Whether you’re a seasoned traveller or are just at the cusp of starting your life as a globetrotter, it is always a good idea to read and learn as much as possible about the destination of your next trip. I’m the kind of person who wants to know everything in advance, even though I know that the unexpected can (and will) always happen. I also know that no matter how well you do your research, the reality of a place is always different and usually ten times better than you could have ever imagined. Yet, I like to read up and gather travel tips for my holidays. Call it my way of anticipating a trip, or ‘Vorfreude’, as we say in German – pre-happiness. And while Scotland is a very easy to navigate and accessible destination, even (or especially) for first time travellers, you can’t go wrong reading and sticking to these 50 travel tips for Scotland.
Most of my tips are handy to know for a smooth cultural encounter or to efficiently spend your budget on a trip around Scotland. Other are an inspiration for choosing an itinerary and some off the beaten track locations. Yet others will hopefully make you chuckle a bit. Here we go!
1) Don’t ever call it England! Scotland as a sovereign nation is part of the United Kingdom, which is made up of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. For a great video explaining all the different terms used to describe the British Isles click here.
2) Ask locals to slow down and repeat what they just said, if you can’t understand them the first time.
3) Practice your ‘nod-and-smile’ technique for chatty cab drivers.
4) Get into the groove by watching Scottish films, TV shows or even interviews with Scottish personalities like Travis or Amy Macdonald. Pick up some Scottish words to add to your vocabulary. Start with wee (little), dram (drink) and skint (broke) – maybe someone will buy you a drink.
5) Scotland has a second major language called Gaelic. You will see many bilingual signs along the roads (particularly in western Scotland) and you might hear/see it on the radio/telly (BBC Alba).
6) When you don’t know how to pronounce a Scottish place name, wing it – chances are various locals pronounce it differently too.
7) Carry a pen with you to write down street names for directions.
8) Don’t be afraid to bring up British politics or Brexit – most people here are very engaged in politics and like talking about it.
9) Scotland uses its own Pound notes and they come in all kinds of designs depending on which bank printed them. However, they’re valid throughout the UK just like their English and Northern Irish counter parts. However, if you have a lot of money left at the end of your stay, make sure your bank at home is happy to exchange Scottish Pound notes back to your own currency – some might be picky and only accept English notes… (Had that issue in India, when the guy at the exchange desk looked at my Scottish Pound notes as if they were monopoly money!)
10) Always check buses as well as trains – it could save you lots of money!
11) Consider investing in a ScotRail Travel Pass if you travel Scotland by public transport. These passes usually cover most trains, buses and ferries.
12) Hiring a car is the most convenient way to get around, especially if you decide to do a road trip to the Highlands! Be careful though – a lot of roads in the Highlands and on the isles are narrow and windy.
13) There are many tour companies taking people round Scotland, but I can really recommend Rabbie’s for their small group tours. Their drivers/tour guides are just the best!
14) Watch out for sheep on the road!
15) Bring your dancing shoes and pray you’ll happen upon a Ceilidh – Sloans in Glasgow actually puts on a Ceilidh dance every Friday night (tickets are £10)!
16) Be open-minded when it comes to whisky. It took me three years and multiple visits to whisky distilleries to realise that I kind of like it.
17) Don’t order a single malt whisky with ice – every Scottish bar man/woman will tell you to first try it on its own, then maybe add a few drops of water, and only if you still don’t like it they will reluctantly give you some ice.
18) To learn more about the different whisky regions and find your preferred taste visit the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh.
19) Ask what’s in haggis after you tried it, not before!
20) Black pudding is not a pudding. Also, the same rule applies as with the haggis.
21) Order typical Scottish food like cullen skink (a creamy fish soup), steak (or mushroom) pie, stovies (a potato dish), fresh seafood and of course chicken tikka masala.
22) For the best fish & chips head to a seaside town where the fish is the freshest. I highly recommend the fish & chips shop in Anstruther close to St Andrews!
23) Drink all the craft beer you can get your hands on, but also try a pint of Tennent’s Lager which is Scotland’s most consumed beer.
24) For more Scottish beverages have a go at Irn Bru (a terribly sweet soft drink) and Buckfast (a very sweet and strong alcoholic drink, I probably shouldn’t recommend).
26) You could easily spend a lot of time in Edinburgh, but two days should be enough to cover the basics.
27) Rabbie’s City Tour of Edinburgh gives you a great overview of the town – I recommend doing it as soon as you arrive.
28) Accommodation in Edinburgh is terribly expensive – try hostels and AirBnB; avoid August (it’s the busiest month of the year due to the festivals) and weekends. Worst case you could even stay in Glasgow and take the train to Edinburgh for a day (only 45 minutes).
29) Explore Edinburgh beyond the Old Town: the Royal Botanical Gardens, Stockbridge and Leith are just a few highlights.
30) Edinburgh is better than Glasgow when you’re in Edinburgh; and Glasgow is better than Edinburgh when you’re in Glasgow.
31) Don’t miss out on Glasgow in your itinerary – I think it’s the best and most fun city in Scotland.
32) It’s easy to meet locals in Glasgow. Just go to a pub, stand by the bar and someone will start chatting to you.
33) Glasgow is all about its music. Listen to the buskers around the city centre, or stay overnight and check out a live music venue like The Butterfly & the Pig!
34) Do more than the typical bucket list items, Edinburgh, Loch Ness and the Isle of Skye. They are all beautiful, but Scotland has so much more to offer and it’s easy to go off the beaten track!
35) Always check the weather forecast, especially before heading out into the hills. I rely on yr.no, a Norwegian weather service.
36) Never trust a blue sky – expect every kind of weather on every day. A typical days in Scotland is going through all four seasons. Within an hour.
38) Bring proper hiking equipment, including waterproofs, hiking boots and map material – if you plan to hike in the Highlands.
39) Highland cows aren’t as frequent as one might think (they’re more expensive to keep than Angus cows). A good place to see them up close is Pollok Park in Glasgow.
40) You don’t need to go far for an island adventure – the Isle of Bute is just a hop, skip and a jump away from Glasgow!
41) The Isle of Arran is an amazing weekend island getaway if you’re pressed for time. It’s easy to reach (with a train & ferry combo ticket), the culinary scene is delicious (Arran beer, cheese and ice cream!) and the hiking is gorgeous (Goatfell).
42) Visit one of the Small Isles (Rum, Muck or Eigg) to go completely off the beaten track. Each island is owned by a community trust and only few people actually live there. The views however – particularly across to the Isle of Skye – are beautiful!
43) For beautiful beaches head to the Outer Hebrides (Lewis & Harris) or to the north east coast of Scotland.
44) To see the Jacobite Steam Train cross the Glenfinnan Viaduct (yes, that’s the Harry Potter train!) ask for the exact train times at the tourist info in Fort William. It’s happens twice a day during peak season only. Taking the train itself is still on my bucket list!
45) A wee dram increases your chances to spot the monster of Loch Ness.
46) The gardens of Balmoral Castle are at their best in the end of July, just before the Royal Family arrives for their annual holiday in August. This is the best time to visit the gardens in full bloom.
47) My favourite castle experience so far was Dunnottar Castle in Aberdeenshire – don’t miss out on it!
48) Start planning your trip to Shetland for Up Helly Aa as early as possible. Accommodation is scarce and fills up quickly as this festival is literally ‘bigger than Christmas’ (and I’m quoting a local here).
49) Experience the Hogmanay festival in Edinburgh (Hogmanay is Scotland’s New Year’s Eve) – especially the torchlight procession and midnight fireworks are an unforgettable experience.
50) Don’t lift up a man’s kilt!
I hope my travel tips for Scotland will prove useful to you on your upcoming trip, or inspire you to get started planning a holiday to Scotland – or at least I hope they made you laugh a bit!
What is your top tip for a journey to Scotland?
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.