Edinburgh is truly the most beautiful and impressive city I have ever had the pleasure of staying in. One of my favorite things to do is just wander around.

Julia Caffery, UC San Diego

University of Edinburgh, Scotland

Scotland is a dream when it comes to cultural activities and travel, but it can get expensive. Luckily, Edinburgh has plenty of free, fun-filled (and did we mention free?) things to do to ensure you get a complete Scottish experience while studying abroad.


1. Escape to a secret royal garden

Dunbar's Close gardens

Photo by Anne, Creative Commons

Open from dawn to dusk and located meters from the Edinburgh Royal Mile is Dunbars Close—a series of tiny gardens recreated in the 17th-century garden tradition. Grab a coffee from one of the shops along the Royal Mile, the main thoroughfare of the city’s Old Town, and escape the city for some nature-induced peace and quiet.


2. Mix art and politics at Scottish Parliament

Exterior of Scottish Parliament

Watch live political debates in the gallery above a huge chamber with seating designed specifically to blur political divisions and encourage collaboration. Then tour the art collection of paintings, sculptures, photography and textiles by contemporary Scottish artists in the same building.

The house of Scottish Parliament is an architect’s dream escape that must be experienced from all sides: indoors and out. Reserve your free guided tour.


3. Follow the path of industry

The Water of Leith Walkway

The Water of Leith Walkway is a green leafy corridor of tunnels and bridges ideal for walking or cycling. The walkway runs alongside the main river which once played a crucial role in Edinburgh’s industrial growth. Download the Water of Leith podcast series for a guided tour with fascinating facts and history of sites along the river.


4. Climb the giant steps on Calton Hill

Bird's eye view of Calton Hill

In the center of the city of Edinburgh you’ll see ruggedly windswept Calton Hill, which offers lush grassy slopes and one of the best panoramic views of the city. Notice the 12 pillars that look like a Greek ruin? That was originally intended as a memorial to Scots who died in the Napoleonic Wars, but the money ran out before the building could be completed and plans to finish never seem to rally enough support.

Calton Hill has lots of opportunities for postcard-esque profile pictures and photo ops that all your relatives will really enjoy.

Elena Aguirre, UC Berkeley

University of Edinburgh, Scotland


5. Take a chilly dip with the Wild Ones

View of Portobello Beach

Every Sunday, no matter the weather, the Wild Ones plunge into the choppy water off Portobello Beach, fondly called Porty Beach. This invigorating wake-up call is kinda awesome—even when the weather isn’t. After the swim, lay out your towel and enjoy the slightly faded Victorian grandeur lining the roughly two kilometers of clean golden sand.

If jumping directly into cold water isn’t your thing, master the waves in a kayak instead. The RowPorty group is always looking for new members.

Getting there: Take the bus from Surgeon’s Hall on campus to Porty Beach (about 40 minutes).


6. Wander the free museums

Interior foyer of the National Museum of Scotland

Photo by Barnyz, Creative Commons

Walking through museums on rainy days is one of my favorite things to do. The National Museum is so close and so big you can spend hours in it after classes and explore new sections every time. Plus it’s free, which I’m not used to, so it was awesome just strolling in and out of the museum whenever the urge hit.

Elena Aguirre, UC Berkeley

University of Edinburgh, Scotland

Curating collections of national and international interest, the National Museum of Scotland is a short walk from the University of Edinburgh and offers a hidden gem: a rooftop garden with a surprising view of the city and Edinburgh Castle. With departments in art, design and fashion, science and technology, natural history, world culture and Scottish history, this museum has something for everyone to enjoy.


7. Watch the sunset from Arthur’s Seat

Friends watching the sunset from Arthur's Seat

An extinct volcano in the center of Holyrood Park, Arthur’s Seat is a popular hike ending in fabulous views in all directions. Romantics like to think the hill, which is shaped like a reclining lion, was the location of Camelot. You’ll need sturdy hiking boots; the ascent of Arthur’s Seat is steep and rocky. Grab a map at the park’s information center and follow the marked 3-mile route. It takes about an hour to climb.


8. Enjoy the music scene at Whistlebinkies

Exterior of Whistlebinkies pub

Photo by SteHLiverpool, Creative Commons

Housed deep in the vaults under South Bridge and featuring private seating areas carved out of stone, Whistlebinkies is the best place to catch live music from local bands in Edinburgh. Get in before midnight any night and it’s free. A favorite hangout for local musicians after their performances, this cavernous bar is often lively into the wee hours.


9. Tour the art galleries of Scotland

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and grounds

Photo by Theresa G., Creative Commons

On a rainy day you can discover the depth and variety of art in Edinburgh at the National Galleries of Scotland:

  • Portrait Gallery: a grand neo-gothic building of red sandstone guarded by sculptures of famous Scots including one of William Wallace (inspiration for the 1995 film Braveheart).
  • Gallery of Modern Art: the extensively designed lawns—with a serpentine-shaped mound, pools of water and sculpture garden—is a work of art in itself.
  • Scottish National Gallery: houses masterpieces by Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Monet, Van Gogh and Gauguin and covers the history of Scottish painters, including Ramsay, Raeburn, Wilkie and Taggart.

Pro tip: A £1 donation scores a seat on the bus that travels between the galleries.


10. Picnic at The Meadows

The Meadows park in Scotland

Photo by DorkyMum, Creative Commons

Just a short walk from the central library is the perfect place for a picnic or study break: The Meadows. During spring you can wander the cherry blossom trees that line Jawbone Walk, named for the whalebone arch.


11. Celebrate man’s best friend

statue of a Skye Terrier named Bobby at the corner of Candlemaker’s Row and St. George’s Bridge

At the corner of Candlemaker’s Row and St. George’s Bridge you can take a photo with a statue of a Skye Terrier named Bobby. The little dog is famous for spending 14 years guarding the grave of his owner, John Gray. Until his death in 1858, John and his faithful dog walked the streets of Edinburgh as the night watch for the Edinburgh police force.


12. Mark the time by flowers and cannons

Princes Street Gardens during their Christmas market

The Princes Street Gardens, known for its clock made of flowers, is a spectacular place to spend the day. The gardens offer an extraordinary view of Edinburgh Castle. Arrive before one o’clock to hear the 64-pound gun fired from the castle everyday (except Sundays and holidays). The firing of the gun dates back to 1861 when the daily event set the maritime clocks.

Pro tip: This walk is especially amazing from November to January when it becomes the Christmas Market.


13. Visit the Knights of Thistle Chapel

St. Giles’ Cathedral

In the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town you’ll find St. Giles’ Cathedral, known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh. The lavish church features a brass lectern in the shape of an eagle, medieval stonework and 12th-century stained glass windows. Within you will find the Chapel of the Order of the Thistle, Scotland’s chivalric knights chosen by the Queen. Enter through a low vaulted vestibule and gaze upon a wealth of peculiarly Scottish detail, including angels playing bagpipes.

Free things to do in Edinburgh, Scotland
Free things to do in Edinburgh, Scotland
Free things to do in Edinburgh, Scotland
Free things to do in Edinburgh, Scotland