The beauty and history of Scotland are never hidden. It’s seen on the streets of Edinburgh and Glasgow, or along the shining coasts of its isles. But these things are so hauntingly captivating, it’s no wonder the past is infused in such mythology.
Exploring the magical landscapes and attractions in Scotland will only bring you closer to understanding these things. As you do so, you’ll grow ever fond of the culture and the tales that stem from each destination. Whether it be the Highlands and the Jacobite rebellion, the maritime history of Shetland, or the mystical cobbled streets of Edinburgh.
By the end, you’ll have discovered a country that has kept its past close by. Not out of necessity, but instead, adoration. And you’ll be all the more grateful for it.
Experience the place that inspired the epic movie “Braveheart”. Truly a place with something for everyone, Scotland is a small country that leaves a big impact on all who pass through. To help you organize your Scottish getaway, below is a list of the top things to do in Scotland that should not be missed.
In this post, we'll cover:
27. Dunnottar Castle
A true Scottish treasure, the Dunnottar Castle, lies in a hauntingly beautiful ruin atop a cliff facing the North Sea. It’s a site rich in history and the victorious tales of underdogs, one that matches the marvelous scenery. It was here, that 70 castle defenders managed to sneak the Scottish crown jewels through enemy lines to safety against the onslaught of Oliver Cromwell’s forces.
Begin with a walk up a narrow path to the fortress walls, where you’ll be surprised to see just how big the castle is once you get close. The alleyway takes you beyond the walls into the castle grounds where you can explore ancient passageways and chambers with information showing what each section was for. Along the way, you’ll receive great views of the coast and Stonehaven.
26. Edradour Distillery
You may not have Scotland’s smallest distillery on your traveling bingo card. But that’s OK and you should go ahead and add it in. In a land of famous whiskeys, enjoy a different and more intimate experience here. The distillery continues to use old-school, traditional techniques to this very day.
Open to tours and tastings, you can discover the distillery’s humble beginnings in 1825. Trace the creation of handmade single-malt whisky from start to finish. All told, Edradour has mastered 25 unique expressions of the Highland region’s famous Scotch Whisky.
Finish the tour with a sample of many of these, before bringing a wee dram with you on your travels.
25. Calanais Stones
You’ll find yet another amazing example of Neolithic creations at the Calanais Stones. On the Isle of Lewis, these stones date back as far as 2900 BC. Incredibly, it’s estimated that rituals and celebrations took place here for 2,000 years.
The Calanais Stones are similar to Stonehenge, as they are arranged in a circle, presumably based on an astronomical calendar. However, in the center lies an even bigger monolith, which measures almost 5 meters tall!
Beyond the stone circle are almost a dozen similar examples within walking distance. See them all and learn more about their history in the visitor’s center “Story of the Stones” exhibit.
24. Glenfinnan Viaduct
Made internationally famous thanks to a little film called Harry Potter, the Glenfinnan Viaduct is an unmissable attraction. From wherever you choose to stand and point the camera, it’s bound to be one of your favorite photography memories.
There’s something for everyone here. There are the rolling hills that are quintessentially Scottish. Then there’s the historic viaduct and her sensuous archways that rise out of the deep valley. To top it off, there’s the Jacobite Express, a classic automotive that shoots plums of steam towards the heavens.
It’s a complete picture, and one you can immortalize four times daily. But for the best photos, capture the train running westbound.
23. Shetland Museum
Great for young and old, the Shetland Museum peels back the layers of the archipelago’s history and culture. Sitting on the beautiful waterfront in Lerwick, the museum has an array of insightful and interactive exhibits that will have you understand just why Shetland holds such a place in Scottish life.
Your time here begins with understanding how the archipelago came to be, from its geologic beginnings to the 21st century. Most fascinating is its maritime traditions and here at the Shetland Museum you can watch traditional vessels be created by hand in the Boat Shed. The neighboring hall features completed replicas. Complementing this is a collection of local art over the last 300 years.
22. Royal Mile, Edinburgh
Coursing through the heart of Edinburgh, the Royal Mile is alive with a colorful history. The pedestrianized street connects the imposing Edinburgh Castle with the head-turning Palace of Holyroodhouse. These two bookends may be splendid, but what lies in between is a historic and modern treasure trove.
Along the street runs marvelous townhouses and old apartments, many sitting atop boutique stores and restaurants. The crowd is busy and excited. The air is fixed with a sprightly atmosphere. Locals and travelers mix, creating a counterpoint between the “everyday” and the tourist trail.
Along the way, take time to see the St Giles Cathedral, King’s Close, and the Scottish Parliament.
21. Discovery Point, Dundee
Home to the USS Discovery, Discovery Point is the place to go to experience Dundee’s heritage and gain some great views of the town. The star of the show is no doubt the ship which was built in 1901.
Just one year later, the USS Discovery would find itself in the brutal winter waters of Antarctica. The ship would get stuck in the sheets of ice, only to be released in 1904. Science and research continued to be at the forefront of this ship’s endeavors and it returned to the scene of its first voyage in 1925.
And so on it goes. The timeline of the USS Discovery is packed with adventure. One you can get to know as you jump on the deck and explore.
As one of the best examples of the Neolithic era in Europe, your visit to Maeshowe is 5,000 years in the making. The chambered tomb isn’t just a journey back to the dawn of civilization. It also showcases the impact of the Viking Crusaders. You’ll find Maeshowe on the main island of Orkney.
A masterpiece of Neolithic design, Maeshowe features epic stone construction using enormous pieces that simply defy our understanding of the time. You can venture into the stone passage, retracing the footsteps of those who first lived here.
Beyond the tombs are the remains of ancient villages, stone circles, and graveyards. You’ll also see the “graffiti” left by Vikings who conquered the region in the 12th century.
19. Rosslyn Chapel
Although not as big as some other chapels in Scotland, the Rosslyn Chapel leaves a mark thanks to its extraordinary interior. This features finely detailed stonework and craftsmanship that have simply been lost.
The chapel may appear familiar to some. Scenes from the Da Vinci Code were filmed here, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a place of great religious significance. The sculpted ceiling ablaze with stars, roses, doves, and olive branches is utterly spellbinding.
However, the real highlight is the Prentice Pillar. It was carved by an apprentice stonemason. Such was the magnificence of his work that the master mason felt threatened and killed him.
18. Luskentyre Beach, Outer Hebrides
One of the best beaches in the UK, Luskentyre Beach, is a miles-long stretch of white sand. In the beautiful Outer Hebrides, the beach is lapped by emerald-hued waters. It all combines to have you feeling a world away from Scotland.
But of course, that’s what the Scottish Isles do. They show you just how diverse the landscapes are here. There is so much “wow” factor. On a sunny day, the seas appear straight from the Caribbean and the ivory sands are like a Tempur-pedic. However, the presence of highland cows and the northern winds brings you right back to the moment.
Aside from sunbathing, there are several great hiking and biking trails to splendid views of the beach and coast.
17. Riverside Museum, Glasgow
Glasgow has a litany of beautiful old buildings. But what about striking modern architecture? Well, just wait until you see the eye-catching Riverside Museum. Of course, the captivating facade is just a small taste of what’s coming.
The Riverside Museum explores the history of transportation in and around Glasgow and Scotland as a whole. You’ll find amazing exhibits on the history of cars made in the country. This is complemented by a selection of historic trains, trams, and bikes. The latter even has the world’s first pedal-powered bicycle!
As you’ll notice on the way in, the museum also features the 19th-century Glenlee. This is a 3-masted Tall Ships with its own collection of exhibits and tales.
16. Culloden Battlefield
Scottish history is littered with as much tragedy as triumph. Arguably the most somber and tragic event of them all occurred on the Culloden Battlefield. The seismic events that ensued changed the future of clans in the Highlands and brought about the end of the Jacobite rebellion.
In a single hour, 1,600 men lost their lives. Over 90% of those were Jacobites who fell in a devastating defeat to the British Red Coats. A loss that would greatly alter the Highland way of life.
You can fully explore this battle, the lead-up, and the aftermath at the onsite museum before exploring the eerie battlegrounds of Culloden Moor.
15. Golf at St. Andrews
Set in the foreground of the imposing St. Andrews Cathedral, this beloved golf course of the same name has a remarkable history. It’s the oldest golf course on earth, with the first tee occurring in the 16th century.
As you can expect, getting a tee time here in the 21st century is incredibly coveted. The par 72 course does, however, remain public. So with some prior planning, you’ll be able to break out the clubs and make your way down the historic St. Andrews. The only sticking point is the requirement of a handicap of 36 or under.
Although golf carts are available, walking the gorgeous course is a big part of the experience.
14. Portree, Isle of Skye
The beautiful harbor town of Portree is much more than just the capital of the Isle of Skye. In fact, it encapsulates much of what is exciting about the island. Portree is a quintessential Scottish experience.
Arriving by boat is a great way to be introduced to the island town. As you slowly get closer, old whitewashed, and tan cottages become clearer. So too do the sharp cliffs upon which they sit.
Beyond your first introduction, you’ll find Portree offers a nice balance between modern luxuries and a rich heritage. Cute shops and great local cuisine can be found throughout. Plus, one of those adorable cottages could be your home for the night.
For those looking to capture the charming town, you’ll find some of the best views of town along Basville Terrace
13. Loch Lomond
In Trossachs National Park, Loch Lomond is the largest loch in Scotland. It’s a veritable mirror at the base of a vast valley surrounded by rising hills coated in dense forest. Pristine and protected, the lake quickly wins you over and you’ll be itching to dive in for a swim.
Thankfully, there are several sandy eddies where you can put the towel down for a moment and take a dip in the refreshing mountain waters. But if you want to go a little further, stop by the lakeside towns of Balloch, Arrochar, and Drymen. These charming towns will be vying for your patronage in the evenings, but they’re also the spot to go to grab a kayak. Cruises are also available.
If the forest is what most interests you, embark on a short section of the West Highland Way which caresses the lake’s edge.
12. National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh
So much of Scotland is characterized by its history. You may not have the chance to visit all of these places, and even if you do, there’s always more to learn. To dive even deeper into a breadth of topics at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
It’s the best museum in the country, allowing you to jump into a portal and explore Scotland’s rich past in its History and Archaeology hall. Rich displays of artifacts like 12th-century chess pieces and even the crown jewels, quickly muster your attention.
But there’s much more to see. The World Cultures, Art and Design, and the Science and Technology sections help explore the present and future both here and abroad.
11. The Kelpies
Not far from Edinburgh, the Kelpies are a unique roadside attraction. Long before you reach your destination, you’ll see the giant sculptures of the heads of two horses. They are the centerpieces of The Helix, which is a fun park that’s perfect for a midday picnic.
Despite looking quite friendly, the Kelpies are seen as evil creatures or spirits in Scottish folklore. Many ancient stories feature them, including the one about the Loch Ness Monster!
Just behind the Kelpies, is a canal with a walking path on either side. Along with the open spaces, the wider park makes for a great spot to stretch your legs and have a bite to eat.
10. Ben Nevis
Scotland’s biggest mountain, Ben Nevis is a part of the country’s famed Three Peaks. These may not be the Himalayas, but they’re no less culturally and historically important. Over 100,000 hikers come to the region every year in the hopes of making it to the very top.
When the snow has gone and the conditions suit, Ben Nevis is a peak that hikers of decent fitness can “bag”. But come the winter, the brutal Scottish wind and snow combine to turn Ben Nevis into a climb for mountaineers.
If you aren’t up for the challenge, you can admire the beauty of the peak from the base. Or, instead, make your way down the rocky, winding path through the stunning Steall Gorge where the 120m Steal Ban waterfall lingers on the other side.
9. Melrose Abbey
In the 600s, Melrose was settled by monks creating the first monastic township in Scotland. For 400 years, the original abbey housed members of the Cistercian order until what we now know as Melrose Abbey was built in 1136.
Faithful restorations took place in the 14th and 15th centuries, ensuring much of the abbey would last to the modern day. The mix of present-day ruins, ancient archways, and columns makes for a hauntingly beautiful sight. While you’re here, head to Chapter House, rumored to be the resting place of Robert the Bruce’s heart. Afterward, check out the medieval artifacts in the Commendator’s House museum.
8. Old Man of Storr, Isle of Skye
In a land that personifies enchantment, there may be no greater symbol than the Old Man of Storr. On the Isle of Skye, this narrow tower of rock is the centerpiece of an unforgettable landscape.
After making your way to the car park, you’ll embark on a roughly 2km journey to up-close views of the pinnacle. But around 20 minutes in you’ll get your first glimpse, which will only cause you to walk faster.
As it gets closer, you’ll marvel at ancient volcanic plus even more. But slowly the surrounding landscapes, which are equally captivating, become ever clearer. With the Old Man of Storr in the middle, the expansive valley will have you believing in a higher power.
7. Skara Brae, Orkney
One of the best-preserved Neolithic communities in Europe, Skara Brae, is not to be missed. It takes you back 5,000 years, well beyond the pyramids and Stonehenge!
On Orkney Island, this incredible settlement was rediscovered after hundreds of years, thanks to a hefty rain storm. That was in 1850, and it still remains a vital look into what human life was like long before the Romans and Greeks.
A trail takes you through the 9-home settlement. Markers are placed along the path indicating a timeline of historic events, such as the moon landing, to show you just how much time has really passed.
You can explore some of the homes, with ancient cabinets and stone craftsmanship, showing just how sophisticated the community was.
6. Stirling Castle
There’s something about Scottish castles that refuses to get old. No matter how many you visit, the unique tales and distinct architectural beauty will keep your hair standing up. This is certainly the case at Stirling Castle.
Set atop a craggy outcrop, enveloped in old-growth pines, Stirling Castle is one of the most important in the country. Beyond the medieval walls that protected it, the castle played a significant role in battles between Scotland and England. So much so that Stirling Castle became a symbol of Scottish sovereignty.
As you explore the castle, you’ll discover more of its past, including how many kings and queens were anointed here. The most important of those being Mary, Queen of Scots.
5. Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Glasgow
In the early parts of the 1900s, the Glasgow-style art movement swept throughout the region. This was in connection to the burgeoning Art Nouveau style and ended with some of the most renowned Scottish works, including that of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. You can see the best of this at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.
But like any good gallery, the curators didn’t put all their eggs in one basket. Beyond local art, you’ll find halls dedicated to famous works completed by Van Gogh and Salvador Dali. The latter is celebrated with an exhibit of the Christ of St. John of the Cross.
Beyond art, you’ll get up close to ancient artifacts from the Bronze Age. Plus free concerts take place daily.
4. Loch Ness
Scotland is the land of lochs and none are more famous than Loch Ness. Home to the legendary Nessie, aka the Loch Ness Monster, Loch Ness has been shrouded in fandom for decades. Of course, you’ll want to go and see what all the fuss is about. Once you’re there, you’ll not only be enchanted with the captivating scenery but also the chance to see the mysterious beast.
Although your chances are slim, they’re never zero. The good news is, there’s much to do around Loch Ness besides hunting for the elusive Nessie. It’s the second largest body of water in Scotland and in combination with the lush surrounding hills, the scenery is spectacular.
You can see all the best sites and views with a drive along the loch’s western shores. This will bring you face-to-face with Urquhart Castle. With the loch in the background, the 13th-century castle makes for memorable photos. But be sure to explore the rooms and towers before searching for a nearby beach to go for a swim.
3. Eilean Donan
There isn’t a shortage of ancient castles in Scotland. Which is why Eilean Donan is even more memorable. Among such tough competition, the 13th-century marvel (which has been dutifully reconstructed), Eilean Donan may just be the most spectacular in the country.
It sits on a small island in the western Highlands of Scotland where three large lochs meet. The tower stands above the shades of green and flowing trees with its reflection painted on the lake no matter where you stand.
After crossing an adorable stone bridge, you’ll be able to explore almost all the castles. Old halls and chambers are laden with history taking you on a journey to the very beginning, through clan warfare, the Jacobite rebellion, and modern-day renewal.
2. Edinburgh Castle
Since the 14th century, Edinburgh Castle has been the centerpiece of Edinburgh’s marvelous skyline. IIntimidating all who would challenge them, the Scottish utilized the castle for all of their major battles and military strategizing. A strong standing symbol of their perseverance and struggle for independence, Edinburgh Castle is one of the top tourist attractions in Scotland.
Atop of hill of basalt rock, it’s an unforgettable site from the base. But believe us, the views of Edinburgh from the castle’s surrounds are just as incredible. It all begins by crossing the historic moat and wandering along the drawbridge. Where afterward you’ll be able to gaze down on the city like a king or queen.
The castle is open to explore further, and it paints a thorough picture of Scotland throughout time. Once you’re done, head back down and explore the Royal Mile.
Deep in the Scottish Highlands, Glencoe is home to some of the region’s best scenery. Throughout the rugged, windswept hills are historic tales of victory and defeat. Beauty and tragedy walk arm in arm through the valley as such a marvelous sight is also the spot where thousands died in clan warfare.
In Glencoe, you can really sense the beauty and past. It’s easy to see why it was so beloved among the clans and why the Scottish hold the region so dear to their heart. One of the best ways to explore the surrounding Highlands is on the 4-hour Pap of Glencoe Trail.
As for the town itself, you can expect and sweet, charming place where old-time recipes are still found in cozy pubs and restaurants.