Ah, bonnie Scotland! A wild and beautiful part of the world, where you can explore the rugged highlands or enjoy the colour and vibrancy of cultural capitals like Edinburgh and Glasgow. But how do you know you’re getting the very best out of your trip? That’s where we come in. If you’ve had a browse through our range of luxury cottages and castles in Scotland, you’ll know there’s some great places to stay, but to find all the great things to do, see and eat you’ll need our handy Scotland travel guide – so read on and enjoy!
Why visit Scotland?
The Scots are fiercely proud of their little nation. And rightly so. Travel companies promoting the region tend to get stuck on hackneyed notions of Scottishness, like tweed, bagpipes and tartan, and while the Scots do celebrate their heritage, it’s just one aspect of the country’s identity. These days, visitors will come across stellar modern food, outstanding contemporary galleries and perhaps even – depending on when you go – one of the biggest comedy and arts festivals in the world.
The typical sights
- Edinburgh Castle – Look for the legendary Stone of Destiny.
- Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh – Admire views over the city.
- Glasgow Science Centre – Have the kids burn off excess energy on the human hamster wheel.
- Gretna Green Famous Blacksmiths Shop – Feel the air of romance at this legendary wedding venue for runaways.
- Edinburgh Zoo – See Tian Tian and Yang Guang, the only giant pandas in the UK.
- The Falkirk Wheel – Watch this impressive boat lift in action from the visitor centre.
- Riverside Museum – Browse the transport-focused exhibitions at this impressive Zaha Hadid-designed modern marvel.
When to visit?
If we were to characterise Scotland’s weather in one admittedly reductive word, it would have to be changeable. The weather here oscillates not just seasonally, but often on a daily basis. Because it is so unpredictable, there is no real ‘best’ time to go. Winter in the Highlands will mean snow, but summer in the lowlands won’t necessarily call for swimwear and sunglasses. We recommend preparing for any eventuality: Pack layers for maximum flexibility and be sure to bring along waterproofs.
Summer may not have guaranteed sunshine, but it does have a guaranteed buzz: the streets of Edinburgh will be thronged with attendees of the famous Edinburgh Festival Fringe during August. Many of the other towns further north will host local Highland Games events during the warmer months. New Year’s is another busy period in Scotland, with thousands upon thousands of party-goers arriving in Edinburgh for the annual Hogmanay celebrations.
- Airports: Scotland has four main airports: Glasgow, Glasgow Prestwick, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, plus many regional airports in Dundee, Inverness, Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland.
- Public transport: The Central Belt (which includes Glasgow, Edinburgh, Ayrshire, Falkirk, Lothian and Fife) is the most densely populated part of the country, and, as such, is well-served by both bus and rail. Getting to the more remote parts of the northern Highlands and southern Scotland by public transport is not impossible, but will require some planning. Trains can be expensive, but coach services, provided by Scottish Citylink, Stagecoach, Megabus and National Express, offer better-value services. For local services in and around Scotland’s towns and cities, check the TravelineScotland website.
- Taxis: Taxis in Scotland are easily come by. Flag them down on the street of the larger cities or head to taxi ranks. If you are somewhere more rural, you may need to book one by phone or using a taxi app.
- By Boat: If you want to pay a visit to any of Scotland’s 100 or so inhabited islands, you’ll have to factor in ferries. Caledonian MacBrayne operate routes around the Hebrides and the Firth of Clyde, while Serco NorthLink Ferries carry passengers to Orkney and Shetland.
- By Bike: Scotland has an extensive National Cycling Network comprised of a series of bike paths, which include both city and coastal routes as well as urban cycle paths. Thanks to the fantastic scenery, cycling here is extremely rewarding. The only negative factor is the weather.
- Hiring a car: There are two compelling reasons to hire a car in Scotland. Firstly, you won’t be tied down to transport timetables so you can stop and get out every time you want to take a picture. Secondly, the scenery is truly spectacular. Don’t expect to cruise in the more remote regions. You’ll encounter plenty of twisty, single-track roads with passing places that generally require drivers to adopt a slower pace and concentrate extra hard.
- To combine and compare rail, coach and air travel in one search, visit GoEuro.
Hidden gems in Scotland
- Reindeers aren’t just for Christmas or for the Tundra, for that matter. At the Cairngorms Reindeer Centre up in Inverness-shire, the UK’s only free-range reindeer herd roam the hills. You can trek up to see gentle antlered creatures in their mountain enclosure and even stroke and feed them.
- A scant and striking set of ruins, medieval Fast Castle sits on a patch of open headland near the border with England. There are no tourist facilities or information signs here, and the castle gets little footfall so you can explore without encountering another soul.
- A castle quite unlike all others, graffiti-clad Kelburn in North Ayrshire dates back to the 13th century and is among the oldest in Scotland. Its look, however, is much more contemporary with the south side of the structure entirely covered in a colourful mural – one of Scotland’s more unusual examples of street art.
- Despite inspiring an array of artists, among them classical composer Felix Mendelssohn, painter J.M.W. Turner and Pink Floyd, Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa doesn’t get much attention. Probably because it’s hidden away on the small and remote Isle of Staffa. It’s well worth going out of your way for; the views of its basaltic pillars are truly mesmerizing.
- Memories of childhood holidays tend to stick in the mind. It turns out this old maxim is as true for world-famous superstars, such as John Lennon, as it is for us ordinary folk. A teenage Lennon spent his summers up in the northerly town of Durness, and even returned with Yoko Ono and their young son to show them where he spent his boyhood. Today, a small but thought-provoking memorial, inscribed with lyrics from In My Life honours the beloved Beatle in Durness.
- Sandwood Bay is far from unheard of, yet most strollers who arrive at this stunning 2.5-kilometre stretch of dusty pink sand will fine it blissfully empty. Perhaps it’s because there is no direct road access. Be prepared to walk more than 6 kilometres from the car park in Blairmore.
The best family-friendly activities in Scotland
- Head out into the highlands and countryside of Scotland and it’s pretty much guaranteed the whole family will be totally gobsmacked by the beauty of it all. While driving around and admiring all that rugged heathland, getting out there and getting adventurous will get you closer to the country than you ever thought possible.
- The Highland Wildlife Park mixes all of the fun of a safari park and a zoo in one experience, so you can drive around and see all the animals in their natural environments or head to the zoo and get a bit closer.
- And if the animals have inspired the kids to do a bit of monkeying around, Go Ape offer them the chance for zip lining and other treetop adventures, and with three locations throughout Scotland you might not even have to go that far to find one.
- And it’s not just the land that offers something exciting for families to do. With Loch Ness for monster hunting and rivers and waterways for other aquatic activities like canoeing or kayaking, taking to the water is the ideal way to have fun with the kids.
- EcoVentures do boat tours of the Moray Firth, concentrating on the wildlife and ecology you’ll find there – and if you’re lucky, you may encounter dolphins, deals or even a whale!
- Scotland’s venerable historic and cultural legacy is worth investigating too, and with loads of castles, battlefields, museums and galleries to see, you’ll never run out of stuff to explore.
- Inveraray Jail is a real interactive experience, giving the kids an insight into the grisly life of a 19th Century gaol.
- Eilean Donan Castle has a pretty unique location, standing on an island in the middle of three lochs. Adults can enjoy the spectacular views while the weapon displays and battlements are bound to keep the kids entertained.
If these ideas have got you inspired, be sure to take a look at our blog on the best family activities in Scotland
The best family-friendly cycling routes in Scotland
There are so many cycling routes in Scotland (there are over 15k!), it’s hard to know where to begin. From long ones that can take a couple of days, to shorter ones that are good for the whole family – you’re bound to find a cycling route that everyone can enjoy.
- The route around the Rothiemurchus Estate forest Aviemore is six miles long, is suitable for kids as young as five and takes in spectacular views of the nearby Loch An Eilien.
- If you’re in and around Falkirk, the paths that wind around the canal offer as easy or as strenuous a ride as you like – so you can cater it to the age (or inclination!) of the family with ease.
- The short and picturesque ride that runs between Carbost Village and Talisker Bay on the Isle of Skye is ideal – especially because you’ll pass by the Talisker Distillery, and it’d be rude not to go on a quick tour.
Things to do in Scotland
If adventure is high-up on your priority list, arrange an active group holiday for friends or family. You can trek up the Cairngorms, climb the needle peaks of Cuillin or hike through gorgeous glens on the West Highland Way.
The activities needn’t all be strenuous either. You could opt for mellower outdoor pursuits, such as strolls on deserted beaches or a round of golf at the birthplace of the sport, for instance. Or even take things indoors with distillery tours, visits to traditional pubs and museum jaunts. There’s no scarcity of things to do in Scotland, but it’s nice to have a bit of guidance nonetheless, which is why we’ve put together just a few ideas of things to do in Scotland to help inspire your holiday itinerary.
- One utterly memorable way of seeing the Scottish highlands is by renting a classic car and taking it for a spin in the undulating hills. It’s certainly a lot more interesting than you average hire car!
- And if you don’t want to compromise on your classic, go all out with the blistering speed and grace of a Caterham 7 from Highland Caterham Hire.
- The hugeamount and variety of waterways, lochs and coastal waters in Scotland means there’s plenty of water-based activities available for adventurous types. The choice is pretty much endless here, so whatever you’re looking for you’re bound to find something to suit!
- One watery activity that might not instantly spring to mind is swimming with sharks – luckily, these are basking sharks and won’t pose any danger to anyone. Check out Basking Shark Scotland, who operate tours out of Oban.
- And while it might not be as pulse-pounding as diving with sharks, a spot of archery is a great way to connect with castles and battles that pepper both the history and landscape of Scotland.
- Rothiemurchus can sort you out with your bow and arrow, as well as loads of other outdoor activities.
More laid-back activities
- Providing the weather’s on your side (or you don’t mind getting caught in a freezing squall) one of the best ways to see Scotland is on the saddle of a bike. You can take a tour of the grand cities or head out in the countryside with a couple of pub stops on the way – whatever you fancy!
- Edinburgh Bike Tours are a great place to start if you want to hire a bike, and they can arrange a route to suit your tastes too (so you can stop in at a distillery if you like!)
- Don’t really fancy hopping on a bike? Why not get even more romantic and hop on horseback? It’s a fantastic activity if there’s a few couple in your group, and you’ll see the countryside in a whole new light.
- Newtonmore Riding Centre can provide your steed and give you a bit of training no matter your experience with horses.
- If you’re feeling lazier still but want to connect with the history of Scotland, there are plenty of opportunities for driving or coach tours that’ll take in the sights and the scenes without you having to worry about the weather.
- Heart of Scotland Tours offer a jaunt on their buses that’ll take in sights of historical interest as well as some beautiful fishing villages, so get your camera ready.
If you need more tips, why not head over to our blog on the best group activities in Scotland.
For the foodies
Dated clichés about deep-fried mars bars and Buckfast no longer hold true to 21st-century life in Scotland. This small nation is an emerging foodie destination, and punches far above its weight in culinary terms thanks to the increasing importance it places on quality local produce.
To help you get started in planning your food and drink experiences, we’ve drawn up a handy list that includes our pick of Scotland’s best restaurants as well as some yummy food and drink-oriented tours.
The best restaurants in Scotland
- The Peat Inn is a Michelin-starred inn, which focuses on quality, locally-sourced fare. The elegant and contemporary interior lends a chicness to the rural location, near to stunning St Andrews.
- Critically acclaimed The Three Chimneys on the Isle of Skye offers inspired dishes in a breathtakingly remote location.
- Scotland’s seafood is rightly lauded, so take advantage of its deliciousness at the Waterfront Fishhouse in Oban. You’ll find everything on offer from fresh oysters to scallops and hot smoked salmon.
Best regional dishes
- It’s notorious and divisive, and you know exactly what we’re talking about. When you’re in Scotland, you simply have to try haggis! Vegetarians don’t get off either, as there’s plenty of meat-free versions available. And don’t forget your tatties and neeps!
- One of Scotland’s other famous exports is, of course, malt whisky. You’ll be spoiled for choice in every pub but it’s worth taking the time to visit a distillery too – we’ve provided you with a couple of suggestions below!
- It might be seen as a bit of a joke, but you really can get deep-fried Mars Bars at chip shops in Scotland. Sounds weird, actually pretty delicious, so try not to think about the calories and dive in.
- Finally, Arbroath Smokies are traditionally smoked haddock from the small fishing village of Arbroath. They cost a little more, but the flavour is more than worth it!
The best foodie activities in Scotland
- If you want to take in everything delicious Scotland has to offer in a single day, head to St Andrew’s and try the Tasting Scotland tour. Ok, so you might not technically eat everything on offer, but you’ll certainly get through a lot and be glad that you did.
- The history and Scotland and whisky will be forever intertwined, and if you’re visiting then it’s worth tracking down a tour or distillery to learn about this venerable process and, more importantly, indulge in a wee dram (or two).
- Rabbies can be found in various locations throughout Scotland and run Single Malt tours that’ll give you a good grounding in the production of Scotch Whisky, and as well as a couple of distillery visits you’ll be able to enjoy a pub lunch next to a Loch. You can’t get more Scottish than that!
- The Strathearn Distillery in Methven doesn’t offer whisky, instead concentrating on the joys of Scottish gin. You can enjoy a tour, a tasting and even whip up your own batch with some fruity botanicals.
- And for something a little more civilised, the Muneroy Tea Rooms in Southend are famed for their afternoon teas. Fantastic if you’ve been out for a bit of a walk and feel the need for a restorative cuppa and a slice of cake.
For more delectable inspiration, take a look at our blog on the best foodie experiences in Scotland.
Ready for a trip to over the border now you’re armed with all the info you could ever need from this Scotland travel guide? Then you might want to have a look at our collection of castles, cottages and villas across Edinburgh, Loch Lomond, the Highlands and the rest of the country! Looking to do some more reading? We’ve got a selection of blog posts dedicated to Scotland!