Edinburgh is a fabulous destination, but its popularity means the prices in the city are higher than the rest of Scotland. However, a visit here doesn’t have to cost the earth as there are plenty of free things to do in Edinburgh to enjoy!
Free Things to do in Edinburgh City Centre
Exploring the UNESCO listed Edinburgh city centre is most enjoyable on foot. All of the sites mentioned below are in easy walking distance of the centre.
Edinburgh Old and New Towns were together inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1996. The Old Town includes the medieval Royal Mile, and the neo-classical 18th century “New Town”, to the north includes Princes Street.
Walk the Royal Mile
The Royal Mile is the most famous street in Edinburgh, connecting Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse. This mile-long stretch of cobbled street is the heart of Edinburgh, and you are bound to walk along at least some of it while you are in Edinburgh.
The Royal Mile and surrounding streets are filled with history, so feel free to wander and explore.
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: How to Spend 2 Days in Edinburgh
St Giles’ Cathedral
St Giles’ was founded in 1124, and in the 16th century became the focal point of the Scottish Reformation. The church is regarded as the Mother Church of World Presbyterianism and is a beautiful medieval Gothic building. It is on the Royal Mile, so don’t miss a look inside!
There is a £2 fee to take pictures inside, but entry is free. At 10.30 am and 2.30pm you can join a free tour of the cathedral, which lasts about half an hour. The tour guide shares stories from throughout the church’s history and shows you into the Thistle Chapel.
Over the weekend there are also rooftop tours available for a small fee, check the website for details of times.
The Heart of Midlothian Mosaic
Keep an eye open for hidden gems like the Heart of Midlothian Mosaic, on the Royal Mile pavement to St Gile’s Cathedral. The heart marks the site of the Old Tolbooth Prison and it is easily missed.
Local legend states that you aren’t supposed to walk on it, instead spit inside the heart for good luck! The origin of the spitting is apparently from when locals used to spit on prisoners on their way to the gallows to show their disgust.
Grassmarket is a square where executions used to take place, but now you’ll find market stalls and a much more friendly vibe! At night, the pubs and bars lining the square are popular drinking spots, so this is a lively place at any time. Walk up the nearby Vennel for lovely views of the Castle.
Visit Victoria Street
This colourful curved street is said to be inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books, so fans will love coming here. The street is filled with colourful shops, many of them Harry Potter themed like Aha Ha Ha Jokes & Novelties (similar to Weasley’s Wizards Wheezes perhaps?) and Museum Context.
Museum Context has two whole floors dedicated to Harry Potter merchandise, as well as a ‘Chamber of Secrets’ on the top floor where you can pose for photos in a Hogwarts uniform with an owl!
Even if you’re not a fan of “The Boy Who Lived”, the colourful cobbled street is worth strolling through. On certain Sundays the centre of Edinburgh is car-free so that is the best time to see the street without cars!
This lovely churchyard is more like a park for the locals, so don’t be surprised if you see people enjoying a picnic here!
It was home to Greyfriars Bobby, a cute little dog who refused to leave his master’s grave for 16 years, and there is a life-size statue of him outside. Inside is his gravestone, where visitors often leave sticks for him to play with and there is a statue of him outside the Greyfriars Bobby pub.
J K Rowling also spent time here while she was writing, and there are some familiar names on the gravestones in the churchyard, such as Thomas Riddell, William McGonagall and Elizabeth Moodie.
Walk up Calton Hill
Calton Hill is closer to the city centre and is a much easier walk than Arthur’s Seat, yet the views are just as spectacular. From one side you can see down to the coastal town of Leith, and on the other you get views over the rooves of the city.
You’ll also find an observatory and what looks like a Greek temple, which is actually the National Monument of Scotland, an unfinished memorial to Scottish soldiers who died in the Napoleonic Wars. You could take a picnic up here if you want to spend some time in the fresh air.
Beneath the castle, these now beautiful gardens were once the stinking moat which gave Edinburgh the nickname “Auld Reekie”. Thankfully, the moat was drained and completely transformed into beautiful gardens which are another green area in the city.
You can get some great photos of the castle here too, and don’t miss the colourful Ross Fountain
At the end of the gardens you will find The Parish Church of St Cuthbert, which also has some great views of the castle from the churchyard.
The Scott Monument
This striking construction is the world’s largest monument dedicated to a writer, Scottish author Sir Walter Scott. You can pay a fee to climb the (very narrow) steps to the top for great views of Princes Gardens and the Castle, or just admire it from ground level.
Visit the Scottish Parliament
The Scottish Parliament is open to all visitors from Monday to Saturday and is free to visit.
If the Parliament is in session you can visit the debating Chamber and see parliament in action (usually Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays) or take a free guided tour of the building (Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays).
Tours last approximately one hour and include aspects of the parliament’s architecture and design, how parliament works and some of the art collection. Alternatively, there are regular 10 Minute Talks in the Main Hall which is a useful introduction to the Parliament.
During recess dates, tours are usually available Monday – Saturday, but check on the website before visiting.
Explore Edinburgh New Town
Don’t let the name fool you; Edinburgh New Town isn’t as new as you might think. it was built in stages between 1767 and around 1850 and retains much of its original neo- classical and Georgian period architecture.
Highlights include the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and Charlotte Square, where you can find the Official Residence of The First Minister of Scotland at Bute House. The New Town is also the place to go for shopping, in particular on Princes Street and surrounding roads.
We walked through the New Town on my Edinburgh Food Tour, stopping off at The Scottish Malt Whisky Society and Le Di’Vin, both of which were very tasty!
READ MORE: Eat Walk Edinburgh Food Tour Review
A Free Walking Tour
If you prefer the company of a guide instead of exploring yourself, there are several companies who offer free walking tours in Edinburgh. Remember, it is customary to tip your guide at the end of the tour, so it isn’t exactly free but usually all the information, history and tips they give you make the expense worthwhile!
Take a Harry Potter Tour
Although some of the more popular Harry Potter sites in Edinburgh are mentioned above, real Potterheads may want to take a free Harry Potter walking tour to get the inside scoop.
Even if you aren’t a huge lover of the books or films, the tours visit various stops in the city centre and give an insight into the possible inspirations that J K used, including Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, Victoria Street and George Heriot’s School which has many similarities to Hogwarts.
READ MORE: Hunting for Harry Potter in Edinburgh
Visit the Free Museums in Edinburgh
There are lots of free museums in Edinburgh which you can visit to learn more about Scotland, Edinburgh, incredible art and life in general. Here’s a list so you can choose your favourites:
The Museum of Edinburgh
The Museum of Edinburgh is housed in Huntly House, one of the iconic and historic buildings on the Royal Mile. This free museum shares the fascinating history of the city throughout the ages
Key pieces include the National covenant of 1638 which led to civil war, and the bowl of Skye Terrier Greyfriars Bobby. Outlander fans may also like to know that Huntly House featured in series 3 of the popular Scottish show! Visit their website.
The National Museum of Scotland
The National Museum of Scotland is a large free museum filled with exhibits of Scottish antiquities, culture and history, as well as galleries on natural history, world cultures and Dolly the Sheep, the first cloned mammal in the world.
The building itself is also beautiful from the inside, so be sure to at least pop in and take a look, but to see the exhibits you’ll need to allow at least a couple of hours to explore. Visit their website.
The Museum of Childhood
Exploring the history of childhood, this Royal Mile museum isn’t just for kids! It houses a remarkable collection of cover 2000 children’s toys and playthings including a doll dating from 1740. Visit their website.
Scottish National Portrait Gallery
This stunning gallery holds a fascinating collection of portraits including historical figures from Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie to Gordon Brown and Alan Cumming.
Entry is free but there may be a charge for special exhibitions. Visit their website.
Scottish National Gallery
The Scottish National Gallery comprises both the National Gallery Building and the Royal Scottish Academy Building, both designed by William Henry Playfair.
The Gallery has an excellent collection of artworks, including masterpieces by Botticelli, Rembrandt, Constable, Turner, Monet and Van Gogh, as well as works by important Scottish artists including Ramsay, Raeburn, Wilkie and McTaggart. Visit their website.
Museum on the Mound
The Museum on the Mound is free, despite being all about money! Housed in the Bank of Scotland head office, the museum contains exhibits exploring the history of Scottish banks and economics including the chance to see Scotland’s oldest banknote and have a go at cracking open a safe? Visit their website
The Writer’s Museum and Makars Court
Dedicated to the lives and work of Scottish literary figures, the Writer’s Museum celebrates the work of great Scottish authors such as Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.
The museum also has a wonderful collection of rare books, manuscripts and personal possessions – including Burn’s writing desk and the printing press which produced Sir Walter Scott’s first novel. Visit their website.
The People’s Story Museum
The People’s Story Museum offers a unique insight into the lives of Edinburgh’s working-class residents from the 18th century to the late 20th century. It tells the story of the regular people of Edinburgh and covers significant historical events such as social and political reforms and women’s rights movements, along with scenes and struggles of daily life. Visit their website.
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
Around 15 minutes’ walk from the city centre, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art hosts marvellous modern artworks in two galleries, set in an expansive sculpture park. Major pieces include works by artists such as Eduardo Paolozzi, Salvador Dali and Nathan Coley. Visit their website.
Free Things to do in Edinburgh Outside the City Centre
Water of Leith Walkway
This lovely walkway follows the Water of Leith River, which is more like a stream in some places. You can follow the waterway for miles or join it and leave it at various points along the way and it is suitable for bikes as well as walking.
You could start early in the morning from the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, continue through Dean Village, along to the Royal Botanic Gardens and all the way to Leith.
A short walk from the end of Princes Street, Dean Village feels a world away from the city. Originally built for mill workers, Dean Village is a lovely place to explore, with quaint and 19th Century beautiful buildings and a lovely stream.
Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
A mile outside the city centre you’ll find the beautiful Royal Botanic Gardens. Set in over 70 acres, the Botanic Garden has wonderful views of the city and are free to visit and explore, although there is a charge to go inside the glasshouses.
Visit Leith Waterfront
This buzzing port has seen a revival in the last decades, since it’s infamous Trainspotting days, and you can now find Michelin starred restaurants and a cool vibe here.
On Saturdays, The Pitt Market is open with live music, street food and local beers to enjoy. Kids and dogs get free entry, and adults pay just £2.
The Royal Yacht Britannia is the former royal yacht of the Queen and is moored at Leith. For a fee, you can board the yacht to see what it was like to sail on the yacht like royalty or just imagine from the outside!
Holyrood Park & Arthur’s Seat
Holyrood Park spans 650 acres, and it is right on the edge of Edinburgh city centre. Arthur’s Seat is the highlight, offering panoramic views of the city and the surrounding area. One a clear day you can see for hundreds of miles around.
I decided not to walk up here, as I was exhausted after a busy week. However, I do regret it! If you’re feeling energetic, it’ll take an hour or two to walk up to the viewpoint, which is, I’m told more than worth the effort!
Gorgie City Farm
Probably one for the families, or if you are usually used to being in the city, Gorgie city farm brings a slice of countryside to the heart of the city. It is free to enter but donations are greatly received.
It is a working farm, with all the usual farmyard animals and some more unusual inhabitants like tortoises, guinea pigs and land snails. There is also an education garden, a herb and sensory garden and a café too.
How to Get to Edinburgh
The Train to Edinburgh
I took the train up to Edinburgh from Birmingham, stopping off for a couple of nights in Alnwick on the way. Edinburgh is well connected to London by train, although if you’re booking last minute the prices can be eye-watering! Book well in advance and you can find some great deals.
Getting to Edinburgh by Bus
If you are on a tight budget, check Megabus for options for getting to Edinburgh by bus from other major cities in the UK. A bus from London to Edinburgh costs around £35 but it will take all day (or night). Flixbus doesn’t operate in Scotland at the time of writing.
Flights to Edinburgh
Edinburgh International Airport is around 30 minutes’ drive outside the city centre. Check Skyscanner to find the best flight deals for your airport. I flew out of Edinburgh, taking the bus to the airport, which was easy and convenient.
If you are staying right in the centre, you may be better off taking the tram to/from the airport – check where your accommodation is to see which suits you best.
Where to Stay in Edinburgh
Hostels in Edinburgh
Unfortunately, Edinburgh is quite expensive, compared to other destinations in Scotland. However, if you are backpacking Edinburgh on a budget there are plenty of hostels in Edinburgh to choose from.
I stayed at High Street Hostel which is just off the Royal Mile, and a short walk (up steps!) from the train station. I was only there briefly but there were comfy beds, friendly staff, and a reasonable breakfast. It gets great reviews on Hostelworld so I’m happy to recommend it. You can check all the hostels in Edinburgh on Hostelworld here.
Hotels in Edinburgh
There are lots of hotels to choose from in Edinburgh, but as you might expect, the better the location you choose, the higher the price!
Luckily, Edinburgh is quite a compact city, so if you don’t mind walking you can find hotels in Edinburgh which balances price and location with great quality. Edinburgh Central Rooms, for example, gets good reviews for a decent price, and the location isn’t bad either. Or you can look through all the hotels in Edinburgh here.
Airbnb in Edinburgh
As I spent 3 nights in Edinburgh I wanted to book an Airbnb so I could enjoy a private room and cook a couple of meals at ‘home’ to save a bit of cash. I stayed at this Airbnb which was a room in a beautiful flat, hosted by Al, a friendly welcoming chap.
He even brought me a jar of biscuits so I was very happy with that! The bedroom was lovely, and I slept really well here. It was about 15-20 minutes’ walk into the centre of town, and it was just around the corner from Pickerings Gin Distillery which I also planned to visit.
If you prefer to book a full home on Airbnb instead of a private room there are lots of choices too, like this beautiful apartment in a historic building. You can check all the options for Airbnb in Edinburgh here.
If you have never used Airbnb before, use this link to sign up & get up to $52 credit to use on your first trip! Read more about the Airbnb first time discount code and my full Airbnb guide or click the button for your Airbnb coupon.
Have you been to Edinburgh? Would you recommend any other free things to do in Edinburgh that I’ve missed? I’d love to hear your thoughts, please leave a comment below.
If you’re looking for travel insurance for your trip to Scotland, get a quote now from World Nomads.
You may also like these Edinburgh posts:
Or click here to read all of my United Kingdom blog posts.
Like this post? Pin it to read later:
Just to let you know, this post may contain paid or affiliate links, which help to maintain Tales of a Backpacker and give me the chance to keep travelling, and to keep creating awesome content for you!
Tales of a Backpacker is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. I only recommend goods and services I believe are useful and reliable.Last updated: February 2, 2021