Scotland is not just the land of Braveheart, haggis, whisky, and sheepherders. It is filled with castles, stunning lochs and mountains, beautiful parks, whisky, and welcoming locals.
I love visiting Scotland. It is just an amazing place that I can never get enough of. The people, the jovial spirit, the landscape, the booze – Scotland never disappoints (ok, a little with the food). Be sure to get out of the cities into the highlands with their rich rugged landscapes. Head west to the islands of Islay, Jura, and Mull.
This travel guide to Scotland can help you plan where to go, when to go, what to see, costs, and everything in between. Always budget more time than you think. Scotland is best explored slowly.
Table of Contents
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Top 5 Things to See and Do in Scotland
1. Explore the Scottish Highlands
2. Visit Edinburgh
3. Celebrate Hogmanay
4. Drink whisky in Islay
5. Visit Inverness
Other Things to See and Do in Scotland
1. Try to find Nessie
Loch Ness is one of the most famous lochs (lakes) in Scotland. It’s the alleged home to Nessie, aka the Loch Ness Monster, a creature said to live in the loch. The first “sightings” date back to the 1870s, though there is no definitive proof that any such creature exists. Nonetheless, the myth perseveres and it’s a popular destination to visit to take a cruise, hike in the nearby hills, and visit some of the smaller nearby towns and villages like Dores or the nearby ruins of Urquhart Castle. The best way to get here is to travel to Inverness, from which Loch Ness is close enough to take a day trip to (it’s just a 25-minute drive from Inverness to Lochend, the top of Loch Ness).
2. Wander around Glasgow
Glasgow is a busy and bustling city, home to a youthful population (there is a university here), and a picturesque downtown. With plenty of parks, historical monuments, and museums, there is plenty to do here if you’re on a budget. The city is shedding its industrial past and reinventing itself as an article and tech hub. There’s a lot of change in the air here. (It’s also known as a vegan and vegetarian hotspot in Europe too!)
3. Puzzle over Rosslyn Chapel
Figure out the Da Vinci Code at this historic chapel near Edinburgh. The chapel is ripe with intricate artwork and symbolism that has spawned many conspiracy theories (not to mention books). (Like why is there corn on the wall if corn wasn’t discovered until centuries later?) Located just an hour from Edinburgh, admission to Rosslyn costs 9 GBP for adults and the price of admission includes a free tour.
4. See the Cathedrals
The cathedrals in Scotland are marvelous with their unique Gothic architecture and imposing heights. A few of the top cathedrals to visit are Dunfermline Abbey and Palace in Fife, St. Magnus Cathedral in the Orkney Islands, and Melrose Abbey in the Borders. Don’t miss the Glasgow Cathedral, which was built in 1136 and is the oldest building in Glasgow. Admission is free though donations are encouraged.
5. Try the local markets
Scotland is full of farmers markets where fresh produce lies at your fingertips. The bigger cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh have several of them, but you can usually find smaller markets in towns outside of the cities as well. Edinburgh’s Farmer’s Market (held every Saturday from 9am-2pm) is actually considered one of the best farmer’s market’s in the world.
6. Play golf
The Scottish invented golf in the 15th century. If you’re not lucky enough to play a round at St. Andrews (the most famous course in the country) there are plenty of other immaculate and challenging courses to keep any golf player happy. Try to play during the low season (between November and March) if you want the lowest prices (St. Andrews, for example, costs around 200 GBP to play). Castle Stuart (Inverness), Royal Dornoch (Dornoch), and Muirfield (Gullane) are some other great courses worth playing.
7. Visit Ruins of Melrose Abbey
Robert I (also known as Robert the Bruce) was the King of Scotland from 1306 until his death in 1329. Legend has it that his heart is buried in the ruins Melrose Abbey. The abbey, founded in the 12th century and located in Melrose, was repeatedly destroyed by the English in the 14th century and you can still see marks on the surviving walls from cannonballs during the English Civil War. The abbey (which is only a ruin of its former self) is decorated with intricate artwork carved into the remaining stone walls. Walking here feels like you’re walking through history. Admission is 6 GBP.
8. See the Cuillin
This dramatic mountain range dominates the Isle of Skye. There are two main ridges (the red and the black), which can be visited as a day trip or a longer two-day hike. Much of the mountain range, which stretches 14km, can be hiked, though some peaks require more technical climbing skills. There are campgrounds and a hostel nearby in Glenbrittle as well.
9. Get your history fix in Dundee
Dundee is a bustling student city with a lot of interesting museums. Here you can visit Discovery Point to learn about the famous Antarctic expedition that launched from here in 1902 on the RSS Discovery (which you can actually board at the visitor center). Don’t miss all the great street art, the Vaults (a series of underground tunnels that date back to the 1750s), and The McManus Art Gallery as well.
10. Visit the Mystical Smoo Cave
The sleepy town of Durness, located 120 miles north of Inverness, is the access point for Smoo Cave, a coastline cave complex that can be explored alone or on a tour. Evidence from charcoal samples show that it may have been inhabited over 4,000 years ago. The cave is free to enter but guided tours, which take you deeper into the cave, are 5 GBP. You’ll get to see a lot more on the tour than you would if you just visit independently. Tours last around 20 minutes.
11. Head to the Isle of Arran
Located 2.5 hours west of Glasgow, this isle is a popular tourist destination for its charming scenery, walking trails, and historic villages. Visit Brodick Castle, go for a hike or a trail ride, keep a lookout for seals and golden eagles, and enjoy the remote scenery. Don’t miss the Machrie Moor Stone Circles (which are sort of similar to Stonehenge) — they date back almost 5,000 years!
12. Get your fill of pub food
Pub food is often the best in the country, which is why you see many locals eating lunch or dinner here. Pubs are a great place to try some good beer, food, and even haggis (you can also find vegan haggis too — and it’s not too bad!).
13. Explore the Cairngorms
Cairngorms National Park is the largest national park in the UK, spanning almost 1,800 square miles. Located two hours from Edinburgh by car, it makes for a great getaway for anyone looking to get out and see the highlands. The park is dotted with beautiful B&Bs in historic stone buildings and there are several campgroundsavailable for anyone traveling in a camper van or with a tent. The park offers lots of hiking trails too. Don’t miss Ryvoan Pass (easy), Dalraddy to Ruthven (moderate), and Ben Macdui (difficult). If you visit in the winter, you can also go skiing on CairnGorm Mountain. If you’re lucky you’ll be able to spot some of the reindeer that call the park home (it’s the only herd in the British Isles). Admission to the park is free.
14. Edinburgh Fringe Festival
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the world’s largest arts festival. It usually lasts three weeks and takes over the entire city of Edinburgh. There are tens of thousands of performances (in 2018, there were over 55,000 performances) including plays, musicals, live music, puppet shows, and much more! There are literally thousands of different shows held and hundreds of venues around the city. It’s a massive festival and brings in upwards of 3 million visitors. It’s a zany, inspiring, and entertaining festival and one that shouldn’t be missed. Just make sure you book your tickets and accommodation in advance as things fill up fast.
For more information on specific cities, check out these guides!
Scotland Travel Costs
Accommodation – Most 8-bed dorm rooms in Scotland cost between 18-22 GBP, though prices rise a few pounds in the summer and drop a few in the winter (you can find hostels for as little as 12 GBP in the offseason). Free Wi-Fi and lockers are standard and most hostels also have self-catering facilities. Private rooms in a hostel cost between 40-60 GBP per night.
For a budget two-star hotel, prices start at around 50 GBP per night. These usually include free Wi-Fi as well. Budget hotels with breakfast included usually start around 65 GBP per night. A three-star hotel with free breakfast costs around 90 GBP per night.
Airbnb is widely available in Scotland and is especially useful in the smaller towns and villages where there are fewer traditional hotels and hostels. Prices for entire homes/apartments start at 50 GBP per night, though most options are 60 GBP and above. For a private room, expect to pay at least 25-30 GBP per night.
If you want to camp, expect to pay around 17 GBP per night for a basic plot (a small flat space for a tent without electricity). Most campgrounds close for the winter so availability is limited come late October/early November. If you’re in a car or campervan, you can use the app ‘park4night’ to find paid overnight parking, free overnight parking, and campgrounds.
Food – Scottish meals are hearty, heavy, and filling. They are also delicious. Expect to pay around 10-12 GBP for a basic meal (like a Scottish breakfast). For pub food like fish and chips or a filled roll (traditionally a sausage roll or other meat), prices are usually between 5-10 GBP. If you’re looking for fast food (think McDonald’s), expect a basic meal to cost around 6 GBP. For a full three-course meal at a mid-range restaurant, prices begin around 27 GBP.
Beer at a bar is usually around 4 GBP (though you can find them for half that price if you buy them at the store).
For a week’s worth of groceries, expect to pay between 40-60 GBP depending on your diet. This covers basic staples like pasta, vegetables, and some meat. If your accommodation includes free breakfast you can cut this down significantly.
Activities – Many museums in Scotland are free, as are the national parks and hiking trails. For admission to most other attractions (such as Edinburgh Castle), you should expect to pay around 20-25 GBP. If you want to rent a bike, expect to pay around 5 GBP per day. Campervan rentals start at 20 GBP per day.
Backpacking Scotland Suggested Budgets
On a backpacker budget, you can visit Scotland for 45-55 GBP ($55-75 USD) per day. On this budget, you’ll be staying in a dorm room or camping, cooking most of your meals, using local transportation, and sticking to mostly free activities (like hiking, museums, or free walking tours). You can lower this by staying in hostels that include free breakfast or by limiting your drinking.
On a mid-range budget of about 90-120 GBP ($115-155 USD), you’ll stay in a budget hotel or private hostel room, eat out at cheap local restaurants, do more paid activities like visiting museums or galleries, and really have the flexibility to do what you want. Overall, you’re not going to live large but you’ll be able to get by without worrying too much about your spending.
On a luxury budget of 210 GBP ($270 USD), you can stay in a 4-star hotel, eat out for every meal at mid-range restaurants, drink what you want, and visit as many museums and attractions as you’d like (including skiing in the winter or multi-day hiking trips), take taxis, and more. This is just the ground floor for luxury though — you can easily spend more if you really want to splash out!
You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Keep in mind these are daily averages — some days you’ll spend more, some days you’ll spend less (you might spend less every day). We just want to give you a general idea of how to make your budget. Prices are in USD.
Scotland Travel Guide: Money-Saving Tips
While the above prices might seem high, there are lots of ways to lower your costs. Since there’s a lot of free activities in the country, you won’t to spend money on that. And the cities here are easily walkable so you can save money on transportation too. Here are some quick tips to help you save money in Scotland:
- Get the Edinburgh City Pass – If you’re planning to explore Edinburgh, get the City Pass. For 45 GBP, you’ll get access to 22 attractions as well as free transportation to and from the airport. There is also a two-day pass for 55 GBP and a three-day pass for 65 GBP.
- Eat in a pub – The best food is often in the pubs and you’ll pay a fraction of the price than you would in a proper restaurant. Also, pubs generally give you a true taste of Scottish culture. Scotland is pub-land and you’ll find them everywhere.
- Visit the free museums – The public museums in Scotland are free – take advantage! Free museums include The National Museum of Scotland, Scottish National Gallery, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
- Use buses – If you need to go anywhere, buses are by far the cheapest way to do so and can get you to the widest range of places on a regular schedule. You can even find tickets for just 1 GBP from Megabus if you book far enough in advance.
- Avoid eating and shopping in the city centers – Both Glasgow and Edinburgh get significantly more expensive the closer you get to the city center. There are plenty of good restaurants and quirky shops outside of the center, so go for those. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.
- Stay with a local – Couchsurfing is the best way to save on accommodation — it’s free! Not only will you save some money, but you’ll have access to a knowledgeable local who can help point you to some of the country’s hidden gems. It may not be fancy, but you’ll get a unique experience and learn far more about the destination than if you stayed in a hotel!
- Take a free walking tour – If you want to understand more about the history, architecture, and people of Scotland then be sure to take a free walking tour. They usually last a couple of hours and are a great introduction to the city. New Europe has a great free tour in Edinburgh and Visit Scotland offers one in Glasgow as well.
- Cook your own meals – Food in the UK isn’t cheap. Save yourself some money and cook a few meals for yourself. It may not be as fancy as eating out, but your wallet will thank you!
- Rent a campervan – If you’re planning to get out of the city, rent a camper van. You can get them for as little as 20 GBP per day and they come with basic self-catering facilities so you can cook your food and have somewhere cheap to stay. There are lots of free places to park around the country. Just use the app park4night to find them.
- Use BlaBlaCar – BlaBlaCar is a ridesharing app you can use to travel in between cities. It’s faster than the bus and usually just as cheap. You’ll have to find a ride, which can sometimes be hit or miss, but the profiles are verified and reviewed so it’s quite safe. Plus, it’s a great way to connect with other locals/travelers.
Where To Stay in Scotland
Accommodation in Scotland isn’t cheap, but there are nevertheless lots of great hostels to stay at to help you meet people and save money. Here are my favorite hostels in Scotland:
How to Get Around Scotland
Public Transportation – Public buses and trams cost around 1.50-2 GBP for one-way ride. For a single-day pass, expect prices to start at 4 GBP per person. In Glasgow, a 7-day public transportation pass starts at 14 GBP.
Buses and trams are the most common ways to get around in each city. Only Glasgow has a subway system and the tickets for the bus and metro are not interchangeable as they are operated by two different companies (though prices between the two are comparable). For airport shuttles, expect to spend around 6-8 GBP each way.
Flying – Flying around Scotland is both inconvenient and expensive. There are very few direct, making it slower to fly than to take the bus. In short, avoid flying around the country.
Bus – Buses are a popular and affordable way to get around the country and they link most destinations in the country. Scottish Citylink, Stagecoach, Megabus, and National Express are the four main companies that operate here. Tickets can be found for as little as 1 GBP via Megabus, though you should usually expect to pay between 10-25 GBP.
Edinburgh to Glasgow, for example, is a one-hour bus ride that costs 8 GBP while the three-hour journey from Glasgow to Inverness costs around 24 GBP. The sooner you can book your ticket the lower the price will be so always try to book in advance if you can. The coaches here are modern and comfortable with bathrooms and Wi-Fi as well.
Train – Trains connect all of the major cities in Scotland (as well as the towns and villages they pass through). When purchased in advance, tickets are only a little more expensive than the bus. For example, Inverness to Glasgow takes about as long as the bus and is only 30 GBP while Edinburgh-Glasgow is 30 minutes faster than the bus for just 1-2 GBP more. Just be sure to book early to get the best prices. Last-minute tickets can be expensive!
Car rental – Scotland is a great road trip destination. You can get cars for as little as 10-20 GBP per day and campers for as little as 20 GBP per day. Just remember that traffic flows on the left. Most vehicles are manual transmissions as well.
Rideshare – Ridesharing is a reliable but expensive way to get around in cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh. Gett and Free Now are the two most common platforms used for ridesharing (they are linked to the Google Maps app so you can use that to get price estimates if you’re comparing modes of transportation). That being said, most cities have safe and reliable public transportation so I’d avoid ridesharing unless you have no other options as the prices will add up.
For longer distances, use BlaBlaCar. It’s a ridesharing app that pairs you with drivers who are traveling to other cities. They have profiles and reviews (similar to Airbnb) so it’s quite safe. It’s usually not as cheap as the bus but it’s faster and more comfortable.
Hitchhiking – Hitchhiking in Scotland is generally considered to be much easier than in the rest of the UK — especially in the highlands or on the islands. As always, you’ll want to look presentable and make sure your plans are flexible as sometimes it can take a while for a ride to appear. But it’s a great way to get around if you’re on a budget!
When to Go to Scotland
Summer is the most popular time to visit Scotland. In July and August, you’ll get warm weather and minimal rain, with temperatures reaching highs of around 20 C (68 F). This is also the busiest time of the year, so expect crowds in the cities and lots of people out enjoying the national parks. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival takes place in August, which is a huge multi-week festival. Be sure to book your accommodation in advance if you’re visiting during this time.
September is a rather wet month, though in October you’ll get incredible fall foliage. October is a great time to visit — especially if you plan on renting a car or camper and heading into the Cairngorms (Scotland’s biggest national park). Seasonal businesses and accommodations start to close mid-October so be sure to keep that in mind when planning. Expect October temperatures to sit around 12 C (55 F) during the day.
The spring is a great time to visit, with April and May offering minimal rain and no crowds. There will still be snow and cool temperatures in the highlands, but the cities will be lively without being crowded.
Winters in Scotland are cold and dark. December is relatively dry but the temperatures will be dipping close to 0 C (32 F). It’s nevertheless a popular time to visit, with many tourists coming to Edinburgh for the huge Hogmanay New Year’s Eve celebration (it’s one of the biggest New year’s festivals in the world).
By February, snow is common so keep that in mind if you plan on renting a vehicle. Unless you’re coming to engage in winter sports, I’d avoid a winter visit unless you don’t mind the grim and grey atmosphere of the country.
How to Stay Safe in Scotland
Scotland is a perfectly safe country and you won’t need to worry about much while you’re here. Like in all cities, you’ll want to stay vigilant when you’re in crowded tourist areas or on public transportation as that is when pickpockets usually strike. But petty theft is quite rare so you needn’t worry too much.
Keep in mind that traffic flows on the left here. If you’re renting a car you’ll want to keep that in mind as most vehicles are manual transmissions and have the gear shift on the left (which is opposite to most other countries). Driving might take some getting used to so drive carefully — especially in cities and when going through roundabouts.
Flooding can occur in rural areas so you’ll want to keep an eye on the weather if you’re out hiking (flooding is the #1 natural disaster in the UK). If you are hiking here, make sure you have appropriate equipment and that you notify your accommodation of your plans just in case.
As a whole, Scotland is safe for solo female travelers though women should take the standard precautions when traveling alone at night (don’t travel alone intoxicated, keep an eye on your drink, etc.). Taxis at night are safe for solo female travelers, though it’s never a bad idea to share a ride with friends just to be safe.
The water in Scotland is quite safe to drink here as the country ranks in the top ten when it comes to clean water. You can drink straight from the tap so bring a reusable water bottle with you to save money and lower your environmental impact.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. You can use the widget below to find the policy right for you:
Scotland Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
Below are my favorite companies to use when I travel to Scotland. They are included here because they consistently turn up the best deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are always my starting point when I need to book a flight, hotel, tour, train, or meeting people!
- Momondo – This is my favorite flight search engine because they search such a wide variety of sites and airlines. I never book a flight without checking here first.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is another great flight search engine which searches a lot of different airlines, including many of the budget carriers that larger sites miss. While I always start with Momondo, I use this site too to compare prices.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments. The big cities have tons of listings!
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around Scotland, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get a discount when you click the link!
- Rome 2 Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B the best and cheapest way possible. Just enter your departure and arrival destinations and it will give you all the bus, train, plane, or boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost. One of the best transportation website out there!
- BlaBlaCar – This is a helpful ride sharing app for intercity travel around Scotland. It’s not as cheap as the train or bus but it’s usually much faster!
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
Scotland Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Scotland Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
A Travellers History of Scotland , by Andrew Fisher
This book paints in broad, sweeping strokes to give you a nuanced overview of Scottish history without getting bogged down in boring details. The country has a turbulent past and Fisher does a great job of bringing it to life, connecting the dots from Scotland’s first people through the Viking incursions all the way to Scotland’s first parliament. If you want to learn about Scotland before you visit, this book will give you a great historical overview.
Macbeth , by William Shakespeare
Known as “the Scottish play,” Macbeth was first performed in the early 1600s and has grown to become one of Shakespeare’s best and most popular plays. It’s also one of Shakespeare’s shortest tragedies and has been adapted many times over throughout the years (the recent film version with Michael Fassbender is worth a watch). The book focuses on the pitfalls of power and the corruption that walks in its shadow. It’s a tricky but powerful read.
Outlander , by Diana Gabaldon
Outlander is one of the most popular book series in the world, having sold over 25 million copies. Written in 1991, the book kicks off a multi-genre story of love and adventure set against the background of 18th-century Scotland. Claire, the main character, is mysteriously transported from post-World War II Europe back in time. Using her skills and wits, she has to find a way to survive while searching for a way back home. The book is also a popular TV series about to release its 5th season.
The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around the Coast of Great Britain, by Paul Theroux
This is a classic travelogue written by one of the most competent and talented travel writers in the world. While the book doesn’t focus solely on Scotland, it does help paint a detailed portrait of life in the United Kingdom. You’ll find yourself pulled in by his anecdotes and descriptions and the book will leave you feeling like you’re right there with him as he hops around the country. While dated (the book was written in the 80s), Theroux illuminates the country — warts and all — and brings the island to life with his observations and reflections.
How the Scots Invented the Modern World, by Arthur Herman
Historically, Scotland has been one of the poorest countries in the world yet its impact on modern art, science, writing, and philosophy can’t be understated. This book does a great job of highlighting Scotland’s contributions to modern history. It’s another great historical overview that connects the past with the modern world in an accessible way.
Scotland Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on Europe travel and continue planning your trip: