Edinburgh is my favorite city in the world, but it’s certainly not considered cheap to visit. It’s the second most expensive city in the UK to live in (after London), and attractions seem to be priced accordingly. A ticket to the castle costs £16.50 and other attractions average around £10 each. However, there are plenty of free attractions in Edinburgh. Here are my favorites.
Use the Google Map below to find the locations. Green markers show the free attractions.
This is unquestionably my favorite spot in Edinburgh. It’s a 300-million-year-old extinct volcano in the heart of the city. From the top, you have a full panoramic view of the city, including the beach, the Pentlands and even across the forth to the Kingdom of Fife. Go for some exercise, or just for the view. It’s accessible year round, although navigating in the winter when the rocks are covered in ice can be a little tricky. The rest of Holyrood park is just as beautiful, and offers miles of trails.
As with all public museums in the United Kingdom, there is no entrance fee. The National Museum of Scotland is massive. In 2006 the Museum of Scotland, with exhibitions featuring every aspect of the history and land of Scotland, merged with the Royal Museum, which housed the usual museum exhibitions. It’s just a 5 minute walk south of the Royal Mile. As it’s indoors, this is the perfect location for a rainy day.
The Botanic Gardens are located just one mile north of the city center. The greenhouse inside has a small fee of £5.50, but the rest of the 70-acre gardens are free to wander about. Along with three other regional gardens in Scotland, the Royal Gardens have one of the world’s largest collections of living plants. If it’s raining, there’s still a large indoor visitor center worth visiting.
The National Galleries comprise three location. The Scottish National Gallery is only a two minute walk away from the Royal Mile and Waverley Station. Located in the middle of the Princes Street Gardens, the two buildings hold a wide variety of paintings and sculptures. The National Portrait Gallery is located at the east end of New Town on Queen Street, and has over 30,000 images to view. The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is located on the other side of Dean Village (see below) and also has two buildings in which you can see a wide range of exhibits. Admission to all three locations are free, although some featured or limited exhibits will have a small fee.
The High Church on the Royal Mile is a beautiful building, but not a true cathedral. Except for two short periods in the 17th century, St Giles has been Presbyterian. The Church of Scotland doesn’t currently have cathedrals. There is a small fee requested for visiting the knight’s chapel and another for taking photographs. Otherwise, it’s free and beautiful, as many churches are. Oh, and this is is probably the only place you can see an angel playing a bagpipe.
There are many hills to hike in Edinburgh, but except for Arthur’s Seat, they all pale in comparison to the Pentlands. The Pentlands Hills Regional Park encompasses a full 90 km² and is full of rolling hills, forests, reservoirs and rivers. You can walk to them in little more than an hour, or you can spend £1.60 on a bus ticket. The park is free to enter, unless you want to pay to go Zorbing (highly recommended)!
Edinburgh has its own sandy beach. Located only 3 miles east of the city center, this is a favorite spot for locals to walk and relax. Buses such as the 26 and the 45 will take you there from the city center, or you can walk there in about an hour. Use Google Maps to find the best route or bus from your location.
The Leith River travels 24 miles, originating in the Pentlands. Nearly 13 miles make up the Water of Leith, a beautiful path through Edinburgh. Part of the trail includes Dean Gardens (see below). You can follow the whole walk or small portions. My recommendation would be to begin in Dean Village, and continue out to the Leith Shore, rich in history and architecture.
These Victorian gardens and village are yet another example of the variety Edinburgh has to offer. Parts of the gardens are only accessible to local residents, but the rest are part of the Water of Leith. From the south side of the river you can see the fairy tale buildings, visit St Bernard’s Well and view Telford Bridge.
There are several other free attractions to be found in the city. After six months here, I’ve yet to see them all. The paid attractions are just as good, if you can fit them into your budget. Some are perfect for rainy days (museum and galleries), while others must never be missed (Arthur’s Seat).
There are many more parks worth a visit, including Calton Hill, The Meadows and Princes Street Gardens. While the Old and New Towns are most popular, other locations such as Stockbridge are on par with Dean Village. Finally, there are literally thousands of other places to visit throughout the rest of Scotland.
What I’m trying to say is, get your ass to Scotland, and enjoy the wonders.
Easirent is the cheapest car company to rent from within the UK (but perhaps not the best).
If you’re traveling with more than one person, I’d recommend using Airbnb. Some locations can be fantastic. I’ve even had free, delicious Scottish breakfasts provided!
Couchsurfing is my favorite way to stay in a city. Edinburgh can be very difficult to find hosts, depending on the season, but not impossible. I’ve had some amazing hosts there.
You could also find a hostel or other volunteer job to work at via Workaway.