Edinburgh: Free Attractions and Things to Do

edinburghLinda Macdonald, The Daily Telegraph, May 16, 2014

These recommendations, and many more on the city's best bars, restaurants and shops, can be found in the Edinburgh guide on the free Telegraph Travel app, which also features expert guides to destinations including Paris, Rome, New York and Amsterdam. Download it here .

However the vote goes on independence, nothing is likely to dent the popularity of Scotland’s great capital city. From the medieval tenements and secret wynds of the Old Town to the glorious Georgian sweep of the New Town, it is a city of great beauty, infinite variety and any number of world-class attractions. Here are 10 of the best.

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Arthur’s Seat

No one knows how this extinct volcano in Holyrood Park got its name, but diehard romantics think it was the location of Camelot. It’s 823ft high, but if you have enough puff and the right footwear it is a relatively easy climb. I like to start opposite the Palace of Holyroodhouse car park and follow the Radical Road path – paved in 1820 by unemployed weavers – past Salisbury Crags. Take in the ruins of St Anthony’s Chapel before the steep climb to the rocky summit with its incredible views. Follow marked routes (maps available at the Holyrood Park Information Centre in Horsewynd) and pay attention to signs telling you where not to walk – it might be crowded with walkers of every description, but can still be dangerous. Always open, free entry.
Getting there: Bus to Holyrood (35 or 36).

Dunbar’s Close

It is easy to miss the entrance to this drowsily peaceful hidden garden, a few steps off the Royal Mile just past Canongate Kirk. Created by the visionary Sir Patrick Geddes as one of a network of Old Town gardens, it was immaculately restored in the late Seventies. A beautifully kept recreation of a 17th-century garden, it is a series of small, delightfully private rooms. If it’s fine, cross the street, walk up the close opposite, and turn right on Holyrood Road. A few steps along you will find Foodies at Holyrood ( foodiesatholyrood.com ), where you can hire a picnic basket to fill with good things, and a rug to spread on one of the tiny lawns at the end of the garden.

Address: Canongate, High Street,
Opening times: open dawn to dusk daily
Getting there: Bus to Holyrood (35 or 36).

Scottish National Gallery

Cultural indigestion isn’t an issue at this manageably-sized gallery housing the national collection of fine art. Old Masters, a good selection of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists and a proudly comprehensive collection of Scottish art — including Scotland’s favourite painting, The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch — are on show, as well as world-class temporary exhibitions. Originally two buildings, the galleries are now connected by the sleek Gardens Entrance overlooking Princes Street Gardens. You can shop, eat and attend free 45-minute lunchtime lectures. A useful free Gallery Bus runs between the Scottish National Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
Address: The Mound, EH2 2EL
Opening times: Mon-Wed, Fri-Sun, 10am-5pm (6pm in August); Thu, 10am-7pm
Contact: 00 44 131 624 6200; nationalgalleries.org
Getting there: Bus to Princes Street (multiple services) or Gallery Bus

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Scotland's national collection of modern art occupies two buildings unimaginatively re-named Modern One and Modern Two. They are set in beautiful grounds containing Charles Jencks’ extraordinary Landform and sculptures by Henry Moore. Cubist, Expressionist, post-war and contemporary art are well represented, although I could easily spend all my time looking at the fascinatingly chaotic recreation of Scottish artist Eduardo Paolozzi’s studio in Modern Two. You may wish to linger in the Café Modern One's garden terrace, or the more formal Café Modern Two, which serves a particularly good afternoon tea under the steely gaze of a seven-metre-tall sculpture of Vulcan. A useful free Gallery Bus runs between the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Scottish National Gallery.
Address: 75 Belford Road, EH4 3DR
Opening times: Daily, 10am-5pm (6pm in August)
Contact: 00 44 131 624 6200;nationalgalleries.org
Getting there: Bus to Ravelston Dykes (13) or Gallery Bus

Water of Leith Walkway

There are always six naked men standing in the Water of Leith — they are cast-iron sculptures by artist Antony Gormley. This designated urban wildlife site has woods and wildflowers, herons, kingfishers and roe deer. Recently, a pair of otters has been spotted on the hidden 12-mile walkway from Balerno to Leith docks. There are plenty of access points, but the section I walk most often starts at the Water of Leith Visitor Centre in Slateford. From there, head towards Leith, passing through charming Dean Village with its converted mills and a dramatic Thomas Telford bridge, then past elegant St Bernard’s Well to Stockbridge or Canonmills where you can catch buses back to Princes Street. You can buy useful downloadable maps and a new audio trail on the Water of Leith Conservation Trust website.
Address: 24 Lanark Road, EH14 1TQ
Opening times: Visitor Centre: daily, 10am-4pm
Contact: 00 44 131 455 7367; waterofleith.org.uk
Getting there: Bus to Slateford (33, 44)

St Giles’ Cathedral

The crown spire of this great church marks the historic heart of the Royal Mile. Despite the ponderous piers supporting the tower of the much-altered but essentially Gothic High Kirk of Edinburgh, the soaring interior of this ancient church is flooded with light. Stained glass came to this “Cradle of Presbyterianism” only in the late 19th century – the Reformation leader John Knox would have been very unhappy to see the colourful window in the south wall dedicated to him. Everyone loves the carved angel playing the bagpipes in the exquisitely detailed Thistle Chapel, still used by the 16 Knights of the Most Noble Order of the Thistle. Look out for the volunteer guides who will answer your questions and tell you some fascinating stories.

Address: Royal Mile
Opening times: Open May-Sep: Mon-Fri, 9am-7pm; Sat, 9am-5pm; Sun, 1pm-5pm. Oct-Apr: Mon-Sat, 9am-5pm; Sun, 1pm-5pm.
Contact: 0131 225 9442; stgilescathedral.org.uk
Getting there: Bus to George IV Bridge (23, 27, 41, 42, 67).

St Mary’s Cathedral

It is often overlooked, but this triple-spired West End cathedral – Scotland’s largest – was designed by George Gilbert Scott, the renowned English architect. A celebration of Victorian Gothic Revival, it perhaps surprisingly has unashamedly modern stained glass by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, one of the founders of British Pop Art. Highly recommended, especially for the heavenly Phoebe Anna Traquair murals in the Song School, which have recently been restored. There are free guided tours of the Song School and the murals in August; at other times they can be seen by appointment.
Address: Palmerston Place
Opening times: visitors are welcome throughout the day, every day – but no walking around or photography during services.
Contact: 0131 225 6293; cathedral.net
Getting there: Bus to Haymarket Terrace (12, 26, 31, 48).

National Museum of Scotland

Recently refurbished, this eccentric palace of wonder is a mad dash through the history of the world and everything in it. More than 800 objects make up the mind-boggling Window on the World in the Grand Gallery, but I always first visit the utterly charming, completely barmy Lewis Chessmen. There are interactive galleries to keep children happy, free tours and Family Footprint Trails to make exploration more exciting.
Address: Chambers Street
Opening times: daily 10am-5pm
Contact: 0300 123 6789; nms.ac.uk
Getting there: Bus to George IV Bridge (23, 27, 41, 42, 67) or Chambers Street (35 or 45).

The Scottish Parliament

Whether you consider it an over-priced blot on the landscape or an architectural triumph, Catalonian architect Enric Miralles’ controversial but award-winning building at the bottom of The Royal Mile will always start a debate. You can buy parliamentary shortbread in the gift shop or have a coffee while playing spot the politician in the Parliament Café. There is a permanent exhibition about the Scottish Parliament, free guided tours (booking recommended) are on offer, and, if you are keen to see politics in action, you can book tickets to attend committee meetings or debates. Possibilities are complicated by whether or not Parliament is sitting, so it is best to check the website if you are planning a visit.
Address: Canongate, EH99 1SP
Opening times: Mon, Fri, Sat, 10am-5pm; Tue, Wed, Thu, 9am-6.30pm. Check website for opening times when Parliament is in recess
Contact: 00 44 131 348 5200; scottish.parliament.uk
Getting there: Bus to Holyrood (35, 36)


Almost everyone knows the story of Bobby, the faithful little dog who remained by his master’s grave for 14 years. His statue is at the top of Candlemaker’s Row, opposite the gates of Greyfriars, the first reformed church in Scotland. The kirk, museum and shop are open from April to October, with volunteer guides to show visitors around, but be sure to check the website calendar as sometimes they are closed for special events. Next to the church is (apparently) the most haunted graveyard in Edinburgh, complete with bad-tempered poltergeist — visitors report fainting or being scratched, bruised or bitten. Most people visit on ghost tours, but during the day I find Greyfriars' churchyard a lovely place just to sit, gazing at the remains of the medieval Flodden Wall and wondering if I know anyone who would look good in a wimple.
Address: 1 Greyfriars, EH1 2QQ
Opening times: Church and museum: Apr-Jun, Sep, Oct, Mon-Fri, 10.30am-4.30pm, Sat, 11am-2pm; Jul, Aug, Mon-Fri, 10.30am-4.30pm, Sat, 11am-4pm (but check website calendar as the Kirk may be closed for special events). Churchyard: always open
Contact: 00 44 131 225 1900; greyfriarskirk.com
Getting there: Bus to Grassmarket (2) or George IV Bridge (23, 27, 41, 42, 67) or Chambers Steet (35, 45)

Calton Hill

Rising abruptly at the east end of Princes Street, this monumental mason’s dream of a hill is a magnet to photographers and Festival fireworks-watchers. The most immediately recognisable building is the National Monument, intended as a tribute to the Scottish soldiers who fell in the Napoleonic Wars. This unfinished mini-Parthenon was nicknamed ‘the Scottish Disgrace’ (the project ran out of money), but reinforces Edinburgh’s claim to be the Athens of the North. The views from the top of the Nelson Monument are astonishing — don’t forget your camera and try to time your 143-step climb for when the white ball drops down the mast, signalling the one o’clock gun at the Castle.
Address: At the east end of Princes Street; access from Regent Road on the south side, or Royal Terrace from the north
Opening times: Always open. Nelson Monument: Apr-Sep, Mon-Sat 10am-7pm, Sun noon-5pm; Oct- Mar, Mon-Sat, 10am-3pm
Contact: Free. Nelson Monument: £4
Getting there: Bus to Princes Street (multiple services)

ScotlandsPeople Centre

A cosy new name for two very grand buildings — Register House and New Register House — that are the user-friendly repository of Scottish peoples’ past. If you are curious about your Scottish ancestry, the free two-hour taster sessions are a compelling introduction. You will receive instruction and assistance, but be warned, it’s an additive pastime. Further searches can be carried out for a daily fee, and you can pay for assisted searches. Take a break in the smart café or better still, a wander in the lovely Archivists’ Garden, cleverly designed in apparently random patterns to represent the way the brain looks and memory works. Even if you think have little interest in genealogy, you will find yourself curiously moved by the experience.
Address: 2 Princes Street, EH1 3YY
Opening times: Mon-Fri, 9am-4pm. The free two-hour taster sessions run from 10am and 2pm
Contact: 00 44 131 314 4300; scotlandspeoplehub.gov.uk
Getting there: Buses to Princes Street (multiple services)


Leith is an independent place. It officially merged with Edinburgh only in 1920, with most locals very much against the idea. Still a working port, it has always had a Jekyll and Hyde character — imposing merchants’ houses mixed with Dickensian tenements, warehouses and sailors’ dives. Notorious for crime and infamous for its red light district, Leith has moved up in the world since its Trainspotting days. Now it is home to Michelin-starred restaurants, boutique hotels, smart bars and new galleries. But despite the respectability conferred by the recent addition of the Royal Yacht Britannia at Ocean Terminal and the Scottish Government at Victoria Quay, it is still rough enough round the edges to make things interesting. Visit the Trinity House Maritime Museum at the foot of Leith Walk, before continuing along Constitution Street to the Shore where you are sure to find the perfect bar or café.
Getting there: Bus to the Foot of the Walk, Constitution Street or Ocean Terminal (multiple services)


Only a 20-minute walk from Princes Street and almost entirely sufficient unto itself, Stockbridge is the kind of neighbourhood we all wish we lived in. Cosier and more domestic than the New Town, it nevertheless has some deliciously pretty streets and squares. There is a great choice of fantastic (and unusual) shops, galleries, cafés, bars and restaurants; lovely Inverleith Park with the west gate of the Royal Botanic Gardens just across the road; the Water of Leith to walk by; and more hairdressers than I have ever seen in one place. Spend an hour or two having a wander, then settle in for a drink and a meal, or shop and eat your way around the Sunday market ( stockbridgemarket.com ) – and remember to bring a bag or two for all the good things you’ll find to take home.
Getting there: Ten minutes’ walk north of Princes Street, to the west of the New Town; bus to Stockbridge (24, 29, 36, 42).

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This article was written by Linda Macdonald from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.