Scotland is the kind of place where you could travel around for weeks and weeks and you still would not have seen all the highlights and only scratched the surface of understanding what’s going on in a Scot’s head. And that is even though the country is so small. But there is no denying that you don’t always have months to spare to travel a place, so finding a way of squeezing as much of Scotland as possible into a week or two becomes a skill for many people planning a trip to Scotland.
While after three years in Glasgow I am still far from ‘having done it all’ I have been on several trips with visiting friends and family to see some of the most essential must-do’s that Scotland has to offer – the classic Scotland itinerary, so to say. Loch Ness, Edinburgh, Skye – these are only a few places you must not miss on your first trip around Scotland, so I thought a little one-week itinerary based my own experience could be a great start for your own research! Prepare for a tour de fource through Scotland!
Note: This itinerary is written with a rental car in mind – you can travel Scotland by public transport, but you might have to cut a few stops due to time limitations, or simply because the bus/car doesn’t stop there. To find out more about preparing a trip to Scotland, have a look here.
Day 1: Arrive in Glasgow
Whether your plane actually lands at Glasgow airport or in Edinburgh, hardly matters because the cities and their airports lie so closely together and are so well-connected by bus, that it is easy to start your trip around Scotland in the one city even if you land in the other. To save your some driving on your way up to the Highlands I recommend to base yourself in Glasgow for the first night. If you have some daylight left, who not hop on board the City Sightseeing Bus to get an overview of the city, and then head for dinner and drinks in town for get a feel for the city.
Spend the Night: AirBnB is a thriving platform in Glasgow, but there are also great hotels to be found! My favourites are the Grand Central Hotel – a bit fancy, but it’s easy to find great deals online – and the Argyll Hotel in the West End, which is very traditionally Scottish (think tartan everything and black pudding for breakfast).
Dinner Tips: My favourite restaurants in town are Paesano (Auber-hip pizza place), Sarti (traditional Italian), Nippon’s Kitchen (sushi) and Babu Bombay Street Kitchen (Indian), but for more traditional Scottish food try The Two Fat Ladies in the City or Gandolfi Fish(sea food).
Best pubs in Glasgow City Centre: It’s not hard to stumble across a bar or pub in Glasgow’s city centre – they are everywhere. But if I had to chose my top two, I’d go for The Pot Still for its incredible whisky selection and Sloan’s because it’s one of the cities’s oldest pubs and has some beautiful architecture!
Day 2: Loch Lomond, Glen Coe & Fort William
Leave Glasgow right after breakfast to make your way up north. You will be happy to have the entire day at your disposal, because even if the drive from Glasgow to Fort William theoretically takes less than 3 hours, the scenic stops along the way and the windy roads will slow you down significantly.
Stop 1: Loch Lomond
Loch Lomond is Scotland’s largest lake (or loch, as the Scots call them) and it’s southernmost end lies only 45 minutes drive from Glasgow. Most tour busses will stop either in Balloch or in Luss, but I personally prefer the scenic points further north along the Loch, particularly the car park in Inveruglas. Either way, wherever you stop along Loch Lomond, make sure to take in the stunning views. Maybe you can even spare some time for a little cruise starting in Tarbet.
Stop 2: Glen Coe
Glen Coe is the kind of place that dreams are made of – or James Bond films. You chose which one you prefer. Driving through Glen Coe is like traveling back in time; there are so many stories to be told about it. It is one of Scotland’s most famous landmarks, a valley surrounded by some of the country’s roughest peaks and most popular hikes, such as the Three Sisters, the ridge of Aonach Eagach or Buachaille Etive Mòr. Earn some plus points if you manage to pronounce these!
Anyway, pressed for time you won’t manage to actually climb any of these, but a quick stroll to Scotland’s most photographed cottage, Lagangarbh Hut at the foot of Buachaille Etiv Mor, is the least you could fit in. #lonelyhouse
Stop 3: Fort William
To be honest, Fort William is less exciting as a town, but even more so for its surroundings. This is where the famous West Highland Way ends (key: plenty of outdoor equipment shops) and the highest mountain range of the UK begins: the Ben Nevis Range. It takes only 15 minutes to drive from Fort William to the car park of the Nevis Range Mountain Resort from where a gondola brings you further up the mountain Aonach Mor, right beside Ben Nevis. With too little time for the strenuous hike up Ben Nevis (this is not a tourist trail!) this is the next best alternative to climbing the UK’s highest peak.
Spend the Night: Fort William is a great place to base yourself for the night, because accommodation options are plenty – you will notice one B&B after the other on your way along Loch Linnhe. We stayed at Minaig B&B and totally loved it!
Lunch Recommendations: If you fancy fish and chips I can only recommend the Real Food Cafe in Tyndrum (between Loch Lomon and Glen Coe) or Clachaig Inn at the entrance of Glen Coe for traditional Scottish pub food.
Note: You might not be able to fit in long stops at all three destinations on just one day – so chose wisely!
Day 3: Road to the Isles & Isle of Skye
This road is a highlight, not only for Harry Potter fans. Although, if you are already here, head to the tourist office in Fort William to find out at what times the famous Jacobite Steam Train will be crossing over the Glenfinnan Viaduct and plan your road trip accordingly.
The Road to the Isles is one of my personal favourites and the views you get from the passenger seat are absolutely stunning! Make sure to visit the Glenfinnan Monument and climb to its top for even better views of Loch Shiel. Once you have arrived in Mallaig get your ferry ticket sorted (ideally you’d book this in advance, especially during the busy summer months) and kill some time with a takeaway of fresh fish & chips – but beware of the sea gulls at the harbour!
The ferry from Mallaig to Armadale on the Isle of Skye only takes around half an hour but offers a stunning vista of Skye and the Small Isles, namely Rum, Eigg, Canna and Muck.
Once on Skye make your way to the south-west of the island, the area around Glenbrittle, Carbost and Talisker. This is were you will find the famour Fairy Pools which offer themselves for a stunning hike below the Cuillin Mountain Range. Alternatively (or if it rains) visit the Talisker Whisky Distillery in Carbost to learn everything about Scottish Single Malt Whisky and get a taster too!
Check out this post with more highlights of Isle of Skye!
Spend the Night: You can book a B&B in Carbost and enjoy the silence surrounding you, but to your next day easier (less driving) I’d suggest to drive up to Portree and spend the night there!
Day 4: Isle of Skye
The Isle of Skye requires all your attention, especially if you want to visit such iconic places as the Old Man of Storr, Dunvegan Castle or the lighthouse at Neist Point. The earlier you can start your day, the better – it will be a long one.
Stop 1: Trotternish Peninsula
There are actually more than one stop at the Trotternish Peninsula because this is where some of Skye’s most popular landmarks are located. The Old Man of Storr, Kilt Rock and the Quiraing are all situated on this peninsula and of course also all worth a stop!
Stop 2: Dunvegan Castle
While this castle is often left out of traditional Skye itineraries, I think it is an absolute staple, especially if you are into landscape gardening and wildlife watching. 2 reasons: seeing the beautiful castle gardens in full bloom; and taking a boat trip to the local seal colony!
Stop 3: Neist Point
Scottish lighthouses are there to impress (well, and to guide boats obviously) and Neist Point is no exception. While I haven’t been lucky to see this lighthouse on a clear and dry day yet, I will keep trying and so should you!
For more details and inspiration check our my blog post on 5 things to do on the Isle of Skye here.
Day 5: Eilean Donan Castle, Loch Ness & Inverness
Leaving Skye behind early in the morning you come past the gorgeous castle of Eilean Donan Castle – how could you nt stop for a few photos?
Then you make your way east to one of Scotland’s most legendary places: Loch Ness. Hardly any other place has had scientists and wannabe-scientists wonder about the contents of its water as much as this lake – and who could resist the myth of Nessie. I like to picture her as a friendly dinosaur-like creature that hides away until this world is finally friendly enough to welcome people/animals/creatures that are different. Until then, the myth lives on!
While I’m not one for the two (!) Nessie museums in Drumnadrochit, I could be convinced to go on a monster hunting cruise, although I haven’t tried this yet. What I have done though is visit the castle ruins of Urquhardt Castle from where the views over the loch are particularly beautiful.
Final stop for the day is the town if Inverness, the capital of the Scottish Highlands. Base yourself here for the night, for a pole position for your way back south on the next day.
Dinner recommendations: Although I didn’t spend much time in Inverness myself, I loved our meal at the Castle Tavern where they dish up traditional Scottish cuisine.
Day 6: Blair Castle, Pitlochry & Edinburgh
The drive from Inverness back down to Edinburgh takes around 3-3.5 hours, but how boring would it be not to stop anywhere on the way?!
Stop 1: Blair Castle
While I’m not one for endless castle tours, the forest and gardens surrounding Blair Castle are worth the ticket and make for a great pit stop to stretch your feet after a couple of hours in the car.
Stop 2: Pitlochry
Picturesque as anything, Pitlochry is a very popular weekend getaway for many Scots. A highlight is the Edradour Whisky Distillery, one of Scotland’s smallest, which alone makes this town worth the stop.
Stop 3: South Queensferry
One final stop before you arrive in Edinburgh: South Queensferry, from where you get a great view of the iconic Forth Railway Bridge!
Arrive in Edinburgh
What better way to end your tour of Scotland’s highlights than in its capital: Edinburgh. Considering that you will probably arrive here in the late afternoon, give yourself a break and relax for a little while! Have a leisurely dinner and a sunset stroll up Calton Hill, maybe grad a drink in the Old Town, but other than that don’t stress yourself.
Spend the Night: Hotels in Edinburgh are expensive and often you don’t get what you pay for, meaning that even the prices of 2- or 3-star can sky-rocket during peak times! I much prefer AirBnB, or the Safestay Hostel (currently still operating as Smart City Hostel) in town.
Dinner recommendations: There are so many restaurants in Edinburgh’s Old Town, it can be quite tricky to tell the gems from the tourist traps. I recommend Civerinos, The Edinburgh Larder or Ox184.
Grab a drink: Some of my favourite pubs in the Old Town are Whistlebinkies and the Halfway House, one of Edinburgh smallest pubs!
Day 7: Edinburgh
There is much to see in Edinburgh, but luckily everything is close by, so that you can easily get a good glimpse of it all in one day. Note that if you want to visit multiple museums, the castle and other attractions you should consider adding one or two full days to your itinerary. Here are some suggestions of how to fill your day in Edinburgh:
– Get a great overview in very little time on board the Edinburgh City Tour by Rabbie’s – a small-group bus tour around the city in a convertible bus! Read my review of the tour here.
– Visit Edinburgh Castle
– Test your senses at the Camera Obscura, a museum of optical illusions
– Visit the National Museum of Scotland and make sure to go all the way up to its viewing platform
– Escape the crowds by visiting the glasshouses in the Royal Botanic Gardens
– Shop all the vintage you can find in and around the Grassmarket and the Stockbridge area
– Patrol the Royal Mile and count how many bag pip buskers you can find
Lunch & Coffee recommendations: I’m having a difficult time to chose my favourite here, but my top two cafe’s in Edinburgh must be Lovecrumbs right behind, and Hula Juice Bar just before the Grassmarket. For really nice falafel head to Palmyra Pizza close to the National Museum of Scotland.
Dinner recommendations: Time to branch out and head to The Kings Wark in Leith, right by the shore of Leith Water!
Grab a drink: Cocktail time! The ultimate cocktail bar in Edinburgh is called Panda & Sons, a little speakeasy bar covered up as a gent’s barber shop! Try to find it!
Day 8: Goodbye Scotland!
After an eventful week it is time to say goodbye again and make your way back to the airport. Next time you visit Scotland make sure you bring a bit more time with you!
Realistically you could easily fill two weeks with this itinerary and do everything in a more relaxed manner, spend more nights in each location or add a few days in beautiful locations such as Oban, the Isle of Mull, the Cairngorms National Park, the Royal Deeside, Aberdeen & Aberdeenshire or St Andrews – just to name a few.
Have you ever been to Scotland? What was your favourite experience or place to visit?
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.