Scotland Holiday Planning Guide
A land packed with thousands of years of history, Scotland is home to numerous thriving cities and a vibrant population proud of its distinct culture, heritage, and art. The Scottish people are fond of saying "Good things come in small packages", and nowhere is that more true than in their compact homeland. Despite its relatively small size, the country is crammed full of attractions, not the least of which are numerous world-famous golf courses and whiskey distilleries. Though the sun may not always shine here, Scotland is a stunning country renowned for its dramatic scenery of mountains, valleys, hills, green fields, and rugged coastlines, guaranteeing a diverse holiday. While most tourists restrict their Scotland itinerary to the historical Highlands--in search of the mysterious Loch Ness monster--you can also explore the Lowlands' outstanding natural wonders and flourishing cultural scene.
Places to Visit in Scotland
Regions of ScotlandScottish Highlands
: Offering a wild beauty quite unlike anywhere else in the world, the Scottish Highlands not only hosts the UK's tallest mountains but some of its most fascinating cultural traditions. All of this makes the region a must-see on your Scottish holiday.The Hebrides
: An enchanting collection of islands off the west coast of Scotland, the Hebrides boasts unspoiled beaches, fine whisky distilleries, and a plethora ancient historical sites.Aberdeenshire
: Combining swathes of verdant countryside with a picturesque coastline, the highland county of Aberdeenshire delights visitors with its fearsome castles and world-famous Angus beef.Perth and Kinross
: Located in Scotland's diverse central region, Perth and Kinross feature windswept moors, lush forest, and plenty of charming towns to visit. Fife
: Coined the "Kingdom of Fife" thanks to its royal past, the region holds a cluster of main attractions in the history-steeped city of St. Andrews
, but the surrounding fishing villages are well-worth including in your Scotland itinerary.Argyll and Bute
: The dramatic coastal scenery of Argyll and Bute provides the perfect setting for this fascinating and proud region, where Gaelic culture remains deeply revered.Dumfries and Galloway
: While a gentle terrain and milder climate makes Dumfries and Galloway appear less stereotypically Scottish, this deservedly popular region draws visitors with its idyllic towns, outdoor activities, and world-class gardens.Ayrshire
: Best known for its abundance of golf courses, Ayshire also offers seaside walking paths and several attractions dedicated to its most famous son, Rabbie Burns. Scottish Borders
: With a long history of territorial disputes, the Scottish Borders plays host to a number of stirring ruins, including centuries-old abbeys and castles.
Cities in ScotlandEdinburgh
: Scotland's World Heritage-listed capital, Edinburgh, can be considered one of the UK's most captivating cities, where grand buildings sit on winding paths, made all the more photogenic by the Pentland Hills backdrop.Glasgow
: Vibrant, bustling, and with its eye firmly on the future, the former industrial powerhouse of Glasgow enjoys a reputation for its thriving nightlife scene and distinct accent. Aberdeen
: A petroleum powerhouse, the so-called Granite City sees more business visitors than tourists; however, cosmopolitan Aberdeen has plenty to offer those on a tour of Scotland, including interesting architecture and convenient access to the North Sea coast.Inverness
: Arguably the capital of the Highlands, the compact city of Inverness serves as a great jumping-off point for exploring the country's northern reaches but is worth a visit in itself, offering a charming old town and pleasant riverside area.
Things to Do in Scotland
Popular Scotland Tourist AttractionsEdinburgh Castle
: Towering above the city on a volcanic rock, Edinburgh Castle represents one of the country's most iconic landmarks and served as the seat of the Scottish monarchs until the 1600s. The Royal Mile
: The main thoroughfare through Edinburgh's old town, the Royal Mile is lined with grand Victorian buildings that house lively pubs, souvenir stores, and international restaurants. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
: Boasting one of Europe's best publicly owned art collections, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum includes paintings from the Dutch Old Masters, French Impressionists, and Glasgow Old Boys, alongside artifacts from early Scottish settlements.Royal Yacht Britannia
: An audio tour of the lavish Royal Yacht Britannia provides insight into how royals and their staff sailed the seas.Jacobite Steam Train
: Passing breathtaking highland scenery, the Jacobite Steam Train played the role of Hogwarts Express in the "Harry Potter" films. National Museum of Scotland
: As well as housing a vast collection of artifacts related to Scottish antiquities, history, and culture, the National Museum of Scotland boasts several rooms dedicated to natural history, technology, and world cultures. CairnGorm Mountain
: Visitors can walk, ski, climb, or take the UK's highest funicular railway up mighty CairnGorm Mountain. Dornoch Cathedral
: The history-rich Dornoch Cathedral was first built in the 13th century but burned down in a 16th-century clan feud; the masterpiece that stands today was constructed in Victorian times. The Riverside Museum of Transport and Travel
: This modern museum exhibits one of the world's finest collections of vintage automobiles, locomotives, bicycles, and more.New Lanark World Heritage Village
: Visitors can wander the streets of a restored cotton mill village, originally founded in 1786.
Planning a Scotland Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit in Scotland with Kids
Offering a wealth of outdoor activities and kid-friendly cultural sites, Scotland makes an ideal family holiday destination with attractions to suit all ages. To teach your little ones about the country's rich history, make sure to include Edinburgh
on your Scotland trip. Scotland's capital plays host to a number of immersive ancient sites where kids can learn and let their imaginations run wild. Both Edinburgh and Glasgow
also boast a number of world-class museums covering a range of subjects in interactive ways, such as the Glasgow Science Centre
and Dynamic Earth
. The Dumfries and Galloway
region is well-known for its outdoor activity centers and offers easier hikes for little legs than you might find in the Highlands
. Despite the unpredictable weather, most children will enjoy playing on the sand and exploring the rock pools of Scotland's coast.
Things to Do in Scotland with Kids
Whatever cities or regions you include on your itinerary, you're likely to encounter a wealth of fun things to do in Scotland with your children. Zoos and animal parks can be found across the country, ranging from extensive facilities such as Blair Drummond Safari and Adventure Park
to quaint farmyards like Gorgie City Farm
. Castles are a kid favorite and plentiful across the length and breadth of Scotland. Many of these historical sites, including the famous Stirling Castle
, feature costumed staff and organized events that take little ones on an exciting trip back in time. For back-to-basics family fun, spend some of your Scotland vacation in its national parks; Cairngorms National Park
is the country's largest.
Tips for a Family Vacation in Scotland
Scotland boasts some of the United Kingdom's finest outdoor areas, including incredibly beautiful oceanfront sections. However, keep in mind that the ruggedness of the coastline means you'll need to keep a close eye on the kids while they're wandering trails, cliffs, and shorelines, as rocks and paths are often slippery. At the end of a busy day sightseeing in Scotland, consider visiting a pub with the "wee bairns" in tow. Whereas bars across much of the world are not kid-friendly, it is not uncommon for British pubs to serve as family gathering places. Though some establishments will ask for children to leave by a certain time at night, the informality and friendliness of pubs make them a comfortable and convenient place to dine with children.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Scotland
Cuisine of Scotland
While it may not be a country renowned for sophisticated cuisine, there are plenty of tasty and interesting dishes to try on your Scotland holiday. Meals are generally uncomplex and rely on the quality and freshness of the ingredients used for their taste, as spices from abroad were historically expensive and hard to come by. Products such as Angus beef and Scottish salmon are world-famous for their distinct and delicious flavor.
Scotland's most famous, or notorious, dish is haggis. Traditionally boiled and served in a sheep's stomach, haggis consists of sausage meat made from offal mixed with onion and oatmeal, often accompanied by "neeps and tatties" (turnips and potatoes). The country is perhaps more fondly known for its buttery shortbread. Both these Scottish specialities can be found all over the country, while regional fare, such as Arbroath
smokies (a type of smoked haddock) and the Scottish Borders
' rumbledethumps (a potato, cabbage, and onion dish) are worth tracking down on their native turf.
Shopping in Scotland
Familiar national and international brands and designer stores can be found in all of Scotland's major metropolitan areas, with Glasgow
providing an especially broad selection. However, if you want to pick up a few souvenirs from your Scotland trip, head for independent stores, which tend to offer a more interesting array of goods and memorable shopping experiences, such as Leakey's Bookshop
, housed in an old Gaelic church. Foodies will enjoy browsing and sampling tasters in the country's rich array of speciality food shops, such as I.J. Mellis Cheesemonger
, or picking up whisky direct from a distillery. On Sundays, many shops close or have shorter hours of operation; this is particularly pronounced outside of big cities.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Scotland
History of Scotland
Humans lived in Scotland for at least 8,500 years before history was recorded in Britain and a surprising number of millennia-old monuments survive, such as the 5,400-year-old Standing Stones of Stenness
and Callanish Standing Stones
from 2600-2900 BCE. Little is known about exactly who built these monuments, with the first-known tribes, the Picts and Gaels, emerging several millennia later.
At the end of the 8th century CE, Viking invasions began. The success of these invasions encouraged the Picts and Gaels to put aside their years of hostility towards each other and unite, forming the Kingdom of Scotland in the 9th century. You can learn more about the Viking presence and legacy on your Scotland trip at The Viking Centre
However, invasions into Scotland did not stop there. England launched a series of conquests in the 13th century, beginning the Wars of Scottish Independence. The first of these battles was fought in 1314, retold today at The Battle of Bannockburn Experience
. Though Scotland won these wars and was confirmed as a sovereign kingdom, tensions with the "Auld Enemy" continued. After a tumultuous few centuries, Scotland eventually united with England in 1603, and in 1707 agreed to the Act of Union, officially becoming an integrated part of the newly formed nation of Great Britain.
Scotland's greatest trial came in 1745 in the form of the Jacobite Rising, when the exiled pretender Charles Edward Stuart, known as "Bonnie Prince Charlie," attempted to conquer the island and reimpose Catholic rule. Though Charles, supported by the Highland Clans and the French, initially saw military success, he was catastrophically defeated at Culloden in 1746. Include Culloden Battlefield
and visitor center on your Scotland itinerary to learn more about this conflict, the last full-scale battle on British soil.
During the Industrial Revolution, Scotland rose to become an integral cog in the United Kingdom's economy. The country's famed writers, poets, and thinkers have helped Scotland to also become one of the English-speaking world's most recognizable and powerful cultural exporters.
Customs of Scotland
The customs of Scotland are largely the same as in the rest of the UK and easy for most foreign visitors to understand and navigate. Politeness is key and you will always be expected to say "please" and "thank you" as you make your way through your Scotland tour. Forming lines--and waiting your turn in them--is also very important across the Isles. When buying a drink at a pub, you are expected to ask if anyone else in your party would also like one. They are in turn expected to buy you one later.
Though similar in customs to the UK, Scotland is a distinct country and locals will be irked if you conflate English, Welsh, and Irish history and traditions with their own. Refer to the people as "Scottish" or "Scots" rather than "Scotch."
Holidays & Festivals in Scotland
Scotland observes the major holidays of the Christian calendar, such as Easter and Christmas, and on these days many businesses close as residents enjoy a couple of days off work. Although New Year's Eve is celebrated across the world, few countries commemorate the changing of years more passionately than Scotland. Hogmanay, as it's known, is celebrated with parties across the land--the largest taking place in Edinburgh
, attended by roughly 80,000 people.
Scotland is very proud of the great contribution its people have made to the fields of science, literature, economics, and more. Nowhere is this more evident than on Burns Night, a commemoration of the life and achievements of Scottish poet Robert Burns. Held on his birthday, January 25th, special suppers are organized across the country. These generally include haggis, whisky, and the recitation of his poetry.
If you're lucky, your Scotland vacation may include a chance to witness a cèilidh, a traditional Gaelic social gathering often held to celebrate special holidays. They involve the performance of Gaelic folk music and dancing, providing a fascinating insight into traditional Scottish culture.
Scotland Travel Tips
Climate of Scotland
Though Scottish weather may get a bad rap, the country actually enjoys a moderate climate and temperatures are rarely extreme. That said, the weather can be very changeable and it's always a good idea to pack a sweater and a raincoat when sightseeing in Scotland, even if the sun is shining in the morning. Conditions and temperatures also vary dramatically across regions, despite the country's relatively small size. While the western Highlands
is one of the wettest and windiest places in Europe, eastern Scotland receives an average annual rainfall similar to that of Barcelona, New York, and Rabat.
Transportation in Scotland
A whole host of transportation options are available to those touring Scotland. Intercity coaches and trains are a convenient way to reach the country's largest metropolitan areas, with buses generally taking longer but costing significantly less. That said, renting a car is often worth the cost, particularly if you plan on exploring some of the nation's rural regions. Public transportation is underdeveloped outside of cities so to get off the beaten path you will need your own form of transport. Regular ferries operate to the islands and can be accessed on foot or by car.
Language of Scotland
English is the official and most used language in Scotland, yet two other languages are native to the country. The first is Scottish Gaelic, an ancient Celtic language once widespread throughout the land but today spoken by just over one percent of the population. You are unlikely to hear Gaelic during your Scotland vacation unless you plan on visiting the Outer Hebrides
and will certainly not be expected to understand it. The status of Scotland's third tongue, Scots, is subject to dispute, with some characterizing it as a dialect rather than a language. It is closely related to English and rarely written, apart from in poetry.
Tipping in Scotland
While tips are appreciated throughout Scotland, you are not obliged to leave one and should only do so when happy with the service you've received. In restaurants, it is fairly standard to leave a 10- to 15-percent tip and in some establishments this will be automatically added to your bill, though this is more common for large parties. If you take a tour in Scotland, you may want to give a little extra to the guide and/or driver for a job well done. Tips are not expected in pubs and cafes or for short taxi rides.