What You Can Learn From Edinburgh’s Most Unusual Museums

by | 23 Nov 2023

Blessed with both brains and beauty, Scotland’s capital is not just easy on the eye, it’s also bursting with art, theatre, music and creativity. There’s so much you can learn from just walking round the city, but for a concentrated dose of culture, Edinburgh’s museums and galleries will leave you amazed. Hidden among the city’s warren of handsome streets lies a treasure trove of collections covering everything from art, to science, and history.

Continuously impressed by the city’s breadth and diversity of culture, Travel Director Greg is a proud Edinburgh aficionado. This week’s Insightful destination expert he explains why Edinburgh is a must-visit for any self-respecting museum enthusiast. Then read on for our connoisseur’s pick of the city’s more unusual museums.

For travel inspiration: Scotland destination guide


An Enchanting City

post image

“There is so much to love about Edinburgh,” Greg says. “Busy and friendly, the city is very picturesque and packed with unique architecture. Edinburgh museums and galleries are second to none and it boast a large selection of theatres and entertainment venues.

“Well set up for tourists, especially pedestrians, the capital is small enough to walk everywhere. This means that its many cultural sights are easily accessible. You can also get a real feel for Scottish culture with bagpipers and talented buskers lining the streets, making for a very special atmosphere.

You may be interested to read: King of the castles: why August is the best time to visit Edinburgh


A Cultural Capital

post image

“Edinburgh embodies Scottish culture in its unique way, which has something of interest to people from all over the world,” says Greg. “The city is home to world’s largest arts festival which gives it worldwide recognition.” The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, held evert August, has renowned as a world-leading celebration of arts and culture. In fact, it is only surpassed by the Olympics and the football World Cup in terms of global ticketed events.

“A huge number of former Edinburgh residents are world famous and have influenced all forms of culture, including art, literature, science and economics,” he adds. These include the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who penned The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Alexander Graham Bell, the Scottish-born inventor, scientist and engineer who is credited with patenting the first practical telephone, and Adam Smith, the 18th-century Scottish philosopher who’s considered the father of modern economics.

Discover one of our Scotland tours: 7 ways our Best of Ireland & Scotland tour will capture your heart

Edinburgh Museums and Galleries

post image

“With something for everyone, a visit to any of the Edinburgh museums and galleries is well worth your time,” says Greg. “Some of the most well-known that I recommend are the National Museum of Scotland in Chamber Street, the National Gallery, Princes Street and the National Galleries of Scotland Modern, one and two, on Belford Street.

“However, the city is also home to many more unusual collections and exhibits, that reveal a more in depth look at cultural elements of the city. At the top of this list and one I particularly recommend is the Surgeon’s Hall Museums. A fascinating look though the history of medical science, here you can see many intriguing exhibits and even hear stories stories of the body snatchers!”

Bookmark for later: 12 months, 12 unmissable destinations: the best places to travel in 2024

Our top pick of Edinburgh’s more unusual museums:

Surgeon’s Hall Museums

Originally developed as a teaching museum for students of medicine, the Surgeon’s Hall Museums offer a fascinating look into the evolution of medical science and surgical practices. Housed in the historic Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, the museum evolved from The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh’s 500-year-old history. The complex comprises the Wohl Pathology Museum, the History of Surgery Museum, and the Dental Collection.

The collection contains the largest and most historic collections of surgical pathology in the world. This includes bone and tissue specimens, artefacts and works of art from the remarkable collections of surgeon and anatomists, Sir Charles Bell and John Barclay. The museum notes that “the specimens were collected at times that held different ethical and moral values from our own today” and that they are displayed “acknowledging the debt to those whose suffering has advanced our knowledge of disease.” You’ll leave enthralled and with a deep understanding of the value of human remains and bodies donated to science.

You may also enjoy reading: The Legend of Cailleach: Scotland and Ireland’s One-eyed Creator

The Museum on the Mound

Have you ever wondered what 1 million pounds actually looks like? Or how to crack a safe? The Museum on the Mound is a must visit for those intrigued by the intersection of finance, history, and culture. A museum focused on finance may seem very niche at first glance, but all are welcomed at this, on of the most interactive Edinburgh museums and galleries.

Think education blended with entertainment as you delve into the world of money, economics, and the history of the Bank of Scotland. Rare and historic banknotes show the evolution of currency design and security features. Interactive exhibits allow visitors to explore the intricacies of banking, from the basics of currency creation to the complexities of financial systems. Learn how money has evolved over thousands of years and its profound impact on the development of nations and societies.

If you’re a foodie we recommend reading: A wee treat: 4 ways you’ll taste the very best of Scotland with Insight

The Scotch Whisky Experience

If you think you know your whisky you may need to think again when you visit the Scotch Whisky Experience. 3384 bottles showcasing the history of Scottish whisky is a dazzling, and astonishing, sight. The collection was in fact compiled by Brazilian whisky enthusiast, Claive Vidiz. The bottles, which chart over 35 years of history and all of the nation’s whisky regions, were bought by whisky distiller Diageo and returned to Scotland and their now home on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.

Guided tastings, a walk through the whisky making process and endless stories, there’s no better place to explore your passion for Scotch whisky and Scotland. For those seeking a more in-depth experience, there are masterclasses available, delving into specific aspects of whisky production and appreciation.

If you love whisky you must bookmark: A Whisky Lover’s Guide to Scotland: Discovering the Best Distilleries on the Isle of Skye

The Writers’ Museum & Makers’ Court

Did you know that Edinburgh’s contributions to the world of literature are so rich and well-recognised that in 2004 it became the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature? A fascinating way to explore end celebrate this fact is with a visit to the Writers’ Museum & Makars’ Court.

One of the most intriguing Edinburgh Museums and Galleries, this exhibition celebrates three giants of Scottish literature, Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott who are largely responsible for putting Edinburgh on the literary and cultural map. Edinburgh’s ‘Waverley Station’ is the only train station in the world that is named after a work of literature – Waverley was the first prose novel published by Walter Scott.

Admire portraits, rare books and personal objects including Robert Burns’ writing desk, the printing press on which Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley Novels were first produced, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s riding boots. The walk amongst the commemorative stones of Makars’ Court and see how many names you recognise. These celebrate Scotland’s rich history of great writers, each containing a quote from the author concerned.

You may also be interested in: 73 years in the making, the incredible history of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

Gladstone’s Land

One of the oldest buildings on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, Gladstone’s Land offers a living history of Edinburgh of old. You might be surprised to learn that in the 17th century Edinburgh was home to some of the tallest residential buildings in the world. This was due to the walls restricting the size of the city and people therefore building upwards.

A living example of this is Gladstone’s Land, a beautifully preserved ‘high rise’ property on the Royal Mile with hand-painted ceilings dating back to 1620. Here you can explore the rooms and learn about the lives of those who lived and worked in the property and discover a house that has witnessed 500 years of momentous social and political change as well as war, fire and disease.

To immerse yourself in the culture and delights of Edinburgh and Scotland, along with stylish hotels and delicious dining, take a look at our collection of premium tours.

Don’t forget to play our Insightful Travel Trivia game, test your knowledge for the chance to win great travel prizes.

I'm a writer, editor and interview specialist with a lifetime's love of travel. There’s nothing more inspiring to me than meeting, and writing about, the world's leading destination experts and travel industry insiders. The thing I love most about writing for Insightful is that I'm always learning something new.