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15 Free Edinburgh Experiences

Edinburgh is Scotland’s capital and the second most visited city in the United Kingdom after London, and the old town and new town together are listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.  Edinburgh is an easy city; simultaneously big and small.  It can be an expensive place to visit, but as we are all about the budget, we focused on all things free.  We stayed in a cheap hostel made of shipping containers, made most of our own meals, and walked through the cobblestone streets surrounded by the history of this ancient place.  These are our top 15 free things to do in Edinburgh:

15 Free Edinburgh Experiences | The Alternative Atlas

1) Bargain Spot Tollcross- Project Space

This is an AlternativeAtlas special recommendation.  We stumbled into this artist-run exhibition space one evening and got a glimpse into Edinburgh’s underground performance art scene.  I was left with the impression that everyone in attendance knew each other, and it was refreshing to find a thriving community here.  12 Earl Grey St, West End, Edinburgh EH3 9BN  

15 Free Edinburgh Experiences | The Alternative Atlas

2) Climb Calton Hill

Looking for panoramic views of this medieval city?  Look no further!  Located near the city center, the scenic views from the top of this hill cannot be beat.  Most postcards sold to tourists in the city feature an image taken from this spot.  If only those tourists knew that they could walk for 10 minutes and be there in person….

15 Free Edinburgh Experiences | The Alternative Atlas

3) Visit the University of Edinburgh

Founded in 1538, this stunning campus is located just north of The Meadows park and is completely empty in the evening; we yelled at the top of our lungs and listened as the words echoed throughout the medieval square.   Old College, South Bridge, Edinburgh EH8 9YL

15 Free Edinburgh Experiences | The Alternative Atlas

4) Go Sightseeing on The Royal Mile

The Royal Mile is full of tourist shops selling novelty plaid cashmere and kilts, seemingly inauthentic pubs and tour groups.  While the crowds can be a bit stifling, you are guaranteed to see some beautiful medieval architecture as well as some interesting performers along this historic city street.  We particularly enjoyed the sound of bagpipes drifting through this street.  Fun Fact: they used to do public executions and creative tortures featuring rats in front of St. Giles’ Cathedral.

15 Free Edinburgh Experiences | The Alternative Atlas

5) Check out the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

This sprawling museum houses a huge collection of modern and traditional figurative art.  This is an almost completely tourist-free space, as is evident by the photo presented here!  It blows my mind that you can visit a museum of this caliber without paying an admission fee.  1 Queen St, Edinburgh EH2 1JD

15 Free Edinburgh Experiences | The Alternative Atlas

6) Music Festivals!

We caught the beginning of the 2015 Edinburgh Jazz Festival, featuring emerging artists as well as established acts from over the world.  People flock to the festivals and this makes it an unparalleled people-watching opportunity, as well as a chance to check out some jazz giants for free! Edinburgh hosts many top-notch festivals throughout the year focusing on art, music, literature, film and storytelling. Some festival events require you to purchase a ticket, but many also offer free admission. Information and dates of Edinburgh’s many festivals can be found here.

15 Free Edinburgh Experiences | The Alternative Atlas

7) The Water of Leith Walkway

A perfect spot to see local graffiti writers in action, this one is a gem that few visitors to the city know about.  We were the only people walking along this gorgeous riverbank nestled between tire shops and abandoned buildings in the industrial district of Leith.

15 Free Edinburgh Experiences | The Alternative Atlas

8) National Museum of Scotland

Let’s talk about this museum for a minute.  I liked it just as much as the Natural History Museum in London and it is way less crowded.  It’s a win-win!  Chambers Street, Edinburgh EH1 1JF

15 Free Edinburgh Experiences | The Alternative Atlas

9) The Fruitmarket Gallery

This contemporary art space is located next to Waverley station and is a must-see when visiting Edinburgh.  There are a number of free art venues around the city where you can check out some cutting edge work by internationally renowned artists.  To find the exhibitions that you are most interested in, make sure to take advantage of their free program guides throughout the city.  45 Market St, Edinburgh EH1 1DF

15 Free Edinburgh Experiences | The Alternative Atlas

10) St. Giles’ Cathedral

This church is located near the center of the Royal Mile and plays an important role in the city’s history: when Charles I tried to impose Anglican services in the Scottish church in 1637, market-woman Jenny Geddes threw her wooden stool at the Dean of Edinburgh’s head, and incited rioting which led to the National Covenant, the Bishop’s Wars, and the first conflicts of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, which included the English Civil War. Girl Power! The chair is commemorated with a bronze statue inside the church, but most of the tourist visitors don’t know this, and you will likely be the only person staring at a statue of a stool while everyone else photographs the beautiful religious relics.  High St, Edinburgh, Midlothian EH1 1RE

15 Free Edinburgh Experiences | The Alternative Atlas

11) Greyfriars Graveyard

This graveyard in the Old Town is said to be where J.K. Rowling went for inspiration for some of the characters names for the Harry Potter series.  Candlemaker Row, Edinburgh EH1 2QQ

15 Free Edinburgh Experiences | The Alternative Atlas

12) Edinburgh Castle

This castle dominates the skyline of downtown Edinburgh.  Of course there is an entrance fee to enter the gates (its known as the Iconic Scottish Tourist Attraction), but the scenic views of the castle from the surrounding parks are better and completely free!  Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2NG  

15 Free Edinburgh Experiences | The Alternative Atlas

13) Scottish National Gallery

Why is this number 13?  It should be number 1!  Scotland’s art museums are all completely free, and this is wonderful news for people on a budget who like to see priceless works of art in immaculate neoclassical buildings.  Like, you know, Rembrandts and stuff.  The Mound, Edinburgh EH2 2EL

15 Free Edinburgh Experiences | The Alternative Atlas

14) Farmers Markets!

Farmers markets are everywhere!  On Sundays there is a killer market just west of the castle.  Browse through the tents and check out the menagerie of organic vegetables, exotic meats, and locally sourced cheeses.  If you have a hard time finding the markets, just follow the scent of the freshly baked breads!  Yum!  Castle Terrace, Edinburgh, Midlothian EH52 6RH

15 Free Edinburgh Experiences | The Alternative Atlas

15) Free Walking Tours

SANDEMANs tours are always lead by a local specialist who is passionate about their city.  You are encouraged to assign whatever value you wish to the experience after the tour, so they are technically not free.  Usually the tours last about 2-3 hours, and they are a great opportunity to get your bearings in a new place and learn a lot about the history and local culture in the process.  It is common to tip the tour guide $10-$15 if you are happy with your experience, and there is a special place in hell for people who do not pay the guides.

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