Edinburgh is a beautiful city; from Arthur’s Seat to the Castle, it is a place bustling with both physical and cultural activities to carry out alone, with family or even friends. However, when I first arrived in Edinburgh in autumn 2019 I found it difficult to engage with the city’s numerous cultural opportunities, as I was preoccupied with fresher events, meeting new people, making friends, and going out. While these are both essential and entertaining parts of university life, I would have found it helpful to have a simple guide to Edinburgh’s cultural events and places so that I could maintain my passion for art and history alive while simultaneously navigating my new life as a university student. So, without further ado, here is a student-friendly guide to Edinburgh’s best museums and galleries!:
Artwork by Mariam Tovmasyan (IG: Tomwunderbar).
The National Galleries of Scotland
This is perhaps the most famous art museum in Edinburgh, as it houses Scotland’s national collection of fine art. We can link its origins to the Royal Institution for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts in Scotland, founded in 1819, when it started to acquire paintings. It is an umbrella organisation comprised of three different museums, all of which are located in Edinburgh. Admission is free for all three, making it a great option for students on a budget! It consists of:
The Scottish National Gallery - The Mound
Located right next to Princes Street Gardens, this was the first of the three museums to be founded. It contains Scottish and International art spanning from the beginning of the Renaissance up until the start of the twentieth-century. Among its most famous works of art are Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen and Botticelli’s Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ. This museum is a must-see if you’d like to get introduced to European Old Masters’ art.
The Portrait Gallery - Queen Street
As suggested by the name, this gallery specialises in Portrait Paintings, mostly dedicated to important individuals throughout Scottish History. It houses an impressive portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, created by an unknown artist. Exhibited on the second floor, it is the museum’s main attraction. The Portrait Gallery has the advantage of being in a great spot - right in the middle of New Town. It is particularly close to St. James’ Shopping Centre. A trip to this museum would be for a cultural break during a day of shopping, or even for relaxing around the area. Make sure to check it out!
Modern Art Gallery - Belford Road
Completing the National Galleries trio is the Modern Art Gallery, which displays works of art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including sculptures by the renowned Joan Miró. If you like parks and gardens for a bit of fresh air, look no further, as this museum has a beautiful front-lawn designed by landscape architect Charles Jencks. This is also a great way to get to know a corner of the city that students do not usually venture to. Why not take a stroll around the quaint Dean’s Village while you’re in the area, walk along the beautiful Water of Leith, or explore the quirky independent shops of Stockbridge?
Fruitmarket - Market St.
This is a modern and contemporary art gallery that opened in 1974, located just in front of Waverly Train Station. Its permanent collection contains mostly works from the early twentieth-century, particularly from the Art Nouveau movement, but most of its spaces are dedicated to temporary displays. Currently, it features an exhibition by Glasgow-based artist Hayley Tompkins. It is also committed to presenting work by up-and-coming artists and amateurs, as is evident by its upcoming Endless Love Creative Makers workshop and exhibition of Scottish craft and design. Fantastic for a quick visit if you have some time before catching a train!
Jupiter Artland - The Steadings
This contemporary sculpture park is situated in the outskirts of Edinburgh (sitting on the grounds of 19th-century villa Bonnington House) making it perfect for a fun day-trip out of the city. It was founded in 2009 by philanthropist art collectors Robert and Nicki Wilson, and it houses an eclectic collection of contemporary sculptures spreading over 100 acres of meadow and indoor spaces. However, there is a catch! It is only open to the general public in the summer months, from May to September. The good news is that if you’re impatient, they are hosting a Christmas Fair event on 3 and 4 December. Could it beat Edinburgh’s Christmas Market?
National Museum of Scotland - Chambers Street
Its varied blend of natural history displays, historic scientific advancements exhibitions, as well as rooms dedicated to the antiquities and customs of different cultures around the world makes this a museum catered to everyone’s interest. The Grand Gallery is architecturally beautiful, featuring long columns, arches, and a glass ceiling letting in natural sunlight. This spot is a must-see for a culture trip and is particularly well-suited for groups of friends with passions, as anyone can find something they like in here!
People’s Story Museum - Canongate
If you are interested in social Scottish history, then look no further. This unique museum is aimed at telling the often overlooked story of working-class people in Scotland from the 18th-century to the late 20th century. Its displays include tableaux, objects, original artifacts, waxworks and letters that manifest the social issues of the past two centuries, relating them to contemporary contexts.
Museum of Childhood - High Street
Ready for some nostalgia? Perhaps the city’s most peculiar museum, it was the first place in the world to be dedicated to the history of children and childhood. In its spaces you will find childrens’ toys, clothes, games, books and dolls, spanning from the beginning of the 19th-century to the present day. Amongst its favourite objects are the BuzzLightyear action-figure from the Toy Story film, an original x-box, and a Radio Rex - a voice-activated toy from the 1920s.
There you have it! I hope this guide has been helpful, and if you have any more museum or gallery recommendations, feel free to contact us! We would love to hear your thoughts!