St. Andrews, Scotland: The Complete Guide

The Cathedral of St Andrew
pastelliacera / Getty Images

Located on the east coast of Scotland in the historic county of Fife, St. Andrews has much to offer anyone with an interest in medieval architecture, world-class golf courses, and fine farm-to-table cuisine. Once the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland, the picturesque coastal town is now most famous for the University of St. Andrews (the third-oldest university in Britain and the place where Prince William met Kate Middleton); and for the seven championship golf courses that have earned it its reputation as the Home of Golf. 

History of St. Andrews 

The land around the Eden Estuary, which flows into St. Andrews Bay to the northeast of the present town, has been inhabited since at least the middle Stone Age. However, St. Andrews as we know it today has its origins in the 8th century, when Pictish King Oengus I established a monastery there in honor of the patron saint of the Picts (and later of Scotland). The monastery was said to house the sacred relics of St. Andrew, and in time the settlement that grew up around it came to be known by the same name. 

In 906, the Bishop of Alba transferred his seat from Dunkeld to St. Andrews and in 1160, work began on St. Andrews Cathedral. As the largest church in Scotland, the cathedral made the town the most important place of pilgrimage in the entire country and one of the most significant in Europe. St. Andrews became Scotland’s ecclesiastical capital and enjoyed considerable economic and political influence as well until the mid-16th century when the Scottish Reformation resulted in the country’s separation from the Catholic church. 

With the bishopric dissolved and its status as ecclesiastical capital revoked, St. Andrews fell into a decline that lasted well into the 18th century. At this time, the town began to be recognized as a haven for golfers and in 1754 the Royal and Ancient Golf Club was founded, making St. Andrews home to the world’s most influential golfing authority. Today, golf continues to be one of the main attractions for visitors, while the University of St. Andrews’ status as one of the top three universities in the U.K. means that the city is considered a center for higher learning as well.  

ooking out over the bay towards the town of St Andrews, with a field of bluebell flowers in the foreground
Chris Wallard Photography / Getty Images

Top Things to Do

  • Visit One of the Golf Courses: St. Andrews is home to no fewer than seven world-class golf courses, which together make up the largest public golf complex in Europe, St. Andrews Links. These are the Old, New, Jubilee, Eden, Strathtyrum, Balgove, and Castle courses, with the Old Course (home of The Open Championship) often being hailed as the most iconic golf course in the world. All seven courses are open to members of the public, and you can also discover 500 years of golfing history at the town's British Golf Museum
  • Tour St. Andrews Cathedral: Constructed in the 12th century, St. Andrews Cathedral was the largest building in Scotland for seven centuries. Pilgrims once came from all over Europe to worship there until Catholic mass was banned in the wake of the Scottish Reformation and the great building fell into disuse and eventually to ruin. Despite its dilapidated state, the ruins are still spectacularly beautiful. Climb St. Rule’s Tower for sweeping views of St. Andrews and the surrounding countryside or visit the cathedral museum to gaze in wonder at a collection of medieval sculptures and relics as well as a Pictish sarcophagus. 
  • Take a Stroll Through St. Andrews Castle: Another of the town’s historical treasures, St. Andrews Castle was also built in the 12th century and occupies a beautiful setting just above the shoreline. For 450 years the castle was the official residence of the country’s premier bishops and archbishops and during the Reformation years, it was the scene of several pivotal (and violent) events. These include the burning of Protestant preacher George Wishaw, the murder of Cardinal Beaton in retaliation, and a subsequent siege that led to underground mine passages being dug by both sides. These passages and the castle’s infamous bottle dungeon can still be explored today. 
  • Learn about the Town's History at St. Andrews Museum: To learn more about the town’s fascinating history—from its time as a medieval religious center to its modern reincarnation as an education and golfing hub—pay a visit to St. Andrews Museum. The museum is housed in a Victorian mansion in Kinburn Park and hosts a permanent exhibition entitled "St. Andrews A-Z" as well as an ever-changing roster of temporary exhibits. Keep an eye out for lectures, concerts, and workshops that coincide with your visit, and plan to stay for lunch at the welcoming Café in the Park.
  • Hit the Beaches: St. Andrews has two beaches. The largest is West Sands Beach, a 2-mile-long stretch of sand famous as the filming location for the opening scenes of "Chariots of Fire." The northern end of the beach is a popular haunt for kitesurfers and also for nature lovers since it overlooks the Eden Estuary with its frequent sightings of seals and seabirds. East Sands Beach is a family favorite, with a children’s play area and lifeguards during peak season. Its location near the old harbor and the sailing club also makes it a great venue for watersports that range from fishing and surfing to kayaking and swimming. 

Where to Stay

Visitors to St. Andrews are spoiled for choice in terms of places to stay. For the charm of a family-owned and run country hotel built in the early 1900s and set amidst 10 acres of award-winning gardens, choose Rufflets Hotel. The Dunvegan Hotel is a golfers’ paradise located within a nine-iron of the Old Course; just check out the floor-to-ceiling photographs in the lounge bar to see which golfing greats have stayed there before you. For unrivaled luxury on the 17th hole of St. Andrews’ most famous course, book a night or two at the Old Course Hotel Golf Resort & Spa

St. Andrews also has a wealth of B&Bs. Our favorites are 34 Argyle Street Guesthouse with its luxurious, contemporary suites and secluded garden; and Knockhill Farm Bed & Breakfast for rustic style and a stunning rural setting in a converted barn located just 5 miles from the center of town. 

Where to Eat and Drink

In addition to its rich history and championship golf courses, St. Andrews also boasts an excellent culinary scene. For modern Scottish cuisine in a 17th-century converted farmhouse with panoramic views of the town and bay, try The Grange Inn. The Räv is a bastion of contemporary European cooking prepared with the finest local produce and served in a loft-style setting overlooking the university’s St. Salvator’s Chapel. If it’s seafood you’re after, you can’t go wrong at Haar, where British delicacies including North Sea cod and hand-dived Hebridean scallops are prepared and plated in exquisite style. For laid-back lunches and afternoon teas, head to Café in the Square, located in the middle of downtown St. Andrews. 

Although St. Andrews is not known for its club scene, there are plenty of places to enjoy a drink. We love The Criterion, a traditional Scottish pub established in 1874 with year-round outdoor seating and over 160 different types of whisky; and St. Andrews Brewing Co. on South Street. At the latter, you’ll find 18 craft beers, ales, and ciders on tap in addition to small-batch gins and whiskies. 

Best Time to Visit

Despite being on the same latitude as Moscow, St. Andrews has a relatively mild climate and is renowned as one of the driest, sunniest areas of Scotland thanks to the sheltering effects of several mountain ranges. The hottest, driest month of the year is July, with average highs of around 66 degrees F (19 degrees C); while the coldest, wettest month is January with average lows of around 32 degrees F (0 degrees C). In terms of weather, summer (June to August) is the most pleasant time to visit St. Andrews, especially if you plan on spending much of your time outside on the golf courses and beaches. Visitor numbers swell at this time, although the town’s student population is not in residence. Be sure to book accommodation and tours well in advance. 

Getting There

Most international visitors will fly into Edinburgh Airport. From there, you can rent a car and drive 50 miles northeast across the Firth of Forth to St. Andrews, a journey that takes approximately 1.5 hours. Alternatively, Dundee Airport offers air links to and from London City Airport and George Best Belfast City Airport and is only 13 miles northwest of St. Andrews. You can drive between the two in just half an hour. 

If you choose not to rent a car, it is possible to get to St. Andrews using public transport, although the town does not have its own train station. Instead, trains on the Edinburgh-Dundee and Edinburgh-Aberdeen lines stop at Leuchars, a 10-minute taxi drive from central St. Andrews. There is also a Stagecoach bus that connects the town to the train station. The Caledonian Sleeper service, which travels overnight from London Euston, also stops at Leuchars. 

St. Andrews is connected to Edinburgh, Stirling, Dundee, and most other towns in Fife by a reliable bus network.