An insider's guide to Edinburgh
Edinburgh is a city packed with history and culture, just waiting to be discovered with a National Art Pass. Local lifestyle blogger Gillian McDonald went exploring to let us in on some tips.
From world-famous institutions to smaller hidden gems, there’s something to suit just about everyone in Edinburgh – whether you’re visiting for the weekend or are a local looking to make the most of what your city has to offer.
Art Fund challenged me to see what more I could discover in my own city with a National Art Pass. Here are a few of my must-see places to visit in the Scottish capital.
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is one of those places I’ve been meaning to visit for years, but have never quite got around to. Now seemed like the perfect time to go, as entry to their current exhibition, A New Era: Scottish Modern Art 1900-1950, is only £5 with a National Art Pass.
Set in the beautiful leafy suburbs of Edinburgh’s West End, the gallery is spread across two sites with a sculpture park in between. The impressive Georgian gallery buildings are home to an inspiring collection of modern and contemporary art from both Scottish artists and notable figures from across the world.
A New Era focuses on Scottish artists from the first half of the 20th century. These emerging artists were influenced by the Modernist art movements in Europe, and the result is a unique blend of Scottish and continental ideas. There are over 100 paintings, sculptures and drawings to take in, from artists like Margaret Mellis, JD Fergusson, William Gear and Alan Davie.
I love modern art because it’s so varied and interesting. It’s really quite fun as well – even if you think it isn’t for you, you’ll always find some unusual and thought-provoking pieces. One of my favourite exhibits was a life-sized recreation of sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi’s studio.
National Museum of Scotland
The National Museum of Scotland is a favourite among locals, and I’ve visited many times over the years. Entry is free, so it’s the perfect place to spend a rainy afternoon discovering the diverse collections.
It really does have a little bit of everything – from natural history and world cultures to fashion and technology. As a Scottish History graduate, I have a soft spot for the Scottish History and Archaeology galleries, which include information and artefacts from the Picts all the way to the present day. On the top floor, you’ll even find a secret roof terrace with amazing views of Edinburgh.
If you head back towards the Grand Gallery, a stunning Victorian atrium, and up the stairs, you’ll find the exhibition space – currently hosting the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, which is 50% off with a National Art Pass.
On tour from the Natural History Museum in London, this always-popular exhibition features over 100 incredible images of animals in their natural habitats by both professional and amateur photographers. I particularly loved the underwater photos, giving us a glimpse into a usually unseen world. Look out for Swim Gym by Laurent Ballesta, showing two playful seals underneath the Antarctic ice, and Justin Hofman's striking Sewage Surfer, which captures a seahorse carrying a discarded cotton bud – a timely reminder of the importance of caring for our planet.
When I was a student I volunteered as a guide at the Georgian House, so I was looking forward to heading back for the first time in a few years. Not much has changed – in fact, not much has changed since the late 1700s. Located in Edinburgh’s famous New Town, the Georgian House is a grand townhouse which has been beautifully restored to show what life was like during the Georgian era.
Entry is usually £8, but it’s free to visit with a National Art Pass. Each room is laid out exactly how it would have been when the house was originally built in 1796. Designed by renowned architect Robert Adam, the house encapsulates the luxury of the era of enlightenment, with a stunning first-floor drawing room overlooking Charlotte Square.
All the rooms, including the bedroom, dining room, parlour and kitchen, have been carefully decorated and filled with original and reproduction furniture which would have been common at the time. Visiting the Georgian House is a fascinating way to step back time and really immerse yourself in the experience as you walk through the rooms. Don’t forget to chat to the guides to find out even more about the history of the property!
Surgeons' Hall Museums
If, like me, you’re a fan of all things creepy, gory and a little bit unusual, you’ll love Surgeons’ Hall Museums. It’s home to the largest and most historic collection of surgical pathology in the world, as well as various other specimens and artefacts showing Edinburgh’s contribution to modern medicine. There are lots of things floating in jars, so it’s not for the faint-hearted, but the recently redeveloped museum is a fascinating showcase for how far surgery has advanced.
Enjoy free entry with a National Art Pass, and discover collections including the Wohl Pathology Museum, the History of Surgery Museum and the Dental Collection. As you enter the museum, you’re greeted with a mini anatomy lecture theatre, complete with a virtual autopsy so you can see what surgery would have been like 200 years ago.
Elsewhere, you’ll find artefacts relating to the infamous case of Burke and Hare – the murderous duo who sold their victims’ corpses to Dr Robert Knox for his anatomy lectures. Exhibits include items from the doctor’s personal collection and a leather pocketbook made from William Burke’s skin after he was hanged and publicly dissected.
Scottish National Gallery
If fine art is more your thing, you should definitely pay a visit to the Scottish National Gallery. Entry to the building is always free, but keep an eye out for many pieces bought with Art Fund support, and the National Art Pass offers 50% off major exhibitions.
There’s a wide selection of art from some of the most famous artists in the world, including Rembrandt, Turner, Van Gogh, Constable and Monet. The gallery also has a wonderful collection of works from Scottish artists like William McTaggart, Allan Ramsay, Sir Henry Raeburn and Sir David Wilkie.
One of my favourite paintings in the Scottish National Gallery is Niagara Falls, from the American Side by Frederic Edwin Church. It makes amazing use of light and texture to capture the movement of the waterfall, with a beautiful little rainbow in the foreground.
Located inside an old Victorian swimming pool building, Dovecot Studios is a working tapestry studio and centre for contemporary art, craft and design. Continuing the traditional art of tapestry, the studio is home to five full-time weavers and two apprentice weavers, who work in what used to be the pool – and visitors can watch them at work from the atrium balcony above.
As well as being a working studio, Dovecot hosts contemporary art and textile exhibitions. Don’t miss the current exhibition, Voyage by Garry Fabian Miller, showing the links between colour, photography and tapestry.
And be sure to visit the gift shop, which is full of cool and contemporary prints, postcards, books and gifts, mostly by local artists. Before you leave, stop by the café – which is run by the team behind my favourite brunch spot, Leo’s Beanery – for some lunch and homemade cake, made even tastier thanks to 10% off with a National Art Pass.
Edinburgh is just one of many places across the UK brimming with world-class art and fascinating museums. Whether you want to stay local or spread your wings, there’s an adventure waiting for you with a National Art Pass.
The National Art Pass offers free or reduced-price entry to over 240 museums and galleries across the UK, plus 50% off major exhibitions and discounts in hundreds of museum cafés and shops.