Planning Your Trip
Things to Do in Scotland
Considering how small it is, Scotland is quite diverse: The country offers up a wide range of things to see, explore, and eat. The big cities are culinary and cultural hotspots, while nature lovers don’t have to go far to marvel at the dramatic glens, wild and unspoiled beaches, and tranquil lochs. Plus, there are thousands of beautiful castles and estates for history buffs to discover.
Read on to learn the best tips for making your trip "Up North" one to remember.
Planning Your Trip
- Best Time to Visit: The weather is pretty unpredictable year-round. In the summer, temps are higher and there's a higher likelihood of seeing the sun; however, you will want to be wary of the infamous highland midges if you are traveling far north. Although winter months can be harsh, it's a great time to go skiing or sip whiskey. Whenever you go, though, layer up and make sure you bring an umbrella.
- Language: English is spoken across Scotland, with strong regional accents and dialect variations. If you’re visiting the Highlands and Islands, you might even hear locals speaking Gaelic, the ancient founding language of the country.
- Currency: You’ll be using the British Pound Sterling (GBP), usually just referred to as "the Pound."
- Getting Around: There’s a decent rail and bus transport network across Scotland. Hiring a car or campervan can be a good option for a Highland road trip. To get to the Islands, you’ll need to check the local ferry services, which can be affected by poor weather in the winter. Don’t forget to drive on the left!
- Travel Tip: Make time to get out of the cities for a more authentic experience. Cozy up by the fire and enjoy a hearty meal or some live music in a village pub. Scots are a notoriously friendly bunch, especially in the smaller communities.
Things to Do
Heading to a big city like Edinburgh, Glasgow, or Dundee is a must. You'll get to appreciate some award-winning food, impressive architecture, and thriving art and music scenes.
From the valley of Glen Coe to the Isle of Arran and Cairngorms National Park, the Highlands and Islands offer some of the country's best scenery. If you’re a hiking enthusiast, you’ll need to bag at least one Munro (a mountain over 3,000 feet), and you can’t fail to be impressed by the unspoiled white, sandy beaches of the Outer Hebrides. Luskentyre Sands on the Isle of Harris is a highlight.
- Edinburgh: Scotland’s capital is rich in history, famous landmarks, great shopping, and fabulous food. It’s also host to the world's largest arts festival, as well as an impressive Christmas market and huge Hogmanay party in the winter. Soak up the history by walking along the Royal Mile or heading underground for the Mary King’s Close Tour.
- Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park: This is a perfect destination for wildlife spotting, cycling, kayaking, boat cruises, and swimming. It’s also relatively central and can be reached from Glasgow in under an hour, and from Edinburgh in less than two.
- The Isle of Skye. If you have to visit just one island, Skye should be at the top of your list. The rugged, dramatic landscapes—like the Old Man of Storr and the Fairy Pools—are a hiker and photographer's dream. It’s also home to picturesque coastal villages like Portree.
What to Eat and Drink
Scottish cuisine has come a long way. It isn’t just about haggis, fried breakfasts, and heavy portions. The big cities now host several Michelin-starred restaurants, sophisticated gastropubs, and vegan eateries. The more rural towns and villages, meanwhile, have cozy pubs and restaurants that serve up locally-sourced seafood and game, home-grown vegetables, and foraged mushrooms.
You should also make time to hit up a Scottish Chippy. These fish and chip shops specialize in battered cod or haddock, chunky fries, and the famous chippy sauce (brown sauce watered down with vinegar). Eating a fish supper on a bench overlooking the sea is a truly authentic experience.
If you enjoy a tipple, consider booking a tour to at least one of the many whisky or gin distilleries scattered across the country. Or you could try another Scottish speciality: Irn Bru, an orange fizzy drink. It’s claimed to be a great hangover cure. Scots are lovers of a good brew, too. A pot of tea, along with a piece of homemade shortbread, is often served in local cafés.
For more inspiration, read our article on shetland foods you must taste.
Where to Stay
If you're on a budget, you can stay in one of the hundreds of youth hostels scattered around the country. Some are in beautiful, old buildings off the beaten track. Rowardennan Youth Hostel, for example, sits in a tranquil spot on the banks of Loch Lomond.
For the adventurous at heart, you could rough it and go camping; just be responsible and learn the Right to Roam rules. Alternatively, you could hike to an isolated bothy, a basic shelter where you can stay free of charge.
You won't be short of options if you enjoy a spot of luxury. The historic, Victorian Scotsman Hotel is an impressive example in Edinburgh. You could also opt to stay in a peaceful country house hotel, like Ardanaiseig on the banks of Loch Awe or the boutique Monachyle Mhor Hotel in Lochearnhead.
If you’re staying in the capital, check out our recommendations for some of the best Edinburgh hotels.
Most travelers get to Scotland by plane. There are a number of airports, but the two main international hubs are in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
- Edinburgh Airport is about 30 minutes away from the city center via public transportation. Traveling by bus is slightly faster and cheaper than using the tram.
- Glasgow Airport is roughly 15 minutes from the city center by bus. If you plan to visit the Islands, traveling into Glasgow would be a more convenient choice than Edinburgh.
Both Edinburgh and Glasgow have large train stations that allow you to travel to other major British destinations, including London.
If you plan to tour the country, hiring a car at the airport—or in one of the bigger cities—will give you greater flexibility than relying on public transport for the more rural locations.
The Scottish Islands are most commonly accessed by ferry. Calmac is the biggest operator, serving over 20 destinations in the Inner and Outer Hebrides. Northlink will take you to Orkney and Shetland. The infamously unpredictable Scottish weather can sometimes hamper ferry travel, so you should always check timetables in advance.
Culture and Customs
In Scotland, as in the rest of the UK, the queuing system is taken very seriously. If you skip the line, you’ll be met with scathing looks or even push back from others waiting their turn.
We are Scots, not Scotch, and referring to Scotland as a part of England is a real clanger. Many Scots are extremely proud of the nation having its own unique heritage and identity, and it’s currently a thorny political topic.
We’re famous for our banter. We have a dry sense of humor, are not prone to airs and graces, and tend to be warm and friendly. Saying "hello" to locals will invariably result in a conversation. Don’t be surprised if it opens with a chat about the weather.
Money Saving Tips
- Free museums and galleries: You’re going to be spoiled for choice. You’ve got the National Museum, the National Gallery, the Museum of Childhood, and more in Edinburgh. The Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow and the new V&A in Dundee are also worth checking out.
- Many castles, monuments, estates, and gardens offer free access: Those run by Historic Scotland or the National Trust will usually charge, but the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens, the impressive Kelpies sculptures and Helix Park in Falkirk, and Portencross castle in Ayrshire are just a few examples.
- Take a coastal stroll or a mountainous hike: With so many unspoiled areas and beautiful country parks, you can save a lot of money and stay fit by just enjoying your time in the great outdoors.
- Avoid the busy months: If you’re visiting Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival is on, or at New Year's, expect to pay a premium. You should also book well in advance.
- Take the bus rather than the train: Bus fares are considerably cheaper than the train in Scotland.
- Drink from the tap: It’s a free, safe, tasty, and a much more environmentally friendly option than bottled water.