Written by: Caitlin
Published: 15th February 2020, last updated: 22nd September 2021
Scotland is rightly famous for its dramatic scenery and legendary hospitality. In America alone, there are more people with Scottish ancestry than there are people in Scotland, so it is little wonder that visiting Scotland features high on the list of millions of people around the world.
But where should you go? And what should you do? Most importantly, what things should you definitely not miss?
Find out below in our comprehensive guide to visiting Scotland.
Don’t Miss These Things When Visiting Scotland
Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland, famous for it’s Castle, it’s festival, it’s hilly landscape and it’s history. The city has been affectionately nicknamed Auld Reekie, which is Scots for Old Smoky, because of the views from the country of the smoke-covered Old Town.
Edinburgh was once described by Prince Charles as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It has also been voted as one of the top ten cities in the world by Expedia.
Edinburgh – Scotland’s Capital City
Recognised as the capital of Scotland since at least the 15th century, Edinburgh is the seat of the Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament and the supreme courts of Scotland. The city has long been a centre of education, particularly in the fields of medicine, Scots law, literature, philosophy, the sciences and engineering. It is the second largest financial centre in the United Kingdom (after London) and the population is currently estimated to be around 482,00.
The city’s historical and cultural attractions have made it the United Kingdom’s second most popular tourist destination attracting 1.75 million visitors from overseas in 2016. Some of these attractions that you definitely won’t want to miss out on, include:
The historical fortress of Edinburgh Castle dominates the Edinburgh skyline from it’s position on Castle Rock and is a must see when visiting Scotland. Archeologist have been able to determine that it has been host to human life since as early as the Iron Age (2nd century AD), with a royal castle on the rock since the reign of David 1 in the 12th century.
The castle continued to be a royal residence until 1633, from when it was principally used as a military barracks with a large garrison. Since the early 19th century the importance of the castle as a part of Scotland’s National heritage has been recognised, and various restoration projects have been carried out over the last century and a half.
Edinburgh Castle was one of the most important strongholds in the Kingdom of Scotland, it has been involved in many historical conflicts from the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 14th century to the Jacobite rising of 1745.
Recent research suggests perhaps as many as 26 sieges on the castle’s 1100 year old history, laying it’s claim as the most besieged place in Great Britain and one of the most attacked in the world.
During the Wars of Independence, Edinburgh Castle changed hands many times. The Scots finally retook the castle from the English in 1314 in a daring night raid led by Thomas Randolph, who was the nephew of Robert the Bruce. The castle’s defences have evolved over many hundreds of years. One of the greatest medieval cannons ever made, called Mons Meg was given to King James II in 1457. The Half Moon Battery, built in the aftermath of the Lang Siege of 1573, was armed for 200 years by bronze guns known as the Seven Sisters. Six more guns defend the Argyle Battery, with its open outlook to the north.
With a long rich history as a royal residence, military garrison, prison and fortress, it is alive with many exciting tales. When you climb Castle Hill, you will walk in the footsteps of soldiers, kings and queens – and even the odd pirate or two.
Check out the official Edinburgh Castle website
Any time I find myself visiting Scotland, my trip wouldn’t be complete without a walk through the delightfully cobbled and historically rich Royal Mile.
The Royal Mile is a succession of streets forming the main thoroughfare of the Old Town of the city of Edinburgh. The term was first used as a description in W M Gilbert’s book Edinburgh in the Nineteenth Century (1901), “…with its Castle and Palace and the royal mile between”, and was then made even more popular when it was used as the title of a guidebook which was published in 1920.
The walk in between two of the most significant locations in the royal history of Scotland, from Edinburgh Castle gates to the Holyrood Palace gates is almost exactly a mile (1.6 km) long and runs downhill.
There are 5 streets which make up the Royal Mile; Castlehill, the Lawnmarket, the High Street, the Canongate and Abbey Strand. The Royal Mile is the busiest tourist street in the Old Town, rivalled only by Princes Street in the New Town.
These days the Royal Mile is an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants, pubs and visitor attractions. During the annual Edinburgh Festival, the High Street becomes crowded with tourists, entertainers and buskers. Parliament Square is at the heart of Scotland’s legal system, being the home of both the High Court of Justiciary and the Court of Session.
Here’s everything you need to know in a comprehensive guide to the Edinburgh Royal Mile.
The Parliament is a democratically elected body comprising 129 members known as Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs), and located in the Holyrod area of Edinburgh.
The Scottish Parliament welcomes visitors 6 days a week, Monday to Saturday.
All visits are free of charge. No booking is required to visit the public areas of the building. Advance booking is advised for guided tours and to attend debates and committee meetings. There are free maps and information leaflets available to assist with your visit and free guided tours provide a greater insight into the workings of the parliament if this is something that interests you when visiting Scotland.
Edinburgh Old Town
Edinburgh Old Town
This is Edinburgh’s oldest neighbourhood, it dates back to medieval times and the small streets are lined with wool shops, pubs and historical monuments, and many reformation-era buildings. The aforementioned Royal Mile makes up a large part of the Old Town, and it has been given the name ‘Old Town’ to differentiate it from the neighbouring Georgian New Town.
It would be easy to believe you have stepped back in time whilst wandering around this historic centre when visiting Scotland. There are some more obvious standout attractions, namely the castle getting top billing, but there are also some less well known or overlooked activities and sights well worth trying in this corner of this spellbindingly beautiful city.
Some things we would really recommend trying out are the quirky exhibition at Camera Obscura, the fascinating Surgeon’s Hall Museums and the beautiful Canongate Kirk church.
A visit to the Palace of Holyroodhouse is a must if you fancy seeing how the Queen lives life when she’s in town, and the beautiful Victoria Street and the Grassmarket area are perfect for snapping the obligatory tourist pics!
More info on these attractions and more can be found here.
Edinburgh is often referred to as the festival city, with a range of major annual festivals bringing talents from more than a third of the world’s countries to our streets and stages. And festival season is often cited as many tourists main reason for visiting Scotland.
Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the world’s largest arts festival, which has grown in size immensely and in 2018 spanned 25 days and featured more than 55,000 performances of 3,548 different shows in 317 venues!
Edinburgh Fringe: the world’s greatest platform for creative freedom!
The first Edinburgh International Festival began on 24 August 1947, with an aim to ‘provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit’ by bringing people and artists together from around the world. In that same year, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Edinburgh International Film Festival also started.
Other festivals followed, from military grandeur to intimate jazz and blues, captivating science to underground theatre and children’s entertainment. As these festivals grew into world-leading celebrations, international excellence in art, culture and science became a permanent and inescapable part of Edinburgh’s identity.
For more information on these other festivals, including the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival, the Edinburgh International Science Festival, the Edinburgh International Film Festival, the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival, the Edinburgh Art Festival, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the Edinburgh International Book Festival and more, click here.
visit the official edinburgh international festival website here
visit the official edinburgh fringe festival website here
Hogmanay in Edinburgh
New Year when visiting Scotland is on of the highlights of the calendar for many, and there is no place like Edinburgh for celebrating it. The event take place over 3 days all through out the city.
You could be joining thousands of marchers, all bearing fire-lit torches, or enjoying traditional Scottish music and Scottish Ceilidh dancing at Edinburgh Castle, as well as watching top stars and the incredible fireworks from Princes Street Gardens.
Edinburgh Hogmanay has recently been highlighted as one of the ‘Top 100 things to do before you die’.
When the bells strike midnight, thousands will join hands with friends from across the globe in the world’s biggest rendition of Auld Lang Syne at Edinburghs Hogmanay Street Party,
And if you are not suffering too much the next day, how about starting the new year in Scotland by leaping into the freeing waters of the River Forth!
Stirling in Winter
Stirling is a charming historical city in central Scotland, with the buzz of a young population- 20% of its occupants being aged between 16 and 29 years old. It is easily accessible to both Glasgow and Edinburgh and is home to the famous Stirling Castle which sits upon a craggy volcanic rock. It is located along the River Forth and it has been said that “Stirling, like a huge brooch clasps Highlands and Lowlands together”.
It was once the capital of Scotland, and alongside it’s castle, it is perhaps most famous for the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 where William Wallace defeated the English. Nowadays, Stirling is a centre for it’s local government, well known for it’s higher education, tourism, retail, and industry prospects.
Stirling Castle is one of the largest and most important (historically and architecturally) castles that you must see when visiting Scotland. The castle sits upon Castle Hill, part of the Stirling Sill geological formation. It has such a strong defensive position because it is surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs. Most of it’s principal buildings date from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Mary Queen of Scots was crowned at Stirling Castle in 1542, and other Scottish Kings and Queens been born have died there over the years. During the Wars of Independence, which were civil wars among the Scots as well as a struggle between Scotland and England, the castle changed hands eight times in 50 years.
A visit to the castle today means you can meet costumed characters in the roles of people from the 16th century- bodyguards, court officials, maids of honour and servants. In the palace vaults you can try out activities such as dressing up in period costume and playing medieval instruments. And you can take a guided tour with the knowledgeable staff to find out more details of the castle’s history.
Other must sees include the Great Hall, Chapel Royal, Castle Exhibition, Regimental Museum, Great Kitchens, Tapestry Studio and the nearby Argyll’s Lodging, which is a 17th century town house. You can make a full day out of it and eat in the Unicorn Café, or unwind in the beautiful gardens.
Plan your visit to Stirling Castle here
The National Wallace Monument
On a hilltop overlooking Stirling , called Abbey Craig, the Wallace Monument stands. It is a tower which commemorates Sir William Wallace, the 13th century Scottish hero.
Wallace was a Scottish knight who became one of the main leaders during the First War of Scottish Independence. After he defeated an English army in September 1297 at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, he was appointed to be Guardian of Scotland, a role which he served until his defeat at the Battle of Falkirk in July 1298. In 1305 he was hanged, drawn and quartered for his crimes against the English by King Edward 1.
The tower was constructed in the 19th century following a fundraising campaign, and is on the site where Wallace is said to have stood to watch the English army gather before the Battle of Stirling bridge. The monument is now open to the general population and visitors can climb all of the 246 stairs that make up the spiral staircase up to the viewing gallery inside the monuments crown.
For 150 years, this world-famous attraction has fascinated visitors with its exhibits and displays.
There are a number of artefacts believed to have belonged to William Wallace on display inside, including the Wallace Sword, a 5ft4in long sword weighing 3kg. There is also a ‘Hall of Heroes’ containing a series of busts of famous Scots, including Robert the Bruce, Robert Burns and many more.
Buchanan Street – Glasgow
Glasgow is known for being the cultural hub of the country and is many peoples first experience of visiting Scotland. It is a port city on the River Clyde in Scotland’s western Lowlands. It is the busiest city in Scotland with a population of over 620,000. Inhabitants of the city are known as Glaswegians and the city is known for it’s often difficult to understand local dialect or ‘patter’. Scotland’s largest city is a must-see spot for nightlife, culture and cuisine, while its proximity to Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park make it perfect for nature lovers too.
Glasgow is architecturally diverse- From the city centre which is sprawling with grand Victorian buildings, to the glass and metal edifices in the International Financial Services District, the fashionable west end and the imposing mansions on the south side. The River Clyde banks are also covered with futuristic-looking buildings, including the Glasgow Science Centre, the SSE Hydro and the SEC Armadillo.
Glasgow is home to more than 20 museums and art galleries, and is home to some of the most incredible street art.
It has a red hot music scene and is packed full of trendy pubs and clubs. Flights and rail links are frequent and fast to get to and from Glasgow and the rest of the world.
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is a popular free attraction which features 22 themed, state-of-the-art galleries displaying over an astonishing 8000 objects.
The collections at Kelvingrove include natural history, arms and armour, art from many art movements and periods of history and much more, with the most famous painting on display being the Salvador Dali masterpiece ‘Christ of St John of the Cross’. Another big museum attraction is Sir Roger the Asian Elephant. In the west court there is even a Spitfire plane hanging from the ceiling.
The building has been refurbished and is an attraction in its own right and Kelvingrove welcomes families, its displays designed with children in mind. As well as all the exhibits, Kelvingrove has a restaurant, a café and a gift shop, well worth a day trip.
For times and directions, plan your visit here.
The Riverside Museum is an award winning Transport Museum in Glasgow. There are over 3000 items on display in the hyper-modern building, including interactive displays and historic vehicles. It is located at the Pointhouse Quay on the banks of the River Clyde in the Glasgow Harbour regeneration district of Glasgow. It was opened in 2011 and in 2013 it won the award for European Museum of the Year.
Berthed outside you will find the Tall Ship, Glenlee, the UK’s only floating Clyde-built sailing ship and also free to enter. Step on board this impressive ship where you will find all sorts to entertain the kids including an under 5s play area in the cargo hold to a mouse hunt!
There’s everything from skateboards to locomotives on show, from paintings to prams and from cars to a Stormtrooper. You can get hands on with the interactive displays. Why not climb aboard a train, tram or bus and get a real feel for the old style public transport when you next find yourself visiting Scotland? With over 90 large touch screens panels full of images, memories and films that tell the fascinating stories behind the objects. There really is something for all ages to enjoy at the Riverside Museum.
From the views of the hills and the hidden glens you would never guess that this gem is just half an hour north from central Glasgow. If you are a whiskey fan and find yourself visiting Scotland then the Glengoyne Distillery is an absolute must see.
It was founded in 1833 at Dumgoyne and has been in continuous operation ever since. It is unique for producing single malt whiskey matured in the Lowlands. In fact, the distillery sits on the line between the Highlands and the Lowlands, with the stills are in the Highlands while maturing casks of whisky rest across the road in the Lowlands. Like many malt whisky distilleries today, Glengoyne does not use peat smoke to dry their barley, but instead uses warm air
In the early 19th century, due to the heavy taxes imposed on spirit production by the government, many whisky producers were forced to illegally operate. The area around Glengoyne provided excellent cover for the distillers due to being full of hills and forests.
Often described as “Scotland’s Most Beautiful Distillery”, Glengoyne is open all year for guided distillery tours, whisky tastings and special events.
Visit the official Glengone distillery website here.
Iconic Glencoe – Scottish Highlands
The Highlands of Scotland is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places in the world. The striking scenery is guaranteed to take your breath away, whether it’s your first time visiting Scotland or whether you are lucky enough to be a local. The Scottish Highlands are a playground for hikers, bikers, kayakers, and anyone else who loves outdoor adventure, or those who would rather play it safe and take a road trip or stay in a lovely hotel.
The term Highlands is used for the area north and west of the Highland Boundary Fault, although the exact boundaries are not clearly defined, particularly to the east. The area is sparsely populated, with many dominating mountain ranges throughout the region, and it includes the highest mountain in the British Isles- Ben Nevis.
The whole area is now one of the most sparsely populated in the whole of Europe- the population density in the Highlands and Islands is less than one seventh of Scotland’s as a whole.
The best time to visit the Scottish Highlands is probably the summer months of June to August, but realistically with it’s such high Northerly location you can never really guarantee warm or dry weather.
The winters in the Highlands are harsh, but that in itself can have an eerily beautiful quality, snow topped mountains and scenery disappearing into the mist can have an incredibly romantic feel, perhaps why it is such a popular wedding destination.
Buachaille Etive Mor
Glencoe is possibly Scotland’s most famous glen, named after the River Coe that runs through it. It has volcanic origins and is located in the Highlands. It lies in the north of the county of Argyll, close to the border with the historic province of Lochaber, within the modern council area of Highland. The scenic beauty of the glen has led to its inclusion in the Ben Nevis and Glen Coe National Scenic Area, one of 40 such areas in Scotland.
Glencoe was recently voted as Scotland’s most romantic glen.
Just 89 miles from Edinburgh, and 65 miles from Glasgow. Here you’ll find a wonderful world that has been unspoilt and unchanged for centuries that has captured the hearts and minds of every visitor. It’s a place where time means little.
Glencoe is world renown as a centre for mountaineering and hillwalking, but it is also the ideal location in which to relax or to use as a convenient base to tour the western highlands if you are visiting Scotland.
Check out our Definitive Guide to Glencoe here. Find out all about it’s rich history, how to get there, and what to do when you do.
Highland Titles Nature Reserve
Nestling in the heart of the Scottish Highlands and within easy reach of such popular destinations as Fort William, Oban, Skye and Inverness, the Highland Titles nature reserves are easy to find and a pleasure to visit.
According to Trip Advisor, this is the most popular nature reserve to see when visiting Scotland! Why? Watch this video to find out.
The Glencoe Wood Nature Reserve, near Duror, has a visitor’s centre and offers a ‘meet and greet service’ for Lords and Ladies. The first Highland Titles Nature Reserve, opened in 2007, it is made up of thousands of plots which are supported by a global community of Lairds. This land is free to visit whether you have purchased a plot or not. Located close to the historical Glencoe, the reserve is one of two Highland Titles reserves and is also an established 4 star visitor attraction.
The second reserve at Mountainview does not have these facilities, but it is still a great place to go for a self guided hike through the many nature trails when visiting Scotland. It is is also home to many species and animals that we prefer to leave untouched as they settle into their new homes. Mountainview is the home of Bumblebee Haven and overlooks the majestic Loch Loyne. Known to fishermen as one of the best pike lochs in the Highlands, lairds are able to enjoy the opportunity to explore the area and fish the loch whenever they visit.
If you buy a Highland Titles souvenir plot of 10 sq ft or larger, it will be located at Mountainview and comes with a free 1 sq ft plot at the Glencoe Wood Nature Reserve.
The Glenfinnan Viaduct is a railway bridge on the West Highland Line in Glenfinnan in Inverness-shire, overlooking the Glenfinnan Monument and the waters of Loch Shiel. At 380m it is the longest concrete railway bridge in Scotland, and it crosses the River Finnan at a height of 30m.
The West Highland Line connects Fort William and Mallaig, and was a crucial artery for the local fishing industry and the highlands economy in general, which suffered enormously after the Highland Clearances of the 1800s.
The line is used by passenger trains carrying people visiting Scotland, and is operated by ScotRail between Glasgow Queen Street and Mallaig, usually diesel multiple units. Additionally in the summer the heritage Jacobite steam train operates along the line. It is a popular tourist event in the area, and the viaduct is one of the major attractions of the line. Find out more about the Jacobite Steam Train here.
It is described as the greatest railway journey in the world by those who encounter it when visiting Scotland, the 84 mile round trip takes you past a list of impressive extremes. Starting near the highest mountain in Britain, Ben Nevis, it visits Britain’s most westerly mainland railway station, Arisaig; passes close by the deepest freshwater loch in Britain, Loch Morar and the shortest river in Britain, River Morar, finally arriving next to the deepest seawater loch in Europe, Loch Nevis!
The Hogwarts Express was filmed crossing the Glenfinnan Viaduct in four of the Harry Potter films.
Tomatin distillery is a single malt Scotch whisky distillery in the village of Tomatin, which if you are visiting Scotland you will find just 25 minutes south of Inverness. Although it is thought that whisky has been distilled on the site since the 16th century, when cattle drivers would buy from a local still, the actual distillery was not established until 1897.
The distillery operated with only two stills until 1958. Starting at that time, they began to add stills to increase production capacity, eventually reaching production of 12.5 million litres of whisky per year during the 1970s. Some stills have been dismantled since the mid-1980s, bringing their total capacity to just over 5 million litres, though as of 2007, they were only producing 2.5 million litres.
Around eighty percent of Tomatin’s whisky goes into blended whisky, including its own brands of Antiquary and Talisman. More than 50 per cent of the employees still live on site in the distillery houses, so working at Tomatin is more than just a job- it is a way of life.
These days if you are visiting Scotland you can visit and explore the distillery and learn how they produce their award winning whiskies. You will learn about the unique legacy of Tomatin, take a warehouse tour, fill your own bottle of cask strength distillery exclusive whisky as a momento and go wild in the gift shop.
VISIT THE TOMATIN DISTILLERY WEBSITE HERE
Ben Nevis from Banavie
At 1,345 metres above sea level, Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the British Isles. It is located in the Grampian Mountains in Lochaber, close to the town of Fort William. The famous peaks attracts around 125,000 people who are visiting Scotland a year, and it’s not really any wonder why when you consider it’s beauty. For avid amblers all around the globe in fact, climbing Ben Nevis features high on bucket lists and is often the main reason for visiting Scotland.
The name Ben Nevis has two translations from the ancient Gaelic language, one meaning ‘mountain with it’s head in the clouds’, thanks to its iconic mist-shrouded peak, or it can also mean ‘venomous mountain’ – we’ll leave it up to you to decide which is more appropriate after you have climbed it!
It was once a massive active volcano, which exploded and then collapsed in on itself millions of years ago. The first recorded ascent of Ben Nevis was in 1771 by James Robertson.
Around three quarters of people visiting Scotland to climb Ben Nevis now use the Pony Track from Glen Nevis. The 700-metre cliffs of the north face are among the highest in Scotland, providing classic scrambles and rock climbs of all difficulties for climbers and mountaineers. They are also the principal locations when visiting Scotland for ice climbing.
It will usually take between 7-9 hours to climb Ben Nevis via the Mountain Track, depending on your level of fitness, the weather on the day and the number of breaks you take to admire the view. There’s no denying that it is a long and arduous climb and you might have stiff legs the following day, but the feeling of accomplishment when you scale the tallest mountain in the United Kingdom is pretty tough to beat.
The weather on Ben Nevis is extremely changeable, with glorious sunshine one moment then fog and gale force winds the next. It is probably most advisable to tackle the ascent in the summer months.
At the summit, you can experience panoramic views as far as Northern Ireland- why not see if you can point out other peaks including the Torridon hills, Ben Lomond and Morven at Caithness. A unique feature of the summit is the Old Observatory, which was opened in 1883. It provided hourly meteorological data for almost 20 years, recording some of the UK’s most useful information about mountain weather to date. It closed in 1904 and it now lies in ruin, but can be used for shelter in emergencies.
Clava Cairns is a well-preserved Bronze Age cemetery near Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, which dates back 4000 years. It became a bucket list destination for those visiting Scotland overnight in 2014, after it was suggested that Diana Gabaldon’s novel ‘Outlander’s fictitious stone circle, Craigh na Dun was inspired by the site.
A cairn is a mound of rough stones built as a memorial or landmark, typically on a hilltop or skyline.
Clava Cairns is also known as the Prehistoric Burial Cairns of Bulnuaran of Clava and is a group of three Bronze Age cairns, a complex of passage graves; ring cairns, kerb cairns and standing stones in a beautiful setting.
The cemetery has been used in two periods. At around 2000 BC a row of large cairns was built and three of them can still be seen today. A whole thousand years later the cemetery was reused- new burials were placed in some of the existing cairns and three smaller monuments were built including a ‘kerb cairn’. A short distance to the west up the valley, traces of a smaller cemetery can also be seen at Milton of Clava.
Recent excavations have found evidence of farming on the site, from before any of these monuments were built. The settlement was directly replaced by the cairns and it even seems possible that some of the material used to build them had been taken from demolished houses. The actual remains of those buried within the cairns no longer survive because of overzealous archaeological digging in the early 20th century.
This spectacular site of Scottish history has become vastly more popular with tourists since the recent release of the Outlander books and TV series. The Clava Cairns are said to have inspired the fictitious Craigh na Dun standing stones, which send the main character, Claire, back in time. You’ll now find it on the itinerary for Outlander Day Trips and experiences, with the iconic split stone becoming a popular selfie spot.
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