Edinburgh is a beautiful city, full of historic buildings, a castle above the city, and all the wonders of the Royal Mile. It is the most visited city in the U.K., after London. However, many of its attractions charge significant entry fees, such as the Edinburgh Castle, the City Tour buses, afternoon tea at the Balmoral Hotel, or an International Festival concert. There are also many activities that are very interesting and fun but completely free of charge. Here are some of my favorites.
Climb Salisbury Crags to Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood Park.
Visible from nearly all parts of the city, the stunning rock formation of the Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s seat begs to be climbed. At the Holyrood Park Road entrance to the park, the most popular route begins-a steep ascent on rocky stairs. Other trails offer less steep, but longer routes to the top. Either way, it is the quintessential Edinburgh experience. The climb takes approximately 45 minutes to go up (give or take for varying fitness levels), and less than that to go down. As a treat on the way down, amble southeast down the mild slope to visit the charming village of Duddingston and its picturesque loch. If you seek a less strenuous climb to find aerial views of the city, the ascension of Calton Hill (on the east end of Princes Street) is a great alternative (or addition!) to this expedition.
Play golf on the Bruntsfield Links.
On the western edge of the Meadows, the expanse of greenery continues with the rolling hills and mounds of the Bruntsfield Links, regarded by many as the world’s oldest short-hole golf course. The course is public, free to play on, and offers beautiful views of the city and the hills in the distance. If you do not have your own equipment, clubs and balls are available for rental from The Golf Tavern, a historic pub adjacent to the links which first opened in 1456.
Visit the Scottish Parliament Building.
At the bottom of the Royal Mile, historic Holyrood Palace (the Queen’s official residence in Scotland) sits stately, directly facing the ultra-modern Scottish Parliament building opposite the road. Designed by Spanish architect Enric Miralles, the building opened in 2004, with a mixed reception. The local population has raised concerns about the the building’s overrun budget and overt modernity, as well as the controversial selection of a non-British architect. However, the building itself has won numerous international architectural awards, and it is well worth a visit to see the stunning modern wood and steel debating chamber. The Main Hall of the building is open to the public daily, and the debating chamber is open and free on non-sitting days (normally Mondays, Fridays, weekends, and recess periods). Be prepared to pass through airport-style security as you enter the building.
Take a picnic lunch to the The Meadows.
On sunny days, hordes of people (locals and tourists alike) throng to the Meadows, the verdant expanse of park land situated just south of Old Town. The park is well taken care of, and filled with opportunities for people-watching and spontaneous activities such as soccer, frisbee, and barbecuing. What better way is there to spend an afternoon than bringing your own food to picnic on the buzzing lawns of this beautiful park, marveling at Arthur’s Seat in the distance?
Visit the National Museum of Scotland.
Filled with fascinating artifacts from Scotland’s dynamic history, the National Museum of Scotland is an attraction worth paying for, yet it remarkably offers free admission. The building itself is just as compelling as its contents. Opened in 1998, the museum features soaring walkways and balconies overlooking expansive exhibition halls, beautiful integration of skylights and natural daylight, and a rooftop terrace that offers stunning panoramic views of the city. The Museum is open daily from 10am to 5pm.
Stroll through the Royal Botanic Gardens
North of the city in the quaint neighborhood of Inverleith, the gates of the Royal Botanic Gardens act as a threshold between the city and a lushly landscaped realm of natural beauty. Featuring a living collection of over 15,000 plant species, the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh consist of expansive grounds for the public to meander through, as well as structured exhibits in various buildings around the site. The entire complex is free to the public except for the Glasshouse, which has a modest admission fee. The Gardens open at 10am every day, and closing time varies by season.
The historic city of Edinburgh offers a plethora of attractions for tourists. Among those, a good deal are free, yet still highly fun and satisfying. Seasonally, festivals and events offer even more free activities. The Fringe Festival in August offers countless free performances of comedy, music, and theater. In the winter holiday months, Princes Street Gardens fill with bustling market booths and festive carnival rides. Year-round, one of the most enjoyable activities in Edinburgh is to discover the curiosities of the city on foot, by exploring its ancient streets and closes and strolling through the city’s parks, squares, and gardens. The area’s unique topography offers plentiful opportunities to gain aerial views of the city and its distinct landmarks and skyline. Best of all, every one of these activities is possible to do without paying a single admission fee.
Websites of attractions included in article text
“Edinburgh” in Wikipedia