The Scottish capital is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, so there’s no wonder millions of tourists flock to visit it every year.
But just like any other city in the UK, Edinburgh can be a pretty expensive place—even to live in. The good news is that many of the city’s museums are free to visit, so you can easily discover the history of the city and all the amazing art it holds, even if you’re on a budget.
So whether you’ve just arrived in Edinburgh and are looking forward to soaking in all the culture, or you’ve just checked out of the hotel and store your luggage for the day, and you want to discover one more museum until you get to your flight, we put together a list of the best free museums in Edinburgh.
Let’s dive right in!
National Museum of Scotland
The National Museum of Scotland is rightfully one of Edinburgh’s most popular attractions (after the castle, of course).
In fact, it has more than 2 million annual visitors! This hidden gem is steeped in Scottish tradition and features exhibits spanning the arts, sciences, technology, and history.
Don’t think you can see everything in one visit; there are many floors and exhibits to check out. Dolly the sheep (the first sheep to be successfully cloned), the millennium clock, the Formula One automobile simulator, the Lewis chessmen, the 4.5 billion-year-old Allende meteorite, and the bone of a Tyrannosaurus rex are just some of our highlights.
Not only is it the first museum in Scotland to give a virtual online tour, but it’s also the first in the United Kingdom to employ the Google Arts & Culture Museum view experience. The good news is that you can always go to the museum online if you can’t physically go there. However, if you can make it on your feet, here are five other historical sites in Scotland that you should visit.
The National Museum of Scotland is located on Chambers Street, and it’s open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The museum is easily accessible from Edinburgh Waverley Station, where you can easily find luggage storage so you can relax while you enjoy all the Scottish wonders.
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is divided into two buildings known as “Modern 1” and “Modern 2.” (formerly known as the Dean Art Gallery before the 2011 rebranding). Both sides of Belford Road, in the western part of the city, are lined with art galleries. The exteriors, including the sculpture gardens and the sculptures by Paolozzi, as well as the outdoor art pieces, are guaranteed to impress.
Step inside to view artwork by artists such as Dali, Miro, Magritte, Tracy Emin, and Damien Hirst, among many more. The reproduction of Paolozzi’s workspace is particularly remarkable.
If you plan on bringing your kids along, they will love the reading nook and the “make and play” room.
In around 15 minutes, you can walk along the Water of Leith Walkway or through the city center to reach the galleries.
The alternative is to take the free Gallery shuttle bus that makes a loop between the three main galleries in the city centre (the Scottish National Gallery, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery). Aside from this, there are dozens of free things to do in Edinburgh if you are on a budget.
It’s the ideal spot in Edinburgh to go to if you’re a fan of avant-garde and experimental artwork. Both structures are set on picturesque grounds, far from the hustle and bustle of the city center.
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is located on Belford Road and it’s open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Scottish National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery, found at the eastern end of Queen Street, has a stunning red sandstone neo-gothic facade. This museum, which initially opened its doors in the late 19th century, is the earliest surviving example of a dedicated portrait gallery.
Enter and take in the ornate decor and the many portraits that date back to the 16th century. You can also find contemporary portraits of celebrities like Sean Connery, Tilda Swinton, Andy Murray, and Allan Cumming. If you’re in the mood for tea and scones, stop by the ground-floor Café Portrait.
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Artis located on Queen Street, and it’s open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Scottish National Gallery
If you’re in the area of Princes Street and the mound, you can’t help but be amazed by this famous structure. The museum is filled with works by world-renowned artists such as Titian, Raphael, and Botticelli, as well as more modern masters such as Monet, Dégas, Gaugin, and Cézanne.
Massive canvases depicting biblical themes and notable historical Royals dominate the ground floor’s great Georgian galleries. The Scottish Café & Restaurant, located in the Galleries and with views of Princes Street Gardens, is not to be missed.
People’s Story Museum
The museum itself is set in a historic structure on the Royal Mile known as the Canongate Tolbooth.
The People’s Story Museum in Edinburgh is the best place to learn about the working class in the city over the last three centuries. The museum is located in the Canongate Tolbooth, a landmark on the Royal Mile. Both the Museum of Edinburgh and this museum share a convenient location on Edinburgh’s historic Royal Mile.
This little museum, as its name suggests, chronicles the lives of ordinary Edinburgh residents from the middle of the 17th century until the end of the 20th. There are many exhibits, objects, mannequins, and personal stories to look at.
The abundance of clothing, household goods, mundane possessions, and oral memories gives the space a homey, intimate vibe. You will love being there if you enjoy hearing true stories about actual people. Similarly, Denmark has tons of museums that are dedicated to early humans just like this.
Room recreations (including houses, offices, a jail, and more) are a must-see, as are the superb crime and punishment part and the illuminating film about real jobs and real people.
The People’s Story Museum is located on the left side of the Royal Mile as you travel from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace. Although the museum’s displays are showing their age, that only adds to the attraction. A visit could last as long as an hour.
Museum of Childhood
Take a walk down memory lane at the Museum of Childhood. This unique museum, housed in a historic building on the Royal Mile, features exhibits dedicated to toys and games from across the ages and across the globe.
Starting in the 18th century, it takes you all the way up to the present day to give you an idea of how toys have changed. You can find toys and knickknacks from as far back as the 18th century to as recent as today among the collections. The museum’s five halls house displays on a wide range of topics, from board games and comics to costumes, dolls, toys, pictures, and models.
Spend some time in the past with these classic toys like corgi cars and Fisher Price phones. Children can enjoy themselves in the museum’s dressing-up area.
Getting the idea to visit? Find out the best places to stay in Edinburgh first.
Museum on the Mound
Interested in seeing what a million pounds actually looks like? Is safe-cracking something you’re interested in exploring? Do you have an interest in the background of the British pound?
Those interested in seeing a museum that is unlike any other should go to the Museum on the Mound, housed in the former Bank of Scotland headquarters. There will be an opportunity to construct a miniature version of a bank and view Scotland’s first banknote.
Popular displays at the museum include artifacts from the Industrial Revolution, Victorian Britain, vintage computers, and early life insurance policies.
A number of odd and fascinating items that were formerly used as an early form of payment are featured, along with fascinating facts about the evolution of trade and commerce.
If you have kids, you should definitely take them to this museum. The tour guides are extremely well-informed and full of fascinating anecdotes. On the contrary, if you’re making kids, then Edinburgh has one of the better romantic Valentine’s train trips.
Museum of Edinburgh
On Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, in a structure dating back to the 16th century, you’ll find the Museum of Edinburgh. Edinburgh’s past is best explored in this very location. Everyone can find something of interest in its detailed accounts of local history and lore.
City plans, historical papers, and a wide variety of handcrafted goods, including ceramics and porcelain, are all stored in the building’s distinctive yellow walls.
Notable items include the original signed copy of the National Covenant of 1638 and the bowl and collar used by Greyfriar’s Bobby, Edinburgh’s most renowned dog (he even has a statue!).
Edinburgh City Art Centre
This eccentric modern art gallery is worth the short walk from Waverley train station. The current and historical artworks of Scotland fill the six stories. Visual artists of all stripes will find something to their liking among the exhibition’s paintings, photographs, handmade objects, and sculptures.
You can browse through the greatest collection of classical fine art in Scotland, as well as pieces by up-and-coming artists. Don’t forget to take the youngsters to the basement, where there’s a fantastic art studio where they may unleash their inner Picasso.
Not just limited to youngsters, Edinburgh is on our 5th place for the best romantic destinations for UK couples or newlyweds.
It may not come as a surprise to learn that Edinburgh has its own writers’ museum, given that the city holds the designation of UNESCO City of Literature and has a very rich literary past. The Writers’ Museum, located in the historic Lady Stair’s House, is discreetly hidden away from the hustle and bustle of the Royal Mile.
Here you can learn about the lives of literary greats, including Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson. There are a lot of intriguing artifacts, such the desk where the famed poet Rabbie Burns wrote and even a plaster cast of his skull.
Also on display are the riding boots of author Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as several other literary artifacts, personal effects, and stunning portraits.
Writer’s Museum is located in a charmingly crooked fake-medieval edifice not far from the Royal Mile and is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Royal Botanical Gardens
Yes, we know that technically speaking this one doesn’t qualify as a museum. However, there is a significant probability that you will enjoy this location if you have a passion for museums.
Despite its origins as a research facility, today it serves largely as a museum dedicated to enlightening visitors about the positive effects that trees, plants, and shrubs have on our planet.
Have you ever wondered how certain types of flowers benefit a variety of different animals? Can you name some of Scotland’s indigenous flora? Also, which ones may be converted into their poison? You can stop wondering now, I guess.
It is the second-oldest botanic garden in the UK and is dedicated to preserving and teaching the public about the country’s rich plant life. If you’re a huge fan of lowers, you should check out the best gardens in London.
Located on 70 acres of land (yet still near the heart of Edinburgh! ), it’s a fantastic choice for families. The garden is a wonderful place for long strolls and leisurely strolls.
The glasshouses have an admission fee, while the rest of the grounds are free to explore.
Hi! I am George and I am the Content Lead for Stasher.com. I love travel, writing, making music and meeting new and interesting people.