31 Free Things to Do in Edinburgh By A Local

Free things to do in Edinburgh The Vennel

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Looking for free things to do in Edinburgh? This guide details the best free attractions so you can get the best out of Scotland’s capital without breaking the bank. Whether you are a backpacker on a budget or a local looking for something cheap to do, let’s explore affordable options without skimping on fun.

You might also like our budget hotels guide and how much a visit to Edinburgh costs.

Ross Fountain Princes Street Garden Summer Castle Edinburgh

Fun But Free Things to do in Edinburgh

1. Edinburgh Old Town

Wander the historic Royal Mile, spit in the Heart of Midlothian and rub Hume’s toe without spending a penny in the city’s Old Town.

Listen out for the One O’clock Gun at Edinburgh Castle.

It fires six days per week, historically to allow ships to set their clocks, today it just makes shoppers poop their pants. 

Heart of Midlothian Edinburgh Royal Mile

Check out the views of the New Town from Advocate Close and if you can scrape together a tenner for a drink, try a cocktail at The Devil’s Advocate.

If you’re lucky you might just get a free show from the Silent Adventures Disco Tour on the Royal Mile!

You’ll hear them before you see them.

There are a couple of museums in Edinburgh’s Old Town, some of which are free to enter. Read more about them in our guide to the top museums here.

Read next | Virtual tours in Edinburgh you can do at home

Touch Humes Toev Edinburgh Royal Mile Edinburgh

2. Edinburgh Museums Free Options

While most of Edinburgh’s museums are free to enter you can show your appreciation at then gift shop or museum cafe.

3. The Writer’s Museum

The Writer’s Museum (Lawnmarket, Lady Stair’s Close) shares the story of Scotland’s literary greats Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Book fans may also like are guide on books based in Edinburgh.

The building isn’t just steeped in literary history, according to some records, this is where the first known African servant in Edinburgh, a man called Oronoce, was kept by Lady Stair.

While Edinburgh’s literary past is celebrated, its black heritage and relationship with the transatlantic slave trade is lesser-known.

While you wander around the New Town, consider that many of the buildings were built using money made from the merchants who become wealthy from owning plantations and enslaved people.

Writers Museum Edinburgh

4. Museum on the Mound

Have you ever seen a million pounds IRL?

Well, you can, for free, at the Museum on the Mound.

Museum on the Mound in Edinburgh

5. The Children’s Museum

The Children’s Museum (Royal Mile) is another free museum in Edinburgh which hosts interactive games and an interesting dolls room… 

Visiting as a family? Here’s our guide to child-friendly activities in the city.

Childhood Museum in Edinburgh

6. National Museum of Scotland 

If you are looking for planes, sharks and technology, head to the National Museum of Scotland (Chamber Street). 

Free to enter but worth booking a table at the museum restaurant, Tower Restaurant, for the views of the Castle.Alternatively, pop up to the roof terrace which is free. 

National Museum Scotland Edinburgh

7. Grassmarket 

Predominantly known for its pub crawl options, there are a couple of free attractions in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket.  

Sniff the food stalls at the Saturday farmer’s market, take a photo of the colourful Victoria Street with its cobbled stones and enjoy the short hike up The Vennel stairs for views of Castle Rock and Edinburgh Castle.

This is a great place to return in the evening – check out our guide for things to do in Edinburgh at night

→ Pro tip | Come back with a budget & drink at Cold Town House. 


8. Greyfriars Bobby

Greyfriars Bobby is not just any old best man’s friend.

The cute Skye Terrier is known for guarding the grave of his owner, John Gray, for over a decade after his death.

This story has been reenacted in film. Rub Bobby’s nose at Candlemaker Row. 

Bobby is our brand mascot!

Greyfriars Bobby Statue Edinburgh

9. Greyfriars Kirkyard

One of the free Harry Potter things to do in Edinburgh includes a visit to Greyfriars Kirk to view the headstones where JK Rowling took inspiration for her characters.

The Potters, Thomas Riddell, McGonagall, and Moodie can all be found on the gravestones.

Keep close to your pals, poltergeists operate in this graveyard! 

Find out more in our spooky tours guide or reserve a spot on this Greyfriars Graveyard tour.

Greyfriars Kirk Edinburgh

→ Bringing your car? Where to Park in Edinburgh

10. The Elephant House

Check out the crowds outside of The Elephant House. Why so popular?

This is one of the cafes where JK Rowling penned her books! 

You’ll have to wait in line if you want to dine here but do check out the loos.

Potterheads! Don’t miss our Harry Potter locations guide.

The Elephant House Edinburgh Harry Potter

11. Scotsman Steps

Named after the Scotsman newspaper and placed at the bottom of the Scotsman Hotel, these winding stairs take you from North Bridge to the entrance of Waverley Station on Market Street.

Erected in 1899, the 104 steps have had a colourful past.

This busy stairwell used to be home to art exhibitions in the 50s and 60s, later they became known as the ‘p*shy steps’.

Now thanks to the Fruitmarket Gallery, they have been scrubbed and have now made it on our list of free stuff to do in Edinburgh!

Each step is made from a different kind of marble.

A unique, lesser-known attraction in the city which many people walk straight past.

The Scotsman Steps Edinburgh

12. Free Art Galleries in Edinburgh

Unless there is an exhibition on, Edinburgh’s art galleries are free to enter.

13. National Gallery of Modern Art

Spread over two venues, Modern 1 and Modern 2 are well worth a short detour from the city centre.

The welcoming and reassuring sign outside of the gallery is one of the coolest things in Edinburgh. It proclaims ‘everything is going to be alright’.

Another honestly dictates, ‘there will be no miracles here’. 

Edinburgh Modern Art Museum.

14. Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Queens Street

When you first enter, you will marvel at the panoramic print and floor to ceiling design of the Portrait Museum.

Climb the stairs that peel off into different exhibitions.

Nip into the library to see some unusual skulls. 

ational Portrait Gallery Museum Annie Lennox Edinburgh

15. Royal Scottish Academy on Princes Street

Variety of changing contemporary art exhibitions located on Edinburgh’s main shopping drag, Princes Street

→ Everything Edinburgh tip | Enjoy a scone with views of Princes Street Gardens at the cafe.

Royal Scottish Academy Edinburgh Museum Man With Backpack_

16. Scottish National Gallery on The Mound

See the Skating Minister which influenced the design of the Scottish Parliament at the National Gallery.

The Skating Minister painting Edinburgh National Gallery Museum

17. Scottish Parliament 

Free to enter, the Scottish Parliament is a ‘marmite’ design which some locals love and others hate.

What’s your take?

Architecture represents keels of the fishing boat, the windows are shaped so to encourage transparency, and the Debating Chamber itself takes the form of a horseshoe to encourage discussion, not conflict.

The public can apply to watch debates and First Minister’s Questions which takes place on Thursdays. 

→ Details | There is strict airport-style metal detectors at the doors

Scottish Parliament Arthurs Seat Edinburgh

18. Calton Hill 

One of the most popular free things to do in Edinburgh is to walk up Calton Hill for epic views of the city and beyond.

At the top of the hill is the National Monument or The National Disgrace.

This is a 12 pillar stone monument which is supposed to represent a Parthenon from Athens but it was never completed. Today it makes a good climbing frame for kids.

The iconic hill is also home to Nelson Monument, which you can pay to go up and Dugald Stewart Monument which is the memorial seen in many Edinburgh landscape photos with the Castle in the background.

Calton Hill is a busy tourist attraction but it is a great spot for sunsets and photography. 

Read next | Our guide to the best Edinburgh restaurants

Calton Hill Edinburgh Dugald Stewart Monument

19. Arthur’s Seat

A more challenging climb is the one hour walk up Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood Park.

The extinct volcano, which peaks at 250 metres, offers 360 views as far as the Forth Bridges. Avoid crowds by hiking at sunrise. 

Local tip | Come down past Pollock Hall then gorge on the biggest plate of nachos at The Auld Hoose. 

Arthurs Seat Edinburgh Walk Park

20. Princes Street Gardens

The city’s lungs are two massive public parks which are actually a drained loch.

There are benches dotted throughout the park for locals to enjoy their lunch.

Legally, you can drink in the gardens which is not the case for other cities in Scotland!

The Castle is perched above the gardens, photographers can get lovely framed blossom images from Princes Street level.

Scott Monument and its 287 steps can also be found in the gardens.

During winter, this is where the Edinburgh Christmas Market is located. 

Scotts Monument with piper_

21. Botanical Gardens 

Walkable distance from Edinburgh’s City Centre, the Botanical Gardens has a beautiful Victorian palm house but that’s not all. 

There are ten glasshouses all representing different climatic zones.

During winter, the Botanical Gardens put on an epic light show. 

The glasshouses have an entry fee.

If you are looking for free options, Inverleith Park is just over the road.

Read more | Edinburgh’s nicest gardens

Royal Botanic Glasshouse with blue sky

22. Dean Village

This is frequently cited as one of the prettiest places in Edinburgh.

Dean Village was once home to mills.

You can still see carved stones with symbols associated with mill life.

You’ve probably seen oversaturated photos of this area, yes, the yellow historic building.

You wouldn’t believe this is a five minutes walk from the hustle of the city!

Dean Village Edinburgh Historic Houses_

23. Circus Lane 

This is where you’ll find all the lifestyle bloggers and Instagram fans. 

Circus Lane is the cutest of curved mews in Edinburgh with green plants crawling up the tiny Georgian houses.  

This cobbled street is a popular photography spot because flowers bloom over the well-preserved buildings and St Stephen’s Church is a solid landmark in the backdrop. 

In winter, some businesses decorate the outside of their premises so well worth a visit all year round.  

You may also like | The most Instagrammable spots in Edinburgh

24. Stockbridge

Stockbridge is where I spent many Saturdays as a teenager, cleaning my uncle’s flat (apartment!)

This has always been a sought after area in Edinburgh which was confirmed when Waitrose moved in.

The main attraction in Stockbridge is the main street which is crammed, and I mean stuffed, with small shops, eateries and bars.

Bring a bit of money for fresh food and snacks from Stockbridge Market which is held weekly at its permanent outdoor spot, near where I used to do a boot camp class.

Think of me doing burpees as you tuck into your burger. 

 One of the best things about Stockbridge is the second-hand shops.

Stockbridge Market Sign Entrace Stockbridge Edinburgh

Since the residents are middle class, the quality of threads turfed aside are top. There a couple of notable photo spots around Stockbridge.

Potted Garden on Circus Place and Dean Park Mews are worth a mention.

You can connect to the Waters of Leith walk from Stockbridge, look out for the Antony Gormley 6 Times Statues standing hauntingly in the water.

25. Water of Leith

Nothing beats a Sunday stroll along the Water of Leith walkway.

The path is split into sections and each is signposted:

  • Balerno to Slateford part around 5 miles (2 hours)
  • Slateford to Leith is longer, 7.5 miles (3 hours)
  • Roseburn to Stockbridge is 2 miles (45 mins)
  • Stockbridge to Leith around 3.5 miles (1 hour 20 mins)

Timings depend on how fast you walk. Leith Shore is well worth some of your time too.

I would recommend staying here if you have more than a few days or it is your second visit to Edinburgh. 

You may also like | What to do at night in Edinburgh

Leith Shore Edinburgh

26. Portobello Beach

Take the left turning at the bottom of Leith Walk to make your way to Edinburgh’s most popular beach, Portobello. Easily cycled to from the city centre, this wide sandy beach is packed with families and groups of friends on rare sunny days.

The promenade is 2 miles long so any easy walk and stroller-friendly. There are a handful of bars and cafes around for snacks and drinks.

Enjoy a walk or a cycle, chill in the sun and give Fife a wave. 

Portobello Beach cafe seats

27. Cramond Beach

Cramond Beach is the lesser-known beach in Edinburgh but that doesn’t mean it is quiet on weekends.

Turn right at the bottom of Leith Walk, past Newhaven and Granton until you reach the beach car park.

There’s more than just the beach! Turn the corner to the Cramond Boat Club moorings at the mouth of the River Almond.

Head past the fish ladder. The wooded path ends at the busy A90 where you can catch a bus back to the city centre.

This was one of my favourite weekend walking routes when I lived in Leith.

Cramond Beach Dog Cramond Island Edinburgh

28. Cramond Island

You can even walk to Cramond Island from the beach but the tide pattern must be observed.

For low tide times text Cramond to 81400.

There is a free car park at Cramond Beach but spaces are limited.

→ Read Next | Beautiful Beaches in Edinburgh

Cramond Island Walkway Cramond Beach Edinburgh

29. Silverknowes Beach

Just before you reach Cramond you will see Silverknowes Beach.

A popular spot for a coffee at the Boardwalk Beach Club.

Silverknowes Beach Walk Edinburgh

30. Free Walking Tours and Events

Although coined ‘free walking tours Edinburgh’ free tours are never free.

It is expected that you pay a donation at the end of the tour to show gratitude to your guide.

So if you’re looking for an affordable walking tour you can certainly find many themes from New Town tours to Harry Potter.

We’ve done the Harry Potter tour over Zoom video call and it is a must for muggles!

If you are visiting in August you are in for a treat as there is a whole schedule of free Festival Fringe events!

Edinburgh Festival Fringe Performers Royal Mile

31. Test Your Knowledge at a Pub Quiz

Check out our guide for some of the best pub quizzes in Edinburgh. Some have no entry fee – and maybe you could get your mates to buy all the drinks!

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