Edinburgh is famously one of the UK's most expensive cities, but that doesn’t mean it has to cost you a pretty penny – there are myriad affordable things to do on a visit here.
Whether it’s eating out, walking up an extinct volcano or jumping on a bus or a train to a nearby seaside town, it’s possible to do a lot with very little in Scotland’s capital.
Fly on a weekday with a budget airline – though it may be cheaper to take the train
Flying via budget airline is the least expensive way to get to Edinburgh, though weekend fares are more expensive, so consider making the journey on a weekday if you can. If you’re visiting from London, plan ahead and book the Lumo train from London Kings Cross to Edinburgh Waverley – it's less than £30 (US$41) return.
Take the Airlink 100 bus to the city center
From Edinburgh Airport you can travel directly to the city center via bus or tram. For most of the day, the Airlink 100 bus runs every 15 minutes, with an open return costing £7.50 ($10.20). Get a physical ticket when you get on the bus, or download the Lothian Buses M-Tickets app to pay your fare in advance and store it safely on your phone. The tram runs every seven minutes, but it doesn’t operate 24/7 like the airport bus, and it's more expensive and not as quick.
Explore the city under your own steam, or else take the bus
Once in the city you’ll find Edinburgh is incredibly walkable, and like most cities, you’ll get a better feel for it on foot. If you do plan to use the bus, a single ticket is £1.80 ($2.45) no matter the distance you’re traveling, but a day ticket is just £4.50 ($6.10), meaning for a few quid more, you can get on and off as many times as you like. If you’re planning a longer stay, the 5 x Adult DAYtickets option, available on the app, will save you even more money for just £20 ($27).
Stay at a budget hotel or a decent hostel
Depending on your budget, there's a plethora of places to rest your head. A slew of budget hotels like Premier Inn, Travelodge and easyHotel can be found in every nook and cranny of Edinburgh’s city center, and there are youth hostel options available too, several within a stone’s throw of Edinburgh Castle, the city’s most famous landmark.
If you want to pretend you’re living in the moat, try Castle Rock Hostel. For a unique stay, there's affordable living at the Court, part of the Code hostel group and an A-listed Victorian that once housed a courthouse and jail, located just off the Royal Mile.
There’s also no shortage of self-catering apartments in Edinburgh, with prices at the Holyrood Aparthotel starting at £49 ($67) per night for a double studio apartment with a full kitchen. Shop at discount supermarkets, such as Lidl and Aldi, to prep and eat at home before heading out to explore the city.
Avoid the Festival and Hogmanay if you want cheap accommodation
If you'd like to avoid spending a small fortune on accommodation, steer clear while the Edinburgh Festivals are on in August, and during the Hogmanay celebrations at New Year, when prices quadruple at most hotels.
Stick to Edinburgh’s budget attractions
There's plenty in the city to see for free, including the iconic Edinburgh Castle – it sits right in the middle of the city center and is generally hard to miss. You have to pay to go inside, but you can walk right up onto the Castle Esplanade via the Royal Mile for some exceptional views across the city, especially around sunset. On or around St Andrew’s Day (November 30), there's usually a free-entry day, courtesy of Historic Environment Scotland; it still tends to be ticketed, though, so plan ahead.
On the Royal Mile, check out the Gothic architecture of St Giles Cathedral, where entry is free seven days a week. You’ll find loads of walking tours starting on the Royal Mile too, including the Edinburgh Free Tour, which departs daily just a few doors down. At the bottom of the Royal Mile, take in the modern architecture of the once-controversial Scottish Parliament building.
Stay in the Old Town for a wander through Greyfriars Kirkyard, where you’ll find the gravestone of Scotland’s most famous dog, Greyfriars Bobby; look for a bronze statue of the pup just outside on George IV Bridge.
The gorgeous 70-acre Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is also free to visit and ideal for a leisurely stroll with the family. In the West End kids will want to visit LOVE Gorgie Farm, a free-entry urban operation with chickens, alpaca, guinea pigs, goats and more. If you’re visiting Edinburgh in September, be sure to check out the annual Doors Open Days event, when several spaces, some not usually open to the public, become free entry too.
Look for cheap (or free!) things to do at night
Finding something to do on an evening in Edinburgh isn’t hard. For live music, head to the Jazz Bar on Chambers Street or the award-winning Sneaky Pete’s in the Cowgate, where gig tickets are usually priced between £5 and £15 ($7–20). There’s free music in abundance a few doors down at Stramash, and up at Whistle Binkies on South Bridge. For live folk music, head to Captain’s Bar or to the 200-year-old pub Royal Oak, which both put on shows for free.
For discounted theater, plan ahead with the Lyceum, where preview nights are often cheaper or pay-what-you-can. Similarly, restricted-view tickets will help save a few pounds. For a night at the opera, Scottish Opera offers discounted tickets for those under age 26.
If you’re after a night at the movies, head to Scotland’s leading independent cinema, Filmhouse in the West End. Tickets for most Sunday screenings are just £5 ($7), which is the price for students every day of the week.
For laughs, head straight for Monkey Barrel Comedy, where the Sunday-night variety show costs £8 ($11), or £6 ($8) for students, and the Wednesday Top Banana Comedy night is just £3 ($4), or £1 ($1.35) for students. Similarly, Red Raw, the Monday night beginners showcase at the Stand Comedy Club, is £5 ($7). Across the road, head to the Rabbit Hole drag night at CC Blooms (£5/$7).
If you're visiting during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August, check both PBH Free Fringe and Heroes of Fringe for a host of free and pay-what-you-can LOLs. Be sure to seek out the Half Price Hut on the Mound every day too.
Most of Edinburgh’s art galleries are free
There’s no shortage of art to be found in the capital, and most of the city's galleries offer free entry for their permanent collections, if not touring exhibitions. In the Old Town you’ll find the Scottish National Gallery on the Mound, and nearby, smaller galleries like Collective (in a former observatory on Calton Hill) and Fruitmarket Gallery (above Waverley train station) are a must. On the west side, visit the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, housed in two neoclassical buildings surrounded by a sculpture park, the latter of which is worth the visit alone.
Back in the Old Town, the National Museum of Scotland should be high up your agenda. It’s perfect for a drizzly afternoon and great for entertaining the kids; as well as a T-rex skeleton and Dolly the Sheep, cloned from an adult somatic cell, you’ll find plenty of interactive exhibits to get your imagination going. There's no entrance charge during the day, but check to see if the Museum Late series is on while you’re in town – its £15 ($20) entry will let you see the museum in a whole new light, with entertainment and free access to the paid exhibition space.
There’s a lot of beautiful green space in Edinburgh, with seven hills free to anyone feeling adventurous enough to take them on. In less than an hour, you can climb to the top of Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano in the middle of the city, before descending and exploring the surrounding Holyrood Park with its lochs and ruins. Or try the more easily accessible Calton Hill.
But the best-view-in-the-city award goes to Blackford Hill, where you can see the entire expanse in one mind-blowing panoramic. Pack a picnic and make a day of it, exploring the surrounding Hermitage of Braid nature reserve. Check out Colinton Dell in the west of the city too, with its impressive 140m (459ft) mural in an old Victorian railway tunnel.
A leisurely stroll along the Water of Leith is also a great way to spend an afternoon, being sure to stop off in the picturesque Dean Village and Stockbridge on the way. Plan your walk on a Sunday and you’ll find the free-entry outdoor Stockbridge Market on Saunders Street, perfect for an affordable breakfast, lunch or souvenir – or just for browsing.
There are some great parks in Edinburgh too. Stockbridge’s glorious Inverleith Park boasts excellent views of Edinburgh Castle and has a superb pond for feeding swans and ducks with the kids. Meanwhile the Meadows, a vast green expanse south of the city center, hosts one of the best kids' play parks in the capital and is stunning in the spring, when the blossoming trees are in full bloom.
Heading to the coast is another affordable way to spend your time while in Edinburgh. A bus to the idyllic seaside town of Portobello will set you back just £1.80 ($2.45). While there, spend some time on the prom; enjoy video games at Nobles Amusements before grabbing a delicious shrimp bun from Shrimp Wreck (£7.50/$10) or a slice of pizza bigger than your face from Prom Slice (£4/$5).
A 20-minute train journey to North Queensferry (£5.90/$8 return from Waverley or Haymarket train stations) takes you across one of Scotland’s most iconic structures, the Forth Rail Bridge. Walk back across the old Forth Road Bridge, and spend the afternoon in the quaint town of South Queensferry, enjoying lunch from Down the Hatch at the Port Edgar Marina before heading back to the city center.
Eat and drink like a local to save some pennies
There’s no two ways about it – you have to eat. But dining out in the capital doesn’t have to be expensive. For those keen to try haggis, you’ll delight in the £6 ($8) haggis burrito from Bonnie Burrito in the Southside. A few doors down, Sister Bao offer up an extensive selection of steamed buns for £1.50 ($2), while around the back of Edinburgh Central Mosque at Mosque Kitchen, you’ll find loaded plates of comforting dal, chana masala and lamb bhuna with rice or naan for around £5 ($7).
In Leith head to the Pitt, a weekend street food market with a £2 ($3) entry fee, which grants you access to the best chicken burgers (£6/$8) in town, courtesy of the award-winning Buffalo Truck.
For a true Scottish experience, a chippy is a must, and Portobello's St Andrews Takeaway is probably the best in town. A fish supper (ie fish and chips) will set you back £6 ($8); for the full Edinburgh experience, say yes to "salt and sauce." If your budget can stretch a little further, you might consider booking in for a four-course lunch at Leith’s Aurora (£30/$41) or a three-course lunch at West End’s Palmerston (£19/$26).
For drinks, avoid the upmarket George Street. Instead, head for New Town’s Starbar, a perfectly formed dive tucked away in the basement of a tenement block, where you’ll find pints of Tennent’s, Scotland’s National lager, for just £4 ($5). In the Old Town, dive-bar fans should head to the Banshee Labyrinth. A subterranean network of underground vaults, it is famously Edinburgh’s most haunted pub. But don’t let that put you off: it’s open until 3am most nights, and entry is always free.
For a real taste of old Scotland, the Royal Mile is littered with classic pubs, but those often come with a high price tag; venture out of the city center to reap the ultimate rewards. Lovingly referred to by regulars as Diggers, as it sits between two graveyards, Athletic Arms in the West End offers a rotating selection of local cask ales that mostly come with a sub-£4 ($5) price tag. There's an exceptional whiskey selection too, meaning you don’t have to pay through the nose to get a taste of Scotland’s most prized nectar, with a whole host of 35ml measured pours priced at £2.50 ($3.40). While there, treat yourself to an award-winning pie – the macaroni version is only £2 ($3).
Or head for the bright interior of Paradise Palms for affordable vegan plates, local beers and free DJ sets. Check the board behind the bar for regular offers, such as a boilermaker, a beer and a shot of bourbon or whiskey for £5 to £6 ($7–8). Cocktail fans should visit the Scottish capital during the annual Edinburgh Cocktail Week in October, when a £7 ($10) wristband gains you access to £5 ($7) cocktails across the city.
Daily costs in Edinburgh
Hostel room: from £13 ($18) for a dorm bed
Basic hotel room for two: from £30 ($41)
Self-catering apartment (including Airbnb): from £49 ($67)
Lothian buses ticket: £1.80 ($2.45) single; £4.50 ($6.10) day ticket
Coffee: £2.50–3 ($3.40–4)
Sandwich: £5–9 ($7–12)
Dinner for two: £40–50 ($54–68)
Beer/pint at the bar: £3.80–6.50 ($5.15–8.80)
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