The north east coast of Scotland is more off the beaten track than the Highlands and Isles in the west - yet there is so much to see! Follow the Castle Trail in Aberdeenshire, see the lighthouses along the northern coast and spend time in beautiful St Andrews with this week-long Scotland itinerary!

One week on the North East Coast of Scotland: An untypical Scotland itinerary

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.

The roads through Aberdeenshire offer a lot to do and see -make sure you stop often to take photos and enjoy the views!

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.

The Edradour Distillery is one of Scotland's smallest and most charming distilleries. You can visit it in Pitlochry in Perthshire!The river Dee flows through the quaint Royal Deeside valley.

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!

Balmoral Castle is the summer residence of the Queen until today. You can visit this castle near Ballater in the Royal Deeside between May and July.Loch Kinord near the town of Dinnet lies in the Muir of Dinnet Nature Reserve, a family-friendly hiking area in the Royal Deeside valley in Aberdeenshire.

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:

Digging my toes into the warm sand of Balmedie Beach.

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 stands tall on a rock in the middle of the ocean. The lighthouse is only accessible during low tide, but during high tide, it's surrounded by the crashing waves of the Atlantic.

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!

My mum and I with the mascot of the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses, rubber duck Fraser. Behind us you can see the old Kinnaird Head lighthouse.

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.

The colourful town centre of Banff.

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!

The campus of the University of Aberdeen in Old Aberdeen.

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 a medieval ruined fortress near the town of Stonehaven. It sits on a rock, overlooking the ocean, along the coastline of Aberdeenshire.

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.

 

One of the many beautiful photo ops at Dunnottar Castle, looking out onto the sea.

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 STAY: St Andrews Holiday Park (min. stay 4 nights from £147); Find more accommodation in St Andrews!

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)

 

St Andrews is one of Scotland's most beautiful towns and from the top of the tower near St Andrews Cathedral, the views are the best!

 

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!

The charming fishing village of Anstruther lies at the East Neuk of Fife and serves up 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!

 

The Forth Bridges by South Queensferry are a popular tourist attraction and a real masterpiece of Scottish engineering.

The Kelpies sculpture in Falkirk.

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!

***

Did you enjoy this post? Why not save it to your Scotland board!

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.

50 comments on “One week on the North East Coast of Scotland: An untypical Scotland itinerary

  1. Pingback: 10 Staycation Ideas For The Best Holiday At Home | Faramagan

  2. I’m so glad I stumbled on your blog… I’m planning my fantasy road trip to Scotland and am trying to combine some ancestor research while there, which means north and east coasts. Will have to include the castle trail for me, and the distillery stops for Dear Husband. Thank you!

    Susan

    • It’s a great area – and the weather is usually better! I just returned from a week in the Speyside area – definitely try to visit Cullen and Aberlour! Delnashaugh Hotel by Ballindalloch was my favourite! Have fantastic trip!!

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  4. Oh my gosh, east Scotland looks beautiful! Also, this itinerary is SO detailed, I couldn’t believe it. Thanks for creating your own interactive map – I’ll definitely be returning to this post when I make it up to Scotland!

  5. I’m Scottish but have never gone further up that coast than Aberdeen. I need to set that right – and I like the sound of less rain!

    • It’s so beautiful up there! I can’t wait to return to the north coast this June, and hoping to do another road trip around the North East 250 soon too!! It’s definitely worth checking out – even for Scots!

  6. Sounds amazing. I’ve been wanting to go to Scotland for a while. Will have to get there.

  7. I would love to see more of Scotland so this sounds like a great way to spend a week. It’s nice to know that the east is less rainy and less touristy, but there is still a lot to see

    • It definitely shows you a different side of Scotland, and leads you to areas not many people will know. You get it all to yourself!!

  8. The East and North coasts of Scotland get neglected by tourists. It’s a shame because there are so many nice places to see, but also rather good because it means I get them to myself!

    • True – that’s the sunny flipside of everyone blindly migrating to Skye and Loch Ness (also pretty places, just way too busy during the summer)!

  9. I love this post – I’d have never thought to do a road trip through the North East. I’m getting married just outside Edinburgh in September and have been looking for a good road trip itinerary not too far away as we only have around a week to enjoy our honeymoon. Will definitely keep this in mind!

    • I think your honeymoon would be the perfect occasion to drive this route! With all the castles, sandy beaches and quaint little towns, it’s super romantic 🙂 Have a fab wedding and honeymoon!!

  10. Errr those beach shots! Wow, would have guessed they were anywhere but Scotland. Keep doing what you do Kathi 🙂

    • I know, it looks nothing like the typical image of Scotland! That’s what I love about this route so much 🙂

  11. I hope you had fun in Scotland <3 Beautiful country indeed <3

  12. Your photos are stunning! I still haven’t been to Scotland so I’ll save this for later. I was planning to go there when I went to Northern Ireland but then decided to leave it. Next time!

    • Sometimes it’s better to just focus on one destination – even if it looks so close 😉 You’ll have to come back though – it’s too beautiful to miss!!

  13. God, Scotland is so beautiful. I’ve never thought about doing this route before – hadn’t heard of the castle trail either, so I’ll have to look into it more. Such a shame that people who live in the UK (i.e. me) don’t explore more in our own backyard. Thanks for this great post!

    • That side of the country is brilliant – not many tourists, but so much to do!! Definitely check it out – it’s like its own little world!

  14. This looks awesome, Kathi! I am not quite ready to return to Scotland yet but I can start to see another trip on the horizon. If only so we can finally meet 🙂

  15. I did a more typically touristic month in Scotland a couple years ago. It was magnificent. And now you’ve made me want to go back even more and see the other side of the country! What a gorgeous looking trip. Thanks for all the inspiring photos and helpful tips!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it! The west of Scotland is gorgeous – but yeah, to be more off the beaten track, the east is inevitable! It’s so different, but so beautiful!

  16. Fantastic Itinerary! Will be saving this for later as I want to do this maybe this year!

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  19. Thank you for this! My son is starting university at Aberdeen in September, so I’ll have four years of opportunities to explore Scotland. I’m so looking forward to it!

    • All the best for your son – studying Aberdeen university is great, and so beautiful 🙂 Hope you get to visit often and see as much as you can!

  20. Beautifully written!.. Duntottar Castle seems very interesting to me. Do you think I would get good views of the castle with drone?..

    • Oh, absolutely! It’s right by the coast, almost like a little island – I could imagine aerial views are amazing! Make sure you’re allowed to use drones in the area, but I think it’s fine!

  21. Ameeta Pathak

    Absolutely loved the places you have highlighted. I have been to Scotland twice, once to the Inverness region and once to Isle of Skye after spending a few days in Edinburgh. Now looking at your pictures, I can’t wait to go back again but this time to the North East.

    Ameeta xx

    • Love to hear that you’d like to come back! There’s just never enough time to see everything. Let me know of you need any more tips!

  22. Great post! There’s so much to see here, I’m so glad you liked it!

  23. This is awesome! It never occurred to me that there were beautiful beaches in Scotland, and Duntottar Castle looks absolutely amazing. I would definitely go to these places. Nice to see another side of Scotland.

    • There are so many beaches here – not like, sunbathing beaches, but warm enough for a barefoot walk! The islands on the west coast also have beaches, that look almost Caribbean in the sunshine, but the weather is definitely more predictable on the east coast!

  24. Great post for learning more about off-the-beaten-path Scotland. It sounds like you had a few long driving days on this itinerary — what was your typical amount of time in the car each day?

    • Hm, that’s a good question. I’d say it wasn’t so bad; driving from the Royal Deeside to Banff definitely felt the longest, but we stopped in three locations on the way and spend at least an hour in each. The drive to Rattray Head off the main road took about 45 minutes each way because it was a rather adventurous dirt road for most of the way… I was knackered in the evening, hence no sunset pictures at Bowfiddle Rock… I think no day was more than 3.5-4 hours pure driving time! You could probably drive faster routes, but we drove along a lot of little country roads to see more of the landscape!

  25. Great post! I really love how you focused on the Northeastern coast of Scotland! Like you said yourself, people usually hear a lot about the Highlands and Isles, so thank you for showing me more of Scotland! Your photos are wonderful!

    • I’m glad I could show you a corner of Scotland you don’t know so much about – that’s exactly what I hope to do more 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to stop by!

  26. What an epic way to see Scotland! Makes me sad to see how many amazing areas that I missed on my Scotland road trip.

  27. Think you need some proof reading on your article!! It’s a MINE under the Castle in St.Andrews, not a MIN!
    And to say there is not much to do in Anstruther….did you miss the extremely interesting Scottish Fisheries Museum at the harbour?? It’s not even the best Fish and Chips. Cromars in St.Andrews takes some beating but the Anstruther Fish Bar is still very popular, granted!
    Queensferry… It’s the Forth BRIDGES, not BRIDES!!
    I’m sure you will be back in Fife at some point. Kellie Castle outside Pittenweem and Falkland Palace in Falkland are both stunner
    Haste Ye back!

    • Thank you for pointing out the two typos – I don’t always catch them all, seeing that I run this blog in my spare time while working two jobs and English isn’t my first language. Thanks also for the tips regarding Kellie Castle and Falkland Palace – I hope to return to Fife at some point!

      However, I think you need to consider how your comment comes across. Just because you don’t think they’re the best fish & chips (which I never said, if you read my words carefully), doesn’t make the one in Anstruther any worse in my partner’s experience (who recommended this particular place). I haven’t personally tasted either chippy in the area as I was vegetarian at the time of the trip. I am vegan now. You can maybe understand that a fisheries museum wouldn’t be something I would necessarily put on my itinerary considering my dietary choices – I found walking by the crab traps bad enough…

  28. Awwww!! This post makes me miss home! Next time your up that way head to Portsoy for the best ice cream you will ever eat! 🙂

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