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how I saw the best of edinburgh for free (and you can too)

When people think about Edinburgh, they think about the historic architecture, the cobblestone roads, and the haunted legends. Personally, I think about how many Innis & Gunn beers I drank at the Black Bull in Grassmarket. I also think about how I had to explore this iconic city with virtually no funds – due to my almost year-long volunteering stint. But, I happened upon many spots to visit that cost nothing, but are prime spots for contemplating life and, of course, getting that perfect instagram picture.

When you visit, you’ll probably want to hit staples of the city, such as Edinburgh Castle (costing £16) and Holyroodhouse Palace (costing £12). After dishing out your earned money for these spots, I suggest checking out my list. You won’t spend a penny. Or should I say, a pence.

1. The National Gallery

Inside the National Gallery – McIlwain

Never being a person to wander around art museums while back home in the states, I somehow kept finding myself in the Scottish National Gallery. The columned building stands tall, marking the center of Princes Street. Most art museums I find to be overwhelming and impersonal, but not this one. The high red walls with a collage of art splayed in every direction is unlike other gallery walls you may have seen. On gloomy days, which come often in Edinburgh, this was my haven of art. Oh, and you can take all the pictures you want!

The National Gallery welcomes high intrigue art on rotation, so you can imagine my excitement when they housed Fabritius’ painting, The Goldfinch, the painting that inspired the iconic book from Donna Tartt.

Even if art isn’t your thing, I recommend taking twenty minutes to wander through the red rooms to take refuge from the rain.

2. Greyfriar’s Kirkyard

Greyfriar’s Kirkyard – McIlwain

If you’re looking for a medieval cemetery with countless stories of hauntings, look no further! This kirkyard is nestled into the busy Old Town of Edinburgh, right off of George IV Bridge. You’ll find intricate headstones carved into skulls, enormous, ominous tombs, and a chained off area due to supernatural occurrences. You might even stumble across a couple names that inspired Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling when she was writing the books.

Not only will you find graves that inspired Queen Joanne, you’ll see the grave of Greyfriar’s Bobby, a legendary pup who is famous here in Edinburgh. To keep it brief, Bobby guarded his owner’s grave for 14 years, earning him a spot in the same cemetery and a reputation of loyalty and persistence. You’ll see a statue of Bobby outside the kirkyard gate and you know you’re close!

3. National Museum of Scotland

Lobby of National Museum of Scotland – Google Images

It wasn’t until the end of my year in Edinburgh that I wandered into the National Museum on a day off. I wish I had listened to my friends’ recommendations earlier and spent more time in this fantastical building. First of all, the main lobby area is gorgeous. From there you wander from room to room, gaping at dinosaur bones and a whale skull, then running into an outer space exhibit, surrounded by twinkling lights. Fashion, robots, rockets, Dolly the sheep, you name it. There’s even a cafe located on a balcony inside that sells a delicious mocha.

Though every exhibit is thoroughly inspiring, the best part of this location is the public rooftop where you can view the entire Old Town. Guaranteed to take your breath away.

4. Calton Hill

Columns at Calton Hill – McIlwain

If you continue up Princes Street when in New Town, past the Scott Monument, past Waverley train station, you’ll see a pathway on your left. I highly suggest you take the steep walk up this hill and feel the true spirit of Edinburgh.

If you’ve seen pictures of Edinburgh on a postcard or online, they were taken at this iconic location. Not just my favorite view of the city, it also has an expanse of statues, monuments, and a small museum and cafe. A Greek-inspired structure was under construction at one point but was halted, leaving a strange and beautiful wall of columns atop this hill, great for awkwardly posing on. I suggest bringing a friend to boost you up onto the wall, especially if you aren’t at your fittest. I know this from personal experience, unfortunately. Take a breath and enjoy the incredible view.

5. Arthur’s Seat

View from Arthur’s Seat – McIlwain

If Calton Hill felt like an easy walk in the park to reach that view, Arthur’s Seat may be the hike that’s for you. You’ll notice the looming mountain that catches your eye wherever you are in the city; well, you’re allowed to hike up to the top to truly take in the entire city, all the way to the Kingdom of Fife and the Forth Bridges. It took me about an hour to reach the top, and I wish I had packed a picnic for my time at the summit. I hear that a sunrise hike is the best way to see this majesty, and will probably be a bit less crowded.

6. Dean’s Village

Dean’s Village – Harvey

Finding Dean’s Village in Edinburgh’s New Town feels like falling back in time. The hustle of the city seems like miles away, though you’re nestled close to the bustling Princes Street. You’ll find gorgeous old architecture, cobblestone roads, a flowing river with a winding path, an empty cemetery, and old walking bridges. Explore this little area for forgotten gems and for calm after a night of drinking whisky at Whistlebinkies.7

7. Royal Mile

Royal Mile – Google Images

Ahhhh, the quintessential tourist destination. This road, aptly named because it’s about a mile long, has Edinburgh Castle living at the top of it and Holyroodhouse Palace living at the bottom. It’s the hub of activity in the city, being the main road of the Old Town. That being said, you must walk along the Royal Mile to have fully visited Edinburgh.

Sure, countless tourist shops line the cobblestones, but between them live closes, or alleyways, that bring you to interesting locations and hidden hotspots. New Town was created because of a need for living space – the people of Old Town had created a medieval Manhattan of sorts, building more stories onto existing houses and creating dire living conditions. An entire network of rooms and roads weave beneath the current level of the Royal Mile, which housed plague victims during the outbreak. Ultimately, they were closed up to suffer and perish underground which adds to the haunted legends surrounding Edinburgh. I highly suggest touring Mary King’s Close (£15.50), located on the Royal Mile near the City Chambers to see this underground world.

8. George Street

Christmas lights on George Street – McIlwain

If you’re visiting Edinburgh in December, you must walk along the most affluent street in New Town, called George Street. They decorate for the holidays like no other. At one end is George Square, where they set up a winter wonderland of ice-skating, hot cocoa, and an outdoor cinema. Light shows and live entertainment bring visitors throughout the year, while they close off the road to vehicles. The performances you’ll experience for no cost are incredible; I happened to wander George Street during the Fringe festival in August and listened to a professional opera singer. There’s something simply magical about this area.

9. St. Giles Cathedral

Orchestra practice at St. Giles Cathedral – McIlwain

Though they accept donations and charge £2 to take photos, St. Giles Cathedral is free to explore. Located along the Royal Mile, this building is hard to miss. I would find myself here often, reading the history on plaques that line the inner walls, and looking at the intricate carvings on the stone coffins. With a gift shop and a cafe downstairs, this was a perfect place to come in and escape the rain. More than a few times, I walked in on an orchestra practice or a choir concert. To hear live music in an ancient cathedral is unlike anything I had ever experienced. Knowing this building has been standing since the 14th century, through the historic terror and growth of Edinburgh makes it that more special to experience.

Clearly, there is no shortage of free activity to keep you busy in this strange and gorgeous city. Now it’s your turn to check it out and let me know your incredible finds! Remember, take risks, ask questions, and keep your wits about you. Happy travels!

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