One Week in Scotland: The Perfect Itinerary

UK, Scotland, man in the Scottish highlands near Glencoe with a view on the Three Sisters
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This seven-day Scotland touring itinerary has something for everyone, whether you're an urban connoisseur or a wilderness fan. Historic castles, legendary outlaws, and mythical sea monsters all vie for your attention. So does the seafood, fished from cold North Sea waters, as well as the water of life—more commonly known as Scotch whisky. Any short visit to Scotland is bound to leave you hungry for more.

This driving itinerary is organized day by day rather than hour by hour. It's meant to give you a good overview while providing enough freedom to allow you to pick and choose without losing the plot. As long as you end up in the suggested destination at the end of each day, you should have plenty of time to discover what makes Scotland special and especially loved by visitors.

01 of 07

Day 1: Edinburgh

Famously colourful Victoria Street in the Old Town of Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
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Morning: Start your day in Edinburgh early, with a hearty Scottish breakfast at your hotel. Edinburgh is a very hilly city and you want to stoke up on carbs for all the walking. Don't pass up the oatmeal that's usually included in a Scottish breakfast. The pinch of salt they add makes it very special.

Then head for the bottom of The Royal Mile; starting at The Palace of Holyrood House, this street climbs through Old Town and ends at Edinburgh Castle. Though most people walk down the Royal Mile, we think it works better in the opposite direction when you still have lots of energy.

The Palace of Holyrood House, the Monarch's official residence when she is in Scotland, is only partially open to the public. The self-guided audio tour will take you an hour or less.

Across the street, you'll find the Scottish Parliament. Controversial (it cost more than $506 million after an original proposal of $12 million) and architecturally interesting, you can see the key areas in about 15 minutes.

Afternoon: The Inn on the Mile is a handy place to stop for lunch, and is about three-quarters of the way up the Royal Mile.

When you're done eating, climb up to Edinburgh Castle for the spectacular views at the top. Unless you are fascinated by military history, skip the museums and exhibits; instead, walk down through Princes Street Gardens to the Scottish National Gallery on the Mound.

Evening: Sample any one of more than 300 brands of scotch whisky at the Bow Bar on West Bow in the Old Town. Then head for an early supper at Edinburgh's famous Italian deli, Valvona & Crolla, or a casual pizza at the popular La Favorita. If jet lag is starting to set in, order online and they'll deliver to your hotel room.

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02 of 07

Day 2: Scotts View, Abbotsford, and Traquair

Fantasy castle in Scotland

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Morning: Head out of the city and south into the Borders, a county punctuated by the meandering River Tweed and rich in history and literary connections. On your way, take a few minutes to stop at Scott's View. A favorite of novelist, playwright, and poet Sir Walter Scott, this spot gives you stunning views of the Eildon Hills, three distinctive volcanic plugs, and the Tweed Valley. There's a small parking area with an orientation table a historic marker.

Afterwards, pay a visit to Melrose Abbey. Built in the 12th century, the abbey is believed to be the burial place of Robert the Bruce's heart. There is a memorial stone marking the spot.

Make your way to Abbotsford House next. Sir Walter Scott almost bankrupted himself building this remarkable faux-medieval fantasy palace surrounded by beautiful gardens on the Tweed. After his death in 1832, the house immediately became a place of literary pilgrimage. It has been open to the public since 1833. Stop for lunch at Abbotsford before moving on to Traquair.

Afternoon: Traquair House is the oldest continuously inhabited house in Scotland and has been in the same family for 900 years. It is a fascinating place, connected to stories of political intrigue, Jacobites, secret Catholics, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and Mary Queen of Scots. You can even sample a bevy from Traquair's own brewery. The house and grounds can be visited daily between April and the end of October, and weekends only in November.

Evening: Return to Edinburgh and enjoy some fine dining in Leith, the city's waterfront district. Try The Kitchin or Restaurant Martin Wishart, both owned by celebrity chefs and spangled with Michelin stars. Book either online before you leave home.

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03 of 07

Day 3: The Forth Bridges, Falkirk Wheel and Stirling Castle

Castle on a stony cliff above a wooded hill

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Morning: It's just a 15-mile drive from Edinburgh to the Forth Bridges. When the first one opened at Queensferry in 1890, it was the world's biggest man-made steel structure and a marvel of Victorian engineering. About nine miles from Edinburgh, the historic railroad bridge is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, joined by two other remarkable bridges. When the Forth Road Bridge opened in 1964, it was the largest long-span suspension bridge outside the U.S. The Queensferry Crossing opened in 2017 and is the longest three-tower cable-stayed bridge in the world. There's a terrific viewpoint to see all three at Hawes Pier in Queensferry.

The Falkirk Wheel is the world's only rotating boat lift. It raises and lowers boats and their passengers—to a height of 115 feet—between the Forth&Clyde and Union Canals. Book ahead on the website and you can take a 50-minute ride on it. Have some lunch at the visitor center before moving on.

Afternoon: Plan on spending the whole afternoon at and around Stirling Castle, about 13 miles away. Sitting on top of an impressive volcanic rock and protected on one side by dramatic cliffs, the castle has long remained a symbol of Scottish independence with its strong connections to William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and Mary Queen of Scots. It was first mentioned in 1110 when King Alexander built a chapel there, but in all likelihood it is much older. There are a range of guided and self-guided audio tours you can take to see the royal palace's great halls and kitchens, chapel, and regimental museum. From the castle walls, you can see Stirling Bridge, the site of William Wallace's 13th-century victory over the English.

Just below the castle is Stirling Old Town. It is a virtually intact Medieval town and you should plan on spending some daylight hours walking around it.

Evening: Have dinner and spend the night in Stirling. There's a good selection of hotels and plenty of casual bistros, cafés, and pubs.

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04 of 07

Day 4: The Cairngorms, Urquhart Castle, and Loch Ness

Castle ruins overlooking a stormy loch

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Morning: Fill up on fuel and water before leaving Stirling; you'll be passing through some of the emptiest areas and highest plateaus of Cairngorm National Park. First stop: Balmoral, the Queen's private vacation home. Built by Prince Albert for Queen Victoria, the Scottish Baronial estate is surrounded by beautiful woodlands and mountain views. You can only visit a small part of the house, but there is usually an interesting exhibition to see. The house is closed to the public when the Queen and the royals are in residence, from August through October. Tickets need to be booked in advance.

Note: If you're in the area when the Queen is in residence, visit Blair Castle on the Blair Atholl estate or Braemar Castle instead.

Afternoon: Heading north on a curving route from Balmoral, you'll enter an area that has recently been dubbed the SnowRoads. It includes the highest public road in Britain and the highest public road mountain pass. The scenery, though lonely and empty, is also spectacular. In the northwest corner of the Cairngorms is Speyside, one of Scotland's most important whisky-making areas. Stop in the little market town of Tomintoul to pick up a bottle or two for later.

Now's your chance to look for the Loch Ness Monster. Urquhart Castle offers a high vantage point over Loch Ness. Even though it's a ruin, the location makes this one of the best castles in Scotland.

Evening: End your day by driving to Invermoriston Falls, a spectacular series of rapids and waterfalls crossed via a historic, pedestrian-only 19th-century bridge. The Glenmoriston Arms Hotel, across the parking lot for the falls, has decent food, traditional music, and comfortable beds.

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05 of 07

Day 5: Eilean Donan and Glencoe

Eilean Donan Castle

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Morning: Leave Invermoriston for Eilean Donan Castle, probably the most quintessential image of an early medieval Scottish fortress. The drive there is unforgettable; you'll pass forbidding dark lochs through valleys of brooding mountains.

Originally built as a fortress to defend the mainland from the Vikings, Eilean Donan was destroyed in the Jacobite rebellion of 1719. It was rebuilt between 1911 and 1932 from surviving ground plans of earlier buildings. The castle occupies an island at the confluence of three great sea lochs, but you can reach it on foot via a stone bridge. Eilean Donan's re-enactors make this a fun visit.

Afterwards, drive over to Fort William, often called the gateway to the Highlands. The town—located underneath the shadow of Britain's highest mountain, Ben Nevis—is a handy place to stop for lunch. There are plenty of quick food outlets and fish and chip shops, but if you're feeling adventurous, hop on a gondola for a mountain lunch at the Snowgoose Restaurant.

Afternoon: Glencoe is one of the most important landscapes in Britain and no visit to the Western Highlands would be complete without. Be sure to check out the eco-friendly visitor center. Here you can start a short nature and wildlife walk on the edge of the glen, find out more about the epic adventure trails, and immerse yourself in the sad history of betrayal and murder that still haunts this valley.

Evening: In the nearby village of Ballachulish, you'll find a range of accommodation, from hotels and guest houses to campsites. There are places to eat within a short distance of the visitor center as well.

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06 of 07

Day 6: A Scenic Drive and a Loch Lomond Cruise

Spring view of Loch Lomond from Rowardennan

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Morning: Take the short, scenic drive through Glencoe to the green, romantic hills of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. It's an easy, quiet road, but take your time and stop whenever you see a place to pull over; the scenery is spectacular and the geology that formed it astonishing.

When you reach Loch Lomond, continue down its west bank to Tarbet or all the way to Balloch on the southern shore. Tarbet is a quiet village near a narrow part of the loch, with good tourist services and access to some fabulous cycling. Balloch is the main commercial tourism center for Loch Lomond. What you do for the rest of the day depends on how active you like to be.

Active Afternoon Itinerary: If you want to see as much as possible, head over to Tarbet and park in the public parking area near Tarbet Pier. After you explore the village, hire a bike from Cruise Loch Lomond. You can take the bike with you on the Waterbus to Inversnaid; from here, ride the four miles along the north shore of Loch Arklet to Stronachlachar.

At Stronachlachar Pier, board the Steamship Sir Walter Scott for a round trip cruise on Loch Katrine. When it's over, cycle back to Inversnaid and return to Tarbet Pier on the water taxi. Then make your way to Balloch for the night.

Relaxed Afternoon Itinerary: Want to take it much slower? Instead of going to Tarbet, drive to Balloch and climb aboard the "PS Maid of the Loch," the last paddle steamer built in Britain. Afterwards, grab some souvenirs at Loch Lomond Shores, a nearby shopping center.

Take the Waterbus from Balloch Pier to Luss, a conservation village on the west bank of Loch Lomond. Most of the cottages in in this flower-bedecked village date from the 18th and early 19th centuries. There are several marked circuits ranging from an easy, 15-minute walk around the village to an hour-long Heritage trail.

Walk to the end of Luss Pier for good views of Ben Lomond. From Luss, you can take a short Waterbus trip to Inchcailloch, a secluded island just offshore with several good paths. Return to Luss, and from there, back to Balloch for the evening.

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07 of 07

Day 7: Glasgow

Glasgow lit up at night

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Morning: It's a mere 20 miles from Balloch to Glasgow, Scotland's liveliest city. When you reach the city, tour the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. It's a huge late Victorian storehouse, featuring everything from Scottish and European paintings to dinosaur skeletons and stuffed animals. Don't miss Salvador Dali's remarkable "Christ of Saint John of the Cross," one of the museum's great treasures.

When you're done exploring the museum, check out Kelvinbridge. This part of Glasgow's already trendy "west end" (so hip the name is never capitalized) was recently voted one of the 50 coolest neighborhoods in the world. Shop for vintage and retro fashions, and buy a takeaway picnic at Roots, Fruits and Flowers—Glasgow's local answer to Whole Foods.

Afternoon: Climb the hill of Kelvingrove park—one of Glasgow's gorgeous green spaces—and enjoy your picnic there. Then check out the City Center Mural Trail. Made up of 25 murals, this trail of outrageous street art is all within an easy stroll of the city center.

Have your mind blown by an afternoon show at Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre. A permanent exhibition by a Russian emigré artist, this indescribable production combines kinetic sculpture, automata, music, and lighting effects.

Evening: Make your last meal in Scotland a good one. Dine in Finneston, the hub of Glasgow's somewhat macho foodie scene. Try The Finnieston, known for its top seafood and gin bar. Or chow down on amazing dry-aged beef and game at Porter & Rye.

Glasgow's nightlife is famous. For comedy, take your chances at The Stand. See new and emerging bands at King Tut's Wah Wah Hut or downstairs at Òran Mór, a multi-arts venue that also hosts comedy and theatre.

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