People used to call Edinburgh The Athens of the North. That's because the beautiful city is graced with architectural beauty and packed with world-class cultural institutions. Here are the best museums to visit without ever traveling far from the heart of the city.
The National Museum of Scotland
This museum on Chambers Street has something for everyone, from the history of Scotland, to exhibits on nature, art, design, fashion, science, and technology. Its four-story Grand Gallery is the largest exhibition installation in the U.K. The February 2019 completion of a 15-year, 80 million-pound redevelopment has added three striking new galleries highlighting ancient Egypt, East Asia, and Scotland's wonderful collection of ceramics. Don't miss the amazing Blaschka models—tiny, scientifically accurate glass models of plants and sea animals made by master glassblowers in the late 19th century.
The Scottish National Gallery
The Scottish National Gallery has a truly world-class collection of international fine art spread across a grand neoclassical building in the center of Edinburgh. Its treasures, from sculpture and painting to photography, include fine examples of Scottish, British, and European art from the Renaissance to the early 20th century. Among its treasures is "The Three Graces" by Antonio Canova, purchased for the nation (and shared with the V&A in London) after much publicity and a public fundraising drive. "The Monarch of the Glen" by Edwin Landseer, a work considered one of the greatest British paintings of the 19th century, is displayed here alongside works by European Old Masters and leading Scottish artists.
Note: Because of construction works going on until Spring 2020, there is no elevator access to the upper floors.
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
Save this museum for a sunny day because part of the pleasure of visiting it is a stroll through its sculpture park. Part of the lawn is a work of art in itself, designed by artist Charles Jenks. The museum is housed in two early 19th-century, neoclassical buildings—Modern One and Modern Two—on either side of Belford Road. Rather than displaying permanent exhibitions, these two buildings present changing exhibitions from the national collection of modern and contemporary art.
The Scottish National Portrait Gallery
The Scottish National Portrait Gallery was the world's first purpose-built portrait gallery. The red sandstone, neo gothic castle on Queen Street was designed to be a glittering palace to honor Scotland's heroes and heroines. The building, with its many gilded friezes and sculptural embellishments, is an attraction in and of itself. The foundation of this gallery was based on the 18th century collection of the eccentric 11th Earl of Buchan. It has since expanded to include a national collection of photographic portraits, 3D portraits, and digital art. Exhibitions change regularly but be on the lookout for portraits of Mary Queen of Scots, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and a rather bizarre portrait of actor Alan Cummings by Christian Hook. You'll find many famous historical figures including several portraits of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Note: A shuttle bus makes an hourly circuit between the Scottish National Gallery, the National Gallery of Modern Art and the National Portrait Gallery. The bus is free but a donation of one pound is suggested.
The Writers' Museum
The legacies of writers Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson are indelibly etched in the history of Scottish literature. This museum is devoted to them and is a real find for literary groupies. Inside you'll find the original press on which Sir Walter Scott's Waverley novels were printed (including "Ivanhoe," "Rob Roy," "The Heart of Midlothian," "The Bride of Lammermoor," and many more). There are manuscripts, portraits, and personal objects including Burns' writing desk and a ring given to Robert Louis Stevenson by a Samoan chief and engraved with the Samoan translation of "a teller of tales." One of the items connected to Stevenson is a wardrobe cabinet made for him by Deacon Brodie. Brodie's double life as a housebreaker and thief may have inspired Stevenson's story of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."
The Museum of Childhood
Be warned, if you take your children to visit the world's first museum devoted to childhood, you probably won't have time to do much of anything else. Full of exhibits and hands-on experiences with toys of the past and present, there are dozens of Dinky cars, doll houses, games, puppets, child-sized cars, and model planes to look at, and sometimes handle. The exhibits of children's clothes chart the development of the concept of childhood and the museum explores the process of growing up.
The Surgeons' Hall Museums
Anyone with a historical interest in medicine, or a taste for the gruesome, will enjoy the three medical museums collectively known as the Surgeons' Hall. They include the Wohn Pathology Museum, one of the largest collections of anatomical pathology in the world; The History of Surgery Museum, where you can learn about the history of murderers and body snatchers who provided teaching "samples" to surgeons in training; and The Dental Collection, with paintings, Japanese woodcuts, and dental instruments illustrating the development of everyone's least favorite medical profession. A highlight is the story of murderers and body snatchers Burke and Hare, who provided bodies for dissection.
This is one of Edinburgh's most popular modern attractions, especially for families. It tells the story of planet Earth from the Big Bang onward. It's among the newer kinds of child-centric science museums that focus on interactive experiences, and films rather than than dry exhibits. Fans of earth science, dinosaurs, or underwater, jungle, and space adventures will love it. Visitors travel through time, space, and climate zones. Short films are shown in the Show Dome, Scotland's only 360-degree, digital theater.
Have you ever wondered what one million pounds looks like? One of the highlights of the Museum on the Mound is a case stacked with one million smackers in cancelled Bank of Scotland 20 pound notes. Located in the Bank of Scotland's historic head office on The Mound, this museum tells the surprisingly entertaining story of money. You can explore the tools of highwaymen and thieves, find out how money has evolved over 4,000 years, try your hand at cracking a safe, and see the bank's first ledger—a book for signing up investors.
St. Cecilia's Hall
St. Cecilia's Hall, built in 1762 for the Edinburgh Musical Society, is Scotland's oldest concert hall. It is also home to one of the world's great collections of musical instruments. A hidden gem in the heart of the Old Town, it is now part of the University of Edinburgh and the university's first museum. The collection of 400 instruments includes several beautiful 18th-century harpsichords, some of which are playable. This is probably the only place in the world where you can hear 18th-century music played on 18th-century instruments in an original, 18th-century setting.