Studying in a city regularly voted as one of the most attractive in Europe, it’s easy to see why Edinburgh has inspired many famous works of art. It is of no surprise that Edinburgh boasts a large number of fantastic art galleries, the perfect place for a peaceful, reflective afternoon (it also helps that they are free to visit as well). We will run through the top five art galleries in the city (all near the centre of town), it’s up to you which one you choose to visit first.
Scottish Gallery of Modern Art
Located 15 minutes’ walk from Princes Street, this is THE place to go for modern and contemporary art in Edinburgh. There is so much to see here that it is split into two large buildings across the road from each other. The award-winning lawn at the front of one of the galleries, with its stepped winding mounds and pools of water, was landscaped to a design by Charles Jencks (a very cool place to chill out on a sunny afternoon).
There are continuous exhibitions moving through both buildings throughout the year as well as guided tours and workshops (perfect for budding artists or those just keen on getting their hands dirty). This, combined with a couple of superb cafes and an art-inspired shop, make for a great morning or afternoon soaking up some fascinating contemporary art.
With so many exhibitions running throughout the year, there will be one to suit you no matter what you are into. Check the website for current and future exhibitions (these may include an entrance fee).
National Portrait Gallery
With the most extensive collection of portraits in the world, the National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street should definitely be on your list to visit. This gallery covers everything from Tudor and Elizabethan portraits from the 15th Century through to modern-day photos of the UK covering a vast array of portraits and styles. With 11,000 portrait paintings, drawings, miniatures and sculptures, 250,000 photographs dating as far back as the 1840s and 80,000 portrait prints, silhouettes and caricatures there really is something for everyone.
As per the Gallery of Modern Art, touring exhibitions visit the National Portrait Gallery throughout the year, and are always worth visiting, although may include an additional entrance fee. Past exhibits include LGBTQ+ History Month and digital photography award entries. They also run occasional late-night openings with a DJ and drinks at a pop-up bar. Keep an eye on which events and exhibitions are taking place throughout the year here.
Scottish National Gallery
Situated in the heart of Edinburgh, on The Mound (at Princes Street Gardens) sits the Scottish National Gallery, specialising in fine art. The gallery displays some of the greatest art in the world including masterpieces by Botticelli, Rembrandt, Turner, Monet, Van Gogh and many more. There is also a vast collection covering the history of Scottish painting with works from the likes of Ramsay, Raeburn and Wilkie.
The award-winning Scottish Café and Restaurant looks out onto the picturesque Princes Street Gardens towards Waverly Bridge. The gallery shop is well-stocked with a range of contemporary books and gifts made by local designers and jewellers, you’re sure to find a gem or two here. For more information and to find out about current exhibitions, you are best to check their website, click here.
The Scottish Gallery of Modern Art, the National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery are all part of ‘National Galleries Scotland’. They allow you to discover the stories behind the art by giving you access to additional information through their free app, Smartify. This app also helps those who are visually impaired by providing enlarged text labels for artwork on display.
City Art Centre
Another gallery in the heart of the city (directly opposite Waverly train station), the City Art Centre displays historic and contemporary art with a Scottish focus. Again, they rotate their vast collection throughout the year with a mix of Scottish painting, photography and contemporary arts and crafts. Sprawling out across six floors (accessed by escalators and a lift), this is an impressive collection and well worth a visit. With such a rich, diverse collection, you could lose yourself for hours in this gallery.
And, located on the ground floor is Mimi’s Bakehouse, well worth a visit for their award-winning cakes and monstrous tray-bakes.
Entry to the City Art Centre is usually free, although there may be an entry charge for some exhibitions. Click here for information on current and future exhibitions at the gallery.
The Queen’s Gallery
Situated at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, this gallery is one of 15 in the UK that houses the Royal Collection, the largest private art collection in the world. This is a fascinating record of the personal tastes of kings and queens over the past 500 years, comprising decorative arts, drawings, watercolours, paintings and photographs. Those that have made contributions to the collection over the years include Frederick Prince of Wales, George IV, Queen Victoria and Queen Mary.
In addition to the Royal Collection, as per the other galleries, the Queen’s Gallery hosts exhibitions throughout the year, an example being the very popular ‘Leonardo da Vinci: A life in Drawing’ which brought together 80 of his greatest drawings. Click here to keep up to date with their latest exhibitions. And, as per the other galleries, The Queen’s Gallery shop offers a range of gifts inspired by the Royal Collection. The Café at the Palace offers a great selection of fresh, home-made dishes and can even offer afternoon tea.