So much has been written about Scotland’s obvious charms—her sublime scenery, romantic history and chatty, humorous people who love to tell a story. All of these are real, and then some. Scotland is a land that needs to be experienced, felt, and lived in, not merely admired from the sidelines. Explore the best of the world-famous tourist attractions and hidden gems with this list of the best things to do in Scotland.
1. Scale the 822-foot-high peak of Arthur’s Seat
This hike up this hill, which was formed by a volcanic eruption 350 million years ago, reveals a breathtaking view of Edinburgh.Today, ascending it is a rite of passage: It’s an Edinburgh tradition to climb Arthur’s Seat on the first day of May and wash your face in the morning dew.Some say it looks like a reclining lion, hence its nickname: The Lion.
2. Taste the heritage, history, and innovation of Scotch whisky in Speyside
Speyside has a high number of distilleries—51 and counting, more than half of Scotland’s distilleries are here—due largely to the abundance of water, from its rivers and secluded glens, and the fertile farmlands, which are perfect for growing barley. With good pathways and cycleways running throughout the region and many of the distilleries located close to each other, it’s easy to travel Speyside without a car, which is just as well, considering all the whisky on offer.
3. Drive all or part of the North Coast 500
This route travels through charming villages and untouched, wild Highland scenery. There are dazzling sandy beaches where you can have the sea to yourself, mountains ripe for adventure, unique ecosystems and wildlife sanctuaries, and lasting reminders of lives once lived, from Pictish carvings to cleared villages.
4. Camp out under the stars in Galloway Forest Park
This thick and lush forest is known for having some of the darkest skies in Europe, leading it to be designated a Dark Sky Park in 2009, while its more recent Biosphere status recognizes its significance as a place for people and nature to come together in harmony. Covering about 300 square miles, very few people live in the park, meaning its skies really are as black as can be, and studded with bright stars and clear constellations (as long as there’s no cloud cover).
5. Take in some of Scotland’s most iconic castles
Castles are almost as synonymous with Scotland as its glens and lochs. They range from sparkling, restored citadels straight out of a fairy tale to atmospheric and craggy ruined fortresses. Most visits will take in at least one castle, where you can hear dramatic tales of clan battles, illicit liaisons, and ruthless royals in the very places where history was made.
6. Glimpse into life from 5,000 years ago at Neolithic sites like the Calanais Standing Stones or Skara Brae
Calanais is a collection of 53 grey vertical stones—13 arranged as a stone circle, with a monolith near the middle, and the rest leading out from the circle, creating the shape of a cross—that has intrigued visitors for centuries. Skara Brae is a village that was home to a thriving community overlooking the lovely Bay of Skaill long before the pyramids were built, but lay hidden for very long. Thankfully, a storm in 1850 uncovered it, revealing the most intact Neolithic settlement in Western Europe.
7. Spot wildlife in the Cairngorms National Park
The park is an area of supreme biodiversity, home to 25 percent of the UK’s most threatened wildlife species, and you may spot red squirrels, rutting deer, and more. As the UK’s largest national park, it’s also home to huge chunks of Caledonian forests, streams and lochs gushing with crystal-clear water, Scotland’s coldest plateau, five of Scotland’s six highest mountains, and more. With three ski resorts to choose from—Cairngorm Mountain, the Lecht 2090, and Glenshee—it’s also a great winter sports destination, alongside myriad other adventure activities.
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8. Catch a session at one of the legendary live music venues in Glasgow
For a long time, Glasgow without music was impossible to imagine. During lockdown, though, the city’s bars and clubs were quiet and it didn’t suit the place. Now things are creeping back to normal and no matter what night of the week you arrive in the city, you can be assured of an exceptional choice of music taking place in pubs and clubs across Glasgow (much of which is free). Here, you will experience Scotland at its most boisterous and welcoming. Your best bets include King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, Mono, Barrowland Ballroom, and more.
9. Eat Scottish food at its freshest and most creative in one of Skye’s award-winning restaurants
At one point a few years ago, Skye had three Michelin-starred restaurants—not bad for an area of this size—and though at present only Loch Bay in the village of Stein can lay that claim, there’s always a good chance restaurants will reclaim their stars. As to be expected for an island, a lot of Skye’s cuisine relies on their local bounty of seafood.
10. Tee off at St. Andrews’ Old Course
Nothing short of a mecca for golf fans, the highlight of any visit to St. Andrews is teeing off and playing a round on the famous course yourself.Here, people have been playing that most Scottish of sports since the 15th century. For golfers there is nothing quite like playing the same course where great champions have swiped and hammered balls home for over 600 years.
11. Bag Ben Nevis, the tallest of Scotland’s Munros
Though it’s not quite as high as the Alpine mountains, Ben Nevis’s high latitude of almost 4,500 feet means its summit, frequently shrouded in mist, is also often capped in snow thanks to the Arctic-like conditions. Don’t be fooled by temperatures on ground level; if you plan to scale Ben Nevis, pack warm clothes, whatever the weather. Be sure to bring lots of water, food for the expedition, good walking boots, a compass, and a map.