Edinburgh On A Budget – Top Must-Sees Without Entrance Fees

October 12, 2013 Kristance Harlow
Scotland border marker and author

Edinburgh is a beautiful city, the capital of Scotland and seeped in romantic history. With the second highest population in Scotland (just over 800,000 people populate its entire metropolitan area), and covering a mere 102 square miles (264 square kilometers), you have to make a trip here if you get over to the United Kingdom. While anyone who is visiting Scotland makes sure to pop into Edinburgh, it’s often overlooked by people who are on a short jaunt to Great Britain, losing out to Southern England. Having lived in both Oxford and Edinburgh, I have to give the edge to Edinburgh as being a place I can’t wait to return to visit. It’s small enough to be manageable on a short trip, you’ll trip over the accents which is fun, and the Scots have a fierce pride for their nation that provides a different perspective on the United Kingdom than you will get down south. I spent most of 2012 in Edinburgh, working for a childcare agency where I would fill in at day cares, nurseries, and after school programs. (I also held one of the worst jobs of my entire life at a horribly tacky store on the Royal Mile). I saw a lot of the city, and had friends and family visit, so I got the best of both worlds as a tourist and resident.

Just like any major city in Europe, to get into most of the major attractions you’ll need to shell out a hefty fee. It can be a real deterrent to anyone wanting to visit Edinburgh, it usually costs more to get here because its further away from mainland Europe and then you have to spend a lot on entrance fees. I’m here to tell you that you do not have to spend a bunch of money to do Edinburgh up like a true Scot. In fact, most people who live in the area don’t make it a point to go into those pricey tourist spots like the Edinburgh Castle or Whiskey Tour. You can easily walk around the city by foot, saving yourself taxi and bus fare, or if by the time you’re reading this the tram is finally running…tram fare. Don’t ask Edinburghians about the tram, it’s a touchy subject. Read on for my favorite things in Edinburgh that don’t cost money to enter. This was a difficult list to cut down since the entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so there is a lot of great things to see! This list is only focused on the centre of Edinburgh, with a heavy emphasis on Old Town.

Calton Hill

Calton Hill is an absolutely breathtaking hill and park in the center of Edinburgh that provides sweeping views of the city as well as monuments to photograph and enjoy. Situated to at the eastern end of Princes Street (the city’s premier shopping street, if you need something whether it be a bank, a pharmacy, or a new umbrella you will find it on Princes Street), you can reach this hill by one of its uphill entrances either by winding up the hill on a slope from or climbing up several sets of stairs from Regent Road or Royal Terrace. You can also drive up the hill.

A view I captured from atop Calton Hill.

A natural part of Edinburgh’s landscape, the city began utilizing the location hundreds of years ago, since 1456 when King James II declared the valley which borders Calton Hill as a place for war games, sports, and tournaments. The first proper utilization of the hill itself was the Old Calton Burial Ground on the hill’s southwest slope, around the 18th century. There are multiple structures located on Calton Hill now. You’ll notice what appears to be an unfinished Grecian building, it’s called the National Monument of Scotland which memorializes Scottish military personal who fell during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s. So maybe the unfinished look of it is on purpose? Unfinished lives? Something poetic? No, its just not finished. After three years of construction, the city ran out of money in 1829 and just let it be, be sure to climb up it and take some snapshots.

A slew of other monuments are on Calton Hill. You can see the Old Observatory House built in 1792 and the “newer” City Observatory from 1818. Nelson’s Monument to a British admiral from 1805, as well as several viewing spots, and a collection of other buildings. My favorite things about Calton Hill is the views, you can get some amazing photos of Edinburgh and the view is free.

You can take postcard worthy pics from Calton Hill.

Princes Street Gardens

Running parallel to Princes Street is the Princes Street Gardens, a large public park in the center of the city right next to the Edinburgh Castle. Originally a loch moat called Nor Loch, the process of turning the area into gardens began in the 1770s. With multiple fountains, lush greenery, countless benches, a permanent bandstand, and a playground for children this is an absolutely beautiful park to visit. Strolling through the greenery and pausing to look at the various monuments that dot the park is definitely worth your while.

A beautiful fountain in Princes Garden with Edinburgh Castle in the background.

On the West end of Princes Street Gardens is the joint St John and St Cuthbert Cemetery. A chapel has been located on this spot since 850 AD, the current church is beautiful and worth a pop inside. Surrounding the church is a magnificent graveyard that is comprised of gravestones carved into walls, rather than the traditional freestanding headstone. If you spend some time traveling around Scotland, or even just Edinburgh, you will probably notice that there are countless derelict cemeteries with broken headstones fallen over and cracked, I hated that. This site is nothing like that, it’s well maintained and pays homage to the many people who were laid to rest here. Each memory carved into the wall is unique, varying from elaborate mini-buildings to modest but touching memoriams, I recommend a visit here because you can truly feel the city’s history when wandering the pathways.

What you really need to do though is go over the bridge that spans the train tracks and go to the less visited West side of the gardens, close to the castle. Many people bypass this section because they just go up and see the castle, but the castle costs money to visit and this does not. There are winding paths that go up and around the castle’s hill. Here you can feel like a true adventurer as you stumble across castle ruins, many have signs describing what it is you are looking at, pieces of a long gone Scottish royal past.

Haymarket and Victoria Street

Another favorite in Old Town is the historic market square called Grassmarket. Located well below the rest of the city, the castle truly does tower over this area of Edinburgh. For nearly five hundred years from the late 1400s to early 1900s, Grassmarket was the premier location for the city’s horse and cattle markets. It was also where public executions were held, at the start of Victoria Street is a monument to where those executions were held. With public executions, and the fabled stories of those who died (and almost died) here, you can see why Edinburgh is known for its hauntings.

If you have enough money to grab some food, I recommend The Last Drop (a double entendre for your last drop of drink and the last drop people took when being executed by hanging). It’s a classic Scottish pub with a cozy and warm vibe. Their food is tasty and traditional, you can get haggis, neeps and tatties (do not turn your nose up at that, it’s flippin’ delicious!), a Scotch pie, or bangers and mash.

Victoria Street from above.

Attached to Haymarket is Victoria Street, a winding uphill street famous for its colorful storefronts and historic architecture. Elegant in design and with cobblestone streets, this street features cute boutiques (including a whiskey shop), bars, and nightclubs. Wandering up the street leads you to a street perpendicular to the Royal Mile. Turn a sharp left and walk on the pathway that is high above Victoria Street to capture a beautiful scenic picture.

Royal Mile

Then of course, you must walk the Royal Mile, which leads from Holyrood Palace on the lower end to the Edinburgh Castle. Word to the wise: it is not one Imperial Mile long, but one Scots Mile because the Scots like to do things differently. You’ll notice that the currency in Scotland features its own design and in place of royal figureheads you’ll see famous Scots on your banknotes like Robert Louis Stevenson, Alexander Graham Bell, Robert Burns, and Mary Slessor. Whatever you do, don’t buy anything from a store on the Royal Mile that’s name is reminiscent of the famous sea monster in Loch Ness…they sell tacky girly “Scottish Tartan” things and exploit foreign workers (ie; me) and don’t pay their employees.

Near the castle end of the Royal Mile, where the road is pedestrian traffic only.

Holyrood Palace is the official home for the United Kingdom’s monarch in Scotland. Feel like a true commoner and just snap some pics from outside the gates, saving your 11 quid entrance fee for a proper Scottish pint. Walk up the hill from the palace and enjoy the historic and diverse architecture. If you fancy it, pop down one of the many side alleys (each one is called a Close) and feel yourself transported back in time as you meander down the canyon like alleyways.

A close off the Royal Mile.

At the end of the Royal Mile is the Edinburgh Castle, which also charges you to enter, but you can still see it from the outside and enjoy the views of Edinburgh’s New and Old Towns from either side of the wide parking lot. Trust me, it’s definitely worth the trip, don’t miss out if you are going to Great Britain!

View of part of Old Town from outside the Castle.
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  1. Jess on October 16, 2013 at 3:22 am

    I'm planning to go to Aberdeen in the spring (that's where all the artifacts from my Alaska dig are being displayed.) I definitely want to spend some time in Edinburgh. It looks beautiful!

  2. Rose L on October 13, 2013 at 9:16 pm

    I would love to go back to Scotland and see the things you cited here. I loved it when I was there for a couple days and enjoyed it more than England. You have made me want to go again.

  3. mplanck on October 13, 2013 at 5:08 pm

    Sure, lassie, you've taken me right to heart of Scotland! 🙂 Great posts and photographs. I love the interactive feature where I can look at the back stories of highlighted names, places, customs, and other topics. Very instructive! BTW, husband Bill is looking over my shoulder and says he's going to read this post as well. Thumbs up!

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