Scotland Travel Guide

Planning a trip to Scotland?

I lived in Scotland for the last two years so I know all the best places to go (and where to skip).

I’m originally from New Zealand but spent the last two years living in Edinburgh. The plan was to use it as a base to travel around Europe.

But then the pandemic came. Travel to Europe was cancelled.

Instead, I travelled basically everywhere in Scotland.

Keep reading for my ultimate guide to Scotland: the best places you should go, where you should miss, and all my top tips for travelling in Scotland.

TOP 10 PLACES YOU SHOULDN’T MISS

When friends are visiting Scotland, these are the top places I tell them they shouldn’t miss:

  1. Edinburgh: Where I lived and one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to. The best way to see Edinburgh is just to wander around the cobbled streets – either do an organised walking tour (I’ve done this one before) or just walk around yourself. Also don’t miss Edinburgh Castle (you can buy tickets in advance to skip the line here).
  2. Dunnottar Castle: My favourite castle in Scotland. It’s on a small island surrounded by steep cliffs. Don’t miss it – even if it’s out of your way. Read my ultimate guide to Dunnottar Castle here. Either make your own way there or do a small group tour from Aberdeen.
  3. Craigievar Castle: Another one of my fav castles. It’s pink. Need I say more. Read my ultimate guide to Craigievar Castle here.
  4. North Berwick: Cute seaside town by Edinburgh. I’ve been to lots of small seaside towns in Scotland and North Berwick is my fav. I would’t go out of my way to go here, but if you’re in Edinburgh and have spare time, it’s worth a day trip.
  5. Isle of Harris: One of the best (and most underrated places) I’ve ever been. A beautiful island with golden sand beaches and bright blue water. I lived in Australia for two years – the beaches on the Isle of Harris are even better.
  6. St Andrews: A cute small town. Reminds me of a mini-Edinburgh. (It’s difficult to get there by public transport – so either drive yourself, or if you don’t have a car you can do a day tour from Edinburgh).
  7. Dufftown and Speyside: Cute town with lots of whisky distilleries. I don’t even like whisky but loved the distilleries. If you don’t have a sober driver make sure you go on a group tour – the distilleries are spread out so you’ll need to drive between them. There are various options depending on where you’re coming from – Inverness, Aberdeen or Edinburgh.
  8. Isle of Skye: Incredibly touristy and overdeveloped. But there’s some beautiful walks and I liked Portree (cute town with colourful houses you see on all the postcards). Just avoid the Summer holidays.
  9. Drive from Fort William to Mallaig via Glenfinnian: One of my fav drives in Scotland. Incredible scenery. This is also where the Hogwarts Express goes – I don’t even like Harry Potter but it was really cool to see. If you’re doing a road trip around Scotland, make sure to work it into your itinerary. You can also just do a day trip from Edinburgh (but it will be a long day).
  10. Glencoe: My other fav drive in Scotland. Don’t miss it. Again, incorporate it into your road trip itinerary or do a day trip from Edinburgh.

OVERRATED PLACES YOU SHOULD MISS

Scotland is beautiful, but like anywhere, there are some overrated places you should miss.

  1. Aberdeen: Probably my least favourite city in Scotland. The buildings are grey and ugly. Aberdeenshire is beautiful – there is amazing scenery and castles and you should go – but skip Aberdeen. Read my Ultimate Guide to Aberdeenshire here to find the places you should go to.
  2. Dundee: Boring small town and not particularly pretty. Don’t bother.
  3. Inverness: The nearest town to Loch Ness. Quite touristy and not particularly interesting. Stay in Drumnadrtochit instead.
  4. North Coast 500: Controversial but I didn’t love the NC500. The scenery was nice – but there are more beautiful places in Scotland. Go to the Isle of Harris instead.
  5. Glasgow: I love Glasgow. I would happily live there – there’s lots of cool restaurants and bars. But I prob wouldn’t recommend going there on vacation. There’s not much for tourists to do and Edinburgh is much prettier.

TRAVEL GUIDES BY REGION

Click on a region below for my detailed travel guides for that specific area.

BEST OF SCOTLAND

Not sure where to start? Read my curated collection of the best things to do in Scotland.

How to get to Dunnottar Castle: The ultimate guide

How to get to Dunnottar Castle: The ultimate guide

Craigievar Castle: The complete guide (and why you should visit the pink castle in Scotland)

Craigievar Castle: The complete guide (and why you should visit the pink castle in Scotland)

WANT MORE SUGGESTIONS?

Feeling overwhelmed? Want more suggestions? Download my Edinburgh Bucket List for free – find out my very favourite things to do and places to eat and drink in Edinburgh (from a local).

TOP TIPS FOR TRAVELLING IN SCOTLAND

HOW TO GET AROUND SCOTLAND?

The easiest way to get around Scotland is driving.

If you’re just going to Edinburgh or Glasgow (or even nearby day trips), you can easily get around by taxi or public transport. But if you want to travel around the Scottish Highlands or beyond the main cities you will need a car.

I didn’t have a car when I lived in Scotland and it was my biggest regret. Every time I went outside the big cities (where all the castles and beautiful scenery is) I had to rent a car.

If you want to see the whole country, I recommend flying into Edinburgh. It’s much prettier than Glasgow. Stay there for a couple of days (you won’t need a car) and then rent a car to do a road trip looping around the country.

DRIVING: If you want to go to the Scottish Highlands (or outside Edinburgh or Glasgow), you will need a car. Book a rental car with rentalcars.com – it’s what I always use. It’s the same as Skyscanner or booking.com – it searches every available rental car company.

TRAINS: There’s a reasonanbly good train network in Scotland. It’s only 45 minutes between Glasgow and Edinburgh on the train. You can also get to quite a few towns by train – it’s good if you want to do a day trip (e.g. from Edinburgh to Stirling Castle). But if you want to do a big trip around Scotland (especially if you’re going to the Highlands) I recommend driving instead. Quite a few places in the Highlands aren’t easily accessible by public transport.

There’s lots of different train companies in Scotland (each with their own separate website/app to book) which can be quite overwhelming. I always use Trainline to book my trains around the UK – it searches and compares all of the train networks on one app/website, similar to Skyscanner, so you know you’ve checked all options.

BUS: There’s also a good bus network in Scotland. They go to most towns, but if you’re trying to get around the Highlands you’ll have to change buses which can be confusing and slow. So I’d still recommend driving rather than trying to get around by bus. The two main bus companies are Megabus and Stagecoach.

FERRY: If you’re travelling to the islands, the easiest way to get there is car ferry. The main ferry company is Caledonian MacBrayne (which everyone calls CalMac). I used them to go to the Isle of Harris, and they were great.

PUBLIC TRANSPORT: Most cities and towns have good public transport (buses and trains). Edinburgh is quite compact so you can just walk most places.

There’s also fairly good public transport between towns, although some places are inaccessible by public transport and others you’ll need to change trains/buses. It’s a slow and difficult way to get around, so I recommend driving instead.

TAXI/UBER: Most cities and towns have taxis. Smaller towns don’t have Uber.

CAMPERVAN: Lots of people rent campervans to travel around Scotland, especially if they’re doing the North Coast 500 or going to the Scottish Highlands. I booked a campervan with Just Go Motorhomes when I did my NC500 trip. It was very luxurious and I’d def recommend them if you like campervans. I just discovered campervanning is not for me – I’ll take a luxury boutique hotel instead please.

FLYING: I wouldn’t bother flying domestically within Scotland. It’s much easier and faster to get around by driving or train. You can fly to the islands, but I prefer to drive and get the ferry – there’s beautiful scenery on the way and then you have a car to get around the islands (which have limited public transport).

TOURS: There are lots of companies that offer tours around Scotland. Personally I don’t like big tour buses that just go to all the popular tourist sites. If I was doing a road trip around Scotland, I’d rather drive myself.

But I do like (some) small tours run by locals – whenever I visit somewhere I usually go on:

  • a walking tour (I’ve done this one in Edinburgh)
  • a food tour
  • a winery/distillery tour (lots of options for these in Scotland – my fav whisky area is Speyside. You can do tours from Aberdeen, Inverness and Edinburgh)

It’s also a good way to do day trips if you don’t have a car and there aren’t easy taxi/public transport options. Some good day trips in Scotland are:

  1. St Andrews – cute small town with the famous golf course
  2. Glen Coe, Glenfinnian and Mallaig – my fav drive in the Highlands and a must see (it’s a long day though)
  3. Dunnottar Castle day trip – best castle in Scotland
  4. Braemar/Balmoral Castle day trip – cute small towns and the Queen’s Castle
  5. Whisky tour to Speyside – from Aberdeen (or Inverness or Edinburgh)

ACCOMMODATION IN SCOTLAND

I’m quite fussy with accommodation and only like Airbnbs or boutique luxury hotels – with Instagrammable interiors of course.

I always use Airbnb or booking.com to book my accommodation. There’s lots of beautiful Airbnbs in Scotland. If you search on booking.com – you can usually find them cheaper. Booking.com also has an amazing loyalty programme – I get 10-20% off, free room upgrades and free breakfasts for most hotels.

I also love Mr & Mrs Smith – it’s a curated collection of the best luxury boutique hotels in the world. There’s a really limited selection of Scotland hotels on there (less than 10) because they only show the best hotels.

If you’re looking for the best boutique luxury hotels in Scotland, add these to your bucket list:

  1. Kimpton Edinburgh (Edinburgh – make sure you go to the restaurant below, Baba. One of my fav places in Edinburgh)
  2. House of Gods (Edinburgh)
  3. Dunstane House (Edinburgh)
  4. Rusacks (St Andrews)
  5. Monachyle Mhor Hotel (Highlands – one of my friend’s got married here. And it’s pink!)
  6. Cuillin Hills Hotel (Isle of Skye – one of the best meals I’ve had in Scotland and beautiful views of the colourful Portree houses. Get the salmon!)
  7. Kimpton Glasgow (Glasgow)
  8. Douneside House (Aberdeenshire)
  9. Lys-Na-Greyne (Aberdeenshire)

WHEN TO GO TO SCOTLAND?

The best time to visit Scotland is Spring (March to May) or early Autumn (September or October).

It surprisingly rains the most in Scotland in Summer (June to August). Summer is also super busy, especially during the July school holidays which you should avoid.

The weather is usually the nicest in Spring and there are beautiful cherry blossoms and bluebells everywhere. It’s also lovely in Autumn where the leaves are red, although it gets cold and dark by November so don’t go then.

HOW LONG TO SPEND IN SCOTLAND?

How long to spend in Scotland depends on what you want to see.

  • Allow at least two days if you only want to see Edinburgh
  • Allow at least 10 days if you want to visit Edinburgh, Skye and the Highlands
  • Allow at least three weeks if you want to visit Edinburgh, Skye, the Highlands and one island
  • Allow all least three weeks if you want to visit Edinburgh, Skye, the Highlands and the NC500

This is just a very rough estimate – obviously it will depend on what you want to see and do. Is it just the “must see” sites, or do you want to explore one area more?

I’ve spent one week just on the Isle of Harris (and saw everything), but then also done an entire loop of the whole country (including the NC500) in just 10 days (where I only got to see the main sites and had to drive a long way every day).

VISAS + COVID

You don’t need a visa to visit Scotland if you’re from the EU, Australia, New Zealand, United States or Canada, but you will be restricted on how long you can stay. Check the UK Immigration website to see if you need a visa and how long you can stay.

You can also check the Visit Scotland website to see if there are any covid travel restrictions.

Scotland-trip-plan

VIEW ALL SCOTLAND POSTS

How to get to Dunnottar Castle: The ultimate guide

How to get to Dunnottar Castle: The ultimate guide

Craigievar Castle: The complete guide (and why you should visit the pink castle in Scotland)

Craigievar Castle: The complete guide (and why you should visit the pink castle in Scotland)

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