Visit some of these 15 top destinations in Scotland and you will quickly understand how exciting and different this country is from the other nations in the United Kingdom. Its landscapes are wilder, its mountains more dramatic, its islands more mystical and each of its cities unique. This quick guide should give you a flavor of what to expect.
Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital, in the country’s southeast near the Firth of Forth is a buzzy university city, and a cultural feast with one of the world’s greatest open access performing arts festivals – The Edinburgh Fringe. Spread around an extinct volcanic plug, its character is diverse. A medieval old town perches across the Princes Street gardens from the 18th century, Georgian new town. The famous Royal Mile climbs from a historic palace past the architectural marvel of the Scottish Parliament to the spectacular castle fortress that is Edinburgh Castle. Museums are world class, the seafood is amazing and from every angle it is truly lovely.
Scotland’s most populous city, this port on the Firth of Clyde was once a shipbuilding powerhouse. These days its Clydeside waterfront is the newest cultural district, with the distinctive Riverside Museum of Transport, the new Glasgow Science Center – like a giant silver beetle – and the SSE Hydro, a sports and concert venue, joining the nearby Kelvingrove Museum as architectural landmarks. Glasgow is a youthful, forward looking place with a contemporary art scene spurred on by its famous art school, alternative music and theatre. And Billy Connolly’s hometown continues to produce a steady stream of edgy comedy talent.
03. Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park
Loch Lomond, the largest freshwater body in the UK, straddles the Highland Fault Line that separates the Highlands from the Lowlands.The National Park that surrounds it is equally divided between soft, rolling heather covered hills and higher peaks that are shrouded in deep evergreen forests below before breaking through the treeline and into the clouds. This is romantic Rob Roy country and you can visit the atmospheric churchyard in Balquhidder where the Robin Hood of the Highlands and his family are buried. It’s a terrific area for family camping, boating, and fishing, gentle cycling or hiking on well-groomed trails around the loch, and mountain biking a bit higher up. And it’s all less than an hour from Glasgow so very easy to reach.
04. St Andrews – The Home of Golf
If you love a good game of golf and you enjoy having golfers’ bragging rights in the clubhouse, visiting St. Andrews, the birthplace of the game, should be high on your bucket list. It’s easy to reach by road, about 13.5 miles southeast of Dundee on the North Sea coast.
There are seven golf courses in St Andrews but St Andrews Old Course is the one golfers with a taste for history aim for. Golf was first played on this course 600 years ago. Despite its pedigree, the course is on public land and anyone with an appropriate handicap (24 for men, 36 for women) can apply to pay the moderate greens fee and book the course. There’s also a ballot for last minute bookings and a generous policy of trying to accommodate single golfers on the day of play.
05. Dundee – UNESCO City of Design
If you expect to find Dundee Marmalade in Dundee you’re about 100 years too late. Today, this small city on the River Tay estuary near the east coast of Scotland is the UK’s only UNESCO City of Design, renowned for its creativity and contribution to sustainable development through design. As a visitor, you can enjoy this at the stunning new V&A Museum – the first branch of the museum outside of London and Scotland’s first and only design museum. While there, visit the RRS Discovery, the research ship that took Scott of the Antarctic and fellow explorer Ernest Shackleton on their first successful expedition, and the HMS Frigate Unicorn, is the oldest British-built warship still afloat and one of the six oldest ships in the world.
06. The Scottish Borders
The area known as the Scottish Borders, between Lothian and Edinburgh to the north and the English border at Northumberland to the south, is packed with things to do. From mountain biking and hiking adventures for softies to salmon fishing in the Tweed and connections to the most important historic, literary and royal figures of Alba. Some say that Robert Bruce’s heart is buried in a lead casket at Melrose Abbey. Mary Queen of Scots took refuge at Traquair House, the oldest inhabited house in Scotland. And Sir Walter Scott’s home, Abbotsford House, is the Medieval fantasy of the creator of Ivanhoe. Stop to admire Scott’s View, his favorite vista, near Dryburgh Abbey where the famous author is buried.
07. Cairngorms National Park
The Cairngorms is one of the UK’s wildest and emptiest regions. It has hundreds of footpaths, cycle trails and mountain biking trails to explore, 50 of Scotland’s Munros (mountains of more than 3,000 feet), and fabulous opportunities for wildlife spotting. The 90-mile Snow Road Scenic Route is the highest public road in the UK, a hair-raising drive lined with incredible views, atmospheric villages, and local attractions. Winter sports enthusiasts head for the Cairngorms in Scotland’s central highlands for skiing and snowboarding. The year round resort of Aviemore is a good base for snow sports, watersports on several lochs and access to deep romantic forests. And the Queen loves the Cairngorms. Her Scottish estate, Balmoral, is right in the middle of the park.
08. The Great Glen
The Great Glen is a natural geological fault that crosses Scotland diagonally from Fort William at the top of the sea loch, Loch Linnhe, to Inverness on the Moray Firth. It separates the Grampian Mountains from the North West Highlands. Several lochs lie along with it. The most famous is Loch Ness, but the Great Glen also includes the smaller Loch Lochy and Loch Oich. In the early 19th century, the Caledonian Canal was created to connect the lochs and provide water route across the country from the North Atlantic Ocean to the North Sea. It was quickly too small to be of any commercial use. But it has become a natural playground – a place for boating, cycling and hiking the canal paths, visiting the castles and historic sites along the route, camping and wildlife watching. The 117-mile Great Glen Way is a popular, village to village walking route through the Glen.
Visitors have voted Glencoe Scotland’s most romantic glen. And that’s only partly because of its tragic history of betrayal and murder. Today, the 12-mile long glen, lined with eight high Scottish mountains, is a beautiful setting for extraordinary mountain walks – from gentle wildflower meadow walks along the base of the glen to exciting winter hikes and climbs with mountaineering guides. One of Scotland’s most ancient landscapes – the remnant of a volcanic caldera formed 450 million years ago – it is photographers’ heaven with the sky and mountains forming dramatic images at every turn. If you are not into mountaineering, you can still enjoy a superb view from the Three Sisters Car Park on the A82. And if you like to dip into local history, visit the family-friendly Glencoe and North Lorn Folk Museum set out in two original 18th century thatched crofters cottages.
10. Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle was already a formidable fortress when William Wallace defeated the English at Stirling Bridge. The castle, the childhood home of Mary Queen of Scots, stands on a volcanic rock on the border between the Highlands and the Lowlands and seems almost indestructible. After Robert the Bruce’s victory at nearby Bannockburn, he had the walls destroyed to prevent it falling into English hands. But they were rebuilt more than once on the castle’s strong foundations. It was at the center of Scotland’s wars of independence in the 13th and early 14th century and still becomes a rallying symbol whenever talk of Scottish independence is in the air.
11. Loch Awe and Ben Cruachan – the Hollow Mountain
At certain times of day the waters of beautiful Loch Awe in Argyll seem mirror still. At other times they are choppy enough to capsize the unwary in small boats. That’s because the loch is part of an amazing hydroelectric generating plant one kilometer deep in the adjacent Munro, Ben Cruachan. At time of low demand, water is pumped up to a reservoir at the top of the mountain. Later, is pours down through turbines within the mountain, generating electricity. Don slickers and wellies and join a minibus tour that takes visitors deep into the mountain to see the cavernous turbine hall and exhibitions. Adventurous walkers can also hike up the mountain to see the massive dam and reservoir that are the other end of the hydroelectric circuit.
12. The Isle of Skye
Some of Scotland’s most rugged, dramatic landscapes and natural wonders – like the Old Man of Storr, and the Fairy Pools pictured here – are on the Isle of Skye, the biggest of the Inner Hebrides. Its wildlife spotting opportunities include colonies of sea otters, seals, and birds of prey. Visit its tiny, colorful villages, like Portree, the island capital, and see the oldest continually occupied castle in Scotland, Dunvegan, ancestral home of the clan Macleod. Get there by ferry from Mallaig near Fort William or by bridge from the Kyle of Lochalsh on the west coast. The drive along the A87 to the Skye Bridge, especially along the shores of Loch Cluanie and past Eilean Donan Castle, (pictured at the top of this story) deserves the description of awesome. Find out what makes iconic Eilean Donan one of Scotland’s top castles.
13. The Shetlands
Shetland is an archipelago of islands about 50 miles northeast of Orkney and about 105 miles from the Scottish mainland. There are at least 100 islands in the group but only 16 of them are inhabited. The islands lie at the mid-point between the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea
These are the ancient, subarctic landscapes where Scandinavia meets Britain. The largest settlement and capital of the islands is Lerwick. It’s home to one of the UK’s most colorful fire festivals – Up Helly Aa – a midwinter Viking themed event that ends with the launch of a burning Viking ship into the sea. You’ve no doubt heard of Fair Isle sweaters – named for one of the islands – and Shetland ponies. Yes, Shetland has both of those. But it also has some of the wildest, most dramatic landscapes marked by bizarre rock formations, crystal clear pools and spring fed waterfalls. It’s a great place for wildlife watching – otters, seals, huge puffin colonies and all kinds of sea birds, walking, cycling, fishing and photography. And, if you are lucky, you may get to see the Northern Lights.
Orkney is an archipelago off the northeast coast of Scotland. The main island, alternatively called Orkney or Mainland, is about 45 miles from the ferry port on the Scottish mainland at Scrabster.
The islands are washed by the Gulf stream so milder in winter than you might expect for a place so far north. They are popular for hiking, shipwreck diving in Scapa Flow, and wildlife watching.
But the main attraction for most visitors in the UNESCO World Heritage site, The Heart of Neolithic Orkney. It’s a remarkable collection of monuments – standing stones, stone circles and chambered tombs and even a village, Skara Brae, uncovered from beneath the sand during a 19th century storm. The ruins on Orkney are more than 5,000 years old – older than the Pyramids – and their level of sophistication is shedding new light on how the British Isles were populated and civilized.
Islay (pronounced AYE-la) Is the home of one Scotland’s distinctive whisky types – peaty, smoky flavored single malts. There are eight working distilleries currently on the 25-mile-long island, each with their own secret springs and peat supplies. The oldest, Bowmore, founded in 1779, is open to visitors. Others on the island that you can visit include Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Kilchoman, Bunnahabhain, and Lagavulin.
The distilleries are the main reason for visiting this Hebridean island, a short flight from Glasgow or a slightly longer ferry trip off the West Coast of Scotland. Besides tours, and tastings, visitors are encouraged to approach whisky tastings like wine tasting, learning about all the qualities to look for. Depending upon how deep your pockets are, you might have a chance to dig peat, learn about whisky making or have your own privately labeled bottling. There is nothing quite like watching a sunset from an Islay beach while sipping whisky accompanied by shortbread and chocolate.