11 Best Free Museums in Edinburgh

One of the most charming cities in the UK, loads of people visit Edinburgh every year. But (like pretty much all cities in Scotland!) it can be a pretty pricey place.

Because you don’t want to fritter away all your cash, you might be on the hunt for some inspiring freebies—so in this quick guide, we’ve brought you the 11 best free museums in Edinburgh.

We’ve covered standard stuff, contemporary exhibitions, unusual oddities (including an educational farm!) and everything in between. Whatever type of museum you’re looking for, you’ll find it on this list.

Today, Travelness are exploring the best free museums in Edinburgh. And you’re coming with us!

Free Museums in Edinburgh, Scotland

1. National Museum of Scotland

If you’re only gonna visit one museum in Scotland, it should probably be this one.

One of the most-visited attractions in Edinburgh, and the biggest UK museum outside of London, it’s absolutely jam-packed with stuff to do. So here’s my advice: like with any big museum, choose a few specific things you want to see instead of trying to tick it all off in one big bumper day.

Cos you’re in Scotland, I recommend prioritizing the Scotland-related exhibits, including all the Celtic, Roman and Viking artifacts. Also check out all the big animals, and the excellent and unusual Lego brick model of the entire museum.

Must see: Dolly the Sheep (the first cloned mammal in the world), the massive T-Rex skeleton, the hefty skull of Moby the whale, and the famous Lewis chess pieces (which you might recognize from Harry Potter).

The sprawling Scottish National Gallery is made up of two venues: the National Gallery and the Royal Scottish Academy. Combined, the pair offer one of the UK’s biggest collections of fine art.

If you want to learn about Scottish art history, I don’t think there’s a better way—the place has some incredible stuff on Scottish art (and specific artists!) through the ages. You also get excellent pieces from world-famous names such as Raphael, Botticelli, El Greco, Velázquez, Vermeer, van Dyck, Rembrandt, Turner, Constable and loads more.

Most of the exhibits range from the beginning of the Renaissance, all the way up to the early 1900s—and it’s all housed in a beautiful neoclassical building.

Must see: Some of the venue’s most popular pieces include The Monarch of the Glen (Sir Edwin Landseer), Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (Vermeer), Diana and Callisto (Titian) and Old Woman Frying Eggs (Velázquez).

3. Museum of Edinburgh

Much more humble and charming than the places we’ve covered so far, The Museum of Edinburgh is plonked right on the Royal Mile (the most famous street in the city).

It’s the best option if you want to learn specifically about Edinburgh, and the city’s people, places, history and legends.

Housed inside the iconic confines of a bright-yellow building, the place is home to city plans, important historical documents, and lots of handmade crafty stuff, including pottery and porcelain. The museum was featured in Season 3 of Outlander, apparently.

Must see: The bowl and collar belonging to Greyfriars Bobby (an iconic dog whose story will reduce you to a ugly pile of tears), and the civil-war-inciting National Covenant of 1638.

4. People’s Story Museum

The People’s Story Museum is the official companion venue of the Museum of Edinburgh, so people usually visit them both on the same day. I recommend doing exactly that!

It’s largely centered around the lives, stories and experiences of the ordinary working-class people of the city, spanning from the 18th century to the end of the 20th century.

The place feels almost personal and private, with loads of everyday memorabilia, including clothes, household stuff, humdrum belongings and lots of oral histories. If you like hearing real stories of real people, you’ll absolutely love the place.

Must see: The room recreations (of homes, workplaces, a jail and more), the excellent crime and punishment section, and the insightful movie about the real jobs of real working people.

5. Museum of Childhood

Absolutely perfect for both kids and adults, the Museum of Childhood is a nostalgic mishmash of current-day fun and sentimental throwbacks. You can lovingly remember all the things you used to play with, while your kids do some playing of their own.

In the collections, there are toys and trinkets ranging all the way from the 18th century right up to the present day. With five separate galleries, you have plenty of interactive and engaging exhibits featuring board games, comics, costumes, dolls, toys, photographs, models, and loads more. If you like unbridled fun or mawkish sentimentality, you’ll love the place.

Must see: The massive Stanbrig Eorls dollhouse, the Raleigh Chopper bicycle, and the interactive gallery, which explores both the home life and school life of a child.

6. The Writers’ Museum

The world’s first officially-designated UNESCO City of Literature, Edinburgh has a massive literary history. Arthur Conan Doyle, Walter Scott, Muriel Spark and Irvine Welsh were all born in the city, while the place also hosts one of the world’s biggest book festivals, every August.

The Writers’ Museum celebrates lots of this history and heritage, with rare books and unusual artifacts. Focusing on Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, the museum has lots of information on the three, along with small sections of their most famous works and some fascinating manuscripts.

It’s all housed in a crooked and charming fake-medieval building, just off the Royal Mile.

Must see: Manuscripts and first editions of some iconic classics, one of Robert Burns’ chairs, and slabs covered with famous quotes.

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is… as you probably guessed… a gallery filled with portraits. But here’s the twist: every single portrait is of a Scottish person, so it’s a great way to learn about Scottish people and history while simultaneously goggling at some incredible portraits.

Some of the museum’s most famous portrayed people include Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, Billy Connolly, Tilda Swinton, Robert the Bruce and Saint Ninian. In addition to all the paintings, there’s also an excellent collection of photography.

All this stuff is housed in an incredible building—a massive red neo-gothic palace, it was the first purpose-built portrait gallery on the planet.

Fun Fact: Though all the paintings here are of Scottish people, they weren’t all painted by Scottish people.

Must see: The huge character-packed frieze in the Main Hall, the sculptures of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, and the imposing building itself.

8. Museum on the Mound

This strangely-named museum is located inside the city’s Bank of Scotland head office (yep, you did read that right).

The exhibitions are mostly about cash, money and finances. And I know that sounds horrendously boring, but some of the stuff is actually pretty compelling, with exhibits on cash-connected crime, technology, security and art.

Some of the museum’s most popular exhibits include the stuff on Victorian Britain, retro computers, ancient life insurance policies, and the industrial revolution.

There’s also some interesting information on the history of trades and transactions, with strange and unusual artifacts that were once used as an early form of cash.

Must see: Scotland’s oldest banknote, the grand sum of a million pounds, and lots of retro Scottish coins. Oh, and you can also try cracking open a safe!

  • Address: The Mound, Edinburgh, EH1 1YZ
  • Opening hours: 10am until 5pm Tuesday to Friday, and 1pm until 5pm on Saturdays. Closed on Mondays and Sundays
  • Website: https://museumonthemound.com/

Edinburgh’s National Gallery of Modern Art has more than 6,000 works, making it one of the biggest modern art galleries in the UK.

Modern, in this case, means from around 1900 to the present day, with work spanning that entire period. You get paintings, photographs, videos, installations, unusual exhibitions and plenty more.

Made up of two buildings, there’s a Victorian Library, a photography gallery, and stuff from Matisse, Picasso, Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Andy Warhol, Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley, Louise Bourgeois, Damien Hirst and many more.

If you like unique, unusual and innovative artworks, it’s absolutely the best place to visit in Edinburgh. Both buildings are located in beautiful grounds, away from some of the city’s busiest areas.

Must see: A unique recreation of Eduardo Paolozzi’s studio, some excellent Dada and surrealist stuff, and a lovely cafe offering regional specialties and locally-sourced ingredients. The gallery also hosts some excellent visiting exhibitions.

10. Royal Botanic Gardens

Okay, strictly speaking, this one isn’t actually a museum. But if you’re into museums, there’s a good chance you’ll also be into this place.

It’s primarily an educational establishment, teaching visitors how plants, trees and shrubs contribute to the planet we live on—it was originally built as a scientific center.

Ever wondered how specific flower species support wildlife? Which plants are native to Scotland? Or which can be used for their poison? Well, you don’t need to wonder any more!

The second-oldest botanic garden in the UK, the place is home to almost 300,000 individual plants, and it specializes in promoting biodiversity through conservation and education.

And because it’s set in 70 acres of land (but very close to the center of Edinburgh!), it’s a great option if you have kids. You can go on some brilliant walks and wanders in the garden.

You need to pay for entry to the glasshouses, but everything else is completely free.

Must see: The rock garden, the Chinese garden, excellent views of Edinburgh’s skyline, and all the wildlife.

  • Address: Arboretum Place, Edinburgh, EH3 5NZ
  • Opening hours: 10am until 4pm from November to January, 10am until 5pm during October and February, and 10am until 6pm from March until September. Always open 7 days a week
  • Website: https://www.rbge.org.uk/

11. Love Gorgie Farm

Our last entry is a slightly leftfield entry.

Our second non-museum in a list of museums(!), this farm is pretty unique. It’s largely centered around education and learning, with lots of workshops and activities.

They have goats, calves, alpacas, pigs, sheep, guinea pigs, pygmy breeds and more. They also have lots of community programmes, so you can study environmental issues, help to battle climate change, or just take some time to focus on your mental health.

This place isn’t just a farm—it’s an educational community venue where you can learn, look after animals, and get involved with local people and issues. It’s really unique and unusual, perfect for doing something a little different, and even better for people with kids!

Note: Donations are encouraged here, but there’s absolutely no obligation to pay.

Must see: The animals, the lovely events, and all the community education projects. Oh, and make sure you go on some alpaca trekking!

Museum You Later!

Sorry about that terrible pun. Hope you can forgive me.

Anyway, there they are—the 11 best free museums in Edinburgh!

If you want to know anything else about traveling in Scotland’s brilliant capital, we have lots more stuff on our site. Check out our articles on the city’s best day trips, the most beautiful hikes in and around Edinburgh, and our handy guide to the city’s best areas and hotels to stay in.

Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you next time!

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