On the map Scotland looks like a tiny country, and indeed it measures less than 80,000km2 and is just short of 5.5 million people. The thing with small, but mountainous countries like Scotland is though, that every valley and every peak, every lake and every island, every city and every castle is worth a stop. How on Earth do you fit all of this in one epic trip? Before I go into more detail with itineraries and best of-lists (no, worries – they will come at a later point), let me run you through the basics of how to plan a trip to Scotland in the first place.
I will give you advice on how to get around, how much time you should plan for your trip and how to find and choose the things you want to do and see.
1. Getting Around
The first question you need to ask yourself when you plan a trip to Scotland is how to get around. Do you feel comfortable enough with left-side traffic and windy mountain roads that you can rent a car? Or would you rather travel eco-friendly and rely on public transport? Guided tours where transport is taken care of for the entire group are another option. You could even hitchhike, which I wouldn’t necessarily ‘recommend’, but it is a common practice especially among hikers and further up north… And then there is the option to simply use your feet and walk your way through Scotland.
Of course whichever means of transportation you chose will highly influence your experience in Scotland. Each comes with it’s advantages and flaws – here’s a wee list of things to consider:
If you rent a car you get maximum flexibility for your itinerary, but you also have to shoulder the responsibility of driving yourself all along.
Pros: flexible itinerary, easier time management, that road trip feeling!
Cons: higher cost for the car rental and petrol (& potential parking fees in Glasgow/Edinburgh), stress caused by left-hand side traffic, distraction from the gorgeous views (at least for the driver)
A quick note on estimating distances: Scotland might be tiny and distances look small on the map, but on the windy mountain roads of the Highlands this can be deceiving. Some roads are just so scenic, that you will want to stop every few minutes. Others are so windy that busses, mini-busses, trucks or even camper vans in front of you can slow you down and there’s no chance to overtake them for miles. Instead of rushing up north as fast as you can slow down a bit and aim for destinations within closer reach.
Public transport in Scotland is excellent and fairly reliable. You can get a direct train from Glasgow to Fort William and from there to Mallaig, or explore the other coast and take a train to Aberdeen. There are daily busses to Oban, Inverness (Loch Ness) or the Isle of Skye. Train rides through the Highlands are a journey worth in themselves, as the tracks are usually far away from the roads and you’ve got the view of the hills to yourself. However, distances take longer to cross by public transport and there might only be one option per day or several per week.
Pros: environmentally friendly, extensive network, you don’t need to drive yourself
Cons: less flexible itinerary, more time-intense
If you plan to do some island-hopping while you’re in Scotland, here is some basic information on the ferries. There are two main operators, Northlink Ferries (to Orkney & Shetland) and CalMac (to the Inner & Outer Hebrides). If you have a set itinerary and travel by car in peak season during summer you might want to consider booking in advance – especially the car ferry from Mallaig to the Isle of Skye can get very busy (although you can reach Skye by car via a bridge). Most ferries go several times a day, and while sailing to the Outer Hebrides can take several hours (not even speaking of the overnight sail to Shetland), other islands are within much better reach. The main ferry ports along the west coast are Ardrossan, Oban, Mallaig and Ullapool. You can reach all of them by public transport, so car-free island-hopping is totally possible.
ScotRail offers a Spirit of Scotland Travel Pass, which enables free travel on the entire Scotrail network, as well as free ferry travel with CalMac ferries, 20% off on Northlink ferries and free bus travel on selected routes. The pass is available for 4 days of unlimited travel within 8 days, or 8 days unlimited travel within 15 days.
There are two other passes offered by ScotRail: the Highland Rover valid on various train, ferry and bus routes in the North and West Highlands and the Central Scotland Rover valid for travel between Glasgow and Edinburgh and on the Glasgow subway.
The carefree option – there are loads of tour companies offering guided tours on coaches or mini-busses. They vary in group sizes, prices, itineraries and demographics, so it’s good to shop around before you decide on a tour.
Pros: you can lean back and let somebody else do the preparing and driving
Cons: less flexible itinerary, group travel, potentially too little time in each place
Personally I’ve only done a one-day guided tour with Rabbie’s in a mini-bus. We went from Glasgow to Stirling, through the Trossachs and past Loch Lomond to end the day at the Glengoyne whisky distillery. I’d say with castles, mountains, lochs and whisky we saw the best that Scotland has to offer in one day. Rabbie’s also offers multiple day trips to Skye and other areas of Scotland, and I can highly recommend them.
2. How much Time do you need?
There is an easy answer to this question and it’s: as much as you can spare. Yes, you could power through, do a day or two in Edinburgh and then a day or two, driving for hours and get to Loch Lomond, Loch Ness and the Isle of Skye on a weekend… But will you enjoy it?
I’d say spending at least a week to 10 days to get a first glimpse of Scotland is the minimum. In that time you can easily fit a day or two exploring Edinburgh and then contrasting it with the more edgy Glasgow. From there the Highlands are at your doorstep and you can spend a few days travelling around the mountains and islands. On the way back south, plan in a detour through Aberdeenshire and the Cairngorms National Park to see a completely different side of Scotland – one that is often neglected in favour of the Highlands but bursts with seaside charm and more castles than you can count.
In the future I will equip you with a couple of sample itineraries – trips I’ve done either to explore Scotland for myself, or to show its beauty to my friends and family when they visited. So stay tuned!
What’s the best time of the year?
This question is really hard to answer as weather in Scotland is unpredictable and different every year. In summer – if you want to call it that – it can get up to 25 Celsius (I’ve even experienced 27 before), but that is rather extraordinary. In general I would recommend to come in early summer (May) or early fall (September) as these are often drier months. That said, June and July are gorgeous in itself because of the extra long days, and visiting in December for Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) is also very popular.
3. Deciding on Things to Do & See
In Scotland it is not hard to find things to do and see, so it’s more about making a list of priorities. Do you want to delve into the country’s rich history and see castles and museums – or rather immerse yourself in the stunning natural landscape? Are you a thrill seeker in search for kayaking, mountaineering or skiing adventures – or do you prefer it more mellow with boat rides, leisurely walks and culinary delights?
Did you know? The Scotland Discovery Pass gives you access to over 60 attractions all over Scotland! Book it at Tiqets (from £26.50)*
I like to plan a good mix of things and activities when I visit a new country. For Scotland I suggest you see at least one castle, do at least one easy or intermediate hike, spend a day on the road/on the train/on the bus to see the landscape, take one ferry, spend one day in the city, go to the pub and see some live music, and visit a whisky (or gin) distillery.
Read more: 50 Travel Tips for Scotland
A note on Hiking
Although the mountains in the Highlands are not as tall as in the Alps or other high mountain ranges, you need to be very careful when hiking in the hills. Weather is unpredictable and fog can lock you in within minutes. Paths in the Highlands are rarely signposted and even if they are marked on the map, they could be barely visible in real life. Often sheep or deer trails look a lot like trails, but then of course they end in nothingness…
To get you started with hiking in Scotland, check out this beginner’s guide to climbing a Munro!
If you plan to do some hiking in the hills, here are a few essentials to bring for hiking:
– A map & a compass, and the knowledge of how to use them
– Plenty of water for every hiker in your party
– A headtorch in case you lose your way and darkness closes you in
My go-to online resource for trail information and description is Walk Highlands which also has a great page on safety!
Browse my Hiking archives for inspiration
Now, I hope this gives you a good first idea of how to plan a trip to Scotland – once you have decided how long you stay, how to get around and what kind of activities and places you want to add to you itinerary, you are good to prepare your actual itinerary. More about that later!
All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.
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