At first glance, the Scottish landscape is harsh: foreboding fortresses atop hills and cliffs, the desolate moors… But spend some time here and you’ll quickly realize Scotland has its own unique beauty: breathtaking highlands, craggy coastlines, and blue lakes and rivers just made for fishing.
Among the otherworldly peaks, the deep valleys, and the sprawling lochs are ancient castles, Neolithic ruins, and the footprints of Vikings. Between them all are adventures that come in droves, some on foot and some with your foot on the gas pedal.
Map of Scotland
Among the best places to visit in Scotland are major cities such Edinburgh and Glasgow which still evoke that Scottish charm. They tell tales of the years gone, of struggle and the joys that come as the underdog. Ferries take you to surrounding islands where rugged coastlines look like works of art. So too do the charming towns filled with welcoming smiles and cozy pubs.
In this post, we'll cover:
17. Isle of Arran
Catch a short ferry from Ardrossan, near Glasgow, to discover one of Scotland’s best islands. The Isle of Arran encompasses much of what makes Scotland such a magical destination. You’ll find eye-catching coastlines, lush open fields, craggy peaks, and towns that immediately feel like home.
The best way to see the island’s coast is to walk along the Coastal Way. It’s an epic multi-day trek, but travelers can also enjoy a bite-sized piece. On the journey, you’ll wander through fishing villages, over cliffs, and down to caves. Then there are several ancient sites and wide open beaches.
Without having to raise a sweat, driving around the island is relatively pain-free. You’ll get from end to end fairly quickly, leaving ample time to experience the best spots. These include the Brodick and Lochranza castles. The former is in the town of Brodick, a charming enclave with pubs and cafes that serve up the beloved treat called tablet.
16. Ben Nevis
Every 12 months, over 100,000 hikers make their way to Ben Nevis. As they approach the trailhead, they take their last steps before beginning their climb to the top of the UK’s tallest mountain.
In the summer months, the climb up Ben Nevis is achievable for many travelers. But once that snow falls it can turn into a treacherous, high alpine climb that requires mountaineering experience.
Alas, there’s more to this area than just climbing to the peak. Alongside Ben Nevis are Càrn Mòr Dearg and Aonach Beag, which complete the Three Peaks. Those not interested in a climb can instead settle for the amazing, rocky, and wild path that takes you through Steall Gorge on your way to the 120m Steall Ban waterfall.
15. Shetland Islands
Straddling the North Atlantic and the North Sea, the Shetland Islands are a wild archipelago embellished with dramatic scenery. There are around 100 islands all up, with the vast majority uninhabited. That leaves a classic rugged Scottish landscape to explore.
As you’d expect, not every isle is the same. Some have marvelous white sand beaches, such as Yell, Unst, and the South Mainland. Others feel tremendously wild, with soaring cliffs that suggest no man or woman is welcome here.
The Vikings didn’t seem to mind, however. The Shetland Islands have some spectacular archaeological sites that take you back to the Middle Ages and even the Neolithic era. Lerwick, the Shetland’s major town, harbors much of this past while being the kind of maritime town that quickly steals your heart.
The granite nature of Aberdeen becomes immediately obvious as you wander down her old streets. Often grey and gothic, these grandiose public buildings are a poignant reminder of Aberdeen’s past as the granite capital of the world. Some of the best examples are Music Hall and Marischal College. The latter being a striking gothic revival construction with towering spires.
Along these very streets, you’ll take in the aromas floating out of some of Scotland’s best eateries. For genuine Scottish cuisine, it’s hard to pass up Aberdeen. Its mix of rich farmlands and coastline provides a mouthwatering mix of Angus beef and seafood.
Now well-fed, take in the lively museum scene that includes the Maritime Museum and the Aberdeen Art Gallery. But don’t depart before checking out the Balmoral Castle, the old hangout for the British Royal Family.
13. Outer Hebrides
If it wasn’t for the icy wintry winds that whip through the Outer Hebrides, we’d forgive you for thinking you were far away from Scotland. Eye-catching emerald waters lap the ivory beaches here, much like they do in the Caribbean.
Off the northwest coast of Scotland, the Outer Hebrides are roughly a dozen islands all close together. Inhabited in Mesolithic times, there are some remarkable archaeological sites here, including the Calanais Standing Stones. These are similar to the younger, more famous Stonehenge.
Medieval churches and clan roadhouses are remnants of a former era. But the Outer Hebrides is a place that holds tight to its Gaelic roots. The language rings through the local tunes, craftwork, and jewelry.
Getting here is an adventure, with several ferries, or a prop plane needed. But the journey is worth it to discover an unexpected beauty and ample Gaelic culture.
12. Cairngorms National Park
Scotland’s largest national park, Cairngorms National Park, encompasses all that is great about the Highlands. Yes, as a national park, you can expect pristine, untouched wilderness. It ticks that box. But it wouldn’t be the Highlands without a touch of history and the former footprints of ancient clans.
Lochs and rivers combine to be the lifeblood of the park, enriching the dense, old-growth forest that surrounds them. Some of Scotland’s biggest mountains, including Ben Bacdui and Braeriach rise up out of the valley. With miles of trails throughout, it’s an easy, yet adventurous, park to explore.
But you won’t always have to walk. In fact, one of the best experiences here is the 145km road that snakes through landscapes shaped by glaciers, across valleys, and over peaks. It’s the highest public road in Scotland.
11. Fort William
Deep in the Scottish Highlands, Fort William provides the sort of access to this region that few towns could only dream of. The location allows Fort William to be a fantastic base for outdoor adventures. Something that should pique the interest of active travelers.
Embellished with lush windswept fields and sporadic ridgelines, Fort Williams is always fun to come home to. Cute cafes dot the cobbled streets that are encased by old townhouses. Between them lie the warmth of the town pub, historic hotels, and restaurants. Its location on Loch Linnhe also lends a hand to some later afternoon boat rides.
After waking up refreshed, you’ll have a full slate of adventures ahead of you. The big one, of course, is Ben Nevis. As the tallest peak in the United Kingdom, it forms the central part of the Three Peaks. It’s a challenge that brings folks from all over and is a peak travelers with decent fitness can attain.
10. St Andrews
The motherland of golf, St Andrews, has a history in sport, culture, and education. Set in the Kingdom of Fife, St Andrews stands along the edge of the North Sea. Its coastline rises out of the bristling waters, providing some of the country’s best coastline.
Golf fan or not, it’s easy to appreciate the sport’s legendary connection to St Andrews. Play here dates back to the 16th century and there remain seven courses in town. The most famous is the Old Course, known to be the first of its kind in the world.
Non-golf fans can still explore the historic course. It’s all the more reason to see the Swilcan Bridge, which is an incredible 700 years old. You’ll find even more amazing history throughout St Andrews, from its celebrated university to the cathedral. The latter lying in ruins with what’s left approaching its 900th birthday.
As the capital of the Scottish Highlands, Inverness is the perfect base from which to explore. But while you’ll spend plenty of time outside of the city, there’s ample reason to spend a few days close by.
It wouldn’t be a Scottish city without a bit of history and you’ll find plenty here. You could easily spend a day wandering the Old Town. Many buildings date back to the 1700s. The Old High Church, Inverness Cathedral, and the lively Victorian Market will capture your imagination. To dive further into the past, visit the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery.
The nearby Eden Court is laden with great galleries and theater venues. You won’t have a shortage of distilleries either, including Speyside, home to Glenfiddich. Afterwards, balance the whiskey with some local cuisine. Inverness is a great place to experience the classic Scottish fry-up.
8. Orkney Islands
Epic Scottish coastlines, 5000-year-old historic sites, and old-time whiskeys can be found on the Orkney Islands. Just off the tip of Scotland, this collection of 70 isles quickly captures your attention. Most are uninhabited, worn away by the restless wind. Those that evoke a mystical charm and a connection to the Stone Age.
The journey here isn’t quick. But it’s instantly rewarded by a smattering of islands that are quiet and mostly untouched by the tourist path. On the main island, you’ll find dozens of paths that lead to ancient Neolithic sites that have come under the umbrella of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The most prominent is the Ring of Brodgar, a stone circle from around 2,500 BC.
Away from those sites, you have a stunning coastline to explore. Thankfully, a 16km path carries you along the western coast, teetering on the edge as you go. Travelers can also complete the world’s shortest flight by flying 2 minutes from Westray to Papa Westray.
7. Loch Lomond and the Trossachs
The largest of the Scottish lochs, Loch Lomond is a stunning blue lake surrounded by dense forests. This greenery is only interrupted by equally charming towns, such as Balloch, Drymen, and Arrochar.
After taking a morning break at either of the three towns, continue to the water’s edge, where another world begins. Loch Lomond is a part of the Trossachs National Park that boasts some of Scotland’s best, untouched scenery. Such is the size of the park most Scottish folks live within an hour’s drive.
The breathtaking scenery combines with great access to provide a must-do experience for travelers. Start off with a swim in the famous loch, or stay a bit drier on a kayak or scenic cruise. Afterward, hike along a section of the West Highland Way or wander through the oaky paths of Queen Elizabeth Forest Park.
It may be small, but Stirling has a history that punches above its weight. Once the home of Renaissance kings and queens, Stirling has maintained that illustrious status. It’s done so through the preservation of its charming streets and eye-catching architecture.
In central Scotland, Stirling is littered with prominent landmarks. Here, the Stirling Castle from the 1100s stands ever proudly atop the craggy hill looking down on its loyal community. Once home to Mary, Queen of Scots, the tales of Scottish rebellion ring throughout its hallowed halls.
Add on some time spent at the Chapel Royal, The Royal Palace, and the Great Hall to decipher centuries of clan and British conflict. Then complete the journey with a visit to the National Wallace Monument, which stands on the victorious grounds of the Battle of Stirling Bridge.
As you venture further out, you’ll cross paths with charming old villages before eventually reaching the beautiful Trossachs National Park.
Befitting its name, which translates to “dear green place”, Glasgow boasts dozens of public parks and gardens. They are spread throughout the city, connecting you with the other highlights, such as Glasgow’s epic music scene and a love for museums.
Some of the best parks provide lively views of Glasgow, or maybe even a close-up glance of highland cattle. As it is Pollok Country Park. In between is a city with plenty of character. It mixes poignant history, with a touch of working-class ethic and subculture.
A UNESCO City of Music, travelers will never be short of a live event to enjoy. This love for creativity and expression has fed into the city’s breadth of galleries and museums. Highlights include the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and the Riverside Museum.
You can also add an equally vibrant dining scene into the mix. Modern creations mix in with old Scottish cuisine to provide a cuisine that matches Glasgow’s personality.
4. Glencoe Valley
The dramatic scenery of Glencoe showcases some of the best landscapes that the Highlands has to offer. History, tales of triumph and defeat lie in every blade of grass that dances with the cold Scottish wind. The resounding beauty that seeps into your core is a stark contrast to the 17th-century massacres that occurred right here.
The spectacular Highlands scenery poses a powerful presence. There’s such a deep green to every rolling hill that soars into the low-hanging clouds. Rods course through them like a hot knife, leading you to feel small among the buttressed peaks.
Depart your vehicle and embark on the Lost Valley walk, a 4-kilometer out-and-back trek that puts you in the footsteps of ancient clans people from the era’s past. For something equally scenic but more relaxing, head to Glencoe Lochan, a sprawling lake at the base of the towering Pap of Glencoe Peak. Finish off by the fire at Clachaig Inn and watch the clouds slowly swallow the valley.
3. Isle of Skye
Like Glencoe Valley, the Isle of Skye is a conglomerate of some of Scotland’s most captivating landscapes. Rugged, moss-covered peaks rise out of ancient valleys fed by icy, tumbling waterfalls. In the early hours mists rise, revealing a new day, while at night the stars sparkle with aplomb.
You don’t have to go search for any of this when on the Isle of Skye. It’s all around you as you make your way between traditional fishing villages. Where you’ll cross paths with Highland cows and search for archaeological sites.
The Isle of Skye is the second-largest Scottish island. Its rich history runs deep from clan warfare and historic rebellions that changed the course of national history. Castles lie in wait, small towns dot the coastline like breadcrumbs and the windswept beaches are great for families.
Top of off by bagging an epic viewpoint of the Old Man of Storr, one of the world’s more unique rock formations.
Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, reflects the changing seasons. In the spring, the rise of daffodils coat the parks and fields in a blaze of yellow. Summer soaks the city in blue skies and the old sandstone buildings glimmer in the low-hanging sun. Come the winter, fog wafts above the Royal Mile and candle-like light of cozy pubs provides residents with a welcome escape.
Edinburgh is a magical place to visit. One that has kept its remarkable aura amid these changing times. The cobbled inner-city streets disperse into narrow laneways called winds. Follow these to take a trip back to the 1700s and beyond to the Middle Ages.
Highlights of the capital include the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Grassmarket sqaure, and masterful Edinburgh Castle. From the castle you’ll bask in some of Edinburgh’s best views.
If you’re traveling in summer, you can expect a full slate of events and festivals such as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
See also: Where to Stay in Edinburgh
1. Loch Ness
Scotland is the land of lochs, and none is more famous than Loch Ness. It’s here that the legend of Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, was born. Could it be you who finally spots the beast after so many years?
Behind Loch Lomond, Loch Ness is the largest inland body of water in Scotland. The water runs for miles while being completely enveloped by lush, green rolling hills. As majestic as the loch is, it’s the gems along the banks that flesh out the experience.
Spanning from Fort Augustus to Inverness, a drive along the western shores is impeccably scenic. About halfway along, you’ll arrive at Urquhart Castle, one of the most memorable in Scotland. With the Loch Ness as a stunning backdrop, you can wander this 13th-century castle, and discover rooms and the towers from which you have the best spot to see Nessie.
If you want to get really close, Loch Ness has several points from which you can take a (very) refreshing dip.