I know dollars and pounds are different currencies, really. But while studying abroad in the UK, you sometimes forget where you are. This is an English-speaking country, and their culture is not staggeringly different than our own. So when I see an ice cream cone for £3, part of me sees this as $3, and I think it’s a reasonable price (it’s robbery, actually). The last time I was in the United Kingdom, I became so oblivious to currency that I accidentally spent a staggering amount of money in the British Museum gift shop.
This time around, I’m being smarter about my cash. The nine of us on Arcadia’s Scotland summer program are particularly aware of the cost of living, as we buy our own groceries and household supplies. However, after a few days of scouting, we have found strategies to live cheaply in Edinburgh.
As a band of college students, it was a bit daunting to leave behind meal plans. Edinburgh’s Old Town is packed with countless enticing restaurants with diverse culinary styles. That isn’t quite the ringing endorsement it might appear to be. The two neighborhood grocery stores seem quite bland when compared to some of the greatest Indian and South Asian cuisine outside of… well, India and South Asia. One really could eat out for every meal.
Luckily, Old Town Edinburgh can cater to a student crowd. The city’s main mosque operates a lovely cafeteria where one can get massive amounts of Indian food for a small price. Additionally, most of the restaurants near the university offer student discounts or, at the very least, a selection of reasonably-priced appetizers.
The best of Edinburgh is free- at least for some lucky people.
Any tourist can access the major museums without charge, but other Edinburgh landmarks carry a hefty fee. For example, an adult ticket to Edinburgh Castle costs a shocking £16.50 (a bit over $25). Our salvation: Historic Scotland.
Before I left for Edinburgh, I had already planned to purchase a Historic Scotland membership. For £37, (student rate) one gains free access to castles and manor homes all over the country. There are 26 Historic Scotland attractions in Edinburgh alone. But before I could buy my card, Arcadia purchased memberships for all the program participants.
Since we spend our days studying Scottish history and exploring Edinburgh’s heritage sites, we occasionally want to do something a bit less educational (surprising, I know). Last night, we trekked to hip New Town for a night at The Stand, Edinburgh’s reigning comedy club. Admission to The Stand is often no more than £2, and the show lasts until almost midnight.
A guidebook will likely recommend the shopping on High Street, otherwise known as the Royal Mile. This stretch of street is not for the faint of heart. There is literally no spot on the street where you cannot hear bagpipes. The shops are an explosion of tartan (most not even made in Scotland) where you could easily spend £90 on a cashmere plaid scarf.
Moving away from High Street, the prices fall exponentially every block. And in the less touristy areas of the city, you discover Edinburgh’s hidden shopping gem: charity shops. A single block near our flat has six of these, supporting causes such as cancer research, elderly care, heart health, poverty, hunger, and shelter animals. Unlike secondhand stores in the United States, which require a real spirit of adventure, charity shops in the United Kingdom are a delight. They are well-lit, staffed by friendly volunteers, and have a variety of quality material. And the proceeds go to a good cause!
This morning, I visited a nearby charity shop and bought a stack of gently used paperbacks for £1 a piece. Although the secondhand stores have a nice selection of books, they will not be my prime literary hunting grounds. Edinburgh is a haven for quirky independent bookstores. Currently, I am doing a grueling regimen of window-shopping and browsing for, um, “blog research purposes.”
Although Edinburgh is a wonderful city, it would be a shame to never venture into the rest of Scotland. Unfortunately, rail prices can cause sticker shock. As a member of the Arcadia staff recently explained, some Scottish citizens are more familiar with continental Europe than the rest of the UK. Shocking as it might sound, a train journey into central England is far more expensive than a plane ticket to Amsterdam.
The first and most obvious solution is the rail card. The 16-25 pass costs £30 and gives the holder one third off train travel for a full year. Or, you can just make some friends. Group tickets (four people or more) can be bought at a huge discount, provided the group members are willing to travel together for both the outbound and return legs.
The city is expensive, but Edinburgh has a large student population, and the Arcadia Centre staff provided helpful budget tips during orientation.
Anna Cain is a student at Colorado College and is blogging from her summer abroad with the Scottish Heritage Management Internship Program in Scotland.