Rolling hills. Grand castles. Ambient pubs, filled with live music and dancing. There’s no denying, Scotland is one of the most glorious places you can visit. There’s a lot to love about this wee country, from sipping whisky in local distilleries to hiking the Scottish Highlands.
After all, how could you not adore a country whose national animal is the unicorn? Answer: you couldn’t. This magical place has a whole catalogue of must-see sights. The question is, can you fit them all in? To help you out, here’s our inside tips on the very best places to visit in Scotland.
Scotland’s capital is sure to be on any traveller’s bucket list; from historic castles and lively bar scenes to arresting photo-worthy vistas, it’s not one to miss (and it’s home to some of the best pubs in the UK). As you walk along the cobblestone streets of Edinburgh, you’ll feel transported to a magical world of medieval relics, Georgian architecture and hidden nooks.
Hit up Edinburgh Castle for a taste of royal life. A former royal palace, military garrison, fortress and prison, it towers above the city skyline and is steeped in rich history – you’ll learn a lot on your visit, plus be treated to spectacular views from the top. Also, check out the Palace of Holyroodhouse, National Museum of Scotland and the mountain peak of Arthur’s Seat just outside the city.
Stroll along the Royal Mile in the old town and Princess Street in the new town, where you can check out tourist’s shops and local pubs. In the evenings, jump on a ghost tour to hear tales of the city’s spookiest sights.
2. Ben Nevis
Pay a visit to Britain’s highest mountain in the north-west Scottish Highlands, hiking to the mist-covered peaks of the ‘mountain with its head in the clouds’ – that’s the Gaelic translation of Ben Nevis.
Ben Nevis was once an active volcano that erupted and caved in on itself millions of years ago, creating a unique landscape with ridges and light-coloured granite at the summit.
Whether you’re simply stopping for a photo-op and the chance to marvel at the impressive mountain, or to take on one of the walking trails like the Mountain Track, we guarantee this is one of the best places to visit in Scotland.
3. Isle of Skye
With unparalleled natural beauty and charming villages where you can rest your weary head at night, the Isle of Skye is an island worth a spot on any bucket list.
Skye is known for its pristine and storied sights like the cascading waterfalls of the Fairy Pools, with vibrant blue and green waters, or the soaring mountain peaks of Sgùrr Alasdair. And, of course, your visit to Skye won’t be complete without a trip to the iconic Eilean Donan castle, with historic significance in the Jacobite Rising and Hollywood status thanks to appearances in James Bond, Highlander, Made of Honour and more.
If you’re keen to experience some of that classic Scottish charm, enjoy an evening in the local pubs of colourful Portree harbour, the Isle of Skye Brewing Company or Talisker Distillery.
4. Cairngorms National Park
The largest national park in the UK, Cairngorms offers up all the usual suspects – and a few extra surprises. The park is filled with the classic sights you’d expect from the Scottish Highlands: verdant green forests, mountains, waterfalls, rivers and an abundance of wildlife. It’s staggeringly beautiful. But the park also hosts distilleries, villages and boutique hotels for you to enjoy.
Each season offers up different draw-cards – hiking in the summer months, skiing in the winter – but one of the best times to visit the Cairngorms is definitely in autumn, when the green hills and valleys of the moorlands transform with a sea of purple heather.
Another excellent place to visit in the Scottish Highlands (are you sensing a theme?) is Inverness. This tranquil city is known for its historic castles, churches and surrounding natural sights such as the River Ness and Ness Islands.
For a slice of historic life in this part of the world, check out the red-sandstone Inverness Castle. It has a fascinating medieval history and offers insight to the Jacobite Rising and life of the famous Mary Queen of Scots.
If you want to see something truly unique, head a little ways out of town to Munlochy Clootie Well. A Clootie Well is a place of pilgrimage in Celtic areas, with wells or springs surrounded by trees, which are covered in cloth or rags as part of a healing ritual.
Speaking of healing rituals, did you know there’s a gin spa you can visit in Scotland? Their selection of luxury gins, botanical tonics and relaxing spa treatments are known to heal all manner of sins!
6. Fort William
When it comes to European destinations, Fort William has got to be one of the most photogenic. Wispy mountain tops and the luscious Loch Eil wink back as you drive in. It’s a super memorable sight, not least cause for Fort William’s unwritten title as the Outdoor Capital of the UK.
Of course, the mountain range would be Ben Nevis, offering the UK’s highest peak. And with mountains, hills and lakes on offer for day trippers, there are endless activities to chase! Think exhilarating water sports, mountain climbing, fishing, or cross-country cycling.
7. Stirling Castle
Once the home of Mary Queen of Scots, Stirling Castle has been invaluable to Scotland for centuries. It sits atop the huge, craggy Castle Hill, which at many times helped to defend from intruders. Nowadays, the extra height simply offers an awesome view when you visit Stirling Castle. So, get your cameras a-ready!
Of course, when a castle is laid to siege, as Stirling Castle was 8 different times in history, the cliffside location because less of an advantage. Take a guided tour of the castle grounds and you’ll hear all about these dramatic moments in history, within a stone’s throw of the rushing River Forth.
8. Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park
If you love your lochs, then the Trossachs National Park is definitely for you. This huge area of woodland, glens and mountains is also filled with a whopping 22 lochs, so you never have to travel far for your early morning dip! The largest of the bunch and indeed the whole UK, is Loch Lomond, stretching over 70 kilometres north towards the Scottish Highlands. It’s one of the most popular areas in Scotland, attracting over 4 million visitors every year, with the 900+ meter peaks of Ben Lomond also nearby.
On Contiki’s Highlands Hiking trip, you’ll take a guided hike through this region, with plenty of stops to watch red deer interact in the woodland. Look out for bushy-tailed red squirrels, golden eagles and cute black grouse if you make the trip – which happily enough, is followed by a traditional Scottish meal with music at a Glasgow pub. Let’s be real, the best part of a hike is the reward of a warming pub meal and pint at the end, right?
9. Luskentyre Beach
Unbelievably white sand. The turquoise sea. A rich, wooded landscape. That’s the mental picture travellers leave with after visiting Luskentyre Beach, on the west coast of South Harris.
The beauty on this sandy beach is outstanding, with the hotels and camping grounds in the area attracting every type of person; from high-profile celebs swapping the paparazzi for a bit of solitude, to families and groups of friends.
Named as one of the top-25 beaches on the planet, it’s far to say Luskentyre Beach is a must-visit attraction when you’re up in bonnie wee Scotland. Look out for wild ponies (including two famous ones) and head to the waterside to spot otters, seals, and dolphins!
10. West Coast islands
It might get a little chilly on the West Coast, but the views are more than worth it. This archipelago of 6 islands off the North-West coast of Scotland is connected with ferries and causeways, as if they were stepping stones. Why not visit them all in one go?
The Isle of Barra has one of the most unique airports in the world, with planes landing on their beachside runway, while Isle of Lewis is probably the most popular of the West Coast islands. There’s an array of unusual landmarks and places to stay, including the Gearannann Blackhouses, a historically-preserved village from the 1800’s.
Rent out one of the traditional blackhouses for the full Victorian experience! These thatched cottages also run workshops, including one where you learn how to weave Harris Tweed. This experience is soon to be offered by Contiki on an active trip, so if you’re interested, check to see their full Scotland catalogue.
11. St. Andrews
A seaside town with classic Scottish charm, St Andrews is one of the top places to visit when you travel through this beautiful country. Another spot known for historic sights, some of the best things to do include a trip to the ruins of St Andrews Cathedral and St Rule’s Tower, Craigtoun Country Park and the ruins of 13th century St Andrews Castle.
But in stark contrast to the beautiful historic sights, St Andrews is also known for its modern experiences. There’s the St Andrews Brewing Co with locally brewed craft beers, curated St Andrews Botanic Gardens, theatre shows at The Byre and more. The best part about this town is that at the end of a day of sightseeing, you can stroll along the picturesque West Sands Beach to wind down.
With live music on every corner, art galleries, endless pubs and gothic sights to explore, the city of Glasgow is one of the best places to visit in Scotland. Culture vultures will have their fill with incredible destinations like the Gallery of Modern Art, buzzing shopping street of Buchanan Street, historic venues like the medieval Glasgow Cathedral, the beautiful Mitchell Library and famous George Square.
Embrace the exciting nightlife of Glasgow with a trip to Ashton Lane to scope out some local bars on the picturesque street, sip on local whiskey at The Clydeside Distillery or head to a gig at one of the city’s iconic venues like Stereo or The Arches.
13. Glenfinnan Viaduct
Calling all Harry Potter fans! When visiting Scotland you have the chance to hop on board the Hogwarts Express (or at least view its most famous crossing).
The Hogwarts Express is actually a famous steam-train known as the Jacobite, which moves along a scenic track passing through the countryside. The train passes over the picturesque Glenfinnan Viaduct – an iconic location used in the Harry Potter movies. This popular spot in the West Highlands is a fun pit-stop when exploring the region. Find out more about this magical place here.
14. Loch Ness
How do you fancy your chances of spotting the world-famous Loch Ness Monster? Jump aboard a cruise through the Loch Ness, marvel at the stark black waters and vast expanse of the loch – which spans 37km (23 miles) and is over 200 metres deep.
You can travel from the city of Inverness but many opt to spend a night or two near the iconic loch. You can stay in the waterfront village of Drumnadrochit and learn all about the mythology of Nessie.
Another port-side Scottish city is Oban, offering fresh seafood, tasty whisky, golf clubs, historic sights and charming village vibes.
Check out the beautiful harbour, shop in local boutiques and sample whisky in the Oban Distillery. History buffs should see sights like the 13th century Dunstaffnage Castle and Chapel, Dunollie Museum and McCaig’s Tower, which shows off incredible views of the town.