The Scottish capital might be best known for its August festivals and Hogmanay parties, but Edinburgh’s got a whole lot to offer at any time of the year. There’s the UNESCO World Heritage Old Town with its cobbled streets, Gothic buildings and narrow alleyways. Or the wide streets and Georgian mansions of the New Town. Then there’s the outlying villages that have been absorbed into the city like Stockbridge and Morningside, each with their own character. And not to forget its great food and drink, ton of historic sights and even a few ghost stories. Making the most of a trip to Edinburgh doesn’t have to be expensive either – so here are my top tips for saving money and visiting Edinburgh on a budget.
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Things to see and do
If you’re looking for an introduction to Edinburgh, Sandeman’s New Europe Tours run a 2.5-hour city highlights walking tour including the Castle, Royal Mile and Grassmarket. It starts from Starbucks by the Tron Kirk at 10am, 11am and 2pm every day and is free but you just tip your guide. Edinburgh Free Tour run a similar 2-hour tour at 1pm and a walk on Edinburgh’s dark side with a 1.5-hour ghost tour at 7pm. Both start from Subway at 160 High Street. There’s also a free Harry Potter-themed city tour from outside Greyfriars Bobby’s Bar at 3pm daily during the summer and at least three times a week the rest of the year.
When the sun comes out, there are lots of parks and outside spaces to explore, from the central Princes Street Gardens to the 650-acre Holyrood Park. A mile outside the city, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh has over 70 acres of flowers, shrubs and trees overlooking the city. Entry is free, but it costs £5.50 for adults (£4.50 concessions or free for under 15s) to visit the 10 glasshouses which recreate different climates from the tropics to the desert. Or the 12-mile riverside walk along the Water of Leith is perfect for a sunny day, passing Dean Village and Stockbridge’s cafés and boutiques along the way.
The castle is one of Edinburgh’s most popular sights, but entry will set you back £16 per adult (£13.20 concessions or £9.90 children 5–15). The ticket does include entry to the National War Museum too. Or if you’re spending a while in Scotland you can join Historic Scotland from £47 per adult (with various family passes available) which gives you access to 77 castles, abbeys, towers and tombs for a year.
Edinburgh’s churches are free to visit. There’s Greyfriars Kirk, with its spooky graveyard and monument to loyal canine companion Greyfriars Bobby. Or St Giles’ Cathedral, which runs free lunchtime concerts at 12.15pm several times a week (check website for dates) and music recitals at 6pm on Sundays.
Museums and galleries
Many of Edinburgh’s museums and galleries have free entry to their permanent collections, including the National Museum of Scotland, Scottish National Gallery, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Museum of Childhood, Writers’ Museum, People’s Story (about Edinburgh life from the 18th century to today) and the Queensferry Museum (about the Forth rail and road bridges). And if your feet get tired along the way, a gallery shuttle bus connects the National Gallery, National Gallery of Modern Art and National Portrait Gallery for a voluntary donation of £1.
The striking Scottish Parliament building is open to visitors and they offer three different one-hour free tours focusing on history, art or literature (dates and times vary so check their website). When parliament is in session you can also attend a debate or committee, or sit in on First Minister’s Questions.
If you’re in Edinburgh during September, some of the city’s architectural gems open their doors to the public at weekends as part of the Doors Open Days event. Admission is free and for many buildings this is the only time you’re able to take a look inside. Over 1000 sites across Scotland took part last year, including Edinburgh’s Advocate’s Library, the City Chambers and the University of Edinburgh.
Top city views
Edinburgh is surrounded by seven hills, so you don’t need to go too far to find a great view out over the city. At the end of Princes Street is Calton Hill. This hilltop park is covered with monuments and statues, including the Greek-inspired National Monument and Dugald Stewart Monument (pictured in my header photo), with views across the city rooftops towards the castle. Or if you want to stretch your legs a bit more, head to the top of Arthur’s Seat. This dormant volcano is part of Holyrood Park and sits 250 metres above sea level. The walk to the top takes about 45 mins, starting from the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
Back in the city centre, you can climb the 287 steps to the top of the Gothic Scott Monument in the Princes Street Gardens – dedicated to Sir Walter Scott, its the largest monument to a writer anywhere in the world. Admission costs £5 and the monument is open daily 10am–7pm (4pm from October to March). You can also take a rooftop tour of St Giles’ Cathedral for great views down the Royal Mile and a peek behind the scenes in the clock tower. Tours cost £6 per person and run every half an hour from 9am–5pm from Monday to Saturday (7pm during the summer) and 1pm–5pm on Sundays. And if you’re visiting the Camera Obscura museum of illusions, don’t miss the views of the castle from its rooftop terrace.
Eating and drinking
Edinburgh is overflowing with places to eat and drink for all budgets. Cheapest are the takeaways, from sandwiches and fish and chips to sushi and burritos. Some good-value places where you can get a meal for under £10 include Oink for roast pork rolls (Canongate and Grassmarket), Piemaker for meat and veggie pies and pasties (South Bridge), Ting Thai Caravan for rice and noodle boxes (Teviot Place), Union of Genius for soup (Forrest Road) or Mosque Kitchen for curry (Nicholson Square). The area around Nicholson Square is popular student haunt where you’ll find a lot of affordable international restaurants.
You can pick up homemade cakes and breads, smoked salmon and other local delicacies at Edinburgh’s markets. There’s a market in Grassmarket on Saturdays from 10am–5pm, one by St Mary’s Metropolitan Cathedral from 11am–5pm on Saturdays, and one in Stockbridge from 10am–5pm on Sundays. There is also the Street Food Fridays market that takes place from 11am to 7pm at the Union Canal in Fountainbridge with different stalls each week, selling everything from Swiss dumplings to vegan kebabs.
Edinburgh’s a very walkable city – despite all its hills – and easy to navigate with the Old Town on one side of the railway line and the New Town on the other. Buses and trams run through the city and are useful to get to the attractions located further out, like the Zoo or the Royal Yacht Britannia in the docks in Leith. You can get a day ticket for unlimited bus and tram travel costing £4 for adults or £2 for children – tickets are available on board from the driver or you can buy them online using their mobile app.
If you’re arriving by air, the cheapest way into the city from the airport is on the Airlink bus, which runs to Waverley Bridge. It costs £4.50 single or £7.50 return, takes around 20 minutes and runs up to every 10 minutes, 24 hours a day. Or if you’re planning to travel around the city a lot you can get a one-week Ridacard, which includes the trams, buses and the Airlink, for £18 per adult (£9 for children 5–15).
So those are my tips for seeing Edinburgh on a budget – do you know of any more Edinburgh bargains or have any money-saving tips?