It’s getting close to the three year anniversary (really? three years!?) of my trip to Europe, and since Edinburgh was my favorite city of the three that we visited, I’ve been reminiscing about it a bit and wanted to share some tips on how to have a fun trip to Edinburgh on a budget!
I’m hoping to go back to Edinburgh in a few years with one of my sisters, and I plan to do these things with her as well, so you know that they were fun! 😉 Anyway, read on for 10 free and cheap things to do in Edinburgh, Scotland!
1. Climb Calton Hill
This first attraction is free, and definitely is one of the top things that I would do again if visiting Edinburgh!
Calton Hill makes for a really great walk with fantastic views of the city of Edinburgh, the Firth of Forth, and the countryside, as well as a series of pretty cool monuments, including the Stewart Dugall Monument (shown in picture) and the never-completed National Monument of Scotland.
2. See the Scott Monument
The monument to Sir Walter Scott in Edinburgh is actually the largest monument to a writer in the world! It is pretty impressive–it’s over 200 feet tall and in a really striking Victorian Gothic style. The Scott Monument is located in Princes Street Gardens, so a visit to it also pairs well with #5 or #10 on this list as well. If you want to go to the top of the monument for some great views of Edinburgh, you can, and it’ll only set you back £3!
3. Hear bagpipes
You can easily hear bagpipes in Edinburgh–just pop your head into any tourist/souvenir shop and you’ll hear traditional bagpipe music blasted over the stereo.
If you want to hear live bagpipes instead (which is a much better experience!), it’s really not too much harder. Bagpiping street performers can often be seen along the Royal Mile (see the next attraction on this list), although we found the bagpiper in the above video on a bridge as we were exploring Edinburgh. Of course, it doesn’t have to cost anything to listen to a street performer, but it’s nice to give them £1 or 2 if you enjoy their performance!
4. Walk the Royal Mile
The Royal Mile is a set of streets that are approximately one Scots mile long (which is a bit longer than a “regular” mile) and run from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace (shown above), two major royal residences in Edinburgh. The Royal Mile itself is the most popular tourist street in the Old Town, so it’s full of souvenir shops, museums, and (often) street performers. When we walked it we saw a mime! The walk from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace (or vice versa, though be warned: Holyrood to the Castle is uphill!) is a really pleasant one, as your surrounded by the interesting architecture of Old Town, great views of the city and the castle, and lots of opportunities to pick yourself up a fun Scottish souvenir!
5. Shop for tartan and Celtic souvenirs
If you have any Scottish heritage, then shopping in Edinburgh can be especially fun! I recommend finding out what clan or clans your Scottish family belonged to (basically just the last name is all you need), and you can find that clan’s tartan pattern in a lot of the gift shops! In Old Town, the best shopping is along the Royal Mile (see #4); in New Town Edinburgh, the best shopping is along Princes Street. While in Edinburgh, we also made a special trip to Scayles Music so Mickey could purchase a tin whistle as a souvenir, and on our little venture there we also found some really fun less tourist-y shops to explore, as well as some Star Wars street art and a park with a monument listing all of Scotland’s clans.
6. Pay tribute to Greyfriars Bobby
On a side street off of the Royal Mile you can find a life-size sculpture that serves as a monument to Greyfriars Bobby. He was a Skye terrier who lived in Edinburgh in the 1800s, and he is well-known for his loyalty. He spent the first two years of his life with his owner, and then, when his owner passed away, he spent the next fourteen years of his life guarding his grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard. When Bobby died, he was also buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard so that he could continue his task even after death. His grave can be visited, and people often leave him little gifts, like treats, toys, or (as we did) sticks for him to fetch in heaven in appreciation for his loyalty!
7. Get inspired at the Elephant House
On the same street as Greyfriars Bobby is the cafe called the Elephant House, which is famous as the birthplace of Harry Potter, aka supposedly the place where J.K. Rowling first scribbled the idea on a napkin. It’s interesting in that it’s off the Royal Mile, and very close to a great view of Edinburgh Castle, which is said to have served as the inspiration for Hogwarts!
7. View the Firth of Forth
One of the things we really wanted to do (being from landlocked South Dakota) was to hang out by the ocean a bit while we were in Edinburgh. We decided to just take the bus route, basically to the end of the line, and then walk over to the Firth of Forth. Side note: the buses are a fun and economical way to see Edinburgh. We spent some time just riding them around to see more of the city, which is another cheap way to spend time in the city! Anyway, we really enjoyed walking along the embankment we found, photographing the boats and lighthouse and enjoying the cool ocean breeze. We even saw some locals walking their dogs and definitely felt it was one of the least touristy things we did while there, and since we already had one of those fun scratch-off lottery-type bus tickets, it was totally free!
9. Try haggis & Irn Bru
Neither Irn Bru or haggis are very expensive, but both are quintessentially Scottish. Whether they’re both tasty? That’s a different story… We tried both at a pub called the Wetherspoon, and we enjoyed the unique flavor of Irn Bru soda so much that we ordered some once we were back in the US! We did not feel the need to do the same for the haggis…
10. Stroll through Princes Street Gardens
I’ve already mentioned that Princes Street is a great place for shopping and that the Scott Monument is located in these gardens. I have to say, though, that my favorite part of Princes Street Gardens was the fantastic views of Edinburgh Castle! You can really see how defensible it is from that angle,a nd you can get some great photos of it with the beautiful fountain there. In spring, when we went, there were gorgeous tulips and the trees were blooming, and it was a really pleasant way to spend an afternoon. Around the area are also lots of sculptures of people who have been important to Edinburgh and Scotland’s history, so even more free fun could be had by checking those out, too!
Totally Worth-It Splurge: Edinburgh Castle
– the funny and informative tour (included in admission cost) with our guide Gavin
– watching the daily 1 o’clock gun firing
– eating AMAZING scones and clotted cream at the Edinburgh Tea Rooms (not free but worth it)
– learned a lot at the National War Museum of Scotland, the Scottish Regimental Museum and the Scottish National War Memorial (all located at the castle)
– saw the Honours of Scotland (crown, scepter and sword) as well as the Stone of Destiny
– toured the royal quarters
– saw a prison that housed some (American) Revolutionary War prisoners
– explored St. Margaret’s Chapel, which is the oldest building in Scotland and has gorgeous stained glass
– enjoyed gorgeous views of basically the whole city of Edinburgh from the castle!
If you only splurge on one thing while in this city, you can’t go wrong with Edinburgh Castle!
Do you have any other ideas? Have you visited Edinburgh? What did you like most about the city? Comment below!