arthur’s Seat is smack dab in the middle of a large park that contains dozens of different paths snaking around and up the hills. You can see ponds, ruins, and plenty of cute doggos running around chasing birds.
Two out of the three times I climbed Arthur’s Seat were at sunset, which is beautiful, but you do have to contend with climbing down the hill in the dark. I never felt uncomfortable walking around the park at night, though. Edinburgh is a very safe city, so just stay aware of your surroundings, and you should be fine. Each time I went I took a different path to the top, so there is plenty of ground to warrant multiple visits.
On the walk to Holyrood Park you will pass many other sites including the Royal Mile, Holyrood Palace, and the Scottish Parliament Building.
2. Dean Village
About 20 minutes walk from the center of Edinburgh is a residential area called Dean Village. A village in a city? Edinburgh really does have everything. This area is Instagram gold. A small river runs between stone buildings and painted houses with timber framing. Poking around these cobbled streets is like entering a new world. I often took a bus that went past this part of town when I was in school, and every time it was like we briefly were transported into rural Scotland. Even if it is a little grey and rainy out, it just adds to the atmosphere.
3. Calton Hill
Similar to Arthur’s Seat, Calton Hill provides some beautiful views of the city and surrounding area. Even better, you only have to climb up a flight of stairs to get there. There are several buildings at the top of the hill including the unfinished National Monument. Construction began in 1826 to solidify Edinburgh’s reputation as the ~new Athens~. However, the project ran out of money before the structure was complete. The incomplete structure is now lovingly referred to as “Edinburgh’s Folly”.
This is a slightly more practical place to watch the sun set compared to Arthur’s Seat as the 15 minute walk back to the city involves very little risk of tumbling down a large hill in the dark. Follow Prince’s Street down past the main train station, and Calton Hill will be on your left.
4. Book Shopping
If you have visited this blog before, you’ll know I believe there is no better way to spend a rainy day than wandering around a few secondhand bookshops and grabbing a cup of tea. Scotland is known for its grey weather, but (thankfully) it also delivers on the book front as well. If you find yourself in the Scottish capital on a rainy day, head down to one of the dozens of secondhand bookstores and spend some time perusing the shelves. My favorite is Armchair Bookstore. They have everything from fancy leather-bound antiques to pulp fiction. The cramped, crooked shelves are like something out of a dream.
5. Explore the National Museums
Lucky for you, many of the museums in Edinburgh are free to enter. This includes the National Museum of Scotland, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Scottish National Gallery. The NMS is a great place to learn about the history of Scotland and see some famous artifacts. Highlights include the chess set that inspired Wizard’s Chess in Harry Potter. Head to the rooftop if you can for some awesome views of the city.
The Scottish National Gallery has the work of everyone from French Impressionists to mid-nineteenth century photographers. There are also galleries dedicated to Scottish artists specifically. Just off of Prince’s Street, this large Neoclassical building is hard to miss.
The art of the National Portrait Gallery gives a more personal spin to art history, exploring the different people who have contributed to the country’s past. This includes paintings and pictures, historic and modern. My favorite thing in the world is looking at old photos, so the Portrait Gallery has a special place in my heart.
Certain limited-run exhibits will have an entry fee, so check in advance if there is something particular you want to see. Most of the museums run on donations, so if you are feeling generous, you can leave a little something on your way out.
6. Princes Street Gardens
If you are looking for a good spot to escape the hectic energy of the Royal Mile or Prince’s Street, you need look no farther than the Princes Street Gardens. Hugging the base of the dormant volcano on which Edinburgh Castle stands, the gardens provide a surprisingly quiet and calm atmosphere. You may even stumble across an event or two during the year.
At the entrance by Scott’s Monument you will see the famous floral clock. It is exactly what it sounds like, a giant clock comprised of thousands of plants. Originally commissioned in 1903 to celebrate the coronation of Edward VII, the clock has been planted every year since then. It usually blooms from the summer months into fall.
In the winter, this area is all converted into a ‘Winter Wonderland’ for the Edinburgh Christmas Market. The market contains dozens of stalls selling food and tchotchkes, plus there are rides as well.
7. Greyfriar’s Bobby & Kirkyard
Greyfriar’s Bobby is one of the most well-loved legends of Edinburgh. This tiny terrier helped his owner, a night watchman, patrol the streets of Edinburgh at night to keep the city safe during the late 19th century. When his owner died, Bobby spent the next 14 years of his life sitting at his grave in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. When the dog himself died, he could not be buried on hallowed ground because he was an animal, so he was laid to rest just outside the gate, never far from his friend. People to this day lay sticks at a memorial for him.
There is a statue to Bobby just outside the kirkyard. Tourists have picked up the habit of rubbing his nose for luck, but this actually damages the statue. If you pass by, feel free to snap a picture, but try to refrain from rubbing the dog’s nose. If you go into the graveyard itself, make sure to pay attention to the names of the graves. Legend has it that J.K. Rowling got many of her character’s names from this very spot. It’s a scavenger hunt for the most devoted Harry Potter fans.
8. More Parks!
Located right next to the main University of Edinburgh campus, the Meadows separates the center of the city from the more residential Bruntsfield and Morningside areas. Whenever the sun peeks out, even if just for a moment, the grassy lawn will be filled with families, students, and probably at least one person trying to set up a small barbecue. If you haven’t gotten your fill of Edinburgh’s outdoors, spend some time lounging here. Or, even better, grab a picnic lunch from the grocery store and spend a while soaking up those rare Scottish rays.
9. St. Giles’ Cathedral
Located on the Royal Mile, St. Giles’ Cathedral is a wonderful spot to duck into when you have a free moment. You can never really go wrong by visiting a cathedral. It can get a little crowded around peak times, so plan accordingly. Entry to the building is free; however, if you want to take photos in the cathedral, there is a £2 photo permit fee. It never hurts to put the camera away for a little while and just enjoy with your eyes.
Mostly Free Honorable Mentions
10. Pub Quiz
A British institution, pub quiz should be at the top of your to do list when visiting the UK. You can’t go wrong with a night spent eating chips and answering obscure trivia questions. The quiz itself is free to join, but you’ll probably want to grab a drink or some pub grub to keep you occupied. Heads up – there is often a bar tab to be won for first place.
My favorite quiz was every Thursday night at the Black Bull Pub in Grassmarket, but pretty much every pub has one. Lord knows there is no shortage of those in the UK. Grassmarket itself is also an awesome area to scope out. Decked out in fairy lights, this area is always teeming with life at night. Plenty of restaurants and pubs surround the central square. It is one of my favorite spots in the city.
11. Walking tours
If you want to get the lay of the land, there are plenty of walking tours to check out. On my first visit to Edinburgh, I stayed at the Edinburgh Backpackers Hostel off the Royal Mile. They told me about a free walking tour that began right at the corner of Cockburn St and the Royal Mile. Our guide was friendly and funny and gave us a ton of information, and the tour didn’t feel too long even though it took three hours.
I’m not sure if that specific tour is still in place (that was five years ago), but ask at your accommodation about any tours they may know of. And always ask your guide their favorite place to eat or grab a drink. The tours are technically free, but the guides make money based on tips. If you are happy with your experience, try to give as much as you can to your guide.
As always, I hope you have fun checking off all of the items on this list! If I left out any of your favorite free things to do in Edinburgh, let me know below.