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Disclaimer: I’ll start by saying there’s no such thing as a free lunch. So no, our day in Edinburgh wasn’t 100 percent “free,” but we didn’t spend any money on attractions. You can spend as much or as little on food as you like (pack something, get some food from the grocery store, or go out), but this is a guide to amazing things to see for free in Edinburgh.
Casey and I’s college friend, Jo, came to visit us in St. Andrews for three days. Day 3 was our trip to Edinburgh.
If you do, you are a 45 minute tram/bus ride to Waverly Station, which will get you right in the center of the city. We took the bus from St. Andrews and ended up getting off a bit too soon. It was fine, though, because we got to walk around one side of the castle and ended up right on the Royal Mile where you “need” to be.
If you want to stay for more than one day, you can check out the Top 10 Hotels in Edinburgh according to TripAdvisor here.
Disclosure: I am an affiliate for TripAdvisor, which just means if you happen to book flights/hotels through TripAdvisor, I’ll get a portion of the sale. This doesn’t cost you anything extra, and helps me keep this blog running 🙂
The Royal Mile
The Royal Mile is for four streets that connect St. Mary’s Cathedral with the Castle. It is, you guessed it, roughly a mile long. Now, the Castle isn’t free — its £16.00 for an adult. Casey and I purchased Historic Scotland passes which gets us free entrance into about a gazillion Scottish sites (they cost £35/person, so they pay for themselves in about two castle trips). But since Jo was only in Scotland for three days, she would have had to purchase the ticket which is a bit steep for just one attraction.
Besides the castle, though, the Royal Mile is littered with whiskey and cashmere shops. Seriously, it’s like a tourists haven. I didn’t count how many, but it was basically a mile of tourist trap gift shops and some restaurants. That being said, if you look closely (or not that closely) they are some free gems to enjoy.
The Elephant House
It’s a bit deceptive to put this under the Royal Mile, because it’s not on it, but it’s the first place we went upon arrival. It’s about a 5 to 7 minute walk from the main drag.
Casey and Jo are both big Harry Potter fans. Because I wasn’t permitted to read the books/watch the movies when I was a kid, I didn’t get my introduction into the Potter world until my Junior year of college. So I’m lacking that “omgosh childhood” nostalgia most Elephant House visitors have. For those who don’t know, this cafe is supposedly where J.K. Rowling got her idea to write Harry Potter. (Buy the new Harry Potter books from my affiliate link here.)
All I can say is this place is worth the stop simply for the coffee and atmosphere. It feels like the kind of place you’d write a novel. The latte and cappuccino we got were so beautiful and so tasty, and Casey liked his tea. We coupled them with croissants, which were nothing special but filled our hungry stomachs.
The coolest thing to see in the cafe are the bathrooms. Yep. They are covered in messages from Potter fans. The cafe used to paint over the graffiti, but eventually gave in. There’s not a square inch of the bathroom not covered in scrawl. Definitely worth a looksy!
You can go in for free, although they ask for a £1 donation to charity if you aren’t buying anything. My latte and croissant came to just over £5 and was well worth it! If you come here, stay for a while. It’s quiet and cozy and the coffee is great.
The Writers’ Museum
Jo and I are/were both journalism students in undergrad, so writers are near and dear to our hearts. This free museum is in a former mansion tucked through a “close” (aka, alleyway) off of the Royal Mile. We were so distracted by cashmere shops we missed it on the first way passed it.
The museum has about one level dedicated to each of the three great Scottish writers: Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
The mansion alone is fun to walk around, with it’s tight spiral staircase and balcony overlooking a great room. The kind Scottish man in the Stevenson section made the trip in worth it. He shared some interesting tidbits about Stevenson in America (since he asked where we had come from) and was all around jolly.
We learned that Scott thought chess deteriorated the mind and that Stevenson had a wardrobe in his bedroom from this guy, William Brodie, who was a church deacon during the day and a burglar by night. He was later hanged for his crimes. There’s a restaurant on the Royal Mile called Deacon Brodie’s Tavern in his “honor.”
St. Giles Cathedral
Our next stop was the grand St. Giles Cathedral. It was absolutely stunning and fascinating. It’s free to enter, but they tried to charge £2 to take pictures. We were all too cheap, so you’ll only get a an outside pic.
The real reason this is a shame is because the “new” organ donated in the early 1990s literally looks like a transformer. Not even kidding — Google it. It’s completely out of place in the historic church.
That and a statue of Protestant Reformation leader John Knox — or so we thought. Cathedrals immediately say “Catholic” to protestants like myself, Casey and Jo. So we were baffled by Knox chilling out in a Catholic holy place. But guess what? It’s actually Church of Scotland.
Knox studied at St. Andrews University, became a priest, became “reformed,” was captured, imprisoned, released and exiled for awhile. But when he came back to Edinburgh, he was elected as the (reformed) Minister of St. Giles. That all makes much more sense now.
In front of St. Giles is a statue of Sir Walter Scott. Just pointing this out because this was Scott Sighting 2.0 of the day.
That was the end of our jaunt on the Royal Mile. We ran into some creepy street performers who dragged us into a picture, and went on our merry way. We crossed the main bridge in Edinburgh and followed our GPS to Calton Hill (about a 15 minute walk from St. Giles).
This is, of course, a hill, so it’s quite a trek up some steps and then a steep, but gradual paved pathway to the top. The first thing we noticed was the partial-Parthenon. It was built during the Enlightenment (no shock there), but when funds ran out they had to stop building, so now there is just a facade of the great Greek structure on top of a huge hill.
Additionally there’s the Old Observatory House, City Observatory, Dugald Stewart Monument, and Nelson’s Monument on the top of Calton Hill. The day we were there we could have gone in to see an art gallery or get some coffee at the hilltop cafe, but we were mostly focused on the views.
You could see all of Edinburgh from that hilltop — including Arthur’s Seat — a giant geological formation you can climb to the top of. We had plans to go there, but turns out it’s about 40 minutes away from city center (by bus and by foot). It also takes about 2.5 hours to climb and descend, so it would have eaten up most of our one day in Edinburgh. We settled for great views.
Rose Street and The Standing Order
After that hike, we were starving. Food on the Royal Mile as a general rule is more expensive, so we skipped it and walked all the way to the Standing Order (about 20 minutes) through Rose Street, a brick walkway lined with cute shops and tons of restaurants where no cars can drive. Here we saw Scott Sighting 3.0 — his poetry on the wall. It was a pleasant thru-way, but by the time we reached the Standing Order we were starved.
The restaurant is in an old bank, so it has amazing vaulted ceilings in the main room and a grand entry-way. We ended up picking a seat in the “library” section, though, because it was cozier. Here, you’ll see our Scott Sighting 4.0. We picked it because is was a “good cheap eat” in Edinburgh. Couldn’t be more accurate!
Jo and I got big burgers that came with chips (fries) and onion rings. Casey got a steak and ale pie. We also went in for some fried haggis bites because Jo needed to try some. I have already tasted (and not fallen in love with) haggis, so I avoided them. The burgers were just £6.95, so basically awesome for how much food we got. We left VERY full.
Princes Street Gardens
We ended up walking through a cemetery and happening on these gardens. They were on our list, so we were glad to make to the stop. The portion we walked was more of a nice pathway through grassy lawn on either side with tons of benches and shady trees than a garden of flowers, but it was lovely. It had great views of the castle, as well. At the end we found these lovely succulent gardens, which made the wander even more lovely.
Scottish National Gallery
Free art! This was very close to the succulent garden, so even though we were running short on time before Jo needed to catch her airport-bound tram, we thought we’d go in and see as much as we could.
Obviously, no pictures allowed inside, so I can’t show you any of the beautiful things we saw, but I will also warn you that they won’t let you carry backpacks on your back inside the gallery. This is probably to keep you from accidentally knocking over a bust, but it’s hugely annoying when you have a backpack. I wrapped it around my front like I was pregnant and no one yelled at me, so that’s my best recommendation.
We only got through the Renaissance before needing to leave, but it was well worth the stop.
The Sir Walter Scott Monument
Yep. This is our fifth and final Scott Sighting of the day. But it’s worth about 5 sightings in and of itself. Now, I get it, we have a giant statue of Lincoln and of Jefferson and a obelisk named after Washington, but this structure was an enormously-impressive nod to a writer. Just look at it!
Bye Bye Edinburgh
We arrived in Edinburgh at 9:30 and finished up our adventures detailed above by 4 p.m. We enjoyed a long leisurely lunch and the only thing we really rushed was the gallery. Everything but the food was free to enjoy, and there were plenty of things we could have gone to see or do that would have also been free if we had more time.
If you made it to the bottom of this post — kudos to you! I’m impressed.
Hope I’ve inspired you to come make the visit. What do you want to see in Edinburgh?
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