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. Yet when you plan a trip to Scotland, it can be an overwhelming challenge to figure out where to begin! Too many cities, islands, mountains, valleys, castles and lochs to chose from; all of them are worth a stop, but it’s impossible to see them all, no matter how much time you have. How on Earth are you going to plan the perfect trip to Scotland?
Before you get too deeply involved in my suggested itineraries, favourite off the beaten track destinations or must have experiences in Scotland, let me run you through the basics of how to plan a trip to Scotland in the first place.
This guide will give you advice on the best time to visit Scotland, how much time you should plan to spend here, some suggested itineraries for your trip, advice on how to get around Scotland, some recommended bus tours, how to choose your perfect activities, a few hiking tips and finally, a selection of where to stay in Scotland.
By the end of the guide, you will have all the tools to plan an amazing trip to Scotland, and my suggested itineraries will get you on the way in no time!
When is the best time to visit Scotland
The impossible question – what is the best time of the year to visit Scotland? Fact is, that every season in Scotland has a different appeal, but very often the weather does not differ to much from season to season.
Billy Connolly once said, there are only two seasons in Scotland, June and Winter. The weather is always unpredictable – even in June. No matter when you visit, you should be prepared to encounter all four seasons in one day.
That said there are other factors playing into this. I think the best time to visit Scotland is in May or early autumn, in August or September. In May you already get the long summer days I love so much in Scotland – more time to explore! Also, the dreaded Scottish midges haven’t hatched yet, and you get to experience the Highlands bite-free! August and September are great months for wildlife watching, particularly if you’re interested in seeing puffins (they leave some time in August) or witness how the Scottish highlands turn purple as the heather blooms.
Finally, if you want to see Edinburgh at its best, visit during the main festival season in August or in December for the Christmas markets and Hogmanay festivities around New Year’s Eve!
How much time should you spend in Scotland?
There is an easy answer to this question: as much time as you can. Yes, you could enter a tour de force through Scotland, spend a day or two in Edinburgh and then drive for hours to cover Loch Ness, the Isle of Skye and Glencoe over the weekend. But would you enjoy it? Probably not…
I’d say spending at least a week to 10 days to get a 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.
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Any less, and you will have to adjust your itinerary accordingly. I’ve made the mistake myself and tried to cover everything in 7 days – and I failed. Now I travel much slower and dedicate long weekends or full weeks to certain regions around Scotland. There is so much to see, it would be a shame to race through them in pursuit of the far-flung tourist magnets of Scotland.
My suggested itineraries
How to Get around Scotland
Road trips, public transport or organised tours?
The first question you need to ask yourself when you plan a trip to Scotland is how to get around – your mode of transport has a huge impact on your route through Scotland and how much is feasible in any given time frame. 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 I’ve successfully done it myself. And then there is the option to simply use your feet and walk through Scotland.
Of course, whichever mode of transport through Scotland you chose will highly influence your experience in Scotland. Each comes with advantages and disadvantages – here’s a wee list of things to consider:
Renting a car in Scotland
The huge advantage of renting a car in Scotland is that you get maximum flexibility for your itinerary. However, you have to bear the responsibility of driving and navigating yourself. Solo travellers, in particular, might find that driving takes away some of the joys of observing the scenery; or find it tiring.
Distances on the map of Scotland can be deceiving, particularly on winding, narrow Highland roads. Some roads are so pretty, that photo stops will slow you down; other are so tricky to navigate that busses, mini-busses, trucks or even camper vans in front of you take care of that. Don’t underestimate distances in Scotland – it’s better to plan shorter driving days, than cram in as many miles as possible.
Personally, I think renting a car the best way to get around Scotland, because many of my favourite places can only be reached by car. However, remember that other feasible options do exist and a road trip is not the Holy Grail of planning a trip to Scotland.
I usually book my rental cars with Auto Europe, because it compares prices from several providers and I find the full insurance cover to be cheaper than getting it directly from the rental agency. That way I can ensure I definitely get the best deal!
Pros | Flexible itinerary and time management; That road trip feeling!
Cons | Potentially more expensive; More responsibility; Distraction from the gorgeous views (at least for the driver)
Scotland by Train and Ferry
Public transport in Scotland serves an extensive network and is fairly reliable. With a combination of trains, busses and ferries you can basically travel the entire country. 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. All of the countries most popular destinations, like Loch Ness, the Isle of Skye, Oban or Fort William can be easily reached from Glasgow or Edinburgh – you might just need a little more time.
Scotland is a great destination for island hopping. There are two major ferry operators, Northlink Ferries (to Orkney & Shetland) and CalMac (to the Inner & Outer Hebrides). If you have a set itinerary and want to bring a rental car, you should definitely book your ferry tickets in advance, but if you travel as a pedestrian that is usually not necessary. While sailing to the Outer Hebrides or Shetland takes several hours (overnight to Shetland), other islands, such as Arran, Mull or Skye are within much quicker reach. Major ferry ports you might consider as starting point are Ardrossan, Oban, Mallaig or Ullapool. You can reach all of them by public transport, so car-free island-hopping is totally possible.
Travelling Scotland by train is made super easy by ScotRail’s travel passes. There are several options, some are limited to certain regions, others enable you to travel across the railway, bus and ferry network with the same ticket.
Pros | Environmentally friendly; Extensive network, easy to navigate; Time to focus on views
Cons | Less flexible itinerary; More time-intense
Book your train travel via TrainlinE!
Guided Tours of Scotland
Joining a guided tour of Scotland is the so-called “carefree” option. Everything is taken care of – transport, routes and in some cases even accommodation or meals. There are many Scottish tour operators to chose from, and they can vary in group sizes, prices, itineraries and target demographics. I’d recommend to shop around and read reviews before you decide on a tour around Scotland.
I’ve done quite a few guided tours, with companies such as Rabbie’s, Timberbush Tours or Highland Explorer Tours – you can check out my reviews and find specific booking links below. Generally, I would recommend doing multiple day tours rather than several individual day tours – mainly because it saves a lot of driving time and in my experience, the itinerary will be more relaxed.
Pros | Worry-free travel experience; Experienced tour guide on board
Cons | You’re “stuck” with the prescribed itinerary; Potentially too little time at each destination
Recommended Scotland Bus Tours
Stirling Castle, Loch Lomond & Whisky: 1-day tour from Glasgow with Rabbie’s – a similar 1-day tour to Stirling Castle from Edinburgh also includes Loch Lomond and a stop at the Kelpies! Read my REVIEW!
Decide what to Do & See in Scotland
It really is not hard to find things to do and see in Scotland – it really is more about making a feasible 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?
In my Scotland travel overview, I offer you a rundown of the different regions of Scotland, what they have to offer and links to my personal experiences there.
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. I summed up these ideas and more in my post 20 Experiences for Scotland First Timers.
Hiking Tips for Scotland
Although the mountains in the Highlands are not as tall as in the Alps or other popular mountain ranges, you need to be very careful when hiking in these hills. The 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 nowhere – or worse, lead off a cliff…
A great introduction to hiking in Scotland is this video guide for bagging Munros!
If you plan to go hiking in Scotland, here are a few essential hiking tips for the Highlands:
– Bring a map and a compass, and know how to use them. If you’re not an experienced navigator, stick to very popular routes that are well signposted.
– Bring plenty of water for every hiker in your party – water might never be far in the Scottish Highlands, but sometimes accessing it is trickier than you’d think.
-Wear warm, wind- and waterproof clothes & sturdy shoes (ideally, hiking boots that support your ankles). I talk about some of my essential hiking equipment and items I pack for every Scotland trip in this post.
– Don’t forget your headtorch, just in case you lose your way and it falls dark.
My number 1 online resource for trail information and descriptions is Walk Highlands which also has a great page on mountain safety in Scotland!
And if you fancy other outdoor activities, check out these activities for summer, winter and adrenaline junkies!
Where to stay in Scotland
In Scotland there are many accommodation options you can choose from, ranging from top-notch luxury hotels and boutique B&Bs to more basic guest houses, inns or hostels. If you are on a really tight budget, consider camping (during the summer months) or renting a campervan to have your home with you at all times. Personally, I love renting out entire cottages to feel like I have a real home away from home.
Hotels in Edinburgh | Can be very expensive, especially during the summer and Christmas season. Here are some of my favourite options for all budgets.
Hotels in Glasgow | Are much easier to come by, more affordable but increasingly popular! Check out my favourites for all budgets.
Hotels & B&Bs in the Highlands | Range from basic to luxury. Highland and island accommodation should be booked in advance, as the houses often have fewer rooms. Usually, they are well located near public transport and in scenic spots. I find Booking.com to be a great resource to find independent B&Bs, hotels or guesthouses.
Hostels | The Scottish Youth Hostel Association runs many hostels throughout the country, but I also love staying at one of the Scottish Independent Hostels.
AirBnB | As I mentioned above, I love renting out entire cottages, and AirBnB is a great resource to find some incredibly unique accommodation in the Scottish countryside!
Should I book ahead?
This might just be the most asked question about accommodation (and ferries) in Scotland – should you book your accommodation ahead of time? The simple answer is YES!
Accommodation in Scotland is fairly easy to come by, but not everywhere has an endless capacity. If you visit popular and potentially sparsely populated places, like the Isle of Skye, North Coast 500, Orkney, the Hebrides or the Isle of Mull, you have to book accommodation in advance – unless you plan to wild camp. Even campsites can fill up quickly during the summer months!
Note, that in places such as the Isle of Skye, you might not even be let onto the island unless you have accommodation booked in advance!
I’d give similar advice for ferries. I understand that it’s nice to keep your itinerary flexible, especially if you travel with a camper an/or a tent, but except for Skye, ferries are the only way to get on an off the islands. Capacity is limited and popular sailing times (usually the ones that allow you to maximise your days in the destination) can book up quickly in advance. Book your ferry tickets as early as possible, or prepared to be flexible in case your preferred time is not available anymore. Foot passengers usually don’t have to worry, but can buy the ticket on arrival half an hour before the sailing time.
This guide should have given you a thorough idea of how to plan a trip to Scotland. The first decisions are often the hardest, but once you know when and how long you will visit Scotland, how you want to get around Scotland and what sort of activities you are interested in, it is time to plan your actual itinerary.
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.