The Best Places to Visit in Scotland
There Are More Places to Visit in Scotland Than Edinburgh
It can be tempting, when planning your visit to Scotland, to only plan on visiting Edinburgh. When we were planning our first trip to Scotland, that is exactly what we did—we visited just Edinburgh and missed out on everything else the country has to offer. As we planned our second trip to Scotland, we knew we wanted to return to our favorite haunts in the old city, but that we also wanted to find new cities to visit. Coming to a country like Scotland from a country like America, we didn’t realize that everything was so close together. You can take the train for four hours to get to London—that’s how small the country ultimately is.
Don’t read “small” and think “boring,” here. Scotland’s size makes it possible to visit many different places, even if you only have a few days in the country. If you’re an adventurer at heart, you’ll have no trouble breaking out of the mold and seeing what else the country has to offer. Here are just a few of the places that everyone should visit when the visit Scotland.
Visiting Edinburgh Scotland
It would be a travesty to visit Scotland and not fit this city in. If you’re visiting the country for the first time, it should definitely be on your list. Not only is it likely where your flight is going to land, it’s also packed to the brim with exciting activities. Our first encounter with the Scots was on the flight from London to Edinburgh.
We were exhausted, barely lucid, and starving. One of the other flights that was supposed to be combined with ours was delayed, making us four only maybe eight passengers on the entire plane. The attendants quickly asked us if we wanted to spread out, and when we woke up after dozing, found blankets draped over us and cookies on the seats beside us. After the grueling trans-Atlantic flight, it was a pleasant welcome.
We touched down, got off the plane, wound our way through the airport, and caught a taxi. We spent a full week in the city, so we had a lot of time to explore. We visited most of the historical sites along the Royal Mile, spent a day exploring the castle, and did some shopping. Edinburgh is an extremely friendly city. It’s built to be walked, so bring a good pair of shoes, as it’s usually the easiest way to get around and ensures that you do miss anything on the side of the road.
Most people, when they visit the city, are going to eat at Deacon Brody’s. That’s a great place. We tried a variety of different dishes, including shepherd’s pie and blood pudding (which was interesting—not good, not bad, just strange). There were two places to eat, however, that we really loved.
The first was Frankenstein’s Pub. It’s a club by night, in an old church, on George the IV, which branches off of the Royal Mile. If you’re staying in Quarter Mile, like we were, you probably walk up George the IV in order to get to the Royal Mile. They’ve got lots of classic British food, and it’s in a fascinating setting, with props from Frankenstein movies covering the walls and the floor space. More places to eat in Edinburgh.
The other great place we ate was a small shawarma place, also on George the IV. It was very close to Greyfriar’s Bobby. If you can find the statue of the dog, you can find this place. They were extremely friendly and the food was great, especially after a long day of wandering around in the rain. On this same stretch, you’ll find the coffee house where J.K. Rowling wrote the first drafts of Harry Potter—so if you’re a Harry Potter fan, make sure to walk the length of George the IV before you leave the city.
Visiting Scotland without visiting its most famous Loch just wouldn’t make sense. Even if you’re not a believer in the Loch Ness monster, you can still enjoy the beautiful views. The Loch is a deep, cold lake, large enough and deep enough to really hide something under its cool, black water. When standing on the banks, it can be easy to believe that something is lurking in the water, even on a warm, sunny day, when it’s obvious nothing is in the lake.
Whether you’re a true believe or not, you should definitely visit the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition. It’s one of the hokier attractions in the country, but Scotland has a way of making even dorky things feel fun and mysterious. Plus, once you’ve been to Edinburgh and walked the haunted streets, you might be willing to believe in just about anything.
When we were done just exploring the lakeside, we took a walk over to Urquhart Castle. These are beautiful ruins, well-preserved, considering the cold and wet that Scotland experiences. Mossy, dark stones, some still in their original sites, and others strewn when the walls and ceilings caved in, there are grounds and interior spaces to explore. We spent a good two hours just in the ruins and the surrounding areas. For those with active imaginations, it’s an idea place to play.
Off the coast of Scotland, are the Shetland Islands. We added these islands to our list for the same reason we picked Scotland in the first place—heritage. A good portion of our family is Scottish. The bit that isn’t, is Nordic. These islands are a beautiful blend of both of those cultures. When most people think of a quaint village in the Scottish country side, this is what they picture—adorable cottages, poised next to stark cliffs. The houses themselves look as if they are ripped right out of a story book.
Shetland isn’t for everyone. Even during the summer, it can be cold and blustery. It’s the farthest north we traveled, and we loved the longer days, but definitely also experienced the cold and wet that Britain is famous for. If you’re not up for the challenge, then you might not be willing to go on the adventure that enjoying this island takes. If you are, however, you’ll find plenty of archeological sites and beautiful beaches to visit—though you might not want to go swimming. Look for the Viking heritage mixed in with the Scottish!
You might, when you visit the archeological sites, like we did, get a bit of a “Hobbiton” vibe from them. While they might not have been then, they are now covered in grass, and while you can still clearly see the shape of the houses, they definitely feel like they have been built under the hill. We visited in the summer, but in this area, there are a number of winter festivals that have their roots in Viking traditions, that we definitely would have wanted to see had we visited at another time during the year.
It’s just an all-around beautiful place to be. When we made our Scotland itinerary, that was part of the criteria for what would and what would not make the list (all those who travel know that you only have a limited amount of time and while you don’t want to leave anything off the list, you also don’t want to pack so many activities onto your schedule that you can’t enjoy all of them) was their beauty and our interest level in that kind of beauty. The Shetland Islands definitely pulled through on that account. While some will say that Glencoe is the most beautiful sight in the country, these islands are a close second.
It may just look like a valley when you first come upon it. That’s what it looked like to us. We were recommended the valley as a side trip after we had visited Fort Williams. Once we had hiked in, however, we realized that we were dealing with something entirely different. The best word to describe this valley is “haunting.” The mountains rise up on either side of the valley, their dark rock turning blue against the gray sky. Grass climbs the mountains and fills the valley with a rich green. The hiking trails barely manage to cut through the foliage—it’s that dense.
Glencoe was the site of many bloody battles between clans. One of the most famous scuffles was between the Campbells and the MacDonalds, where Campbell soldiers completely massacred the MacDonalds’ men. The rich history in this area, like across most of the country, makes this land almost sacred, and many people believe that the spirits of the soldiers killed here, over the years, still remain here. It was so eerie and haunting that the train tracks that lead through this area are used in the Harry Potter franchise.
Even if you don’t believe the ghost stories, you’re still guaranteed to find beauty in the place. When you stop in the meadow, you’ll see rounded, weather-beaten mountains on one side, and a razor of sharp hills on the other. It’s truly one of the most beautiful places not just in the country, but in the world.
Orkney is another island that Scotland lays claim to, and it is closer to the coast than Shetland is. We actually stopped by on our way back from Shetland, simply because we heard that there were Neolithic monuments on this island and we definitely wanted to see those monuments.
Even when the builders of these monuments if fully known and there is some information about their society, they still feel haunting and mysterious when you visit them. We didn’t know, until after we arrived, that they also have a collection of stone circles and tombs that were constructed around the same time as the monuments.
Once we were done exploring the historical sites, we took a walk along the beach. We’re not sure, but it’s possible that we saw a pod of dolphins out in the water. When we asked a local, they said that dolphin do frequent this area during the summer months, and that if we went back and waited, we might be able to see puffins and Artic seabirds, too.
He suggested that if we really wanted to up our chances of see dolphins, we should sail, but none of knew how to sail and we didn’t want to charter a boat when we really wouldn’t have time to enjoy it. On our walk back to head back to the “mainland,” we actually saw a couple of seals! Orkney is a great place to see some historical monuments and to catch glimpses of wildlife, especially if you’re patient.
Concluding Remarks On Scotland Travel
When it comes to choosing the best places to visit in Scotland, you don’t want to restrict yourself just to the Scottish Highlands trails, lowlands, or cities. Some of the best things to see are far outside of the cities and you have to trek a ways in order to see them. They are, however worth it. Just like in the big cities, however, most things are best seen by foot. There’s a reason that so many of the most famous writers in the world came from Scotland and that they spent so much of their time just walking around their country. It’s very walkable, and you only really get the full impact of its beauty when you are on foot.
One of the biggest benefits of Scotland is the flexibility to wing your visit, if you don’t want to plan the entire thing. Despite the trek, most things are close enough that if you want to go see them, it takes less than a day to get there, enjoy yourself, and then get back.
© 2015 Sam Shepards