Scotland is not known for its sunny weather, nor is it very easy to predict our weather, since forecasts change so quickly all the time. Edinburgh is a fantastic city to explore in the sunshine, but there’s also no shortage of options for when the weather isn’t so great. So here are some of my suggestions of things to do in Edinburgh on a rainy day, including a variety of free and paid activities!
National Museum of Scotland
The National Museum takes up pretty much all of one side of Chambers Street, so as you can imagine, there’s loads to see inside to keep you entertained for hours. The main hall is actually a beautiful piece of architecture in itself, with its balconies and lots of natural light filtering in. There are exhibitions on lots of different topics, including Science & Technology, Natural History, World Cultures, and Art & Design. Look out for the giant T-Rex skeleton! A lot of the exhibitions have interactive features too, which is great for keeping both kids and adults engaged. The entire west wing, a more modern addition to the building, is devoted to Scottish History, as you travel forward in time with each floor you go up. There’s also the temporary exhibition space, which has a new theme every few months – the rest of the museum is free, but this part is paid, however it means there’s always something new to see. And don’t forget to visit the rooftop terrace for views of the Old Town, if the weather does brighten up for a moment!
These are just a few minutes walk away from each other (or the free Artlink bus connects them) in the New Town, the first being in the middle of Princes Street Gardens, and the second on Queen Street. Both are free to enter as well, so this is an obvious choice for any art lovers! The National Gallery is a lovely Neoclassical style building, like a Grecian temple, and filled with artwork from many periods and in many styles. The upper floor is full of Impressionism, the ground floor has some of the larger artworks, dating back to the Renaissance, and the basement level is devoted entirely to Scottish artists over the years. Meanwhile in the Portrait Gallery, you can see more works by Scottish artists, and portraits of notable Scots, including many royals and Enlightenment figures. There’s a huge frieze lining the top of the entrance hall, depicting famous Scots throughout history, and a photography gallery featuring more recent works.
Edinburgh has lots of museums to choose from, and the majority are free to visit (donations welcome), so you can find one to suit your own interests. However, my favourite is the Writer’s Museum, which is appropriate given that Edinburgh is a UNESCO City of Literature. The museum is inside Lady Stair’s House, a beautiful old townhouse hidden in one of the Old Town closes. Edinburgh has been home to dozens of writers over the years, but the museum focusses on Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Robert Burns, three of the most notable and influential. It houses items and belongings from their homes and lives, as well as early editions of their works and letters they wrote. You can see Burns’s writing desk, Stevenson’s riding boots and Samoan ring, and the printing press used for Scott’s works. Even if you haven’t read their works, it’s still well worth stopping by to have a look!
Not every museum in the city is free, but it might be worth splashing out on some of the others! Dynamic Earth is an interactive sort of museum, located at the foot of Arthur’s Seat, devoted to the Earth’s natural history. Take a time machine back to the Big Bang, and journey through volcanoes, earthquakes, and glaciers to experience how the Earth was formed. Then, explore various climate zones, from the rainforests to the oceans – you’ll quickly forget about the Scottish rain outside when it feels like you’re halfway around the world instead! It’s a fascinating space, full of immersive exhibits, and a lot of fun for both children and adults. Your visit ends with the ShowDome, a 360 degree screen stretched overhead, which plays a variety of short films about the Earth – and keep an eye out for their after hours screenings of special films as well!
If historic buildings are your thing, then Edinburgh Castle is usually the obvious choice for visitors to the city. However, given that much of a Castle visit takes place outdoors, it isn’t always the best choice for a rainy day – consider Holyrood Palace, at the other end of the Royal Mile as an alternative! Although your ticket does include a visit to the palace gardens to finish, most of the rest of it takes place inside. The Scottish monarchy used to live in the Palace, and the current Royal Family still use it as their official residence when visiting the city. Your ticket includes an audio guide, which explains in detail what each room was used for, and some of the most notable events to take place, from Bonnie Prince Charlie’s lavish balls in the Great Gallery, to the assassination of David Riccio, secretary to Mary Queen of Scots, and killed by her own husband Lord Darnley, in a small chamber off her bedroom! It’s a beautiful building, full of lavish furniture, tapestries, and paintings, and with a colourful, exciting history to uncover.
While this may not seem like something exclusive to Edinburgh – lots of cities have a ‘World of Illusions’ type experience, it’s the actual camera obscura on the roof which I think makes this a worthwhile place to visit. You can escape the rainy weather with several floors of optical illusions, mirror mazes, light effects, holographic imagery, and more. It’s a fun, oftentimes silly experience, but also educational about the effects being used. Then, inside the rooftop dome, you get to see the camera obscura itself. It was created in the 1835, by Maria Theresa Short – an impressive achievement for a female entrepreneur at that time! – and the technology hasn’t changed since then. Sit down where thousands of others have for centuries, and watch as the city comes to life on the circular screen in the centre of the room. You will be viewing live images of Edinburgh – on a clear day, you will get to see further afield, but it can also zoom in on the nearby streets, meaning you’ll still get to see plenty on a gloomier day!
Head to the Pub!
If none of these options takes your fancy, then you can always go to the pub instead! Edinburgh has over 700 pubs around the city, and a survey in the past has said this is the highest concentration per square mile of any city in the UK! There’s something for everyone as well, from the more upmarket bars of the New Town, compared to the traditional older pubs of the Old Town, particularly the Grassmarket and Cowgate area, and anywhere around the city centre, you’ll find locals rubbing shoulder with tourists and the city’s large international community, so get ready to meet people from all over the world. There are Irish pubs and Australian pubs, stand up comedy and pub quizzes, sports bars and folk music pubs, cocktail bars and whisky bars and craft beer pubs… So there really is something to suit everyone’s tastes!
Check out my Hidden Gems and my A-Z, for more things to do in Edinburgh!