The best free things to do in Edinburgh, including visiting the National Museum of Scotland, walking to Arthur’s Seat and finding Dunbars Close. By Linda Macdonald, Telegraph Travel’s Edinburgh expert.
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National Museum of Scotland
This recently refurbished but still appealingly eccentric palace of wonder is a mad dash through the history of the world and everything in it — both natural and man-made. More than 800 objects make up the mind-boggling installation that is the Window on the World in the Grand Gallery, but I always first pay a visit to the utterly charming, completely barmy Lewis Chessmen. There are interactive galleries to keep children of all ages happy, free tours and Family Footprint Trails to make exploration more exciting. When it all gets a bit much, stop for a giant scone in the Balcony Café, treat yourself to lunch or tea in the glamorous (and correspondingly pricey) rooftop Tower Restaurant; or take the lift from the 5th floor to the 7th to visit the charming but little-visited roof garden for a moment of peace and a surprising city panorama (open 10am-4pm).
Address: Chambers Street, EH1 1JF
Getting there: bus to George IV Bridge (23, 27, 41, 42, 67) or Chambers Street (35, 45)
Contact: 0300 123 6789; nms.ac.uk
Opening times: daily, 10am-5pm
No one knows how this extinct volcano in Holyrood Park got its name, but die-hard romantics think it was the location of Camelot. It’s 251 metres 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.
Address: Arthur’s Seat, EH8
Getting there: bus to Holyrood (35, 6)
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
Getting there: bus to Holyrood (6, 35)
Contact: 0131 348 5200; scottish.parliament.uk
Opening times: Mon, Fri, Sat, 10am-5pm; Tue, Wed, Thu, 9am-6.30pm. Check website for opening times when Parliament is in recess
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 1970s. A beautifully kept recreation of a 17th-century garden, it is a series of small, delightfully private rooms. If it’s fine, grab a picnic from Mimi’s Picnic Parlour (mimisbakehouse.com) on your way down the Canongate to eat sitting on one of the tiny lawns at the very end of the garden.
Address: Canongate, High Street, EH8 8BW
Getting there: bus to Holyrood (6, 35)
Opening times: dawn to dusk
Only a ten-minute walk from Princes Street and almost entirely sufficient unto itself, Stockbridge is the kind of neighbourhood we all wished 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 in my life. Spend an hour or two having a wander, then settle in for a drink and a meal, or shop and eat your way round the Sunday market (stockbridgemarket.com) – and remember to bring a bag or two for all the good things you’ll find to take home.
Address: 10 minutes’ walk north of Princes Street, to the west of the New Town
Getting there: bus to Stockbridge (24, 29, 36, 42)