Planning a trip to Scotland can be quite frustrating – in a good way. Once you start looking into things to see and do. you will notice that there is so much to add to your list, that seeing it all in one week is hardly possible. Scotland’s location and geology make sure that there are so many different environments in this relatively small country, that it is hard to choose between the bustling cities, the grand Highlands, the beautiful islands in the west and north and the forests and beaches of the east coast. I recently went on a road trip with my mum to explore an area of Scotland we had not seen before, and we had such a great time that I decided to share our itinerary with you. This is how to spend one week in North East Scotland.
By North East Scotland I am mainly talking about the counties of Aberdeenshire, Perthshire and Fife, and areas such as the Cairngorms National Park, the beaches and fishing villages of the east coast, the Royal Deeside, and the towns of Aberdeen, Dundee or St Andrews. While I have not seen all of North East Scotland (can you ever see it all?) I have covered quite a bit of ground during our recent road trip and other journeys in the past.
The best way to explore the north east of Scotland is as always by car, because it gives you more flexibility and allows you to reach even the most remote beaches and villages. While distances are not incredibly overwhelming, driving can take up a significant amount of time, as many of the minor roads are quite windy and narrow, and there are just too many places to check out along the way. One week is the absolute minimum to get the most our of North East Scotland – best allow a bit more time to stay longer in each place.
More information about transport options in Scotland: How to Plan a Trip to Scotland
Let me ask you: why not? The west of Scotland is without a doubt the more touristy part of the country – who has not heard about Loch Ness, Glen Coe, the Harry Potter train or the Isle of Skye? But don’t forget that the mountains in the west work their magic on the Scottish east coast – a much drier climate, lush and fertile landscapes, beautiful sandy beaches.
Here are a few reasons to go to North East Scotland: less rain; the Scottish Castle Trail; beaches and lighthouses every few kilometres; the whiskies of the Speyside; the up-and-coming small towns of Aberdeen and Dundee; the fresh seafood; the gorgeous sand dunes; St Andrews; the hills of the Cairngorms; some of the freshest produce of the country; the lovely people – I could go on and on. True, most of these reasons are also valid for the west of Scotland, but why not try something new and slightly more off-beat?
One Week Itinerary for North East Scotland
Perthshire & Royal Deeside (2 nights)
We left Glasgow on a Friday afternoon – at this time of the year (June) you can drive in the daylight until late at night (around 10pm) so no early start was necessary. We chose a more or less direct route past Stirling and Perth, through the countryside around Blairgowrie and up the Devil’s Elbow pass into the Cairngorms National Park. Our hotel was located in Dinnet, just outside of Ballater, where we stayed for two nights.
If you wanted to explore a bit more of Perthshire, leave Glasgow/Edinburgh early in the morning and stop for lunch in Pitlochry. You could even take a tour around the Edradour distillery, which is the smallest in Scotland, and really rather charming! They even make delicious whisky liqueur (think Baileys, but better) for the non-whisky drinkers.
Once you have passed over the southern peaks of the Cairngorms, you will enter the Royal Deeside valley of the River Dee. Highlights of this area are the gorgeous little town of Ballater, Balmoral Castle, which is still the summer holiday residence of the Royal Family, and the hiking paths of the Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve.
For more strenuous hikes with more rewarding views you could spend an afternoon further north in the Cairngorm mountains, or you could also rent bicycles from one of the bike rental shops in Ballater and follow the trail along the old railway which brought Queen Victoria and the British aristocracy to Ballater since the 1850s.
Read more about my adventures in the Royal Deeside:
Exploring the East Coast (1 day)
We decided to not take the fastest route to our next stop (Banff on the northern coastline of Aberdeenshire), but rather follow the east coast to visit some beaches and lighthouses I had laid my eyes on ever since I started researching this trip on Instagram. We left Dinnet early-ish on the Sunday and drive all day before arriving in Banff at 6.30-ish. Here are some highlights along the way.
Blamed Beach lies just north of Aberdeen and is easily accessible by car. As we made our way to the sea through the high sand dunes and bumped into three adorable labra-doodles playing in the water we knew we were in for a treat. We managed to visit the beach on the same day as the areas Doodle-Dash and soon we were surrounded by curly dogs of all sizes and colours, playing with each other in the sand and the rolling waves. That’s life at its sweetest!
Rattray Head Lighthouse
The lighthouse (strictly speaking it is a rockhouse) of Rattray Head had been on my bucket list for quite a while, and I was more than happy when I checked the tide charts for the day to find out that we would manage to visit the beach during high tide. That way the lighthouse stood in the waves and made for a magnificent photo op! To reach Rattray Head you definitely need a car and some guts, as the beach’s car park lies at the end of a bumpy single track gravel road with huge holes and no passing places… This view was worth the effort though!
Museum of Scottish Lighthouses, Fraserburgh
The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses is located in the small fishing town of Fraserburgh which sits at the north-eastern most point of Scotland (roughly). The museums exhibits an impressive collection of lighthouse lenses, some twice as wide in diameter as I am tall, and tells the story of the Stevenson family who built over 93 lighthouses in 150 years. Part of the museum is also the old lighthouse of Kinnaird Head which you can visit with a guide every hour between 11am and 4pm during the summer. From the top of the lighthouse you don’t only get an amazing view, but you also learn more about the hard labour it took to keep the ships out in the sea safe before lighthouses were switched to electric operations. The tour up the lighthouse tower is included in your museum ticket.
Banff & Macduff (1 night)
We arrived late in Banff, just in time for dinner and to catch the sunset afterwards as we strolled around the harbour and the historic town centre. While I am sure there is much to do in Banff and Macduff (such as spending a day by the beach or visiting the marine aquarium), we were saturated by the end of the day.
One place I would have loved to go for sunset was Bowfiddle Rock by Portknockie, but we simply could not drive any more after a long day of exploring. It will have to wait until next time!
Dunnottar Castle (1/2 day)
We were set to reach St Andrews for a few days by the seaside with my boyfriend, but also wanted to see one last place on our way along the east coast: Dunnottar Castle. Also part of the Castle Trail of Aberdeenshire, Dunnottar Castle is very much unlike Balmoral Castle which we visited only two days before. Dunnottar is a ruined medieval fortress built on a rock standing out from the coastline. It is unique in its position and that alone is worth stopping here!
Read more about my visit to Duntottar Castle:
St Andrews (2 nights)
We chose to stay in St Andrews for a little longer because we met up with my boyfriend and stayed in his families caravan overlooking the sea and the town. In walking distance to the centre of St Andrews it was the perfect home base to explore everything there is to see – and there is a lot!
I have written up a quick city guide to St Andrews with more details, but for now just some highlights: the St Andrews Cathedral & Castle (don’t miss the narrow mine leading down below the castle!); the marine aquarium (head here to see seals, penguins, meerkats, sharks and many more); the beaches of East and West Sands best enjoyed with a cone of Janetta’s ice cream; and of course the historic golf course – the first in the world!
Read more about my impressions of St Andrews:
A special mention goes out to Anstruther, a little village along the coast south of St Andrews. There is not much to do here, but the traditional fish bar by the harbour has won many awards and serves (some of) the best fish & chips of the island!
Queensferry (1 night)
As my mum had already seen Edinburgh on another trip and her flight was so early in the morning that we needed a hotel close to the airport, we decided to spend our last night in Queensferry from where you get a great view of the three Forth Bridges – the massive red railway bridge to the right, and the old and almost finished new road bridge to the left. Our hotel was only 15 minutes drive away from the airport and just a 10 minute walk to the centre of Queensferry. The High Street is dotted with restaurants and bars offering great views over the bridges, so just point and choose your cuisine of choice for a final sun downer!
With all this in mind planning a trip around North East Scotland and the districts of Perthshire, Aberdeenshire and Fife should be as easy as booking your flight to Glasgow or Edinburgh (very easy)!
What is your favourite place in the north east of Scotland?
All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.
Disclaimer: VisitScotland provided my mum and me with a rental car free of charge and two ASVA cards which grant free entrance to many of Scotland’s visitor attractions, including Balmoral Castle, St Andrews Cathedral & Castle and the Lighthouse museum in Fraserburgh.