The first stop in Scotland for most visitors is Edinburgh -- and deservedly so. A dramatic 15th-century castle looms over the city from its rocky perch, while rows of crooked homes line the Royal Mile leading to its imposing gate, and narrow alleys wind into darkness as the cobblestone streets ascend. At the other end of the Royal Mile, you’ll find the new Scottish Parliament, Holyrood Palace and craggy Arthur’s Seat. It can be an expensive city if you stay on the main tourist tracks, but this ancient city can be a deal if you know where to look and what to do.
Exploring the Old Town is like being dropped back into the 1500s but, happily, without the looming threat of an imminent English invasion or the Black Death. Atmospheric medieval lanes lace together this ancient capital, so pack some sturdy footwear and wander these "winds." Trace the history of the country down the Royal Mile, from old regal haunt Edinburgh Castle to the Queen's current city pad, the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the modern Scottish Parliament at the foot of the street. You can visit the outer ramparts and tattoo grounds of the Castle without paying admission and the Parliament offers free hour-long tours.
If the weather's on your side, hike up to the top of Arthur's Seat, an 822-foot-high former volcano that's part of royal Holyrood Park. It offers incredible city and Edinburgh Castle views. Once you've finished strolling about the Queen's backyard, other free outdoor spots to saunter include the 17th century Royal Botanic Garden, where indigenous and exotic plants flourish and admission is only charged if you want to visit the greenhouses.
4. August, When Things Get Festive
You’ll also find plenty of budget-friendly wonders onstage and on the streets during the famed Edinburgh Festival, held over 4 weeks in fall, and the simultaneous Edinburgh Fringe -- the largest arts festival in the world.
5. Eat and Drink on the Cheap
Tuck into some unique Scottish-Mexican fusion fare with a haggis burrito at Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh's favorite haunt, Los Cardos on busy Leith Walk. Warm up on a breezy day with a bowl of something hot and filling at cozy soup café Union of Genius, near Edinburgh University. For a traditional take on Scottish pub fare near Haymarket Station and the Murrayfield Stadium, try Thomson's Bar -- famed for its bargain price lunchtime steak and haggis pies and impressing array of Scottish cask ales and single malts.
There are plenty of pubs with price promotions in the city. Right beside Edinburgh Waverley Station and Princes Street, late night bar Belushi’s has drink deals from 5 till 8 daily. Unsurprisingly, the streets round the University have no shortage of happy hours. The funky City Cafe, a daytime diner that morphs into a bar by night, and Negociants on Lothian Street, a student-popular brasserie, both keep prices down and spirits up.
For such an elegant and stylish city, a surprising number of budget boutique accommodation addresses abound, although prices soar for the duration of the Edinburgh Festival. There are bargain rates to be had for those who book far ahead at the luxurious George Hotel, just 1 block from prime shopping destination Princes Street. Scots literary giants Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns are just 2 of the venerable hotel's famed former guests. Muted tones and microwaves are 2 of the attractions of the handy, centrally situated Fraser Suites. Thirty-one modern rooms with Egyptian cotton linens and a palette of greys, reds and whites star at the 4-star Hudson Hotel. A Georgian townhouse in the University area, the 18-room Salisbury is in a more residential district -- a 20-minute walk from the Old Town -- but it's ideal for those not averse to burning some shoe leather in order to save some money. The Grassmarket -- a historic market square full of bars and cafes, under Edinburgh Castle -- is the site of the hip Art Roch Hostel, one of a new breed of chic, cut-price overnight options that will suit the super social.
If you can't find any fabulous flight deals to Edinburgh, check departures to Glasgow International -- just an hour's drive or train ride west -- and scan connecting flights from London on budget carriers such as RyanAir, BMIbaby, and EasyJet.