Explore Edinburgh on a budget with this guide to 18 of the best ways to cut your costs in the Scottish capital, from discounted attractions and free tours to cheap transport and low-cost entertainment.
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It might be best known for its summer festivals and Hogmanay street parties, but Edinburgh’s got a lot to offer at any time of the year. Scotland’s capital city is one of the UK’s top city break destinations, with its hilltop castle and cobbled streets, Georgian garden squares, restaurants and cosy pubs, museums, viewpoints and even a ghost or two.
But can you visit Edinburgh on a budget? We think so, and this guide features 18 cheap and free things to do in Edinburgh to make the most of the city without spending big, from discounted entry to its historic sites to tasty street food and bargain transport.
Things to do in Edinburgh on a budget
1. Join a free walking tour
If you’re looking for an introduction to Edinburgh’s history and sights, a free walking tour is a great option. Several different companies offer free tours of Edinburgh, where you just tip your guide (£10–£15 is usually suggested). Sandeman’s New Europe Tours and City Explorers both run 2.5-hour city highlights tours which start on the Royal Mile.
There are also several themed free tours available. City Explorers also do a nightly 1.5-hour ghost tour through Edinburgh’s darker side, and a 2-hour walking tour through the New Town on Saturdays and Sundays. Or Harry Potter fans can join The Potter Trail’s daily free 1.5-hour magical walking tour, which starts from Greyfriars Bobby’s statue.
2. Take advantage of free museum entry
If you’re looking to explore Edinburgh on a budget, the city’s museums and art galleries are one of its best bargains. Many of them offer free entry to their permanent collections – though donations (or purchases in the café or gift shop) do help support them.
Among the free museums are big names like the National Museum of Scotland and Edinburgh’s trio of national galleries – the National Gallery of Scotland (and Royal Scottish Academy next door), National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery of Modern Art.
There also also plenty of lesser-known free museums, dedicated to a diverse mix of subjects. They include The Writers’ Museum, Museum of Edinburgh, Museum of Childhood, People’s Story Museum, Museum on the Mound and Queensferry Museum.
3. Explore the Royal Botanic Garden
The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is a real green oasis, just a mile north of the city centre in Stockbridge. It’s the second oldest botanic garden in the UK, with 70 acres of gardens and 13,000 different species, including an arboretum, rock garden, Chinese hillside and impressive collections of rhododendrons and native Scottish plants.
The gardens themselves are free to visit, but there is a £5 fee to go inside the 10 glasshouses which recreate climates ranging from the tropics to the desert (though these are currently closed for renovation as part of the garden’s Edinburgh Biomes project).
4. Or one of Edinburgh’s other green spaces
When the sun is shining, Edinburgh has a great selection of parks, gardens and walking paths. Some of the most popular spots are the Princes Street Gardens with their flower beds and manicured lawns perfect for a picnic, and the Meadows to the south of the city. There’s also Inverleith Park in Stockbridge and the huge 650-acre Holyrood Park.
You can find hidden gardens tucked away around the city too which are free to visit – including Dubar’s Close Garden behind Canongate Kirk on the Royal Mile. Or the peaceful Dr Neil’s Garden on the banks of Duddingston Loch, just outside the city.
And one of Edinburgh’s most scenic walks runs along the Water of Leith Walkway. This 12.25-mile waterside path travels from the foot of the Pentland Hills to Leith Docks, but its prettiest stretch is the mile-long section between Dean Village and Stockbridge.
5. See the Scottish Parliament in action
The strikingly modern Scottish Parliament building was designed by Spanish architect Enric Miralles and divided opinion when it opened in 2004. If you want to take a closer look, visitors can go inside the public areas (though expect airport-style security scanning first) or learn about the building and Scottish democracy with a free tour.
There are short, 10-minute introductory talks throughout the day which take place in the Main Hall. Or more in-depth 45-minute tours which take you around the building.
You can also see the government at work at First Minister’s Questions on Thursdays at 12pm (except during recess). It’s popular though so tickets need to be prebooked in advance. Or go along and watch a debate on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.
6. Visit Edinburgh’s churches
Edinburgh’s churches are also free to visit, including Greyfriars Kirk – whose kirkyard is the final resting place of Greyfriars Bobby – the Parish Church of St Cuthbert at the end of Princes Street Gardens and the Tron Kirk, which now hosts a craft market.
At St Giles Cathedral you can join a free 45-minute walking tour at 10.30am and 2.30pm every day, though they do need to be booked in advance. And both St Giles and Greyfriars Kirk also host free concerts featuring different choirs and orchestras. These include weekly events at St Giles on Saturdays at 6pm and at Greyfriars on Thursdays at 12pm.
7. Admire an affordable city view
One of my favourite free Edinburgh views is from the roof terrace on top of the National Museum of Scotland. But the museum is a bit of a maze so it’s not all that easy to find – head to the Kingdom of the Scots gallery in the modern wing then take the lift to the seventh floor. From the top you can see across the city rooftops to the castle.
Or head out of the city to climb one of the seven hills surrounding Edinburgh. The most accessible is Calton Hill, which makes a great sunset spot. There’s also a similar, but much quieter, viewpoint in the New Calton Burial Ground just below Calton Hill.
Highest of all though is Arthur’s Seat at 251 metres up, a dormant volcano inside Holyrood Park. There are a few different routes to hike to the top. The most popular starts behind Holyrood Palace and runs via the Salisbury Crags, taking 45 minutes each way.
8. Save a few pounds by booking in advance
It’s a good idea to book in advance for the really popular attractions, especially at weekends and in the summer. And it can also save you a few pounds on entry costs by booking tickets online in advance rather than buying them on the day – not a huge amount admittedly but it all helps, especially if a few of you are travelling together.
Edinburgh Castle costs £19.50 in advance versus £22 on the day. At the Palace of Holyroodhouse you save £1.50 and at the Camera Obscura you save £1. Also look out for discounted family tickets and reduced entry for 16–24 year-olds and over 60s.
9. Convert your ticket into a one-year pass
If you’re going to be spending a while in Edinburgh or planning a return trip within a year, you can convert your ticket for the Palace of Holyroodhouse or Royal Yacht Britannia into an annual pass for no extra cost. So you can come back and visit as often as you like.
Normally you just need to get your ticket stamped by a member or staff, or sometimes fill in a form. Then you just need to show your ticket when you want to visit again.
10. Invest in a city pass
If you plan to visit a lot of Edinburgh’s most famous (and most expensive) attractions, then it might be worth investing in a city pass. The Royal Edinburgh Ticket* is valid for 48 hours and covers the castle, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Royal Yacht Britannia and a hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus tour for £65 for adults (£35 for children aged 5–15).
Or the Edinburgh City Pass is valid for one, two or three days and costs from £50–£90 (£30–£50 for children). It doesn’t cover many of the big-name attractions, but does include return travel to the airport, walking tours, a Forth boat tour, sightseeing bus and entry to places like The Georgian House, Dynamic Earth and the Scott Monument.
11. Or think about becoming a member
If you’re a member of a heritage organisation like the National Trust, you can get free entry to some attractions in Edinburgh. Members of Historic Environment Scotland can visit the castle for free (saving £19.50). And National Trust for Scotland* members get free entry to both The Georgian House and Gladstone’s Land (saving a total of £22).
Membership costs around £60 a year (with discounts for seniors and 16–24s), so it’s only worth joining if you’ll be visiting other places around Scotland. But you do also get a discount (half-price entry in your first year and free entry after that) if you’re a member of the English and Welsh versions – the National Trust or English Heritage/CADW.
12. Enjoy cheap eats
Edinburgh has a fantastic selection of places to eat – including plenty of spots where you can get a meal under £10. Head to Oink (Victoria Street, Canongate and Hanover Street) for pulled pork sandwiches. Mosque Kitchen (Nicolson Square) for Indian and Middle Eastern dishes. Or Snax Cafe (West Register Street and Buccleuch Street) for big breakfasts.
You can also warm up with a bowl of soup at Union of Genius or comforting sausage and mash at MUMS (both on Forrest Road). Or visit dinky Tupiniquim inside a former police box near the Meadows for gluten-free sweet and savoury Brazilian pancakes.
Look out for bargain lunchtime deals too – The Outsider restaurant is close to the Royal Mile on the George IV Bridge and has knockout view sof the castle from the back, but does lunchtime mains like steak frites or mussels in cream and white wine for £8–£9.
13. Shop and eat Edinburgh’s street markets
You can also pick up fresh produce like bread, cakes and homemade pasta alongside steaming plates of paella, noodles and curries at Edinburgh’s outdoor street markets. Weekly markets take place in Stockbridge on Sundays from 10am–5pm, on Grassmarket on Saturdays from 10am–5pm, and in Dock Place in Leith on Saturdays from 10am–4pm.
You can also pick up tasty Mexican, Peruvian and Korean dishes at Edinburgh Street Food in the Omni Centre, an indoor foodie market with 10 resident traders.
14. Listen to free live music
If you’re looking for cheap things to do in Edinburgh, there’s plenty of live music around the city. As well as free classical concerts at St Giles Cathedral and Greyfriars Kirk, you can also listen to live folk, rock and jazz at Edinburgh’s pubs for the price of a drink.
Sandy Bell’s on Forrest Road is an icon of the Scottish folk scene, and hosts a mix of local and visiting musicians in nightly jam sessions – past performers include Gerry Rafferty and Billy Connolly. You can also hear free folk music at the Royal Oak, jazz at The Shore in Leith and a bit of everything at Whistle Binkies or the Royal Mile Tavern.
15. Get around using a DAYticket
Central Edinburgh is easy to get around on foot (as long as you don’t mind hills). But if you’re travelling further afield or need help getting around, there’s also a good public transport network. Edinburgh’s recently extended tram line runs from the airport through the city centre to Leith and Newhaven. And there are over 50 city bus routes.
Edinburgh buses and trams have a fixed ticket cost of £2 single or £3.80 return for travel within the city (see below for the cheapest way to get to the airport). But if you’ll be using public transport a lot, a DAYticket is better value. It costs £5 (£2.50 for children aged 5–15) for a day’s unlimited travel on Edinburgh’s trams and Lothian buses.
DAYtickets can be bought using the m-tickets app, from ticket machines at tram stops or from the bus driver (using either contactless payment or exact change).
16. Catch the Airlink bus to the airport
If you’re arriving by air, Edinburgh’s airport is eight miles west of the city. It’s linked to the city by both trams and buses, but the bus is the quickest and cheapest option.
Airlink 100 buses connect the airport and St Andrew Square 24 hours a day, with services every 10 minutes during the day and every 30 minutes at night. A single ticket costs £5.50 for adults (£2.75 for children aged 5–15) or an open return is £8 (£4 for children).
17. Take day trips using a rail pass
There’s plenty to see and do in Edinburgh on a budget, but if you want to explore beyond the city then you can save money on train travel with ScotRail rail pass. Their Central Scotland Rover ticket costs £55 (half price for children aged 5-15) for three consecutive days and gives you unlimited travel on trains around Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Easy day trips you can do from Edinburgh using the pass include Glasgow, North Berwick for a day at the beach and seabird spotting at Bass Rock, Falkirk for the Kelpies statues and Falkirk Wheel, or Stirling for one of the largest castles in Scotland.
18. Avoid visiting in August
August is a fantastic time to be in Edinburgh. With the International Festival, Fringe and Royal Military Tattoo all taking place there’s a real party atmosphere – not to mention the best of the weather. But it’s the busiest and least budget-friendly time to visit.
Although there are loads of free events taking place during the festivals, finding somewhere to stay can be a real struggle. Accommodation prices are hiked up and any affordable options are fully booked months in advance. Restaurants get very busy too. So steer clear of August if you’re on a budget unless you’re actually visiting the festivals.