Edinburgh’s rich history is palpable as you walk its cobbled streets, duck down narrow wynds or stroll round its spacious Georgian crescents. This city is not shy about telling its own fascinating story – and its museums are just the places to hear it.
Edinburgh’s Royal Mile is where many of the best museums are clustered, housed inside fanciful old buildings that you may well be itching to enter. The best overview, though, comes at the magnificent National Museum of Scotland on nearby Chamber Street, which takes visitors from medieval treasures to futuristic developments in cloning. Edinburgh was at the forefront of scientific and philosophical discovery during the Scottish Enlightenment, with exhibits at the Surgeon’s Hall exploring its role in world medicine. Beyond this, there are more unique museums worth stumbling upon, revealing different new sides to Scotland’s capital.
National Museum of Scotland
This is the big cheese of Edinburgh museums, housed in two utterly different but connected buildings: one Victorian, inspired by Renaissance Venice, and a bold 1990s creation with a tall sandstone tower. The museum does a wonderful job of illuminating the nation’s story, but the 8,000+ exhibits also encompass global history and the natural world. You can’t miss the zany ten-metre Millennium Clock in the main hall, and you should make a beeline for the famous 12th-century Lewis chess pieces, stuffed cloned sheep Dolly and the fabulous creations of the fashion gallery.
Look out for the museum’s yellow-harled facade on the Royal Mile – it tells the Scottish capital’s story, allowing visitors to roam through a gorgeous 16th-century building. The 1638 National Covenant is on display, as are plans for the building of the New Town and the collar and bowl of famous faithful Syke terrier Greyfriars Bobby, who faithfully guarded his master’s grave for 14 years.
Sister to the Museum of Edinburgh and also set on the Royal Mile – this time in the 1591 Tolbooth building – this oral history museum delves into the lives of working people in the city, from the 18th century to the late 20th century. You’ll see recreations of a bookbinder’s workshop, a wartime kitchen complete with vintage packaging and a grisly jail cell.
Utterly unmissable and delightfully bizarre, this underground attraction is only viewable on a highly entertaining tour, which you should book in advance at holiday times. It is a 17th-century alleyway (or close) which was buried when the Royal Exchange was built above. The old abandoned street disappeared for many years, leading to all sorts of lurid tales of hauntings. Tours ham up the ghostly element, but the close is genuinely eerie with a Pompeii-like frozen-in-time feel.
While not a museum in the strictest sense, this is the city’s first purpose-built attraction, located on the Royal Mile up towards the castle. The Victorian marvel is now playfully hailed as the world’s first example of CCTV, using pinhole trickery and a mirror to project an image of real-life Edinburgh on the outside into a darkened room. It’s a fascinating, old-world voyeur experience.
Before one-time unemployed single mum JK Rowling ever put pen to paper in the city, Edinburgh was famous for three literary giants who are celebrated in this museum. First up is fast-living erstwhile farm boy Robert Burns, who became a Romantic poet, socialist and national icon. Then there’s Walter Scott, whose historical novels helped shape the country’s ideas of itself, and Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote tales of adventure which still make essential Scottish holiday reading (start with Kidnapped). There’s a wealth of objects on display, from Burns’s writing desk and Scott’s toy rocking horse, to a ring given to Stevenson by a Samoan chief.
One for visitors with strong stomachs, the collections of the Surgeons’ Hall were started way back in 1699 and include all sorts of tortuous looking surgical and dental implements – the most perused exhibits are those relating to infamous Edinburgh grave robbers Burke and Hare. But it’s not all sensationalism – the museum also explores the city’s crucial role in the evolution of surgery and medicine.
A Royal Mile gem, this collection of toys and games was the first museum of childhood in the world. From the 1740 Queen Anne doll (the oldest in history), to a huge Victorian doll’s house with electric lighting and running water, to a 1970s’ Raleigh Chopper bike, there’s plenty for kids to get involved with.
Much of the interest here lies in entering this fantastical Royal Mile building that, with its tall chimneys, sundial and projecting timbre galleries, looks like something out of fairy tale. Inside, wonderful interior panelling, ancient polished wood furniture and displays tell the tale of reformation Scotland. It’s not certain that fire-brand preacher John Knox lived here, but the tradition is that he preached from a small window on the first floor.