The National Museum of Scotland

As a life-long resident of Edinburgh, The National Museum of Scotland or as it’s better known to the locals, Chamber Street Museum is THE capital institution.  It’s used for days out, a half hour to shelter from the rain when waiting for Edinburgh Festivals show to start, school trips and a safe bet to send visiting friends to.

If you’ve never been before, what should you expect?  First up, it’s in the centre of Edinburgh and is easily accessible, located on Chamber Street between George IV Bridge and South Bridge which offer a huge selection of bus routes from around the city and outwith it.  There is some on street parking on surrounding streets, but it’s limited, expensive and busy.


The museum is buggy-friendly, wheelchair-friendly and family-friendly, but the lifts aren’t large so at busy times you can expect to wait to move between floors.  Also, not every lift goes to every floor, so if you’re with friends and splitting up, make sure you know exactly what floor you’re heading for.  I speak from experience having lost my husband and toddler for about half an hour because I took the lift with the baby and they took the stairs!  Thank goodness for mobile phones!

Today, however, my kids are older and on our latest visit we decided to challenge ourselves to do something new and downloaded a museum quiz to see how we would fare.  We also decided on this occasion (as I no longer have a buggy to dump everything in!), to use the cloakroom which is located on the ground floor near the brasserie.


Whilst entry to the museum is free, the cloakroom isn’t. £1.50 per item and that is per item – sneaking a bag onto the coat hanger isn’t allowed.  We opted to buy the £3 museum shopper bag in which you’re allowed to stuff in as much as you can as long as it doesn’t exceed 10kg.  That worked out fine for four bulky coats.


We didn’t require maps but there are plenty available (also free) in the museum and you can download them in a wide range of languages before your visit from the museum website.  There’s also plenty staff on hand to help and they’re friendly, enthusiastic and incredibly knowledgeable.


Unsurprisingly, our quiz pointed us directly to the dramatic Animal World, probably one of the most popular areas of the museum and if you have younger children the interactive Adventure Planet gallery is where you’ll be dragged next.  It’s very well done but we’ve been there, done that and bought the t-shirt so we quickly moved on. 

In recent years, the Science & Technology galleries have been more popular with our kids and they’re good fun for the adults too.  It’s especially entertaining watching adults who should know better trying to take on the Human Hamster Wheel in the Energise section! 

Whilst our aim on this visit was to try and find a few things that we hadn’t explored before, we still had to visit some old favourites.  Beginnings on Level -1 is always quiet and has some beautiful animal sets which we all love and up from that is another level exploring early Scots.  There is some great dressing up opportunities here and again, it seems a relatively undiscovered part of the museum and is never busy when we visit.


Back to the quiz and we ended up in one of my favourite galleries – Fashion & Design.  The costumes are outrageous, fabulous and in some cases downright weird!  My son was fascinated that a pair of boxers were a museum exhibit whereas I was more concerned about what shape you had to be to fit into some of the dresses.


One of the galleries I hadn’t explored in depth before was Making & Creating which showcased everything from Picasso to Timorous Beasties.  It was brilliantly quirky and held everyone’s attention.


Next up was World Cultures which had lots of interactive opportunities for all ages.  We designed pyramids, planted crops, wrote in Chinese and took pictures of some seriously impressive Buddhas.


Indeed, the further up the museum we went the more surprises we found and the quieter it was.  One of the galleries we’d never visited before was at the very top of the museum: Scotland: A Changing Nation which traces the varied experiences of people living and working in 20th century Scotland through five major themes: war, industry, daily life, emigration and politics and it was absolutely fascinating.

As we were already so high up, we decided we should go the last leg and visit the roof terrace as well.  Even on the yuckiest of days, it’s still an instagrammable view of Edinburgh castle and the city.


Our visit this time took around 3½ hours and we did stop for a brief refuel at the Balcony Café.  Serving soup, baguettes, kid’s lunch boxes and cakes, the food was fresh and tasty, but it was hard to get a seat at lunch time and it was expensive for a snack.  For a family of four you’re probably looking in the region of £50 for a quick lunch.  The brasserie in the ground floor offers the chance to dine in more relaxed surroundings and prices start from around £12.50 for a burger.  If you really want to push the boat out and enjoy some fine dining, you can book a table in Scotland’s first rooftop restaurant, Tower Restaurant, which enjoys magnificent views of the Edinburgh skyline.


To keep costs down, you can bring your own lunch and eat in the Group Room in the Entrance Hall provided it hasn’t been reserved for a group visit and there are also a huge range of eateries in the museum’s immediate vicinity.


If you’re planning to make the museum a regular haunt, then seriously think about investing in a membership.  An individual is £44 and family (2 adults and up to 3 children) is £68.  This gives you free access to all the exhibitions, free access to The National Museum of Flight, National Museum of Rural Life and National War Museum and 20% off in the cafes and 10% in the museum shops.  Having had family membership on and off over the years, it’s exceptionally good value.


Indeed, for a free attraction, The National Museum of Scotland is hard to beat.  Do your homework, visit the website first, and challenge yourself to make it all the way to the top and you won’t be disappointed.


The National Museum of Scotland is open from 10am to 5pm, seven days a week.   Visit: for more details.

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20 Jan 2020

By Nik Hunter