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The Best Museums and Galleries to Visit in Edinburgh

New museums and art galleries in Edinburgh are constantly opening. Whether you want contemporary art or history and culture, you’re certain to find it in Scotland’s capital.

Top Museums and Art Galleries in Edinburgh

Are you looking to explore the art and culture in Edinburgh? Well, Edinburgh has so many things to see and do that it might feel a little overwhelming at first. That’s why exploring the city’s museums and galleries is a great way to get started. These locations offer insight into various aspects of the city, its history, and its people. You can learn everything from lodges to shipbuilding, medieval warfare, and the art of taxidermy. Here are some of the best museums and galleries you should visit in Edinburgh.

The magnificent City of Edinburgh. Photo by Adam Wilson

National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

The National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street is one of the most popular museums in Edinburgh. The museum covers various subjects from ancient Egypt to contemporary Scottish art and design. Its most famous exhibits are a collection of the stunning Lewis Chessmen and the iconic Iron Age Brooch of Balnaguard.

The museum also hosts changing exhibitions and events like family activities, talks, and film screenings. There’s also a shop on site with an amazing selection of gifts and souvenirs. Admission to the museum is free, so it’s a great place to start your exploration of Edinburgh’s museums and galleries.

Edinburgh Castle. Photo by Jorg Angeli

Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh

Edinburgh Castle sits high above the city on the rocky crag of Castle Rock. The oldest parts of the castle date back to the 1300s, and archaeological excavations have revealed that people have lived on the site for thousands of years.

The castle hosts a wide range of exhibitions, from traditional royal regalia to modern art. The world-famous Edinburgh Military Tattoo takes place at the Castle every August, with thousands of performers from all over the world participating. The castle is also the site of Scotland’s First Minister’s annual Hogmanay address on New Year’s Eve.

Camera Obscura, Royal Mile. Photo by George Kourounis

Camera Obscura and World of Illusions Museum, Edinburgh

The Camera Obscura on the city’s Royal Mile has entertained visitors to Edinburgh since the Victorian era. Now a museum, it houses a wide collection of optical illusions and a series of changing exhibitions.

One of the best-known attractions in Edinburgh, Camera Obscura is a must-see for every visitor to the city. The World of Illusions Museum next door is a fascinating collection of curiosities and optical illusions, a planetarium show, and a wide range of activities for young visitors.

The Royal Mile has plenty of hidden secrets beneath the streets. Photo by Jacob Capener

The Real Mary King’s Close

The Real Mary King’s Close is a unique attraction in Edinburgh. It’s a modern interpretation of an 18th-century tenement house discovered during an archaeological excavation in the 1970s. Visitors can explore the tenement house and learn about life in Edinburgh in the 17th century. The Real Mary King’s Close has regular special events and offers a great alternative to the city’s museums and galleries.

Museum of Childhood, Edinburgh

The Museum of Childhood on Ravelston Terrace is one of the most unusual museums in Edinburgh. It’s a collection of childhood toys, dolls, and games dating back hundreds of years. The museum also hosts regular childhood exhibitions in Scotland and worldwide.

The museum is great for children and adults alike. It’s an excellent place to take a breather from the city and take a trip down memory lane.

The Palace of Holyrood. Photo by Eleni Afiontzi

The Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh

The Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh is the Scottish Queen’s official residence. The palace has been the Queen’s official residence since the 16th century and is currently open to visitors from April to October.

The palace hosts various exhibitions on various subjects throughout the year. Highlights include The Scottish Crown Jewels, Scottish Fine Art, and a Royal Wedding exhibition that runs from June to October. The palace also has a shop and cafe on site.

Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh

One of the newest museums in Edinburgh is Dynamic Earth on the waterfront. The museum is a treasure trove of fascinating facts and amazing interactive exhibits. It explores the planet we live on and its place in the universe.

There are two great exhibitions on display. The first, Earth’s Fury, explores the planet’s extreme weather conditions and how humans survive them. The second, Deep Earth, examines how the planet’s core and crust formed and evolved.

A close up image of a green palm leaf
Royal Botanical Gardens Edinburgh

Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

The Royal Botanic Garden on Inverleith Row is one of the world’s most beautiful gardens. It’s also a top-notch museum with a wide range of exhibitions on various topics.

The garden’s exhibitions cover everything from the history of horticulture to the science of climate change. It’s a very family-friendly attraction with lots of activities, events, and things to see and do for all ages.

The garden is also home to the Tropical Forest, one of the largest indoor rainforest habitats in the UK.

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is one of the most interesting museums in Edinburgh. It’s a collection of portraits dating from the 16th century to the present day. The gallery also hosts changing exhibitions, covering subjects as diverse as art, photography, and science.

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is a must-see for art lovers. It’s fascinating to see how people from all walks of life have been captured by artists through the centuries.

National War Museum Scotland, Edinburgh

The National War Museum of Scotland on the Mound explores Scotland’s turbulent history and complicated relationship with war and violence. It’s a fascinating place to visit, with regular special exhibitions and events like talks and family activities.

The museum hosts a wide range of exhibitions, covering subjects as varied as Scottish soldiers in World War II, the Cold War, and the role of women in conflicts through the ages. It’s a great place to learn more about the Scottish people’s relationship with conflict and gain a more nuanced understanding of the war.

John Knox House

John Knox House is a fascinating museum dedicated to the life and work of Scotland’s national reformer, John Knox. The house was the home of Knox from 1514 to his death in 1572 and has been transformed into a visitor attraction that lets you discover more about the man and his fascinating life.

Visitors can explore the house and its exhibitions, which are full of fascinating artefacts, documents, artworks, and interactive displays, letting you discover more about the life and work of Knox, as well as the history and culture of Scotland from the 16th century.

John Knox House is an excellent place to visit for anyone interested in Scottish history, particularly people with a passion for religion and the Reformation.

The People’s Story Museum, Edinburgh

This small but captivating museum is located in a beautiful Georgian townhouse in Edinburgh’s New Town. The People’s Story is dedicated to telling the history and culture of Scotland, focusing on significant social developments rather than political or economic change.

The museum explores issues such as the position of women in society, the relationship between Scotland and England, and the impact of immigration. It is best known for its pioneering use of multi-media, interactive displays. The People’s Story also hosts a wide range of temporary exhibitions throughout the year and is a great place to learn more about Scottish culture, history, and society, particularly for younger visitors.

The People’s Story Museum is also within easy walking distance of many other popular Edinburgh attractions, such as Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Mile.

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is Scotland’s leading international modern and contemporary art gallery, featuring artists from the late 19th century to the present day. The SNGMA hosts a wide range of temporary exhibitions and has a permanent collection of around 3,000 artworks, ranging from early Impressionist paintings and Cubist masterpieces to cutting-edge contemporary art.

Both Modern One and Modern Two are located on Belford Road, about a 15-minute walk from the city’s main attractions. The gallery also has an excellent gift shop and café, which is the perfect spot for a break during your visit.

Museum on the Mound, Edinburgh

Edinburgh’s Museum on the Mound is one of the city’s most popular museums and a great place to visit if you’re interested in Scottish art, history, and culture. The museum is housed in the former Royal Bank of Scotland bank branch building, designed by Thomas Hamilton, the man behind Edinburgh’s famous architecture.

The museum’s collection includes fine art and ceramics, decorative and applied art, photographs, printed materials, textiles, and a fascinating collection of coins and banknotes. It is particularly well known for its extensive collection of artefacts related to the life and work of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns. The museum also hosts a wide range of temporary exhibitions throughout the year and is an excellent place to learn more about Scottish art, history, and culture.

Writers’ Museum, Edinburgh

The Writers’ Museum is a fascinating place to visit for any lover of literature or language and is located in the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town. The museum offers visitors the chance to learn more about Scotland’s rich literary heritage, featuring collections of rare manuscripts, letters, first editions, and rare books, as well as interactive displays and activities exploring language and literary achievements.

The museum also hosts a wide range of temporary exhibitions, where you can discover more about the work of famous authors or learn about new developments in language and communication. The Writers’ Museum is well worth a visit for anyone who loves words and ideas and is a great place to introduce children to the joy of reading.

Royal Yacht Britannia Staircase
Royal Yacht Britannia staircase

The Royal Yacht Britannia, Edinburgh

A trip to the shoreline in Leith in North East Edinburgh is certainly not complete without stepping onboard the Royal Yacht Britannia. Famously adored by the late HM Queen Elizabeth II, the Royal Yacht was in service from 1954 to 1997 and sailed the world. The interiors are equally as stunning and when I visited, I could not help but imagine just how wonderful it must have been to circumnavigate the globe in such style.

One of the most fascinating aspects about Britannia is how different life is onboard a royal yacht compared to what most of us have been used to – it is certainly a world away from crossing the channel onboard the Pride of Kent. So, if you can spare an afternoon and draw yourself away from the city centre, a trip down Leith Walk to visit this glorious vessel is certainly time well spent.

Conclusion

The Edinburgh arts scene is vibrant, meaning there are new places to explore and exhibitions to discover every year. If you’re planning a trip to learn culture and art, you now know the best museums in Edinburgh to visit.

From ancient artefacts to modern art, Edinburgh has something for everyone. Visit these museums and galleries on your trip, and you’re sure to see some amazing things.


About the author

Having worked across the heritage and tourism sector for over 10 years, Monty Beaumont is an expert when it comes to discovering new places to visit and great days out for the whole family. 

He has previously worked for the National Trust as a General Manager in Cornwall, coordinated the complex operations of running a castle in Devon and the mastered the intricacies of providing exceptional hospitality and service at some of the finest historic houses in the UK. 

As part of his vision and drive for Monty’s Guide, Monty travels across the country to find new places to visit and explore, and sharing his finding on montysguide.com, which is used by 1,000s of people each week to find their next great day out.

His experience and knowledge of the historic and cultural sector gives him a unique insight into the elements that make tourism and learning so important in our quest to understanding more about our heritage.

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