Edinburgh is classed as a tourist city by most – but who lives there for most of the year outside the holidays? Students. Take your cue from them to enjoy Scotland's capital city with limited funds
One of my abiding memories of Edinburgh was standing in a phone box with four other people, eating pizza out of the cold. It didn't work, of course – there is a whacking great slot at the bottom of the booth to let air in, which meant our ankles got extra chilled – but it reminded me of this: Edinburgh is one of the best places to be in these sceptred isles of Great Britain, whether you have a small fortune or a pittance to spend. This, then, is the perfect lazy weekend on a budget for someone who wants to shop, explore and party in Edinburgh, but who can't afford too much.
A mere mention of student hostels can strike fear into the best of us. How wrong. Many are perfectly acceptable and useful as a home base to drop off bags and sleep at. In a city such as Edinburgh, you don't need to spend lots of time in hotel rooms anyway. The City Centre Guest House Hostel at 87 Shandwick Place (see Make It Happen, top left) is a little out of the way, situated as it is beyond the western end of Princes Street, but it is cheap (especially if you slum it in a dorm) and the five-minute walk towards the main shopping drag is a pleasant one, passing grand curving Edwardian terraces and some lovely greenery.
Put simply, Princes Street is Edinburgh. If you're feeling flush, you can blow your money on an afternoon tea at the plush Caledonian Hotel at the western end – which is worth it, just to see Sean Connery's hotel of choice – but that is perhaps too much of a departure from our "slumming-it" mantra. From the Caledonian, Princes Street runs east until it is capped by a swathe of shopping malls and met by the main road into the city from the south. You could quite easily spend a whole weekend ducking in and out of the variety of shops that occupy the entire length of the street. Think of the great shopping streets of the world, and Princes Street is up there with the best of them: it is the Oxford Street of Scotland.
You will run the whole gamut of retail therapy – but if you're looking for something slightly more independent and quirky, head to Market Street, a beautiful sweeping incline just off Princes Street to the south which has oodles of shops selling everything from brash jewellery to one-of-a-kind clothing.
You are also very close to the campus of Edinburgh University, which is integral to having a good time on a limited budget. The students' union is spread over two cavernous buildings: one, an old-fashioned, palatial building with a ground-level café/relaxation area filled with books and board games which can help pass a drizzly afternoon and rest those weary feet. The other is a great modern building which hosts numerous bars and nightclubs. Weekends are home to the Big Cheese club night, where you can dance to some of the most fondly-remembered songs of your youth (and a couple you'll have forgotten, but will love to be reacquainted with). From there, you can recreate my favourite Edinburgh memory of wandering back to your hostel in the dark, clasping a pizza in one hand and giving a piggy back to your friend as you run down Princes Street in an attempt to stave off the bitter Scottish cold.
The morning after, you are likely to feel a little fragile – at least if you have experienced Edinburgh in the way you are meant to. Don't worry: Edinburgh isn't all about the retail rat race. Wander back down to Princes Street and, as soon as you reach it, head north. Parallel to it are several small streets (including the larger George Street) filled with quaint little shops, pubs and cafés where you can take your breakfast for little expense. Walk to the mid-point of Princes Street, and look south to Edinburgh Castle. If you're feeling particularly hardy, you can attempt the trek up to the Castle and enjoy brilliant views across the city (and an educational tour around the place). If not, there is the National Gallery of Scotland, ready to inject some much-needed culture into the trip. It sits right next to Princes Street Gardens, a place so incongruous with the hustle of the shopping crowds that you will love to spend a lazy Sunday morning roaming its grounds. Luckily, the Gardens are within a brief walk of Edinburgh Waverley Station – and your train home.