6 Must-See Attractions in Scotland

With all the ancient castles, majestic mountains, quaint towns, and scenic spots that Scotland has to offer, it can be hard to know where to start when planning your itinerary. To make things easier, we've picked out a few key attractions that we consider must-sees during any visit to the country. And while the weather might not take your breath away, there's plenty that will.

1. Eilean Donan Castle

Photo courtesy of Harvey Barrison via Flickr

Photo courtesy of Harvey Barrison via Flickr

If a snap of one of Scotland's iconic castles is what you're after, then Eilean Donan is the one to visit. To say that the sight of this castle is spectacular is quite an understatement. Images of the castle can be found everywhere, from biscuit tins and postcards to billboards of the Scottish Tourist Board. Perched on its own small island, surrounded by mountains and situated at a point where three sea lochs meet, the castle has views all the way to the Isle of Skye (more on that later). Despite appearing medieval, the castle as you see it was rebuilt in the early 1900s. It's inevitably a popular tourist attraction, but don't let the crowds turn you away. With plenty of grand halls, galleries, and vaulted chambers to explore within its walls, Eilean Donan is much more than just a pretty picture. 

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2. Annual Salmon Leap

Photo courtesy of marksontok via Flickr

Photo courtesy of marksontok via Flickr

Chances are, fish-watching has never been high on your list of vacation activities, but if you happen to be in Scotland when the salmon make their journey from the Atlantic back upstream to spawn (late September, early October), we suggest taking advantage. There's a reason why footage of this incredible event is used in nature programs time and time again. Even if you have no interest in fish, it's amazing to watch as the salmon battle against rapids. They hurl themselves high into the air to jump the waterfalls and eventually make it over to continue on their journey. Perthshire has some of the best places to watch the salmon leap -- namely, Buchanty Spout and the Falls of Braan, both of which are picturesque even without the fish. Pitlochry even has a manmade salmon ladder, which diverts the fish away from the hydroelectric dam. The best time to go is in early October, after heavy rainfall when the rivers are swollen. Make sure to wear something waterproof (you're likely to get wet from the spray even if its not raining) and keep in mind the rocks are slippery, so keep your hand steady while trying to get that photo.

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3. The East Neuk and the Fishing Villages of Fife

Photo courtesy of Oliver Clarke via Flickr

Photo courtesy of Oliver Clarke via Flickr

If tourists head into Fife, it's usually to visit St. Andrews, famed as the home of golf. However, a few miles down the coast in the East Neuk (Neuk is the old Scots word for corner) are numerous quaint and historic fishing villages. Crail boasts the most picturesque harbor and is famed for its shellfish -- you can buy lobster and other delicacies from a wooden hut on the harbor wall. It's hard to believe that for such a tiny place, the medieval Marketgate here was once the largest market in Europe. Anstruther, which is located further south, has charming cobbled alleyways and a harbor that was once so full of fishing boats that you could supposedly cross it without touching the water. Sitting outside and looking at the boats while eating fish and chips is a must when visiting. The award-winning Anstruther Fish Bar has a board inside telling you exactly which boat your fish came in on. The equally beautiful village of Pittenweem has another quaint harbor and is worth visiting in August when they host their annual arts festival. One of the area's key attractions is the secret bunker, which was built to house government officials in the event of a nuclear attack during the Cold War. It can still be accessed through a tunnel under a farmhouse. 

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4. Blair Castle

Photo courtesy of Mark Nesbitt via Flickr

Photo courtesy of Mark Nesbitt via Flickr

Nestled in Perthshire's lush landscape, with extensive grounds holding some of the U.K.'s tallest trees, this castle dates back to the mid-1200s. It's the ancestral home of the Clan Murray and its rich history is detailed throughout the 30 spectacular rooms on display for visitors. The Atholl Highlanders are an infantry regiment, employed privately by the Duke of Atholl. They've been used as bodyguards for many royal visitors to the castle over the centuries. After Queen Victoria stayed at the castle in the 1840s -- and used the regiment to protect her during her tour -- she subsequently gave the Atholl Highlanders their colors (bestowing official status). Despite having no military role, and essentially serving as a tourist attraction these days, the regiment remains Europe's only private army in the eyes of the law.

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5. Isle of Skye and the Talisker Distillery

Photo courtesy of john mcsporran via Flickr

Photo courtesy of john mcsporran via Flickr

If you're partial to a wee dram, then a visit to one of Scotland's whisky distilleries is a must. A trip to the Talisker Distillery means you can combine the pleasure of sampling fine whisky with a stay on the beautiful Isle of Skye. Located off the west coast of Scotland (and linked to the mainland by a bridge), Skye is the largest island of the Inner Hebrides and a walker and climber's paradise, thanks to its rugged, mountainous interior, stunning views, and a coastline that varies from steep cliffs and jagged rocks to pristine white-sand beaches. Staffin offers the chance to see fossilized dinosaur footprints, with various other fossils to be found on Skye's shores and in the local Dinosaur Museum. If fossils and spotting wildlife (whales, dolphins, otters, puffins) aren't your thing, and visiting castles and historic fishing villages tires you out, head to the whisky distillery for tours and tasting options. Book in advance, as they can be a long wait during the high season. Depending on how much whisky you've consumed (and how brave you are), the distillery is not far from Fairy Pools, a natural waterfall and one of Skye's best wild swimming spots.

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6. Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Photo courtesy of Steve Collis via Flickr

Photo courtesy of Steve Collis via Flickr

Any guide to Scotland's attractions would not be complete without mentioning the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world's largest arts festival. The Fringe, as it's called, has been running for 70 years and occurs every year during the last three weeks of August. It also runs alongside the Edinburgh International Festival. And with comedy, dance, theater, kids' shows, opera, poetry, cabaret, and more, there's something for everyone. Shows take place in various venues and even on the streets, creating a veritable buzz throughout the city. Tickets are generally inexpensive (with the occasional freebie), but popular shows sell out fast. It's well worth hanging around until the end when a spectacular fireworks display marks the end of festival season. The choreographed fireworks cascade over Edinburgh Castle and are accompanied by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Tips: book hotels well in advance, pack an umbrella, and something warm to wear -- it may be August, but there's no guarantee it will be sunny, dry, or even warm. If you get hungry, pop into one of Edinburgh's numerous "chippies" for a poke o' chips or a deep-fried Mars bar.

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