We visited Edinburgh between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. I have always wanted to see Scotland in winter, especially to experience a real Christmas market, plus I loved the idea of being in Scotland for Hogmanay, which is the Scots word for the last day of the year. Hogmanay is known to be a huge celebration to bring in the New Year. When we planned this trip, we were going through some personal strains and money was a bit tight. As much as we really wanted to see and do everything, we also had to be mindful of our spending, so these tips are how to explore Edinburgh on a budget. I am sure there are tons of other things you can see and do if money was no object, but really, we love finding a bargain and free things to do really are sometimes the best ways to really see a new place.
How to get around:
Edinburgh has a great public transport system with buses, trains and trams you can get around the city really easily. We caught the Airlink 100 from the airport straight into Waverly. From there we decided to pick up a RidaCard, and loaded a week on the card which cost 22 pounds (with a once off fee for the card). It allowed us to take any form of transport whilst we were in Edinburgh for 5 days. Well worth it, and it meant we didn’t have to search for cash or buy tickets at every stop. If you are not planning on travelling around a lot then skip the RidaCard. If you base yourself centrally in Edinburgh, it is a city that is easy enough to walk around (but be warned there are a few serious hills!) We had planned to get out of of the city center to explore other suburbs and areas around Edinburgh so for us the RidaCard made sense, because we certainly made full use of it. Plus it was winter, so some days we just really prefered to be in a warm bus than trekking in the snow!
Things to do for FREE:
- Calton Hill, and the Scottish National Monument
Trekking up Calton Hill and admiring the views of Edinburgh was one of our first stops, and I highly recommend you go up there – any time of year. We went in the middle of winter, with some snow and ice on the ground, and it was worth the steep walk to the top. The National Monument is a partial replica of the Parthenon in Greece, however it has been left unfinished in 1829 due to lack of funds.
- Scott monument
Scott monument was the first bit of Edinburgh we really saw. Over the Christmas market it is at the heart of the market, so it almost is a bit hidden amongst the Christmas market festivities, but it is a tall monument so you really can’t miss it. It is also the second largest monument built in honour of a writer in the world. You can pay to go up the monument to see the view, but for me the joy was in looking at the monument (plus it doesn’t cost anything to look at it).
- Victoria street
This is possibly the most visited street in Edinburgh, and the inspiration for Diagon Alley in Harry Potter. It is filled with little cafés and shops – a lot of which are marketed towards Harry Potter fans, however there are a few art gallery shops which we quite enjoyed browsing.
- A Free Harry Potter Walking Tour
If you are a Harry Potter fan then Edinburgh is definitely going to be on your list. You can visit the coffee shop that JK Rowling wrote the Harry Potter series (we tried but it was packed, and we tend to avoid high tourist areas). If you are on a tight budget, you can meet at the George IV Bridge for a free Harry Potter walking tour. The tour starts near Greyfriars Bobby statue (tourist tip: don’t be an obvious tourist and rub the statue’s nose – the rubbing is wearing down the metal of the statue and actually damaging it.) The tour starts at various times every afternoon, time is dependent on the time of year, so check out their website for times. You are not required to pay anything for the tour, however if you enjoy it, leave the tour guide a tip
- National Museum of Scotland
This museum is free to enter, and is open all year round. It is massive, and you would need a full day to truly explore all of it. If you are short on time, the one tip I have to recommend is going up to the rooftop terrace in the museum. You will get a pretty awesome view of Edinburgh, and it is completely free to access. On the day we went, it was closed due to snow, so it is weather dependent.
- St Giles Cathedral
In the heart of old town Edinburgh, is a gothic style church also known as the high kirk of Edinburgh. It is the principal place of worship for the Church of Scotland, although not technically a cathedral as there is no bishop. A lot of tours meet outside the cathedral, so it is often a busy square, but still beautiful to look at.
- The Royal mile
The Royal mile starts at Edinburgh Castle goes all the way to Holyrood Palace. It’s an easy walk to do, and only a mile long. A friend recently visited Edinburgh and had a great tip, when walking the royal mile she listened to an audio guide which share landmarks and stories as you walk.
- Arthur’s seat in Holyrood Park
There are several walks you can do in Holyrood Park; one of the popular walks to do is to hike up to Arthur’s seat. We tried to walk up to Arthur’s seat ourselves but there was a lot of ice on the path. We got halfway and started to slipping and sliding along the path that we opted to walk another route – the view was still incredible, and at least we stopped falling on ice! I think when the weather is good, the hike up to Arthur’s Seat would take about 2 hours and is a must for anyone who loves the outdoors and enjoys taking in a good view.
- Explore Leith and the Shore area.
We chose to explore Leith for personal reasons, but really it is such a pretty part of town, that I would recommend people try get out there and see it themselves. The reason we wanted to get there was because that was where Rob’s grandfather grew up. He played football for the Hibernians, which is a professional football club in Leith, in the north of Edinburgh. Whilst we were visiting the area, we realised that the Hibs were playing against the Hearts (Heart of Midlothian, a Scottish football team in the west of Edinburgh). The two teams are local rivals, so it was special that we got to sit in a local Hibs supporter pub and watch the game.
Stockbridge is a bit of vibey town, filled with thrift stores, quaint cafes and gastro pubs. A tip for foodies looking to explore this part of Edinburgh – book a restaurant in advance, we battled to walk in to most restaurants the night we visited, however we did stumble across a place that was pet friendly and served good food, called Hector’s. The service was slow, but seeing dogs in a restaurant was a real treat, plus the food was tasty.
Things worth paying for:
- Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle is a popular tourist spot, and it is well worth a visit. Some tips before you go are to book your tickets/time slot online to avoid the queues. Also try book for the morning slot, because once you are in the castle, you can stay as long as you need to. There is quite a bit to see and do in the castle, it is self-guided however there is a small guided portion where you can get a sense of where everything is. Try doing the walking tour as soon as you enter, because it helps to orientate yourself for exploring the rest of the castle on your own. There is also a lovely café at the castle, and it is great to stop and grab a tea and cake there. You can buy your tickets to online here: https://www.edinburghcastle.scot/
- South Bridge Vaults
This was another tip recommended to us by a friend. There are lots of different types of underground tours you can take – some spooky and some factual. We decided to take the more factual tour and although we didn’t have the best tour guide, I really recommend taking this tour, especially if you love history and learning how people lived underground in the vaults in Edinburgh was truly fascinating. This was the tour company we used: https://www.mercattours.com/
- Take a bus tour out of Edinburgh
If you are staying for a few days, and have the time, then definitely consider taking a bus tour out of Edinburgh to explore more of Scotland. We chose a bus tour that offered a nice mixture of things to do: whiskey tasting, Glencoe Mountains and a boat cruise on Loch Ness. Although we didn’t end up finding Nessie, we loved the tour we did. This was largely because our tour guide Graham was amazing; we also got to see more of Scotland in the snow which was as enchanting as you could imagine. You can read more about out day trip here. This was the tour company we used: https://www.nessbus.com/
Where to eat:
One of the best tips to budget travel is to try and not eat and drink out too much. Alcohol and restaurant food is where a large portion of the budget often goes when you are travelling and away from home. We always try to get accommodation that is either self-catering or serves a big breakfast as part of the rate. When we went to Edinburgh, we staying in a guest house that offered a really tasty, home cooked breakfast each morning and this really helped get a good breakfast in before we went off and explored the city. There were a few times where we ate out, and I feel some places are worth a mention. Since we tended to eat a small meal during the day, we did try a few coffee places for light snacks. Zebra’s had some great coffee; along with Pep and Fodder, which served good coffee with amazing treats. I already mentioned Hector’s in Stockbridge, the food was good (except the service was slow) – we actually had intended on trying Scran and Scallie, but they were fully booked the night we went there. I think if you book in advance, it might be a good restaurant to try – it looked very cool from the outside, and a fully booked restaurant is always a good sign of good food. The last place I need to mention is the bakery we went to TWICE while we were there, Mimi’s, it is award winning with three locations in Edinburgh (we visited the one in Leith twice) – recently rated best bakery café 2018. Highly recommend the cake as well as their brunch; we also saw they do a high-tea which looked delicious!
So those are our budget friendly tips to seeing the most of Edinburgh. I also recommend you read my post on budget travel for some tips on how we save money while exploring new places. Edinburgh definitely stole our hearts, but it also started this great love affair for all of Scotland. We have since been back again on a road trip through Scotland in the summer. Visiting Scotland in two seasons has left us even more sure we that we absolutely love Scotland. Even though we have so much more of the world to see, I would be happy going back to Scotland again and again.
HAVE YOU BEEN TO EDINBURGH? ANYTHING WE NEED TO SEE NEXT TIME?
Live Simply & Travel Slow,
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