5 Free Museums in Edinburgh You Might Not Know About

Free Museums Edinburgh

My immense sense of curiosity thrives off Edinburgh’s heritage, so when Museums & Galleries Edinburgh approached me to explore some of the city’s lesser-known museums, I needed little convincing. I visited five fabulous free museums in Edinburgh, and I think you should too.

Edinburgh is one amazing, city-sized storybook. Over the centuries, Edinburgh’s cobbled streets have been graced by royalty, wretched souls, revolutionary minds, body snatchers, and a famous wee dog. Edinburgh looks like a fairytale, but the stories from its former years as ‘Auld Reekie’ can be somewhat nightmarish. The city is blessed with countless historic buildings, cultural attractions, and free museums which really lift the lid on Edinburgh’s past.

Over the course of one surprisingly sunny and crisp day in Scotland’s capital, I set off on a wee museum-hopping adventure around the Old Town. Admittedly, I had only visited two of the five venues prior to that day. Fully embracing my ‘Edinburgh tourist’ persona with my camera round my neck, I discovered a string of unique venues which celebrate Edinburgh’s history, personality and creativity, as well as the lives of the ordinary. They are all free, and given the temperament of the Scottish weather, these venues are ideal for staying warm and dry on a dreich day. What are you waiting for?

Free Museums Edinburgh

Museum of Edinburgh.

You won’t have any trouble finding this wee gem of a museum, as the highly photo-worthy yellow façade is difficult to miss. The museum sits in the heart of the Old Town, in a 16th century building called Huntly House, complete with creaky floorboards and classic wooden roof beams.

The array of exhibits brings together the many stories which shape and define Edinburgh’s unique history and character, with tales of Greyfriars Bobby, the Flodden Wall, “Gardy Loo”, and Sir Walter Scott. I love learning about my city’s heritage and letting my imagination wander through its streets in centuries past.   No myths and legends are required where Edinburgh is concerned – the real deal is entertaining enough!

Ever the history geek, the story of the Covenanters had me totally engrossed; it is told through static exhibits and an interactive timeline. I enjoyed reading the history of Leith too – it’s where I live – and was surprised to learn that the area was a centre for glassmaking in the 18th century. I also discovered than the Canongate section of the Royal Mile didn’t become part of the city until 1856; it was a separate Burgh which took its name from the Canons or Monks from Holyrood Palace.

Another highlight for me was seeing the plans for the 1767 development of Edinburgh’s New Town, designed by James Craig. There are also birds eye view photographs of the New Town which give an amazing perspective of the grid system, squares and gardens. It’s rare to see the New Town featured in an Edinburgh museum, despite it being equally as charming as the Old Town.

OVERALL VERDICT: The Museum of Edinburgh is full of character and super-interesting wee snippets and exhibits. I didn’t feel bombarded with information, and I liked that the museum isn’t modern; which is perfectly fitting to its historic location.

Free Museums Edinburgh - Museum of Edinburgh

  • Address: 142-146 Canongate, Edinburgh EH8 8DD
  • Opening times: 10.00 – 17.00 every day
  • For more information visit the Museum of Edinburgh webpage 

The People’s Story.

The People’s Story sits on the opposite side of the street from the Museum of Edinburgh, and is housed within the Canongate Tolbooth, which has stood on the Royal Mile since 1591. The tolbooth was a once a courtroom, a prison, and a place of gathering for the town council – if only walls could tell tales! Nowadays, the iconic clock and pretty turrets epitomise Edinburgh’s Old Town charm, and are frequently photographed by passersby.

The museum itself does exactly what it says on the tin; it tells the story of Edinburgh’s people between the 18th and 20th century. In 2017, Edinburgh was ranked second in the world in a Quality of Life survey in various cities. Then, in a later study of the best UK cities to live and work in, Edinburgh took the top spot. I can assure you that the standard of living in Edinburgh wasn’t always like this however, particularly for the working-class residents, who are the focus of this museum.

Learn about all aspects of life in Edinburgh, from social housing and working conditions, to crime, sport, music and leisure. The detailed displays feature life-sized waxworks, personal items, old photographs, banners, industrial tools and household items. There are real stories about ordinary individuals, which makes the learning experience more personal and almost tangible. While the overall standard of living has significantly improved, there are many social and political issues which are still relatable and relevant today.

OVERALL VERDICT: To really understand a place, you must get to know its people, and this museum does exactly that for the people of Edinburgh. It’s like stepping into life, as many people knew it in the past.

Free Museums Edinburgh - The People's Story

  • Address: 163 Canongate, Royal Mile, Edinburgh EH8 8BN
  • Opening times: 10.00 – 17.00 every day
  • For more information visit the People’s Story webpage

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Museum of Childhood.

This attraction was the first museum in the world which focused on the history of childhood and it’s a wee gem. As soon as I stepped inside I was hit by a wee wave of nostalgia, certain that my last memories of doing so were as a child myself. While the ground floor has changed since my last visit, with new brightly-coloured and illuminated exhibits, the rest of the museum was just as I remembered.

As would be expected, most of the exhibits in a museum dedicated to childhood are… TOYS! As my eyes wandered the displays, the toys and games triggered vivid memories from my own childhood: dolls houses, marbles, snakes & ladders and china dolls (some looking a tad more sinister than others, if you ask me!). The legendary Gameboy also caught my eye, alongside my favourite games Tetris and Super Mario Land.

I also loved the section about children’s books, as I have many fond memories of reading and being lost in my own imagination for hours; I suppose nothing has changed there really! Visiting this museum is a lovely wee reminder that childhood is something we all have common. Childhood is a truly magical time; the innocence, imagination and wonder at the world. Children possess a mindfulness and enjoyment of the simple things which as adults, many of us no longer do. Let a visit to the Museum of Childhood be a wee reminder to try.

OVERALL VERDICT: I loved my walk down memory lane. Not only were the exhibits nostalgic, so was the experience of being there. This attraction is guaranteed to make your inner-child smile.  Definitely one of my favourite free museums in Edinburgh.

Free Museums Edinburgh - Museum of Childhood

The Writers’ Museum.

Lady Stair’s House is a beautiful historic mansion which has been admired by passersby for over 400 years. Today, it is home to the Writers Museum, which pays tribute to a famous trio of Scottish wordsmiths: Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott. Edinburgh was the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature, and these literary legends were borne out of the Scottish Enlightenment.

The Scottish Enlightenment was a period in history – circa. 18th and 19th century – where us Scots were really showing off in terms of intellect, philosophy and science. It manifested itself after the Act of Union in 1707, which saw the union of the Scottish and English parliaments. Scotland didn’t have its own monarch or parliament, so it is thought that the people were inspired to take the country’s future into their own hands, and create an identity for Scotland Many academics, philosophers and innovators went on to make their stamp on the country, and subsequently the world.

The museum displays paintings, photographs, personal items and excerpts of work from each of the writers. I’ve always had a bit of a thing for Rabbie Burns (it’s the sideburns and way with words), but I admittedly knew little about Robert Louis Stevenson before my visit. I loved reading about him growing up, and writing his first piece – ‘Travels in Perthshire’ – when he was just nine years old. I can relate to him taking inspiration from his surroundings and extensive travels, and carrying a wee notepad which he was known to refer to as his ‘Book of Original Nonsense’. My modern version of this is the notepad on my smartphone.

I’ve walked past this museum so many times, and have no explanation for never having visited before. Better late than never, I suppose! Don’t forget to look up at the super-cute balcony before you step inside, and look down at the pavement in Makars Court outside.

OVERALL VERDICT: Of all the free museums in Edinburgh, this one really resonated with me, given my love for writing, and for famous Scots. I’m feeling totally inspired to learn more about Robert Louis Stevenson and read his novels. Must find the time.

Free Museums Edinburgh - Writers' Museum

  • Address: Lawnmarket, Lady Stair’s Close, Edinburgh EH1 2PA
  • Opening times: 10.00 – 17.00 every day
  • For more information visit the Writers’ Museum webpage 

Makars Court.

Makars Court is a literary walk of fame, with quotes from famous Scottish writers engraved into the pavement. “The Scots word Makar means ‘one who fashions, constructs, produces, prepares, etc.’ (Dictionary of the Scots Language), and in a literary context it is the role of the poet or author as a skilled and versatile worker in the craft of writing” (Edinburgh Museums). Does this mean that I’m a modern Makar of the Scottish travel variety? 😉

City Art Centre.

Whether you’re an art enthusiast or not (coming from someone who falls into the ‘not’ camp), the City Art Centre is an interesting and engaging visual experience. Located on Market Street next to Waverley Train Station, the gallery showcases four floors of exhibits, as well as bonnie vistas of Princes Street and the Balmoral Hotel.

I loved the ‘In Focus’ photography exhibition, and currently, in particular, the images by Thomas Begbie capturing Edinburgh life in the 19th century. The collection of negatives, which were discovered decades after his death, were only processed and put on public display in the 1990s. It was amazing to see images with similar composition to ones that I have taken myself – from the Mound and at The Shore – in a centuries-old style with very different scenes, and buildings from this bygone place in time. I was also mesmerized by the crazy and colourful expression of the Pentlands in the Edwin G. Lucas exhibition. The exhibitions at the gallery change regularly, and the variety will appeal to different audiences.

OVERALL VERDICT: Regardless of your affinity with art, there will be something which captures your eye in this gallery. The atmosphere is very calming, and a complete contrast to the busy street outside. Well worth a wee wander.

Free Museums Edinburgh - City Art Centre

  • Address: 2 Market St, Edinburgh EH1 1DE
  • Opening times: 10.00 – 17.00 every day
  • For more information visit the City Art Centre webpage

This post is sponsored by Museums & Galleries Edinburgh. As always, all content, opinions & chaotic behaviour are my own.

Happy travels!

Kay 💙


  • I visited the Museum of Childhood earlier this year and thoroughly enjoyed it. Well worth visiting, I lost count of the amount of times I said “I used to have one of those.” haha

    The Writers Museum has been on my list for so long and I didn’t realise it was free to enter. Absolute bargain.

    • Kay says:

      I was exactly the same Mel! It’s amazing how vivid memories can just come back to you like that. Definitely check out the Writers Museum – it’s really interesting. Lucky to have so many free museums in Edinburgh! 🙂

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