What to Do and See in Scotland
Dreaming of a Scotland vacation? Think of when you will be able to stroll Edinburgh historic streets, explore the Scottish Highlands and visit stunning scenery on Scotland’s Isle of Skye.
There’s no such thing as too much time in Edinburgh, so we recommend making it your home base. Edinburgh is the most walkable city in the United Kingdom, but be sure to stay in a place where both Old Town and New Town are easily accessible. For those who want to be in the middle of the action, there are various boutique hotels on or near the Royal Mile, the iconic thoroughfare in Old Town connecting Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Harry Potter fans should consider The Balmoral, the plush hotel where J.K. Rowling finished the final book in the series. Within a 15-minute walk from Edinburgh’s main drag is Stockbridge — one of Edinburgh’s most charming neighborhoods — and the nearby Dean Village, recognized for its picturesque streets. Start your sightseeing at Edinburgh Castle and then browse the many shops and cafes along the Royal Mile, making sure to venture off the main drag for food. Get a feel for the city on one of Edinburgh’s free walking tours (gratuities are expected); other free attractions include the Scottish National Gallery, Parliament and the National Museum of Scotland. Opt for a bus tour if you’re worried about having time to see all the main sights. If you’ve got the time and energy, Leith is one of Edinburgh’s more trendy neighborhoods on the North Sea, where you can board the opulent Royal Yacht Britannia, the royal family’s former floating palace.
If the weather permits, start with a hike up to Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano providing some of the best views of the castle and North Sea. Then venture to the Scottish Parliament and the Palace of Holyroodhouse for some more sightseeing. Charming cafes, bookstores and whisky shops are on your way back to the city center, where you’ll find St. Giles’ Cathedral and The Real Mary King’s Close. Harry Potter fans should visit Victoria Street, said to be an inspiration for Diagon Alley, and have afternoon tea at The Elephant House, another J.K. Rowling writing spot.
Home to the largest collection of Scotch in the world, the Scotch Whisky Experience is pricey, but one of the best ways to taste a variety of the country’s most famous export. For a more whimsical experience, Edinburgh’s Literary Pub Tour is a fun way to experience the city’s nightlife while learning about its literary history. Just remember to plan a safe way back to your lodging for the night.
It’s time for a Highlands road trip. Head to Glencoe, stopping at Stirling Castle and the National Wallace Monument on your way. The scenic and hilly drive through Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park is characteristic of the Highlands. At Glencoe, explore the valley’s rich history before heading to Fort William. There you may find The Jacobite — a train that runs along the route to Hogwarts in Harry Potter — at the station or steaming across the nearby Glenfinnan Viaduct. Continue north toward Fort Augustus for a Loch Ness boat tour before heading to Inverness for your first night in the Highlands.
Stroll through Inverness — which calls itself the capital of the Highlands — and take in its botanic gardens, Victorian market, cathedral and castle. Bookworms should stop by Leakey’s, a secondhand bookstore in a former church building. Outside the nearby village of Culloden is a battlefield from the mid-18th century that’s been preserved by the National Trust for Scotland. After heading back and grabbing dinner at an Inverness pub, stop by The Malt Room, the city’s first whisky bar. (Again, don’t forget to plan a safe ride home.)
Make your way through Cairngorms National Park, watching for deer and golden eagles (the latter of which are sometimes hungry enough to attack the former). The east side of the park offers views of the royal family’s summer residence, Balmoral Castle. Stop in the small town of Pitlochry for lunch on the way out. Head to St. Andrews and spend the rest of the day strolling through Scotland’s oldest university town. Explore the quaint streets, school buildings, the legendary St. Andrews Links and the 12th century St. Andrews Cathedral ruins. Then it’s back to Edinburgh for dinner and oysters at The Gardener’s Cottage, an upscale restaurant that serves seasonal multicourse meals at communal tables.
Only an hour from Edinburgh by train, Glasgow’s art nouveau architecture and ship-building heritage differentiate it from the Scottish capital. Stroll around Merchant City before exploring the Royal Concert Hall, City Chambers, Glasgow Cathedral, the People’s Palace, the Gallery of Modern Art or the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Don’t leave without looking down the famous spiral stairs at The Lighthouse, Scotland’s Center for Design and Architecture. Head to Byres Road to explore The Lanes and grab a quiet dinner before heading back.
The Isle of Skye
From the jutting cliffs of the Old Man of Storr to Dunvegan Castle & Gardens, Scotland’s Isle of Skye is a must-see for many visitors. Because it’s a five-hour drive from Edinburgh (or more, with so much to see along the way), devote at least two or three days to take in this island. Portree is the island’s capital, where you’ll find colorful coastal homes, art galleries and craft shops. Consider walking The Quiraing, a nearly 7-kilometer loop trail with wildlife, exposed landscapes and rocky cliff faces. The Fairy Glen on the Trotternish peninsula is another enchanting stop, featuring unusual peaks and rock spirals that resemble something out of a J.R.R. Tolkien story.
– Written by Maggy Lehmicke
This story originally appeared in the January/February 2020 edition of the AAA Washington member magazine, Journey.