Free Things to Do and See in Edinburgh

Circus Lane in Edinburgh attracts shutterbugs from around the world
Circus Lane in Edinburgh attracts shutterbugs from around the world | © Greg Urquhart / Alamy Stock Photo
Tamarin Fountain

The Scottish capital has an abundance of open green spaces, lofty viewpoints, markets, beautiful bodies of water, community art, historic buildings and museums. It’s possible to spend days touring the burgh without spending more than the odd bus fare. Here is Culture Trip’s guide to Edinburgh’s thriftiest activities and attractions.

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Pass through Colinton Tunnel

An alternative gem hidden from the tourist crowd, this abandoned railway tunnel in the quiet and leafy suburb of Colinton boasts Scotland’s largest mural. The line was built in the 1800s but was decommissioned in the 1960s. It’s recently taken on a new lease of life following a community project, becoming an exciting and eclectic piece of street art, in an unlikely location.

Treasure hunt in Morningside’s charity shops

Edinburgers love all things vintage and ethical, and charity shopping is a popular pastime for city dwellers. Jump on a number 11 or 16 bus to Morningside’s main street and have a relaxing wander as you browse the weird and wonderful clothing, furniture, books, records and knick-knacks in this affluent part of town. You’re likely to spot more than a few designer labels at bargain prices, too.

Picnic on Blackford Hill

There’s no shortage of hills and viewpoints in Edinburgh’s craggy landscape, but this one is a delightful alternative to some of the city’s more arduous climbs. Blackford Hill is tucked between Morningside and the Braid Hills – a charming spot for a picnic. The peak is most easily accessible via Observatory Road, with the option to drive almost to the top.

Work out at Braidburn Valley Park

If you’re missing your gym sessions, you can work out in Edinburgh for free and take in some of the fresh Scottish air at the same time. There are several outdoor gyms, but this one at the top of a valley on the edge of Morningside has the best views. It’s a well-kept secret, too, so you won’t be queuing to use the cross-trainer.

Meet the animals at Love Gorgie Farm

Threatened with permanent closure during the Covid-19 pandemic, this inner-city farm was rescued and rebranded as Love Gorgie Farm, reflecting its cherished status in the city. Meet the pigs, cows, sheep, goats and alpacas at this treasure of a social charity. The farm is open seven days a week, doubles as a food bank and provides apprenticeship opportunities via its skills academy.

Watch the narrowboats at the Union Canal

The urban stretch of the Union Canal has seen dramatic gentrification over the past couple of decades. Seek out a peaceful seat on the jetty beside Harrison Park. Alternatively, eat lunch on a bench at the vibrant basin in Fountainbridge, home to floating hotels and offices, houseboats and a hipster narrowboat cafe.

Pose at Ross Fountain

Restored in 2017-18 at a controversial cost of nearly £2m, the Ross Fountain is a prominent and grand construction dating back to 1872. It was designed in the Beaux-Arts style and is Princes Street Gardens’ flamboyant water feature. With Edinburgh Castle in the background, it provides an Instagram-perfect backdrop for your photos. Look out for other monuments in the gardens, including Wojtek the Soldier Bear.

Pay homage at St Giles’ Cathedral

Founded in 1124, this place of worship played a pivotal role in the Scottish Reformation. As the Mother Church of World Presbyterianism, it receives visitors and pilgrims from across the world. Not only is entry gratis, but you can also join a fascinating guided tour or pop into one of the sanctuary’s peaceful lunchtime services for free.

Browse the Scottish National Gallery

There are plenty of indoor options for cost-conscious visitors, too – and given that the Edinburgh weather conditions can turn on a pinhead, you’ll likely need to seek shelter at some point. A trip to the Scottish National Gallery is a feast for the eyes, with zero entry fee. The neoclassical building housing great works of art is on the Mound, sandwiched between the Old and New Towns.

Meander along the Water of Leith

When walking the embankments of the pretty Water of Leith, don’t be alarmed if you spot what appears to be some semi-submerged gentlemen along the way. These are Turner Prize-winning artist Antony Gormley’s 6 Times, a statue installation project commissioned by the National Galleries of Scotland. You can tell the height of the river that day by how deep the statues appear to be standing.

Take a selfie on Circus Lane

Circus Lane is one of the most photographed streets in the city. This enchanting cobbled lane with its flower boxes and chocolate-box houses is the ideal spot for a stunning selfie. And as it’s a useful through-route to and from other New Town attractions, you needn’t go out of your way to see it.

Taste local treats at Stockbridge Market

Round the corner from Circus Lane is the bustling weekend market in Stockbridge. Here, artisan traders sell their wares to the area’s well-heeled residents and offer an abundance of samples to prospective buyers. Try everything from raw chocolate and honey mead to vegan kuku (a Persian dish similar to a frittata).

Check out the produce at the farmers’ market

The region has some of the finest farm foods in the land, and many are on sale at this Farma-accredited weekly market. You’ll find the stalls at the foot of the castle from 9am to 2pm on Saturdays, recognisable by their navy-and-white striped awnings. Take in the sights, smells and vibrant atmosphere, as well as picking up some recipe inspiration.

Visit the hothouse at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Head due north from Stockbridge Market to enter the John Hope Gateway at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. With an antique hothouse, rockery and Chinese garden, as well as extensive mature woodland, it makes for a soothing escape from the crowds.

Feed the swans at Holyrood Park

The east end of Holyrood Park is home to a huge bevy of swans and other wildfowl, including tufted ducks, pochards, teals, goldeneyes and goosanders. Fluffy cygnets abound in springtime as the pond is fertile ground for nesting birds. You can park right at the water’s edge for easy access. Take some sweetcorn, oats or seeds if you want to feed the birds.

Sunbathe on Portobello Beach

Catch a bus to Edinburgh’s own Riviera, Portobello. The golden sands are invitingly comfortable for lounging, although there are no loungers for hire, nor showers. So, do bring a towel and a big bottle of water if you plan on taking a refreshing dip in the sea. Free, well-maintained public toilets are a short walk from the prom, on Bath Street.

Step back in time at Dean Village

If you continue along the Water of Leith, you’ll reach one of the most Instagrammable parts of town. This quaint village within a city is a slice of a bygone era. Once home to mills in the 19th century, its pretty cottage-like houses, streamside stone tenements and an imposing bridge make it a must-see spot.

Join the Potter Trail Walking Tour

Whether you’re a fan of wizard literature or not, this tour is superb fun. The Potter Trail is led by engaging robe-clad comedians and performers. It was founded in 2012 and consistently receives rave reviews. You don’t need a ticket, although the guides welcome donations or tips.

Window-shop at the Arches

The Arches is the hot new shopping and drinking area in Edinburgh, but its architecture is every bit as interesting as its boutiques. The run-down railway arches beneath the Old Town have been revived and repurposed to house chic shops, bars and businesses.

Play interactive games at the National Museum of Scotland

The National Museum of Scotland is a perfect rainy-day activity for all ages, and it’s not a case of “look but don’t touch” with this enormous and carefully curated collection. Get hands-on in the science and technology galleries, by trying a genetic experiment, running in a giant hamster wheel and sending a light-up morse-code message.

See tightrope walkers on the Meadows

With a hive of activity, especially when the sun’s out, this public green space is in the city centre. It’s loved by a young, student crowd, as well as practising circus performers (tightropes are tied between trees while others juggle on the open grassy space) and musicians busking. Stop by the beautiful eco-garden at the northeast end of the park. It was created and is maintained by locals – you’re invited to help water the edible plants when passing.

Try your hand at ping-pong in Roseburn Park

Outdoor ping-pong is just beginning to take off in the city. Head to Roseburn Park, in the shadows of Murrayfield Stadium, and look for the table, almost hidden from view beside the large hut. You’ll need to bring bats and balls, but since it’s rarely busy, you won’t have to wait around to get a go.

Walk to Cramond Island

Hop on a number 41 bus to the romantic little hamlet of Cramond on the city’s northern coast. At low tide, you can cross a causeway to reach its ethereal uninhabited island. Just be sure to return before the waters rise, or you’ll find yourself cut off from the shore until the next tide. Wander slightly inland to discover the Cramond Roman Fort, a walled garden and an excellent traditional pub.

Learn about Edinburgh’s residents at the People’s Story Museum

While many of the city’s attractions focus on royalty, gentry and Medieval history, this gritty museum reveals the stories of Edinburgh’s working classes. Scenes from 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century daily life are recreated, depicting poverty and struggles. The building itself, on the Canongate, was once a jail.

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