It’s no secret that Edinburgh is one of the most appealing cities in the world for visitors. Both its medieval Old Town and its Georgian New Town are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites. The home of the world’s largest annual arts festival, and the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature is one of Europe’s great cultural capitals.
But one thing the Scottish capital is not is cheap, especially when it comes to accommodation. Nevertheless, there are plenty of ways to save money on a trip to Edinburgh. If you can, avoid the tourist-saturated periods around the Fringe festival (August), and Hogmanay (December 30 – January 1). Visiting in a less busy month, such as April when cherry blossoms line walkways and frame the city’s grand sights, can be just as rewarding. The city is also very walkable so, save for the bus trip from the airport (7.50 pounds round-trip/$9.60 USD), and you shouldn’t have to spend anything on public transport.
Here are a few more tips for enjoying the best of Edinburgh on a limited budget.
What to Do:
If you do decide to brave the crowds during the Fringe or Hogmanay periods, you’ll find plenty of free street events to enjoy — and, in the case of the Fringe, an array of free theater. But many of the city’s main attractions are free throughout the year. Instead of buying a pricey ticket to visit Edinburgh Castle, attend a session at Scottish Parliament instead (free; book a week in advance). Besides special exhibitions, all of the National Galleries (the National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery of Modern Art and the Scottish National Gallery) are free. For more free art, you can also check out the small, lower-key galleries at Summerhall, Stills, Dovecot and Collective.
To get a sense of Scotland’s history, from prehistoric times to the present, visit the National Museum of Scotland (free), then head up to the museum’s under-the-radar roof terrace for city views without a cover charge or, unlike Edinburgh’s other rooftop spaces, the obligation to buy expensive drinks. You can also visit the soaring Gothic interior of St. Giles Cathedral and stroll through the Royal Botanic Garden for free. If the weather cooperates, Edinburgh has plenty of outdoor spaces to enjoy at no cost. You can wander some or all of the 12-mile Water of Leith Walkway, which runs directly through the city; climb Calton Hill or the higher Arthur’s Seat; or even do some sunbathing on Portobello Beach, just outside the city.
Where to Eat:
If you are happy to eat on the go, grab a burrito from Los Cardos (from 6 pounds/$6.70 USD) or a hog roast roll from Oink (from 3 pounds/$3.85 USD). For a meal that’s both quick and filling, follow Edinburgh’s students into Mosque Kitchen. First established to serve the Central Mosque’s congregants, Mosque Kitchen opened its doors to the general public in 2001 and earned crowds of regulars who come for its delicious, freshly made curries laid out buffet style and served on paper plates. You can fill up here for 6 pounds ($7.70 USD).
Sit-down dinner options that won’t break your budget include British fare in charming surroundings at The Dogs (mains from 11 pounds/$14.09 USD), pizza at Origano in Leith (from 8 pounds/$10.25 USD) and the community-minded Joseph Pearce’s, which occupies a former pharmacy and is part of the Swedish-run Boda Bar restaurant group (mains from 7 pounds/$9 USD; or try their 7 pound/$9 USD lunch deal).
Where to Stay:
Countless prominent figures have passed through Edinburgh — from Robert Louis Stevenson, to Sean Connery, to J.K Rowling. You can even stay in the home of one without being a celebrity yourself. Channings Hotel (rooms from 79 pounds/$101 USD) is in the former home of the polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, who lived here while he was secretary of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society from 1904 to 1910. Shackleton-related memorabilia can be found throughout the country-style hotel and rooms range from cozy doubles to a grand suite with a four-poster bed. It’s about a 10-minute walk from Edinburgh’s West End.
For those seeking a more contemporary aesthetic, the youthful vibe and colorful decor of the STAY Central (doubles from 86 pounds/$110 USD) should hit the spot. The central location, on the Cowgate, is handy but it can get noisy on weekends. (Be warned, too, that this hotel actively courts bachelor and bachelorette parties.) It’s probably not the best place for a quiet, but it’s fun if you are planning a night out. Booking directly through the hotel’s website also snags you a welcome bottle of prosecco.