Some of the best places to visit in Scotland will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever gazed at a whisky label or shortbread tin. Think dramatic peaks, lonely glens, lochs, tartan and haggis!
From spectacular Skye and historic Edinburgh to the rolling rivers of Speyside, Scotland’s big sights are as glorious as you’d imagine. But scratch the surface of this proud nation and you’ll find a varied and engrossing place, dotted with prehistoric villages, wild clubs, rich seafood and ruined abbeys.
So, where to start? Once you've decided on the best time for your visit, you need to decide on the best places to go while you're there. Here is our pick of the best destinations in Scotland to get you started.
Enjoy Scotland's biggest landscapes on the West Highland Way
Best place for hiking
The best way to really get inside Scotland's landscapes is to walk them. Here, peaks tower over lochs and sea cliffs gaze over the wind-whipped sea, but there are short woodland trails and charming strolls through valleys dusted with purple heather too. Top of the wish list for many hikers is the 96-mile West Highland Way from Milngavie (near Glasgow) to Fort William, a weeklong walk through some of the country's finest scenery, finishing in the shadow of its highest peak, Ben Nevis.
The 1345m (4413ft) summit of Ben Nevis is within reach of anyone who's reasonably fit: treat the peak with respect and your reward (weather permitting) will be magnificent views that can stretch as far as Northern Ireland. If you don’t have the time or energy for a long-distance trek, it's possible to do just a day's hike along part of the trail.
For example, you could walk the section from Rowardennan to Inversnaid, returning to your starting point using the Loch Lomond waterbus. Whichever section you take on, pack waterproofs and midge repellent. Rail lovers should note that sleeper trains run south from Fort William all the way to London, making for an easy exit after a walk.
The Isle of Skye packs in some of Scotland's most beautiful scenery
Best place for photographers
In a country famous for stunning scenery, the Isle of Skye takes the top prize. From the craggy peaks of the Cuillins and the bizarre pinnacles of the Old Man of Storr and the Quiraing to the spectacular sea cliffs of Neist Point, there's a photo opportunity awaiting you at almost every turn.
Skye is also one of the best places in Scotland to see golden eagles, and you’ll find convivial pubs and top seafood restaurants, if you can tear your eyes from the natural world. Of course, all this tourist appeal makes Skye one of Scotland's most popular destinations.
The crowds tend to stick to Portree, Dunvegan and Trotternish – it’s almost always possible to find peace and quiet in the island’s further-flung corners. Come prepared for changeable weather though – when it’s fine, it’s very fine indeed, but all too often it isn’t.
Come to Edinburgh for one of Europe's best city breaks
Best place for year-round entertainment
Scotland's capital may be famous for its festivals, but there's much more to the city than that. Edinburgh is a place of many moods: visit in spring to see the Old Town silhouetted against a blue sky and a yellow haze of daffodils, or on a chill winter’s day for fog snagging the spires of the Royal Mile, rain on the cobblestones, and a warm glow beckoning from the windows of local pubs.
Start your visit to Edinburgh with a climb up Arthur's Seat, an extinct volcano with panoramic views over the city. With a world-class modern art gallery, top museums, spooky historic sites and a majestic 12th-century castle, there's plenty to keep you entertained whatever the season.
Loch Lomond is the perfect day trip on the west coast
Best place for a lakeside walk
Despite being less than an hour's drive from the bustle and sprawl of Glasgow, the bonnie braes (banks) of Loch Lomond – immortalized in the words of one of Scotland's best-known songs – comprise one of the most scenic parts of the country.
At the heart of Scotland's first national park, the loch begins as a broad, island-peppered lake in the south, its shores clothed in bluebell-sprinkled woods, before narrowing in the north to a fjord-like trench ringed by mountains. The summit of Ben Lomond (974m/3031ft) is a popular climb – follow the well-maintained path for a 7-mile round-trip on the popular Tourist Route (allow around 5 hours).
Take a pilgrimage to the spiritual home of golf at St Andrews
Best place for golfers
Scotland invented the game of golf and the city of St Andrews is still revered as its spiritual home by hackers and champions alike. Links courses are the classic experience here – bumpy coastal affairs where the rough is heather and machair (coastal grass) and the main enemy is the wind, which can make a disaster of a promising round in an instant.
St Andrews, the historic Fife university town, is golf's headquarters, and an irresistible destination for anyone who loves the sport. And if you're not so keen, well, the city has impressive medieval ruins, stately university buildings, idyllic white sands and excellent guesthouses and restaurants.
Head to Glasgow to sample great Scottish pub culture
Best place for live music
Scotland's biggest city may lack Edinburgh's stunning setting, but it more than makes up for it with a barrelful of things to do and a warmth and energy that leaves every visitor impressed. Edgy and contemporary, it's a great spot to browse art galleries and museums, and to discover the works of local design hero Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Glasgow’s infectious vitality is best sampled via its lively pubs and clubs, which host one of the world's great live music scenes. Check out upcoming (mostly alt-rock) acts at the Barrowland, a legendary former ballroom, or try the Sub Club for house and techno, the Clutha Bar for roots and rock, or Nice N Sleazy, a classic indie dive.
Stirling in summer is a must for fortress fans
Best place for castles
With an impregnable position atop a mighty wooded crag – the plug of an extinct volcano – Stirling’s beautifully preserved Old Town is a treasure trove of historic buildings and cobbled streets winding up to the ramparts of Stirling Castle. This fortress has seen serious action – it was bombarded by the Warwolf, a giant 14th-century English siege engine, and was besieged during the 1745 Jacobite rising, as well as sending troops to the battle of Bannockburn (the decisive battle celebrated at the end of Braveheart), just a few miles south.
Today, views that stretch to the Highlands, glorious tapestries and juicy history make this Scotland’s best castle – and a great family attraction. It's best to visit in the afternoon; many tourists come on day trips, so you may have the castle almost to yourself by 4pm.
Drive the unforgettable North Coast 500
Best place for a scenic road trip
Breathtaking views abound in the Highlands, but the far north is where things become truly awe-inspiring. This is the best place in Scotland to explore by car (you can also cycle it), with some of the finest roadside scenery in Europe.
The North Coast 500 starts and ends in the likable city of Inverness, and loops past the lochs, sand dunes and golf courses of the east coast before taking in the remote cliffs and beaches of Cape Wrath, the rugged peaks of Assynt and Torridon’s desolate beauty. These sights, and the nooks of warm Highland hospitality found in the region's classic rural pubs and old crofting villages, make this an unforgettable weeklong tour.
Orkney’s Skara Brae is a prehistoric wonder
Best place for lovers of ancient history
When visiting ancient sites, it can sometimes be difficult to bridge the gulf of years or build a connection with the people that built them, but Scotland’s superb prehistoric remains have an immediate impact. Few places offer a better glimpse of everyday Stone Age life than Skara Brae in Orkney, with its carefully constructed fireplaces, beds, cupboards and water cisterns.
This Neolithic village – which, at 5000 years, is older than Stonehenge or the Pyramids of Giza – lay buried in coastal sand dunes for centuries. Even today, it can feel as though the inhabitants have just slipped out to go fishing and could return at any moment.
Walk through the dramatic scenery of Glen Coe
Best place for clan history
Scotland's most famous glen combines two essential qualities of the Highlands: dramatic scenery and a deep sense of history. The peace and beauty of this valley today belies the fact that Glen Coe was the scene of a ruthless 17th-century massacre, when the local MacDonalds were murdered by soldiers of the Campbell clan.
Some of the glen's finest walks – to the Lost Valley, for example – follow the routes taken by fleeing clanspeople, many of whom perished in the snow. Start at the Glencoe Visitor Centre for more information on this beautiful place and its tragic history.
Experience the whole Scottish package in Perthshire
Best place to enjoy nature's bounty
In Perthshire, the heart of Scotland, picturesque towns bloom with flowers, distilleries emit tempting malty odors and sheep graze in impossibly green meadows. There's a feeling of the bounty of nature that no other place in Scotland can replicate.
Blue-gray lochs shimmer, reflecting the changing moods of the weather; centuries-old trees tower amid riverside forests; majestic glens scythe their way into remote wildernesses; and salmon leap upriver to the place of their birth.
Go off the travel map in the Shetland Islands, Scotland's most dramatic outpost
Best place for birdwatching
Close enough to Norway to make Scottish nationality an ambiguous concept, the Shetland Islands are Britain’s most northerly outpost. The stirringly bleak setting – recognized as a precious Unesco geopark – still feels uniquely Scottish though, with deep, naked glens flanked by steep hills, twinkling, sky-blue lochs and, of course, wandering sheep on the little-trafficked roads. It's the birdlife though that really draws visitors here.
From their first arrival in late spring to the raucous feeding frenzies of high summer, the vast colonies of gannets, guillemots, skua, puffins and kittiwakes at Hermaness, Noss, Sumburgh Head and Fair Isle provide some of Britain's most impressive birdwatching experiences. Shetland is one of the best places in the UK to spot killer whales and the Northern Lights, too.
Follow the River Spey on a Speyside whisky tour
Best place for whisky tasting
Scotland's national drink is whisky – from the Gaelic uisge beatha, meaning “water of life” – and this fiery spirit has been distilled here for more than 500 years. More than 50 distilleries are in operation in Speyside, Scotland's most famous whisky area, famed for fruity, lightly spicy flavors (head over to Islay for peatier varieties).
Dufftown lies at the heart of the region and is host to the biannual Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival. Ask at the town's Whisky Museum about the Malt Whisky Trail, a self-guided tour around the local distilleries. If you just have time for one, the Balvenie Distillery is a good bet, as it still uses a traditional malting floor – the smell is glorious!
See another side to Scotland in the Borders
Best place for a country ramble
Many visitors to Scotland race up to Edinburgh then hightail it to the Highlands, missing the Scottish Borders out entirely. That's their loss. Once fought over by war chiefs and cattle thieves, the Borders region is rich in history and packed with good cycling and hiking routes.
There are grand country houses too – Traquair House brews Jacobite Ale and has a concealed room that once hid Catholic priests – and a series of gorgeous ruined abbeys – Gothic Melrose Abbey is the best – plus birds and sea cliffs at St Abb’s Head. More active types can fish for salmon or thunder down the mountain bike trails at Glentress and Innerleithen.