Scotland Travel Guide

This land of towering highlands, ancient castles, and proud history should be on everyone’s holiday itinerary if just for the whisky trails. But aside from the local malt tipple, bonnie Scotland has much in the way of visitor attractions in its modern metropolises which thrive on the arts.

Why You Should Go

What’s Cool: Edinburgh’s mix of modern and ancient, Glasgow’s trendsetting shopping and music, stunning scenery fit for Hollywood movies, the Gaelic language, friendly locals, Highland dancing and culture, Scotch whisky.

What’s Not: August Edinburgh crowds, artery-clogging cuisine, fear of the Loch Ness monster, rainy summers and dark winters, central Glasgow’s slums and poverty, describing Scotland as part of England.

When to Go

Scotland’s tourism season lasts between April and September, peaking during summer’s long daylight hours. Edinburgh is especially crowded during August’s festival period, so booking ahead is highly recommended. May, June, and September are perhaps the best months to visit Scotland since the weather is mild with fewer crowds and rain than in summer. Scotland’s winters are cool and dark.

Getting There & Away

Both Glasgow and Edinburgh’s airports offer direct flights to and from the US, as well as several European cities. Many Europeans may find it cheaper and just as quick to fly to London, then take a train or bus to Scotland. Long distance buses are the cheapest way to make the eight-hour trip from London to Edinburgh. Train tickets can be expensive, but it’s only a four-hour trip from London to Edinburgh, while Glasgow is five hours away. There are two weekly ferry services between Scotland and Ireland.

Health & Safety

Scotland is a fairly safe tourist destination and Edinburgh has one of Britain’s lowest crime rates. Despite Glasgow’s more violent reputation, it is also fairly safe for visitors since its most dangerous neighborhoods are located far from its tourist attractions. Pick pocketing and theft rates are lower than most European countries, and violent crimes are rarely directed towards tourists. Rural crime rates are very low. Pubs should be approached with caution, especially around closing time when most alcohol related violence takes place.

Food & Hospitality

Scotland’s most famous food, haggis, may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but most Scottish restaurants truly satisfy all culinary tastes. Other local delicacies like Scotch pie, Angus beef, and deep fried Mars bars may better appeal to visitors’ tastes, if not their cholesterol levels. Pubs are the best places to meet locals, many of whom are so friendly they’ll offer to buy drinks for visitors they’ve just met. Self catering cottage holidays, bed and breakfasts, and independent hostels have become popular alternatives to expensive Scottish hotels.

Itineraries

At least a week is recommended to explore Scotland’s cosmopolitan cities and rugged highland countryside.

  • Two days of exploring Edinburgh’s historic castle, museums, and old town.
  • Two days to enjoy Glasgow’s shopping, galleries, parks, and vibrant nightlife.
  • Tour Scotland’s highland countryside during a three to five-day journey aboard the Royal Scotsman railway.

Extra time

  • A week-long driving tour of Scotland’s ancient castles, scenic lochs, and spectacularly untamed countryside.
  • Three or four days to visit the historic ruins and beautiful beaches of the Orkney Islands, as well as the Viking heritage of the Shetland Islands.
  • Two or three days to explore the Isle of Skye’s stunning scenery, including the Quiraing mountain pass and Dunvegan Castle.

Highlights

edinburgh-castle: over a million visitors tour historic Edinburgh Castle and enjoy its breathtaking panoramic city view each year.

ben-nevis: over 100,000 climbers attempt to reach the summit of the UK’s highest mountain each year and it is also a popular winter ice climbing location.

skara-brae: this stone Orkney Neolithic 10-house village is western Europe’s most complete, and was designated a World Heritage site in 1999.

iona-abbey: founded in 563 AD, Scotland’s oldest religious site survived a Viking massacre, was abandoned during the Protestant revolution, and restored in the 19th century. Scottish, Irish, Norwegian, and French kings are buried in the nearby graveyard.

inverness-castle: originally an 11th century castle, this red sandstone building was reconstructed in 1836 as the home of the Inverness Sheriff Court.

cairngorms-national-park: ancient pines, snowy mountain tops, stunning moorlands, and pristine lochs are just a few of this Highland national park’s spectacular sites.

Activities

Motorcycling: Scotland features some of the world’s best motorcycle touring routes, provided the weather cooperates. Visitors unable to bring their own motorcycles can easily rent them.

Cycling: while not having as many bicycle trails as England or Wales, Scotland is still a wonderful cycling destination since most of its roads have little traffic.

Hill walking: Scotland’s beautiful highlands and Munros (mountains over 3,000ft tall) provide some of the region’s most challenging climbing and walking experiences.

Whisky tours: each Scottish town features its own brand of whisky, and most distilleries are happy to welcome visitors and provide guided tours.

Golf: Scotland, golf’s birthplace, is a dream destination for golf lovers, especially those lucky enough to play on the world’s oldest course, St Andrews.

Fishing: this is one of the world’s finest freshwater and sea fishing spots.

Sailing: Scotland is not only a world-class sailing destination, but also a perfect place to learn to sail thanks to its numerous sailing schools.

Festivals & Events

Scotland’s festival season begins and ends with its traditional Hogmanay festival to welcome the new year, with a multitude of celebrations in between.

January: Scotland welcomes the new year in grand style during its traditional Hogmanay Festival.

January: a Burns Supper on Burns Night is the traditional Scottish way to celebrate the birth of a certain poet on January 25.

July: the Hebridean Celtic Festival, northern Scotland’s largest, offers Gaelic lessons, guided castle tours, and some of the world’s best Celtic music.

August: part of the Edingburgh Festival, the Edinburgh’s Military Tattoo draws over 1,000 participants, over 200,000 visitors and millions of worldwide television viewers, and is truly not to be missed each year.

August: the town of Dunoon’s Cowal Highland Gathering is the largest of many Highland Games events held throughout Scotland. These festivals include pipe bands, Highland dancing, and traditional sports like caber tossing and stone putting.