Edinburgh oozes history. Topped by a crag-perched castle and criss-crossed with cobbled lanes and ancient stairways, Scotland’s capital isn’t so much a reminder of the past as a still-breathing vision of centuries gone by. But write it off as a living museum at your peril. This is somewhere with its finger on the cultural pulse, a buoyant, arty city with a distinctive character and a readily explored jumble of quirky pubs, restaurants and attractions. To get to know Edinburgh, its bars and backstreets are as important as its headline monuments. And you don’t need to spend big to enjoy yourself.
Many of the city’s best attractions cost nothing to enter. Three not to miss are the superb National Museum of Scotland – where exhibits famously include Dolly the Sheep, the planet’s first cloned mammal – the Scottish National Gallery (where regular tours, events and workshops are held, many of them free) and the Writers’ Museum, which focuses on Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and the inimitable Robert Burns. For one of the best views in town, meanwhile, make the hour-long ascent of Arthur’s Seat. It’s more than worth it – and you won’t have to part with a penny. And a tip: if the climb seems too arduous, try Calton Hill instead. It’s less tiring, and just as spectacular.
If you want to take in the classic sights, including Edinburgh Castle and Palace of Holyroodhouse, consider saving money with the 48-hour Royal Ticket, which includes fast-track entry and free bus tours.
Central Edinburgh is best covered on foot. And if you’re in the company of someone who knows the place like the back of their hand, so much the better. There are various themed walking tours on offer, many of them operating on a tip-only basis. Three to mention are the Sandemans NewEurope Free Tour, the Harry Potter-themed Potter Trail (this being the city where JK Rowling wrote the early books) and, yes, the Free Ghost Tour – because Edinburgh bows to nowhere when it comes to ghouls, gremlins and spooky goings-on.
The Old Town might hog the postcards, but there’s much more to Edinburgh than its medieval core. Its so-called New Town isn’t especially “new”, but it’s as handsome as they come, lined with elegant 18th-century buildings. It’s home to many of the items on the self-guided Edinburgh’s 101 Objects tour, which brings the city to life through dozens of unusual points of interest, most of them free to visit. There’s also free wi-fi across the Old and New Towns.
Further afield, Leith has been the city’s seaport for centuries and has recently undergone a new lease of life – if you’re in search of an independent, creative neighbourhood with lower prices than the Old Town, this is where to head.
It’s connected to central Edinburgh by the mile-long Leith Walk. Call in at Elvis Shakespeare, a music-cum-bookshop with regular free in-store gigs, and eat at The Walnut, an excellent Scottish restaurant that lets you bring your own alcohol.
Edinburgh is synonymous with its summer arts and comedy festivals, but you don’t have to miss out at other times of year – there are nightly comedy performances at The Stand, with a free improv show each Sunday lunchtime. And if you want to see the evening out with a swing? Head to Whistle Binkies, where you’ll find free live music seven nights a week.
Edinburgh Airport has extensive connections to Europe and the rest of the UK – it takes around 75 minutes to fly from London, for example. Various carriers cover the route, so shop around. The same journey can be done by rail, and has some very cheap advance tickets. Follow tips from the Man in Seat 61.
In town, most of the main sights are within reasonable walking distance of each other, but the Transport for Edinburgh app lets you buy bus tickets, including a variety of well-priced day tickets. If you’re travelling elsewhere in Scotland, meanwhile, take note of ScotRail’s special offers for off-peak travel.
Our key advice here: avoid the summer. It might sound counter-intuitive, given how famous the city’s annual festivals have become, but rates really do get pushed up in festival season. If missing out isn’t an option (and after all, the Fringe festival has free arts shows by the hundred), book as early as possible to secure affordable accommodation, or try staying out of town – historic Dunfermline is less than 45 minutes away by train, for example.
At other times of year, October/November and January to March offer the best accommodation deals. The city tourist board often has discounts from its member hotels at Edinburgh.org/offers. Budget options close to the centre include easyHotel Edinburgh and Hotel Motel One.
If you thought Scottish cuisine was all haggis, neeps and tatties, you’re in the wrong century. Various street food markets pop up on Fridays or Saturdays, including the superb Edinburgh Farmers Market. For a great curry at a top price, do like the locals do and go to The Mosque Kitchen. Elsewhere, find good restaurant deals through Groupon or Open Table, or check out the cut-price lunch menus at fine-dining spots like Purslane Restaurant or The Grain Store.
For more information on Edinburgh and the rest of Britain, head to VisitBritain.com
To purchase attraction tickets and more, head to VisitBritainshop.com