8 Free Museums in Edinburgh, Scotland

8 Free Museums in Edinburgh, Scotland

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When I was in Edinburgh, Scotland last August, my primary goal was to go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. At the same time, I also wanted to explore some of Edinburgh, but I was on a bit of a budget. Luckily, I found several free museums to check out. Edinburgh isn’t the cheapest city to visit, so here are some free museums to help your wallet.

St Cecilia’s Hall: Concert Room and Music Museum

St. Cecilia’s Hall is part of the University of Edinburgh, and the concert room is the oldest concert hall in Scotland. Outside the concert hall is a small musical instrument museum that you can visit. I had gone to the Musical Instrument Museum in Brussels a couple months earlier, and it was there that I discovered a love musical instrument museums. This museum is much smaller than the one in Brussels, but it’s laid out well, and is a great way to spend a half-hour. Being that this museum is in Scotland they have several bagpipes on display too.

Music and art at the Edinburgh Music Museum.
The Music Museum at St. Cecilia’s Hall is open Tuesday to Friday from 10 am to 5 pm and on Saturdays from 12 pm to 5 pm. Holiday hours may vary. It’s at 50 Nidry Street (just off Cowgate).

Museum on The Mound

The Museum on the Mound is all about money. They have displays about the currency (past and present) used in Scotland. As well there’s information about the history of banking in Scotland. The Museum on the Mound has £1,000,000 on display. There’s also a safe that you can crack open (by answering some trivia questions). If you get the combination right, you get a chocolate coin. If free chocolate isn’t an incentive to come here, then I don’t know what is.

£1,000,000 at the Museum on the Mound in Edinburgh. Too bad the bills are all cancelled and can’t be used.
The Museum on the Mound is open from Tuesday to Friday from 10 am to 5 pm. Holiday hours may vary. The Museum is located on the Mound (literally that’s the address). Click here for a map of the location.

National Museum of Scotland

The National Museum of Scotland is a massive museum and worth a visit if you’re in Edinburgh. It has several different galleries and exhibits. This includes a gallery on Scottish history and archaeology (my favourite museum topic). There is a section about design, fashion and art. Plus displays on natural history, science and technology, and world cultures. The National Museum of Scotland is most well known for is having the stuffed display of Dolly the sheep. In 1996 Dolly was the first cloned animal. While Dolly died in 2003, she is now on display at the National Museum of Scotland.

Dolly the Sheep at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

The National Museum of Scotland is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm. Holiday hours may vary. The National Museum of Scotland is on Chambers Street.

Writers’ Museum

The Writers’ Museum features three of Scotland’s most prolific authors. This includes poet Robert Burns (he has a whole day dedicated to him in January). There is also a bit on novelist/playwright Walter Scott. His works include Ivanhoe and Rob Roy. Finally, there is a section on Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Writers’ Museum has manuscripts and personal items from each of these authors. Even if you’re not familiar with their writings, this is a delightful little museum to pop into for a quick visit.

A statue of famed Scottish poet Robert Burns at the Edinburgh Writers’ Museum.

The Writers’ Museum is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm. Holiday hours may vary. It’s located at Lawnmarket at Lady Stair’s Close.

Scottish National Gallery

I appreciate art, but I don’t have a lot of art history knowledge. Art galleries aren’t something I go out of my way to visit when I travel. Yet I found myself at the Scottish National Gallery and decided to go in for a visit. It has works from Scottish artists and other European artists like Da Vinci and El Greco (to name a few). While I don’t know a lot about art, I do love the opportunity to see some fine art for free. Temporary exhibits here charge a fee, but the permanent gallery is free to visit.

This is the Monarch of the Glen by Sir Edwin Landseer. I was told the Stag is the animal that represents the city of Edinburgh, but the official animal of Scotland is actually the unicorn. True story.

The Scottish National Gallery is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm and is open until 7 pm on Thursdays. Holiday hours may vary. It is also on The Mound (map here). It’s only a 3-minute walk (via the Playfair Steps) to here from the Museum on the Mound.

Museum of Childhood

Want to take a trip down memory lane? Or look horrified at creepy dolls and clowns (of course you do)? Then the Museum of Childhood is for you. It has various toys, games, books, and other items (like school uniforms) from childhood. There are recent items as well as stuff from back in the day. The Museum of Childhood was actually the first museum dedicated to childhood. Guaranteed you’ll see something that will make you go, “I had one of those when I was a kid.” While some items are in cases (for protection), there are several interactive exhibits. This makes it a great museum for kids or kids at heart.

At the Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh. I don’t know much about these old fashioned dolls, but the one on the far right has definitely murdered someone.

The Museum of Childhood is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm. Holiday hours may vary. It is located at 42 High Street.

Signet Library

The Signet Library isn’t a museum, but a historical building. It’s the home of the Society of Writers to Her Majesty’s Signet (a historic Scottish lawyers association). The Signet Library has the Colonnades, a dining room open to the public for lunch or afternoon tea. When I was in Edinburgh, the Signet Library was hosting a free photography exhibit as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival (also in August). It was called The Making of Landscape by Czech-French photographer Josef Koudelka. It contained two parts; first was how coal mining has altered the landscape in an area of Czechia. The second was about how the East Jerusalem wall has changed the landscape in Israel and Palestine. Both were powerful exhibits, and I’m glad I got a chance to see them.

Inside the Signet Library where I saw an amazing photography exhibit by Josef Koudelka.

While the Colonnades (the dining room) is open to the public the rest of the Signet Library typically is not. If you’re here during August (like I was), it’s worth checking if the Signet Library will be hosting a free exhibit. The Signet Library is at Parliament Square right by St. Giles’ Cathedral.

St. Giles’ Cathedral

This isn’t a museum, but St. Giles’ Cathedral is in the same square as the Signet Library. It’s named after Saint Giles, the patron saint of Edinburgh. It’s not a Catholic church though, but instead is the primary site of worship for the Church of Scotland. The current building dates back to the 1400s, but the central pillars date to the 1100s. This is a working cathedral, and you should be respectful of anyone who is here for church service. St. Giles’ Cathedral doesn’t charge a fee to visit, but they do charge a £2 fee if you wish to take photographs. I didn’t take any photos, but I can say it was quite beautiful inside. It’s worth coming in here for a few minutes to admire this historic site.

St. Giles’ Cathedral is open in summer (April to October) Monday to Friday from 9 am to 7 pm, Saturday from 9 am to 5 pm, and Sunday from 1 pm to 5 pm. In the winter (November to March) they’re open Monday to Saturday from 9 am to 5 pm and on Sunday from 1 pm to 5 pm. Holiday hours may vary. As mentioned before St. Giles’ Cathedral is in Parliament Square by the Signet Library.

Bonus: Free Walking Tour with Edinburgh Festival Voluntary Guides Association

Many cities have a “free” walking tour. In most cases the tour itself is free, but you’re encouraged to tip the guide because it’s how they earn a living wage. The Edinburgh Festival Voluntary Guides Association has a walking tour that is 100% free. It’s run by volunteers, and they don’t accept any tips. The main downside is that this free walking tour is only done in August. The tour I was on only had about 15 people and was led by a local writer. I loved this tour, not because it was free, but for the great stories that the tour guide told us. It was a pleasure to go on a walking tour where the guide had such knowledge and passion for his city. I only wish I’d done this tour on day one, instead of on my last day in Edinburgh.

While the Royal Mile of Edinburgh was quite busy during the festival, on the walking tour we found a lot of quiet spaces like this one.

The Edinburgh Festival Voluntary Guides Association has free walking tours during most of August. It runs twice a day at 10 am and 2 pm. The tour focuses on the Royal Mile and Old Town of Edinburgh. Outside of August, you can contact the organization for a customized group tour. Regular charges for a customized tour is only £3 to £5 per person.

There are actually several more free museums to visit in Edinburgh. I wasn’t able to go to all of them because I ran out of time. This is another reason (of many) to go back to this beautiful city.

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Things You Should Know
While in Edinburgh I stayed at the Castle Rock Hostel. I booked a bed in a 6-bed mixed dorm for £73 (about $122CA). This hostel was clean, comfortable and in a great location on Johnston’s Terrace. Edinburgh is a very hilly and there are many hills you’ll walking up and down. I recommend wearing comfortable walking shoes while in Edinburgh.
I was visiting Edinburgh in August when the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Edinburgh Tattoo take place. If you plan to visit Edinburgh in August (which is a busy time of year) be sure to book your accommodation advance. If you aren’t on a tight budget there are lots of hotels in Edinburgh you can book here.

Have you been to Edinburgh? Which of these museums would you visit?

10 thoughts on “8 Free Museums in Edinburgh, Scotland”

  1. I love Edinburgh anyway, and it’s even more great to know there are plenty of free activities. The National Museum of Scotland is impressive, I remember visiting years ago, though I don’t know if it was free! I’m a chocolate person, so I’ll definitely pay a visit to the Museum on the Mound 🙂

  2. Anytime a free walking tour is available I sign-up. I have always found the guides to be very knowledgeable and many of them are great storytellers. I’m a bit of a museum junky, so I would love to visit most of these. I could possibly pass on the doll museum. A bunch of plastic dolls on display is a little creepy for my liking 🙂

  3. I lived in Aberdeen for 3 years as a teenager and never really explored Edinburgh – shame on me! The Museum of the Mound sounds fun (who doesn’t want free chocolate for answering trivia?). These are all great ways to visit while minding a budget. And what a great guide on your free tour!

  4. This is a fantastic guide!So many free things to do that I can simply spend 2days for free:D
    I loved the information about free walking tours, normally it costs 8-10euros as tip is what I have read. August is anyway summer in Europe so I would plan my visit accordingly

  5. Edinburgh is full of culture history and natural beauty but wasn’t aware of so many museums. The natural history is one of my favourites in any city. The million cancelled bills looks tempting though. Great and informative post.

  6. I used to live in London and I cant believe I haven’t visit Edinburgh while I was there! Its such a fascinating and beautiful city! And seems like there is so many wonderful museums there! The walking tour seems great, I am gonna remember your tip to do it on day one if I ll make to there one day!

  7. We never miss a museum!! Even if you just see the highlights they are always worthwhile insights into the local culture. For us, traveling with the kids, they are valuable ukping off points for learning conversations. Seeing Dolly would be a thrill and lead to cool discussions on the ethics and science surrounding her.

  8. As a coin collector, I would love to visit the Museum on the Mound. Learning about their history and currency is something that really interests me.

    Also, I totally agree — the free chocolate is just as exciting/ a perfect reason to visit. Can you give hint/s on what questions they will ask? (haha!)

  9. I lived in Edinburgh for 30 years and love it. The art galleries are free also (the permanent exhibitions, not the special visiting exhibitions). The National Portrait Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art are my favourites. Have spent many hours in these.

  10. I have been dying to get to Edinburgh and will definitely be using this museum guide when I go. I have never heard of a walking tour not accepting tips. I think that’s really wonderful because it means the guides really love what they are doing and want to be there! I bet it was great.

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