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The best UK cities on a budget

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Travel in the UK can be a bargain experience if you do it right. Museums and galleries are often free, historic cities and parks offer plenty of options for exploration, and there are top class options to eat and drink on a budget, whether you’re after a Moroccan tagine or classic British cafe fare.

Edinburgh Britain Scotland UK Best BudgetEdinburgh’s Royal Mile runs from the Scottish Parliament to Edinburgh Castle and is packed with history © F11photo / Shutterstock

And, as our selection of cities great and small shows, even some of the UK’s best-known destinations can be great spots for the budget traveller.

Museums and mop-tops in Liverpool

This diverse city is relatively cheap to visit outside of match days, which can send room rates soaring. Some of its most famous assets are free to access. Albert Dock is a handsome Merseyside complex of Grade I listed brick warehouses repurposed as bars, shops and restaurants. It’s a great place to wander, and is also home to free sights including Tate Liverpool, with its four floors of modern art and views across the Mersey, and the hard-hitting International Slavery Museum.

Liverpool Albert Dock Budget Best Britain UKLiverpool’s Albert Dock shines in the night © Trevor Green / 500px

The fact that Liverpool is the hometown of The Beatles is a huge pull to the city, and many attractions and tourist walks make big money from it. Curb the costs by taking a self-guided tour around the key sights, including the band statue on Albert Dock and the Cavern Club on Mathew Street.

Bold St has some of the best places to eat in the city, many of which are independent and very reasonably priced. Salt Dog Slim’s serves American fast food for under a fiver, while Kasbah’s tasty tagines could easily feed two for £10. If you get tired, book a Delta cab through their app for cheap, fast and reliable transport. Consider a central budget hotel here, as hostels can be sketchy in location and standard.

Budget National Museum Edinburgh Britain UKThe National Museum of Scotland is packed with intriguing treasures © Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock

Walking tours and comfort food in Edinburgh

A few nights in Scotland’s capital shouldn’t be too expensive, as long as you avoid August’s Edinburgh Festival, when accommodation costs rocket. Some of the major attractions are free, such as climbing Arthur’s Seat, visiting the Museum of Scotland, walking the cobbled slope of the Royal Mile and exploring the Royal Botanic Garden. Try a free audio tour of the West End to learn about its history, spot backdrops from blockbuster films with a free online walking tour and marvel at the architecture of St Giles Cathedral.

Hotels are quite steeply priced, but some guesthouses and hostels are of hotel standard. One of the best for location, facilities and cleanliness is Edinburgh Central Youth Hostel, with dorms beds at £20 and private rooms also on offer. Alternatively, shop around for a guesthouse room under £50.

If you’re a literature fan, head to the Elephant House for a cuppa. It’s where JK Rowling dreamt up Harry Potter, and fans have written witty literary references and dedications on the walls of the toilets. At night, tuck in to bargain Thai at Ting Thai Caravan, home-made curry at Nutan’s or comfort food at Mums.

Brighton Pier Beach Budget UK BritainBrighton’s beach and pier offer a classic British seaside experience © Westend61 / Getty Images

Belgian chips and independent shops in Brighton

The most famous spot in this unique seaside town – the Victorian pier – is free to visit. You can walk along the amusement arcades on the pier or clamber along the pebble beach that stretches out below. For a simple pleasure that won’t break the bank, sit on the shore with a traditional tray of chips from the seafront or Belgian chips with over 13 sauce options from BeFries.

Further inland, the Royal Pavilion Gardens is another picturesque place to relax, this time amongst flowers and trees rather than waves and seagulls. It’s easy to while away an hour at the free Brighton Museum & Art Gallery within the gardens, which houses collections of 20th century art and design, pottery, fashion and Egyptian artefacts.

Brighton Budget food UK BritainA sharing plate at Brighton’s Terre à Terre © Amy Pay / Lonely Planet

Take time to mooch around North Laine, a mesh of streets crammed with independent shops, value-for-money restaurants and cafes and Snooper’s Paradise antiques market. The modern Italian restaurant Edendum and vegetarian haven Terre à Terre both offer dinner for around £15 a head and are very much worth the extra cash.

Hiking Budget St Davids UK BestA hiker strides out near Whitesands Bay, just north of St Davids © Michael Roberts / Getty Images

In and around Britain’s smallest city

St Davids is compact, laid-back and offers great access to the Pembrokeshire coast, all of which make the UK’s smallest city a great place for a city break with a difference. The surrounding region has miles of rolling hills, coastal paths and beaches that can be accessed on foot or by car. The pretty village at Solva, as well as St Non’s Bay, Caerfai Bay and Abereiddy Bay are all within striking distance, all offering dramatic views and plenty of possibilities for exploration.

In St Davids itself, the cathedral is the top attraction for curious visitors and pilgrims. It stands on the site of a monastery that was built by St David, the patron saint of Wales, and its beautiful interior is packed with unique architectural features. Have a cost-free morning of exploring Welsh history hotspots by combining it with a walk to St Non’s Well: its spring water is said to have healing powers, while the surrounding views over the countryside are epic.

Accommodation and parking charges can make staying in St Davids expensive, but there are good campsites nearby to keep costs low. Caerfai Bay is a mile south of the city and has great views. Alternatively, Lleithyr Farm near Whitesands Bay is 1.5 miles north of town and has an expansive flat site with room for tents and gazebos alongside cars. Modern shower facilities and toilets, an on-site shop and farmyard animals make it excellent value.

Food options are limited in the city, but the Farmer’s Arms and Bishopsserve decent, good-value pub grub and plenty of Welsh ales. A scoop or two of ice cream from Gianni’s at The Bench on the high street would perfectly round off any trip.

Britain UK Best Budget ManchesterManchester is a big, bold and friendly city that’s great for a budget break © Mark Lovatt / Getty Images / Flickr RF

Fine art, buttons and bars in Manchester

Connected by trams but easily covered on foot, Manchester is an urban metropolis that has plenty to keep visitors occupied for at least two days. Manchester Art Gallery is free to visit, home to a huge collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings and fine art, craft and design works from 17th century to modern day. The Museum of Science & Industry is a genuinely interesting place to find out about the city’s industrial history, while a walk around Afflecks Palace plunges shoppers into all things alternative – stalls are dedicated to sweets, buttons, Star Wars figures and all sorts.

While this city has pricey areas such as Deansgate, the Northern Quarter is the place for bargain meals and accommodation without scrimping on quality or atmosphere. Hatters Hostel on Newton St, a former bowler hat factory, prides itself on being a friendly, clean and safe place to stay without high room rates. Guests can enjoy free wi-fi, breakfast and walking tours of the city, as well as guided pub crawls.

For lunch or coffee head to Fig & Sparrow, a fairly priced cafe with a relaxed atmosphere and stand-out sandwiches. At night, Little Aladdin (72 High St) and This and That are both great for cheap, authentic curries, while many of the pubs and bars in the Northern Quarter have food deals during the week.

Britain UK National Museum CardiffLike many of Britain’s best museums, the National Museum in Cardiff is free © VisitWales

Parks and welshcakes in Cardiff

The centre of Wales’ capital city is dominated by ornate Cardiff Castleand the Principality Stadium, both of which are worth at least a walk-around. If the entry charges put you off, Bute Park, next to the castle, is a beautiful green space that is free to enter. The River Taff slices the park, and docking points allow people to cruise along the river to Cardiff Bay for under £5. The National Museum has large art and natural history collections, which are impressive and free to view.

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