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 choose 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 and very often the weather does not actually differ that 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 and give each season a different appeal. Certain animals can only be spotted during their active periods, such as whales or puffins, while some attractions close during certain months of the year. It makes a difference whether you come for endless days, or to hunt the northern lights; want to see the Highland peaks covered in snow, or glistening in the sun. There are many festivals happening all over the country year-round. So if you are visiting Scotland with a purpose, make sure that the time of the year is right for you!
Personally, I love travelling around Scotland in the spring and early summer (April to May) as well as autumn or fall (late August to November). The offseason is a great time to visit for a number of reasons. In April and May, you already get the long summer days I love so much – and thus, more time to explore! The dreaded Scottish midges haven’t hatched yet, and meadows and woodlands are springing to life with blooming flowers and baby animals! August no November can be great months for wildlife watching, witnessing the bloom of the purple heather and the turn of the seasons, as Scottish woodlands change colours.
If Edinburgh is the main reason for your visit, make sure you are prepared to plan around big events in the city. Festival month in August can be super busy (and expensive) – but the city is bustling with life. And the same counts for Christmas time and Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) in December. Don’t forget to book your accommodation far in advance!
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…
Spending at least one week or up to 10 days is the minimum to get a good overview of what Scotland has to offer. In that time you can easily fit a day or two exploring Edinburgh and then contrasting it with the more edgy city of Glasgow. From there the Highlands are at your doorstep and you can spend a few days travelling around the mountains and islands. Or go off the beaten track to discover the northeast coast or southern Scotland -every region of the country offers plenty to do!
With fewer days, you will have to adjust your expectations accordingly and plan to cover less ground. I’ve made the mistake myself and tried to cover everything in a few days – and I failed; spending way too much time in the car and not enough exploring. Now I travel much slower and dedicate long weekends or full weeks to focus on different regions in Scotland. There is so much to see, it would be a shame to rush through the country in pursuit of the far-flung tourist magnets of Scotland. Sometimes less (mileage) is more!
My suggested itineraries
Tour de force: Classic Scotland
One week itinerary covering Edinburgh, Loch Ness, Skye, the Highlands and Glasgow
For Outlander Fans
10-day tour to various Outlander locations
One week itinerary covering St Andrews, Aberdeenshire, the Coast and Perthshire
One week itinerary covering the Scottish Borders, Dumfries and Galloway
One week itinerary for hiking and kayaking in the Scottish Highlands
City Trip: Edinburgh
2-day itinerary for Edinburgh
City Trip: Glasgow
1-day itinerary for a perfect day in Glasgow
West Coast: Argyll
3-day itinerary for Argyll on the Scottish West Coast
Isle of Mull
3-day itinerary for the Isle of Mull & surroundings
Northeast Coast: Aberdeenshire
3-day itinerary for Aberdeenshire in the northeast of Scotland
How to Get around Scotland
Road trip, public transport or organised tours?
Once you have decided when to visit and how long to stay, the next question you should ask yourself is how to get around. Your mode of transport can have a huge impact on the most efficient route for your trip and how much is feasible in any given time frame. Your choices are to rent a car, utilise public transport or join an organised tour.
Do you feel comfortable enough with left-side traffic and narrow mountain roads that you can rent a car? Or would you rather travel eco-friendly and rely on public transport? On guided tours, transport is taken care of for the entire group and you don’t have to worry about anything – but is it enough flexibility? You could even hitchhike, which I’m not going to recommend for obvious reasons – 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 on a long-distance hike.
Of course, whichever mode of transport through Scotland you chose will highly influence your experience in Scotland. Each option comes with advantages and disadvantages – here is a wee rundown of things to consider:
Self-drive holidays in Scotland
The huge advantage of hiring a car in Scotland is that it offers maximum flexibility for your itinerary. However, you also 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 smaller Highland roads where photo stops of campervans can slow down traffic. Don’t underestimate distances in Scotland, even if it looks small on the map. In my experience, it is much better to plan shorter driving days and reduce mileage, than trying to 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. Most of my itineraries are written with a rental car in mind and it is my preferred mode of transport when I travel myself. 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, a platform that compares prices from several rental agencies and offers comprehensive and affordable insurance packages – much 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 Public Transport
Public transport in Scotland offers an extensive network of buses, trains and ferries, which is reliable and safe to use. Combining trains, buses and ferries you can travel the entire country – you might just need a bit more time and flexibility to reach every destination on my itineraries.
Scottish Trains & Buses
Journeys by train or bus through the Highlands can be super scenic, as they often travel down remote routes. Many of Scotland’s most popular destinations, like Loch Ness, the Isle of Skye, Oban or Fort William can be easily reached from Glasgow or Edinburgh by public transport – but it will take longer than by car and you can’t stop along the way. If you choose to travel around Scotland by public transport, I highly recommend reducing the number of destinations you’d like to cover and taking your time to explore slowly.
Most trains are operated by Scotrail – although there are other companies operating between England and Scotland. I always buy tickets in advance to ensure I get the best deals on Trainline.
There are many different bus operators in Scotland. Local buses are often operated by First or Stagecoach, but there are also cheap intercity bus connections with Megabus or Citylink. It’s best to bok popular routes in advance! I usually use Google Maps to look up public transport connections, but it does not always list all local buses in remote areas. In those cases, I use Traveline Scotland instead.
Taking Scottish Ferries
Of course, Scotland is a also great destination for island hopping. There are two major ferry operators, Northlink Ferries (to Orkney & Shetland) and CalMac (to the Inner & Outer Hebrides), as well as a number of smaller private operators servicing islands up and down the coast of Scotland. Many can easily be visited without a car, but public transport is not always available on the islands – that means walking, hiring bikes or a local taxi as a travel guide!
If you plan an island-hopping itinerary with a hire car, I highly recommend booking all ferry tickets in advance as there is limited capacity and some popular crossings (especially to Skye, Mull, Orkney, the Outer Hebrides and Arran). If you travel by public transport and board ferries as a passenger without a car, booking in advance is not necessary, but can bring ease of mind.
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 a 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. As you can imagine, each island has a different appeal and just because you’ve heard about one over and over again (Skye) does not mean it is necessarily the best island for you. Check out my overview of Scottish islands to help you make an informed decision for your island itinerary!
Public Transport Travel Passes
If you are looking for a simple solution to your public transport itinerary, travel passes by Scotrail might be the best solution. There are several options offering unlimited travel in certain regions or a set amount of travel days within a certain time frame. Most include trains, buses and ferries. Before you buy, look up individual ticket costs to make sure the travel pass is worth it!
Pros | Environmentally friendly; Extensive network, easy to navigate; Time to focus on views
Cons | Less flexible itinerary; More time-intense
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 choose 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.
Are you ready to plan a trip to Scotland?
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.