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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. Lucky for me 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 few 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.
The Music Museum at St. Cecilia’s Hall is open Tuesday to Friday from 10 am to 5pm 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.
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.
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.
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.
The Writers’ Museum is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm. Holiday hours may vary. It is 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.
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.
The Museum of Childhood is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm. Holiday hours may vary. It is at 42 High Street.
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.
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.
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.
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 (€80 or $122 CA or $93 US). I was there in August when the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Edinburgh Tattoo were on. This is the busiest time of the year in Edinburgh. If you’re going to visit Edinburgh in August book your accommodation well in advance. Considering I booked my trip only a few weeks in advance I was happy with this hostel. It was clean, comfortable and in a great location on Johnston’s Terrace. You could walk to Edinburgh Castle from this location in about five minutes.
Edinburgh is a very hilly city. There are lots of stairs you’ll likely need to be going up and down if you’re walking around. I recommend wearing comfortable walking shoes while in Edinburgh.
If you aren’t on a tight budget there are lots of hotels in Edinburgh you can book here.
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Have you been to Edinburgh? Which of these museums would you visit?
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