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5 of the best free things to do in Edinburgh this winter

Are you planning to visit the Scottish capital for Hogmanay celebrations on 31 December? Why not come earlier and spend more time in Edinburgh exploring its fantastic array of free attractions this winter? What is already a beautiful city is even more alluring when bathed in winter sunshine, dusted with frost and buzzing with Christmas spirit, so there's no time like the festive season to visit!

1. National Galleries of Scotland

Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Not one, not two, not even three but four buildings across Edinburgh house an astounding collection of art and are all well worth a visit. And, aside from certain paid-for exhibitions, all of the National Galleries of Scotland are free admission. Princes Street in the city centre is where you head to see iconic works from the Masters of 14th – 18th century European art at the National; then stroll over to the National Portrait Gallery nearby, before ending the day at the Modern Ggallery, which is set across two buildings in a magnificent sculpture park.

Why go this winter? Obviously for the art…but there’s also free still life drawing sessions on certain dates at the National and drop-in easel sketching workshops at the Portrait where you can let your creative flair run free.

Scottish National Gallery

2. The National Museum of Scotland

Light streams into the Grand Gallery inside The National Museum of Scotland. Wrought iron railings and ironwork

Seven levels of spectacular exhibitions await you at this fascinating free attraction in Edinburgh’s picturesque Old Town. The National Museum of Scotland is packed with intriguing displays and insights into science and technology, fashion, the natural world and art and design that will keep you busy all day. Gain a wonderful insight into Scotland from prehistory to the present day in its must-visit Scottish Galleries.

Why go this winter? Are you fascinated by science? Science Saturday sessions run on selected days, meaning specialist talks, hands-on activities and science demonstrations. Immerse yourself in the fight against tropical diseases at the Parasites: Battle for Survival exhibition from early December. And don’t forget to make a note in the diary to remember Tyrannosaurs from 23 January – a comprehensive exhibition using innovative technology to help bring the most feared and revered dinosaur to life!

National Museum of Scotland

3. Royal Botanic Gardens

Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. Credit: VisitScotland/Paul Tomkins

Proving that gardens are not just for summer, visitors can appreciate the gorgeous winter landscape of the Royal Botanic Gardens, which are split across three themes and stretch across an impressive 70 acres. Discover seasonal flora and fauna as well as modern sculptures and installations dotted throughout. There is a fee for the Victorian glass houses but if you don’t want to spend any money, you can still admire the exterior of this stunning piece of architecture.

Why go this winter? Check out the fascinating Botanic Cottage on one of its Open Doors Days for an insight into its history and usage. Travelling with your family? Bring them along to meet the Edible Gardening team on Monday’s and Tuesday’s in November and grow young ones’ understanding of the environment.

Royal Botanic Gardens

4. Calton Hill

Calton Hill, Edinburgh. Credit: VisitScotland/Kenny Lam

Pack your camera because a walk up Calton Hill, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, will result in some of the best views of Edinburgh. Aside from the remarkable vistas over the city, this is also where you’ll find some of Scotland’s legendary monuments, including Nelson’s Monument and the National Monument. It’s also home to the Royal Observatory, which has a visitor centre to explore and which also hosts public events such as astronomy evenings.

Why go this winter? Catch the sunrise from its summit too – the beauty of a winter sunrise is that you won’t need such an early start to the day to view it!

Calton Hill

5. Window shopping

Edinburgh's Christmas Tree. Credit: VisitScotland/Kenny Lam.

Even if you don’t want to splurge the cash, Edinburgh’s lovely shops and markets are worth exploring just for a spot of window shopping. From Princes Street to the Farmers’ Market, and pretty boutiques to uniquely Scottish stores, there’s plenty to explore to gather inspiration for your wish list.

Why go this winter? Come 16 November (until 4 January 2020) the East Princes Street Gardens will be alive with festive stalls, twinkling lights and delicious food as the annual Christmas Market gets underway. Take in panoramic views from the top of the Big Wheel, explore the Christmas Tree maze or brave a spin on the 60-metre-high Star Flyer! Make sure you're there for Light Night, when choirs from across Scotland will perform and the Christmas Tree on the Mound will be lit as part of the Light Night switch on.

East Princes Street Gardens
27 Mar 2020(last updated)