Old Town Museums (Self Guided), Edinburgh

Popular for its rich cultural heritage, Edinburgh attracts a large number of tourists towards its numerous history and science museums that tell the compelling story of Scotland. Edinburgh is also a city where many locals spend their free time visiting galleries and attending art events. You can find amazing collections of original artwork in the many exhibitions around town. Take this tour and see the most important museums in the Old Town of Edinburgh.
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Old Town Museums Map

Guide Name: Old Town Museums
Guide Location: Scotland » Edinburgh (See other walking tours in Edinburgh)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 8
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.0 Km or 1.2 Miles
Author: Helen
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • National Museum of Scotland
  • Writers' Museum & Makar’s Court
  • Scotch Whisky Experience
  • Museum on the Mound
  • Museum of Childhood
  • John Knox House
  • People's Story Museum
  • Museum of Edinburgh
National Museum of Scotland

1) National Museum of Scotland (must see)

The National Museum of Scotland, situated on Chambers Street near the George IV Bridge, is the principal depository of Scottish and worldwide collections of artefacts, antiques, science and technology in the country.

It was created in 2006 when the Royal Museum and the Museum of Scotland merged and were linked internally by opening former storage areas and the creation of the Grand Gallery. The display areas spread from the basement to the roof and the vaulted Entrance Hall is huge and truly amazing, covering an area of 1400 square metres.

The central space of the Grand Gallery contains large objects that don’t fit into the smaller exhibitions, so it is a potpourri of wonderful items. The “Window on the World” is an impressive 20 metres high and contains over 800 diverse objects. Each side of the Grand Gallery displays “Discoveries” made by Scottish inventors.

There is something to interest everyone here; from one of Elton John’s more extravagant outfits to ancient Egyptian mummies with CT scans next to them, showing everything that is hiding under their wrappings!

The antiques collection is amazing and provides insight into history and past cultures. The kids will love the Natural History section with its display of dinosaur bones and extinct animals.

With 16 new galleries, opened in 2011, and a further 8,000 original objects exhibited, a visit to the National Museums is an excellent way to spend the day.

Why You Should Visit:
Not a typical museum – a blend of exhibits catering to everyone's interests.
Following a hefty £47-mln refurbishment/extension, the building is amazing both inside & outside.
There's a café & bistro if you are feeling peckish or just want to take a break from exploring. And best of all, the entry is free!

Go early, start at the top and work your way down, or try a private guided tour.
There are some great 'hands-on' exhibits, so take your time if you are with kids.
Check beforehand for exhibits that may cost extra (usually not much).

Opening Hours:
Mon-Sun: 10am–5pm
Writers' Museum & Makar’s Court

2) Writers' Museum & Makar’s Court

Many a people dream of being a successful author with the riches and acclaim that go with the job. A visit to the Writer’s Museum on the Mound probably won’t help anyone on this way, but it will certainly give a great insight to some of Scotland’s most distinguished writers, so you shouldn’t miss visiting it.

You will find the museum in the Lady Stair’s House in the Close of the same name. The house was built in 1622 and was bought by the Dowager Countess of Stair in the late 18th century. Her descendants donated the property to the city of Edinburgh in 1907 on the premise that they use it for a museum of some sort.

Subsequently, they turned it into a museum dedicated to Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, showcasing mementoes of these and other Scottish writers. The house is beautifully decorated in clear colours and gives visitors the feeling of stepping back in time.

The museum's collection features primarily the personnel items of these three great writers, including a plaster cast of Robert Burns’ skull, Sir Walter Scott’s wooden rocking horse, a book won by Robert Louis Stevenson when he was at school, and more.

You will see Scott’s personal dining room, taken from his house and lovingly recreated here, along with his chessboard and the original printing press where his Waverley novels were printed. There is also a scale model of the Scott Monument.

On Robert Burns’ writing desk you will find manuscripts and rough copies of his works, with mistakes neatly crossed out and jottings in the margins of the pages. Also displayed here are the favourite fishing rod of Robert Stevenson and the photos of his life in Samoa.

There are many temporary exhibitions displaying the works of contemporary Scottish writers, plus a terrific gift shop where you can buy copies of the writers’ books.

Makars' Court is the courtyard next to the Writers' Museum. It forms part of Lady Stair's Close, which connects the Lawnmarket with The Mound to the North. Described as an "evolving national literary monument", the courtyard incorporates quotations from Scottish literature inscribed onto paving slabs. The quotations represent works in the languages used by Scots past and present: Gaelic, Scots, English, and Latin.

Opening Hours: Monday-Sunday: 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
Scotch Whisky Experience

3) Scotch Whisky Experience (must see)

What's the difference between “whisky” and “whiskey”? If you don’t know, visit The Scotch Whisky Experience to find the answer and discover a whole lot of other interesting facts about Scotland’s favourite tipple.

This interactive museum is great fun, even for children, who have their own guide – “Peat the Cat”, that will take them on an exciting tour full of fascinating facts and games. For adults, the journey through the museum begins with a barrel ride taking them through a mechanical replica of one of the first whisky distilleries. In there, the “Whisky Ghost” will tell you all about the distilling process.

Leaving the distillery, you’ll enter the MacIntyre Whisky Gallery where you will learn some, but not all the secrets about how the different whisky flavours are attained. Certain procedures are kept secret to keep the competition guessing! From this gallery, you’ll continue into the Sense of Scotland and experience the heady aromas of various types of whisky.

Finally, you’ll visit the tasting room where you will certainly find a whisky to suit your taste buds – just don’t ask for ice or soda, as these additives are almost hanging offenses! The museum has a wonderful shop with over 300 different malts on offer and gift boxes of miniatures.

The shop is open to the museum visitors and general public alike, but if you have taken the tour, you will have a generous discount on your purchases.

Why You Should Visit:
To feast your eyes on the largest collection of unopened whiskies with around 3400 different bottles valued at millions of pounds. To learn some history and tasting tips, plus to get to try whisky on its own, as well as with the artisan Scottish cheese and chocolate.

If you go on a tour, sign up for “gold” option if you like to sample whisky to your heart's content; otherwise, sign up for "silver", which is for those not keen on whisky that much but still wanting to learn about the distilling process.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 10am-6:30pm
Museum on the Mound

4) Museum on the Mound

The Museum on the Mound is an enriching and eye-opening experience that you really shouldn’t miss.

This fascinating museum opened in 2006 and is housed in the former Bank of Scotland headquarters which is decorated with portraits of notable Scottish bankers, pictures and maps showing Edinburgh over the centuries. But the museum isn’t about the history of the city; it’s about money. It is one of the three banking museums in the United Kingdom.

It covers over 4000 years of the history of money – from the time when goods were paid for in feathers, sand, salt or tea to the modern credit cards. You’ll learn about how the banking system evolved from people leaving their savings hidden in churches and monasteries to futuristic electronic banking.

You will see coins galore and bank notes from over the ages, including the first Scottish bank note printed in 1727. One gallery is dedicated to the history of the Bank of Scotland.

There are interesting interactive displays and you can even try your hand at cracking a safe! In the Forgery Section you will learn the different methods used by notorious forgers and behind a glass display case is a million pounds in bank notes. Don’t get any ideas from your safe-cracking experiment – the notes are genuine, but cancelled!

Hours: Tuesday-Friday: 10:00 am – 5:00 pm; Saturday: 1:00 – 5:00 pm, closed on Sundays.
Museum of Childhood

5) Museum of Childhood

If your kids are a bit fed up with visiting ancient monuments and galleries, it’s time to take them to the Museum of Childhood on the Royal Mile.

Back in the early 1950s, Patrick Murray, a member of the Edinburgh Council, realized that a lot of children weren’t so keen on the museums their parents took them to on cold, wet days. So he began to think about a museum dedicated to children and everything that centers around kids – their education, health and, of course, their toys and games. In this way, he hoped to amuse and educate both children and adults. In 1955 he founded the Museum of Childhood.

It is really a great place for everyone; the exhibits are spread out in five galleries over five floors and deal, as Mr. Murray had hoped, with every aspect of childhood. In the Education section, your children can learn about how schools were run between 1950 and the present day, and see photos of classic classrooms. Different uniforms are on display, as well as the famous “birch rod”, used to discipline unruly pupils.

There are wonderful hands-on activities with a dressing-up room and a puppet theatre. And of course, there are toys all over the place! The children will see and learn about the toys and games that kept you and your parents happy long before video games were ever thought of. They can play with dolls and teddy bears, tin soldiers with cannons that fire match-sticks, numerous board games, train sets and other toys from around the world.

The museum has a wonderful toy shop, where your kids will quickly find a special toy to take home – and where you can perhaps buy a replacement for that favourite teddy of yours that you cuddled up with back in your childhood.

Why You Should Visit:
To step back in time – this place is not just for families. There are all sort of interesting toys & games on display, some dating back centuries, others from recent past decades.

Free entry, but there are donation boxes, as well as funny things and souvenirs you can buy on the ground floor.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 10am-5pm
John Knox House

6) John Knox House

House museums are always interesting to visit, not only because you get a fascinating insight into the lives of the building’s former occupants, but also because you can see what things were in fashion back in the day. John Knox House is no exception.

Built around 1490, this is the oldest house on the Royal Mile. It has wonderful hand-painted ceilings, oak beams and wooden galleries. Today it is owned and managed by the Church of Scotland, but previously it belonged to James Mossman, who was a royal goldsmith. He fashioned the crown for Mary, Queen of Scots, and later, the crown for her son, King James VI of Scotland.

Whether John Knox, the 16th century Protestant Reformer, actually ever lived here is debatable, but the house, which had become badly dilapidated, was saved from demolition in the 18th century by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, who put about the rumour that this had been Knox’s home before he died.

The house museum is a great place to visit for anyone who is interested in religious history as there are many manuscripts and artefacts from the Reformation period, including papers placed in a time capsule by Knox.

The museum is part of the Scottish Story-Telling Centre, and the history of Knox, Mossman and life in Edinburgh before and after the Reformation are related by guides in dress costume. There is a special room for children, full of puzzles, where they can dress up as John Knox.

Opening Hours:
Monday-Saturday: 10:00 am – 6:00 pm; Sundays: 10 am – 6 pm (July & August only)
People's Story Museum

7) People's Story Museum

Learning about Scotland’s royalty and nobility is all very interesting, but sometimes you may wonder – what about the commoners, how did they live? The answer can be found at the People’s Story Museum.

Housed in Canongate Tolbooth, built in 1591 and once a customs house and jail, this museum tells the history of Edinburgh, as seen through the eyes of those who lived and worked here, from the 18th century to the present.

A written and oral presentation, backed up with photographs, drawings and artefacts, will take you through the day-to-day lives of regular folk, both at work and at home. You will visit beautifully recreated replicas of a bookbinder’s shop, a pub, a prison cell, a tea-room and a war-time kitchen, all filled with copies of the original objects once used by ordinary people.

In the Edinburgh Life section you will see how communities helped each other; how they protested against injustice and the meetings and rallies they held. Working in Edinburgh showcases how books, beer and cakes were made in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Leith Collection focuses on work in the shipyards, how ships were built, repaired and unloaded in the docks. The Newhaven Collection covers working and day-to-day life in a small fishing community, while At Home in Edinburgh displays household items, such as furniture, crockery, cutlery, domestic appliances, record players and toys.

This fascinating museum is very much kids-friendly too, as it offers a glimpse into life without mobile phones or MP4 players! The museum shop sells books and gift items related to the objects on display.

Opening Hours: daily 10:00 – 17:00
Museum of Edinburgh

8) Museum of Edinburgh

A visit to the Museum of Edinburgh, set in the 16th century Huntley House on The Royal Mile, is the one not to be missed, for sure. Housed in the former Guild of Hammermen building, this wonderful museum is all about the origins, history and legends of the city.

In addition to the many fine silverware objects displayed here, there is also a collection of beautiful glassware engraved in nearby Canongate, fine Scottish pottery, magnificent grandfather clocks and a Sedan chair. The interactive area, apart from hosting workshops and quizzes, allows visitors to dress up in period costumes representing fashion of different epochs. Each item within the museum is clearly labeled with a short description about its history and origins.

Among these, you can see relics from a 1st century Roman settlement unearthed during excavations in Cramond, a small village to the north-west of Edinburgh, where the River Almond empties into the Firth of Forth.

You will also find the original copy of the National Covenant, James Craig’s designs for the New Town and Greyfriars Bobby’s dog dish and collar. There is a “rogues’ gallery” of sorts, where you will meet Deacon Brodie, who was a cabinet maker by day and a house-breaker by night, or Burke and Hare, the infamous body-snatchers who sold their gruesome merchandise to Dr Robert Knox of the University of Medicine.

Opening Hours: daily 10:00 – 17:00

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