Edinburgh is perfectly placed for exploring Scotland's southern heartlands. From snooping around ancient palaces to sailing to an uninhabited island to go wildlife-watching, here are the best days out from Edinburgh to tackle this winter, all of them accessible by bus or train.

See the incredible Kelpies at the The Helix

The 30m-tall Kelpies, mythical water-dwelling, horse-like creatures, were created by Scottish artist Andy Scott and are the largest equine sculptures in the world. Surrounding these magnificent silver beasts forged in stainless steel is the Helix, a vast area of parkland featuring 500km of connected paths, a lagoon with canoeing and kayaking, an extension to the Forth & Clyde Canal, a playpark, visitor centre and cafe. While you’re in the area don’t pass up the chance to see the Falkirk Wheel, a feat of 21st century engineering and the only rotating boatlift in the world.

How to get to The Helix: 25 minutes by train from Edinburgh Waverley to Falkirk High, then 40 minutes by bus 3 to the Helix.

Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh, Scotland as pictured behind trees
A bus from Edinburgh will bring you directly to the late Gothic Rosslyn Chapel © PDerrett / Getty Images

Soak up the atmosphere of Rosslyn Chapel

Just seven miles south of Edinburgh lies the peaceful village of Roslin, home to the late Gothic Rosslyn Chapel, made world-famous by The Da Vinci Code. Often described as "a bible in stone" thanks to its ornate carvings and detailed sculptures, the chapel sits on the fringe of Roslin Glen, a stunning gorge rising from the banks of the North Esk river surrounded by ancient woodland and the ruins of Roslin Castle.

Roslin is also famed for being the birthplace of Dolly, the world’s first cloned sheep, created at Roslin Institute in 1997, and there’s a good gastropub, the Original Rosslyn Inn, for a post-exploring lunch.

How to get to Rosslyn Chapel: From Edinburgh city centre take the Lothian 37 bus from Princes Street or North Bridge. The journey takes around 45 minutes.

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Do Loch Lomond and the Highlands without the crowds

For a one day excursion, Loch Lomond is probably the furthest you’ll get to the Highlands. Given their proximity to Scotland’s biggest cities, the villages of Balloch and Luss get pretty crowded in summer but you'll have it largely to yourself come winter, except over the Christmas to New Year holiday peak. The eastern shore, which is followed by the West Highland Way long-distance footpath, is quieter and offers a better chance to appreciate the loch away from the busy main road. The Loch is central to the wider national park area which is full of forests, hiking trails and cycle paths.

How to get to Loch Lomond: The journey takes two hours by car. To go by public transport, you’ll have to first get the train to Glasgow, then connect to Balloch.

A High Angle View Of the palace by a lake with modern buildings in the background
Linlithgow Palace is a great choice of day trip for history lovers © Aleksej Bobko Momentinframe / Getty

Indulge in some history at Linlithgow Palace

One of the most popular days out from Edinburgh is Linlithgow Palace, the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots (1542) and her father, James V (1512). Now a majestic ruin overlooking an extensive park beside Linlithgow Loch, the royal palace was constructed over two centuries by Stewart kings before eventually being burnt by a great fire in 1746. Explore the palace and grounds, and enjoy the splendid views from Queen Margaret’s Bower to the Forth bridges.

How to get to Linlithgow Palace: Regular trains run from Edinburgh Waverley to Linlithgow. The Palace is ten minutes walk from the station.

Wander the ramparts of Stirling

Stirling's beautifully preserved Old Town is a treasure trove of historic buildings and cobbled streets. The castle is encircled by the picturesque Back Walk footpath, winding up to the ramparts which have amazing views for miles around. Clearly visible is the brooding Wallace Monument, a strange Victorian Gothic creation honouring the legendary freedom fighter of Braveheart fame.

Nearby is Bannockburn, scene of Robert the Bruce's pivotal triumph over the English in 1314 and a Heritage Centre aims to bring the battle to life. Other worthwhile attractions include the Old Town Jail but you’ll easily spend a few happy hours wandering the Old Town. Below, the retail-oriented modern Stirling doesn't offer the same appeal.

How to get to Stirling: Regular trains leave Edinburgh Waverley and take 40 minutes.

Atmospheric monastic ruins at Inchcolm Abbey © alanfin / Getty Images
Atmospheric monastic ruins at Inchcolm Abbey are one of the draws of this picturesque island © alanfin / Getty Images

Go wildlife spotting on Inchcolm Island

Known as "the Iona of the east" due to its similarity to the beautiful Hebridean island on the west coast, Inchcolm is just six miles from Edinburgh. Considered the most beautiful of the Firth of Forth islands, it’s famed for its wildlife including seals, puffins, and many other seabirds, a beautiful 12th century abbey that is said to be the best preserved collection of monastic buildings in Scotland, and a fascinating collection of wartime fortifications.

How to get to Inchcolm: Take the Maid of the Forth ferry, which runs 3 hour boat trips to Inchcolm including 1.5hrs on the island itself. Sailings depart daily from Hawes Pier in South Queensferry. To get to Hawes Pier catch the frequent train from Edinburgh Waverley to Dalmeny station (South Queensferry). The journey takes 15 minutes.

Pop over to Glasgow for a different city experience

Forget the old rivalry between Scotland’s two major cities: no trip to Edinburgh is complete without a visit to Glasgow. Scotland’s biggest city is all about great art, music, style, shopping, and warmth. Marvel at the grand Victorian architecture, go shopping on Buchanan Street, eat out in hipster-ville Finnieston, and visit some of the best museums in Scotland: the magnificent Kelvingrove and the futuristic Transport Museum designed by visionary architect Zaha Hadid. It’s worth staying overnight if time allows to experience some of the city’s famed nightlife and music scene too.

How to get to Glasgow from Edinburgh: Trains from Edinburgh Waverley to Glasgow Queen Street, every 15 minutes, taking 50 minutes.

Two surfers walking towards the sea
If you're looking for a winter beach escape head to East Lothian with a good wetsuit © John Lawson, Belhaven / Getty Images

Walk, cycle or even swim (if you're really hardy) the East Lothian coast

East Lothian borders Edinburgh to the east and boasts forty miles of stunning coastline, rolling countryside, the Lammermuir Hills, and some of Scotland’s best links golf courses. Walk or cycle a coastal stretch of the John Muir Way, a 134-mile route starting from Dunbar, where the great conservationist was born in 1838. Beach lovers are spoilt for choice with exceptional sandy beaches at Yellowcraig, which looks out to the 1885 lighthouse on Fidra island that inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Gullane Bents, and Tyninghame, accessed through woodland and perfect for wild camping. The seaside town of North Berwick is a must, with incredible views of the Bass Rock, home of the world’s largest colony of Northern gannets, quirky cafes, shops, and Lobster Shack, selling fresh seafood caught off the boats in the harbour.

How to get to East Lothian: Regular trains from Edinburgh Waverley to North Berwick take 33 minutes. Or hire a car and drive down the coast in 30 minutes, exploring the pretty villages and beaches of Gullane, Yellowcraig, and Tyninghame on the way.

Learn more about the incredible Jupiter Artland

An outstanding sculpture park and art gallery set in the 100 acre estate of 17th-century Bonnington House, Jupiter Artland was a finalist for Museum of the Year in 2016 for good reason. The work is of international standing, with site specific pieces by Charles Jencks, Iain Hamilton Finlay, Phillida Barlow, Anish Kapoor, Cornelia Parker, Nathan Coley, and Andy Goldsworthy strewn across the landscape and hidden in the woodlands. A stellar day out, with a fantastic cafe to boot. Unfortunately it's normally closed for a winter rest, you might have to return to Scotland in the Spring to see this incredible site.

How to get to Jupiter Artland: Catch a  X27 bus. The journey takes 35 minutes. Get off at Coxydene/Jupiter Artland bus stop.

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This article was first published August 2017 and updated December 2021

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