From the moment I stepped off the plane and onto the tarmac, I knew I would love Scotland instantly. After 6 months of living in foreign cities, the comforting smell of the crisp marine air flooded my senses with memories of my home in Portland, Oregon.
Intrigued, I strove to be open to anything (and everything) Scotland offered with an .
Visiting Scotland for the first time (some advice)
If you’re visiting Scotland for the first time then I suggest simplifying things as much as possible. Scotland is a breathtaking country that spans on and on, so trip planning can get overwhelming.
As such, I suggest focusing on two areas you want to explore most, and if it’s your first time to Scotland, I suggest Edinburgh and the Highlands. These are the two most popular areas in the country but not without reason. Full of history and natural beauty, these gems will make you fall in love with Scotland and will have you planning a return trip in no time.
Hey there, I’m your Scotland guide for the day
My name is Antonina, nice to meet you. I ended up visiting Scotland for the first time in the summer of 2022 and found myself completely mesmerized by the country’s beauty. Ill prepared for the breathtaking nature, I noticed a strange sensation upon returning home — I began to crave Scotland’s countryside.
It was a very strange sensation because after visiting 20 countries, it’s the first time something like this had happened to me. Perhaps it’s because I hail from the gorgeous Pacific Northwest, but Scotland felt so homey to me and I was hell bent on returning to spend more time in the fresh salty air, amid picturesque pastures and breathtaking mountains.
Scotland can make a poet out of anyone. Just wait and see for yourself. I’m sure you’ll return home after visiting Scotland eager to get thoughts on paper, the country is so special.
Personal lessons learned from visiting Scotland
Let’s talk about the infamous Scottish weather
The United Kingdom is no stranger to weather-centered jokes for a reason. Locals know to pack a raincoat regardless of the forecast and we were keen to follow suit. Most of the two weeks we spent visiting Scotland greeted us with light drizzle.
Thankfully, the rain was never strong enough to prevent us from enjoying our time in Scotland. We visited in June and think the summer months may be your best bet for great weather.
Likewise, even rainy days cleared after a while. Not sure if we just got lucky, but we only had one day when it rained the entire time. All other times the rain cleared rather quickly and we got on with it.
To that end, pack rain jackets and insulated coats while visiting Scotland. Even though we visited in summer, I was ill prepared for the cold and ended up buying an insulated jacket on the second day.
Accommodations while visiting Scotland
Apart from the larger cities (Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness) we were surprised to find that most accommodations were guesthouses and Bread and Breakfasts, not hotels. However, we didn’t has any bad stays while visiting Scotland and found the standards for B&Bs to be very high.
Know that if you’re planning to visit Scotland’s Highlands region you may not find any hotels, but don’t fret. We typically stay at hotels when staying in a city for less than a month and were slightly nervous about B&Bs (we had no experience with them!) but were pleasantly surprised. So just a heads up!
Should you rent a car while visiting Scotland?
The short answer is a resounding yes. Sprawling Scotland is best explored by car because the most breathtaking regions are found in the norther reaches of the country.
In terms of driving in Scotland, well — that’s another story. We found that 90% of rental cars are manual with made us very nervous. By some strange stroke of luck, the kind fellow at Hertz offered us an autonomic because someone just cancelled their reservation and I swear — I could have married him on the spot.
Here’s the thing: Scots drive on the left side of the road and the driver’s wheel is located on the right side. This is a double-whammy for American drivers accustomed to driving on the right side of the road and having the wheel on the left.
I’ll admit, it took me a while to adjust to driving in Scotland while my husband barely struggled. He got a hang of it after the first day and said it felt intuitive and natural fairly quickly. Take that how you may, but anyway you slice it — you’ll definitely want a rental car while visiting Scotland.
Best Things to Do in Scotland | Scotland Itinerary
1. Explore Edinburgh
There’s only one way to properly kick off a list of the best things to do in Scotland and that honor goes to Edinburgh. Between the striking architecture, storied gray-slated buildings and towering castle, the country’s capital is a sight to behold.
The best way to explore Edinburgh if you’re short on time is to walk the Royal Mile, easily the most famous street in Scotland. The path starts at Edinburgh Castle and passes past impressive historic buildings before ending at Holyrood Palace, which is the official Scottish residence for the British monarchs.
The best part? Holyrood Palace is located right next to the trailhead of an epic hike that takes you to the summit of an extinct volcano. The hike is called Arthur’s Seat and should be added to any proper Scotland bucket list!
Best things to do in Edinburgh, Scotland
Hike Arthur’s Seat
- Those visiting Scotland take in the breathtaking nature its known for need not go further than hiking Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. An unforgettable hike within city limits, the 2.4-mile loop is steep but the panoramic views from the summit will stay with you forever.
- After hiking Arthur’s Seat firsthand, I can confirm that it’s one of the best things to do in Scotland and shouldn’t be missed.
Visit Edinburgh Castle
- Dating back to 1103, you can’t miss Edinburgh Castle even if you tried. This monolithic masterpiece looms over the city and can be seen from most vantage points. The castle, one of the oldest fortified buildings in Europe, has been used as a royal residence, military garrison, prison and fortress.
- Interested in visiting? You can buy tickets from the official website here.
Catch sunset from Calton Hill
- There’s no better place to take in the grandiose beauty of Edinburgh than from Calton Hill. A steep but scenic hike will take you to the summit and expose you to panoramic city views, best experienced at sunset. Calton Hill is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
2. Learn about the Glencoe Massacre
The Glencoe Massacre is a gut-wrenching event that should be known about before visiting Scotland. One of the top sights in Scotland, Glencoe is downright breathtaking. Located in the Scottish Highlands, the field is flanked by towering mountains on either side, it’s hard to imagine the heartbreak that marred this hallowed ground in 1692.
Scotland went through tumultuous times while fighting for independence from the monarchs. After the Jacobite rising of 1689, King William ordered all clan chiefs to sign an oath of allegiance by January 1, 1692.
The Scottish government offered to pay the Jacobite clan chiefs a handsome sum if they swore an oath of loyalty to the new monarchs, but the chiefs weren’t able to agree on how the sums should be split.
For two years they bickered and by 1691, none had taken the oath. Facing massive pressure from the monarch, the Scottish Secretary of State was determined to make an example of the consequences of further delay.
The logistics of the Glencoe Massacre (Should Know Before Visiting Scotland)
His solution? Orchestrate a ghastly fly-by-night murder of one of the clans. Unfortunately, the MacDonalds of Glencoe were chosen, for reasons not entirely clear. Some historians assume clan in-fighting and a reputation for lawlessness made them an easy choice.
A group of 128 soldiers traveled to Glencoe and stayed with the clan for 12 days before turning on their hosts and killing them while they slept. It’s estimated that 38 members of Clan MacDonald were killed while trying to escape into the snowy foothills of Glencoe.
The Massacre at Glencoe is nightmarish not because of the numbers killed, but rather the way the attack was carried out. The event is often coined as “murder under trust” because the men killed on that day were the very men offering hospitality to their murderers.
Learning about the Glencoe Massacre and understanding the complicated history around the event is essential for those planning on visiting Scotland. If there’s a history buff in your group, this is one of the best things to see in Scotland without doubt.
3. Visit the Isle of Skye
The Isle of Skye is one of the most beautiful places in Scotland, with many visitors traveling to the country to visit these sights alone. As such, this is one of the best things to add to a Scotland itinerary for nature nuts.
Marked by dramatic cliffs, stunning coastlines, sandy beaches and never-ending shades of green, this was one of the most memorable parts of visiting Scotland. The biggest draw is the nature and two things take the cake.
First, hiking the Old Man of Storr is a must because it’s one of the best things to do in Scotland. Striking rocks jut out from the ground and make for the perfect backdrop as you climb higher and higher for the best vantage point.
The second most popular hike in the area is known as the The Fairy Pools hike. Waterfalls against the background of towering mountains, like a scene straight from a fairytale, you have to see it to believe it. The entire loop is about 1.5 miles.
4. Dip your toes in Loch Ness
Who among us didn’t grow up reading fascinating tales of Nessie, the Loch Ness monster? Even fewer of us will get an opportunity to see the lake in person, an opportunity you can’t afford to miss while visiting Scotland.
The lake maintains a consistent temperature of 41°F year-round. So while dipping your toes in the lake will be a chilly affair, it’s one of the best things to do in Scotland for your inner child if nothing else. Have at it!
If you’d like to make a day trip out of your time at Loch Ness, this handy resource may prove helpful.
5. Experience the Up Helly Aa Fire Festival
If there’s only one thing you must add to your Scotland bucket list it’s seeing the epic (epic!) Up Helly Aa fire festival. This experience will require nothing short of a miracle because hotels sell out years in advance. However, if you can swing it, definitely make it a priority because it’s one of the best things to do in Scotland.
I was first introduced to Up Helly Aa by a lifelong Scottish local while enjoying brews at a pub. She raved and raved about the festival and said everyone should see it before they die. Intrigued, I promptly googled it when I got back to the hotel (I typically don’t activate international plans while traveling to save $$).
Held the last Tuesday in January, Up Helly Aa is a massive fire festival marking the end of the Yule season. Expect to find energized marches, up to a thousand gusty vikings, blazing torches and tons of fire. The festival culminates with the burning of an imitation Viking galley.
Located in the town of Lerwick in the Shetland islands,experiencing the festival will require some strategy and planning. But the effort is worthwhile because this is one of the best things to do in Scotland.
Scotland Itinerary Ideas: Here’s the official website if you’d like more info.
6. Fancy smokey scotch? Visit Islay
Located in the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, Islay (pronounced eye-lah) is famous for producing the smokiest scotch in the world. Some of the island’s distilleries date back to 1779, making them as old as our country.
Spanning 239 miles, this is the 5th largest Scottish Island and undoubtedly one of the most beautiful. Anyone traveling to Scotland for whisky would be remiss to overlook this promised land of peat and barley.
When my whiskey-loving husband found out that Islay existed, he completely re-organized our entire Scotland itinerary. He was determined to accommodate a five day stay on the island. A little nuts of him? Sure, but he’s so easy to love so I can overlook the few last minute changes.
Anyways, look at me getting off track. Visiting Islay is one of the best things to do in Scotland, so let’s break down the types of whisky experiences offered on the island.
There’s 3 types of whisky experiences on Islay
- Distillery Tour: Guests get full access to magic. You’ll be in the heart of the action, overseeing the whisky making process from start to finish. But not all distillery tours are created equal, some are way better than others (I’ll make sure to highlight the standouts below).
- Cask Tasting: Whisky straight from the cask is stronger than the bottled versions you pick up in stores. While exploring the various distilleries on Islay you’ll have an opportunity to sign up for some cask tastings, which I recommend you do. They’re very fun, especially when accompanied by knowledgeable (and entertaining) experts.
- Tasting Flight: The tasting flight is probably the most classic whisky tasting experience on Islay. You’ll typically get to try 3-5 drams for a nominal fee. This will give you a pretty good understanding of a distillery’s range.
Time is precious, so I’d like to help you make the most of your time on Islay. We spent our 5 days visiting every single distillery on Islay to create a list of the best experiences.(If interested, you can read All 9 Epic Islay Whiskey Distilleries (Ranked).
7. Hike at Trossachs National Park
Less than an hour’s drive from Glasgow, Loch Lomond is the largest lake in Scotland and taking in the splendor should be on everyone’s Scotland bucket list. The best spot to view the lake is from Trossachs National Park, often billed as “Miniature Highlights” because of the epic landscapes.
We spent half a day hiking around the lake and taking way too many photos. We just couldn’t stop, the area was so beautiful even though it was drizzling.
Visiting Scotland Tip: While in the area don’t miss an opportunity to tour Doune Castle, made famous by Monthy Python and the Holy Grail. You don’t need to be a massive fan of the film to enjoy this exciting tour.
8. Tour Balmoral Castle
To understand why touring Balmoral Castle is one of the best things to do in Scotland we need to cover some quick history. And don’t you dare try to fall asleep on me!
Balmoral Castle is best known as the royal summer residence for the British monarchs. Every summer, like clockwork, the royals make their annual weeks-long pilgrimage to Scotland to soak up the great outdoors.
Originally built in 1390, this breathtaking castle didn’t get added to the royal family’s impressive castle collection until 1852. Prince Albert purchased the estate for his beloved wife, Queen Victoria (ah, to be royalty) who was smitten with the Scottish countryside.
But as it sometimes goes with royalty, girlfriend found the estate too small for her liking. Thankfully she didn’t need to stress the oversight too long because the solution was simple — the royal duo built an additional castle on the estate (the Balmoral Castle we know today).
The original castle was torn down when construction on Balmoral Castle was completed in 1856. Today the estate spans and impressive 50,000 acres and houses 15 buildings. It’s been said many times that Balmoral Castle was Queen Elizabeth’s favorite palace.
She was so fond of it, in fact, it’s where she passed away on September 8, 2022. So yeah, getting to tour Queen Elizabeth’s favorite stomping grounds definitely deserves a spot on this list of the best things to do in Scotland.
9. Take a photo with the Glenfinnan Viaduct
Listen, there’s a few things in life that you just have to do. Seeing the Glenfinnan Viaduct and taking a cheesy photo like the damn tourist you are is one of those things while visiting Scotland. Just do it and don’t feel an ounce of remorse.
This setting will look familiar to Harry Potter fans for a reason, it’s the train used as the Hogwart Express! Some visitors choose to take a ride on the real life version of the train, called the Jacobite Express, and consider it one of the best things to do in Scotland.
Can’t say I disagree. The scenic 84-mile trip takes riders on a breathtaking 4-hour trip across the Highlands between Fort William and Mallaig. Onboard amenities include tea service and light bites. If you’re interested in adding this to your Scotland itinerary you can check out the official website here.
Scotland Itinerary Tip: Riding the Jacobite Express is one of the most popular things to do in Scotland and tickets sell out well in advance, especially in the summer. Book early if you consider this a Scotland bucket list item!
10. Drive the North Coast 500 (Slowly)
If you’re looking for the best things to do in Scotland on a return trip, I highly suggest driving the famous Scottish 500 route. Due to lack of time, my husband and I decided to forgo this adventure during our first visit but made sure to budget in the proper amount of time when we returned.
And holy cow. This route is as magical as it gets. Definitely one of the coolest things to do in Scotland. As you may have surmised, this is a self-driving 500 mile route that takes you through Scotland’s Norther countryside. The route begins and ends at Inverness, a charming little city in the northern tip of the country.
11. Tour the Highland Folk Museum While Visiting Scotland
Coined as Britain’s first open-air musuem, visiting the Highland Folk Museum ended up being one of my favorite things to do in Scotland. Admittedly, my husband took some convincing at first but even he admitted that the museum was pretty top-notch.
Dedicated to Scotland’s historic past, the Highland Folk Museum seeks to educate visitors on daily life in the Highlands from 1700s to the 1950s. More than 30 historical buildings comprise the musuem, with volunteers playing out era-specific roles to give guests a chance to ask questions.
We popped into the school building and found ourselves meandering past an animated teacher explaining the importance of proper penmanship. We even had our own paper and pen to try for ourselves. Some of the folks in attendance asked the teacher questions about daily life for teachers in the late 1800s and the volunteer was very thorough in his answers.
The interactive musuem is such a joy to explore, which is why I (highly) recommend it for anyone visiting Scotland for the first time. The musuem closes during the winter months but re-opens April 1st. Suggested donations in lieu of admission fees. Learn more here.
12. Visit Glasgow
Glasgow is the largest city in the country. A mere hour’s drive from Edinburgh, Glasgow feels very different. The city is more industrial but gives off a very youthful vibe because of the college students that call it home.
Full of top-notch restaurants, great museums and a mind-boggling amount of pubs, exploring the historic center is one of the best things to do in Scotland.