If you’re looking for an art-filled staycation away from London, few cities in the UK can compete with Edinburgh. Even in a year without an International Festival, the Scottish capital offers world-class collections of Old Master paintings alongside innovative contemporary galleries, all against the backdrop of a stunningly beautiful city.
Must-see museums in Edinburgh
The Scottish National Gallery
Nestled in the heart of the city, the Scottish National Gallery is an obligatory first stop for art history lovers, with a collection ranging from the early Italian Renaissance to Expressionism. Highlights include works by Titian, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Rubens, alongside paintings by Scotland’s Alan Ramsay, Henry Raeburn, and Edwin Landseer.
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
A little farther out from the city centre (best accessed by a leisurely walk along the Water of Leith from Stockbridge), the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is divided across two neo-classical buildings that house paintings, sculptures, videos and installations dating from 1900 to the present day.
In Modern One, visitors can enjoy early twentieth-century paintings by Bonnard, Matisse, and Picasso, and discover the works of the Scottish Colourists, in addition to that of later artists such as Andy Warhol, Louise Bourgeois, and Robert Mapplethorpe.
Modern Two is home to the gallery’s famous collection of Surrealist works, alongside a recreation of pop artist Eduardo Paolozzi’s Edinburgh studio, and his 7.3-metre-tall sculpture Vulcan.
If the weather allows it, take a stroll around the gardens of the two galleries, which contain sculptures by Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Rachel Whiteread, Richard Long, and Martin Creed.
The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse
In Edinburgh’s Old Town, the Queen’s Gallery at Holyroodhouse offers fascinating temporary exhibitions drawn from the Royal Collection. Until 31 January 2021, you can enjoy Eastern Encounters, an exhibition of some of the world’s finest South Asian paintings and manuscripts that traces 400 years of artistic and literary creativity from the Indian Subcontinent.
Also in the Old Town, Stills was established in 1977 as Scotland’s first gallery specialising in contemporary photography, and holds a varied programme of exhibitions, as well as offering a residency programme, courses and workshops, and production facilities for photographers.
Described by The Times as ‘Edinburgh’s most interesting gallery’, Dovecot Studios is a renowned tapestry studio, and a landmark centre for contemporary art, craft, and design. Established in 1912, the Dovecot originally recruited weavers from William Morris’ studio in London, and over the course of the twentieth century worked with artists such as Graham Sutherland, Sir Peter Blake and David Hockney. They remain a centre of excellence for tapestry, more recently collaborating with Chris Ofili to produce the hand-woven tapestry The Caged Bird’s Song. Visitors can observe the Dovecot’s weavers at work, as well as enjoy temporary exhibitions such as Mid-Century Modern: Art & Design from Conran to Quant, on view until 9th January 2021.
Alongside its museums, Edinburgh is also home to prestigious commercial galleries. Dundas Street in the city’s elegant New Town is a hub for galleries, including Scotland’s oldest privately owned gallery: the aptly named Scottish Gallery. Established by Aitken Dott in 1842, the gallery has represented many of Scotland’s most successful artists, including the Scottish Colourists, and more recently Dame Elizabeth Blackadder and Victoria Crowe. The gallery also exhibits contemporary ceramics, glass, and jewelry.
Just a few doors along from the Scottish Gallery is the Fine Art Society Edinburgh, a sister gallery to London’s Fine Art Society, which specialises in Scottish paintings from 1700 to the present.
Across the road, on the corner of Abercromby Place, The Open Eye Gallery promotes young contemporary artists alongside established Scottish painters such as John Bellany (1942-2013), Leon Morrocco RSA RGI, Alberto Morrocco OBE (1917-1998), and Barbara Rae CBE RA.
A short walk from Dundas Street to the west, Ingleby Gallery is a cutting-edge contemporary gallery that represents emerging artists alongside leading international figures such as Sean Scully and Iran do Espírito Santo. The gallery building itself, a historic religious Meeting House, is worth visiting alone, as is its strong programme of exhibitions.
If you have time to venture a little further afield, Jupiter Artland is a contemporary sculpture park and gallery that sits in the grounds of Bonnington House around 7 kilometres to the west of the city. The collection was established in 1999 by Robert and Nicky Wilson, and includes works by Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor, and Marc Quinn, all of whom were specifically commissioned for the site.
Set in the Pentland Hills to the South of Edinburgh, Little Sparta is an internationally acclaimed sculpture garden created by the Scottish poet, writer, and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay CBE (1925–2006). The garden forms a carefully curated artwork stretching across seven acres of moorland, combining poetry, sculpture, and land art, and exploring themes such as classical antiquity, history, and our relationship to nature.
Please note that at the time of writing all of the museums listed require visitors to pre-book their visit online, and it is advisable to contact commercial galleries in advance to confirm opening times and/or make an appointment to visit.