The Best Places to Visit in Scotland: A Cheat Sheet to the Top Destinations

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Scotland’s romantic cities, shimmering lochs, and natural wonders attract a variety of travelers form far and wide. Much of the compact mainland can be easily navigated by train, while many of the 790 offshore islands require more effort and planning to reach. Therefore, you’ll want to allocate a solid chunk of time to explore and savor the varied region. Given Scotland’s diversity — both geographically and culturally — we’ve compiled a list of the top cities, towns, islands, and natural attractions to inspire your wanderlust. Below, check out the best places to visit in Scotland.

1. Edinburgh

Scotland’s charming capital, Edinburgh, is the first stop for many travelers — both for its overall allure and direct international flights from the U.S. and mainland Europe. The heart of Edinburgh, known as Old Town, rises from the surrounding city and sits atop cliffs and craggy rock formations. Here, you’ll find many of city’s most historic structures, such as Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace. Start exploring along the main thoroughfare – the Royal Mile — which leads downhill from Edinburgh Castle to the palace, with dozens of diverging, narrow alleyways lined with pubs and cozy specialty shops. Old Town has captured the imagination of artists and authors for centuries, and earned UNESCO World Heritage site status as well as UNESCO City of Literature designation. Edinburgh hosts an international book festival each August, plus there are plenty of independent bookshops, literary tours, and libraries to satisfy the most devoted bookworm.

Though it’s known for its historic character, Edinburgh is also a thriving modern city with a sizable university population, innovative culinary scene, and notable contemporary art and design. Sample traditional Scottish cuisine with a modern twist at Edinburgh Food Studio, try a Scotch and haggis pairing at Amber Restaurant, or dine with a view at The Lookout by Gardener’s Cottage. Located in the restored City Observatory, The Lookout offers visitors the chance to enjoy a meal as well as the adjoining contemporary art gallery, Collective. Other top spots for viewing art include the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and City Art Centre. The peculiar, but intriguing, Scottish Parliament Building merits a visit as well, with free, one-hour tours available.

Our Edinburgh Hotel Pick: 24 Royal Terrace

The boutique 24 Royal Terrace provides style and comfort with its extensive modern art collection and spacious rooms. The property is situated on a quiet street, just a mere 10-minute walk from Old Town.

2. Isle of Skye

As Scotland’s second-largest island, the Isle of Skye features every essential Scottish landscape: glimmering lochs, mossy moors, jagged peaks, sandy beaches, and craggy sea cliffs. Drive along the island’s main road, A87, and you’ll be able to take in plenty of scenery and pull over for scenic overlooks (assuming the island isn’t enshrouded in clouds). That being said, Isle of Skye’s scenery calls for proper walking and hiking, if possible. For a warm-up hike, head to the Fairy Pools, located at the base of the Black Cuillins. The trail to these stunning, clear pools stretches three-quarters of a mile one way over relatively flat terrain. Then, take a step back in time with a walk down to Staffin Beach, where dinosaur footprints are visible among the rocky shore at low tide. Arguably the two most iconic hikes — Old Man of Storr and the Quiraing — feature rugged rock formations jutting out from the Trotternish peninsula. Though its steep and windy, the pathway up Storr is well-maintained and quite popular, so consider heading there first. Beyond the natural wonders, Skye’s main towns – Dunvegan, Portree, and Trotternish – are home to cozy pubs, galleries, and shops. The island is home to two distilleries – Talisker and Torabhaig.

Isle of Skye is connected to the mainland by a bridge, but it’s worth taking the scenic train trip from Glasgow to Mallaig, where a short ferry then connects to Skye. Fun fact: Sections of this route provided the backdrop for the train ride to Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies.

Our Isle of Skye Hotel Pick: Bosville Hotel

The chic Bosville Hotel is located in the charming coastal town of Portree, where you’ll find a handful of pubs that are perfect for unwinding in after a day of hiking.

3. Cairngorms National Park

Cairngorms National Park

Cairngorms National Park; Manuel Osdoba/Flickr

Covering a massive 1,748 square miles of Scotland’s highland region, Cairngorms National Park is the largest in the British Isles. The park derives its name from the Cairngorms mountain range, which consists of 4,000-foot peaks rising from Britain’s highest plateau. These ancient peaks have been weathered away, leaving rocky outcrops and domes in the arctic-alpine landscape. The high altitude is home to unique bird species, such as snow bunting, while red deer and grouse inhabit the lower forests. Meanwhile, salmon thrive in the stunning gorges and river valleys permeating the rugged landscape. Hiking and winter sports are the primary draws here and there are options for all skill levels. The trail at Ryvoan Pass is a mere two-mile jaunt around the green-hued Ryvoan Loch. Tackling the steep hillside to Loch Brandy or Morrone will reward with spectacular views.

Our Cairngorms Hotel Pick: Craigmonie Hotel Inverness by Compass Hospitality

Base yourself at the Craigmonie Hotel in Inverness and enjoy some creature comforts. You can also make the easy day trip down to Cairngorms National Park.

4. Outer Hebrides

Outer Hebrides

Outer Hebrides; Chris Combe/Flickr

Located off the mainland’s northwestern coast, the Outer Hebrides span more than 100 islands in the Atlantic Ocean. With only 15 inhabited islands and a total population of 27,000, this archipelago includes some of Scotland’s most remote corners. This geographic separation is made apparent by the many historic croft-style homes dotting the landscape as well as a majority Gaelic-speaking population. Head to The Blackhouse, Arnol on Lewis to witness the region’s humble origins. Visitors will be surprised to know that the traditional blackhouse served as a barn and home for its inhabitants until the 1960s. The island’s ancient history is on display, too — notably at the Callanish Standing Stones. Located on Lewis, these three 5,000-year-old stone circles are far less touristy than England’s Stonehenge and are scenically situated beside a loch. You’ll be hard-pressed to fit in all of the Outer Herbrides’ historic attractions, but the 15th-century Kisimul Castle, located off the Isle of Barra on a rocky islet, is another must-see. The archipelago is home to some of the U.K.’s finest white-sand beaches: Luskentyre and Scarista on Harris, Valtos on Lewis, and Hosta on Isle of North Uist to name but a few. To get to the Outer Hebrides, the best option is to arrive in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis via a regional flight from Inverness or Edinburgh, or hop on the three-hour ferry from Ullapool.

5. Glencoe

Glencoe’s lush valley and high peaks embody some of the most breathtaking scenery in Scotland. Beginning at Lochan na Fola, the River Coe flows through the valley until it reaches Loch Leven, with numerous gushing waterfalls along the way. The valley is also bisected by road A82, which grants easy access to scenic overlooks and hiking trailheads, such as Hidden Valley or the summit at Bidean nam Bian. Given the extreme topography, the area is popular with rock-climbers and mountaineers, but there are still plenty of options for more leisurely strolls. For instance, the Glencoe Lochan trail traces the shores of this small lake while granting views of the rising peaks in the distance. Beyond the superb scenery, Glencoe’s dark history captivates visitors as well. In the late 17th century, the MacDonald clan was massacred after failing to swear allegiance to William III. A monument bearing a stone cross stands in memory of the victims just outside of Glencoe Village – the only inhabited area in this otherwise protected valley.

Our Glencoe Hotel Pick: Glencoe House

Located just north of the village of Glencoe, the elegant Glencoe House is well-situated for admiring the valley’s natural beauty. Plus, the Glencoe Lochan Trail begins just around the corner from the hotel.

6. Glasgow

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow; Michael D. Beckwith/Unsplash

Scotland’s largest city has long been overlooked by travelers in favor of Edinburgh. Although Glasgow may not be as polished and quaint as its neighbor, the city has an undeniable edge in terms of nightlife, plus it has a wealth of museums, galleries, and independent shops. Glasgow’s nightlife extends far beyond its pub scene, though some of its traditional pubs, like The Pot Still, warrant a stop for a pint. Live music venues abound in Glasgow, especially in and around Merchant City. The most notable, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, hosts weekly performances and has launched the careers of many U.K. rock bands. It isn’t uncommon for groups like Bloc Party and Radiohead to return for the occasional show. Other hot spots include the airy Old Fruitmarket, Barrowland Ballroom, and Òran Mór, whose subterranean space has hosted great artists like Amy Winehouse and The Proclaimers. Merchant City is also Scotland’s most vibrant LGBTQ neighborhood. Local favorites include Delmonicas (for its rowdy karaoke), Riding Room (for its cabaret shows), and Merchant Pride (for a casual pint).

By daylight, Glasgow packs plenty of cultural attractions. Museums buffs can check out the diverse collection at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum or ogle the lewd works at the Virginia Gallery, which exclusively exhibits erotic art. A stop by the Glasgow Botanic Gardens and the Barras weekend market is a must, too. Aside from its urban flare, Glasgow makes an ideal base for exploring the Scottish countryside by train and foot. Escape Glasgow’s urban core on the Clyde Walkway, which extends from the city to the Falls of Clyde, roughly 40 miles away.

Our Glasgow Hotel Pick: Kimpton Blythswood Square Hotel

The boutique Kimpton Blythswood Square Hotel is located within short walking distance of the city center, but is spared the noise of Glasgow’s bustling nightlife on a quiet square.

7. Loch Lomond

Though Loch Ness has more name recognition, the U.K.’s largest freshwater loch has the edge in terms of natural beauty. Loch Lomond is protected within the greater Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, which encompasses mountains, coastline, and numerous lochs in its 720-square-mile territory. Sections of the park, such as the town of Balloch, lie well within the reach of Glasgow residents, at just 20 miles away. Therefore, it’s advisable to stick to Lomond’s eastern shores to enjoy the shimmering, blue waters in solitude. Come summer, the lochs can be explored via canoe, kayak, or paddleboard. For a more leisurely outing, hop on the mailboat, which delivers mail to several of Loch Lomond’s 37 islands and allows for a short stopover on Inchmurrin Island. Another easily accessible island, Inchcailloch, is connected by ferry and includes nature trails and campsites. The prime hiking season runs from summer through fall. Though the peaks aren’t as high as the Cairngorms, The Cobbler and Ben Lomond deliver picturesque views from their summits. The well-maintained West Highland Way runs 96 miles through the park, up and along Loch Lomond’s eastern shores to Fort William.

Our Loch Lomond Hotel Pick: Inn on Loch Lomond

The reasonably priced Inn on Loch Lomond provides a favorable location for exploring throughout Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park.

8. St. Andrews

St. Andrews Cathedral

St. Andrews Cathedral; Nick Amoscato/Flickr

Known for its challenging and extensive golf courses, St. Andrews packs a punch for such a small town. Any golfer should make a point of teeing off at one of St. Andrews’ seven golf courses. The aptly named Old Course is the oldest in the world, dating back to 1552. The founding golf club – The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews – is responsible for shaping modern golf today, including the decision to design 18-hole courses. Whether or not you intend to tee off at one of St. Andrews’ seven golf courses, the scenic spots are a sight to behold, even if just from the public West Sands Beach. The town’s cultural prowess also owes credit to Scotland’s patron saint, Saint Andrew, as well as the University of St. Andrews, the U.K.’s third-oldest university after Oxford and Cambridge, respectively. The ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral, built in the 12th century, still stand in crumbling splendor.

Our St. Andrews Hotel Pick: Ardgowan Hotel

Sandwiched between the University of St. Andrews and the golf courses, the Ardgowan Hotel has a location that can’t be beat in a converted row house.

9. Dundee

Located north of Edinburgh, on the shores of the Firth of Tay, Dundee is an easy day trip from the Scottish capital, but it possesses enough historic and under-the-radar attractions to merit a longer stay. It can be reached via a two-hour train journey. Dundee’s charming waterfront features a mix of antiquity and modernity, from the RRS Discovery to the V&A design museum. The former carried Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his crew on their polar expedition, while the latter showcases modern Scottish design in its bold, geometric structure, inspired by Scotland’s sea cliffs. Another floating attraction — the HMS Unicorn — reigns as oldest British ship still afloat. Hop onboard to inspect the ship’s well-preserved quarters and 46 guns, which owe their pristine state to the fact that they were never actually used by the Navy. Heading into the city center, Dundee’s museum tour continues with Verdant Works, which highlights the city’s past prominence as a rope manufacturing center, and the McManus Galleries, which showcases Dundee’s history from the Iron Age to present day. Dundee isn’t all intellectual stimulation, though – the city has a solid roster of traditional pubs and trendy bars, too. Try Clarks on Lindsay Street for live music or BrewDog for Scottish craft beers.

Our Dundee Hotel Pick: Apex City Quay Hotel & Spa

The Apex City Quay Hotel & Spa is ideally situated for exploring Dundee’s city center, plus it grants views of the docks and harbor.

10. Isle of Islay

Isle of Islay’s more remote location and less mountainous terrain have kept tourism numbers lower than neighboring islands, such as Skye or Mull. However, the southernmost isle of the Inner Hebrides boasts an impressive selection of distilleries, wildlife-spotting opportunities, and a more authentic atmosphere. Whether or not you’re a whiskey connoisseur, touring one of Islay’s eight distilleries provides insight into the island’s culture. On the south coast, Lagavulin and Laphroaig distilleries date back to the 19th century. The elder of the two, Laphroaig, offers tastings and a half-day “water to whiskey experience,” which entails visiting the distillery’s water source and peat bogs before sampling their list of single malts. Not to be overshadowed, Lagavulin features a range of tastings and demonstrations in its bayside distillery. Beyond whiskey, Islay’s relatively flat landscape is ideal for cycling and strolling, especially along the coastal roads and trails. For some of the island’s most dramatic coastal views, head to the Oa peninsula and hike out to the American Monument – a stone structure that’s perched on a 400-foot sea cliff  and commemorates the sinking of the Tuscania and the Otranto in 1918.

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