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Scotland. Land of castles, beautiful landscapes, romantic islands, mythic monsters, and friendly people. Also the land of bagpipes, men in kilts, and even deep-fried Mars bars (yes, really). There are so many beautiful places to visit in Scotland that you could spend a lifetime and still not see them all. I should know because I lived there for a year and yet there are so many amazing places I haven’t seen.
I had a great time as a student in Scotland (great people! beautiful country! and yes, great food too!), and I’m now very excited to share my favourite places with you. Yes, the weather in Scotland is less than great but you forget about it when you see the dramatic valleys of Glencoe or the peaks of Skye.
Speaking of weather, my advice is that no matter the time of year you go, make sure you pack a raincoat with a hood and rain-resistant shoes. You can also bring an umbrella but it is often windy enough to make it useless. The pavements of Glasgow in winter turn into a “graveyard” of broken and left umbrellas. It is rumoured that the rain falls sideways in Scotland (I’d agree).
How to travel around Scotland
One of the best ways to fully explore Scotland is to go on a road trip. But if you don’t have a car or don’t feel like driving (like me), Scotland has some of the most scenic train routes in the world. One of them is the Jacobite, i.e. the train made famous by the Harry Potter movies as the “Hogwarts Express”.
Some ferries take you to the numerous (and gorgeous) islands of Scotland, as well as hiking paths with amazing views. The country has a breathtaking natural beauty but it is also steeped in history. Whether for its history, vibrant cities, or wild, romantic scenery, you’ll find plenty of reasons to fall in love with Scotland.
The best places to visit in Scotland:
1. Edinburgh & Edinburgh Castle
One of the best places to visit in Scotland is its capital. Edinburgh has a lot going for it. It has amazing Georgian and Victorian architecture, a dramatic-looking castle perched on an imposing and ancient volcanic rock, a haunted underground city, as well as elegant boutiques for shopaholics.
The 13th-century castle has a long and often dark and violent history. From the tragic life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotts, to Nazi air raids, this castle has seen it all. When you visit, don’t miss the opportunity to see the Scottish Crown Jewels, the famous Stone of Scone (or Stone of Destiny), and St Margaret’s Chapel, built-in 1130 and the oldest building in Edinburgh. Also, if it’s cold, take a break for some delicious hot chocolate at the castle’s café.
Other Edinburgh highlights include the Royal Mile (the road that goes from the castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse), with small artisan shops, teahouses and cafés; the underground vaults of South Bridge, which you can only visit with either a historic organised tour or even a “ghost” tour (the latter is sure fun but not for the fainthearted, trust me on this); and finally, visit the Royal Yacht Britannia, the Queen’s private ship for over 40 years.
2. Cosmopolitan Glasgow
Edinburgh might be the country’s capital, but Glasgow is also one of the best places to visit in Scotland and its biggest city. In the past, it was often dismissed as a gritty, post-industrial city, but nowadays it has evolved into a sophisticated centre of culture, music and gastronomy.
As regards things to do, Glasgow has some amazing museums, most of them free. The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in particular is a must-see. So are the Glasgow Botanical Gardens nearby. Another one of my favourites is the Glasgow Cathedral and the Necropolis, offeroffers some great views of the city, as well as the hidden gem of St Mungo’s Museum of Religions.
Moreover, Glasgow has some of the best shopping in the UK, second only to London. I probably spent more time window-shopping in Buchanan Street than actually studying (somehow I managed to get my degree though). So if you’re into shopping, add a day to your schedule in Glasgow just for that.
Last but not least, Glasgow is one of the friendliest cities in the world, with open-hearted and welcoming people.
3. Stirling Castle
The city of Stirling with its imposing castle is one of the best places to visit in Scotland and an easy day trip from either Glasgow or Edinburgh. Because of its strategic location, guarding the only crossing of the river Forth until the late 19th century, it was coveted and battled over by Scots and English alike. It was also regularly used as a royal residence for the Scottish kings and queens (including Mary, Queen of Scots) before the union with England.
Sitting atop a volcanic rock, it offers amazing views of the whole valley (if you’re lucky to visit on a rare sunny day) and the city of Stirling below. It is very well maintained and you can get a glimpse of royal court life as it would have been in the middle ages. A guided tour is a good idea, as it will give you lots of information about the history of the castle that will help you appreciate it even more.
4. The Isle of Arran
Otherwise known as “Scotland in Miniature”, the lovely Isle of Arran is an easy ferry & train trip from Glasgow, less than an hour away. There’s a bit of everything: rolling moors, dramatic mountains, long, sandy beaches, charming little villages, fishing harbours, and even a castle on the hill.
The island is also a paradise for foodies as it offers tasty local products, from delicious creamy cheeses to traditional oatcakes, chocolate, ice cream and even fresh fish and chips right by the harbour.
Buses connect most places around the island, so you can relax and enjoy a car-free day trip to this most Scottish of all Scotland’s islands. Brodick, the main town, is also very walkable, as there’s little car traffic. Don’t miss Brodick Castle and the nearby Country Park.
Also, if you like good cheese (who doesn’t?) make sure you visit the Arran Cheese Shop, an artisanal cheese shop and dairy located within Home Farm Visitors Centre, about half a kilometre (one mile) north of capital Brodick. Their flavoured cheddars are delicious!
5. Any Scottish island for that matter
Even though Scotland is famous for its Highlands, its islands will offer you some truly memorable experiences. They are on my list of the most beautiful places to visit in Scotland for their beauty and slower pace of life, among other things. Whatever the reason, make sure you include at least one island on your bucket list for Scotland. You won’t regret it.
Starting with the isle of Skye, the most famous of all. It’s an island in the Inner Hebrides, like the isle of Arran I told you about. With its iconic landscapes and hiking paths, it’s a nature lover’s paradise. But there’s also Islay, renowned for its unique whiskeys (due to the salty sea breeze). Or Bute, which is so cute (pun intended). There’s also Jura, remote and quiet, perfect for escaping it all. Jura is also where the famous writer George Orwell wrote his masterpiece, “1984“. Finally, Iona, with its strong spiritual past and the Orkneys, with their amazing prehistoric archaeological sites. There’s an island for every taste.
6. The “Mackintosh At The Willow” Tea Rooms
Afternoon tea is a big British tradition. In Glasgow, you can experience it at a truly unique place, the Mackintosh At The Willow tea rooms. You see, Glasgow was also the birthplace of one of the most influential Art Nouveau architects and interior designers, Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Originally named “Willow Tea Rooms”, they first opened in 1903. They are the only surviving tea rooms designed by Mackintosh himself. Following an extensive, 4-year-long restoration, they reopened in 2018 and now host a restaurant at 217 Sauchiehall Street Glasgow and a Visitor Centre next door.
The restaurant has 200 seats across 3 floors and offers, in addition to the famous afternoon tea, also breakfasts, light lunches and more meals during the day. It’s a true one-of-a-kind, foodie experience to have in Scotland!
7. The West Highland Route and The Jacobite
One of the things I enjoyed while living in Scotland was the trains. There are excellent connections to most places of interest and often they connect to ferries for the islands.
In addition, Scotland boasts one of the most scenic train routes in the world, i.e. the West Highland Railway Line. And it departs from Glasgow too! Although the whole route from Glasgow to Mallaig takes almost 6 hours, you can take it for a shorter distance, either to Oban or Fort William.
That said though, the most unique part of the route is the one from Fort William to Mallaig, particularly in the summer when the old steam locomotive, the Jacobite, is used for that part of the route. This is also the part where the train crosses the magnificent Glenfinnan Viaduct, immortalized in the Harry Potter films.
8. The lakes, primarily Loch Ness and Loch Lomond
Scotland has over 30,000 lakes, called lochs in Gaelic. They are a signature feature of Scottish landscapes and a nature lover’s dream.
Loch Ness is of course the most famous and has long been popular with tourists and even scientists, thanks to the myth about an ancient creature hiding in its depths. The whole thing is unfortunately more of a tourist trap than anything else, but Urquhart Castle on its banks is worth a visit.
On the other hand, Loch Lomond is another famous, yet tranquil lake near Glasgow. With its lush green surroundings and an excellent hiking path, it is popular with locals who escape the city for a relaxing weekend. Loch Lomond is also at the heart of the Trossachs National Park, with its beautiful scenery of forests, hills and more lakes.
If you look a bit further than the big names, you will find lesser-known lakes of remarkable beauty, like Loch Awe. Perhaps the most aptly named lake, it is also the longest freshwater loch in Scotland. With so many beautiful lakes, big and small, there’s something for everyone.
9. Eilean Donan Castle
Perhaps the most beautiful and romantic castle in all of Scotland. At any rate, Eilean Donan is for sure the most iconic, having featured in many Hollywood movies, from James Bond – The World is Not Enough to Highlander and Maid of Honour.
As it is located across the bay from the Isle of Skye, it is easy to visit the island either by ferry or the bridge at Kyle of Lochalsh. Alternatively, you can visit the castle on your way to the island. Admittedly, they are both at quite some distance from Glasgow for a day trip, but their beauty is unforgettable.
10. The mythical Kelpies
Kelpies were mythical sea creatures that took the form of a horse. The impressive sculpture with the same name was built in 2014 and stands next to the Forth & Clyde canal. At 30 metres high, they are the largest public sculptures in Scotland.
The Kelpies are meant to be a celebration and tribute to the heavy Clydesdale horses that used to tow the barges crossing the Forth & Clyde canal, as well as their importance to industry in the previous centuries. As you approach the area from the motorway, these huge horse heads seem to just rise from the earth and the sight will take your breath away.
11. The breathtakingly beautiful valley of Glencoe
Glencoe is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Scotland. By the way, “glen” means “valley” in Gaelic. It is a stunningly beautiful valley, formed by the movements of glaciers during the last ice age of earth.
Nowadays it is a popular destination with hikers and nature lovers. Glencoe has hiking paths for all levels, from the easy and well-signed An Torr trail to the more demanding Pap of Glencoe.
That said, Glencoe is also known for its dark history. This is where the so-called Glencoe Massacre happened in 1692, a little after the failed Jacobite uprising against the English king. At the time, King William III ordered that all Scottish clan leaders pledge allegiance to the crown. Unfortunately for the people living in Glencoe, the MacDonald clan, their leader missed the pledge deadline by six days.
They didn’t think much of it, but later a regiment of the English army arrived in Glencoe, supposedly seeking hospitality for the night. The locals thought they were safe but during the night the soldiers turned against their hosts and killed many, women and children included. It was a dark page in the history of the two nations.
Fortunately today things are much more peaceful and you can simply enjoy the beautiful landscape. But if you are interested to find out more about Glencoe’s past, the Glencoe Visitor Centre has plenty of information.
To sum things up
Scotland is a country of great natural beauty, and rich history, but also friendly and welcoming people. From romantic castles and misty lochs to vibrant cities and beautiful architecture, there are so many beautiful places to visit in Scotland that you’ll want to return, again and again.