Edinburgh is the perfect city for those who love history and breathtaking sights. The city certainly goes hard on both! Many activities in Edinburgh rely on visitors to pay; however, there are still many free things to do in Edinburgh that allow you to appreciate this beautiful city without spending any money. Perfect for the budget traveller, student or those just looking to save a few pennies! So if you’re looking to do Edinburgh on a budget, here are 9 free things to do in Edinburgh that you cannot miss.
This article is written by Faraway Lucy writer, Gwenda Lansdell.
1. Have a wander
If you’ve only got one day in Edinburgh you may have to skip this step and head straight to the must-see attractions. But the key to exploring and enjoying this amazing city is to just wander. It is possible to walk for miles each day and still have lots left to see at the end of it. Having a wander is completely free and it allows you to see how the city transitions from the old town into the new town. Little heads up, the new town is still old, but not as old as the old town. You can sometimes see streets that have been built on top of other streets, so as you are wandering have a look over any bridges you cross.
Edinburgh has many little streets and twists and turns. While I recommend taking them to just see where you end up, if you are travelling alone, you should probably research the streets you are taking. However, I always travel alone in this city and always feel safe. Also, be aware that some streets will change their name without warning. So if you are new to the city it can be a little disorientating! But the locals are lovely and are always willing to help point you in the right direction.
The city is also home to J.K. Rowling who is said to have used the city as inspiration for her writing. There are some tours you can take to see the key areas that inspired her. However, you can see key elements of the Harry Potter world just by wandering – it’s one of the best free things to do in Edinburgh, even for muggles!
2. Arthur’s Seat
One of the best free things to do in Edinburgh is to climb Arthur’s Seat. Arthur’s Seat is one of four hills located in Holyrood Park, which is the backdrop of the Queen’s Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh. It was a volcano, but it’s extinct so it’s perfectly safe to have a picnic! Arthur’s Seat is easy to spot from the plane as you come into Edinburgh, assuming you’ve flown that is, and it also drifts in and out of view as you explore the city. For the best views in summer, it is possible to stay in the university halls next to this beauty.
There are many walking paths that you can take to explore the hills. Even the less confident walkers can enjoy a wander as not all the paths lead to the peaks. The hills look daunting from the base but once you get started it is difficult to stop. For safety, check the weather before you attempt the hills as rainy or misty days will ruin the views and it can feel unnerving on windy days.
The views of the city are simply stunning, making Arthur’s Seat the perfect way to escape the busy city and enjoy some peace and quiet. Particularly for first-time visitors, the city can feel overwhelming, so a walk to even the lower level on the hills can provide an opportunity to admire the beauty of the formation of the city. Those wanting a challenge could see how many landmarks they can spot and name!
For the best experience, early morning visits boast a beautiful atmosphere. Many locals use the hills to exercise but it is always quiet. On New Year’s Eve, this is the ideal location to watch the fireworks of Hogmanay from – it will be busy at this time but still completely amazing.
3. Edinburgh Castle
Sitting on a volcanic rock overlooking the city, Edinburgh Castle is an iconic landmark that you cannot miss. It’s also the venue for the annual Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. The event requires payment; however, after some shows, the fireworks can be seen across the city.
Although the castle charges for entry, visitors can walk around the castle Esplanade, the area outside the castle, for free. The Esplanade boasts views of the city to one side and views of Arthur’s Seat on the other. I would not advise visiting the Esplanade between June and August as the rigging for the Tattoo will be in place and although this will not prevent you from reaching the Esplanade, it may impact your views. Once an hour the guards protecting the castle change and as there are two on the Esplanade this can be viewed for free. And at one o’clock each day, other than Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas Day, the gun inside the castle fires, which is amazing to experience from the Esplanade.
To further appreciate the magnificent castle, you could approach it by walking the paths that surround the base of the volcanic rock. This can offer opportunities for amazing pictures of the castle from the base. Top tip: be sure to look out for Historic Scotland‘s open day that happens each year that provides visitors with free entry to the entire castle.
4. Calton Hill
Calton Hill is another key hill in Edinburgh and the final location to explore for a complete view of the city. The views of the city from here are amazing. Although it may seem that this article is simply focused on finding free ways to view the city you will understand once you are up there. The city is beyond beautiful. Calton Hill allows you to view the key landmarks across the city with a little more weather protection than the exposed hills behind Holyrood Palace.
It’s also home to some significant monuments and landmarks, such as the Nelson Monument and the City Observatory. One of the most striking is the National Monument, inspired by the Pantheon in Athens. The hill is a perfect viewing point for the Edinburgh Christmas Market, the fireworks from Hogmanay at New Year, and the fireworks from the Edinburgh Tattoo. This might be one of the lesser-visited areas of Edinburgh as the entrance is a little hidden. Although, does that not make it more magical?
5. The Grassmarket
The Grassmarket is located at the base of the castle’s volcanic rock and was the area of the city originally used to sell animals. However, it is now a quiet area with small pubs, unique shops and some places to stay. Within the Grassmarket area, there is a small and easily hidden set of steps that lead up an area called the Vennel. It is an amazing viewpoint for some iconic photos of the castle and it also leads to a section of the Flodden Wall.
Flodden Wall was built in 1560 to protect the Scottish from the English. Now it blends with the more modern Scottish construction, but historians and history lovers can still visit, photograph and touch a significant piece of history. Even our inner geeks can have a holiday!
From the Grassmarket, you can walk up to Greyfriars Kirk, which is the graveyard from the famous stories of Greyfriars Bobby, a story which melts hearts. The graveyard is free to visit but you might like to research some of the spooky stories. From this point, you can walk further to the statue of Greyfriars Bobby who stands beautifully outside a pub named after him! If you have not read the story give it some research as it is a key part of Edinburgh’s history. Greyfriars Bobby is a celebrity in the city with many people travelling to see the statue and the graveyard.
6. Princes Street Gardens
Princes Street Gardens is located in the centre of Edinburgh, sitting at the base of the castle’s rock but to the opposite side of the castle to the Grassmarket. They are impossible to miss and are so beautiful. In spring, summer and autumn, they are the perfect spot for lunch or to relax, while keen trainspotters can admire the trains pulling into Waverley Station.
In August, Edinburgh hosts the Fringe Festival. And in Princes Street Gardens, you can view and join in with some of the performances. The gardens also hold smaller events throughout the year. So before you visit have a look at what might be happening while you are there. If there are no events, then enjoy the scenery!
In the winter, the gardens turn into a massive Christmas Market with rides, stalls and food. Although this will cost some money, entry to the market is free! Plus, a wander around the market, particularly in the evening or night-time, is the perfect way to get into the Christmas spirit. It’s definitely one of the best free things to do in Edinburgh! If you are looking for some more iconic photos, try walking around the perimeter of the grounds.
Next to the gardens is a graveyard that is said to have been used by the famous grave robbers Burke and Hare. The graveyard is also home to the small church where famous crime writer Agatha Christie married her husband.
7. Scottish National Gallery
Free to enter, The Scottish National Gallery is found on Princes Street and can be seen from Princes Street Gardens. It’s home to iconic artists and famous pieces of art. Although the art is more traditional, they are still works of wonder, especially if, like me, you struggle with stickmen! On top of the gallery, you will see a statue of Queen Victoria. She gifted this to the city when she visited, and they placed it on the gallery.
8. National Museum of Scotland
A short walk from the Greyfriars Bobby statue, the National Museum of Scotland is also free to enter and has a variety of displays to entertain everyone, making it one of the best free things to do in Edinburgh. The displays are spread across many floors, so the experience is not overwhelming. Outside the museum, you will see two statues. These provide an opportunity for historians and history lovers to delve into more history. Edinburgh loves its statues so you could also have a go at seeing how many you can spot and how much you can learn about the city through its statues.
9. Street names
Edinburgh, like many cities, named its streets after their function. As the city has grown and the world has progressed, the trades have changed. However, for those looking to learn about the development of the city, a free way to grasp an insight into the past is to take a look at the street names. This may seem like a boring idea, but the street names are high up on buildings and can be tricky to spot.
In the Grassmarket, you can spot streets such as Candle Makers Row and Kings Stables. Try and spot as many as you can and as you are wandering have a think about where you think the name came from and what kind of trades and functions were carried out on the street. Also, have a look at the names of the businesses as many are named after key figures in Edinburgh’s history. This is a lovely gentle activity to carry out on your own. If you are with someone else, see how many you can each spot and at the end of the day research your answers to see if you were right. It’s a great way to learn so much about this beautiful city.
So what do you think of these free things to do in Edinburgh? Which do you want to do most, and is there anything I’ve missed off? Please let me know in the comments below!
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