Planning a trip to Scotland can be quite frustrating – in a good way. Once you start looking into things to see and do, you notice that there is so much to add to your list, that seeing it all in one week is hardly possible. Most people chose to spend some time in Edinburgh and then drive along the west coast to see the Highlands and islands. If you’d rather explore off the beaten track, this untypical Scotland itinerary will whisk you away to the north east coast of Scotland. Explore the Castle Trail in Aberdeenshire, see the lighthouses on the northern coastline and spend time discovering Aberdeen and St Andrews!
The North East of Scotland lies far off the beaten track for most visitors in Scotland. On a recent road trip with my mum, we decided to leave the crowds behind and follow our noses through Aberdeenshire, stick our toes into Fife and get a taste of Perthshire. In one week we managed to visit the Cairngorms National Park, the lush valley for the Royal Deeside, beaches along the Aberdeenshire coast, the cities of Aberdeen and St Andrews and even Scotland’s north-eastern most region. Of course there is a lot more to explore, more castles to see, more whisky to drink and more mountains to hike, but this one-week Scotland itinerary will give you a good first impression of what lies beyond the Highlands and islands – quite literally.
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North East Scotland Map
How to get around in North East Scotland?
The best way to explore the north east of Scotland is as by car. It gives you more flexibility and allows you to reach even the most remote beaches and villages.
There are two major train lines crossing through the east of Scotland, which make it possible to visit major towns in this region by train: the Glasgow – Inverness service stops in beautiful places such as Pitlochry, Blair Atholl and Aviemore; the Edinburgh – Inverness (via Aberdeen) service stops in Leuchars (near St Andrews), Dundee, Stonehaven, Aberdeen and Elgin. If you decide to travel by train, it is easiest to base yourself in a station town and plan day trips from there. You could either utilise the extensive bus network or book with local taxi and tour companies (most likely to operate out of Aviemore, Aberdeen and Inverness).
You’d like to travel by train, but don’t know how to start planning your route? I offer travel consulting services to help you have the best possible trip to Scotland!
How much time to spend on the East Coast of Scotland?
In my opinion, one week is the absolute minimum to get a good glimpse of north east Scotland – if you can, allow a bit more time to see even more!
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.
Reasons to visit the East Coast of 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, Glencoe, the Jacobite Steam 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, drier climate
- The Scottish Castle Trail with 19 castles
- Long white sandy beaches along the Coastal Trail
- Lighthouses every few kilometres
- Speyside whisky distilleries
- Hiking in the Cairngorms National Park
- Golf & history in St Andrews
- Taste fresh produce by local farmers
- Cool city trips in Aberdeen and Dundee
- The lovely people
I could go on and on! Many of these things are reasons to visit all of Scotland, but why not try something new and off the beaten track?
One Week Itinerary for North East Scotland
Perthshire & Royal Deeside (2 nights)
We left Glasgow on a Friday afternoon – during the summer you can drive in the daylight until late at night (around 10pm during June) so no early start was necessary.
You could easily leave Glasgow (or Edinburgh) earlier than that though, and explore more of Perthshire along the way. Go for a walk at The Hermitage by Dunkeld. Stop for lunch in Pitlochry and take a tour around the Edradour distillery, which is the smallest in Scotland! Take a little detour to Blair Atholl and visit the beautiful Blair Castle and its generous gardens.
We chose a more or less direct route past Stirling and Perth and watched the beautiful countryside zoom past us in the car. We drove on little roads around Blairgowrie and up the Devil’s Elbow pass into the Cairngorms National Park.
Through the mountain peaks, we made our way down on the other side towards the lush valley of the Royal Deeside.
We spent the entire second day in this valley along the River Dee. In the morning we visited Balmoral Castle – I highly recommend an early morning visit – and explored the nearby town of Ballater, which is a charming little town where Queen Victoria would have arrived in, on her way to Balmoral. In the afternoon, we took an easy hike in the Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve, but if you’re more interested in castles, there are many more nearby along the Aberdeenshire Castle Trail!
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.
ROYAL dEESIDE Travel Essentials
Where to Stay: Loch Kinord Hotel in Dinnet, from £95 per double room, Book it here!
Where to eat: Lunch at The Bothy, Ballater; Local picnic from Deeside Deli Shop Ballater; Dinner at Loch Kinord Hotel
Road trip along the East Coast (1 night)
Instead of taking the fastest route to our next stop on the northern coastline, we opted for the longer, yet much more scenic drive along the east coast of Scotland. The coast of Aberdeenshire is dotted with beautiful beaches and dreamy lighthouses, a real paradise for beach bums and photographers. We spend the entire day on the road with multiple stops – here are our highlights:
Balmedie 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. The beach is incredibly dog and family-friendly, and even though the waves might be crashing onto the shore to wildly to swim (too cold anyway) the beach is an absolute highlight along this coast.
Rattray Head Lighthouse had been on my bucket list for ages, even though it’s technically a “rockhouse”, built on a lonely rock off the shore of Aberdeenshire. When the tide is high (which we were lucky enough to witness) the lighthouse is surrounded by the crashing waves of the Atlantic – it’s a brilliant 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 potholes and no passing places… The view was worth the effort though!
The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses is located in the small fishing town of Fraserburgh which sits at the north-easternmost point of Scotland. The museum 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. Make sure you join a tour of the old lighthouse of Kinnaird Head which is included in your museum ticket – they begin every hour between 11 am and 4 pm 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.
We arrived in Banff just in time for dinner and to catch the sunset from the beautiful harbour. The town’s historic centre is worth a stroll and there are a few other things to do & see if you have more time to add another day to spend here.
An absolute highlight of the region is Bowfiddle Rock in Portknockie, but since we were so knackered from a day on the road, this will have to wait until next time!
BANFF Travel Essentials
Where to Stay: Carmelite House Hotel, from £75 per small double room, Book it here!
Where to eat: The Fife Restaurant (Scottish cuisine)
THINGS TO SEE: Duff House, Museum of Banff, nearby beaches & distilleries
From Banff to St Andrews
On since we had decided to spend the rest of our time on the east coast of Scotland in St Andrews, we had to drive all the way back down again – luckily there is enough to see on the way, that we could easily fill another day on the road!
Aberdeen was our first stop, and while the town is worth an entire city trip of its own, we managed to at least swing by Old Aberdeen. In this oldest part of the city you can visit the impressive campus of the University of Aberdeen (which is in no way inferior to the universities in Glasgow or Edinburgh) and the beautiful Gothic church St. Machar Cathedral (which is not technically a cathedral anymore, but who cares).
Dunnottar Castle is part of the Aberdeenshire Castle Trail, and what a castle it is! Built on a rock that sticks out into the ocean, it is not surprising that this was a strategic fortress well into the 18th century. Today the castle is ruined, but still worth a visit – if only for the views.
St Andrews (2 nights)
We got the chance to spend a few nights in a caravan near St Andrews, overlooking both the town and the coast. 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!
It’s definitely worth reading up on my longer guide for St Andrews with lots of ideas for things to do and see, but for now just some highlights: St Andrews Cathedral, St Andrews Castle, East Sands and West Sands beaches, the Old Course and other golf links, and of course the University of St Andrews!
sT ANDREWS Travel Essentials
WHERE TO eAT & DRINK: Doll’s House (Scottish cuisine), Zizzi’s (Italian, vegan-friendly), Fisher & Donaldson (patisserie), Janetta’s (ice cream), Keys Bar (traditional pub), The Cellar Bar (bar & live music)
A day trip to Anstruther | A perfect day trip from St Andrews leads you along the coastline – the East Neuk of Fife. There are many quaint fishing villages in this area, but my favourite is called Anstruther. 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 country!
South Queensferry (1 night)
While one (popular) option is to end this trip in Edinburgh, we had been there before and went once again for a slightly more off-beat option. Our last day in Scotland we spent in South Queensferry to see the beautiful Forth Bridges.
The new road bridge only opened in 2017 (hence it’s still in construction on our photos), but the most iconic one might just be the bright red railway bridge, which is a masterpiece of Scottish engineering. We spent the day strolling through the quaint village of South Queensferry, and dipped in and out of bars and restaurants along the High Street which all offered magnificent views of the bridges.
Not enough yet? There are other wonders of Scottish engineering nearby! The Falkirk Wheel is a rotating boat lift that connects the Firth & Clyde Canal with the Union Canal. It is the only lift of its kind in the world and you can either witness it in operation from the shore, or board a boat to experience the rotation first-hand. A little down the road the Kelpies, two sculptures of horse heads, stick 30m out of the ground. The sculpture is inspired by Celtic mythology and a nod to the important role of Clydesdale horses in the heavy industry along the rivers and canals of Central Scotland. I’ve written a longer post about my trip to Falkirk here.
SOUTH QUEENSFERRY Travel Essentials
WHERE TO STAY: Dakota Hotel, from £80 per double room, Book it here!
The hotel is only 15 minutes drive from Edinburgh Airport, which makes it a perfect final stop before your flight home!
A trip to Scotland does not necessarily have to lead to the Highlands and Islands, and exploring along the north east coast of Scotland can be just as rewarding and beautiful as a road trip on the west. With this itinerary and plenty of ideas for things to do and see, all that is left to do, is to book your flight – and then decide what to pack!
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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.