I first arrived in Edinburgh in April 2015 and almost immediately decided to make it my home base. I usually end up there each year, and I spent most of the pandemic stuck in the beautiful city. I’d like to pass on the information I learned about being an expat in Edinburgh.
Why Be an Expat in Edinburgh
I’ve said it many times before – Edinburgh is my favorite city in the world. It’s not the cheapest city to live in and there are a small handful of other factors I’m not particularly fond of, but overall, the capital of Scotland is a great choice if you’re looking for somewhere to expatriate.
Let me break down why I love Edinburgh so much. For me, it’s the whole package: the food, the weather, the scenery, the people, the architecture and, possibly most importantly, the location in relation to other countries.
Don’t get me wrong; the weather here isn’t for everyone. It rains a lot all year long, the winters can get quite cold, the summers aren’t hot, and there’s often a wind that bites through every layer of clothing. But I love that kind of climate and how quickly it changes throughout the day. It’s not just a cliche when they say that Edinburgh gets four seasons in one day.
The people in Scotland are super friendly. Sometimes even too friendly. There have been plenty of times when I was trying to work at a cafe and had strangers lean over and insist on having a conversation with me. Not that I don’t mind chatting with the locals, but sometimes I need my “me” time.
As to food, I love Scottish cuisine, and I like how diverse the cuisines of other restaurants are. There are amazing places to get fantastic Thai noodles, Italian pizza, Greek börek, Pakistani curry, sushi, etc. Scottish cuisine is things like haggis, neeps and tatties, Cullen skink, meat pies, and, of course, the legendary Scottish breakfast. To learn more about Scottish food, check out my article on the Secret Food Tour in Edinburgh.
However, the main reason I think being an expat in Edinburgh is perfect is because of its location internationally. In normal times, flights from Edinburgh to countries all around Europe are under £40 ($50) round trip. If I can’t find a cheap flight from Edinburgh to the destination I’m headed to, it’s not hard to get down to London, from where you can get to nearly every country in the world for a really good price. Sure, London is a better-connected city, but Edinburgh is so much more beautiful, cheaper, and only has a twentieth of the population.
Where to Stay in Edinburgh
The first problem you’ll have to sort out if you want to be an expat in Edinburgh is where to stay. Even though the city isn’t that big, there are definitely neighborhoods you’ll want to avoid as they’re a bit dodgy, and other parts of town are only suitable if you’re coming in with a huge budget.
My favorite part of town (and where I last lived) is Stockbridge Village, located less than a mile to the northwest of Edinburgh castle. It’s a beautiful “village” in Edinburgh with hipster cafes, vintage clothing shops, a huge park and pond, and the Royal Botanic Gardens not far away, but it’s also a bit expensive. Other similar neighborhoods are Marchmont, Bruntsfield and Morningside.
Finally, there’s Portobello, the neighborhood along the beach. It’s a bit pricier as well, and it’s about an hour’s walk to get to the city center (or 20 minutes on the bus), but what’s better than living by the beach?
The neighborhoods I would recommend avoiding are Granton and parts of Leith, Gorgie, and Wester Hailes. For convenience, I’d also recommend finding a place to stay within a half-hour walk from the city center, but homes do get cheaper the further you go from the center. An apartment on the Royal Mile (the center of the Old Town) will probably cost you around £1200 ($1500) a month. Most of the places I’ve stayed in the neighborhoods listed above were around £350 ($500) a month. But you can get places for even cheaper than that in the outlying villages and across the bay.
A word of warning: beware of landlords who don’t care for their apartments are only in business to get as much money out of you as possible. There are plenty of landowners, many of which are from immigrant families (not that I’m racist), who own dozens of apartments in Edinburgh. We had a horrible experience with a landlord named Yousef, who went by the nickname Maz. It was our mistake not learning about our landlord before we moved in, but the warning signs as soon as we moved in were legion.
Instead, try to rent from a local landlord. I’ve always been a fan of supporting the local economy, and accommodations (whether short-term or long) are no exception.
Getting Around Edinburgh
As mentioned, Edinburgh isn’t a big city and I mostly just walk everywhere. Obviously, there are some days when the weather is inclement and you need to take a bus. The buses also come in handy when you want to get to the outskirts (like where my dad lives). At the time of this writing, a single ride on a bus is £1.80 ($2.50), and a day-pass is £4.50 (~$6.50). If you use your contactless card or Google Pay, you will automatically be capped at £4.50 if you’re taking several rides in a day.
Edinburgh has its own international airport which is very well connected. There are several buses that will take you out to the airport, as well as the tram. The buses and tram are a flat rate of £4.50 (~$6.50) to get out to the airport. If you want to save a bit of money and don’t mind walking a few minutes, you can take the tram to the second-to-last stop (Ingliston Park and Ride), and then walking the rest of the way to the airport. For the tram, it’s only about half a mile across the fields, but you’ll have to walk about a mile on the streets to get to departures.
If you want to rent a car, I would not recommend using it around the center of town. Traffic is horrendous around rush hour, and in general, the one-way streets and bus-only lanes get really confusing, not to mention getting used to driving on the opposite side of the street as in the USA. On the positive side, renting and buying cars are relatively cheap, and definitely comes in handy when you want to get up to the Highlands or the Isle of Skye.
Scotland also has a very good rail system, and some of the routes are considered the most beautiful in the world. You can also take the train down to London and other cities in England, but the train is significantly more expensive than buses and coaches.
What to Eat in Edinburgh
When it comes to eating in Edinburgh, you have a huge range of cuisines to choose from. As I mentioned above, that’s another one of the main reasons why I love Edinburgh. Unfortunately, eating out isn’t cheap. In fact, I’d say Edinburgh is in the top 3% of the most expensive cities I’ve traveled to when it comes to eating out.
Numbeo puts an average, inexpensive meal in Edinburgh at over $20. I agree. I know a handful of places in town where you can get a good meal for under $10, but the choices are very limited. However, if the budget isn’t a concern, there are some fantastic restaurants to try.
Whatever your favorite cuisine is, you definitely have to try Scottish food. Some of my favorite restaurants in Edinburgh for Scottish cuisine are Seven Cafe (for breakfast and lunch), MUMs Comfort Food, Beehive Cafe, The Fishmarket in Newhaven, and City Restaurant.
Another great aspect of Edinburgh is the plethora of cafes. There are dozens of them around the city, many of which serve third-wave artisan coffee brewed locally. Granted, the average price for a cup of coffee is more than you’ll spend in most other cities – nearly £3.50 ($5) for a latte – but the ambiance is great and, when there’s not a pandemic going on, the cafes are a great place to do some digital work.
Now, if you’re going to be an expat in Edinburgh, you’re probably not going to be eating all your meals out. Therefore, it’s important to know where to purchase your food. There are a few supermarket chains, some of which are far cheaper than others.
Cheapest Supermarkets in Edinburgh
Various websites will probably give you different opinions, but here is a list of supermarket chains in Edinburgh in order of price:
- Lidl – Cheapest
On a budget, I can easily purchase enough ingredients for a week of great meals at Lidl for £20 ($28). At Tesco, the same purchases will be around £25-30. Depending on the ingredients you like to use, you can cook at home for pretty cheap in Edinburgh. In fact, of all the places I’ve lived around the world, Edinburgh has been one of the cheapest when it comes to groceries.
There are also several smaller markets for regional foods, such as a great Thai market near the Haymarket train station, several Mediterranean markets near Edinburgh University, several Oriental markets on South Bridge and Leith Walk, Polish markets, African markets, etc.
Activities in Edinburgh
As for things to do in Edinburgh, it’s a very long list. Rather than cover everything again, check out some of my articles on the different activities in Edinburgh:
I have dozens of more articles about individual attractions in Edinburgh and Scotland which you read here.
Budget for Living in Edinburgh
It’s often said that London is one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in, and Edinburgh is the second-most expensive city in the United Kingdom. In other words, it’s not cheap…but it can be. Under extreme conditions, you could live in Edinburgh for about £500 ($700) a month. It would be more comfortable to budget about £750 ($1000) a month, and more than that just means more comforts, a better apartment, more activities, etc.
Obviously, budgeting to live anywhere comes with standard tips, such as not drinking alcohol out often (or not drinking alcohol at all), using buses and trams or walking rather than using taxis, drinking coffee at home rather than at cafes, etc.
As mentioned above, Edinburgh is one of the places where it’s cheaper to cook at home rather than eat out (unlike countries such as Mexico, Albania, Thailand, etc). I still like to eat out once or twice a week (when restaurants are open), but I do have to budget for that as you can easily pay £20 (~$27) for a nice meal in Edinburgh.
The average cost of rent these days in Edinburgh for a bedroom in a shared flat is about £400 (~$550), or you could spend a bit more if you want to get your own place. Personally, I’ve found all but two of my flats in Edinburgh for less than that, and I have several friends who have spent £300 (~$415) or less for a room. An average price for a couple in Edinburgh is probably around £600 (~$830).
Obviously, these are just rough estimates of averages. There will be plenty of homes in Edinburgh charging well over a grand, and some gems can be very cheap. Generally, the further away you get from the city center, the cheaper places get. If you really want a nice home to yourself that won’t break the bank, look in places like Livingston or across the Forth (bay) in Fife.
I often budget £100 (~$140) a month for grocery shopping, plus another £50 (~$70) for eating out. Sometimes I spend more, but again, I prefer to spend less on what I need just so my finances last longer and I can afford to travel more.
So, a total monthly budget for one person living in Edinburgh would break down as follows:
- Rent: £400 (~$550)
- Groceries: £100 (~$140)
- Eating Out: £50 (~$70)
- Transportation: £25 (~$35)
- Activities/Entertainment: £50 (~$70)
- Other (clothes, electronics, etc): £100 (~$140)
- Total: £725 (~$1000)
The Little Things
There’s a lot of little things to know if you plan to become an expat in Edinburgh, and I’m probably missing a ton of stuff, but I’ll try to cover the highlights and things I’ve found important to know living here.
The first thing you’ll probably want to start looking into is your taxes. You’ll need to register with the HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs). There’s a ton of information on getting taxed in the UK compared to your own country, and who taxes what. I don’t want to give a lot of legal advice here, and I’m still learning about it myself, so make sure you get with Citizens Advice soon after you arrive. They’ll be able to help you out.
This might almost seem unrelated, but it’s good to know where to do your laundry in Edinburgh. Hopefully, your apartment will have its own laundry machine. Most of them do, but there are a few that don’t. If you’re staying at a hostel, they’ll probably have a laundry service you can use, either self-service or full-service. Otherwise, you’ll have to use a laundromat. There are very few in town, and they’re not that cheap. The two main ones are on South Clerk Street and Leith Walk, although I had a horrible experience at the one on Leith Walk.
The Fringe Festival and Hogmanay
After your first summer in Edinburgh (if there’s not a pandemic going on), you’ll quickly fall into one of two categories – those that love the Fringe and those that hate it. The latter group is far larger. The Fringe is the international art festival hosted each year by Edinburgh and is the largest art festival in the world. In 2019, nearly a million tickets were issued for shows, and I don’t think that includes all the free shows and exhibits.
The problem with the Fringe is that the city gets overcrowded. It’s difficult to cross the Royal Mile for any reason, and it’s virtually impossible to get a hostel or hotel room last minute on the weekend, despite much of the student accommodations in the city getting commandeered as makeshift hostels.
Granted, the shows can be really good, and some of the biggest art and comedy shows around the world got their start at the Fringe. I’ve personally seen Foil, Arms and Hog, and Axis of Awesome at the Fringe. Sadly, it cost an arm and a leg for the shows, as the price of tickets has steadily increased over the years.
But it’s really up to your own taste of things and tolerance of motion. Myself, I don’t mind huge crowds, having helped put on giant events in Hollywood back in my old life. I prefer to seek out the free or cheaper shows, just because I could easily spend several hundred on the handful of really good shows that I’d want to see each year.
Weather in Edinburgh
Finally, I should probably mention something about the weather. I love it, and I’m probably the only person in the city that does. The city lies far to the north – almost as north as Juneau, Alaska. The temperature does stay pretty constant – averaging 6°C to 13°C (43°F to 55°F) throughout the year.
But it’s wind and rain that really get to you. It feels like it rains every day of the year, even though Wikipedia says it’s only an average of 124 days a year. I often say that it rains every day, and the chance of rain on the weather report is actually the percentage of the day it will be raining. Also, forecasts are never accurate, and the weather can change at a moment’s notice, or it can be sunny when it says it’s raining, and vice versa.
When you pack to be an Expat in Edinburgh, make sure you bring plenty of warm weather clothing, water- and wind-proof jackets and pants (even though the wind and rain will still get through), sunglasses, no umbrella (the wind will rip it to shreds), and a swimming suit for the beach. Basically, pack for all four seasons, as Edinburgh can experience all four in a single day.
A Closing Message
Choosing to expatriate to another country is a major decision and life change. Most of the people I know would never consider leaving the US or other home country. Personally, I think becoming an expat in Edinburgh was a wonderful change in my life.
Want to learn more about my favorite city in the world? Here are some of my other articles – not all of them as I just have too many to list.