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- Rebecca Cairns
Edinburgh is a vibrant city all year round but like any cultural hub, it can be pricey to see all of the attractions in one visit. Fortunately, it also boasts a fantastic collection of free activities so leave the car at home and enjoy; everything is easily reachable using the fantastic Lothian bus service. We check out the top ten free things to do in the Scottish capital.
Calton Hill is often overshadowed by Arthur’s seat, but it boasts far more items of interest at its top. Aside from the spectacular views of the city, there is a war monument from the 19th century in the style of the Parthenon; Nelson’s monument and the free ‘Collective’ art exhibition; along with the Royal Observatory and other Victorian statues and buildings. The many pathways mean you can get to it easily from Princes Street, Regent Street and Leith Walk. Take a camera, because you’ll want to remember the views.
The National Museum of Scotland
This is one of Edinburgh’s best free attractions. Set in the beautiful old town, the museum now has an impressive extension housing an interesting Scottish exhibition, as well as a beautiful entrance atrium. The museum is substantial, so set aside a whole day to explore the seven levels, including a roof terrace with spectacular views across the city. Stop in the museum café and restaurant for lunch or, if feeling adventurous, scout out one of the charming cafés just minutes away in the buzzing student area.
Greyfriars Bobby was a Skye terrier belonging to John ‘Auld Jock’ Gray in the 19th Century. When John died, Greyfriars Bobby guarded his grave for fourteen years. Today, there is a statue on the corner of Candlemaker Row and it is rumoured to be good luck to rub Bobby’s nose. Just across the road is Greyfriars Kirk Yard – it’s definitely worth a look in, with graves and tombs dating back to the 1600s. Take a stick with you to leave at Bobby’s grave and have a look around the church, which has more information about Edinburgh’s favourite dog.
The Royal Mile
The Royal Mile is one of Edinburgh’s most famous streets, running through the old town from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace. Get a picture in front of the castle and then enjoy the stroll down to the new parliament building. St Giles Cathedral is worth a look, as well as the Edinburgh Story museum. During the August Fringe festival, the street is buzzing with free street performers, and all year round, there are stalls selling Celtic jewellery and exotic trinkets. If you’re looking for gifts or are desperate for tartan-patterned, saltire-branded merchandise, the Royal Mile offers an huge array of high-quality establishments.
The Scottish Parliament
The new Scottish Parliament building was opened in 2004 and the abstract design has been both praised and criticised. Take a look inside at the art exhibitions or the gift shop, get a drink in the café, or join up to have a guided tour of the building. Don’t forget to look at the walls on the side of the Cannongate – the enlightened quotes inscribed into the wall are the etchings of many writers, politicians and philosophers, making for interesting reading. Drink it all in and make your own mind up about the architecture.
Arthur’s Seat, like Castle Rock, is part of a dormant volcano system. It looms over the city making a picturesque backdrop to most photographs, but, as ever, it is even better from above. Paths make walking to the top for the sensational panoramic views of the city easy, meaning it is ideal for a morning walk or a picnic stop.
The National Galleries of Scotland
The National Galleries are spread over four buildings across the city. The National is situated in the heart of Princes Street in neoclassical buildings and is home to an impressive collection of 14th-18th century European art works, including the likes of Rembrandt and Rubens. The Portrait Gallery is a short walk away on Queen Street and the Modern is slightly out of the centre, but definitely worth a look for their eclectic collection. Split into two buildings, the impressive collection is complemented by the fascinating outdoor sculpture.
Joining Edinburgh’s East and West ends, Princes Street forms the back-bone of the new town, and is the city’s favourite shopping street. It is the home to many high street shops, as well as famous department stores such as Jenners. Weather permitting, make sure you visit Princes Street Gardens, where you can watch the world go by or take a stroll up to the iconic Walter Scott Monument. If you are lucky enough to visit in December, the gardens are transformed into the world-famous European Christmas Market – wait until after dark to fully appreciate how pretty the lights are.
The Royal Botanic Gardens
The Royal Botanic Gardens are a great place to get down with nature and from walks lined with trees to tunnels through bushes, from quaint mosaic-covered shrines to towering Victorian glass houses, the gardens are a beautiful back drop, summer or winter. The themed areas are great and the visitors centre is a welcome relief from the elements when it begins to get colder outside. There is a fee to get into the glass-houses but it is definitely not a necessity when visiting these beautiful gardens.
Cramond Island was both a Roman settlement and a WWII look out post. During low tides, the island becomes part of the mainland and a short walk over the connecting causeway will get you onto the island for a few hours to look around at the abandoned buildings and vibrant wildlife, or for an overnight camping stay. Even if you don’t fancy walking out to the island, the beach itself is beautiful and offers views up and down the Forth estuary. Additionally, Cramond village offers quiet relief from the buzz of the city centre.