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Scotland. Land of castles, beautiful landscapes, romantic islands, mythic monsters and friendly people. Also of bagpipes, men in tartan kilts and even deep-fried Mars bars (yes, it’s a thing). Scotland is an amazing country that will take your breath away and fill your heart and mind with memories to last for a lifetime.
It was also my home for a year as a postgraduate student and thus will always be very dear to me. I had an unforgettable time in Glasgow and so I can’t wait to tell you all about my favourite Scottish city (but in another post).
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. In fact, one them is the Jacobite, i.e. the train made famous by the Harry Potter movies as the “Hogwarts Express”.
There are also ferries that take you to the numerous (and gorgeous) islands of Scotland, as well as hiking paths with amazing views. The country has breathtaking natural beauty but it is also steeped in history. Whether for its history, or vibrant cities or wild, romantic scenery, you’ll find plenty of reasons to fall in love with Scotland.
So here are my top 11 things to see and do in Scotland, starting with the three best cities to visit:
1. Edinburgh & Edinburgh Castle
Scotland’s capital 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 upscale boutiques for shopping lovers.
The 13th century castle has a long and often dark and violent history. From the tragic life of Mary, 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 a 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 an 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 capital of Scotland, but Glasgow is its biggest city. Even though it in the past it was often dismissed as a gritty, post-industrial city, nowadays it has evolved into a 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 are the Glasgow Cathedral and the Necropolis, which offers some great views to the city, as well as the hidden gem of the St Mungo Museum of Religion.
Moreover, Glasgow has some of the best shopping in the UK, second only to London. I probably spent more time browsing the shops of Buchanan Street than actually studying (somehow though I managed to get my degree!). So if you’re into shopping, plan at least an extra day 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
One of the largest and most important castles in Scotland. Because of its strategic location, near 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 of a volcanic rock, it offers amazing views towards the whole valley 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. It features indeed a bit of every Scottish landscape: rolling moors, dramatic mountains, long, sandy beaches, charming little villages, fishing harbors, even a castle on a hill.
The island is also a foodie’s paradise, as it has some amazing local produce to offer, from delicious creamy cheeses to traditional oatcakes, chocolate, ice cream and even fresh fish and chips right by the harbor.
Buses connect most places around the island, so you can relax and enjoy your day trip to this most Scottish of all Scotland’s islands. Brodick, the main town, is also very walkable, as there’s very little traffic. Don’t miss Brodick Castle and nearby Country Park, with a stop at the Island Cheese Company on the way, to stock up on local cheese.
5. Any Scottish island for that matter
Even though Scotland is famous for its Highlands (which are indeed beautiful), its islands will offer you some truly memorable experiences. I’ve already mentioned the isle of Arran in the Inner Hebrides, which is my favourite, but there’re plenty more.
Perhaps the most famous is the isle of Skye, another island in the Inner Hebrides, with its iconic landscapes and a hiker’s paradise. But also Islay, renowned for its unique whiskeys. There’s Jura, of the more remote kind, perfect if you want to escape from it all. After all, that’s the place George Orwell chose to stay and write his masterpiece, 1984. Iona, for its strong spiritual past and the Orkneys, for their amazing prehistoric archeological sites. Wherever you choose to go, you won’t regret it.
6. The “Mackintosh At The Willow” Tea Rooms
Afternoon tea is a big British tradition and in Glasgow you can get to experience it at a truly unique place, the tea rooms of Mackintosh At The Willow. You see, Glasgow was also the birthplace of one of the most influential Art Nouveau architects and interior designers, Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
The famous Willow Tea Rooms first opened in 1903 and are the only surviving Tea Rooms designed by Mackintosh. Following an extensive, 4-year long restoration, they reopened in 2018 and now host a restaurant at 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 truly one-of-a-kind, foodie experience to have in Scotland!
7. The West Highland Route and The Jacobite
One of the things I really enjoyed while living in Scotland was the trains. Whenever I was bored or tired from studying, all I had to do was walk for about 15 minutes to the Glasgow train station and go on a solo day trip to somewhere interesting. Like Stirling, or one of the islands. Glasgow is a great place to have as base for your travels around Scotland.
In addition, Scotland also 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. Loch Ness and Loch Lomond
Scotland boasts some 30,000 lakes or lochs in Gaelic. They are a signature feature of Scottish landscapes and a nature lover’s dream.
Loch Ness if 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.
However, if you look a bit further than the big names, you will find lesser known lakes of truly remarkable beauty, like Loch Awe. Perhaps the most aptly named one, it is also the longest freshwater loch in Scotland.
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 Made 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. Or, 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 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 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 up from the earth and the sight will take your breath way.
Glencoe’s breathtaking landscape is one of the country’s highlights. It is the most famous, as well as the most historic, glen (meaning valley in Gaelic) of Scotland.
This narrow and deep valley was formed by glaciers millennia ago. 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. It was in 1692, a little after the failed Jacobite uprising against the English king, that the infamous Glencoe Massacre took place. At the time, King William III ordered that all Scottish clan leaders pledged allegiance to the crown. Unfortunately for them, the leader of the MacDonald clan of Glencoe missed the final date by six days, because he accidentally went to the wrong location at first.
When an English regiment arrived at Glencoe and asked for hospitality, the locals didn’t think they were in any danger. Shockingly though, the English soldiers turned on their hosts during the night and killed a great number of men, women and children. You can learn more at the Glencoe Visitor Centre.
To sum things up…
Scotland is a country of great natural beauty and rich history that will take your breath away and make you want to return, again and again. From romantic castles and misty lochs to vibrant cities and beautiful architecture, there is something for everyone!