Are you wondering what are the best things to do in Scotland you need to include in your trip? Read on to make sure you don't miss out on these big ones, taken straight from our travel guide.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Scotland, your essential guide for visiting Scotland.
Eigg offers a golden beaches to lie on. Or climb the hills for stunning views across the sea to its neighbour, Rùm. Ferries arrive into Galmisdale Bay, in the southeast corner of the island. Head up through woods for superb sea views, or track the shore south to see crofting ruins before the Sgùrr cliffs – the remains of Upper and Lower Grulin settlements.
The largest piece of pitchstone in the UK, An Sgùrr (1289ft) is the obvious destination for a hike. Actually, the route up is not as daunting as the cliffs suggest; the path is signposted left from the main road, crossing boggy moor to approach the summit from the north via a saddle (3–4hr return). The rewards are wonderful views to Muck and Rùm.
Traditional New Year celebrations, with whisky, dancing and fireworks staving off the midwinter chill. When hardline Scottish Protestant clerics in the sixteenth century abolished Christmas for being a Catholic mass, the Scots, not wanting to miss out on a mid-winter knees-up, instead put their energy into greeting the New Year, or Hogmanay.
Though it’s a dying custom, this still takes the form of the tradition of ‘first-footing’ – visiting your neighbours and bearing gifts. All this neighbourly greeting means a fair bit of partying, and no one is expected to go to work the next day, or, indeed, the day after that. Even today, 1 January is a public holiday in the rest of the UK, but only in Scotland does the holiday extend to the next day too.
Natural splendour and terrific outdoor activities such as hiking, mountain biking and in winter even skiing, plus the last remaining Caledonian pines - the Cairngorms offer a lot of exciting things to do in Scotland. The Cairngorms National Park covers almost 1750 square miles and incorporates the Cairngorms massif, the largest mountainscape in the UK and the only sizeable plateau in the country over 2500ft.
It’s the biggest national park in Britain, and while Aviemore and the surrounding area are regarded as the main point of entry, particularly for those planning outdoor activities, it’s also possible to access the park from Perthshire as well as Deeside and Donside in Aberdeenshire.
Delight in the rolling hills and wildlife of the Cairngorms National Park, relish a dram of whisky, and learn the legends and little-known secrets behind these two quintessential Scottish wonders on this guided Cairngorms National Park and Whisky Tour.
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Staying in the thatched blackhouse hostel in the beautifully restored former crofting village on Lewis is one of the authentic things to do in Scotland. In the parish of Carloway (Carlabhagh), with its croft houses, boulders and hillocks rising out of the peat moor, a mile-long road leads off north to the beautifully remote coastal settlement of Garenin (Gearrannan).
Here, rather than re-create a single museum-piece black house as at Arnol, a whole cluster of nine thatched crofters’ houses – the last of which was abandoned in 1974 – has been restored and put to use as accommodation for holiday-makers and a museum. As an ensemble, they give a great impression of what a Baile Tughaidh, or black house village, must have been like.
Ruined Cistercian abbey situated in the most beguiling of Border towns. The pink- and red-tinted stone ruins of Melrose Abbey soar above their riverside surroundings. Founded in 1136 by King David I, Melrose was the first Cistercian settlement in Scotland and grew rich selling wool and hides to Flanders.
The site is dominated by the Abbey Church, which has lost its west front, and whose nave is reduced to the elegant window arches and chapels of the south aisle. Amazingly, the stone pulpitum (screen), separating the choir monks from their lay brothers, is preserved. Outside, the exterior sculpture is even more impressive: crouching figures holding scrolls bearing inscriptions such as ‘He suffered because he willed it’.
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The main town on the beautiful island of Mull, and Scotland’s most picturesque fishing port. It is now the most important, and by far the most vibrant settlement on Mull. If you’ve got young kids, you’ll instantly recognize it as the place where Balamory was filmed.
The harbour – known as Main Street – is one long parade of multicoloured hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and shops, and you could happily spend an hour or so meandering around. The rest of the upper town is laid out on a classic grid plan, merits a stroll too — if only for the great views over the bay.
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Enric Miralles’ startling, contemporary design for the Scottish Parliament has transformed the old Holyrood area of Edinburgh. For all its grandeur, Holyrood Palace is in danger of being upstaged by the striking buildings that make up the new Scottish Parliament. There’s free access into the building’s entrance lobby, where you’ll find a small exhibition providing some historical, political and architectural background.
If Parliament is in session, it’s normally possible to watch proceedings in the debating chamber from the public gallery or committee meetings, though you have to get a free pass from the front desk in the lobby. To see the rest of the interior properly you’ll need to join one of the regular guided tours.
Moody, poignant and spectacular, Glen Coe of dramatic James Bond fame is within easy reach of Fort William. Arriving from the south across the desolate reaches of Rannoch Moor, you’re likely to find the start of the glen – with Buachaille Etive Mòr to the south and Beinn a’Chrùlaiste to the north – little short of forbidding.
By the time you’ve reached the heart of the glen, with the huge rock buttresses known as the Three Sisters on one side and the Aonach Eagach ridge on the other combining to close up the sky, you’ll almost certainly want to stop.
View the basalt columns of Staffa’s Fingal’s Cave from the sea, and then picnic beside the puffins on the Isle of Lunga. Five miles southwest of Ulva, Staffa is one of the most romantic and dramatic of Scotland’s many uninhabited islands.
On its south side, the perpendicular rock face features an imposing series of black basalt columns, known as the Colonnade, which have been cut by the sea into cathedral-esque caverns – most notably Fingal’s Cave.
Northwest of Staffa lies the Treshnish Isles, an archipelago of uninhabited volcanic islets, none more than a mile or two across. The most distinctive is Bac Mór, shaped like a Puritan’s hat and popularly dubbed the Dutchman’s Cap. Lunga, the largest island, is a summer nesting place for hundreds of seabirds, in particular guillemots, razorbills and puffins.
The world’s biggest festival of theatre and the arts transforms Edinburgh every August. August’s Edinburgh Festival is actually an umbrella term encompassing several different festivals taking place at around the same time in the city.
The principal events are the Edinburgh International Festival and the much larger Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but there are also Book, Jazz and Blues and Art festivals, among others, as well as the Military Tattoo on the Esplanade. As well as the official Edinburgh Festivals website, each festival produces its own programme well in advance.
Read our guide to where to stay in Edinburgh and find accommodation options in the best areas of the city.
No list of things to do in Scotland would be complete without a tasting of the famous Scotch whisky. Hebridean island with no fewer than seven whisky distilleries, and wonderfully varied birdlife that includes thousands of wintering geese. The fertile, largely treeless island of Islay (pronounced ‘eye-la’) is famous for one thing – single-malt whisky.
The smoky, peaty, pungent quality of Islay whisky is unique, recognizable even to the untutored palate, and all nine of the island’s distilleries will happily take visitors on a guided tour, ending with the customary tipple.
Find more information on Scottish whiskey history and culture in our guide to the whisky trail in Scotland.
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An exceptional archeological site on the Shetland isles taking in Bronze Age, Iron Age, Pictish, Viking and medieval remains. Of all the archaeological sites in Shetland, Jarlshof is the largest and most impressive. What makes Jarlshof so amazing is the fact that you can walk right into a house built 1600 years ago, which is still intact to above head height.
The site is big and confusing, scattered with the ruins of buildings dating from the Bronze Age to the early seventeenth century. The name – misleading, as it is not primarily a Viking site – was coined by Sir Walter Scott, who used the ruins of the Old House in his novel The Pirate.
Shetland is the place to experience traditional folk music, and the annual Folk Festival is the best time to do it. In late April/early May, the Shetland Folk Festival features four days of musical mayhem, spread across the archipelago, with everything from local groupsto international folk bands; book early as gigs sell out. The Shetland Folk Festival is one of the liveliest and most entertaining of Scotland’s round of folk festivals.
Forget the great outdoors and install yourself in one of Scotland’s cosy and convivial hostelries. As in the rest of Britain, Scottish pubs, which originated as travellers’ hostelries and coaching inns, are the main social focal points of any community. Pubs in Scotland vary hugely, from old-fashioned inns with open fires and a convivial atmosphere, to raucous theme pubs with loud music and satellite TV.
Out in the islands, pubs are few and far between, with most drinking taking place in the local hotel bar. In Edinburgh and Glasgow you’ll find traditional pubs supplemented by upbeat, trendy café-bars.
Join a pub crawl in Edinburgh for the best-ever night out in the Scottish capital. You’ll get 6 free shots, discounts on drinks, free VIP club entry, skip-the-line admission, and much more. Enjoy some tastes of Scottish whisky as well.
The finest example of the unique style of Glasgow architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Rising above Sauchiehall Street to the north is one of the city centre’s steepest hills, with Dalhousie and Scott streets veering up to Renfrew Street, where you’ll find Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art at No. 167 – one of the most prestigious art schools in the UK.
Tragically, in May 2014, a fire – which started in the basement – took hold in the west wing, destroying studios, archival stores and, worst of all, the library. At the time of writing, the visitor centre, shop and exhibition spaces in the Reid building were all closed and tours were not running, which us likely to remain the case for time yet.
An unconventional but impressive museum at the heart of Glasgow’s cultural renaissance. The Burrell Collection is an art museum in Glasgow, Scotland, named after its founder, Sir William Burrell. It is located in the Pollok Country Park on the south side of the city, and is home to a vast collection of art and artifacts from around the world, including paintings, sculptures, ceramics, textiles, and more.
The collection covers a wide range of artistic periods and styles, and includes works by artists such as Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cézanne, and Picasso, as well as ancient Greek and Roman objects, Chinese ceramics, and Islamic art. The museum also has a number of outdoor sculptures on display in its gardens.
Glasgow is also famous for its greenery. Read our guide to Glasgow's parks and see why it's a city worth visiting.
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The mother of all Iron Age brochs (round towers) on an island off the coast of Shetland. Accessible by boat from Sandwick, the island of Mousa boasts the most amazingly well-preserved broch in the whole of Scotland.
Rising to more than 40ft and looking rather like a Stone Age cooling tower, Mousa Broch has a remarkable presence and features in both Egil’s Saga and the Orkneyinga Saga, contemporary chronicles of Norse exploration and settlement. To get to the broch, simply head south from the jetty along the western coastline for about half a mile.
The low entrance passage leads through two concentric walls to a central courtyard, divided into separate beehive chambers. Between the walls, a rough (very dark) staircase leads to the top parapet; a torch is provided for visitors.
Lose yourself in the capital’s medieval cobbled streets and closes and enjoy the unique city vibes of Edinburgh Old Town. Venerable, dramatic Edinburgh, the showcase capital of Scotland, is a historic, cosmopolitan and cultured city.
The Old Town, although only about a mile long and 400yd wide, represented the total extent of the twin burghs of Edinburgh and Canongate for over six hundred years, and its general appearance and character remain indubitably medieval. Containing the majority of the city’s most famous tourist sights, it makes the best starting point for your explorations.
In addition to the obvious goals of the castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse at either end of the famous Royal Mile, you’ll find scores of historic buildings along the length of the street.
Visit the vaults beneath Oldtown in Edinburgh, dating back to the early 18th century. Your guide will tell you about murders, witches and the people who inhabited this supposedly haunted location.
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Enjoying a commanding outlook over both Highlands and Lowlands from Stirling Castle, one of the grandest castles in Scotland is one of the most exciting things to do in Scotland. Stirling Castle presented would-be invaders with a formidable challenge. Its impregnability is most daunting when you approach the town from the west, from where the sheer 250ft drop down the side of the crag is most obvious.
On many levels, the main buildings are interspersed with delightful gardens and patches of lawn, while endless battlements, cannon ports, hidden staircases and other nooks and crannies make it thoroughly explorable and inspiring.
For the chance to see the castle at night, look out for special events such as the Hogmanay (new year) party and concerts in the atmospheric Great Hall by luminaries such as the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
This tailor-made trip to the Scotland's Wildest Natural Scenery is a breath of fresh air and perfect to explore the most enchanting landscapes of the Highlands. It will allow you to get to know the wildest landscapes of Scotland, its fast-paced history and its amazing traditions.
Learn about nature, history and discoveries in Scotland, and marvel at treasures including the ivory Lewis chessmen the striking modern National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
The National Museum of Scotland is essentially two distinct museums, internally connected to each other: the unorthodox modern sandstone building on the corner of George IV Bridge houses collections of Scottish heritage, while the much older Venetian-style palace offers a more global perspective.
Inside, the wealth of exhibits is enough to occupy days of your time, dip in and out at leisure or during rain showers. Parents will also find the place a useful sanctuary since there are numerous child-friendly rooms, interactive exhibits and cafés
Picking one of deserted golden sand beaches in South Harris, or further south in the Uists is one of the best things to do in Scotland both for relaxing and for enjoing the great views. The mountains of South Harris are less dramatic than in the north, but the scenery is no less attractive.
There’s a choice of routes from Tarbert to the ferry port of Leverburgh, which connects with North Uist: the east coast, known as The Bays (Na Baigh), is rugged and seemingly inhospitable, while the west coast is endowed with some of the finest stretches of golden sand in the whole of the archipelago, buffeted by the Atlantic winds.
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The legendary home of Celtic Christian spirituality, Iona is an island of pilgrimage today as in antiquity. Less than a mile off the southwest tip of Mull, Iona – just three miles long and not much more than a mile wide – has been a place of pilgrimage for several centuries, and a place of Christian worship for more than 1,400 years.
Few of Iona’s many day visitors get further than Baile Mór, the island’s village, and the abbey, but it’s perfectly possible to walk to the stunning sandy beaches and turquoise seas at the north end of the island, or up to the highest point, Dún I, a mere 328ft above sea level but with views on a clear day to Skye, Tiree and Jura.
Among the gnarled pines, survivors of the great ancient forests in the Scottish Highlands, you can encounter one of Scotland’s largest populations of the elusive red squirrel. The Caledonian Forest is a type of forest ecosystem that once covered much of Scotland. It was named after the ancient tribe of Celts known as the Caledonii, who lived in the area.
If you're interested in visiting the Caledonian Forest, you can find small fragments of it in various parts of Scotland, including the Cairngorms National Park, the Monadhliath Mountains, and the Torridon Hills. Many of these areas are protected as nature reserves or national parks, and offer opportunities for hiking, birdwatching, and other outdoor activities.
Experience the magic of Christmas in the heart of the Scottish Highlands! Lovely Christmas Markets and winter festivals await visitors during the winter months, but this tailor-made tour to Festive Feelings around Christmas in Scotland can also be turned into a summer festival hop.
Memorably dramatic ruined fortress just south of Aberdeen, surrounded by giddy sea cliffs. Stonehaven’s tourist office hands out free walking guides for the scenic amble to Dunnottar Castle, one of Scotland’s finest ruined castles. This huge ninth-century fortress is set on a three-sided sheer cliff jutting into the sea – a setting striking enough to be chosen as the backdrop for Zeffirelli’s film version of Hamlet.
Once the principal fortress of the northeast, the mainly fifteenth- and sixteenth-century ruins are worth a good root around, and there are many dramatic views out to the crashing sea.
Combine the majestic heights of Royal Deeside with the epic cliff-top site of Dunnottar Castle on this scenic driving-tour. Explore some of the area's most fascinating landmarks like the falls of Feugh and Muir Nature Reserve amongst others.
Prehistoric standing stones that occupy a serene setting on Lewis, the largest of the Western Isles. Overlooking the sheltered, islet-studded waters of Loch Roag (Loch Ròg) on the west coast, are the islands’ most dramatic prehistoric ruins, the Callanish standing stones.
These monoliths – nearly fifty slabs of gnarled and finely grained gneiss up to 15ft high – were transported here between 3000 BC and 1500 BC, but their exact function remains a mystery. No one knows for certain why the ground plan resembles a colossal Celtic cross, nor why there’s a central burial chamber.
You can visit the stones at any time, but if you need shelter or some simple sustenance, head to the nearby Callanish Visitor Centre, which has a small museum that explores the theories about the stones.
Walk along the most romantic spots on the Isle of Lewis at Callanish on a 2-hour group walking tour with a local guide.
Vertiginously sited upon an imposing volcanic plug, the Castle dominates Scotland’s capital, its ancient battlements protecting the Scottish Crown Jewels. The history of Edinburgh, and indeed of Scotland, is tightly wrapped up with this castle, which dominates the city from a lofty seat atop an extinct volcanic rock.
It requires no great imaginative feat to comprehend the strategic importance that underpinned the castle’s, and hence Edinburgh’s, pre-eminence in Scotland. From Princes Street, the north side rears high above an almost sheer rock face; the southern side is equally formidable and the western, where the rock rises in terraces, only marginally less so.
Would-be attackers, like modern tourists, were forced to approach the castle from the narrow ridge to the east on which the Royal Mile runs down to Holyrood.
Join this engaging English-language guided tour of Edinburgh Castle to discover its incredible 3,000-year history and the significant role it has played in shaping Scotland.
Take the old road around the east shores to escape the caravanning crowds, and find tiny lochans and pretty pubs like the Dores Inn. Twenty-three miles long, unfathomably deep, cold and often moody, Loch Ness is bound by rugged heather-clad mountains rising steeply from a wooded shoreline, with attractive glens opening up on either side.
Its fame, however, is based overwhelmingly on its legendary inhabitant, Nessie, the ‘Loch Ness monster’, who encourages a steady flow of hopeful visitors to the settlements dotted along the loch, in particular Drumnadrochit. Nearby, the impressive ruins of Castle Urquhart – a favourite monster-spotting location – perch atop a rock on the lochside and attract a deluge of bus parties during the summer.
Scotland is the ideal destination for your next family adventure. You will find the perfect balance between nature, adventure and fun with this 6-day tailor-made Family Adventure in Scotland - from Harry Potter to Loch Ness.
For many visitors, the Isle of Skye (An t-Eilean Sgiathanach) is the Highlands in miniature. With its shapely summits and shifting seascapes, its superb hiking routes, wildlife and crofting villages, it crams much of the region’s appeal into one manageable island. It even has classic Highlands weather.
According to one theory, Skye is named after the Old Norse for ‘cloud’ (skuy), earning itself the Gaelic moniker Eilean a’ Cheò (Island of Mist). Despite unpredictable weather, tourism has been an important part of the economy since the railway reached Kyle of Lochalsh in 1897.
People still come in droves, yet Skye is deceptively large. You’ll get the most out of it – and escape the worst crowds – if you explore the remoter parts of the island, and visit outside of the tourist season, which enters full-throttle between June and August.
Get a chance to admire Europe’s oldest mountain, stroll along sandy beaches on the Scottish West Coast, and visit the mysterious Isle of Skye on this tailor-made Highland Tour.
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The largest stretch of fresh water in Britain, Loch Lomond is the epitome of Scottish scenic splendour, thanks in large part to the ballad that fondly recalls its ‘bonnie, bonnie banks‘. The Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park covers over seven hundred square miles of scenic territory from the shores of Loch Long in Cowal to Loch Earn and Loch Tay, on the southwest fringes of Perthshire.
The centrepiece is undoubtedly Loch Lomond, and the most popular gateway is Balloch, the town at the loch’s southern tip; with Glasgow city centre just nineteen miles away, both Balloch and the southwest side of the loch around Luss are often packed with day-trippers and tour coaches. Many of these continue up the western side of the loch, though the fast A82 road isn’t ideal for tourists who wish to enjoy a leisurely drive.
Visit two traditional capitals, London and Edinburgh, and enjoy a trek through the Loch Lomond national park. This tailor-made trip to vintage England and picturesque Scotland will let you discover peaceful Scottish islands by foot, with several days of detailed walking tours included in the trip.
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Confident, poised and well groomed, if a little snooty, St Andrews is Scotland’s oldest university town and a pilgrimage centre for golfers from the world over, situated on a wide bay on the northeastern coast of Fife. Of all Scotland’s universities, St Andrews is the one most often compared to Oxford or Cambridge, both for the dominance of gown over town and for the intimate, collegiate feel of the place.
St Andrews is compact and easy to walk around. With its medieval layout intact, its three main streets, almost entirely consisting of listed buildings, run west to east past several of the original fifteenth-century university campuses towards the heavily ruined Gothic cathedral. There’s little left of the town’s castle, which sits on the promontory further north.
Enjoy a day in the medieval kingdom of Fife on this day trip from Edinburgh. Visit its fishing villages, the town of St. Andrews, and the picturesque Falkland and its formal royal palace.
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Are you looking for even more Scotland inspiration? Check out our round up of the most remote places in Scotland, as well as the most beautiful places in Scotland as voted by our readers.
If you prefer to plan and book your trip to Scotland without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.
Ready for a trip to Scotland? Check out the snapshot The Rough Guide to Scotland or The Rough Guide to the Scottish Highlands & Islands. If you travel further in Scotland read more about the best time to go, the best places to visit and best things to do in Scotland. For inspiration use the itineraries created by our local travel experts in Scotland. A bit more hands on, learn about getting there, getting around the country and where to stay once you are there. And don't forget to buy travel insurance before you go.
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